Tuesday, September 8, 2009

FEARLESS by Max Lucado

THE SUMMARY: According to Max Lucado, this book is about learning to live life without many of the fears that plague us—the dread of failure, rejection, calamity, and others. Although there are storms in this life, we need to always remember who is there in the storm with us—an unstirred Christ. The one statement Jesus made more than any other was, “Don’t be afraid.”

THE MESSAGE: Fear raises doubts about Jesus character and corrodes our confidence in God’s goodness. It’s our perceived loss of control. It deadens our recall of God’s miracles and we forget all the Lord has done for us. Living a fearless life is about learning to listen to the voice of God, not dread and worry. Rather, courage means focusing on God in the storms and not relying on our own strength.

THE PRESENTATION: Lucado addresses numerous fears, including, the fears of not mattering, disappointing God, and overwhelming challenges. At the beginning of each chapter, Lucado takes a verse in which Jesus tells us not to fear, not to be afraid, or to take courage. Each scripture addresses different situations, and Lucado uses these to speak against the universal fears many of us face.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Lucado’s writing is again simple and straight to the heart. Easy to understand yet profound in its message. While I didn’t relate to all of the fears that Lucado includes, there were a handful that pulled at my heart and seemed to speak straight to me. This is definitely a book I’ll keep on my shelf, and the next time I can’t fall asleep because of worry, fear, or dread, it’ll be a great resource to draw upon.

THE RECOMMENDATION: 4 out of 5

Sunday, July 5, 2009

LESS THAN DEAD by Tim Downs

THE SUMMARY: As construction crews begin work to build a large mall, they uncover a long-forgotten cemetery. Mysteries and secrets abound when it is soon discovered that two sets of human remains are buried above the caskets. Entomologist Nick Polchak is hired by the FBI to help determine if it is the work of a serial killer. Complicating the investigation is the fact that the land is owned by presidential candidate Senator John Henry Braden—who wants the entire situation handled delicately to keep from derailing his bid to become Commander in Chief. Nick is not known for wearing kid gloves, and he soon recruits the Witch of Endor to help in the investigation. The citizens in the nearby town of Endor consider Alena Savard a witch because she is known for talking with animals and roaming the woods in search of her missing father. The deeper Alena and Nick dig, the more they uncover long-held secrets—secrets that someone doesn’t want revealed, secrets that are worth killing for.

THE MESSAGE: 1) Lies and secrets will be discovered. 2) Who might be capable of murder? Everybody.

THE PRESENTATION: Of Tim Down’s four Bug Man novels, this book focuses less on the bugs that feed on decomposing bodies and more on the expertise of cadaver dogs—man’s best friends with the ability to sniff out the dead. Also of note, Tim Downs reintroduces FBI agent Nathan Donovan of Plague Maker fame.


FINAL THOUGHTS: Nick Polchak returns in the fourth installment of the Bug Man novels by Tim Downs. Downs again delivers a page-turner that is suspenseful from the start. With unique characters, laugh-out-loud moments, and unexpected twists, this mystery will not disappoint.

THE RECOMMENDATION: 4 out of 5

Sunday, June 28, 2009

GUN LAKE by Travis Thrasher


THE SUMMARY: Five inmates break out of Stagworth Prison and are on the run. After a few thefts and bodies are left in their wake, they trek to Gun Lake in Michigan to lay low. Also converging at Gun Lake are numerous broken souls—Norah, trying to flee from an abusive husband; Don, drowning his heartache with alcohol; Michelle trying to break down the walls with her rebellious teenage son, Jared. They and others desire to escape from past mistakes, but at the same time, fear there is no hope in the future. Slowly, all their lives intersect at Gun Lake and an explosive outcome follows.

THE MESSAGE: Many characters in this book are searching for hope—hope for the future and escape from the past. Some try to solve their problems with worldly wisdom while others discover the power of forgiveness offered in a relationship with Jesus Christ.

