Tuesday, December 17, 2013

The Christmas Quilt, by Vannetta Chapman

Two years after being married, Annie and Samuel are expecting their first child. They love each other, support each other and enjoy each other. Life is almost perfect. However, Annie’s best friend Leah is struggling in her marriage to Annie’s brother, Adam. She is also pregnant —with twins—, but her pregnancy is not going as smooth as Annie’s. Morning sickness, feeling tired, stressed and being uncomfortable, Leah has inadvertently distanced herself from Adam, and Adam has pulled away from her, too. Then, Leah’s pregnancy takes an unexpected turn, and she is taken to the hospital where she most likely may have to spend the rest of her pregnancy. But Annie will be by her side, and with some time in her hands, Annie may finally get to finish the crib quilt she is making for the twins. And little does she know that making the quilt will be a great blessing in the life of her friend, and that the quilt will have a profound meaning of growth in the Lord.

There’s a nice line in 'The Christmas Quilt' that describes the book perfectly: “[Stories] involve you in another’s life, but our road only intersects theirs for a time.” The story is a sweet peek into the characters’ lives at a slow pace, like taking the panoramic route on a road trip. It makes you stop and think about the details we miss in our daily lives, giving us a lesson in appreciating every small blessing. The author, as always, writes a tender story with a great attention to detail, each scene blending into the next, each situation serving a purpose, adding richly to the story.

As well as in Mrs. Chapman’s other novels, you can immediately see the sweetness of each character, even of those who appear rude and unlikable in the beginning. Annie is so level headed and mature; Samuel is incredibly sweet to her. Leah and Adam, on the other hand, are quick to react, and on the defensive, very much like teenagers in the beginning. But their spiritual and emotional growth throughout the book is fantastic. Although they are all main characters, the book really belongs to Leah and Adam. You see them change, mature and give a wonderful about face in their relationship.

But the secondary characters also grab the spotlight if even for a split second, and here lies my one and only frustration with the story: these characters are so well written, their backstories so intriguing, that they each deserved at least a more satisfying side story. Rachel, uncle Eli, and Reba would have added much more to the story had their stories been explored more. Rachel, in particular, was a wonderfully complex character in her relationship with her children and the people around her. I count her as a great missed opportunity in the book. Each of these characters had great stories of their own that could have made the story and its slow pace much more interesting.

As an Amish fiction, Amish wisdom is expected, and sometimes that predictability can be tiresome, mostly because authors tend to overuse Amish proverbs or make their characters so wise that they seem unreal. But Mrs. Chapman does a great job of showing us wisdom in almost every character in a very organic way. It’s the way they live, the way they face difficult situations, the way they see struggles and God’s hand in everything. Not every book of fiction can say this, but 'The Christmas Quilt' is a great lesson in finding wisdom through our spiritual journey, growing in the fruit of the Spirit.

Also, there are instances of beautiful emotional and spiritual intimacy, such as an incredibly touching moment between Leah and Adam when the two of them became of one mind and heart over the Word of God, that left me speechless. It’s a great story about growing up spiritually and emotionally, showing grace to one another, and trusting God’s timing.

Although this is the second book of the series, the author does a great job of weaving the story interlacing past details with new ones so that you don’t feel lost of left out. But, nevertheless, I highly recommend reading the first book, 'A Simple Amish Christmas'.

4 out of 5 stars

*I received a copy of this book from the publishers through The Christian manifesto in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, November 6, 2013

In her eyes

(Many years ago, I wrote a simple article about my grandmother who suffered from Alzheimer's disease. I had written a poem in Spanish, my native language, but somehow I got it into my head that I wanted to be published in Guideposts, so I wrote the following article in English for that. I never sent it I have no idea why... maybe laziness... I don't know. Probably I didn't think it was good enough. But I thought today was a good day for it to finally see the light, mostly because I want to make sure that if you have a loved one suffering from this disease you realize that they still have much to offer, that you still have a chance to connect with them, to get to know them in a very different way, to enjoy their quirks, their wit, even their crankiness. Under your relative's thin veil of confusion there lies the person he/she was, without inhibitions.)

As my best friend dialed her grandmother’s telephone number, I stood still, amazed that she knew the number by heart. Suddenly, I felt a rush of guilt overflowing me, "How come I don’t know grandma’s phone number?"

I thought we were a very close family. We visited our grandmother every week and she would give my sisters and me a glass of Pepsi and a plate of Social Tea cookies. We talked, we watched television, shared a few memories together and then, off we went to our house until another week had passed and we would do it all over again. I never felt the need to call my grandmother, Tata, on the phone. Whatever it was we had to say, I figured, it could wait until our next visit. So my guilt found a justification and I was relieved.

However, although we may plan visits and trips and rationalizations, we can never fully plan for our unknown future, God does it for us. And His plan for our next step in life took me by surprise: Tata had Alzheimer’s and she could not live alone any longer. She misplaced her keys, she believed that she was being robbed, she argued that she wasn't receiving her retirement checks, she wasn't eating right, dressing right or behaving normally. She was sick.

So my family’s next move was for her to move in with us. "Well", I thought, "at least I will know her phone number now." But it felt strange. Pretty soon I realized that a few cookies and sodas, a few visits and talks did not provide for an understanding of who this woman sleeping in the bed next to mine really was. I did not know her.

What bothered me the most was that it was too late to start getting to know her. She had lost sight of who I was, who my mother was, where she was, what year it was, if she had eaten, if she took a shower, if the dress she had on was hers (and most of the time it was mine). Sometimes she didn't even recognize herself and had conversations with her mirror image! To me, it was funny and endearing, but, at the same time, I sadly realized that it was impossible to get to know someone that didn't even know herself anymore. The more her mind escaped her, the more irrational and erratic she acted.

