Out of the Embers by Amanda Cabot

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of Out of the Embers, by Amanda Cabot, from Revell. All opinions are my own.

My rating: 3/5

Out of the Embers tells the story of Evelyn Radcliffe, who, after the orphanage she worked in burned down, flees to Mesquite Springs with a young orphan girl she has befriended. There, she is inspired to start a restaurant where she runs into a number of the local community, including the rancher Wyatt Clark. As expected, the story is a romance, but there’s also a surprising amount of suspense and mystery as Evelyn seeks to escape from the mysterious person who murdered her parents and who burned down the orphanage.

My favorite parts of the book were the ones dedicated to unraveling the mystery behind the Watcher (what Evelyn dubbed the person she felt was watching her throughout her life after her parents were killed), Evelyn’s parents’ deaths, and the orphanage fire. Cabot integrates scarce viewpoints and tantalizing suggestions into the main story—just enough to keep readers curious and the novel suspenseful, but not enough to deflate the tension and make everything obvious. And the end result is pretty interesting and wraps up all three storylines nicely.

The parts of the book that I didn’t enjoy as much unfortunately were what most of the rest was dedicated to. I wasn’t fond of the love square present in the novel, and I’m not fond of “every man falls in love with the new girl” tropes at all, so having both of those present here was a little annoying. In addition, a lot of the dialogue between Wyatt and Evelyn was pretty cheesy and sappy, at least when they’re talking about their feelings. It just didn’t feel natural to me at all; it didn’t feel like anything someone would actually say to someone else.

I also was a little disgruntled that after this huge, tense buildup with Sam, Cabot basically deflated it all with one stroke, making it anticlimactic and a bit cheap. I suppose how she resolved it shows a measure of nuance, but I think the execution could have been a bit less jarring.

Out of the Embers breaks no molds and shatters no expectations for me. If you like the multitude of other Christian historical fiction novels out there, then you’ll like this. There’s decent suspense and mystery in it, though I found the romance clichéd and cheesy. The other plot besides the romance, however, elevated the book in my estimation of it. I deem it better than average, but not fantastic.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

Laurel’s Dream by Pepper Basham

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the author. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

Laurel’s Dream, by Pepper Basham, is a cute historical fiction novel set in the Blue Ridge Mountains of North Caroline in 1918. Jonathan Taylor comes to help his uncle with his work (and to get away from his domineering father) and is the controversial new teacher in the community; Laurel, who’s lived on the mountain her whole life, dreams of going to college.

Like I said, the novel is really cute. Both characters are so sugary sweet that it will keep you smiling the whole time—though neither of them have much in the way of flaws. I didn’t really notice because the book was genuinely interesting, but reflecting on it now, both characters, and Laurel especially, were practically perfect in every way. Also, I’m not sure how realistic I found it that Jonathan had both a background in teaching and a background in medicine, especially since the latter seemed to come out of nowhere (why did he drop out of medical school? Did he? Was his plan to go back all along?) and the former wasn’t really explained that I remember.

The plot is pretty predictable, though I admit I wouldn’t have been able to guess what happens at the end that throws a monkey wrench into the works. I think I would have liked a little more resolution in terms of Laurel’s dream (it’s the title of the book!) instead of just the “shrug, let me just move on” ending we did get. However, I thought Basham did a good job of weaving in the Christian elements without making it too preachy, and it was really interesting to see the way she decided to portray the McAdams family, especially the father and the others’ relationship with him.

Cute, sweet (though almost too sweet in spots), with two adorable, maybe-needed-more-flaws protagonists, and a fairly interesting plot that makes up in interest what it lacks in small bits of satisfying resolution (I don’t know if I really like how Laurel gets things taken away from her at the end), Laurel’s Dream is one of those self-indulgent reads that will take your mind off other things and give you some pretty deep things to think about in the meantime.  

Warnings: None.

Genre: Christian, Historical Fiction

No One Ever Asked by Katie Ganshert

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the publisher as part of JustReadTours. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

No One Ever Asked, by Katie Ganshert, is inspired by a true story (described in the notes at the end). It revolves around 3 women and how their lives are affected by a poor school district losing accreditation and its students transferring to the richer, less diverse school district, and the backlash that comes with it. It’s a story about racism and segregation and adoption and marriage and, well, a lot of things.

Though there’s three female points of view, the one the story focuses on the most is Camille, whose cookie-cutter family is falling apart at the seams. It was interesting to get her perspective for the majority of the novel, since Ganshert writes in just such a way where you recognize all the things she’s doing wrong and yet still grow attached to her anyway (especially as she starts to realize what she’s doing). My favorite point of view was probably Anaya, though I’m not really sure I liked the things Ganshert decided to include in her arc. What I liked about the three characters was how different each perspective was: Camille, the affluent white woman; Jen, also affluent, but with an adopted daughter from Liberia; Anaya, the black woman who’s worked and clawed her way up to where she is now and dealt with more than the other two.

