Tuesday, March 29, 2011

My Review of The Mountains Bow Down, by Sibella Giorello

I came late to this series when I read The Clouds Roll Away. Once I finished that book (my glowing review is here), I couldn't wait for another Raleigh Harmon story, so I was delighted to dive into the next book in the series.

About The Mountains Bow Down: Everything's going to work out. Time away always makes things better . . ..

That's what FBI Special Agent Raleigh Harmon believes as she boards a cruise to Alaska. A land of mountains and gems and minerals, The Last Frontier is a dream destination for this forensic geologist who's hoping to leave behind a hectic work schedule and an engagement drained of romance.

But when a passenger goes missing and winds up dead, Raleigh's vacation suddenly gets lost at sea. The ship's security chief tries to rule the death a suicide, but Raleigh's forensics background points to a much darker conclusion: Somewhere onboard, a ruthless murderer walks free.

Engulfed by one of her toughest cases yet, Raleigh requests assistance from the FBI and receives her nemesis-perpetual ladies man Special Agent Jack Stephanson. As the cruise ship sails through the Inside Passage, Raleigh has five days to solve a high-profile murder, provide consultation for a movie filming onboard, and figure out her increasingly complicated feelings for Jack-who might not be such a jerk after all.

My Review:

Once again, I was impressed by the quality of Sibella Giorello's writing. FBI-type stories are often action-packed, but written crisply and rather functionally. Giorello keeps things moving, but does so with insightful and evocative narrative.

Raleigh is a really remarkable and appealing character--one who is courageous, skilled at her job, and tough, but also completely feminine and sure of her faith. She is impossible not to like.

It's funny that my one criticism of the last book is somewhat answered in this one. Of The Clouds Roll Away, I wrote:

The one aspect of the book that didn't ring quite as true, for me, was Raleigh's romance with DeMott. Maybe this is one area where having read the first two books would have helped, but without knowing the history of the relationship, it seemed almost like an aside to me.

Apparently there was a reason for that. In this book, Raleigh is engaged to DeMott, but is seriously struggling with uncertainty about her feelings for him and her attraction to Jack.

I have to tell you, reading these two books has made me a serious Sibella Giorello fan. I would recommend them to anyone who loves a good, well-written, suspenseful tale--and I would point them out to anyone who questions whether Christian fiction boasts top-notch talent.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from LitFuse Publicity. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Monday, March 28, 2011

From the Archives: TitleTrakk.com--and my review of C. J. Darlington's "Thicker Than Blood"

This was originally posted on my other blog, Notes in the Key of Life,on January 21, 2010

"We want TitleTrakk.com to be...a website where people of all walks can discover the amazing options available to them in Christian entertainment today"--from the site's "About Us" page

I interview Titletrakk.com co-creator and author, C.J. Darlington

How do you get word about new releases from your favorite Christian authors and musicians? Would you be interested in an online one-stop shop, so to speak, where you could get all the information on the latest books, CDs and movies...along with reviews, interviews and contests in which you can actually win some of those products?

Then Titletrakk.com is definitely for you.

The brainchild of sisters C. J. Darlington and Tracy Darlington, Titletrakk.com is one of the most varied and comprehensive websites featuring current info on books, music and movies that fall into the Christian genre.

"Tracy and I were both free-lance writers, and we had different interests...Tracy's interest was mostly Christian music, and I was more interested in the books," C.J. Darlington told me in a recent phone interview.

"We kind of were wondering how we could put our interests together, and we thought, 'Let's do a website."

The site started in 2006 with book and music info, eventually branching out into movies.

Titletrakk.com is updated every week, and typically will feature a new author interview and music interview.

A strong interactive element keeps the site popping, with reader surveys and frequent contests in which site visitors can win books, CDs and movies.

C.J. Darlington's Thicker than Blood

Since I had C.J. on the phone, I took the opportunity to ask her about her first published book, Thicker Than Blood.

