Friday, September 23, 2016

One Small Donkey by Dandi Daisy Mackall Illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens

Christmas stories come in many forms. 
Some follow Mary and Joseph, others look through the eyes of a  human storyteller, while still others explore the animals point of view. 

In One Small Donkey, Dandi Mackall chooses a  humble donkey to be her storyteller. 
I really enjoyed the narrative itself. The nativity story was well portrayed while still weaving in an equally strong message regarding the importance of each person (or in this case, donkey) in God's greater story. 
The story itself would be easily welcomed by kids ages 4-8.

Readers may find (and it was my only complaint) that the actual flow of the story feels choppy and jarring, especially when read aloud. 
While the content is great (and  even taught me something through some quick google confirmation, who knew it snowed in Israel? I definitely need to brush up on my geography) the rhyme and meter fell short. 

On the flip side, the artwork in  this book is some of the most stunning I've seen in a children's book this year. In fact, I found myself needing to reread the story after  I realized  I had become so engrossed in the pictures I had missed  parts of the  narrative.  This artwork is a huge bonus for a family like ours as our pre-verbal kidlet is as equally drawn into the story as his older sibling.

While the rhyme and flow may be a deterrent for some, One Small Donkey still provides a solid Christmas story with  illustrations that go above and beyond in their beauty and attention to details.
4 out of 5 stars.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <> book review bloggers program. 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.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

A Heart Most Certain by Melissa Jaegars

A Heart Most Certain

Lydia King knows what it's like to be in need, so she joins the Teaville Moral Society hoping to help the town's poor. But with her father's debts increasing by the day and her mother growing sicker by the week, she wonders how long it will be until she ends up in the poorhouse herself. Her best chance at a financially secure future is to impress the politician courting her, and it certainly doesn't hurt that his mother is the moral society's president. Lydia's first task as a moral society member--to obtain a donation from Nicholas Lowe, the wealthiest man in town--seems easy . . . until the man flat-out refuses.

Despite appearances, Nicholas wants to help others but prefers to do it his own way, keeping his charity private. When Lydia proves persistent, they agree to a bargain, though Nicholas has a few surprises up his sleeve. Neither foresees the harrowing complications that will arise from working together, and when town secrets are brought to light, this unlikely pair must decide where their beliefs--and hearts--truly align.
(excerpt from back of book)

Melissa Jagears is one of those writers I'm beginning to rely on. If  I'm looking for a solid read, enjoyable character growth, and a well-thought out setting I know Melissa will deliver.

I was surprised to find so many serious topics wrapped up in a fascinating love story (honestly, the literary nerd in me giggled with glee over Lydia's comparisons between her own life and  one of her favourite reads Pride and Prejudice). I love the diversity and breadth of topics in this novel. Larger themes of redemption, hypocrisy, self sacrifice, and the church find life with the comings and goings of Teaville, If book 1 is any indication this series is going to be a  "stay up 'til it's done" type  of series.

Jagears characters  are so real I found myself wishing for the opportunity
to chat about books with Lydia, give the pastor's wife a hug, and cry over the three sisters who impacted each of the few pages they were featured on. Actually, to be honest, when I look back on this novel it isn't Lydia or  Nicholas  that will jump out, it's the kids. Jagears hits upon historical events that have present day significance with a skill and truthfulness that is hard to deny. Part of Jagears appeal is her willingness to write harder scenes that other authors may shy away from in the genre. Sadie's introduction and the eldest sisters wrestling with Lowe's offers shone light onto the very tip of a heartbreaking and global issue.

My only concern with the book was the epilogue. Although this is usually my favourite part due to story lines wrapping up and the satisfaction of a story well lived, I had some concerns about the characters. Lydia undergoes a noticeable and not overly enjoyable personality change for this reader. Now, I'll give some wiggle  room here, sometimes personalities can undergo changes during different periods of life and Lydia's life had certainly undergone some changes. I'll reserve judgment to see whether Lydia regains her passion in the next installment.
I also had a few questions over the introduction of characters in the epilogue. I'm going to take a  guess they'll feature more heavily in the sequel but it did give the book more of an incomplete feel than the book felt like it was going to have.