On the days we went to church, however, she was on her best behavior. A woman raised with strict rules, she knew how to behave in public and she never forgot that. She was extremely ladylike and very well mannered, unlike me, and, she would say, unlike my sisters, too. To her, we had no social skills whatsoever. She knew how to sit properly, how to address someone in public, how to talk to strangers. She valued appearances, so she would put on makeup up to her ears, she would brush her hair, and always, always, pose. She would pose when talking to someone, she would pose for the camera, she would pose when laughing, she would pose when having a headache or when inventing a headache, she would pose when she wanted to dance or even when she thought no one was looking. She had class. I never knew that before.

At home, she would sit in the rocking chair, staring at herself 70 years before. She was a teenager in her eyes. She would ask to see her mother, her deceased sister Maria, her brother Milan, and her father. She wanted to be sure the cows were taken care of and the errands had been run. Then, suddenly, it was 30 years later and she was asking to see her daughters, her husband, and Juanchon, her driver. She wanted to cook dinner, tend to the pets, and make sure the clothes were washed. A very hands-on and caring person, she always wanted to be certain her family was well and taken care of.

When she came back to our reality, she would call me by name but did not recall she was my grandmother; she thought she was my aunt, that my mother was her sister, and that she was in charge of all of us. She was the matron of the house, capable of making decisions, the woman in charge who would kick visitors out if she thought it was too late or that it was the wrong time to visit. Every single time we had to explain her situation and ask our friends to please forgive her. But she was offended if her authority was questioned. In her eyes, she was responsible enough, old enough, intelligent enough, healthy enough to be respected and to be seen as the leader, as the chief. She was tough, and strong, and stern.

Tata was never more real to me than in those last years of her life. In the beginning, I was frustrated and afraid that I wouldn't know how to deal with her because I didn't know her. In the end, I realized that God really does work in unexpected ways. When I thought it was too late to get to know the woman lying in the bed next to mine, God opened a beautiful window through her eyes and I got to meet my grandmother as a child, as a teenager, as a newlywed, as a mother, as a grandmother, and as a friend. God knew it was not too late to get to know the funny, classy, caring and strong woman Tata was, and so He made sure I would meet her when I was old enough to know how important and valuable she really was.

Tuesday, November 5, 2013

Fear has a Name, by Creston Mapes

Jack and Pamela Crittendon live an ideal life: great marriage, beautiful daughters, a Christian household, nice home in a nice neighborhood… But when a dangerous stalker zeros in on them, their idyllic life begins to fall apart. While little by little the stalker seems to rob them of their peace, their security and their trust in God, Jack tries to keep his family safe and protected. Meanwhile, he is investigating the disappearance of a local pastor who has gone missing after leaving a suicide note in his office. As a journalist, Jack is committed to uncovering the truth behind the pastor’s mysterious disappearance to bring closure to his family. But nothing is what it seems, people are not who they say they are, no one knows what really happened and others prefer that it stays that way. With a pastor missing, his family in danger, a stalker on the loose and a double murder, everything is out of control and Jack’s world is upside down. Learning to trust God has never been more difficult… or more crucial.

As the story opens, the first scene was so great and scary it made me think twice about reading the book. The details and descriptions, together with our own imagination made for a very entertaining and frightful beginning. But 'Fear has a Name' is more of a drama than a thriller. Although there’s action and suspense, the story is more an unraveling of the characters’ inadequacies, fears, sins, pasts, tragedies, psychological issues, greed, hypocrisies and lies. It’s more of a good look into depression, its roots and consequences.

As we learn about the stalker, we can’t help but feel sorry for him and at the same time despise him. His depression has its roots in his parents, their Christian hypocrisy and their hate towards him. He feels unloved, unwanted and alone. He has his reasons for being who he is, for becoming that person, but nothing can justify his behavior. On the other hand, we have Pastor Evan. He has clinical depression and we can’t help but feel for him and at the same time be irritated by him. He is a great pastor, a great counselor who loves people and is genuinely interested in them. But the selfishness of his decisions, the disregard for his family and his self-centeredness was almost shocking.

The parallelisms between these two stories were nicely written: one with a good Christian home, the other from a hypocritical Christian household; both battling with depression, both on the run trying to escape their problems and their futures. A kidnapping of a person and a kidnapping of a soul.

However, as conflicted and as full of contradictions as these two characters are, Jack and Pamela are, well, bland. They are the main characters, but they just don’t grab our attention and interest as the others. Their actions are expected and their decisions, predictable.

Although the first few pages set the stage for what promised to be a great suspenseful ride, the drama overcomes the thriller and suspense and the story became more of an introspective look into the characters’ lives, their thoughts and feelings. We are privy to how they analyze their circumstances and to their internal reactions to everything, and it’s not good. Since most of the main characters are Christian, the story turns into a semi-sermon at almost every page, becoming too preachy and sometimes boring. Talking about God, his faithfulness, salvation, mercy, love and grace is wonderful; these are good news. But in a work of fiction, the repetition is unnecessary and makes the story monotonous.

We can still see glimpses of the author’s great ability to create tension and suspense, but they are fleeting. In a suspense/thriller the not knowing and guessing and discovering are the best parts, but here the stalker’s identity is revealed too soon and in an almost prosaic way. The same thing happens with Pastor Evan’s story, which made the story feel like running out of steam too early.

A wonderful beginning that gave way to an introspective drama that ended with a less than remarkable ending, 'Fear has a Name' does one thing very, very right: it gets to the core of our fears and the real solution for them: God. Through each struggle and problem, the characters, much like us, questioned God, His will and His reasoning. And as they learn and see God’s reassuring hand in everything, the reader ends up doing the same.

3 (or maybe 2.5) stars out of 5

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher, David C. Cook, in exchange of an honest review.