I do think Ganshert tried to tackle a little too much here; towards the end of the novel, it just feels like she’s piling on event after event, like an excited kid at a candy store: “Ooh! Some of this! And some of that! And let’s add this right at the end!” It starts to get a little exhausting, and the ending is maybe slightly more dramatic than I think it needed to be. I also think Ganshert’s subtlety leaves a little to be desired, especially with some of the ways she explores people’s preconceived notions.

However, No One Ever Asked is a great book that explores many difficult situations and forces the reader to think about their own actions and thoughts as they read about the actions and thoughts of others. Most powerful, I think, is the townhall scene, where Camille voices opinions that might be echoed by the reader—but then is forced to confront those opinions and determine if that’s how she really thinks and acts.

Warnings: Mentions of sexual assault, gun violence

Genre: Christian, Realistic

Jesus Skeptic by John Dickerson

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the publisher. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 5/5

I was excited to read Jesus Skeptic before I even opened it, and I was even more excited about it after reading the first ten pages. I’ve read books like it before, most recently Unimaginable by Jeremiah Johnston, but this is the first book I’ve read that dealt with so thoroughly and with such attention to primary evidence.
By primary evidence, Dickerson explains that he means things like firsthand accounts or historical documents of the time period being discussed, similar to the evidence a journalist (which Dickerson is) would use in writing a story. So, the book explores the primary evidence behind science, education, hospitals, and the abolition of slavery to explore the question of whether Jesus’s teachings have helped further justice and progress, or inhibited it. It’s the question of whether Christianity has been good for the world or not, and Dickerson explores it thoroughly, diving deep into statistics and the people behind many important movements.

I knew many things that this book talked about already, but some I did not, and I enjoyed learning more about how universities were established, the origins of hospitals, and what life was like for the majority of people until about two hundred years ago. And the best part of this book is that Dickerson uses only the words of the people who were involved and facts and statistics that can be obtained by anyone. There are pictures and documents and tons of detailed footnotes. There’s even a website, which I peeked at briefly to see if it would be useful for teaching.

This book was especially helpful for times when I forget what an impact Christianity can have on people. Dickerson shared personal stories of his own, as well as stories of people he knew—again, all primary evidence that can be independently verified. And it will be especially helpful for when my students broach the exact question Dickerson is exploring in this novel. Even if you know this information already, Jesus Skeptic is a worthwhile read—but it’s a vital one if you are not aware of the evidence that is out there for Christian involvement in education, medicine, science, and the abolition of slavery.

Warnings: None

Genre: Nonfiction, Christian

Narrative Apologetics by Alister McGrath

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a free copy from the publisher. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

I haven’t read a really academic book in a long time, so the plunge into Alister McGrath’s Narrative Apologetics was a rough one. However, the topic is one that I am deeply interested (and invested) in, as that was the basis of my graduate school studies and something I currently teach. McGrath puts forth his arguments for presenting the Gospel as and through narrative, rather than purely reason.

McGrath introduces the topic of narrative apologetics (basically, showing people God and the Gospel through story), offers practical application, and then uses various narratives, both Biblical and otherwise, to illustrate why and how narrative is so powerful. Using several powerful narratives from the Bible, as well as mentioning narratives from C. S. Lewis, Marilynne Robison, and Dorothy Sayers, McGrath lays forth his reasoning for leaning more on story to share “the relevance, joy, and wonder” of Christianity (to borrow the subtitle), as it reaches more people.

I will admit, the language of the book really did prevent me from delving into this perhaps as deeply as I should have. It is not written for the layperson at all, but rather for the expert in the field. McGrath expects you to know a lot of things already. This is not a criticism, as this is obviously the audience of the book—I’m just trying to explain why I struggled a bit with it (I’m technically an expert, but I’m too used to more casual books). The book is rich in research and footnotes, and McGrath methodically and expertly explains everything. What I liked most about the book was the last chapter where McGrath offers suggestions for how to use Biblical, personal, and cultural narratives in teaching and showing others the Gospel. As a teacher, my mind immediately started thinking of ways to incorporate those into my classroom.

The analytical language and the academic nature of the book did throw me for a loop, but Narrative Apologetics is a book that’s worth returning to in order to take it in more deeply. I feel like I only skimmed the surface and that lots more meaning and application will come out on another read.

Warnings: None

Genre: Nonfiction, Christian

The Hidden Side by Heidi Chiavaroli

Disclaimer: I received a free copy from the author. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 4/5

Having read a book by Chiavaroli before (The Edge of Mercy), I went into The Hidden Side familiar with her style and curious to see if some of the things that fell a little flat for me in the previous book I read would do the same thing here.

