Friday, October 25, 2013

Raspberries and Vinegar by Valerie Comer

Raspberries and Vinegar (A Farm Fresh Romance, #1)

Josephine Shaw: complex, yet singleminded. A tiny woman with big ideas and, some would say, a mouth to match. But what does she really know about sustainable living as it relates to the real world? After all, she and her two friends are new to farming.

Zachary Nemesek is back only until his dad recovers enough to work his own land again. When Zach discovers three helpless females have taken up residence at the old farm next door, he expects trouble. But a mouse invasion proves Jo has everything under control. Is there anything she can't handle? And surely there's something sweet beneath all that tart.


Josephine Shaw, a young nutritionist, and her two friends have embarked on their dream of setting up a sustainable lifestyle farm in a country town, but it will be a long process. The mouse plague in their temporary portable trailer home is just the start.

Jo is so passionate about treading lightly on the planet that she tends to do just the opposite with people, coming across as overbearing and pushy in her zeal to convince others to live as healthily and thoughtfully as she does.

Zach Nemesek is the next door neighbours' handsome son. He's a fully qualified vet anxious to secure himself a city job, yet he's helping his parents out with the running of their farm until his dad is back on his feet from a long illness. Zach appreciates the convenience of the occasional take-away meal and junk food.

I really liked the romance. Zach is a lovely fellow and I looked forward to the parts from his point of view. It might be easy to wonder whether he could find himself a more easygoing match than Jo, but he'd find it hard to discover somebody who would adore him as much as she does. She keeps trying to convince herself that she has no future with him, yet I almost wanted to start counting the number of times she sees him passing the time of day with other women, jumps to the wrong conclusion and storms off, devastated. Gotta love her.

Along with the lightheartedness and humour in this book are some tear-jerking moments of touching sadness. The ethical considerations the story raises are thought-provoking too.

I'd been looking forward to getting stuck into this book, as I enjoy novels with 'foody' themes. They add a good dimension. Although this one didn't end up with the huge town feast they were planning, I'm hoping it will take place in one of the sequels, which I expect will be about Claire and Sierra and their romances. I love Valerie Comer's warm, easy and humorous style of writing, so I'll grab those for sure.

Meanwhile, I'll definitely try the raspberry vinegar recipe.

4 stars

  Raspberries and Vinegar (A Farm Fresh Romance) available from Amazon

Tuesday, October 22, 2013

A Heart Deceived by Michelle Griep

A Heart Deceived
 MIRI BRAYDEN teeters on a razor’s edge between placating and enraging her brother, whom she depends upon for support. Yet if his anger is unleashed, so is his madness. Miri must keep his descent into lunacy a secret, or he’ll be committed to an asylum—and she’ll be sent to the poor house.

ETHAN GOODWIN’s been on the run all of his life—from family, from the law...from God. After a heart-changing encounter with the gritty Reverend John Newton, Ethan would like nothing more than to become a man of integrity—an impossible feat for an opium addict charged with murder. When Ethan Goodwin shows up on Miri’s doorstep, her balancing act falls to pieces.

Both Ethan and Miri are caught in a web of lies and deceit—fallacies that land Ethan in prison and Miri in the asylum with her brother. Only the truth will set them free.


It's around the turn of the nineteenth century and Miri Brayden is trying to prevent people from noticing that her brother, Roland, is steadily losing his grip on sanity. He would be committed to a lunatic asylum and she would be homeless. It's getting to be a hard act to keep up, especially since the local vicar has recently disappeared and Roland probably has something to do with it.

Her only unlikely ally seems to be Ethan Goodwin, the hopeless tramp and opium addict who turns up saying he was the best friend of her other brother, Will, now deceased.

This book plunges us into the most squalid parts of this era, and as some of the action takes places behind the doors of Newgate Prison and 'Sheltering Arms' Mental Asylum, that's a lot of in-your-face description. It really makes you shudder to have to consider the question of where sanity may blend into madness, and who has the right to make that decision on behalf of others.

It reminds me of a novel Thomas Hardy might have written, with a hopeful, Christian-based world view. One of the key positive characters is Reverend John Newton, who wrote 'Amazing Grace.'

There's quite a bit of black comedy woven into the story.

