Wednesday, February 27, 2013

Red Lily

Red Lily by Nora Roberts

I downloaded the audiobook from the public library's OverDrive service.

My review:

This is the third and final book in the In the Garden trilogy. My reviews for the previous two books are here and here. As a continuation of the story, this book shares the characteristics of Blue Dahlia and Black Rose-- same setting (near Memphis), same cast of characters, same psychologically-unbalanced ghost. In this book we finally get to focus on Hayley and Harper, a romance that has been in the making since Hayley showed up pregnant at the Harper estate. I've been waiting for this story throughout the previous two installments.

There are some definite swoon-and-sigh-worthy moments. There are also plenty of conflicts between the love birds as they learn to navigate their new relationship. I like that, but in this case, there is one argument when Hayley ends up caving to Harper that just left a bad taste in my mouth for the rest of the book. Other readers might not have as much of a problem with it as I did, however.

The part of this book that really shines is the effort to learn what really happened to the Harper Bride, the resident ghost. In Red Lily, the investigation becomes both more urgent and more central to the story. Amelia is definitely a major player in this one, and I enjoyed finding out more of her story bit by bit. Red Lily answers questions and left me satisfied; it's the perfect final chapter to an enjoyable trilogy.

Stars: 4

Runability: 5

Monday, February 25, 2013

The Secret Gospel of Ireland

The Secret Gospel of Ireland by James Behan & Leo Behan

I received a digital review copy from Skywest Publishing via NetGalley.

My review:

The short description (or long subtitle) of this book is actually a far better indicator of what it is about than is the actual title. The smaller print reads "The untold story of how science and democracy descended from a remarkable form of Christianity that developed in ancient Ireland." While many of us have heard it said that the Irish monks "saved Western civilization," there is usually little elaboration on that statement. This book is that explanation.

The Secret Gospel of Ireland is a look at how the Roman Catholic Church as we know it today came to take the form that it has, as well as an explanation of how the major themes of Western philosophy came to fruition. While the book does emphasize the under-appreciated role of the Irish monasteries, most of the book traces the development of Christian theology and secular philosophy through Plato, St. Augustine, Aristotle, Thomas Aquinas, John Locke, and others. About three-quarters of the book actually has little to do directly with Ireland. The Behans argue convincingly, however, that we can thank the distinctly Irish strain of Christianity for the most important developments on the Continent during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.

The writing is excellent. It is easy to read and easy to follow; it flows very well and is written at a very accessible level. There are flashes of humor sprinkled throughout the text, and the Behans excel at humanizing historical figures and making them memorable to the reader. St. Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Martin Luther come to life in the pages and it is clear how each man's personality as well as his background and education came to influence the course of Western thought and history.

The Secret Gospel of Ireland is an enjoyable read for someone with an interest in Christian theology or the Dark Ages and Middle Ages. It would also be an excellent book for use in an introductory course in the history of Western civilization, religion, or philosophy at the late high school or perhaps even college freshman level. The Behans do present their own interpretation of events as fact, so it would be important to balance it out with the use of more objective texts. For an efficient and enjoyable overview that draws connections clearly down through the centuries, however, this book will be hard to beat.

Stars: 4

I thought that this book would be an appropriate read in the approach to St. Patrick's Day. While I felt a bit taken in at first to be getting a review of the history of Western philosophy, I did enjoy the book. I think that the authors and publisher may want to consider re-releasing it with a different title, one that does not give the impression that it is focused on monastic life in early-Middle-Ages Ireland.

Friday, February 22, 2013

Roses in Ecuador

Roses in Ecuador by Heather Huffman

I purchased the ebook from Barnes & Noble.

My review:

When Jane Russell's jaguar preserve is attacked, her gorgeous neighbor-- Devon, the owner of a fair-trade rose plantation and a reputation for being a playboy-- offers her and her colleagues a place to stay. As they try to discover who was behind the attack and why the preserve was targeted, Jane and Devon realize that they may be in over their heads in both the local conflict and their attraction to each other.

Like Huffman's other books, this one is Christian-lite. Themes of redemption, mercy, and second chances permeate the story, and there are a few explicit references to faith and Bible verses, but much less heavy-handed than you would find in typical inspirational fiction. The characters read as real, living people, which helps the reader to suspend disbelief as they fight bad guys and jump off of cliffs and whatnot. Huffman refers to her books as "romantic suspense," but I think of them as "romantic action/adventure." The relationship develops pretty quickly, but I find that to be the case in most romance novels.