She says the book was birthed when she was a 15-year-old homeschooling student, so having it published after years of revisions and rejections was particularly rewarding and exciting.

In 2008, she submitted the manuscript to the Operation First Novel contest. C.J. writes on her website:

I submitted the manuscript to the contest, and in November I found out it was a finalist. On February 19th, 2009 I was amazed when Jerry B. Jenkins announced Thicker than Blood as the winner of that year’s contest. The winner received a contract with Tyndale House, and I couldn’t be more blessed with the way the Lord brought it all about. I almost gave up on this novel. I almost put it away in a drawer. Goes to show persistence is vital in writing.

My review?

Thicker Than Blood grabbed me immediately with its tale of two very different sisters.

May is about to lose her beloved ranch, but is struggling to keep it together with the help of tenacity and faith. Christy is estranged from her family, trapped in a violent relationship, and miserable.

Adding interest and suspense to the story is the fact that Christy and her abusive ex-boyfriend Vince are antique book dealers, and Vince is involved in shady dealings that threaten to bring Christy down.

The characters are real and engaging--I found myself pulling for black sheep Christy even when she was at her worst--and the faith element is strong and believable.

And as someone who has sisters that she loves very much, the family aspect of the book was relatable and appealing.

I heartily recommend Thicker than Blood.

Monday, March 21, 2011

My Review of A Trail of Ink, by Mel Starr

A charming medieval mystery

About the book: Some valuable books have been stolen from Master John Wyclif, the well known scholar and Bible translator. He calls upon his friend and former pupil, Hugh de Singleton, to investigate. Hugh's investigation leads him to Oxford where he again encounters Kate, the only woman who has tempted him to leave bachelor life behind, but Kate has another serious suitor. As Hugh's pursuit of Kate becomes more successful, mysterious accidents begin to occur. Are these accidents tied to the missing books, or to his pursuit of Kate?

One of the stolen books turns up alongside the drowned body of a poor Oxford scholar. Another accident? Hugh certainly doesn t think so, but it will take all of his surgeon s skills to prove.

My review: When I picked this up to read it, I had just finished reading a very different novel, and I was kind of still in that world. You know what I mean?

So I have to admit, I had a bit of difficulty getting into this novel. I think I was about forty pages into it before I really started to adjust to the gentle, courtly pace and the very dry wit.

But once I did, I was hooked. Hugh de Singleton is an extremely likable character, and as the book is written from his viewpoint, we get to know him very well.

In fact, it's nothing short of amazing how well the author, Mel Starr, is able to make Hugh's medieval world come to life. At times I felt I was actually watching a movie, so real were the scenes and characters.

According to his bio, Mel Starr is a retired history teacher who has studied medieval surgery and medieval English--facts that are obvious when you read this book. (Fortunately, there's a glossary to help the reader with some of the archaic words and phrases.) Truly, no one could have written this book without having extensive knowledge of the era.

Ultimately, I truly enjoyed this novel and I would definitely recommend it, especially to Anglophiles and lovers of history and mysteries.

A Trail of Ink isn't a thrill-a-minute suspense-fest that will keep you on the edge of your seat. But if you'd rather enjoy a pleasant journey to a long-ago era with a delightful hero as your guide, sit fully back in your armchair, a good cup of Earl Grey at your side, and enjoy this charming novel.


Kregel Publishers is graciously donating a $50 Amazon.com gift card for the Litfuse Blog Tour Contest! Woo-hoo (thanks Kregel!) All you have to do to enter is either tweet (see TWEET THIS below) or share the book on Facebook using this link: http://www.amazon.com/Trail-Ink-Chronicle-Singleton-Surgeon/dp/1854249746/ref=sprightly-20

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  • Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from LitFuse Publicity. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Thursday, March 17, 2011

My Review of a Wonderful Book about Ireland

Frank Delaney's Ireland: a must-read for everyone who loves all things Irish

I've been saying most of my life that I love Ireland, but the truth is, I've had only a rudimentary knowledge of that nation's history. Now, after having read Frank Delaney's Ireland, A Novel, I can say that I learned a great deal about Ireland's history while enjoying an absorbing fictional tale at the same time.