I was wondering whether Ethan might have got over his opium addiction too easily. Granted, he had a lot of other things on his mind, but from what I've heard about people going cold turkey, he didn't seem to have too rough a time. However, I'm not complaining at all! With everything else that happened in this story, I was quite happy not to have to wade through that on top.

It's presented as a romance and that's quite true. Romance lovers, you're getting a wonderfully tender and touching story between a man and a woman, but if you're a bit squeamish, I have to warn you, read it if you dare.

I received a copy from Net Galley and David C Cook in return for an honest review.

3.5 stars

  A Heart Deceived available from Amazon

Sunday, October 20, 2013

A Home for My Heart by Anne Mateer

A Home for My Heart

Sadie Sillsby works as the assistant to the matron at the Raystown Home for Orphan and Friendless Children and dreams of the day she’ll marry her beau, Blaine. But when the matron surprises everyone by announcing her own engagement, Sadie is suddenly next in line for the job. For a young woman who was once an orphan herself, a shot at such an esteemed position is a wish come true.
But the matron of the Home cannot be married. Is Sadie willing to give up her dreams of a life with Blaine and a family of her own? Is she prepared to forego daily involvement with the children as she manages the finances and logistics of the ministry? And when it’s revealed that the Home is spending a lot more money than it’s taking in, can Sadie turn things around before the place is forced to close forever?


As I loved the way Anne Mateer wrote her child characters in Wings of a Dream, I was looking forward to this new book, which is set in a home for destitute children, in the same time period, 1910.

Sadie Sillsby is a young woman happily working as assistant to the matron and looking forward to the time she can marry her sweetheart, Blaine Wellsmith. Hazel, the matron, announces her engagement and Sadie is offered the promotion. The matron is supposed to be a single woman, yet it seems unthinkable to turn down this prestigious offer.

It's cleverly written from Sadie's point of view in such a way that her glaring blind spots are clear to the reader but not to herself. She often behaves in reactive, defensive ways, even when she's floundering over her head. She tends to be too proud to ask for help and has her fair share of unteachable moments. As her personal history is revealed, we get to understand why. And her redeeming feature is her genuine affection for each child under their roof.

This blinkered outlook of hers even extends to other characters. Young Carter, for example, irritated me at first, because we were told he was an innocent, dear boy deep down, but only ever saw the defiant rebel. Finally, Sadie comes to see what she refused to admit all along. And boy, was she rough on poor old Blaine, even toward the very end when her eyes were opened. I think he and Miranda were my favourite characters.

One thing I love about this story is the way the orphanage staff got along together. It's a good object lesson about how much smoother things will run if the proper person is chosen for the job - any job. Lots of square pegs were trying to be forced into round holes. This was the case with Viola, Miranda, Sadie herself, everyone, in fact, except for Mrs Fore.

I appreciated the glimpse behind the scenes of running such a place. The financial pressure was ever-present and very real, as was Sadie's affection for each child and the way it tore her up to say goodbye.

The two main men were well done. Blaine was always the honest, dignified battler who had conquered a difficult past, but Earl Glazier was a complex enough character to save the story from becoming a predictable triangle, as he wasn't quite the shallow dandy you'd expect.

By the end, I applauded Sadie's finest moments. We see it's all about assessing our personal motivation, how much prestige and accolades may influence our decisions, whether or not stepping down may not be as honourable as rising up, and how somebody's calling may be nothing more than a huge strain for another person trying to fill the spot.

I received a copy from Net Galley and Bethany House in return for an honest review.

4 stars

  Home for My Heart, A available from Amazon

Saturday, October 19, 2013

Pilgrimage by Lynn Austin

Pilgrimage: My Journey to a Deeper Faith in the Land Where Jesus Walked

We all encounter times when our spirit feels dry, when doubt looms.

The opportunity to tour Israel came at a good time. For months, my life has been a mindless plodding through necessary routine, as monotonous as an all-night shift on an assembly line. Life gets that way sometimes, when nothing specific is wrong but the world around us seems drained of color. Even my weekly worship experiences and daily quiet times with God have felt as dry and stale as last year's crackers. I'm ashamed to confess the malaise I've felt. I have been given so much. Shouldn't a Christian's life be an abundant one, as exciting as Christmas morning, as joyful as Easter Sunday?With gripping honesty, Lynn Austin pens her struggles with spiritual dryness in a season of loss and unwanted change. Tracing her travels throughout Israel, Austin seamlessly weaves events and insights from the Word . . . and in doing so finds a renewed passion for prayer and encouragement for her spirit, now full of life and hope.