THE PRESENTATION: Travis Thrasher creates a slow-burning suspense novel, one that gradually turns up the heat until the climax reaches a boiling point. Written from the perspective of half a dozen characters, readers need to be prepared to follow multiple storylines until the tales begin to merge. Many of the characters have mysterious pasts that take a while to emerge, but that’s part of the fun—trying to discern how some of them are connected.

FINAL THOUGHTS: The characters truly struggled with determining what is the right action in a world that is not clear cut. Right actions are taken for the wrong reasons. Wrong actions are motivated by right thoughts. It reminded me of something one of my mentors once told me: “I don’t care what you’ve done wrong. I want to know what you’re going to do to make it right.” That is what this book is about. Determining the right and discovering hope.

THE RECOMMENDATION: 4 out of 5

Sunday, June 21, 2009

WHERE MERCY FLOWS by Karen Harter

THE SUMMARY: After 7 years of little contact with her family, prodigal daughter Samantha comes home to her family. Accompanying her is TJ, her young son, a medical condition that will cut her down in the prime of her life, and years of sin and rebellion. There is more separating Samantha from her family than missing years however, especially between her and her father, a man she calls The Judge. Not only does she feel unloved by her father, but she has a husband who left her the day TJ was born. Will Samantha find love, forgiveness, and mercy before it’s too late?

THE MESSAGE: This story presents many themes, including understanding the depths of a father’s love and the power of forgiveness, mercy, and sacrifice.

THE PRESENTATION: Karen Harter’s first book explores a prodigal daughter’s wandering and her search for a way home. Although a powerful message, some of the scenes felt like too forced to meet a determined conclusion. I didn’t fully connect with the characters or truly felt Samantha’s struggles. For instance, she viewed her father as a harsh, unbending man, but I had trouble seeing him in that light.

FINAL THOUGHTS: Karen Harter’s book won a Christy Award. Although good, I felt the book wrapped up too neatly and easily. I hoped the book would explore a few themes that were hinted at but the author went in a different direction. It’s a good story, but I never felt myself truly rooting for the characters.

THE RECOMMENDATION: 2.5 out of 5

Sunday, June 14, 2009

BLINDED by Travis Thrasher

THE SUMMARY: Michael flew to New York City in hopes of finalizing a business merger. Yet when the deal falls through, he finds himself sipping a Pinot Grigio wondering how everything fell apart. He’s frustrated, anxious, and depressed. And then a beautiful woman, Jasmine, catches his attention—and she seems to show a little interest in him. “Mind if I join you,” she asks. Michael thinks of his wife and two kids at home, but wonders what’s the harm? He’s not going to do anything. Yet as the next few hours pass and the night gets darker, Michael wonders how he ended up so far down a road he never intended, a night filled with rough men, guns, and sexual tension. A little compromise here and a little harmless rationalization there. Will Michael find his way back before it is too late? And does he want to?

THE MESSAGE: Don’t rationalize sin. Evil never jumps up and says, “Here I am—embrace me.” Rather, it says, “You deserve this,” or “Nobody will know, enjoy yourself,” or “You’re not really doing anything wrong.” Yet like the young man in Proverbs who walked down her street at dusk, it doesn’t take long before you’re led like a bull to the slaughter.

THE PRESENTATION: Travis Thrasher uses a unique method of storytelling—using the narrative form of the second person. Rather than using the traditional “I” or “he,” Thrasher uses “you.” Although a difficult way to write, Thrasher pulls it off, making it a more personal story for the reader than either of the other traditional ways.

FINAL THOUGHTS: This book shows the danger of lust and sin. As a man, it’s too easy to rationalize lust. Yet when the guilt is ignored, a few half-truths are told, and we don’t run away from the sin, what started as a temptation can quickly spiral into becoming a prisoner of that sin—and the ugly consequences that follow.

