Saturday, June 30, 2018

"A Flame in the Dark" by Sarah Baughman

This is one of the best books I've read so far this year.  Actually, it's one of the best books I've EVER read.  It's filled with such rich character development and meaty discussions of how God's words apply to our lives.  I talk a lot about how important characters are to me when it comes to enjoying a book or coming to love it -- these characters were so real and wonderful, I actually worried about what was happening to them whenever I wasn't actively reading the book.  That's some powerful writing, folks.

I also loved how Martin Luther was portrayed: kind, humorous, compassionate, stubborn, hasty, and wholly dedicated to understanding the Word of God and illuminating it for others.  Not a saint, but not a satyr either (do yourself a favor and don't read Luther and Katherina by Jody Hedlund. EVER).  He's shown to be an intelligent, determined, Christ-focused man, both human and humane.  

The main character, Heinrich Ritter, is studying law at the University of Wittenberg.  When he can, he attends Dr. Luther's theology lectures.  Heinrich boards with a middle-class family, the Diefenbachs, who live just outside town.  He's romantically interested in their oldest daughter, Marlein, but hesitates to make his interest known to her because she spends all her time caring for her family.  Her father is a busy candlemaker, kind but often distracted.  Her mother suffers from crippling depression centered around mutliple miscarriages, among other things, and rarely leaves her room.  That leaves Marlein to run the household and cares for the children.  

Into this hectic world bursts Brigita, Heinrich's younger sister who's running from her past and carrying a secret.  Through caring for his sister and trying to ease Marlein's load, Heinrich comes to undersand that God's plans are not always our plans, and that sometimes the best way to help someone is just to ask, "What can I do?" instead of trying to solve their problems for them.  He seeks guidance from Dr. Luther several times, trying to understand what his role is as a brother, a possible suitor, and a friend, and I think the thing I loved best about this book (aside from the characters) was how it looked at vocations and burdens from so many angles.

Plus, it's beautifully written, paying wonderful attention to historical details.  I don't know what Baughman intends to write next, but I do know I already want to read whatever it is.

Particularly Good Bits:

"This is where we see, without exception, the heart of the Christian faith: love.  God's love for His people, and His people's love for one another, and for the world.  We are to bear one another's burdens, to stir one another up to love and good works.  That is to say, we are to admonish, encourage, help, and be patient, in love.  Because He has loved us with so great a love, poured His mercy and grace on us in the life, works, suffering, death, and resurrection of His Son, the Christ, we are to love one another.  We are to carry his love to the world.  The broken world, the world lost in its own pleasure, its own slothfulness, its own weakness and despair.  Because He loved us with an everlasting love" (p. 159-160).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for oblique references to sexual activity, a non-descriptive discussion of rape, unwed pregnancy, childbirth, depression, and accusations of witchcraft.  No bad language or sexual situations, only a little mild violence, but I wouldn't let my young children read it.  Fine for teens on up.

Friday, June 29, 2018

"Portrait of Vengeance" by Carrie Stuart Parks

What a thrill ride this book was!

Seriously, it grabbed hold of me within the first couple of pages and I inhaled it in just over a day. 

Forensic artist Gwen Marcey takes on a gruesome murder case that closely resembles memories from her past that she's been running from for decades.  But this fresh crime occurred in a Nez Perce community, and Marcey is seen as an interloper sticking her nose in where it's not needed.

One of the few people who welcomes her help is  Seth Kus, chief of the Nez Perce Tribal Police.  Handsome, skilled, and respected, he and Gwen Marcey find themselves attracted to each other in the midst of a swirling, ever-worsening investigation.  Kus also has family history that will also impact the case in ways neither he nor Gwen Marcey can imagine. 

In the end, Marcey has to figure out what really happened to her and her family when she was a child, dredging up horrific memories and trying to analyze them with the methods she uses to help others process crime scenes.  Once she does, she has the key to the identity of this murderer.  

This is one of the best modern forensic novels I've read in years.  I enjoyed When Death Draws Near last year, but this was waaaaaay better.  Marcey's Christian faith is tested in many ways during this story, especially the need to forgive others as Christ forgave us.  A lot of Christian fiction kind of shoe-horns faith into the story, but here it's an integral part of who this character is and how she behaves.  I was highly impressed.

In fact, my fellow judges and I selected it as the winner for the 2018 INSPY Awards for Best Mystery/Thriller!

If This Was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  a hard PG-13 for descriptions of horrible crimes including murder, children in danger, and discussions of child abuse.  No bad language or sexual content.

Note: I received a copy of this book from the publisher for me to read while judging the INSPY awards. In no way did I agree to review this book in exchange. These are my honest opinions.