This is an excellent book about the author's recent visit to Israel.

Lynn Austin is one of my favourite fiction authors and this is her first non-fiction work. Facing pressure and sadness from the home front, she and her husband embarked on a tour of Israel. It's impossible to walk in the footsteps of Jesus and other heroes of faith without getting an attitude overhaul and fresh perspective. I knew I was in for a treat from the start, when they arrived at Ben Gurion Airport.

In the Desert of Zin, she developed a greater understanding for the children of Israel, who we're often so quick to denounce as thankless grumblers. As they explored the craggy caves where David hid from Saul, she got me thinking about waiting patiently for promises. Hiking up the steep road to Jerusalem, she realised how fit Jesus, his disciples and all the pilgrims must have been. She walked through King Hezekiah's ancient aqueduct, the desperate engineering feat which impressed everyone except God. At the seaport of Joppa, she thought about Jonah's and Peter's unique experiences there, and what they show us about making a complete turn-around in our lives. She witnessed a sudden violent storm over the Sea of Galilee, showing her firsthand how brave Peter's attempt at walking on water really was. This is just scratching the surface of all the places Lynn and her husband visited in the Holy Land.

The descriptions were vivid and beautiful. I'm glad Lynn Austin didn't keep her experiences and reflections to herself. This book is as much of a virtual tour of Israel as anything I've come across.

I received a copy of this book from Net Galley and Bethany House in return for an honest review.

4.5 stars

 Pilgrimage: My Journey to a Deeper Faith in the Land Where Jesus Walked available from Amazon

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

Inspiring Generosity by Barbara Bonner

Inspiring Generosity In a mere moment a story, quotation, poem, passing remark or mere gesture can be enough for generosity to move into our hearts and minds and become central to our lives. Inspiring Generosity is a rich offering of such moments.

The desire to act generously arrives like uninvited guest, unexpectedly, like a lightning bolt, in a mere moment. A gesture, a news story, a quotation in a book, a passing remark can change everything. For many, that moment is enough for generosity to move into their hearts and minds and become central to their lives.
Inspiring Generosity is an offering of such moments. Inspiring Generosity offers an invitation to savor a sampling of the very best inspirations on the subject of generosity. It includes fifteen contemporary stories of “generosity heroes” whose lives have been transformed by the power of generosity. Sprinkled throughout these stories are writings and quotes from Shakespeare, Hafiz, Emily Dickinson, George Eliot, Wendell Berry, Sharon Olds, A.R. Ammons, Naomi Shibab Nye, Donald Justice, Winston Churchill, Mother Teresa, Maya Angelou, Gandhi, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., John Steinbeck, James Joyce, Leo Tolstoy, Walt Whitman, Henry David Thoreau, Goethe, Seneca, Albert Schweitzer, and Anne Frank—to name only a few of more than a hundred collected here.
This book will help readers open their hearts to the power of their own innate generosity, their desire to make a difference in the world, to help make someone’s day a little brighter or their world a bit more secure. it will kindle a spark in readers’ hearts that moves them into the sunshine of a more generous life.
And if one life is more generous, we all prosper. That is one of generosity’s most wonderful qualities: It is utterly contagious.


Barbara Bonner has put together an easy-to-read anthology about generosity. It's full of poems and quotes from famous people such as Dr Seuss, Anne Frank, Shakespeare, Mother Teresa and many more. And there are fourteen stories, each featuring a person who decided to take the path of generosity in his or her own way.

They range from Sasha Dichter, who had a flash on his daily commute to work that he needed to stop saying no to people who asked him for help, and Mary Donnelly, who became a local legend in her district as she spent a lifetime as a healthcare worker, to the Salwen family, who radically gave away half their possessions. I think my favourite was the one about Samuel Stone, who was so careful to protect his identity as a philanthropist that nobody ever found out until 75 years after his death, when his grandson, Ted, was amazed to discover an old suitcase full of records and cancelled cheques.