THE RECOMMENDATION: 4 out of 5

Saturday, June 13, 2009

FIRST THE DEAD by Tim Downs

THE SUMMARY: In book three of the “Bug Man” novels, Nick Polchak, a forensic entomologist (a North Carolina professor who studies the bugs that feed on dead bodies) reports for duty in New Orleans hours before Hurricane Katrina comes ashore. Originally volunteering as part of the Disaster Mortuary Operational Response Team, Nick is frustrated to learn that he’s assigned to rescue “the living” from roofs and attics rather than searching for the dead. “First the living” he’s ordered. However, Nick soon realizes that the dead have a lot to tell about the living because a killer is using the hurricane to cover up his murders. Only Nick and his coke-bottle glasses can see the value of the bugs—and the truth.

THE MESSAGE: Follow the truth wherever it may lead. Also, a father is a powerful role model in the life of a boy.

THE PRESENTATION: Nick is a quirky, loveable character fast with the sarcasim and short on friendship. Long ago he stopped viewing himself as human, finding that he relates more to the insects that he studies. Author Tim Downs shows the depth of his research in his writing, although a few times he loses the story in the details.

FINAL THOUGHTS: A fun, suspenseful story that makes for great summer reading. I enjoy the Bug Man novels, not so much for their underlying message but because they are captivating and easy reading that makes me laugh and keep turning the pages. Tim Downs knows how to write suspenseful, original stories, and his character Nick Polchak is one of the most memorable and unique heroes I've ever come across.

THE RECOMMENDATION: 3.5 out of 5

DOGWOOD by Chris Fabry

THE SUMMARY: This is the story of a small town’s pain that has lasted more than a decade, the tragic death of two young girls involved in a car accident. It’s the story of a young man sent to prison. It’s the story of a young woman struggling with a burden that is buried deeper than she knows. It’s the story of a brother haunted with guilt too heavy. It’s the story of an elderly woman who can see through past wounds and bring truth into the darkest of circumstances. It’s the story of sacrifice and love.

THE MESSAGE: The message of the book can’t be shared without giving away its secrets. But it’s about deep love, forgiveness, and facing the truth.

THE PRESENTATION: Each chapter is told from one of four different perspectives. It’s not hard to follow the character jumps, but the reader does need to be aware. Also, much of the story is shrouded in mystery, so it takes a little time to put some of the pieces together to follow what is happening. It’s a captivating read, and one that caught my imagination and wouldn’t let go.

FINAL THOUGHTS: I thought I’d figured out how the story would end. Some of it I got right, however, there were a few twists that took my breath away. It made me go back and reread a number of chapters, and I wonder how my perspective of the book would change now that I see the entire picture. It’s definitely one I feel I need to reread to fully appreciate. And I’ve found that my thoughts continue to return to the book and its message. Very powerful.

THE RECOMMENDATION: 4.5 out of 5

Saturday, May 9, 2009

HIGHER HOPE by Robert Whitlow

THE SUMMARY: Law clerk Tami Taylor only has a few summer months to make an impression on the firm's partners that she is worthy of becomming an associate. But it's not easy, and her firm Christian beliefs sometimes put more of a target on her back than she desires. When she begins working on a libel case against an all-too-honest and possibly prophetic preacher who won't bend when a developer tries to take church property, Tami learns if she has what it takes to truly live out her faith. In the meantime, she's dealing with two honorable suiters, her Quaker-like family who question life decisions she's making, and the illness of an elderly friend.

THE MESSAGE: Although there are many underlying messages one could take away from this book, one thread of truth explored the depths of faith. It's easy to say you follow Christ, but what does that really look like, especially when those around you see it as foolishness and odd. For Tami, she has to look in the mirror and decide if she is a Christian who is a law clerk, or a law clerk who is a Christian.

THE PRESENTATION: Robert Whitlow is known for his courtroom thrillers, so that's what I expected. Sure, the story revolved around the law, but it takes close to 150 pages before the case is up and running. More of the story is about Tami taking a man home to her family where he learns more about the family's "old-fashioned" lifestyle: courtship, no work on sunday, limited contact between a young man and woman, etc. I think I'd have enjoyed this Book #2 in the Tides of Truth series more if I understood that it was less of a court case and more of a story about a woman deciding what she believes--and how that meshes with her family's beliefs and her future as a law clerk.