"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc."

Tuesday, August 30, 2016

Itsy Bitsy Christmas by Max Lucado Illustrated by Bruno Merz

Do you ever feel like you are too small or too ordinary? This is just how Itsy and Bitsy feel. When these two charming little mice hear that a King is coming to Bethlehem, they set off with great enthusiasm to find Him. Along the way, they are met with discouraging words telling them they are too little and unimportant for any king. Just when Itsy and Bitsy begin to believe they really aren't big enough for the new King, they learn that Christ the King has indeed come for everyone.

Crafted by bestselling author and master storyteller Max Lucado, Itsy Bitsy Christmas helps children understand God's great love and know that He sent His Son for all of us--little or big, young or old.

My first introduction to Max Lucado was through his book You are Special. Though a teenager  at the time, I was thoroughly enchanted and, thanks to those awkward teen  years, deeply touched by the simple yet true message. 

Lucado continues his theme of simple and true messages in his latest children's offering Itsy Bitsy Christmas   which is sure to become a Christmas favourite in our house due to a few factors.

First the illustrations. Courtesy of Bruno Merz the illustrations are a wonderful blend of soft, appealing colours which delight my youngest while still maintaining  enough detail and variety to capture my rambunctious older boy. Board books can definitely find it challenging to strike a balance that will appeal to different ages throughout the family but  Merz tackled this with skill.

Another feature I enjoyed with this book was it's construction. Usually with a board book readers  find themselves sacrificing quality or quantity of story.  Board books usually aim for lower word count due to their audience's estimated age. However, Itsy Bitsy Christmas is a full length story book. As a mom to two boys (did I mention they might be rambunctious?) It's  nice to know that my children can still pile up for  story time without  the book becoming an unintentional casualty.

Finally, the story was cute. The message was easy to understand and easy  showed the story's tagline of no one being "too little for God's love," Putting the story's focus on animals is certainly  not a new angle but it is one that is reused because it is so easy for children to identify, empathize, and attach too. Lucado  may use an old plot device to move his story along but the result leans more towards the timeless than the time  worn.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <> book review bloggers program. 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, August 29, 2016

The Artisan's Wife by Judith Miller

The Artisan's Wife

Ainslee McKay's world is upended when her twin sister secretly elopes and leaves Ainslee alone to move to Weston, West Virginia, to fulfill their obligation at the McKay family's new tile works. While her brother, Ewan, agrees to travel with her and help her learn the ropes, she still intends to sell this business she no longer wants if a buyer can be found. 

When the talented Levi Judson arrives to show Ainslee his designs for new tiles, she's impressed at his skill and passion for the business but feels she must keep her true plans for the business a secret from him. And though Levi hopes for a long, successful career at McKay Tile Works, he's hiding his true reason for coming to Weston. Can the growing feelings between them survive if the truth comes to light--or is a future together as untenable as the future of the tile works itself?
(Excerpt from back of book)

Almost two years ago I had the chance to dive into Judith Miller's Refined by Love trilogy. now with The Artisan's Wife the journey has come full circle  and the  wonderful twins are finally getting center stage!

First things first. I skipped  book two The Potter's Lady. I'm not exactly sure how that happened but with Miller's attention to plot continuation readers  will find far more enjoyment if they take the time to  read the series in order.  Not that this is a hardship. Miller's writing style and quality of detail is just as strong in the final pages of this trilogy as it was in the first. 
I loved getting swept away in her nods to the era. Unlike many authors these days, Miller also takes the time to briefly explain to authors which key elements were nods to real life, which were fictional,  and where  the lines were drawn. 

