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

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


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


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

A Blast From the Past – Love Comes Softly

lovecomessoftly Book InformationLove Comes Softly

Author – Janette Oke

Publication Information – Bethany House (1979, $13.99 paperback, $8.72 digital)

Several posts back, I mentioned that I had been gifted with several boxes packed to the brim with Christian books read and loved by my grandmother and her sisters.  It’s a treasure trove of Christian reading that’s mostly from the 1980s/90s.

I wasn’t quite sure where to start with the stash of vintage books. And honestly, I’m still not sure how the ratio of long-lost treasures to cringeworthy reads will shake out.

I decided to start with a book that I read and reread as a young teen. It’s been a while since I last revisited Love Comes Softly and I wasn’t sure if it would stand up to my happy adolescent memories.

The good news?  It certainly does.  To someone who reads a lot of current inspirational fiction, this novel might seem a touch old-fashioned. However, I find it old-fashioned in a good, nostalgic way.  Oke has a way of carrying catchphrases and motifs through her story that make not just the story itself but the memory of how the book makes one feel linger in the mind. Continue reading

A Charming Family Story – Review of The Penderwicks

penderwicks Book InformationThe Penderwicks

Author – Jeanne Birdsall

Publication Information – Dell Yearling (2005, $7.99 paperback, $7.99 digital)

Reading Challenge Book? Yes. This is a children’s book.

Growing up, I loved family stories. The various sibling groups in Noel Streatfeild’s Shoe books, the All-of-a-Kind-Family stories, Little House books, you name it.  I think I always wished I had more siblings, and so I enjoyed living vicariously through the adventures of families in fiction.

The Penderwicks is a wonderful addition to these sorts of books. In something of a nod to Little Women, Birdsall writes of four sisters – Rosalind, Jane, Skye and Elizabeth (Batty). We learn in the book that their mother died of cancer soon after four-year-old Batty’s birth and as the story opens, their professor father has taken them to stay for the summer in a cottage on the grounds of a New England estate called Arundel. Continue reading

A Needed Reminder – Review of Onward

onward Book InformationOnward: Engaging the Culture Without Losing the Gospel

Author – Russell Moore

Publication Information – B&H Publishing (2015, $24.99 hardback, $6.29 digital)

Reading Challenge book? Yes. This is my “Book with the word ‘gospel’ in the title.”

“The culture of the kingdom is not a projection of our lives now onto eternity, but instead the reverse: a vision of a new creation that breaks us and prepares us for our inheritance by patterning us, now, after the life of creation’s heir: Jesus himself. With a kingdom vision, we realize that the priorities of this present world system are different from those of the age to come.”
– Russell Moore

Onward won Christianity Today’s Beautiful Orthodoxy Book of the Year for 2015, and upon reading it, I could understand why. The author is Southern Baptist and I am a reformed Presbyterian, so we may disagree on nonessentials, but when it comes to the priority of the gospel message, Moore nails it. His love of Christ and the Word shines through in every chapter of this book. Continue reading

Review of The Lifegiving Home

lifegivinghome Book InformationThe Lifegiving Home: Creating a Place of Belonging & Becoming

Authors – Sally Clarkson and Sarah Clarkson

Publication Information – Tyndale Momentum (February 2016, $15.99 print, $8.57 digital)

Reading Challenge Book? No.

“As I do all of this, I am aware of the Kingdom coming. As I order and hope, fill and form, the Holy Spirit is renewing one more corner of the world. Here, in my room, the fallen stuff of broken earth is being formed back into love, into home.

There’s no place like it.”

– Sarah Clarkson, The Lifegiving Home


It is no exaggeration to say that I have been longing to read this book since I first learned of its impending release. I stalked it on Netgalley to no avail, and finally pounced on release day.  Apparently, I wasn’t the only one waiting. Our local Lifeway sold out the day the book was released.

So, was it worth it?  Well, the short answer is yes.  This book is exactly the sort of resource for homemaking (home culture, really) that I have wanted for many years. There are many good books on there that touch on how to keep an orderly home, a clean home, a well-planned home where your kids won’t run feral, and so on. However, books on the real heart of a Christian home are few and far between. Continue reading

A Helpful Guide – Review of The Message of Isaiah

isaiah Book InformationThe Message of Isaiah: On Eagles’ Wings

Author – Barry G. Webb

Publication Information – IVP Academic (1997, $15.82 print only)

Reading Challenge book? Yes.  This is a commentary on a book of the Bible. For more information on the VT Reading Challenge, you can check here.