THE QUOTE: “There's truth greater than your fears and worries. One of those truths is higher hope. It's hope that can't be destroyed by what happens on earth. Circumstances of life will challenge it, voices will deny it, but its walls can't be breached unless we open the gate.”

THE RECOMMENDATION: 3 out of 5

Monday, April 27, 2009

THE NOTICER by Andy Andrews

THE SUMMARY: Down on his luck and with little hope, 23-year-old Andy had a life full of frustrations and little else. He lives in a hole under a pier and “bathes” in hotel pools. But when a mysterious old man named Jones finds Andy close to tears, he gives the young man a gift that changes his life—the gift of perspective. He teaches Andy to look at his life through a different lens, thus opening the door to new opportunities. And as Andy comes to find out, Jones has given this gift to many others struggling in the community.

THE MESSAGE: Life is a matter of perspective. Change your perspective and you can change your approach, opportunities, lifestyle, even what others think of you. As Jones’ said, “A life filled with opportunities and encouragement finds more and more opportunities and encouragement.”

THE PRESENTATION: Although Andy Andrews makes good points in The Noticer, many of his narratives lacked originality and bordered clich├ęs. For example, to a married couple facing divorce, Jones talks about love being expressed in different dialects—a wink and nod to Gary Chapman’s “The Five Love Languages.” Individuals feel and express love in different ways, and understanding your spouse’s dialect can change your marriage. And to a man who is constantly worrying, Jones tells him to every morning write down things he is thankful for because the “seeds of depression cannot take root in a grateful heart.” Good advice but hardly original.
Overall, I think I was expecting more from Andy Andrews. His book is a good reminder of ways to look at life differently, and that by changing your perspective, you can change your circumstances. Unfortunately, this tale falls short of inspirational.

THE QUOTE: “You ate sardines and Vienna sausages in the sand. I dined on surf and turf with an ocean view. It’s all about perspective.”

THE RECOMMENDATION: 2 out of 5

Saturday, April 11, 2009

EMBRACE ME by Lisa Samson

THE SUMMARY: For a majority of this book, this story takes place years apart. One is the story of Valentine, aka Lizard Woman, who travels with a group of other freaks in a sideshow troup. A tragic event disfigured her face years before, and she struggles with past demons that won't allow her to move forward. Befriended by a tatooed, hippie, motercycle-ridin' monk, she struggles with redemption and forgiveness. The second tale is about a former high-profile preacher named Drew that now has a tendancy to extinguish his cigarettes on his skin to release his inner turmoil. Their lives eventually cross in a small North Carolina town, both discovering the meaning of true forgiveness and redemption.

THE MESSAGE: Although this story dealt heavily with learning to forgive and be forgiven, and the miracle of a redeemed and renewed life, I'm amazed at Lisa Samson's ability to help the reader see beyond the facade of the people we see every day into the pain of their hearts. And even though the characters in this book are far from normal--a limbless woman, stretch-man, simese twins, a mother who deserted her child, a father with too-high standards--it's a beautiful thing to see these individuals used in the Body of Christ, His church. Too often, our fiction heroes are perfect, but this story presents people who are learning to walk through their mistakes and failures.

THE PRESENTATION: The two stories take place approximately six years apart. Drew's tale is told in a letter he writes to a priest willing to listen. It's an interesting way of storytelling, and worked most of the time. The other first-person perspective comes from Valentine, and every chapter switches between the two storytellers. Where Quaker Summer sometimes fell into preaching, this story lets the characters' actions and thoughts do the talking. It's somewhat a slow start, but once you figure out where it's heading, hang on.

THE QUOTE: "It's never too late for redemption. The scars never run too deep, so deep that God is not there."

THE RECOMMENDATION: 4.5 out of 5

THE QUOTE:

Saturday, April 4, 2009

QUAKER SUMMER by Lisa Samson


THE SUMMARY: Heather Curridge is a woman who has it all by the world's standards--a doctor for a husband, a respectful son, a beautiful home, lots of money, and a tennis court ready to be installed. But all of this can't fill the void in her heart, a haunting from her former self. She's lost and in search of a life well lived. A life of purpose. And when she stumbles into the lives of three women, a nun and two Quakers, who have little in this life but lots to give, she wonders if she's found the answer. But it's not a quick or easy answer, for it involves forgiveness, drug dealers, doubt, sacrifice, and grief. And in the end, hope.

