Stuart Townend sings "Communion Song" by Keith & Kristyn Getty & Stuart Townend
Sunday, January 31, 2010
Friday, January 29, 2010
Title: The Secret Flame
Author: Davis Bunn & Janette Oke
Publisher: Bethany House, January 2010, paperback, 400 pages.
The year is 35 A.D. The beautiful Jewess Abigail lives in Jerusalem within the despised community of Christ-followers known as the Way. In her role as helper of the poor Abigail tries to keep a low profile. But it is only a matter of time before she becomes the sought-after prize of both a Roman soldier and a Jewish merchant. With her guardian not heard from for two years, will she be able to hold them at bay? Or will she be forced to marry someone who opposes all she believes in and holds dear?
In The Hidden Flame, authors Davis Bunn and Janette Oke have written a story based on events from the early chapters of the Bible book of Acts. Though the book’s main characters are fictional, this story has us rubbing shoulders with Martha, Peter, Stephen, Saul and other New Testament characters in a risk-riddled and action-packed story about the early church.
As a work of Bible fiction I enjoyed it as much as any I’ve read. Familiarity with the Bible story did make me privy to certain upcoming events, but instead of spoiling the story, the knowledge ramped up tension (much like when you’ve seen a character commit a murder and you know who did it but none of the other characters do). The book of Acts is full of miracles, signs and wonders. I felt the authors handled the tricky presence of the supernatural well – managing to keep the integrity of the biblical account while making the events seem plausible.
There was one place, however, where I quibbled with the way the authors plotted one of the main events. Linux’s life-changing epiphany, experienced as he and Jacob are returning from arena, seemed to come like a bolt from the blue:
“Linux was filled with a shame so bitter he too began to falter as he walked. His only defense against life’s bitter dregs had been a cynical quip and a sardonic smile. Now even these were being stripped off.
Then, between one step and the next, it all fell away.
Not that his troubles vanished. But their ability to grip him, to clench him and blind him and choke his heart, all this had simply dropped from his soul…” p. 287
This sudden and unexplainable change of heart puzzled me and seemed like a bit of plotting laziness on the part of the authors. To be sure we have accepted, without questioning, all kinds of unexplainable events from their pens. But this seemed like cheating.
The setting felt authentic with detailed descriptions of Jerusalem at various times of day along with the sights, sounds and smells of city life. A knowledge of the city’s layout made the action feel rooted in reality. The portrayal of the lifestyle, customs and religious observances of these first century Jews made for a rich reading experience.
I enjoyed the way Bunn and Oke expanded and fleshed out Bible characters like Stephen, Ananias and Sapphira. The authors brought the fictional main characters – Abigail, Ezra and Lunix – to life by presenting each one’s part of the story from her or his point of view. I found the historical and fictional characters alike interesting, complex and thoroughly explored.
The writing style is brisk and vivid despite its somewhat formal feel and the sometimes archaic word choice:
“The road traversing the Mount of Olives was still crowded with the people wending their way into the city. Linux and Jacob joined the silent throng and let those about them set the pace. For Linux, it was a decidedly odd sensation to be enveloped within a Judean crowd that paid him no mind… In truth he did not mind becoming mired within this motley group…” p. 286
Each main character grapples with the question Who or what of God, self, fear, ambition, bitterness, faith etc. controls my life? Forgiveness is another theme that keeps reappearing.
All in all The Hidden Flame does a great job of bringing the Bible book of Acts to life. It is Book Two of The Acts of Faith Series. Centurion’s Wife (2009) is Book One.
Available now at your favourite bookseller from Bethany House, a division of Baker Publishing Group
Thursday, January 28, 2010
Monday, January 25, 2010
Title: The Choice
Author: Suzanne Woods Fisher
Publisher: Revell, January 2010, paperback, 308 pages
Carrie had no idea, on the morning that was supposed to be one of her last at home before running off with Sol, that a terrible tragedy would soon change everything. But events set in motion that day led to a choice that altered the course of her life.
