Catching Up – Reading Challenge Mini Reviews, Part II

As you can see from my last entry, I am using my offline reading journal to catch up on some of what I’ve been reading in 2016. This time around, I’m closing out the year with mini reviews of all the other Challies Reading Challenge books I read.  And the 2017 Challies Challenge?  Why yes, I am definitely participating – but more on that next year. 😉

scared Book InformationScared: A Novel on the Edge of the World

Author – Tom Davis

Publication Information – David C. Cook (2010, $9.99 digital, $14.99 print)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes. This is a book about a current issue.

I realize that the “book about a current issue” prompt was probably meant to steer readers to a nonfiction book. However, two things led me to this novel instead. First of all, while reading my way through this challenge, I was trying to stick to books that I already had in my library since I have quite a backlog of books I need to read. And the second reason? Well, I had just finished reading and thinking my way through a work of theology and I really wanted to read a novel.

And what a novel it was. I have said in the past that I think there are ideas which can be brought home more vividly through fiction rather than nonfiction. That is exactly the case with Scared. This novel, which deals primarily with the AIDS crisis in Africa, not only teaches readers a lot about the issue at hand but also makes readers feel what this crisis does to our brothers and sisters overseas who must live with it.  Before reading this book, I knew factually that AIDS has ravaged – and continues to destroy – large chunks of the African continent. However, in this book, I found myself forced to face the specifics of this plague more closely and in such a way that one simply cannot comfortably ignore it or isolate oneself from it. Continue reading

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Catching Up – Some Reading Challenge Mini-Reviews

evangelism Book InformationEvangelism and the Sovereignty of God

Author – J. I. Packer

Publication Information – InterVarsity Press (2012 edition of 1961 original; $9.99 digital, $16.00 print)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes. This is a book recommended by my pastor.

One of the pastors at the church where I grew up makes no secret of his love for this book as well as for J.I. Packer’s Knowing God. Even though I’ve read Knowing God several times over and really found it life-changing, somehow I’d missed this book.

One of the attacks often leveled at reformed theology is that we must not believe in evangelism since God has chosen His elect. In this short book, Packer very powerfully makes the case that God’s absolute sovereignty is what should drive our passion to evangelize. This book contains one of the best discussions of the reasons for evangelism that I have ever read and it is deservedly a classic. I intend to read it again so that I can think about it more deeply and it’s one of those books that I think belongs in any library. Rating: 5 stars

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benfranklinBook InformationBenjamin Franklin: An American Life

Author – Walter Isaacson

Publication Information – Simon & Schuster (2004, $12.13 print)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes. This is a biography.

Clocking in at nearly 600 pages, this is an impressive doorstopper of a book. Fortunately, it’s also fascinating reading so it didn’t feel terribly long at all.

Most relatively well-educated people will have at least a vague sense of Benjamin Franklin and his importance in American history. However, this book really digs deeply not just into the person but also the time in which he lived.  The result is a vivid portrait that made me appreciate Franklin more, despite his infamous shortcomings.

Isaacson starts with Franklin’s early life, which was somewhat difficult to put it mildly. The picture that emerges is one of a bright boy who develops into a clever, determined young man whose humor and wit take him far. Though obviously very gifted, his pride and temper seemed to make him his own worst enemy at times.

In some ways, Franklin with his Poor Richard’s Almanac and famous maxims has been made to personify the American spirit of thrift, striving and innovation.  These are definitely present in the story of his life. However, Isaacson does a marvelous job of marshaling the primary sources to show him as human as well. The Franklin that emerges here is a more complex (and sometimes less likable) figure than the one we see in textbooks or even his own autobiography. A good biography of a flawed but important figure. Rating: 4.5 stars

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howardsendBook InformationHowards End

Author – E. M. Forster

Publication Information – Dover Thrift Editions (2010 reissue of 1910 publication, $0.99 digital, $4.50 print)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes. This is a book more than 100 years old.