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Plain Disappearance, by Amanda Flower

On her first date with Timothy Troyer, Chloe Humphrey couldn’t be happier. A beautiful place, a romantic setting, soft snow, a sweet gift, and… a dead girl? And not just any girl: she’s a beautiful Amish teenager. Chloe is, once again, in the middle of a mystery: was she murdered? If she was murdered, by whom? How? Why? And when the evidence starts to point towards Timothy’s friend, Billy Thorpe, he joins forces with Chloe to try to prove his friend’s innocence. But Billy is nowhere to be found and when they discover that he is not who he says he is and that he is far more dangerous than he has let on, Chloe and Timothy set out to find him to confront him and bring him to justice, or prove his innocence.

This is a very entertaining book; a very light read with really well developed characters that make the book fun and interesting. Chloe is bright, bold and a risk taker. Her roommate (and Timothy’s sister) Becky is vivacious, fun but conflicted. Chief Rose is very unique in her own way, tough, brash and strong. Tanisha, Chloe’s best friend, is funny and smart. Grandpa Zook (Timothy’s grandfather) is a wonderfully colorful character, as well as most of the family. Chloe as the lead and these secondary characters make the series and this book in particular a great read.

However, Timothy, the male lead, stands in contrast with the rest: he is calmer, a little bit of a pushover and somewhat bland. He is very romantic and sweet, but with so many interesting characters in the book, Timothy stands apart lacking the depth and intriguing factor that the rest have. Even the troublemaker, Brock, who in the past and along with his best friend has made Chloe’s and Becky’s life miserable, has a great side story that was a nice, unexpected twist in the story.

As well as in the first two books of this series, we have a murder and Chloe in the right place at the right time for the murder’s discovery. The way the author writes, the mystery is always fun to unravel and intriguing. It does have some slight suspense, but this is not a book that will keep you on the edge of your seat. However, that does not take away from the book and your enjoyment of it. The fact that the action develops too slowly is what can frustrate you. Since it is a simple murder mystery, with a couple of red herrings, a few side stories are to be expected and welcomed. And here we have a very endearing one, very unexpected and surprisingly sweet showing God’s mercy in using us to impact others with our example even with the people we least expect it. That side story alone is worth reading through parts that just seem to drag the main story. But, even though some of the narration reads as if the author was just trying to lengthen the story, no side story here is a filler. Each one complements the main story nicely.

Also nice, at least in the beginning, is the romance between Chloe and Timothy and the charming attraction between Becky and Aaron. It is very evident that Timothy is very much in love with Chloe, and he is so sweet to her. But that relationship has been developing since the first book and by now it’s just moving painfully slow. The attraction between Becky and Aaron, Timothy’s best friend, is much more interesting and would make a great main story for another book.

Although the author follows the same line as before, casting a dark shadow over some Amish characters, this time around the Amish are presented in a better, more flattering light. It is not common to find an author willing to explore the unfriendly side of the Amish, at least not to the extend author Amanda Flower has, so it is a different, interesting take.

This is the third book in the Appleseed Creek Mystery series, and it is pretty evident, but it can be read alone. However, I would highly recommend to read them all and in order, not only because they are quite good, but also because the reader can best appreciate the characters’ growth and development that way.

'A Plain Disappearance' is a very enjoyable murder mystery, with a very nice message of God’s work in us and through us.

3.5 stars out of 5

*I received a copy of this book from B&H Books through NetGalley in exchange of an honest review.

Friday, September 13, 2013

Critical Pursuit, by Janice Cantore

Officer Brinna Caruso is a woman on a mission: rescue missing children at any cost, personal or otherwise. Driven by her own experience as a child, Brinna does whatever it takes to find missing children with the help of her rescue dog, Hero. But this time, it hits closer to home than expected when a predator appears with the same MO as the one who abducted Brinna when she was a child. Brinna has to rely on her instincts and learn to trust her new partner, detective Jack O’Reilly, who’s struggling with feelings of revenge, anger and frustration after his wife was killed by a drunk driver. Jack seems to have a death wish at every turn, putting his life at risk and the life of others in danger. But with a kidnapper on the loose threatening to do more harm Jack knows he has to be someone Brinna can rely on. Together they will learn to trust each other and do whatever it takes to catch the kidnapper and put Brinna’s past to rest once and for all.

Although I knew that the story was about a kidnapper and the police officer trying to catch him, I was completely caught off guard by how heavy the issues were, how hard it was to read, not because it was badly written, but because it is so well written that it does not need to go into details to stir up your emotions. It strikes a chord… hard. And this is just in the beginning. As the story progresses, it’s difficult not to care, not to get desperate and start yelling, “Get him! Get him!” Almost like watching a movie.

The characters, especially Brinna, are developed nicely, with enough backstory to understand where they are coming from. In Brinna’s case, I would have liked to have a little more information about her father, but nevertheless she is a great character; very believable. She has faced a terrible situation as a child that has mold her into who she is now. Her situation is complex and hard and her reaction to it is what you would expect, very normal, which gives her character credibility and depth. Jack, on the other hand, is difficult to like and hard to identify with. Having lost his wife, he is understandably shaken and angry. But the way he dwells on his anger is a little too much. I cannot sympathize with him as I wanted to because his reaction towards everything frustrated me, even more so when he has a Christian background. I understand that losing a loved one in a senseless tragedy must be horrible, but Jack’s character comes across as little bit irrational at times. As much as I wanted to like him and feel empathy, I ended up not caring too much for him until a little before the end.

I really liked, though, the way the relationship between the main characters is developed, how it changes and grows throughout the story and as a result of it. It is not a romantic relationship, which surprised me in a good way because the book does a few twists and turns that are not expected in a fictional story. Of course, there’s more to this story since this is the first book in a series, but it is refreshing to have a story end with no romance in sight and still feel that you have closure, that there are no loose ends.