In The Choice, Suzanne Woods Fisher introduces us to an Amish community in Lancaster County, where we meet Carrie, Emma, Sol, Daniel, Mattie and others. We follow main character Carrie for just over a year as her life takes many unexpected turns, leaving her a wiser, stronger person than she was on those July days when she sneaked away to watch baseball games in town and got up in the middle of the night to rendezvous with her sweetheart via a nearby payphone.
Characters are the book’s strength. Carrie is attractive, likeable, impressionable yet strong-willed, intriguing and a little mysterious. Other characters, though not explored to the same depth, are also complex, interesting and varied. Fisher’s range is seen in how she depicts both Amish and ‘English’ characters with skill, capturing their personalities in actions, mannerisms and conversations.
As much as I enjoyed the characters, I found my credulity stretched by the plot. Three deaths by page 86! That’s hardly what one expects from an Amish pastoral. I had moments when the events felt so random, I wondered if all this was really going anywhere. The plot does manage to come together in the end, though, with even a little mystery to solve.
Fisher’s knowledge of the Amish – including their Pennsylvania Dutch dialect which she often includes in the conversation (always with translation of course) – makes for nice vicarious Amish experiences, like barn raisings and community feasts. It also gives rise to the humor, which comes about when Amish and non-Amish characters meet. Here, for example, Steelhead, a rough-around-the-edges friend of Abel’s from prison, makes mealtime conversation on the day prim and proper Amish matriarch Esther comes for supper:
“'Hooboy!' Steelhead continued, his head turning shiny. 'I never want to eat another morsel of prison grub. Been there, done that, got the T-shirt. Know what I’m saying?'
Esther’s eyes went wide with shock and her lips puckered as if she’d just eaten a pickle. Emma covered her face with her hands. Carrie tried to kick Steelhead under the table but missed. Abel cleared his throat, trying to get Steelhead to stop talking, but Steelhead was cornered. His mind was whirring along, and his mouth dragged along behind it, spilling out any thought that passed through his head.” p. 235-6
The Choice is about a lot more than just Carrie’s choices. Some characters are faced with choosing whether to be open or to keep secrets. Others are confronted with the choice of whether or not to forgive. The choice of whether to continue to ‘live Amish’ is also an issue. That’s not surprising as many of the characters are in their “Rumspringa” – running-around days, when they can sow their wild oats without the threat of being shunned by the community. In this regard the presence of non-Amish characters is a nice little vehicle for illustrating the temptation to leave by contrasting contemporary plain life with the much freer, though cluttered and technology-driven life of the non-Amish.
Another theme of the story is faith. Both Abel and Mattie are outspoken about their Christian faith – though they live it and speak about it in different ways. In that respect, this Amish story felt different from others I’ve read, where breaking rules like some of these characters did led to much harsher consequences. This story dwells more on the positive aspects of Amish life – like the community helping their own, and their unwillingness to judge people or press legal charges against them. The discrepancies made me wonder whether Amish standards may be not be quite as rigid as I had thought.
If a story about the plain life peopled by a variety of interesting characters is your fancy, The Choice is a good choice for you. More Amish books by the same author will soon be available as The Choice is only the first book in a series called Lancaster County Secrets.
Available now at your favourite bookseller from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group
(I received this book free from a publicist for the purpose of writing a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I was not required to write a positive review.)
Saturday, January 23, 2010
Title: The White Horse King - The Life of Alfred the Great
Author: Benjamin Merkle
Publisher: Thomas Nelson, November 2009, paperback, 272 pages.
In The White Horse King: The Life of Alfred the Great, author Benjamin Merkle opens the curtain on a time in the Middle Ages when Anglo-Saxon warriors fought Viking invaders with iron spears and defended themselves with wooden shields. This colorful biography focuses on one of the few medieval rulers who earned “the Great” as a tag to his name.