The book is well-written. It has not had the benefit of the buffing and polishing of a major publishing house's professional editor, but it is absolutely readable. I recommend it for readers who are looking for an action-packed romance with a double-shot of optimism mixed in.

Stars: 4

I have been a big fan of Heather Huffman's since I got a freebie copy of her novel Throwaway (which I definitely recommend reading!). She donates a portion of every book's proceeds to the fight against human trafficking, an issue that makes an appearance in most of her books, as well.

When I first discovered her, the ebooks of her first few novels were actually free and she asked only that you consider making a donation to a charity that aided the victims of human trafficking. How can you not love that?! So I do have a hard time being objective and unbiased when it comes to her work.

Brutal honesty: Her books could benefit from the spit-and-polish of a really great editor. She's a talented writer and I do truly find the books enjoyable and readable as they are. I just think that a highly-skilled editor could give these books that nudge up into the big-time. But I really admire her for going the self/indie-pub route and maintaining more control over her works. It also keeps the costs down for her readers.

I can't think of too many publishing houses that would let her write the way she does; secular publishers would find her "too Christian," and Christian publishers would not like that her characters swear, drink, and sometimes have sex before marriage. I personally love that. I love a book that talks about God but acknowledges the way that most people really live. I don't think it's right to have sex outside of marriage, but I think it makes her books much better when her characters sometimes do. Real people, even real-life Christians, often do sleep with people they aren't married to, so having her characters follow suit just makes them more human and and more believable.

Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Anticipation! Upcoming book releases

There are a few upcoming releases that I'm looking forward to this spring!

A Shot of Sultry by Macy Beckett

Expected publication date: March 5th, 2013

After reading the first book in the Sultry Springs series, I can't wait to read the second one. Sultry with a Twist was fun and sexy. I'm looking forward to escaping Pennsylvania March with a Nookbook ticket to Texas.

When Love Calls by Lorna Seilstad

Expected publication: May 1st, 2013

I discovered Lorna Seilstad last summer, when I read a Nook freebie called Making Waves. I immediately bought the other two books in her Manawa Summers trilogy. I expect good things from this first book in her new Gregory Sisters series. Seilstad's books strike that elusive balance between strong Christian themes and making me want to puke, and I enjoy the Edwardian time period through her lens.


Dead Ever After by Charlaine Harris
Expected publication: May 7th, 2013
The last Sookie Stackhouse book?! Say it ain't so! I can't wait to get my paws on this one, even though the Sookie books jumped the shark a couple of installments ago. I still can't wait to see how it ends (and whether I'm right about which guy Sookie will end up with-- Team Sam!). 

Monday, February 18, 2013

After the Fog

After the Fog by Kathleen Shoop

I purchased the ebook from Barnes & Noble.

My Review:

After the Fog takes place in Donora, PA, in the fall of 1948. Donora is a steel and zinc mill town about 40 miles south of Pittsburgh, and things are booming until an unusual weather pattern traps the town in a thick smog of dangerous pollution. Rose, the community nurse, has her hands full trying to treat patients while her home life is unraveling.

Shoop captures the region well. Residents of southwestern PA will love the references to Isaly's and cinderblock basement showers, pierogies, and other area quirks. The regional speech patterns also come through wonderfully (I've always maintained that "yunz" is a better rendering of our second-person plural than "yinz"). At times, however, the setting felt oddly distant. The events of the book took place only 65 years ago and many residents of the area would still be able to recall the period very well, but it seems that Shoop did most of her research in archives rather than interviews. That removal comes through in the writing.

My main beef with this book was that, not only did I dislike all of the characters except Leo, Father Tom, and the dog, I didn't care what happened to any of them. As Rose's family disintegrates more with every page, her actions and those of everyone else left me indifferent to the outcome. The characters, especially Rose, seem more like psychology textbook cases than living, breathing people. Other than the smog, the events and how the characters deal with them are so familiar as to be cliche. The fog itself serves only as a backdrop for the action in Rose's family, but I ceased early on to care about Rose's family.

I would recommend this book only if you have a strong interest in regional history and culture.