THE MESSAGE: Lisa Samson crafts a story that makes you take stock in your life. Are you imitating Jesus in your life, reaching past your selfish worldview to use your gifts to serve others? Or when you stand before the King, will you say, "I kept a clean house, I made sure my child was athletic, musical, artistic, and got good grades, I was present at all the important church activities, and I changed the oil in my car every three thousand miles because I was such a good steward of my blessings?"

THE PRESENTATION. Lisa Samson takes a raw look at pride and humility, selfishness and selflessness. Written from first person, Heather is a little scatterbrained and can easily lose her train of thought, but it's usually not too hard to follow. It made me realize that as we pull back layers of our humanity, the more we need God's grace and His covering.

THE QUOTE: "God wants us to care for the poor and the lonely and the sick, not just for their sake, but for ours. Because in this, we become like Him, growing a bigger heart than we ever thought possible. . . It's redemption time, and will you come to the well and drink deep? You'll get far more than you could ever give. Don't die in the desert of your Christian radio, Pottery Barn lives."

THE RECOMENDATION: 4 out of 5

Monday, March 30, 2009

THE GIFT OF PSALMS

The Gift of Psalms - Devotional Wisdom from 50 of the Best Loved Psalms is a wonderful collection of Biblical poetry and applicable wisdom. Each devotional contains a psalm and accompanying explanation by Lori Jones. Jones also concludes each section with a heart-felt prayer.

Also included are three CDs with 30 of the psalms and devotionals narrated by famous actors, including the voices of Gary Sinise, Richard Dreyfuss, Jason Alexander, and Sean Astin.

This devotional set is designed as a simple daily devotional that aims to help the reader discover new insight into these beloved Psalms. Although it will not take the place of a deep quiet time, it does provide spiritual truth.

Especially for Christians who have read many of these Psalms time and time again, a different perspective can provide a breath of fresh air. Also, hearing the Word instead of reading the familiar passages can emphasize truth often overlooked. The CDs offer commuters the ability to spend time in the Word during travel and families a devotional to listen to after dinner.

Although there are numerous audio Bibles and collections available, The Gift of Psalms offers a nice collection for those who are looking for greater insight into how David’s poetry is applicable today.

Monday, March 23, 2009

HAVAH by Tosca Lee

The SUMMARY: This is the story of Eve--Havah in Hebrew--like you've never imagined before. From the opening of her eyes, to the joy and oneness in the Garden, to the first sin and exile, to life in the wilderness, to populating the earth, Tosca Lee breaths life into this well-worn story.

THE MESSAGE: There is more to the story of Adam and Eve than I ever thought. The days before there were words for grief, regret, sorrow, safe, and unsafe. The days of living in a land created by His passionate hand, a land of beauty and oneness. The days of suddenly being unable to discern Adam's thoughts, unable to stop obeying the flesh, experience vile emotions never born before, a feeling of being ruined in body, mind and spirit. And ultimately, knowing that the Lord is still near, still loves, and one day will bring his children back to Eden.

THE PRESENTATION: Tosca Lee presents a wonderful tale that made me long for Eden, almost hurt to be in God's presence as before the Fall. It's made me rethink my ideas of Heaven, and I can only explain it as a longing for a closeness with God. However, sometimes Tosca's writing is vague and difficult to follow, but she paints beautiful pictures and can giftedly capture emotion.

THE QUOTE: "The One was always with me, murmuring through the trees and whispering atop the grasses. I saw his face in the majestic Mount, heard his sighs rumbling from the heavens--saw his thumbprint in the tinest mustard seed."