It's not the sort of book that actually aims to equip us with specific methods of being generous, but one of those spirit-boosting little books for a low mood, which just might get our own imaginations ticking.

I was given an ARC copy from Net Galley in return for an honest review.

3 stars
  Inspiring Generosity available from Amazon

"Sisters of Lazarus: Beauty Unveiled" by Paula Parker

"Sisters of Lazarus: Beauty Unveiled" is about Mary and Martha and their struggles with issues of self-worth. The author often wondered why the sisters were at odds and the book opens with Mary tiptoeing into the house as she returns from market with a hand-mirror for herself instead of saffron for Martha. Beyond re-telling the Bible story, the book also shows that a woman's value to God does not lie in appearance or the value which we place on skills, accomplishments, possessions, or intellect.


This is an authentic tale by a lady who obviously loves Bible history and story telling. It's not the sort of book that keeps you riveted with twists and turns, as it's based on the familiar Bible stories featuring Lazarus and his two sisters, so therefore we know what to expect. For example, when we see the girls begging Jesus to come and heal their sick brother, we already know he's going to tarry until Lazarus is actually dead, so we don't have to stay glued to the pages. Writing this in the first paragraph isn't even a plot spoiler.

Having said that, there are a few nice little, surprising embellishments. Mary's wager with her friend, Leah, about finding a husband, and the history between Martha and her betrothed, Simon, was entirely made-up, as was their relationship to Nicodemus, but it's fun to imagine that it might have been this way.

The characters tend to be larger than life, and maybe a little overstated, which may also add a bit of fun to the story. For example, the trio's Uncle Joktan and his son, Abel, are typical pompous Pharisees. Judas might not have come across quite so sleazy in reality, but we're willing to go with it. The sisters themselves are presented like chalk and cheese. Mary is very beautiful, but a bit vain and coquettish, while Martha is plain and very domestic. For all we know, that first glimpse of them we have in the Bible may have been a particularly hectic, off-day for Martha, but this story has the girls at cross-purposes like that often. Still, that's exactly how it might have been for all we know.

I think the point is well made that, for all their apparent differences, the sisters are pretty much the same where it counts. Both are driven by low-self esteem and pride over what they see as their best assets.

Having Jesus as a character in a novel is a pretty bold move, when you think about it. In this story, it's interesting to see him from the point of view of people who start off not realising who he really is. I liked the way he came across. And it's great to see, first hand as it were, the wonderful impact his healings make on the loved-ones of those who were sick. That's one of the great things about writing stories as a novel. These are people like us, and not just ancient folk in the pages of scripture.

It's a book to convict in an amusing way, peppered with a bit of comedy. I liked it when Nicodemus and Lazarus were testing out the chairs which Lazarus bought on his merchant journeys, and they decided that being seated so high off the ground would take a bit of getting used to.

The way the household customs of women were woven within the story was also something I appreciated. For example, the baking of bread, with all its fiddliness and trickery. These household chores are made to sound like works of art, and it may good for us modern readers to see how our, "Let's get it out of the way" attitude may leave a bit to be desired. It's a very spicy, fragrant sort of story as we get the benefit of the exotic spices and fruit, such as cumin, saffron, dates, raisons and honey.

I received this book from Net Galley and Authentic Media in return for an honest review.

3 stars

  Sisters of Lazarus: Beauty Unveiled available from Amazon

Tuesday, October 8, 2013

Consider the Birds by Debbie Blue

Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to the Birds of the Bible

From biblical times to today, humans have found meaning and significance in the actions and symbolism of birds. We admire their mystery and manners, their strength and fragility, their beauty and their ugliness and perhaps compare these very characteristics to their own lives in the process. Though admired today, the birds of Scripture are largely unseen and underappreciated. From the well-known image of the dove to the birds that gorge on the flesh of the defeated beast in Revelation, birds play a dynamic part in Scripture. They bring bread to the prophets. They are food for the wanderers. As sacrifices, they are the currency of mercy. Highlighting 10 birds throughout Scripture, author Debbie Blue explores their significance in both familiar and unfamiliar biblical stories and illustrates how and why they have represented humanity across culture, Christian tradition, art, and contemporary psyche. With these (usually) minor characters at the forefront of human imaginations, poignant life lessons illuminate such qualities as desire and gratitude, power and vulnerability, insignificance and importance even as readers gain a better understanding that God s mysterious grace is sometimes most evident in His simplest of creatures.