But the relationship between Brinna and Jack is one of a few relationships explored in 'Critical Pursuit'. As hard as it is to say and to read about, the relationship in the kidnapper’s mind between him and his victims is also examined and it is gut-wrenchingly twisted and sick, which speaks volumes of what a talented writer Mrs. Cantore is. Also explored is the relationship between us and God, its reciprocity, how sometimes it just doesn’t make sense. However, it was Brinna’s relationship with her mentor, the man who saved her when she was abducted as a child, that affected me most; how much she depended on him, how much she needed him, clinging to him as if she was still a little lost child, as the father figure she so desired. It’s in that relationship that becomes very clear how much Brinna needs God, his strength and faithfulness, even if she doesn’t realize it.

The author also does a very nice job of introducing police work without overwhelming the reader with police jargon. As a well written police drama, there are no details of police work or codes. The story flows from one action to the next giving the information needed to understand the situation at hand without having to explain excessively the intricacies of the work of the officers and detectives.

But as well written as the book is, the author does seem to forget dialogues between some of the characters. For instance, a conversation between Brinna and her friend Tony Di Santo where they talk about a situation they’ve discussed before as if they haven’t seen or talk to each other about it. Also, the resolution of the story’s central theme seemed anticlimactic, not at all what I expected having had so much anticipation built up until that moment.

Heavy issues, both spiritual and human, written with sensibility make for a very touching drama and a very hard to put down suspense.

3.5 out of 5 stars

*I received a copy of this book from the publishers through The Christian Manifesto in exchange of an honest review.

Wednesday, September 4, 2013

Alaskan Adventures Sweepstakes!

Last year I read (and loved!) Submerged, the debut novel of author Dani Pettrey. Early this year I had the opportunity of reading and reviewing Shattered, the second book of that series, and it was even better than the first! Since then I've been eagerly waiting for the release of Stranded, book 3 in the acclaimed (by me and many, many others!) Alaskan Courage series. And with this release comes a FANTASTIC giveaway! Keep reading!
In Stranded we follow the story of Gage McKenna and reporter Darcy St. James. She knows something is wrong when her friend vanishes from her job on a cruise ship. Everyone else believes Abby simply left of her own accord, but something isn't lining up, and Darcy knows the only way to find the truth is to put herself in Abby’s position.

Gage has taken a summer-long stint leading adventure excursions for the passengers of various cruise lines that dock in Alaska for a few days of sightseeing. He’s surprised to find Darcy on board one of the ships, working undercover as a reporter.
Something sinister is going on, and the deeper they dig, the more they realize they've only discovered the tip of the iceberg.
And to celebrate the story, author Dani Pettrey and Bethany House Publishers are pleased to present the ALASKAN ADVENTURES Sweepstakes (YAY!), and your chance to win one of three fabulous prizes connected with the story!
Alaskan Adventures Sweepstakes Grand Prize
In Stranded, Darcy, Gage, and the McKenna family launch into all kinds of adventures: from high-octane ocean kayaking, to rugged island camping beneath the vast Alaskan skies.
Our grand prize winner will have the chance to build their own adventure, with a $300 adventure gear gift card of their choice from either Eddie Bauer or L.L. Bean.
And what would our hero and heroine do if they won the prize? Gage use it towards one of L.L. Bean’s gorgeous ocean kayaks, while Darcy would go for “Glamping” gear :)
Alaskan Adventures Sweepstakes Grand Prize
Everyone knows Gage McKenna’s campfire cooking is second to none. But in Stranded, Darcy discovers that before Gage was a search and rescue hero, he secretly dreamed of attending culinary school.
Our second prize winner will have the chance to fulfill Gage’s dream with a $200 value, 1-year membership to Top Chef University.
Membership includes over 200 video lessons taught by Top Chef contestants, covering everything from soups to desserts.
Alaskan Adventures Sweepstakes Third Prize
Darcy once gave her missing friend, Abby, a beautiful shell necklace, engraved with a special message that made it one-of-a-kind.
Our third prize winner will receive their very own, one-of-a-kind “Earth & Sea” necklace valued at $100.
Handmade of New Zealand Paua shells, hammered copper, and Tahitian pearls, this necklace is the perfect compliment for a soft sweater and jeans, or a unique finishing touch for a little black dress on a special date night.
How to Enter:
Go to http://www.danipettrey.com/alaskan-adventures-sweepstakes/ and complete the entry box, anytime between September 2 and September 19. This giveaway starts September 2, 2013 and ends September 19, 2013 @ 11:59 pm (PST). So, it's opened right now! what are you waiting for? Go, go, go! Winners will be selected Friday, September 20, 2013, and announced at DaniPettrey.com.

Monday, July 15, 2013

A Wedding for Julia, by Vannetta Chapman

Julia Beechy’s dream of opening an Amish café comes crashing down when her mother announces that she must get married to inherit the family home. At 37 years old, marriage seems almost impossible, but the alternative would be to lose her home and move far away from Pebble Creek. Since her mother’s health is rapidly declining, Julia needs to make a decision, but sees nowhere to turn. Then, Caleb Zook steps in. At 40 years old, his time to get married is also long passed, but he’s in desperate need of a friend and is moved by Julia’s sadness, uncertain future and a desire to protect her, so he offers Julia his help and asks her to marry him. Although Julia has her doubts at first, she sees no other way and accepts, much to the joy of her mom and the rest of their community. But Julia must learn to trust God, to trust that He knows what’s best for her, and to trust Caleb. As she sees her dream of opening the café becoming a reality, the worst storm that area has seen in one hundred years hits. Who and what will be left standing? Will Julia’s and Caleb’s relationship survive the storm and her doubts?