The Hidden Side (and Chiavaroli’s style in general) is really two stories running concurrently—a contemporary one and a historical one. The contemporary one tells the story of the Abbott family and their struggles to hold on to their family and their faith after a devastating and terrible act is committed by the son. The historical one is about Mercy Howard, who becomes a Patriot spy (one of the Culper Ring, I believe) to ferret out British secrets during the Revolutionary War and discovers lots of things about love and faith along the way.

If you’re wondering how in the world Chiavaroli connects the two stories together, I’m still trying to figure that out myself. Both stories would be fine on their own, but together, the relation between the two, the reason why Natalie Abbott is reading the journal of Mercy Howard and why the reader should care, is a little thin. It’s explained, and probably makes a lot of sense, but I never really thought about it because my interest was never in Mercy Howard’s story at all—in fact, I only skimmed her chapters. To me, it made no sense to have that story in this book because all it did was distract from the real shining star, which was the gut-wrenching, difficult story of a family struggling to make sense of why evil things happen. This was also my problem with The Edge of Mercy—the historical entry in that book also, I felt, took away from the much more powerful contemporary one.

I won’t go into the struggle the Abbott family faces in this novel, as I think it’s best to experience it as it’s presented in the novel, but it’s an issue that strikes terrifyingly close to society today. Chiavaroli pulls no punches, but also shows deep sympathy for the complicated tangle of knots that causes evil and that evil causes. It’s comprehensive and nuanced, and I applaud Chiavaroli for taking such a difficult subject head-on and showing the effects and consequences of evil, and how people can move past it without losing love, mercy, or justice.

Warnings: Violence, bullying, mentions of rape.

Genre: Realistic, Historical Fiction, Christian

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2n0byIX

The Girl Behind the Red Rope by Ted Dekker and Rachelle Dekker

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of The Girl Behind the Red Rope by Ted and Rachelle Dekker, from Revell. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 3/5

I’ve never read anything by Ted Dekker before; all I know about him is that he’s a fairly popular Christian author. He teamed up with his daughter, also an author, for The Girl Behind the Red Rope, a book that initially seems to simply be about a cult that separates itself from the world, but then delves into Frank Peretti territory with ghosts/beings called the Fury and a Jesus-like child named Eli.

Honestly, I think I would have preferred this book simply to be an exploration of a cult—I probably would have been far more interested. That’s not to say the book was bad, but I’m simply not a fan of angels and demons materializing and talking to people (or attacking them). And the fact that I wasn’t prepared for the supernatural aspect of this book meant that I was really confused by a lot of things that happened at the beginning until I realized the true genre of the book. Perhaps that’s something I would have expected going in if I knew more about Ted Dekker’s works, though.

The Girl Behind the Red Rope is hugely allegorical, to the point of repetitiveness at times. There’s the demon creatures “the Fury,” whom the cult at Haven Valley have cut themselves off from the world to avoid. There’s the mysterious being Sylous, who appears to Rose, the leader, and gives ominous advice. Then there’sEli, who I think isn’t supposed to be Jesus, but is also supposed to be Jesus…it’s a bit confusing. All the allegory/metaphors are compounded at the end by everyone talking about love, light, darkness, and fear for pages on end—that’s where the repetitiveness comes in. Actually, the whole thing reminded me just a little bit of John Bibee’s Spirit Flyer series, which used similar ideas of demons, chains, and captivity to illustrate biblical concepts. Just like in this book, though, Bibee also went a bit overboard in capturing his image.

I suppose I can see why Ted Dekker is popular, but for me, I’d prefer a book that tones down the symbolism explanation and is a bit less on-the-nose in regards to theme. The Girl Behind the Red Rope is far from terrible, but my expectation of it was “cult novel” and I got “cult novel but with demons and angels,” which isn’t really my favorite thing to read.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Supernatural, Realistic

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2LGmULP

The String by Caleb Breakey

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of The String, by Caleb Breakey, from Revell. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 2/5

The String is like Criminal Minds mixed with a cop or spy movie. There’s a psychopathic killer who has blackmailed/coerced several people to become members of his “string” and who are forced to do his bidding. Enter plucky university cop Markus Haas, who is determined to stop him, and things start going crazy.

Look, if you like this sort of suspense novel, which is heavy on violence, psychological horror, and the like, then this book is definitely for you. It’s a bit long for what is a relatively simple plot, but Breakey manages to pull a few surprising twists and turns along the way. He also manages to accomplish the difficult task of making the villain understandable, but not sympathetic.

There’s a couple of reasons why I rated this book so low. One is that I simply couldn’t enjoy it. I had to stop watching Criminal Minds for a reason, and it’s that I can’t handle large doses of darkness. And the way this book is written, we’re meant to indulge in that darkness a bit; it’s supposed to drive our enjoyment of a novel, and that really doesn’t sit well with me. There’s only so much manipulation, violence, and caught-between-rock-and-hard-place moral dilemmas I can deal with.