The story begins when a traveling Storyteller--perhaps the last of a long Irish tradition of "seanchais"-- comes to the home of 9-year-old Ronan O'Mara in 1951. As he weaves his tales of ancient Ireland, Ronan feels convinced that he and the Storyteller are somehow connected. When the Storyteller is evicted by Ronan's cold and distant mother, Ronan devotes the next several years of his life to trying to find him.

As we follow Ronan's life during the next few years--his successes and heartaches and the startling revelations he eventually faces--we are treated to more stories, as one reviewer says, "seamlesssly interwoven" into the novel. The stories reach Ronan in various ways--through radio, television, even letters from the Storyteller himself, never signed or with a return address.

I found myself thoroughly enjoying the stories even as Ronan's own story propelled me forward. Tales of St. Patrick, of Brendan the Navigator, Conor of Ulster, the legendary Finn MacCool,the Battle of the Boyne, all the way up to 1916 when the Easter Rising led by men like James Connolly and Michael Collins set the stage for the eventual formation of the Irish Republic.

If you have a yen for all things Irish, I definitely recommend this book. It's a rich, fanciful, imaginative retelling of Irish stories, as charming and appealing as the Irish themselves.

By the way, I kept thinking all along that this would make a wonderful movie. It would have to be sized down, of course, and all of the stories probably wouldn't be included. But I picture it along the lines of The Big Fish...a series of fanciful tales linked together by an ongoing contemporary story.

Gabriel Byrne

I can really picture Irish actor Gabriel Byrne, with a bit of age make-up, as the Storyteller. (They would have to get a younger actor to play the Storyteller as a young man.) And there would be choice roles for actors to play Ronan, his father, his aunt and his mother, and many characters in the tales. Hey, I have it all planned. Is anybody listening?

Have a happy St. Paddy's Day, everyone!

I'm participating in Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books:


Saturday, March 12, 2011

From the Archives: "When I Lay My Isaac Down"

My interview with Carol Kent

Unshakable faith in unthinkable circumstances

(Originally posted 9/07/05 on my other blog, Notes in the Key of Life)

"...even as I was pounding my fist into his chest saying 'Why, God?' I found myself unable to resist falling into His embrace."--Carol Kent

What do you do when the unthinkable happens? What do you do when your life is turned upside down? I'm sure these are some of the questions that victims of Hurricane Katrina are asking. I was recently able to interview Carol Kent, who knows something about such questions on an intimate level. Carol is the author of When I Lay My Isaac Down: Unshakable Faith in Unthinkable Circumstances. Following is a transcript of portions of our interview.

CINDY: Carol, your life was shaken by some terrible news one night a few years ago. Can you tell me about the phone call that ended up changing your life forever?

CAROL: Most definitely. It had been a wonderful, happy life up until that moment for my husband Gene and I. We raised an only child who was a total delight to have in our family; he had an optimistic attitude, a heart of compassion.

He came home from camp during his high school years and said, "Mom and Dad, I really want to do something that matters with my life, and I believe God wants me to serve in some form of military or political leadership, and I believe the best place that that I can get prepared to do that would be at the U.S. Naval Academy."

And he set his sights on getting into Annapolis, and he received an appointment and graduated in 1997,so we were looking forward to seeing our son thrive in his future, in his career, and with his dreams of serving the Lord effectively. And he met and married a delightful young woman who had been previously married with two little girls...she had been married at the age of 16 to a man ten years her senior, and there were many allegations of abuse.

And we knew that the biological father of Chelsea and Hannah, our new granddaughters, was seeking unsupervised visitation, and we knew this was causing some real stress in our son's life.