This is a character driven story in the sense that what kept me interested or intrigued was not the story per se; it was the characters. Julia is a beautiful and sweet character who is also very insecure, thinks less of herself and is very reserved. She always has her guard up, putting a wall between her and others, so she doesn't have many friends, and she doesn't think anyone cares about her. Caleb, on the other hand, is very friendly, outspoken and outgoing, but true to his Amish ways. Both are mature and very well written characters.

Caleb’s cousin, Sharon, who is introduced along the way, is a welcomed addition in a pretty lineal story. The inclusion of Sharon’s story and point of view brings a fresh perspective and an interesting twist. But it is in writing Ada, Julia’s mother, that the author’s attention to details shines. Each main character is a juxtaposition of another: Julia with her insecurities and doubts as opposed to Caleb, so sure of himself and of their relationship. Sharon with her teenage foolishness and carelessness as opposed to Ada, who’s so wise, so centered and so aware. Even Julia’s and Caleb’s relationship is put in contrast with the relationships of much younger couples.

To me, it was the characters that really drove the story and made it strong. Had the characters not been so well developed, the story would have not kept my interest because what I thought was the biggest conflict (as suggested by the title) was resolved too soon, in the first 120 pages or so, which made me wonder where the story was going, where was the climax or anticipation. It felt rushed, as if the first half of the book was overly edited and the author’s keenly written descriptions were taken out, which made for a first half that’s well written but lacks depth. Those first hundred pages lacked the attention to detail in the story that Mrs. Chapman has accustomed us to.

But the second half of the book is full of the beautiful, insightful prose that I love in Mrs. Chapman’s work. That’s when both stories, Julia’s and Sharon’s, interlaced flawlessly and smoothly and made for a very rewarding read. The different situations the characters faced in terms of their doubts, or loss of control, or desperate need to trust God and others were so well written the reader not only sympathizes with them but can also identify with them. And Ada’s accurate quotes from the Psalms, especially to Sharon, not only ministered the characters but me as well. She is a sweet, intuitive and wise character. However, Sharon’s story was left unfinished, which was a little disappointing.

I loved the way Julia’s and Caleb’s love for each other developed and grew. It was beautifully presented and very romantic for a couple under their circumstances. Although theirs is an arranged marriage of sorts, the way the characters handled the situation, with so much care, kindness and tenderness, very true to their ages, was very refreshing and lovely.

Finally, the introduction of characters from the previous books in the series, such as Miriam, Gabe, Grace, Aaron and Lydia, flowed very nicely. Although many secondary characters were from the first books in the series, I loved the fact that the author didn't feel the need to give each character’s back story. This book can definitely stand alone.

Beautifully written characters, great lessons in God’s faithfulness and wonderfully appropriate quotes from the Psalms are the reasons why these characters will stay with you once the story ends, which makes this book a great read.

4 out of 5 stars

*I received a copy of this book from the publishers through The Christian Manifesto in exchange of an honest review.

Thursday, July 11, 2013

That Certain Summer, by Irene Hannon

Growing up with a near perfect sister and a mother who criticized her every move, Karen felt second class. She and her sister Val were complete opposites. While her sister was beautiful, thin, popular with the boys and talented, Karen was the brain, the studious one, bland, slightly overweight, and without a boyfriend. While Val stood up to their mother, firm and strong, Karen just wanted to please her, she dreaded her mother’s criticisms, and never knew how to confront her. As soon as Val could, she left town never to return again. Karen, however, took on the responsibility of taking care of their mother and never asked Val for help.

When their mother suffers a stroke, Karen, now divorced and raising a teenage daughter with her own set of problems, reaches out to Val for help. Now, Val must confront the secret she has been hiding, the reason she left and never looked back. And Karen must learn how to stand up for herself, how to be strong and have courage. The two sisters working together find common ground in which to build a new friendship and the closeness they both crave but never thought possible. And when an injured musician and a physical therapist enter the picture, new chances at love are given, secrets are revealed, and forgiveness, grace and redemption are extended.

After reading Irene Hannon’s Vanished, I had high expectations for That Certain Summer. And, although they are very different novels from very different genres, the author did not disappoint. Again, she gives us very good and likable three dimensional characters, intelligent, smart, willing to speak their minds and who act like mature adults. You will not see silly or childish misunderstandings or out of character choices. The author gives us true to life characters in familiar situations, which makes for a good reading experience.

The difficult family situation in which Karen and Val grew up, which has mold them and shape their outlook in life, is very common. Growing up with a mother who pit one sister against the other, who seemed to favor one over the other, naturally made them envy one another and grow apart. But as the story progresses it’s beautiful to see the two sisters grow closer, and find support in each other, not necessarily due their mother’s illness, but to the need each sister has for closeness, love, friendship and understanding.

Thanks to their new found friendship, we can see Karen grow stronger, feel sure and find strength in her faith and in the support of her sister. Val, on the other hand, does not benefit from it as much as her sister due to the secret she has been hiding since she was 17 years old. It was a little disappointing, not only because Val’s growth as a character comes towards the end, but also because the secret was too easy to figure out. Very, very early on, the reader knows it, but the author keeps treating it like a big, mysterious secret, which made its final reveal uneventful. The reader knows where the author is going, and how she will get there and it’s a bit of a letdown.

Of course, as most contemporary/romance fiction, some predictability is expected. We know where the romance is going, who each sister will fall in love with. But since it is such a nicely written book, we can enjoy the ride, watch them fall in love, and see them make the difficult decisions that will give them their happy ending. But going into the book with the expectation of it being somewhat predictable, I was hoping for the secret to keep me guessing and wondering.

The romance aspect of the novel is very sweet and endearing; all about the redeeming quality of love, how love can heal past hurts and give hope. However, I did not like the way Karen handled her falling in love after being divorced. One of the wonderful things we have in God is a second chance, but the author shies away from that until the story makes it completely safe to proceed. But it nevertheless had a nice, satisfying ending for both the romantic side of the story as well as the sisters’ relationship, which was in my opinion the story driving the book.