Tuesday, June 26, 2018

"Smoke" by Stanley Wheeler

This was an amusing and entertaining mystery.  It's kind of a send-up of hardboiled detective fiction like the stuff written by Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett.  Set in the late 1940s, its main character is a WWII vet.  He's also a bookstore owner, which is always a fun profession for a book character.  

For reasons I've forgotten, a woman who wanders into his store one day mistakes him for a slightly famous detective who died recently.  She's beautiful, so he pretends to be that detective, rather like Bob Hope's character in My Favorite Brunette (1947).  Her husband has been murdered, and the bookstore owner is so entranced by her eyes that he can't remember her real name or any reasons why he shouldn't try to solve the mystery.  Reasons like the fact that he doesn't have a detective license, has never solved a mystery, and doesn't carry a gun.  But he does like to carry random books around with him -- he gleans helpful advice from them, which I found quite funny. 

The story spins on a little longer than it needs to, and after a while, the stream of snappy retorts and cute metaphors gets a little tired.  But the ending is satisfying and leaves open the possibility for a sequel or a series.

Particularly Good Bits:

I've never cared for kisses on the cheek.  That's the sort of thing you expect from a parent, a sister, or an aunt with bad teeth.  It's about as satisfying as pouring whiskey into your sock.

The road had more curves than a pinup girl.

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG-13 for a lot of kissing and embracing.  An extra-marital affair is a plot point.  There's some shooting and punching, and quite a bit of tobacco and alcohol use.

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Did You See This?

My friend Eva of Coffee, Classics, and Craziness is hosting a read-along of The Outsiders next month!  Click here for full details.

I haven't 100% decided if I'm going to read it with her, but I'll definitely be joining the discussions.  If you've never read this book, or if you've read it over and over like me, you don't want to miss this!  

And if you want to know more of my thoughts about this book, my review is here.  (Spoiler alert:  I ADORE IT.)

Tuesday, June 19, 2018

"Murder on the Orient Express" by Agatha Christie

I read this once before, as a teen -- it's probably the first Agatha Christie mystery I encountered.  I'm not a huge fan of hers, but this particular story charms me for some reason.  I really enjoyed the 2017 movie version (review here), but it'd been probably twenty years since I last read this and I couldn't remember enough of it to tell just how much the movie changed.  I did remember the solution to the case, though.  

The story, just in case you're somehow unaware of it even though it's one of the most famous murder mysteries of the 20th century, is about a man getting stabbed to death on a train.  Detective Hercule Poirot just happens to be on that train too, and he sets about trying to figure out which one of his twelve fellow passengers is the murderer.  

The solution is outrageous and stretches my credulity... and yet, I totally dig it.  It might not be the most logical mystery ever, but somehow, it feels very right.  I'm not at all sure how Christie pulled that off.  I read the whole thing in a little over a day because it races along at such a jolly pace, and is so bright and fun -- a perfect summer read!

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for murder and discussions of kidnapping.  I would let my 10-year-old read it if he wanted to.

This is my 18th book read and reviewed for my second go-round with the Classics Club and my 10th for the Mount TBR Challenge 2018.

Saturday, June 16, 2018

"Guns of the Timberlands" by Louis L'Amour

Man, oh man, is this a well-crafted story.  I am in awe.  This book is almost depressingly good.

I say that because I'm working on revisions of my latest western, Dancing and Doughnuts, and I'm feeling very critical about my own storytelling efforts right now.  And when I read something so tautly plotted, with superb characterizations and action scenes I can never dream of matching... I sometimes get depressed.  Not always.  Sometimes, I get inspired.  And, actually, this book did help me think through some stuff about antagonists that was really helpful for my current writing projects.  So that's good.

But mostly I read this as fast as I possibly could, muttering, "It's just not fair!  It's not fair!  Whyyyyyyyy is he such a good writer?  Noooooooo!" and other similarly whiny things.

This is kind of dumb review.  Sorry.  The truth is, this book blew my tiny little mind, and I'm still reassembling the pieces.

So there's this rancher named Clay Bell who is basically... imagine if Wolverine was not a mutant, but just a really great guy who is helpful and hard-working and nice.  Keeps to himself most of the time, minds his own business, but still helps others when they need helping.  But also goes a little berserk if you get him too angry.  Slicing and dicing, just not with the aid of adamantium claws, if that makes sense.  And then imagine there's a bad guy who wants to cut down all the trees on Clay Bell's land because he's got this contract to deliver rail ties to the railroad, and Bell's trees are perfect and really ideally situated, and does it actually matter that Clay Bell literally owns that land and those trees and has a perfect right to say, "Nope, can't cut down my trees, bub" if he wants?  