As far as characters go Ainslee was one of my few  complaints about  The Brickmaker's  Bride due to her under use. I was thoroughly pleased to see her  finally take center stage  and the depth of her character  was wonderful in all its smart, stubborn, and wrestling spirit. Levi was also fairly well rounded although I've always felt Miller's female characters have a more natural feel and flow to them.

Given the fact that this was our third outing with the McKay family I was curious how Miller  was going to bring a new spin on this novel while still wrapping up the loose threads from Brickmaker's Bride. I absolutely loved Miller's look at the asylum's of the era. Her explorations of prejudice through Laura (a character already familiar), the reasons behind committals, the hints towards future issues was a wonderful  serious direction to balance out a very sweet romance/coming of age for Ainslee.

This was  a wonderful way to wrap up 2 years with the McKay's and a solid read for fans of the genre.

4 out of 5 stars.

"Book has been provided courtesy of Baker Publishing Group and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc."

Saturday, August 27, 2016

A Sunday Horse

A Sunday Horse
After a near-fatal accident on a horse the experts thought was nothing special, a determined rider from the wrong side of the tracks defies all the odds to pursue her dreams of winning a national jumping championship. Starring William Shatner, Nikki Reed, and Linda Hamilton.

The  first 10 minutes of A Sunday Horse did not fill me with reassurance. Nikki Reed's acting felt forced, the  language was rougher than I'd like for a family movie, and the chemistry wasn't there but that tug that seems to accompany so many young girls and the young of heart when it comes to horses and some absolutely gorgeous scenery encouraged me to persevere. 

I had done a little research before watching  and knew the movie was (very) loosely based on the story of Debi Walden Connor and the true influences also drew me in.

As the movie progressed the  quality  began to improve. While I cringed at Debi's talk with her pastor, Debi's encounter with The Evangelist was a turning point for the character and the movie. Reed's character became so much more real as she dropped the issues of  her past and began finding herself and chasing her  dream. I do love a good underdog (underhorse?) story and A Sunday Horse provides more than a few to chose from.

The story line itself lends itself to some wonderful family chats after watching as issues of class, race, and family estrangement are all encountered by Debi and those closest to her on the path to her championship competition. While the movie isn't able to explore the issues in full depth and resolution due to time (the father's resolution was most likely much longer in real life but Debi is the movie's  focus) there is more than enough to thoughtfully address some big issues with elementary aged kids within the movie's world. 

There  is some language and the main character is seen smoking a joint at work in the early minutes of the movie but that does quickly change.

A Sunday Horse  is  a film filled with heart and a clear message sharing the  value of perseverance when facing challenges and chasing your dreams.

 4 out of 5 stars

Movie has been provided courtesy of Mongrel Canada and Graf-Martin Communications, Inc

Friday, August 26, 2016

Hope Prevails by Dr. Michelle Bengtson

Cover Art

As a board-certified neuropsychologist, Dr. Michelle Bengtson believed she was prescribing the most effective treatments for her clients who struggled with depression. But when she experienced debilitating depression herself, she found that the treatments she had recommended weren't helping her the way she expected. She was determined to find out what was missing.

With the deep compassion of someone who has been there, Dr. Bengtson blends her training and that vital missing piece she discovered to offer you a hope grounded in God's love and grace. She helps you understand what depression is, how it affects you spiritually, and what, by God's grace, depression cannot do. The result is an approach that offers not just the management of symptoms but the hope of true release.
(excerpt from back of book)

Given my experience as a student with a MA in Counselling at a well-known seminary I was curious to see how Dr. Bengtson's new book would address the topic of depression. To be honest, I'm still unsure how I felt about the book. 

The topic is timely. If people are truly honest with themselves and others, I doubt many would be unable to come up with at least one name of someone close who has battled depression and the books tackling the topic are  as  varied  and broad as I've seen. At times, Hope Prevails reads like a self-help book offering musical playlists and prayers for the reader. At other times it reads more clinically discussing the roots of depression.  Yet at other times the book turned deeply personal (almost oddly so given the transitions between sections). As a reader, I came out wondering if the book was having a slight identity crisis.  