That Certain Summer is a nice story with a message of how forgiveness and God’s redeeming love and grace can heal us, strengthen us and help us move forward.

3.5 out of 5 stars

*I received a copy of this book from the publisher through The Christian Manifesto in exchange of an honest review.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

The House that Love Built, by Beth Wiseman

Brooke Holloway is a single mom of two who lost the love of her life. Her son, Spencer, doesn’t want her to date, while her daughter, Meghan, wishes to have a father. But since she runs the family owned hardware store, Brooke doesn’t have time to date and doesn’t have dating on her mind, until Owen Saunders moves to town. Curious about the house he has moved into, a house with a decades old mystery, Brooke befriends him expecting, as he does, nothing but a simple, grown up friendship. But God has other plans, so as their friendship and their connection grow, hope is met, and faith is found, and they have a new chance at love, a new life and a complete family.

I wasn’t expecting much when I started reading this book. A little romance, a little mystery, a little entertainment, but nothing much. The author, however, surprised me in a very big way. 'The House that Love Built' is a beautiful story of forgiveness, second chances, starting over and letting go. I laughed, I was intrigued, I smiled, and I cried… a lot.

The main characters are very well developed, mature, not prone to dumb misunderstandings or childish outbursts. Brooke and Owen’s friendship seemed a little too quick to develop, but not unrealistic given the fact that they are immediately attracted to each other and the friendship is their cover up, their denial in action. Brooke’s children are very much aware of this, especially Spencer, and his interactions with them, how suspicious he is, is very believable, funny and very endearing, since it is obvious that he is still very much affected by the death of his father.

Both children were beautifully written, as well as the rest of the secondary characters. Rich in details, with very defined personalities, each secondary character adds to the story, keeps the reader interested and finds his/her way into the reader’s heart. This is possible because author Beth Wiseman’s sensitivity in her writing, which is palpable in almost every page. You don’t just read about these characters, you feel them, you know their pain, you care for them. The author tells their story in a very touching and tender way that moves your heart.

However, although the book was going great, I had cried my eyes out, and was set to give it 5 stars, the last 40 pages or so were too melodramatic, with a few too many coincidences. What began as a great book ended with an intensification in drama (with the introduction of Virginia, Owen’s ex-wife) that was unnecessary and which lead to a couple of too good to be true resolutions.

The mystery that intrigues Brooke, as well as Owen, his Uncle, and particularly Spencer (and me) is interesting but sometimes it was too far back in the story, as if the characters themselves had forgotten about it. Its resolution, however, was nice but also too convenient.

I loved how the stories interlaced, how one character led to the introduction of the other, how the story flowed, and the sensibility with which the author writes. The characters’ stories of forgiveness and letting go drive deep into the heart and give a sense of hope that stays with the reader. Even with a somewhat disappointing last pages, the book’s sweet and touching storyline of love, family, and God’s strength in the midst of our problems is enough to leave the reader satisfied.

4 out of 5 stars

*I received a copy of this book from the publishers through The Christian Manifesto in exchange of an honest review.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Simply Delicious Amish Cooking, by Sherry Gore

A great collection of the best Amish recipes from Pinecraft, Florida (a village in the heart of Sarasota) put together by Sherry Gore. It has hundreds of easy and delicious recipes, complete with pictures. Also, alongside of the recipes, 'Simply Delicious' offers cooking and baking tips, and true stories about Amish life, weddings, birthdays, celebrations, and even accidents taken from the author’s column in the Amish newspaper, The Budget. Cook with author Sherry Gore and her friends from Pinecraft while sharing stories about love, life, family, friends, and God’s providence and faithfulness.

As I read 'Simply Delicious', I felt like I was cooking at home with my mother, my grandmother and my favorite aunt. You are not just cooking, and you are not doing it alone. You’re in your kitchen sharing recipes and stories; sharing tips and little nuggets of wisdom; learning how to cook and learning a little bit about history, and different places, and people. This is not just a cookbook; it’s a history lesson about the Amish and their community in Pinecraft. It’s also full of their humor, their wisdom and their sense of family and no-nonsense way of life.

But it is most definitely a book about cooking. Some of the recipes are those wonderfully made-from-scratch semi-decadent Amish dishes. Comfort food at its best, and very simple, like the Red-Skin Mashed Potatoes (mouth watering), Chicken Pie (sooo good), Parmesan Pan Bread (full of flavor), and Pizza Crust (…homemade pizza, enough said!), among many other recipes that are pretty common, but here they have an Amish twist. Other recipes are semi-homemade, like the Monkey Bread (which calls for refrigerated biscuits), and this was not what I expected, but, on the other hand, it shows how the book can be used by those who don’t have much time to prepare a full meal from scratch. It has alternatives, and that is a very good thing.

I also loved how the recipes were written: just like my mom would write a recipe for me. For example, when the Cooked Chocolate Pudding recipe (my family’s favorite dessert at the moment) says, “Pay attention, because this happens quickly.” A very candid way to write a recipe that made me smile while making it because it is not written dryly. Since these recipes are written by everyday homemakers or cooking enthusiasts, their wording is very familiar, very easy to understand and to follow. A few recipes, however, don’t include all of the measures (like the amount of cinnamon, butter and brown sugar for the Cinnamon Rolls’ filling), so you have to go with your taste.

The tips included are very useful. The tip on the substitutions for different types of flour was wonderful, as well as how to keep brown sugar soft (a big help for me). Also, the different tips on cooking seafood, among a few others, were very helpful, and made this cookbook a great addition to my kitchen for my everyday use.