Another reason is that I was disappointed that this book is only superficially Christian. Okay, so Stephanie is a Christian in this book, and Haas is sort of thinking about it. Yet Stephanie barely does anything beyond a quick prayer once or twice. This book could have truly delved into the Christian response to this sort of psychopathic evil, and what people do, and all those sorts of interesting moral dilemmas, and I would have loved to see way more prayer, way more Bible reading, and way more appeals to God. Instead we get some occasional mentions and that’s it.

I don’t know, perhaps Breakey didn’t want to be preachy or something. Or maybe his goal was simply to write a suspense book, never mind the religion of the characters. But I felt that there was so much opportunity lost by not having the characters react more in ways that really demonstrated their Christian beliefs.

Warnings: Lots of violence, psychopathy, hints of child abuse

Genre: Realistic, Suspense/Thriller

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2Mt0v5I

The Soul of An American President by Alan Sears, Craig Osten, and Ryan Cole

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of The Soul of an American President: The Untold Story of Dwight D. Eisenhower’s Faith, by Alan Sears, Craig Osten, and Ryan Cole, from Baker Books. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 3/5

I’ve been trying to read more nonfiction lately, especially about people or events in history, so when Baker offered this book, I decided to read it. The book mainly focuses on, as the title suggests, the path of Eisenhower’s faith through his life. I appreciated that the authors mentioned straight away that they weren’t looking to glorify Eisenhower, but to portray his journey as realistically as possible, flaws and all. Mainly, they seemed concerned with combating the image of Eisenhower as irreligious or secular, so a great deal of time was spent showing the many ways Eisenhower showed his faith in his talks, writings, and actions.

I didn’t know much about Eisenhower before reading this book, so there was tons of information that I learned, such as his role in World War II and Operation Overlord. Also interesting was his early life and his life at the beginning of his presidency when he was baptized. I was hoping for a little more coverage of Eisenhower’s presidential policies and decisions; the authors covered many, mostly positive, but I felt as if the majority of his second term was swept by or summarized too broadly. It also felt a bit as if the authors were picking and choosing what they wanted to highlight; I can’t fault them for that because it’s nonfiction and they picked the focus, so of course they would pick to explain more in detail what fits best with what they want to say, but I still hoped for more detail.

This book is about Eisenhower’s faith, and that’s what it gives you. I learned a lot about him and the majority of the book was interesting, though towards the end I started to skim a little. I enjoyed most the descriptions of his life and actions up through World War II (my favorite time period to read about!), and overall I learned more about Eisenhower, his faith, and the things he did and tried to do to help America than I ever knew before (admittedly, very little).

Warnings: None.

Genre: Biography

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2XnryRH

All Manner of Things by Susie Finkbeiner

Disclaimer: I voluntarily received a copy of All Manner of Things, by Susie Finkbeiner, from Revell. All opinions are my own.  

My rating: 3/5

All Manner of Things takes place during the Vietnam War, and while the main character has a brother who joins the army, and certain details of the culture of the time and the negative attitude towards the war is shown, there’s so much more to the book than just that. There’s also the theme of war in general, and how it affects people—Annie, the main character, has a father who was left with PTSD or similar after the Korean War, and abandoned the family while she was young. After the brother leaves to go to Vietnam, he gives her information about where her father is, starting a chain of events that leads to the father coming back into their lives, but not particularly nicely or neatly. The way Finkbeiner handles the way the family navigates the reappareance of a long-absence father is very well done.

Finkbeiner also includes aspects of the Civil Rights movement as well, though not too much. Annie starts up a friendship with a black man, David, and while everyone seems okay with it, it’s very clear that David is considered an outsider. Overall, I enjoyed the fact that Finkbeiner didn’t make the novel as dark and angsty as it could have been. It was a very light, wholesome novel, despite the sad parts.

All Manner of Things is very carefully and cleverly constructed. The characters have great voices, especially the three children (well, technically two are young adults): Mike, Annie, and Joel. The mother is perhaps the flattest of all the characters, but everyone’s interactions are all very well done. The letters in between each chapter are also really good at communicating tone and atmosphere.

I really enjoyed All Manner of Things, so I debated for a while whether to give a 4 rating or not. However, in the end I felt the book was missing something. It was just one step away from being entirely engrossing. As it was, I enjoyed it, but I didn’t feel absorbed by it. I was able to put it down easily and walk away. It was just missing some sort of connection for me. I’d probably recommend it to other people, but it didn’t have the sort of pull that would make me come back to it again.

Warnings: None.

Genre: Historical Fiction, Christian, Realistic

You can buy this here: https://amzn.to/2KrYdDB