Alfred the Great lived only 50 years (849-899) but managed to cram an amazing amount of life into that time. Not only did he drive the Viking invaders from large parts of what is now England but he also revamped his army and devised a new way of defending his territory. During times of peace he learned to read Anglo-Saxon and Latin, translated key Latin texts including some works of Augustine and some Bible Psalms into the Anglo-Saxon vernacular, and eventually reworked and wrote a legal code for his kingdom. Three themes within Alfred’s life that Merkle draws our attention to again and again are his love for his country, his desire for wisdom, and his willingness to forgive.
Merkle really gets into the spirit of the times in his descriptions of equipment, appearance and manner of fighting, as well as the Anglo-Saxon customs of the day. Though his writing includes a lot of long, complex sentences, his style seems to fit the subject matter. Here, for example, is the description of the first time Alfred led his men into battle against the Vikings:
"As the two armies closed on each other, the various taunts and jeers of the Viking throng began to coalesce into a steady guttural rumble that rolled down the hillside. The deep rumble grew ever louder until that moment — after a seemingly interminable approach — when the first spear tip drove hard into the defiant sheildwall and the valley shook with the crack of the collision. Every nervous stomach, every quivering hand, every dry tongue, all foreboding fears and presentiments were instantly transformed into resolution and determination and the shieldwall erupted with a deafening war cry." (p. 56.)
How accurate is all this? According to the bibliography, Merkle, as a student of theology and classical languages, got as close to source documents as he could. Besides reading works of general Anglo-Saxon history like the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle and various biographies of Alfred the Great, Merkle consulted Alfred's own writings. He also credits museums in London, Oxford and Winchester for their displays of artifacts from the time.
Another nice stylistic touch is the inclusion of epigraphs from ancient literature (many of these translated from the Anglo-Saxon, no doubt) at the beginning of each chapter. The book's attractive cover (a detail of "The Vigil" by John Pettie 1839-1893), and design (chapter titles in a calligraphic font with decorative left borders on chapter heading pages) add to the feeling of authenticity. The book contains a family tree, a chronology of dates, several maps and other black-and-white illustrations, a bibliography, and a detailed index.
Though I found the prose dense and the read slow going in places, on the whole I felt Merkle did a good job of bringing Alfred and the history of his time to life. His admiration for the man is infectious and he never fails to draw attention to the wellspring of Alfred's accomplishments — his Christian faith. This focus takes the story beyond a mere historical tale to an inspirational one as well.
The White Horse King would be a valuable addition to the library of historians and casual readers. It would also make great supplementary reading for high school and college students studying medieval England.
(If you're interested in reading more of the actual book, rather large chunks of it are online here.)
(I received this book free from Thomas Nelson Publishers as part of their Book Sneeze program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.)
Wednesday, January 20, 2010
Monday, January 18, 2010
A few days ago I sat down and worked out some goals and resolutions for 2010. I set general and specific targets for myself in five areas: spiritual, physical, social, writing and house and home.
My house and home section reads:
General: Cut down on clutter and stuff I keep and store.
Specific: Choose one area to work on per month. Declutter for three hours per week (all at once or spread over several sessions.) Area for January is my office.
A big reason for starting in my office is because it's in my work space that I give in most noticeably to my tendency to squirrel things away. I have drawers filled with clippings from newspapers and internet printouts on subjects I have found interesting and thought I might write about one day. But how relevant is stuff from 1998, 2002, or even 2005?
Meanwhile I've begun filling boxes with research notes from recent projects, saving them because -- well, who knows, I might need them again. But will I ever? (I paid attention last June when at Write! Canada, Chip MacGregor told our workshop he never keeps notes from a finished project.)
I started my decluttering on Saturday. I spent a most enjoyable several hours surrounded by papers, humming along to the shredder and music on itunes. But I have many tricky bits still to tackle. The book Simplify Your Life by Marcia Ramsland is holding my hand. This statement in Chapter 1 under the heading "Where do I begin" is my little beacon at this point:
"The basis of determining what to change is really quite simple: Keep what is working; change what is frustrating." -Marcia Ramsland
How do you maintain a streamlined life?