A phone call at 12:35 AM

But I had been out of state with my husband at a speaking engagement, and the phone rang after we were in a deep sleep after returning home on a Sunday evening. Gene picked up the receiver; I looked at the clock, it was 12:35 AM, and I saw a look of shock and horror come over my husband's face, and he pulled the receiver away, and he said, "Carol, Jason has just been arrested for the murder of his wife's first husband, and he's in the jail in Orlando, Florida."

And we knew at that moment everything about our future would change.

CINDY: I have two sons myself, and I can only imagine getting a call like that, and how your world was turned upside down in just a matter of minutes. Not only was this news lifechanging for your son, but for you, because you're the director of Speak Up Speaker Services, and you've been making your living as a speaker for quite some time. How did this affect that and, well, basically your whole life in the following months after you got this terrible news?

CAROL: Well, one of the things that we realized immediately was that this was so out of our control to fix or to do anything that would be the norm for us, which is to get the book on the easy ways to pull life back together.

I tried to get out of bed, and my legs wouldn't hold my weight. I had never been in shock before; I had waves of nausea coming over me. And at the same time, we realized that we needed to do something, like get an attorney and pay for an attorney of gigantic magnitude.

"We had no choice but to keep going"

Our livelihood was basically me speaking as a Christian public speaker all over the country and writing Christian books. And my husband had left his profession in the life insurance business after thirty years to go on the road with me and to run Speak Up Speaker Services, a Christian speakers bureau that we have through Speak Up Ministries. And so we had no choice but to keep going. Nor were we allowed legally to talk about what had happened from a public platfrom until after the trial was over.

And so, first, out of knowing that it was the way we made our living, I went to the next speaking engagement. And in my heart I wanted to curl up in the embryo position and just die, I was so sick for my son.

He went through a severe beating when he was attacked by ten inmates just days after he was arrested and placed in a maximum security portion of the jail. His two front teeth were broken off; his ear had a cut in it, he was kicked in the eye. And I remember the call that came from him, and after that 15-minute digitized call clicked off, I sat at my desk and I just wailed. I heard this guttural roar come out of the depths of my being, and I said,"God, I cannot do this journey. I cannot walk this path."

"God ministered to me through my own words"

And then the "Mama" part of me clicked in, and I realized our son needed us more than he ever had. And I went to that speaking engagement, and I stood up and began to speak what I know to be truth out of God's word, and it was as if God ministered to me through my own words, because I was reminded of the fact God was good, and he was trustworthy and that bad things happen to good people even good Christian people in the middle of a fallen world.

We think of this gigantic hurricane that, well, we just cannot believe the images on our TV screen, and we realize that in this world there will be trouble, there will be problems, but God is still God, and we are not.

CINDY: Can you tell me briefly about some of the principles that you've learned going through this experience that you are now being able to pass along to other people?

CAROL: Well, when I wrote the book I realized that Abraham was an incredible example of a parent who had to release control of his son to the God who loved his Isaac more than he did.

And I began to journal, and my husband did as well, as we learned that there is a hidden power in the middle of unthinkable circumstances. Because when you're a broken person all you can do is look up, and that's not a bad place to be in. We were flat-out needy, and we learned how to let go of let go of our own control in the middle of our unthinkable circumstances.

And we learned the power of relinquishment, realizing that we have to give to God everything about this situation,even if in this lifetime we can't figure out why God allowed these things to happen.

We learned the power of heartache, that God is very close to the broken hearted, and He loves those who are desperately needy, and even as I was pounding my fist into his chest saying "Why, God?" I found myself unable to resist falling into His embrace.

And then we learned the power of Christian community, as God's people came around us in the most miraculous ways, and they put together an e-mail update that we were able to have sent to hundreds of people all over the country, who began praying for Jason, our son, and for his wife and daughters, and for us. And these people supported us in tangible ways when we didn't have the ability to do it ourselves.