Stars: 2

This was a selection of my book club. I'm interested to find out what the other ladies thought of this one. I had a hard time wanting to pick it up to read and found myself frittering away time on the internet that I would normally spend reading. If it hadn't been for the regional aspect and the fact that I'll be discussing this soon, I'm not sure I would even have finished it.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Beauty Queens

Beauty Queens by Libba Bray

I purchased the audiobook on CD secondhand from the Barnes & Noble marketplace.

My review:

A plane full of teenage beauty pageant contestants crashes on a tropical island and the 14 remaining girls have to figure out how to survive. From that summary, you'd think it would be like The Lord of the Flies meets Mean Girls, but that's not how stuff goes down. Beauty Queens reminded me a lot of The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, actually. It's social satire and a lot of it is laugh-out-loud funny.

It's also Hitchhiker's combined with a lot of PC girl-power stuff. I was a Girl Scout in the 1990s, so I've had a lifetime's quota of that already. I was also annoyed by the way Sarah Palin is ridiculed. Most of the other characters or entities were either mashups or stereotypes, which was fine. But one character is a blatant stand-in for Palin (especially as voiced in the audio recording), and that irritated me. It takes what is otherwise really smart, generalized social satire and makes it more of a personal attack than I cared for.

Most of the girls themselves are walking stereotypes who learn the expected, politically-correct lessons from their adventures. We get schooled on the "proper" approaches to: lesbianism, bisexuality, transgenderism, safe sex, sex ed, abstinence, race, disabilities, and breakups. The individual story arcs are predictable (well, with a couple of exceptions!), but the overall story line has some fun surprises and, like I said, the writing is smart and funny. So even with the didactic passages, it's a fun read/listen that should appeal to teen girls and grown women alike.

Stars: 3

Runability: 4

I am not a YA fangirl. I usually find myself rating YA titles a little lower than other readers do; I just tend to prefer books that were written for adults. But I did enjoy this book and the fact that it is about a bunch of teenage girls didn't grate on me. Even if you don't typically read much YA, consider giving this one a shot. It's light and fluffy and ridiculous, but there is depth.

Libba Bray reads the audio version and she is a fantastic voice actor. I highly recommend listening to this one as opposed to reading it if you have the option.

Monday, February 11, 2013

The Unthinkable

The Unthinkable: Who Survives When Disaster Strikes-- And Why by Amanda Ripley

I borrowed a hardcover copy from the public library.

My review:

I placed a hold on this book thinking that it would be sort of a worst-case scenario survival manual for getting out of terrorist attacks and active shooter situations and the like. That's not really what this book is. Instead of chapters like "How to Survive a Plane Crash," The Unthinkable has chapters like "Fear: The Body and Mind of a Hostage." It's much more akin to Brain Rules by John Medina than to the US Army Survival Manual (though I haven't read that one yet).

Amanda Ripley has covered many disasters as a journalist for Time magazine, and here she brings her investigative reporting skills to the science and psychology of the human response to crisis situations. She's a good writer, and the book manages to be entertaining and optimistic even while it describes truly horrific and tragic deaths-- most of which, as she discovered, never actually needed to happen. She investigates why a sensible New Orleans resident with sufficient resources to get to safety would refuse to evacuate before Katrina. Why do people get trampled to death by the crowd on a hajj? Why do so many people die trying to get out of crashed airplanes when simulation models consistently show that there should have been plenty of time?

Ripley posits that with just a little mental preparation, anyone can significantly boost their odds of surviving a disaster. The conclusion section actually does tie all of the lessons of the book together into some very concrete and yet broadly-applicable suggestions, so those reading the books in hopes of "do this and live" checklists won't be entirely disappointed. It is written for a popular audience by a journalist, so take some of her pat conclusions with a grain of salt, but overall, her arguments were compelling.

The Unthinkable was a book that kept me reading, kept me interested, and also gave me a little more optimism about keeping myself alive if it should ever come to that. I highly recommend it for anyone with a passing interest in the human brain who has ever thought about just how they'd respond under extreme pressure.

Stars: 4

Friday, February 8, 2013

Black Rose

Black Rose by Nora Roberts

I downloaded the audio book from the public library's OverDrive service.

My review:

I'll keep this brief, as Black Rose is the sequel to Blue Dahlia and is really almost a continuation of it. This installment of the In the Garden trilogy centers around Rosalind, the reigning Harper of Harper House and the founder/proprietor of In the Garden. 