Sunday, January 17, 2010
I just read an email from a friend Barb who lives in Haiti (not in Port au Prince, but in St. Marc). She knows the Rollings from Clean Water for Haiti and was in Port Au Prince on the 13th helping collect bodies, translating for people at the medical clinic, doing a little first aid and praying. (Her email was passed on to me from others so I don't have permission to quote it. She talks at the end of this video in happier days.)
The Rollings have a blog, where they report on what the earthquake and first few days after it were like. It certainly is a valuable perspective.
Friday, January 15, 2010
For a cinnamon bun-like treat, try making monkey bread.
Basic Monkey Bread
3 cups all-purpose flour
7/8 cups water
1/2 cup milk
1/2 Tbsp. shortening
1 1/2 Tbsp. sugar
1 1/4 tsp. salt
2 tsp. yeast (the quick-rise instant type)
1/2 cup butter or margarine, melted - in separate container
1 cup brown sugar
1 1/2 Tbsp. cinnamon - mix sugar and cinnamon and place in separate container.
1. Place all ingredients except dipping ingredients in the bread machine and set for dough cycle. If you mix the dough by hand let it rise for at least an hour before going on to step 2.
2. When dough cycle is finished, place on lightly floured surface, flatten and let it rest for a few minutes. While it's resting, melt the butter (keep separate) and mix the brown sugar and cinnamon (keep separate).
3. With kitchen shears cut the dough into random pieces, dip in butter, roll in brown sugar cinnamon mix and place randomly in a Bundt pan.
4. When all the dough is dipped, let it rise for 45 minutes.
5. Bake at 350F for 30 minutes until browned. If the top browns too quickly, place aluminum foil over it.
6. When done, remove from oven and turn pan upside down onto a large serving plate.
7. To serve, pull apart or cut in slices as you would a cake. IT'S YUMMY!!
Thursday, January 14, 2010
Wednesday, January 13, 2010
Do you still read blogs? Though I have my times when I keep up with what all my friends, acquaintances and givers of free information are up to, lately I'm mostly way behind. So I just mark the whole kit and kaboodle read and start over.
I can mark all those unread posts 'read' because I use an RSS reader. I've had a Boglines account from practically the time I started blogging in 2004 and couldn't navigate the whole maze of RSS feeds without it.
But I never organized those feeds, that is, until a few days ago. I happened to be poking around on my Google reader site (which I use sometimes - mostly when Bloglines is down) and realized that I could tuck my various feeds into folders.
Now there's nothing I like more than foldering something. So I made a bunch of folders and got everything all tidy. And then I had the thought - maybe I could organize my Bloglines feeds in folders too.
Last weekend I discovered I could. So I did. (Here's how: Just click on "Edit" then "New Folder" below list of feeds. Name the folder, then drag and drop blog feeds into it. When done adding folders and organizing blogs click on "Finished" at the top to go to the reader pane.)
Now look how streamlined everything is! Anytime I feel like reading blogs, the genre I hanker after is all in one place and just a mouse-click away.
If I'm wondering what my writing friends are up to, I click on "Writing Friends" to see who has updated and what's going on with them. If I'm in the mood for more doom and gloom - I click on "Writing Biz" to get my daily dose of advice from overwhelmed agents and snarky editors. If I want something else entirely I click on "Curiosities" to find out the latest from the Antarctica conservation or Bible Illustration blogs.
It's changed my whole outlook on blog reading! Hey, I'm in such a good mood, I may just drop by your blog one of these days and leave a comment! (If you tell me you're reading, of course.)
Monday, January 11, 2010
Title: A Measure of Mercy
Author: Lauraine Snelling
Publisher: Bethany House, October 2009, paperback, 368 pages.