3.5 out of 5

Friday, January 30, 2009

THE SUMMER THE WIND WHISPERED MY NAME by Don Locke

THE SUMMARY: Davy's world revolves around the joys of growing up in his neighborhood--an early morning paper route, street baseball, tree house meetings, homemade fireworks, and quirky neighbors. He emulates his father, and longs to be like him. Yet when a new family moves into the neighborhood, it causes a rift in Davy's family, and eventually, the entire neighborhood, dividing families, dividing neighbors. Davy suddenly doesn't recognize his father and wrestles with defending his father's actions and honestly looking at his dad's flaws.

THE MESSAGE: This is more than a story about racial prejudices in the 1960s. It's the story of a young man who suddenly realizes his father isn't perfect and begins to question many of his foundational beliefs. He longs for his father to be the dad of his dreams and wrestles with finding a balance between doing what is right and also honoring his father. And although Davy comes face to face with the ugly discrimination against a black family, he soon recognizes the many ways his neighbors judge all fringe members of society.

THE PRESENTATION: Author Don Locke writes from Davy's perspective. Thus, all adults are addressed as Mr. or Mrs., the joys of life are Good Humor trucks and Roy Rogers belt buckles, and the best way to seal a promise is with boogers. Most of the time Locke refrains from making Davy sound like an adult, although there are a few times Davy sounds older and wiser than his age. This is Locke's second book about Davy, although this one is a prequel to The Reluctant Journey of David Connors. It probably helps to read that book first as there are scenes in The Summer the Wind Whispered my Name that set up The Reluctant Journey.

THE QUOTE: "Maybe there was no real normal. And maybe that was a good thing. I wondered if maybe that's what God had in mind all along."

THE RECOMMENDATION: 3 out of 5

Thursday, January 22, 2009

THE HEAVENLY MAN by Brother Yun

THE SUMMARY: Written by Brother Yun with Paul Hattaway, The Heavenly Man follows the life, struggles, persecution, dedication, and faith of Brother Yun, a Chinese house church leader. Turning his life over to Christ at 16, Brother Yun recounts his joys and hardships as he shared the Good News to a spiritually hungry culture from 1974 to 2001. Brother Yun is a man totally committed to following Christ at all costs. In and out of prison for years, Brother Yun endured beatings, electrocution, torture, crushed legs, and worms under his skin. Yet in the midst of his persecution, he didn't waiver in his faithfulness. He tells of singing praise songs while beating a drum with handcuffs; giving away his food to other prisoners; memorizing entire books of the Bible while behind bars; and turning cells into worship centers.

THE MESSAGE: Brother Yun encourages his readers to remember that God is faithful. If we obey God's leading in all situations, miracles will happen, regardless of the circumstances or the battles we face. He also calls out western churches to wake up from complacency, walk in the fire of the Holy Spirit, and to commit to taking the Gospel to unreached nations.

Brother Yun also does not shy away from sharing the sad consequences his family faced because of his faith and resulting persecution. His family lacked food, were dressed in rags, and battled resentment because of Brother Yun's commitment to God first and family second. His persecutors also forced Brother Yun's wife, Deling, to have a surgery preventing her from having more children because she violated the One-Child Law.

Brother Yun embraces his persecution and trials as friends, feeling that it is an honor to receive such attention for Christ's sake. And it is when his life looks the darkest that he experiences God's presence, love, and grace, the greatest.

THE PRESENTATION: Brother Yun's accounts are often mirrors of other familiar biblical heroes: Hearing God's voice like young Samuel, walking out of prison like Peter, and singing with prisoners like Paul. His frequent use of scripture breathes new life into familiar scriptures. He isn't afraid of detailing his shortcomings, from wrestling with a proud heart to disobeying the Lord's voice. However, his writing style feels wooden and unnatural at times, slowing down the pace.

THE QUOTE: "I have learned that when the Lord tells us to do something there is no time for discussion or rationale, regardless of the situation we face. When we are sure God has told us to act, as I was on this occasion, blind obedience is called for. Not to obey God implies that we are wiser than him, and that we know better how to run our lives than he does."

THE RECOMMENDATION: 4.5 out of 5