Well, yeah, obviously it matters.  The bad guy doesn't think so, but hahahaha, joke's on him, cuz he's basically just picked a fight with a declawed Wolverine AND all his not-quite-superpowered cowboy friends, and this is not going to end well for you, Bad Guy!  Mwahaha.  Good will triumph.  After a lot of shooting and punching and some stuff getting burned up.

Also, there's a girl.  She's almost engaged to marry the bad guy, but duh, she's simply powerless to resist falling in love with Clay Bell.  Who probably looks exactly like Hugh Jackman.  Or a young Alan Ladd.  Love is inevitable.

Also, there's this kinda old dude who sorta runs the town, and he was not evil.  When was the last time I encountered a guy who runs a town who is NOT evil?  I don't even know.  It was great.

This is still kind of a dumb review.  Just read the book.  It's awesome.  I might just go read it over again.  And then watch the Alan Ladd movie based on the book, because I haven't seen it yet, but I own it already, so I should just watch it, shouldn't I.

(From my Bookstagrammer adventures)

Particularly Good Bits:

He glanced over at Coffin, fine lines of remembered laughter showing at the corners of his eyes (p. 2).

A large -- rather forceful gentleman?"  Clay's expression was almost too innocent.  "With a mustache and an opinion?" (p. 14).

These men who stayed had not been wealthy men, but they had been steadfast men, confident men, strong with an inner strength that knows not defeat.  Such men had built this town, had kept it alive, and would make it grow (p. 18).

She had never been a girl who depended upon others for pleasure, excitement, or entertainment (p. 43).

It was midafternoon and the sun lay like a curse upon the town (p. 66).

Jud Devitt was a man with an eye for a well upholstered blonde (p. 135).

Randy Ashton was a girl who looked as if born to a dance hall, but she was a girl whose heart only beat in tune to cotton print and kitchens (p. 137).

Too long had these people lived by the gun.  These men and women had crossed the plains, they had fought Indians and outlaws, and they had built homes where it took strength to build and courage to fight -- and the willingness to fight was still a social virtue of the highest order.  The town was not yet tame (p. 165).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG for western violence, a big of vague innuendo, and possibly a few cuss words, though I don't recall any at the moment.

Thursday, June 14, 2018

"Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter, and Me" by Lorilee Craker

I got this book from my mom for my birthday a couple months ago.  My mom and I sort of discovered the Anne books together when I was like six or seven years old.  Maybe eight.  Anyway, a friend of hers told he we would love them, and that friend was right.  Mom read the books aloud to us, we watched the Sullivan movies over and over and over, and they generally informed my childhood about as much as the Laura Ingalls Wilder books did.  Anne Shirley and Laura Ingalls were my kindred spirits.

Anyway, as soon as I learned of the existence of this book, I knew I needed to read it.  I put it on my birthday wish list and was not at all surprised when my mom decided to give it to me.  I should probably loan it to her sometime, because I think she'd enjoy it too.

Lorilee Craker was adopted as an infant.  After having two sons, she and her husband adopted a daughter.  In this book, she entwines her own childhood, her adoption of her daughter, and Anne's fictional life in a sweet, lyrical way.  She meditates beautifully on how all of us, adopted or not, often feel "bereft, left behind, and left" just like an orphan, and how our Heavenly Father fills that hollowness within us with his love.

Oh, and you know how I said both Anne Shirley and Laura Ingalls were my fictional kindred spirits (or maybe spirit animals) when I was a girl?  Lorilee Craker was inspired to write this by Wendy McClure's book The Wilder Life. Isn't that an intriguing coincidence?

(From my Instagram.  Yes, that is my hair.)

Particularly Good Bits:

Experiencing true friendship after a poverty of loneliness is like suddenly having access to the treasure chest in Villa Villekulla (p. 41).

What I didn't know then was that even after you've found the one, a good and steady love, only a Father's love, on the Bread of Life, can really make you full.  Only a Father's love can make you belong (p. 59).

I want to teach my daughter how to act when someone trips her wires and that it's okay to be angry but not to sin.  I want to teach her the difference as I continue to understand it (p. 125).

In my experience, secrets hold you hostage, while the truth, though painful and scary, leads to peace (p. 184).

Through Anne, Maud speaks volumes about the desire we all have to belong and to matter to the people we love.  Coutless readers, including me and my girl, have come to understand friendship, abiding love, and the power of redemption in a more significant fashion (p. 220).

If This was a Movie, I Would Rate It:  PG because both the author and her adopted daughter were conceived out of wedlock, which might cause some kids/preteens angst or make them ask questions they're not ready for the answers to.  NO inappropriate scenes, bad language, or other truly objectionable content.