My first introduction to E. M. Forster came through the lush Merchant and Ivory films that were popular when I was a child.  At the time, I think I was too young to really grasp some of the themes of the novels but I could enjoy the gorgeous cinematography.

Now, as an adult, I can better appreciate the complexity of Forster’s books.  This novel, originally published in 1910, illustrates the tensions between the more traditional segments of English society as represented by the Wilcox family who own Howards End and the more modern (and decidedly secular) patterns of the Schlegel family.  In this tale of a friendship and other interactions between members of the unorthodox Schlegel clan and the Wilcoxes, we see the tensions again and again.  For instance, Margaret Schlegel and Mrs. Wilcox become very close friends but the worldly and “modern” Margaret just cannot understand the importance family holds for Mrs. Wilcox.

In addition to the push and pull of emotions and tangled relations between Schlegel and Wilcox, a chance meeting between the Schlegels and a young working class man named Leonard Bast set in motion a series of events that eventually unfolds with tragic consequences.  The result is both an interesting if sometimes disquieting portrait of the early 20th century as well as a thoughtful consideration of the meaning of life. Written from what appears to be a decidedly non-Christian perspective(Forster was an athiest), I don’t agree with some of the places that Forster’s pondering takes him but this subtle, well-written book is worth reading and thinking through nevertheless. Rating: 4 stars

Making Theology More Accessible: Review of Visual Theology

visualtheologyBook InformationVisual Theology: Seeing and Understanding the Truth About God

Authors – Tim Challies, Josh Byers

Publication Information – Zondervan (April 2016, $17.99 print)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes – This is a book published in 2016.

I have been looking forward to this book for a long time. I’m a visual learner, and even though I have had plenty of exposure to sound teaching and reformed theology, I often feel like I have trouble organizing what I know. And like many Christians, I really want to deepen my understanding and grow closer to God.

In many ways, I found this book a helpful tool for doing that. I think that new Christians and those looking for an intro to theology would be the readers who would get the most out of this book, but it’s not a bad refresher on the basics for others as well.

The opening chapters on the gospel, Christian identity and relationships talk about how we as believers are called to grow closer to Christ. The book then shifts to discussion of understanding the work of Christ, becoming more Christ-like, and finally, practical chapters on what living for Christ looks like in areas such as vocation or stewardship.

Everything is explained in fairly basic terms, and while the language can be a tad dry at times, it’s quite clear and for that reason, I found the book helpful and informative. It’s the sort of book where I’d read a chapter and stop to digest it for a while rather than just plowing straight through.

Some of the graphics in the book are quite excellent in terms of aiding readers to reach a deeper understanding of their faith. For instance, there is one which shows all the many things that having an identity in Christ means in the lives of believers. And then there’s the flowchart that walks readers through the process of dying to a particular sin. That was phenomenal for me. Not only do we walk through a series of questions about our sin and how we want to end it, but the authors point out common pitfalls we face during that continuing period of sanctification as well as biblical means by which to combat them. It’s good stuff.

The main weakness of the book for me was its unevenness. For example, we have that wonderful graphic on dying to sin and that graphic comes as part of a generally strong chapter that discusses putting off our old sinful identities. However, that strong section of the book is preceded by a chapter on doctrine, one of the weakest and most unhelpful chapters in the book. I understand that Visual Theology is meant to be only an introduction to studying theology, but telling readers that they should really, really study doctrine but that the authors aren’t going to go into such complicated stuff in this intro book really doesn’t do much for me as a reader.

In addition, while I did enjoy the visual aids that are included with this book, I do wish there had been more of them. Even so, if you are in search of a gentle introduction to theology, this is one to try. I can also see it being useful for homeschooling with adolescent-age children to get them started on a serious study of theology. Rating: 4 stars

Making Our Own – Review of The Made-From-Scratch Life

madefromscratch Book informationThe Made-From-Scratch Life

Author – Melissa K. Norris

Publisher – Harvest House (February 2016, $12.99 digital, $12.99 print

First things first – unlike the author, I am definitely not a homesteader. While many of my relatives live out in the country, I was raised in town. I live in a more rural area now and love it, but still, I’m only on a couple acres. So I came into this book with some homemaking skills learned from family and from kind mentors, but you wouldn’t want me running your farm.