After her surgical patient dies, 18-year-old physician-in-training Astrid Bjorklund’s thoughts of going to Chicago for more medical training are tinged with misgiving. Maybe she’s not cut out to be a doctor after all. The reappearance of the handsome but enigmatic Joshua Landsverk complicates things. So does the traveling missionary who says more doctors needed in Africa. In A Measure of Mercy, author Lauraine Snelling takes readers back to the fictional community of immigrant Norwegians - Blessing, North Dakota. In this first book of the Home to Blessing series, we follow Astrid and her mother Ingeborg through the summer of 1903 to February of 1904.
Intricately drawn characters, a rich portrayal of ethnic, community, and family life, and a delving into the practice of medicine in the early 1900s were this book’s stand-out features for me.
Snelling fans who have read previous books about Blessing will welcome new installments into the lives of such families as the Bjorklunds, Knutsons, and Hjelmsons. For those new to the community, there’s a family tree at the front of the book. Though that's great to help sort out who’s who, I still got confused by all the sisters, brothers, cousins, aunts, uncles, as Snelling dives right into the narrative without a lot of explanation.
Astrid and her mother Ingeborg tell most of the story, with snippets told from the viewpoint of Joshua (all in third person). The main characters are all complex, interesting and presented with warts-and-all honesty.
The setting is rich with a host of interesting secondary characters and the challenges of pioneer life. I especially enjoyed the description of all the Norwegian foods, the lively community gatherings, the family-centered Christmas celebration, and the butchering bee (which took me back to my youth and our farm in a German Mennonite community in Saskatchewan).
Astrid’s life as a medical intern in Chicago, with its old-fashioned hospital equipment and the constant demands of study, call, lack of sleep, and homesickness seemed equally real.
The story is anchored in faith. The talented, earnest Astrid struggles throughout the story to discern what is God’s will for her future. Meanwhile at home, her mother grapples with letting her daughter go, missing her and worrying about her. Prayer, reassurance, and guidance from the Bible and pastor’s messages help both of them. Joshua has his own issues as Pastor Solberg’s talks on forgiveness goad him to complete some unfinished business at home.
This rich, gentle story ends with a big loose end, setting us up to await Book 2 in the series. No Distance Too Far is due to be released in April 2010.
[I received this book free from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I was not required to write a positive review.]
Thursday, January 07, 2010
Wednesday, January 06, 2010
Yes indeed. Today is Orthodox Christmas Eve. Tomorrow is Orthodox Christmas Day.
In honor of my husband's slavic roots (his mother was Ukrainian, his dad Russian) our Christmas decorations are still up and our outside lights still glow through the night reminding everyone there's still a celebration going on!
This Regina Leader Post article addresses some of the challenges associated with celebrating Christmas on a different day than the rest of the population.
This wonderful article called "Russian Christmas" tells of the rich heritage that accompanies this day in Russia (where Christmas was banned from 1917 until 1992).
Russians celebrate it heartily these days.
Title: A Questionable Life
Author: Luke Lively
Publisher: Beaufort Books, October 2009, hardcover, 432 pages
Jack Oliver’s whole life has been consumed with getting ahead in his banking career. He has worked long hours, shoved his wife and kids into second or third place, and jumped through every hoop that PT&G’s CEO Chad has put in his way. Jack is the heir apparent and knows it’s just a matter of time until he inherits the corner office. That is, until Chad and the board get an offer from Merchant’s Bank that’s too good to refuse.
The merger changes everything. The new management hands out a rash of pink slips. Jack’s future security morphs into a two-year contract. His worsening performance reviews and a health crisis threaten even that.
Enter Benjamin Franklin Price – the head of a small bank in Roanoke, Virginia. He’s looking to groom a successor. Would Jack be interested in moving from fast-paced Philadelphia to Roanoke?
In A Questionable Life, a first novel by Luke Lively, we follow Jack Oliver as he navigates toward his decision and so much more. In every interaction Price asks him questions that make him look long and hard at his life and rethink everything he has ever valued. Could it be there are things more important than success, prestige, and position? Has he come all this way only to find he has taken the wrong path?