There were helpful elements within the text and Hope Prevails could function well as an introduction to the spiritual aspects of depression. Here to I was also disappointed. While Bengtson mentions the need fora holistic approach to health addressing the many areas mental health already considers standard treatments, these treatments felt more like a passing thought in the author's good intentions of looking at  more spiritual causes. I could easily see how this message could be misconstrued to lessen a holistic approach to a more spiritually dominated one -  an approach the church has been known to abuse in the past.

3 out of 5 stars 

This book was provided by Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review. 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.”

Saturday, August 20, 2016

Uninvited by Lysa Terkeurst

My first week of college I had a professor during orientation who declared his wish to hold a class for overcoming loneliness. He then went on to declare he'd tell all the attendees to simply talk to each other.
It was a simplistic formula but showed a lot of wisdom.
 In that first week we were all lonely and for the vast majority of us it was a fear of rejection that stopped us from reaching out to one another.

Loneliness is a growing problem in our over-connected, media driven world and one with which I'm intimately familiar. So, I was curious if Lysa Terkeurst's new book Uninvited  had anything valuable to bring to the table on this timely topic. 

The enemy wants us to feel rejected . . . left out, lonely, and less than. When we allow him to speak lies through our rejection, he pickpockets our purpose. Cripples our courage. Dismantles our dreams. And blinds us to the beauty of Christ’s powerful love.

In Uninvited, Lysa shares her own deeply personal experiences with rejection—from the incredibly painful childhood abandonment by her father to the perceived judgment of the perfectly toned woman one elliptical over.

With biblical depth, gut-honest vulnerability, and refreshing wit, Lysa helps readers: • Release the desire to fall apart or control the actions of others by embracing God-honoring ways to process their hurt. • Know exactly what to pray for the next ten days to steady their soul and restore their confidence. • Overcome the two core fears that feed our insecurities by understanding the secret of belonging. • Stop feeling left out and start believing that "set apart" does not mean "set aside." • End the cycle of perceived rejection by refusing to turn a small incident into a full blown issue.
(description provided)

Although I found myself pushing back on a few of Lysa's points, overall Uninvited provides a solid insight into loneliness and the aspects we can control - our beliefs and our reactions- inside the complex, craziness of life in relationship.

First off, I loved the format of this book. Appendices are brilliant and I've never seen a book utilize them quite so well. In addition to some self reflective checklist, the appendices provide a complete list of every verse and key phrase in the book. For those of us raised not to mark up a book (oh college was hard on this book lover) it almost made me giddy to see these relisted for easy reference as there were many instances that Lysa brings up worthy of deeper reflection.

I also enjoyed how Lysa's thinking breathed new and helpful life into areas that had previously felt hopelessly beaten to death. Her insights into the  story of David, Nabal, and Abigail still have me pondering. Her chapter where Hannah makes an appearance had  me scanning the room to see if she  had, somehow, gained access to my life. 

Lysa takes these topics and allows vulnerability to enter into them while steadily pointing readers back to God. Her Biblical foundation reads solidly while her compassion enters the picture as both recognizing the pain of the situation while still cheering readers on into a better space, a delicate place to stand and one she does with grace. 

As I said, there were a few points I wish I could sit down with a  cup of tea and push back with her face to face, see which elements of the argument space did not allow for - most notably her views on forgiveness (which I expanded upon in a different review, I think what she lays out is important but not necessarily forgiveness and reconciliation- Thanks Dr. Guretzki) as  well as those situations where they are truly out of one's hands.
I think that conversation would be interested for both of us :)

I really feel Uninvited is the book so many of us have sought out and yet if one truly chooses to open themselves to what Lysa's shared it won't be an easy read. Sometimes  it's the difficult reads that stay with us and are the most valuable.

4.5 out of 5 stars.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers <> book review bloggers program. 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.