Many recipes are written with a large family in mind, since Amish families are usually pretty big. So for a family of three, like mine, there was a lot left over, which meant that my father, my mother and my sister got to enjoy them also. And isn’t that exactly one of the purposes of Amish cooking and, therefore, this book? To share your meals, your stories, your lessons learned, and the goodness of God with your family and friends.

5 out of 5 stars

*I received a copy of this book from Zondervan through The Christian Manifesto in exchange of an honest review.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Beautiful Reflection

This past Saturday, I went to the store to buy new clothes. I grabbed a few dresses, a shirt and a pair of jeans and went into the fitting room to face the dreaded and unmerciful full length mirrors.

For the first time in a very, very, VERY long time, I saw the reflection of my body and thought it was just beautiful. I loved the curves, I loved the form, I loved its size and I loved its softness. Nothing was firm, or tight, or toned.

My stomach looked kind of full, round even and fluffy, but it bore a child safely and secure for 39 weeks, enduring each strong kick, each swift movement, almost four years ago; a beautiful healthy, happy boy.

My legs and thighs are bigger, rounder and flaccid with the ever presence of some cellulite and a few stretch marks, but they run after a child and with a child every day, whenever he wants to play, and they are the perfect size for when my son hugs them when he's scared. There, he feels secure.

My arms look and feel soft, with no perceivable muscle tone or structure; not at all sculptural. But they hold a child every day. They hug him tight never wanting to let go. They pick him up, they carry him and he trusts they will not let him fall down.

And it's all beautiful. It's all soft, round, fluffy and flaccid, but firm and strong enough to bear a boy, to run after and with a boy, to hold a boy, to play with a boy, to kiss his pain away, to take his hand and make him feel secure, to lift him up and help him reach new and wonderful heights, to tell him each day how much I love him... Most of all, my heart is strong enough to hear him say he loves me back.

So after a very long time, and maybe even for the first time in my life, I looked in the mirror and loved that reflection, and felt content, happy and moved. This is what God has graciously given me: innumerable blessings in the form of a child and because of him.

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Lizzie Searches for Love Trilogy, by Linda Byler

Lizzie Glick doesn’t know and doesn’t want any other life aside from the Amish. But that doesn’t stop her from questioning the Amish ways. She is quick tempered, hates cows and farming in general, and doing household chores. When her running around time starts, and none of the boys she likes like her back, she starts questioning the whole idea of love, the concept of marriage and having babies. She is not the typical quiet, reserved and submissive Amish girl. Her sisters, however, so mature for their age and wise, are the complete opposite. On the surface, Lizzie wishes to be more like them, but deep down, her mind is set. And when she learns of a young man’s feelings for her, she realizes that the heart has a mind of its own and sometimes it’s very hard to figure it out. Can she love someone more than she loves her freedom and independence? As Lizzie grows older, the decisions that should be easier to make become more complicated as she learns how to let go of her own will and trust God’s guidance and wisdom.

This nice trilogy gives us a great look into family relationships: how there’s always one sibling who thinks of herself/himself as the ugly duckling, how siblings always think that parents play favorites, and how, it doesn’t matter how much they love each other, there’s almost always some type of sibling rivalry. Lizzie thinks of herself as unappreciated, unloved and unlovable. She is never good enough, talented enough, pretty enough or thin like her sisters. She is very selfish; always thinking of herself and how things affect her. Now, granted, when the first book starts she is fourteen years old, and those are pretty common feelings among teenagers. But as the series progresses, the immature Lizzie grows rather too slowly. She sometimes seems to be improving, only to go back two steps, which is very frustrating. It is, though, certainly realistic as to how we grow and mature during our teenage years: with a series of irritating hits and misses. So the author did a great job of making us care for Lizzie as well as making us exasperated at Lizzie. Just like her parents, whom, to be honest, sometimes were fair, and other times seemed to be playing favorites, which makes the reader feel like whining alongside Lizzie every now and then.

Now, Lizzie’s selfishness does have a plus side: it compels her to question many things pertaining to God, faith, family, Bible doctrine, and Amish traditions and rules: things all of us tend to question and seldom appear written in books. Her doubts and concerns brought back many memories of my own teenage questions about my faith and God’s will for my life. I wish the adults around her would have been wiser in their answers, but she got to figure out a few things on her own while reading the Bible. I hoped that seeking the truth would have propelled her forward in her growth, but her growing process included a few irritating learning and unlearning instances. She would have a great realization, but then have an incredibly hard time putting it to practice, mostly when it came to Stephen, her love interest.

Stephen, a quiet and very reserved young man, is very sure of his feelings for Lizzie, and one can almost see the hurt in his eyes when Lizzie just doesn’t get that he’s trying to convey his love for her. Sadly, sometimes I couldn’t help but wonder what he saw in Lizzie, mostly because we don’t get to see much of their relationship as it develops, such as their first kiss, or their feelings on the wedding night. Lizzie is almost always full of doubts, very indecisive. She would be sure that she loved him now, and a paragraph later, she doubted it, again. A little later on, and she was back to loving him. No explanation, no reasoning, which left me wondering: why did they love each other? More so when she is pretty difficult to deal with, and Stephen, although giving the impression of being serious and mature, often comes across as selfish, too.

As the series starts, it has a nice 'Anne of Green Gables' feel to it, which was kind of a treat, with a very nice tone, narrative and interesting voices at first. It however, had too many back stories that dragged the story in the beginning, instead of maintaining a steady, well paced forward progress. It mostly felt as if there was no cohesive plot, just a series of accounts in a young girl’s life. The characters were very well written in terms of consistency:  seemly perfect sisters, with perfect relationships, were perfect until the end; firm and opinionated parents remained strong until the end; and Lizzie’s self-absorption and selfishness remained mostly intact, which was disappointing.