When I saw that reading a commentary was one of our tasks for the VT Reading Challenge, I immediately knew which book of the Bible I wanted to cover. The book of Isaiah contains so much meaty material and the prediction of Christ’s coming contained therein is only the tip of the iceberg. However, as I’ve read it on my own and studied it in church over the years, I have to admit that this is also one of the more confusing books of the Bible for me.

This may be because prophecy doesn’t read like a history. There is more symbolism, more foreshadowing of events to come rather than recitation of what has been.

At any rate, my pastor had recommended several commentary series to our church, one of them being InterVarsity Press’ The Bible Speaks Today. When I picked up Dr. Webb’s volume on Isaiah, I was not at all disappointed. I read this book side by side with my Bible, and the result not only helped me understand more, but also has enriched my spiritual life immensely. Continue reading

A Neglected Classic – Review of Uncle Tom’s Cabin

uncletom Book InformationUncle Tom’s Cabin

Author – Harriet Beecher Stowe

Publication Information – This novel has had many publishers since its initial release in 1852. For classics, I often buy Dover Thrift Editions – $5.00 paperback, $0.99 digital

Reading Challenge book? Yes. This is a classic novel.

Though I’ve encountered few people nowadays who have read Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this novel by Harriet Beecher Stowe was wildly popular at the time of its initial publication. Her fictional portrayal of slavery humanized the abolition debate and made a powerful emotional appeal. For that reason, many historians credit the novel with laying the groundwork for emancipation. Some have even credited the book with inflaming Northern sentiment in favor of civil war.

Growing up in the South, I always heard very mixed things about this book, but had not read the novel itself. Going into it, I knew that the book dealt with the slavery issue and I had been told that some of the enslaved characters are subjected to brutal treatment. Based on the descriptions, I had assumed that the book must center on escape from a plantation in the Deep South.

I could not have been more wrong in my assumptions. The book is actually set in Kentucky, and the slaveholder we meet initially is a far cry from the wealthy plantation class. Arthur Shelby, who appears to be a fairly modest Kentucky farmer, has fallen on hard times. As the book opens, he has decided to raise needed funds by selling two of his slaves. This prompts debate between him and his wife Emily – not because they have qualms about buying and selling human souls in general but because one of the slaves to be sold is the son of Emily’s maid and Mrs. Shelby had promised the maid that the Shelbys would keep her son.

What unfolds initially is a plot of great adventure as Emily’s maid Eliza escapes in a desperate attempt to save her son. Readers follow her dangerous path,and it’s almost impossible to read dispassionately as we see the dangers and deprivations she must endure. Continue reading

An Amazing Adventure in Faith – Review of My Brother’s Crown

Book InformationMy Brother’s Crown

Authors – Mindy Starns Clark and Leslie Gould

Publisher – Harvest House (October 2015, $14.99 paperback, $10.49 digital)

This is the review where I feel like I should start off with an apology. Harvest House very kindly lent me an ARC of this book, and I have been way too slow in posting my review. However, I am grateful for the loan because I enjoyed the book immensely, and I hope that you’ll read and enjoy it as well.

The book is something of a timeslip, featuring stories set in modern-day Virginia and 1680s France. The modern-day heroine, Renee Talbot, comes from a prominent Virginia family. At their latest reunion, a 17th century document that has been part of her family legacy is about to be unveiled. And as the family gathers, Renee finds herself on a search for truth that will take her not only far in distance, but in time.

I found the historical story even more captivating. In the 1680s, we follow Catherine Gillet, the daughter of a printing family, as her Huguenot community faces ever-increasing persecution in France. Though it is understood Catherine will soon marry, her life and that of her betrothed are deeply uncertain and even endangered.  Even from the early chapters of the story, I found myself concerned for Catherine and her family. As it becomes apparent that the family must flee France, I found myself on the edge of my seat reading through this book. Continue reading

From My Library: Home Comforts

homecomfortsBook InformationHome Comforts

Author – Cheryl Mendelson

Publisher – Scribner (2005 – $22.00 print, $16.00 digital)

This book is one that I go back to again and again, and I’ve given it as a wedding gift to more friends than I can count.  I’m not a born homemaking maven and I’m not one of those women who loves cleaning, but this book has been a valuable tool in helping me keep house.  More importantly, it has done much to help me make our house a home.

Home Comforts is not a book that I’d recommend reading from cover to cover all at once. It’s pretty much an encyclopedia of home keeping, and it’s the kind of thing that you will find yourself pulling off the shelf again and again whenever you forget something your mother taught you or simply come across some new conundrum.  Not sure how to remove stains?  Oh boy, will Mendelson teach you how to remove just about any stain!  That includes all the crazy messes that come with infants and toddlers.  We inherited a cream colored throw rug, and a tip from this book actually worked for getting strained beets out of it (don’t ask.) Continue reading