And we learned the power of faith in a dark hour; that sometimes there is no "ram in the thicket" that we can visibly see. But in the middle of it all, I realized that Abraham had history with his God, and I had history with my God, and I realized that due to the fact that I knew Him intimately after coming to Him at the age of five at my mother's knee, that I could trust an unknown future to a known God.

And finally, we learned the power of speaking up. That we could chose to never speak of this publicly, that we could chose to crawl in a hole and pretend it didn't happen, or that we could chose, following the trial to speak up honestly and authentically about what our journey had been, and hopefully give other people the opportunity of freeing themselves to speak about the bad things that happened to them and what they have learned in their faith journey.

CINDY: Carol, what you went through was very tragic...and I think that most of us that live this life are going to face, at one time or another, one of those earthshattering, life-turning-upside-down things happening, whether it be in their family life, or whether it be something like Hurricane Katrina or other natural disasters. What do you hope that people who read this book will come away with that could help them such situations?

CAROL: My prayer is that people will find the hope and will realize that the last chapter isn't written yet. Something more is coming, and because we are a family of faith, when we have a personal relationship with Jesus Christ, we know that even in this lifetime we don't know the answers to all of our "Why?" questions, that there is a better day coming.

And one of the ways that God taught this to me, just in living out my journey, is that once I began to speak publicly about our son's trial, and the aftermath of getting, what in prison vernacular is called a "toe-tag" sentence--our son, apart from our miracle, will never leave the Florida state penitentiary until he's dead on a slab with a tag on his toe--it's a hopeless sentence, and I've cried buckets over that--we still have a remarkable son in a very unlikely place. And we do not justify what he did, it was against the laws of God and man, but we know that he believed his legal resources for rescuing two little girls from what he believed to be an abusive father, is the "why" of all of this and what started to spiral him in a psychological downturn.

At the same time, we are now meeting people...I had a woman come up to the book table where I was signing books, and with a whisper she said, "My husband's been incarcerated for the last 18 years, and nobody knows he's getting out in a month."

I said, "Is he coming home to live with you?"

And she said, "Yes, we're going to try to make a go of it." Then she stood to her best posture, and she said with a confident look, "Today you've given me the courage to start telling my story. I'm going to quit hiding in false shame and false guilt and tell people what's happened.

And I want everybody to know, whether your Isaac has been abuse, or a financial reversal, or giving birth to a child with a disability, or or having a spouse betray you and leave you for somebody else, all of us have an Isaac experience. And as we seek help from godly people who can give us Biblical truth, we begin to be able to share with others what God has brought us through, and point them in the direction of renewed hope, fresh faith, and the belief that something more is coming.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

From the Archives: "The best new fantasy novel you've never heard of "

"Overstreet's writing is precise and beautiful,
and the story is masterfully told."
- Publisher's Weekly on Auralia's Colors

The powerful, lyrical Auralia's Colors, by Jeffrey Overstreet

Note: Since I first posted this on my main blog in November 2007, Jeffrey Overstreet has written more books in the Auralia Thread, and the fourth book, The Ale Boy's Feast, is set for release this month.

Although I count the Chronicles of Narnia among my favorite books, and I enjoyed the Lord of the Rings books--the truth is, as an adult, I've never been a huge fan of the fantasy genre. However, I've been proven wrong about this not once, but twice in recent months.

The first was in the instance of Sharon Hinck's fascinating The Restorer. More recently, I've been happily surprised by Jeffrey Overstreet's Auralia's Colors.

I was able to interview Jeffrey Overstreet today for my radio show, and I thoroughly enjoyed it. Even in conversation, Overstreet is a wordsmith, words flowing eloquently and effortlessly to articulate the thought he wants to get across.

The title of my post is actually from a review of Auralia's Colors, and the quote from Publisher's Weekly? My thoughts exactly.

The book hooked me immediately, and throughout the book I marveled at Overstreet's gift for weaving a story as compellingly as his heroine weaves her magical colors.