The strength of this book lies in its study of character. In brisk and vivid storytelling, Lively narrates the events of Jack’s life in first person, delving into his thoughts and emotions to make him come alive. Though the actual events of the story take place within the span of several years, we get familiar with all of Jack’s life through flashbacks. Lively does explore other characters to some extent as well, but we see them through Jack’s eyes only.
People who work in the financial sector will relate to the office politics, emphasis on the bottom line, and the climbing-over-bodies attitude toward getting ahead. The Price character, with his homey wisdom, provides a stark contrast to that modus operandi. He poses a series of questions which make Oliver, and the reader, stop and take stock.
Each chapter title is a question (“How Did I Get Here?”… “What is Stopping You?”) and contributes to the theme of the need for life evaluation. Little sayings attributed to Price appear in quotes at the top of each chapter (e.g. “Opportunity knocks only if you’re listening” … “If you only focus on what you want, you will miss out on what you have”). They too add to the theme of living an examined and intentional life.
All in all, I found the book a worthwhile and enjoyable read. Though the frequent flashbacks, especially at the beginning, kept delaying present action, those stories were colorful and full of action themselves. They certainly filled in the blanks as to why Oliver was the way we found him and gave us a context for his growth within the story.
Besides being an entertaining read, I can see this book working as a discussion starter at business and professional development meetings on topics of business practices, ethics, and company culture. Hopefully Lively has more stories about bankers and their milieu up his sleeve.
(I received this book as a gift from the publicist for the purpose of writing a review.)
Monday, January 04, 2010
Want to get really depressed about eating out? Check "The Fatabase" a database of nutritional (including calorie and sodium) amounts on menu items served in 64 BC restaurant chains.
When this was featured as an item on the Sunday evening news, they showed a Hot Chicken Caesar Salad from Earl's (1120 calories) as equivalent to two 6 inch Subway sandwiches or two Big Macs (540 x 2). Yikes - even salad isn't safe!
Saturday, January 02, 2010
Title: The Power of Respect
Author: Deborah Norville
Publisher: Thomas Nelson, October 2009, hardcover, 224 pages.
Few of us need to be convinced of the value of respect – at least insofar as we want others to show it to us. In The Power of Respect, Deborah Norville explores how respect impacts all of life's relationships from how we view ourselves, to how we interact with family members and friends, to how we treat employees and colleagues as the company's CEO. Whether you have yet to be convinced of respect's relevance to you or are someone who thinks you have it all figured out, this book will expand your horizons.
Norville divides her discussion into seven chapters. In them she first tackles what respect is, then goes on to unpack what respect looks like at home, in relationships, in school, in business, and in leadership. She devotes the final chapter to self-respect.
Norville’s job as an anchor of the daily syndicated newsmagazine Inside Edition has given her a variety of relationships, experiences and stories from which to draw in illustrating her points. She also cites academic journals and market studies to reinforce her message. But this is not a dry school-paper kind of book. Norville’s writing style is vivid and efficient, and the abundance of anecdotes woven throughout ramp up interest. It all adds up to an effortless and inspirational read.
Each chapter also contains text boxes with respect-related quotes of others and “The Power of Respect” tidbits from inside the chapter that underline Norville’s main points. Chapters end with lists summarizing key ideas.
My biggest takeaway from this book was a new realization of the many ways respect shows itself. For a student who didn’t know how to read it was a teacher who set him up with talking books, tailored his assignments to his ability, and so helped him succeed while saving face in front of the rest of the kids. In marriage showing respect may begin with the discovery of what your partner defines as respect. From the family to the workplace, listening is a huge component of showing respect. So is taking employees into your confidence and refraining from micro-managing them.
Whatever your vocation, The Power of Respect is full of inspiration and great examples of respectful living in action. It’s a motivational read that has the potential to change your relationships and positively impact your life.
(I received this book as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.)
Other goodies: Deborah Norville talks about the power of respect.