So, does this book speak to people like me? You bet it does. First of all, I really liked Norris’ style. This is not just a dry book of recipes and information; the author has put a lot of herself and her own experiences into her writing and that makes for a book that is not only informative but full of heart.

The book is divided into user-friendly categories, so it’s easy to find what you’re looking for. Some of it (such as the information on raising livestock) didn’t apply so much to me, but a beginning farmer or someone newly married into a farm family would likely find it helpful. I already make some of my own cleaners and I cook just about all of our meals from scratch, but Norris includes some helpful facts and plenty of great recipes to increase my repertoire. Continue reading

Looking for a Regency Read? Review of The Matchmaker’s Match

matchmaker Book Information – The Matchmaker’s Match

Author – Jessica Nelson

Publication Information – Love Inspired Historical (September 2015, $5.99 print, $4.99 digital)

Reading Challenge Book? No.

As I read it, I could tell that The Matchmaker’s Match would be a standout read. I’ve encountered some Christian romances that read very much like the worst of secular romances, complete with lust and unrealistic relationships, but with a thin veneer of religiosity. This book, however, is quite different.

The lead characters have a story that many readers will find achingly romantic, but there is also a strong focus on God and His leading in their lives. The hero, after all, once had a slightly roguish reputation that is only hinted at in the text. We learn fairly early on in the book that he spent time in America and during his travels, came to repent sincerely of his earlier ways and to become a Christian. Throughout the book, it’s a calling he takes seriously, seeking the Lord’s direction in many things, but most especially in his choice of bride.

Continue reading

Still Enjoying Life in Trinity: Review of The Midwife’s Choice

midwife2 Book InformationThe Midwife’s Choice

Author – Delia Parr

Publishing Information – Bethany House (December 2015, $14.99 print, $9.99 digital)

Reading Challenge Book? No.

This book is second in a series, and I will start by saying that readers will probably want to read The Midwife’s Tale before reading this book because events in this novel pick up right where the first left off. I’ve enjoyed both books, so reading them was no hardship.

Set in the small Pennsylvania town of Trinity, much of this book covers the adventures and personal growth of Martha Cade, a widowed midwife. Mrs. Cade is in her 40s, and her children are now grown, but throughout this book she finds that she still has a lot to learn about faith and about life. Her character growth and the situations she encounters as midwife all make for interesting reading. Continue reading

A Sweet Confection – Review of Your Heart’s Desire

yourheartsdesire Book InformationYour Heart’s Desire

Author – Melody Carlson

Publication Information – Center Street(2016, $9.99 digital, $13.99 print)

Reading Challenge Book? No.

Your Heart’s Desire is a sweet postwar story that opens just after Christmas in 1946. Caroline Marshall lost her husband early in the war, and now the young widow is leaving her home in Minnesota to move in with her sister in California.

Her hope is that she will be able to find a good job to support herself and her young son, and that she can also help her sister with her growing family.

Upon arrival in California, Caroline discovers a basement apartment in her sister’s home that is less than ideal. However, she is happy to see her sister and her sister’s husband seems like a good man.

As Caroline fixes up her meager apartment and sets about looking for work in the local chocolate factory, we learn a lot about her. We can see as she furnishes the apartment that she is frugal, but knows how to make the best of what she has. Caroline works hard, but places her family first in her considerations. She also comes across as being bright and optimistic. Best of all, the author conveys all of these traits simply by showing Caroline in action rather than by telling the reader outright.

Caroline quickly comes to the attention of a man she meets in town and later sees in church. As it turns out, he is also the head of the chocolate factory where she lands her first job as a secretary. Their romance starts off very slowly first as mutual respect that then deepens into friendship.  Caroline had not counted on ever marrying again, but Terrence Gordon just might offer her a second chance at love.