It took me a little time to figure out whether or not I liked this unusual book, and I decided I like it a lot.

To begin with, the illustrations are lovely. Debbie Blue has believed for a long time that birds represent far more than what we see. Their amazing link to dinosaurs, being able to defy gravity and fly, and migrate for miles without reading maps and compasses is just the start. She's carefully examined a selection of birds in the light of history, mythology, science, symbolism and art and written a very enlightening book that often turns our preconceptions on their heads.

Did you know that the vulture, for example, may challenge western commercial culture's narrow definition of what is beautiful? Like me, you might have thought of them as repulsive opportunists with suitably creepy looks, yet we're challenged to see them as hovering mothers and purifying cleansers of the world. Similarly, ostriches give us lessons in self-discernment and grandiosity, while the common house sparrow may challenge us to think differently about common notions of personal significance. If God's eye is on the sparrow, why are ours always roaming around, searching for something with more prestige?

I found it quite moving to see that, despite their ancient ancestry, birds can be so vulnerable to thoughtless human activity. This in seen in the examples of pelicans, sparrows, eagles and vultures in the pages of this book. Only when they are driven to the verge of extinction in certain areas does it become evident what important ecological roles they serve.

I'd have to warn anyone who just wants a field guide about birds that this isn't what you're getting. It has just as much to say about humanity and the way we choose to live. In fact, sometimes I lost the thread, found myself deep in some philosophical observation and thought, 'How did I get here?' (For example, the chapter about quail ends up making us think about making hypocrites of our children by dictating how they ought to pray.) However, you can always trace it back to the birds. Just be prepared for lots of interesting segues you wouldn't normally expect.

Overall, even though I don't entirely agree with every point Debbie Blue makes, it's a fascinating book and I'll be reading it over again. In fact, I've ordered a copy for a family member who's a keen bird watcher and also interested in philosophy.

I received a copy of this book from Net Galley and Abingdon Press in return for an honest review.

4 stars

  Consider the Birds: A Provocative Guide to Birds of the Bible Available at Amazon

Monday, October 7, 2013

Return to Me by Lynn Austin

Return to Me (The Restoration Chronicles #1)

After years of watching his children and grandchildren wander from their faith, Iddo's prayers are answered: King Cyrus is allowing God's chosen people to return to Jerusalem. Jubilant, he joyfully prepares for their departure, only to learn that his family, grown comfortable in the pagan culture of Babylon, wants to remain.
Zechariah, Iddo's oldest grandson, feels torn between his grandfather's ancient beliefs and the comfort and success his father enjoys in Babylon. But he soon begins to hear the voice of God, encouraging him to return to the land given to his forefathers.
Bringing to life the biblical books of Ezra and Nehemiah, "Return to Me" tells the compelling story of Iddo and Zechariah, the women who love them, and the faithful followers who struggle to rebuild their lives in obedience to the God who beckons them home.


This story begins after the invasion of Babylon, when Persian King Cyrus decreed that the exiled Jews living there could return to Jerusalem and rebuild their holy temple. Lynn Austin's way of drawing us straight to the ancient middle east is wonderful. The story focuses on four main characters, and although their motivations and agendas are often at cross purposes with each other, it is so easy to understand each of them.

There is Iddo, the grandfather. He has horrendous memories of being forced to leave Babylon when he was a child, which still cause nightmares. Now that such a miraculous opportunity is available after all these years, he's going to grab it with both hands. Enjoying God's fellowship again means the world to him, to the point where he comes across as bossy and autocratic to those who don't share the enormity of his vision. He's easy to understand.

Dinah, the grandmother, was born in Babylon and is happy living there, with her extended family beneath her roof. How heartbreaking, to be drawn away from her grown children and beloved grandchildren in a time when there was no reliable postal service to keep in touch, and all to settle down in a pile of rubble in the desert. How easy to let a festering resentment of her husband take root, especially when homesickness and hostility from surrounding pagan nations gets hard to bear. Oh boy, can I understand her!