The 'Lizzie Searches for Love Trilogy' is a sometimes funny, tender and enjoyable story about a young girl, her transition to adulthood, her family life, her love life, and her struggles, with sweet moments of family and friends. Had it had a more likable female lead, it would have been a stronger, more satisfying story.

3 out of 5 stars

*I received a copy of this book through The Christian Manifesto in exchange of an honest review.

Tuesday, March 5, 2013

Good times in the kitchen

I've always loved baked goods: chocolate chips cookies, brownies (the fudgier the better!), double chocolate cookies, vanilla cookies (even better with a little bit of chocolate or Nutella on top), chicken potpie, baked chicken, baked potatoes, creamy scalloped potatoes, among many, many others. You will notice that chocolate is a BIG thing for me. Yes, it's my weakness...

Two finished Molten Cakes during a birthday celebration at Chili's with my chocolate loving family.
So it's no wonder I love to bake. My chocolate chip cookie recipe is simply the best. Of course, it's not actually mine. It's an old recipe from a very old book. But, nevertheless, they are delicious. And up until a few months ago (this last November to be exact) they were the only thing I could bake successfully. To everybody else, they were my specialty. But I knew better. There was absolutely nothing else that would turn out good.

However, my husband wanted badly a pumpkin pie for Thanksgiving, and my sister was dreaming of some pecan bars she ate once because a lady from our church made them. So I decided to give both a try. Now, the key, for me at least, to a great dish is a fool proof recipe. So I went to bettycrocker.com and got a classic pumpkin pie recipe and a pecan pumpkin pie recipe, and I followed those recipes down to the last dot. Since I do not like pumpkins, I had no idea how they would turn out, but judging from my husband's face, and my family's, it was good. I have had to make both pumpkin pies about 3 or 4 times.

But the pecan bars? Those were HUGE hits. Again, I don't like pecans, so I don't see what the big fuss is about, but everyone else? They absolutely love those bars. I have had to make them so many times I have lost count. So I thought I'ld share the recipe with you. I'm a hero in my family because of this dish. Go ahead, be a hero this weekend!

I love my time in the kitchen. Creaming butter and sugar by hand —hard, hard work—, seeing the ingredients interacting, watching closely for the change in consistencies, and oh my goodness the smells! And of course, getting to taste the finished product and knowing that it is good is so satisfying. Sometimes I'm at work and my hands feel the sudden need to mix, knead, roll... I can't wait to get home and try something new. We reap the benefits and the extra pounds, too. But it's worth it for sure.

Friday, March 1, 2013

Vanished, by Irene Hannon

Traveling home in a dark, rural road after taking a detour, Moira Harrison gets lost. With no lights, or houses or other people in sight, and with a raging thunderstorm compromising her vision, she is confused and worried. Moira reaches for her purse looking for her glasses and gets distracted when suddenly she sees a terrified person frantically waiving at her. She hits the brakes hard, looses control of the car, and hits the person. Soon after, crashes against a tree. When a man suddenly appears, and tells Moira he saw everything and that he will call 911, she is relieved and passes out. An hour later, she wakes up only to find that there's no police, no ambulance, no injured person, and no man. She calls 911, and when the police arrive and she tells her story, they believe she imagined everything due to a concussion and close the case. But Moira cannot forget those terrified eyes, and enlists the help of the only person who thinks she might be right, Cal Burke, an ex-police detective who now works as a private investigator. Together, along with his two partners, they will solve the mystery of the missing injured person and the disappearing man, trying to bring closure to the case and their unresolved hurts.

Right from the start, 'Vanished' draws you in with an intense suspense and mystery. The first few pages are enough to get you immerse in the drama. However, 'Vanished' is not a whodunit mystery. We know who the killer is from almost the beginning. The real mystery is in unraveling what really happened little by little, clue by clue, piece by piece in a very interesting, intelligent and engaging mystery puzzle. The author lets the reader in in every detail, discovery and suspicion, so we can take part in solving the mystery along with the characters.

Usually, mystery and suspense novels thrive in keeping the reader guessing, but to try to accomplish this, the authors tend to dumb down their main characters so much that it's frustrating and almost infuriating. Not here. Moira is an intelligent reporter, very much aware of everything around her and what she needs to do to somehow help the person she is sure she hit that fateful night. Cal, on the other hand, is even better. Nothing gets past him or his two partners. He's paying attention, knows what to do, and does whatever it takes to do it.

That said, the fact that the characters are smart, astute and keen observers does present a small problem. The suspense that captivates our attention and gets us interested at first is virtually gone during the rest of the story. So, although we do get to piece the mystery puzzle, it feels as if there is something missing. Aside from that first scary scene, there is not much more tension built, and, although it does not affect our interest in the story, it prevents the reader from the thrilling ups and downs of a good suspense/mystery. In the end, though, we get a small taste of suspense again when all bets are off and the killer is on the verge going crazy.

One thing that I loved was the psychological issue behind the killer's crimes and motives. It is a great statement on how parents' mistakes, and selfishness can be the undoing of a child, and how they can haunt a child all his or her life. Whatever parents do, say or ask of their children have an impact in their lives right until the end. Also, there is a nice complexity in the killer's thinking, what he thinks compassion is and the ways he expresses that through his crimes and his works. Furthermore, the way he interprets "signs" as coming from God is a mirror image of how much we misinterpret what happens around us.

The killer and his background story are very believable. The main characters are likable, and their stories are interesting and credible. Moria and Cal have both been hurt in very different ways, but they each decide to move forward. So as they solve the mystery, their hearts start mending, too. But in the end, it is Cal who has to finally learn how to let go and start over. A little painful to watch, but very heartfelt.

This is a very smart mystery, with a very cute romance in the middle and a nice closure (though not necessarily theologically correct) in the end.

4.5 out of 5 stars

*I received a copy of this book through The Christian Manifesto in exchange of an honest review.