Carlson’s book is a short read, and a truly sweet little romance, just in time for Valentine’s day. In terms of inspirational content, I would say that it’s fairly light. It’s obvious from the book that both Caroline and Terrence are regular churchgoers who take their faith seriously. However, there is not deep exploration of that within the story, which makes sense for a short novel that is lighter in tone.

If you’re looking for a sweet romantic story, Your Heart’s Desire is an endearing one. I love reading about the WWII generation both in fiction and nonfiction, and this is an adorable story. Grade: 4 stars.

Warm Hearts and Open Homes – Review of A Life That Says Welcome

welcomelife Book Information A Life That Says Welcome: Simple Ways to Open Your Heart & Home to Others

Author – Karen Ehman

Publisher – Revell (2006, $16.00 paperback, $9.99 digital)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes! This is my book about Christian living. For more on the reading challenge, there’s a Goodreads group going here.

I tend to be a tad introverted by nature. I love  interacting with folks online (still wishing I could find a great online discussion group!), but I’m best with smaller groups in person. And maybe I’m a little bit of an anxious entertainer. I have a toddler, and my house reflects that. So, it’s hard to open my home without worrying about how it looks.

For that reason, I could relate to Ehman’s book. I really appreciated how she first grounded her ideas about hospitality in Scripture. She makes it clear that hospitality isn’t just a good idea, but something that we’re told to extend to others. And since we’re commanded to show hospitality to others, how do we go about it?

The word “welcome” gets used in this book, and that makes sense. Hospitality shouldn’t be about showing off how great we are, but more about making our guests feel comfortable and at home with us. For myself, I know that when I’m thinking about what will make guests feel cozy and well cared for, that takes away some of the anxiety. After all, extending hospitality isn’t about showing off what we have; it’s about sharing it. Continue reading

First Read of the Year: Review of For the Love

Book Information For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards

Author – Jen Hatmaker

Publisher – Thomas Nelson ($11.99 digital,  $22.99 hardcover (now on sale for $12.73 at Amazon)

Reading challenge book? Oh yes! This is “A Book That Has a Fruit of the Spirit in the Title.”

I’ll admit something. While I tend to read plenty of fiction, both old and hot off the presses, I do tend to shy away from trendy books when I’m choosing my nonfiction reads.

This one snuck in on me, though. Several of my friends enjoy Jen Hatmaker’s blog and I’ve read it myself every now and again. I don’t always agree with the views expressed, but I do find Hatmaker’s honesty and sense of humor very refreshing. When my book club decided to read this book as a “light read” for the end of the year, I picked it right up. The positive review by Tim Challies in WORLD magazine didn’t hurt either. Continue reading

Remember in Whom You Trust: Review of Unshaken: Real Faith in Our Faithful God

unshakenBook Information – Unshaken: Real Faith in Our Faithful God
Author – Crawford W. Loritts, Jr.

Publisher – Crossway Books (September 2015, $9.59 digital, $14.99 paperback)

Sometimes a book providentially crosses one’s path at just the right time. I had that experience with Unshaken by Crawford W. Loritts, Jr. I have thought a lot lately about how to deepen my walk with Christ, and events both within the world and within the larger church have shaken me up more than I’d like to admit. It’s easy to put on a happy face and say that we have faith in God, but it can be hard in those private moments when we wonder where in God’s plan all of these crazy events fit.

Big questions, these. And Loritts explains faith and theology in a way that takes big concepts and makes them approachable for those of us not called to a seminary education. Best of all, Loritts not only explains, he reminds and encourages readers over and over again with biblical truths and promises.

So often, when I have heard messages about faith, they have veered too close to that “name it and claim it” realm that promises if one only believes enough, then what you wish will come to pass. And if you find yourself persecuted or in hardship, then you must not be believing hard enough. This philosophy proclaims shame upon those who doubt. Continue reading