Yael, the headstrong young girl next door, has lost her mother. Swayed by a smooth-talking Babylonian sorceress, she believes that turning to the stars and studying astrology and the positions of celestial bodies will help her control the rest of her future. Nothing wrong with telling people's fortunes, is there? Her mother was open to sorcery anyway, and Yael is doing what she wants to do, refusing to bow to the whims of a God who would let her mother die. I admit, my patience with her wore thin at one crucial point of the story, and you'll know when you get there. How could she be so willfully stubborn and defiant, let alone not notice the lovely young guy who was devoted to her? I was on the point of shouting, "He's too good for you anyway," when I realised that my annoyance shows just what a well drawn character Yael is. And yes, in spite of everything, I could understand her.

Finally there's Zechariah, the grandson. At the start of the story he's a 12-year-old boy, the only family member willing to accompany his grandparents to Jerusalem, thinking his parents will be coming soon. As I kept reading, it dawned on me who his character is based on, and I grabbed my Bible to confirm it. Now, when I read the book of Zechariah, I'll think of the sensitive young man, Zaki, torn between what various members of his family wanted for him and protective of his wild best friend with her tomboyish ways. And I'll think of the humble young priest who had flashes of messages from God about the temple, but couldn't find them in the Torah whenever he went to check. What a great way of presenting his story, as we see him try to balance following the duty he was born into and making his own decisions.

Not only does this novel entertain but gets us thinking about God's provision, how getting to know him through his written word is so vital, and how easily we can get sidetracked from his plans by our own decisions and attitudes, which may even look as if they are based on expediency and common-sense.

I received a copy from NetGalley and Bethany House in return for an honest review.

5 stars
  Return to Me Available at Amazon

Tuesday, October 1, 2013

Happy Women Live Better by Valorie Burton

 Happy Women Live Better by Valorie Burton

Women have more education, more money, and more choices than ever before. Yet, research shows we are less happy than women 40 years ago. Today, we can "have it all." So why is happiness declining?

In Happy Women Live Better, bestselling author Valorie Burton unlocks the secret to your personal happiness. She reveals 13 happiness triggers-choices that can boost your joy right now, even in the midst of deadlines, children, marriage, dating, and squeezing in a workout or girls' night out. Through these happiness triggers, you will learn to

bounce back from stress and adversity faster. enjoy deeper satisfaction in your marriage and friendships. maximize career opportunities and increase your income. fight off depression, colds and other illnesses live longer!
Valorie talks about the cultural shifts and modern challenges that threaten women's happiness, such as increased stress from increased demands, earning more money than men, constant comparisons brought on by social media and reality television, and many more. Learn to navigate these issues and join thousands of women in a modern movement that empowers you to take control of your happiness.

Valorie Burton gets to the crux of why women aren't as happy as we could be. The book delves into the question of why women forty years ago scored statistically higher on measured happiness charts. The answer she puts forth, after interviewing ladies from all walks of life, is revealing and very touching. It's simply the feminist 'happy' myth that we can have it all.

She quotes statistics which show that feminine happiness has been declining since the early 1970s, which is about the last time in history it was socially acceptable to focus solely on either your family or career without experiencing guilt or shame from society. Most women, no matter what their life choices, gave similar responses to her questions. 'I feel I should be doing more... This isn't what I thought I was signing up for... I feel like I've missed something and put myself behind... Yet I'm exhausted'

It seems to me, reading this, that we're like frogs in a pot of water that gradually gets boiled. The changes in expectations about the role of women has increased our stress load without our conscious awareness. Although early feminists did our gender a favour by getting us out of one type of prison, the pendulum has swung too far in the opposite direction, making us prisoners again without even knowing it. Seeing my own experiences and attitudes written down made me a bit emotional. Family and career are two separate wells, and of course focusing intently on one must draw deeply from the other.

Having established this, Valorie outlines 13 simple happiness triggers, along with a questionnaire to determine which are our strongest and weakest. None of them are really new and some are simpler than others. For example, smiling, keeping a gratitude list, getting adequate rest and moving our bodies don't seem too profound, but reading her take on them was fun. I definitely appreciate her advice to set up simple little treats, to give us something to keep looking forward to.

I appreciate this book mostly for helping me recognise that a lot of unhappiness we suffer isn't our fault, and for giving us skills to deal with it.

I received this book as a free ARC from NetGalley.

3.5 stars
  Happy Women Live Better Available at Amazon