I enjoyed this book and I'm looking forward to the third and final one in the trilogy (Red Lily; I'm on the waiting list). I give a slight edge to Blue Dahlia, but this one didn't disappoint.

Stars: 3.5

Runability: 5

Monday, February 4, 2013


Fever by Mary Beth Keane (expected publication date March 12, 2013)

I received a review copy from Simon & Schuster via NetGalley.

My review:

Fever is a fictionalized account of Mary Mallon, better known by the infamous handle of Typhoid Mary. Mary was an Irish immigrant in the early 20th century who had no symptoms of typhoid herself but who spread the disease through her work as a cook.

The main thread of Fever follows the historical account of the case, which by itself is riveting. Keane fills in the unknown details with plausible ones, and I liked how she integrated little-known facts about life at the time throughout her portrayal of turn-of-the-century New York. On the whole, the book is well-written and the characters are believable, if not always likeable.

The reason I am not rating this book more highly is because I found the pacing uneven. Wonderful  passages of description or of interaction between characters would be followed by paragraphs that jumped back in time or that apparently encompassed a year or more in the timeline of the main story. These leaps were not signaled well in the prose; I hope that the final published copy can at least use formatting to help compensate for that. Keane could have done a better job at easing the reader into the time-warps and at spreading the detail more evenly throughout the narrative.

Readers interested in the New York City of the time period, or those with an historical interest in the immigrant experience of the time period, will enjoy Fever. I think Keane shows promise as an author, but I will probably only read more of her work if the basic story line is compelling. I won't find her writing alone quite enough inducement to pick up a book.

Stars: 3

Sunday, February 3, 2013

A brief study in introversion

This post is going to be a little different. Rather than a full review of a single book, I'm going to suggest several books on a theme.

I am an introvert; when I take the "are you an introvert" tests, I invariably score as high in the "I" category as it is possible to do. This can present some challenges.

As a Christian of the Protestant persuasion, I can find my introversion especially difficult to square with the culture of my church family. These books have given me insight and encouragement.

Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World that Can't Stop Talking by Susan Cain

This book was published last year and has made quite a splash in readerly circles (not a huge surprise; introverts tend to be readers). This is a secular book and looks at introversion in education, business, family, and church circles. This is the book that I most highly recommend reading; any introvert will find much here to ponder, and any extrovert who explores it will learn a lot about the less-gregarious half of the population.

Stars: 5


Introverts in the Church: Finding our Place in an Extroverted Culture by Adam McHugh

McHugh is actually interviewed and featured in Cain's book; reading that book is how I learned about this one. McHugh is a Presbyterian pastor and shares many of his own struggles in that role. This book has struck a chord with many evangelical Christians, including me. The latter portion of the book focuses on introverts who are called to professional ministry, so it is not as directly relevant to the rest of us, but it is still worth reading.

I think this one should be required reading for any head pastor of a Protestant church. Especially the extroverted ones. I kind of wish I had the guts to mail a copy to my pastor.

Stars: 4

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

I read this book years ago. I saw it on a book cart at the library and picked it up because the cover called to me somehow. Kathleen Norris, poet and teacher, muses upon her year as an oblate at a Benedictine monastery. She meditates upon the various aspects of a monastic life, and I learned a lot and came to understand and appreciate a lot more. The most helpful part of this book to me, however, was to awaken me to how much liturgy speaks to me, even when it may not feel like it's doing anything. Liturgical reading and prayers have become foundational aspects of my personal devotional life as a result of having read this book, and it is the richer for them.

Unfortunately, this book has also opened my eyes to how lacking the typical evangelical church is in these contemplative forms of worship. It's an absence that I feel more keenly now that I've learned to look for it.

The book is not tightly-structured; Norris has a decidedly mystic bent, and this is a sketch, not a photograph. But it is beautiful.  

Stars: 4.5

The Quotidian Mysteries: Laundry, Liturgy, and Women's Work by Kathleen Norris

I picked up this slim volume over my Christmas break. I definitely encourage reading The Cloister Walk before this one to give greater context for the discussion here. I have been challenged by this little book to look for moments of "liturgy" in the repetitions of my workaday routine, a reminder that I definitely need.

Stars: 5