The story is about a land where colors have been outlawed. Everyone must dress in drab and neutral browns and grays. Into this world comes a strange child who was found abandoned as a baby. Auralia is one of the most interesting fictional characters I've come across in a while, and Overstreet imagines her world and his characters in complex, vivid detail.

Yes, there are spiritual parallels in Auralia's Colors, but they're not heavyhanded or cliched. Like the prince's mentor in this richly-imagined story, they simply draw the reader to truth and light.

After reading Auralia's Colors, you'll be pleased, as I am, that there are three more books coming in this series. You can find out more about Jeffrey Overstreet and his books here, and more about Auralia's Colors.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Saturday Review of Books: Audrey Niffenegger's Her Fearful Symmetry

Having enjoyed Audrey Niffenegger's The Time Traveler's Wife, I was happy to dive into her second novel, Her Fearful Symmetry.

The story opens in London with 44-year-old Elspeth Noblin dying of leukemia, leaving her 36-year-old lover, Robert, bereft.

Elspeth has left her flat and all her money to her 20-year-old twin nieces, who live in Chicago with their father and mother Edie, who happens to be Elspeth's twin. However, Elspeth and Edie have been estranged for years, for reasons not yet revealed.

The condition is that the twins, Julia and Valentina, have to live in the flat for at least a year before deciding either to sell it or stay.

A ghost story

What follows is a compelling and unusual ghost story. This is a facet of the book that I found both intriguing and bothersome.

Intriguing because, let's face it, a good ghost story is intriguing. Bothersome because of the way Niffenegger presents the afterlife.

As a Christian, I embrace the idea of a heaven where we are solid beings engaged in an ineffably joyful reality--not ethereal wraiths flitting from cloud to cloud strumming harps, and definitely not, as one character in the book puts it, "...lounging about the house for all eternity with nothing to do."

I won't give too much away on this point, but it's a major part of the story. However, this is fiction, and it's not trying to be real, so it wasn't bothersome enough to keep me from enjoying the book.

The cemetery

One of the most fascinating things about the book, to the point that it's almost a character in its own right, is Highgate Cemetery. Highgate is an actual Victorian cemetery in London where many famous people are buried.

Elspeth's lover, Robert, is independently wealthy, but spends his life pretty much obsessed with Highgate. The cemetery borders the mews where he and Elspeth lived (in separate apartments), and where the twins now live in Elspeth's flat.

Robert is a tour guide for the cemetery and is writing a voluminous thesis about it.

As part of her research for the book, Audrey Niffenegger herself worked as a tour guide for the cemetery. (It's been pointed out the the word in the title--symmetry--sounds just like cemetery if said with a British accent.)

The characters

One problem I had with the book was that I never fully liked the twins or the ghost--who, I'm sure you've guessed by now, is also a major character. I'm not sure why, but I couldn't bring myself to care very strongly about what happened to the twins.

The only character I really cared a great deal about was Robert. His sorrow, his shyness and finally his strength made him appealing.

The other flat-owners in the mews, Martin and Marijke, made for an interesting subplot. Martin is fighting paralyzing obsessive compulsive disorder to the point that it drives Marijke away, despite the fact that she never stopped loving him. Julia befriends Martin and finds a way to help him with his OCD.

In fact, one reviewer correctly pointed out that obsession is the running theme of the book. The twins are obsessed with each other; Robert is obsessed with the cemetery; the ghost is obsessed with wanting to be alive again.

The climax

I ended up guessing a major plot twist early on in the book. And along with my dislike of how the afterlife is presented, I had a hard time swallowing the event that drives everything to a climax. I just kept thinking, "No, no one would really want to do that."

But it's thanks to Audrey Niffenegger's writing talent that these criticisms become unimportant. Overall, I truly enjoyed the book, and I'll be thinking about it for quite some time.

I'm participating in Semicolon's Saturday Review of Books. Click on the icon for info!



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