Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Book Review: The First Gardener

It isn't often that I underline great portions of fictional books, but I colored all over this one! The First Gardener is a touching story of dealing with grief and learning to live through, with, and in spite of it. It's a story about trusting God when He appears to be out to get you. It's a story about never giving up on the people you love.

Cover: The First GardenerThe story itself is told in narrative form. But it begins and contains chapters throughout of the first gardener's thoughts about all that's going on in the Tennessee governor's mansion. Jeremiah cares deeply about the family he serves, prays for them, and ministers as God leads--even when it gets him into trouble sometimes. His words were the ones I spent the most time underlining.

Author Denise Hildreth Jones has a gift for making readers care deeply about the characters in her books. I loved the southern spunk of the first lady's mom and three best friends. I hurt for Gray and Mackenzie as they suffered through all that they did. And I looked forward to seeing which flowers Jeremiah would choose for Mackenzie and what each of them meant. He gave me something new to consider on my personal flower hunts.

If you enjoy tear-jerkers full of profound life thoughts, I recommend The First Gardener for you. I thank Tyndale House Publishers for sending it to me for my honest review.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Book Review: Water's Edge

Water's Edge is the story of Thomas Crane, an ambitious, big city attorney who thinks he has everything going for himself. Just as he prepares to travel to his hometown to settle his father's estate, however, it all falls apart. The law firm he works for loses an important client and fires him to regain their financial losses. His girlfriend leaves him--and takes his cat to boot! And once home in Bethel, he discovers one mystery after another regarding his father's presumed accidental death. Water's Edge is an intriguing story.

Author Robert Whitlow is compared to John Grisham by World Magazine on the cover of the book. The book is a legal thriller, but I don't think it's quite as intense. That may be a positive! The story unfolds slowly as clues reveal themselves. The main character, for the most part, is a bit passive for my taste--everything happens to him instead of because of him until the end when he makes a careless decision that lands him in hot water and leaves the reader wondering how he'll possibly get out of the mess he is in. Supporting characters who mentor Crane along the way are essential to the story.

I thank Thomas Nelson Publishers for sending this book to me. I recommend it to fans of the legal fiction genre.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Book Review: True North

If I were to pick a favorite book read so far this year, it would probably be True North: Choosing God in the Frustrations of Life by Gary Heim & Lisa Heim. It’s all about learning how to respond well when troubles come, when life frustrates and disappoints. The back of the book sums it up perfectly:
True North offers biblical insight, personal stories, discussion questions, and compelling examples to encourage you to turn to God with every frustration in life. Authors Gary and Lisa Heim show you how to move from self-centered grumbling and grasping to Christ-centered gratitude and giving so you can embark on a life-giving adventure of walking with God.
The going North or South analogy really made the concept clear. Life will aggravate us. That’s a fact. But we get to choose how we respond to that aggravation. Our choice will take us North—to God—or South—to self-centeredness. Also helpful were the simple diagrams that showed the consequences or results of the different choices and step-by-step where they would ultimately lead.

Some chapters were written by Gary and others by Lisa, each clearly identified. The forward is by Larry Crabb, whom the authors quote in the book. They also include quotes from C.S. Lewis, J.R. Tolkien, Eugene Peterson, John Piper, and many others. If you are looking for a well-written book about responding well to the challenges of life, I recommend True North.

I received a complimentary copy of this book from Kregel Publications for my honest review.

Sunday, July 17, 2011

Book Review: Freedom from Performing

In the small group Bible study Freedom from Performing, author Becky Harling gently confronts the ideas that Christians must earn the approval of others, work for praise, seek to impress, earn the approval of God, or prove to the world through their actions that they are indeed saved. To do this, throughout the book, she emphasizes different aspects of God’s amazing grace. In fact, each chapter has a one sentence Grace Glimpse to highlight the chapter’s point. We rest in God’s grace, and once we’re secure in that, we serve out of gratitude and love as the Holy Spirit leads.

Within each chapter, Harling highlights Bible stories that show God’s grace in action among His people. Her explanations of the cultural concepts behind many of the stories especially appealed to me. She also references many pertinent Bible verses for the reader to look up on her own. Harling also shares parts of her testimony and the testimonies of other women in each chapter in order to show how points apply. As we understand the experiences of others, we can better understand how the message can work in our personal lives. Each chapter ends with a Message from the Grace Giver—a letter written as if from God to the reader, a scripture prayer to help the reader internalize grace, and a daily Bible study for the reader to work through on her own to later discuss with her small group.

If you are looking for a great small group Bible study for women, I highly recommend Freedom from Performing by Becky Harling. I read it alone and found it so encouraging even that way, but I think the blessings would have been exponential in a group setting. I look forward to reading it again that way someday!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from NavPress Publishers as part of their Blogger Review 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 Commision's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Book Review: When the Soul Mends

Oh, dear! I just remembered that I never got around to reviewing the third and final book in Cindy Woodsmall’s Sisters of the Quilt series! I guess it’s time to get around to that. As I’ve mentioned before, I purchased this series myself after a friend loaned me the first book to read.

When the Soul Mends brings Hannah’s story back to the beginning. She grew up in an Amish home. She started a new life in an Englisch community. Now a family emergency involving her sister’s mental health is calling her home in spite of the fact that she is no longer welcome there. Hannah finds herself struggling to bring her two worlds together, striving to save her sister and hoping to restore relationship with her stubborn father. Ultimately she’ll have to choose which community to live in, which man to marry, and which practice of faith to follow.

Like the first two books, this one is intense and emotional. I saw the ending coming from a distance, but wasn’t sure I wanted to accept it. The author had to convince me that Hannah’s choices for herself were best—and she skillfully did so. I was happy for Hannah when I closed the book at last.

If you enjoy stories about people learning to communicate, care for each other, and get along in spite of differences, I recommend the Sisters of the Quilt series to you.

Sunday, July 10, 2011

Book Review: Desiring God

Dictionary.com says that a hedonist is a person whose life is devoted to the pursuit of pleasure and self-gratification. At first glance this doesn’t sound so bad. The United States Declaration of Independence lists the pursuit of happiness as one of our unalienable rights, after all. But hedonists take this concept to a dangerous extreme. If their pursuit of pleasure hurts someone else or requires criminal activity of some kind, well, that’s justifiable in their eyes. I read a Garfield cartoon last week that illustrated this perfectly. (That’s right. Garfield is a hedonist. I suspect all cats are. But they’re cats, not people. We don’t expect better behavior from them.)

In the cartoon, Garfield says, Happiness is what I’m all about. Then he smacks Jon upside the back of the head while Jon is drinking coffee, causing Jon to spit the coffee out all over the place. Garfield smiles and says, My happiness (July 6, 2011).

Recently, Waterbrook Multnomah Publishers sent me a complimentary copy of Desiring God by John Piper for my honest review. The subtitle reads, Meditations of a Christian Hedonist. That’s what caught my attention. Christian Hedonist is most-definitely an oxymoron. But the book is a classic. My copy is a 25th anniversary revised edition.

To make matters even more interesting, I’m concurrently reading another book that includes several quotes from Piper’s Desiring God. And both books quote Jonathan Edwards and CS Lewis. In fact, they use some of the same quotes! But the other book, True North by Gary Heim and Lisa Heim, gets straight to the point: Christians must learn to look to God first in every circumstance of life, good or bad. Desiring God, on the other hand, required the author to defend and sufficiently explain his use of a controversial term before the reader could grasp and accept the truth he was trying to present: we find pleasure and satisfaction in God alone. God is glorified when we do.

That message is absolutely true. And when we find that pleasure and satisfaction in God alone, we are able to help others do the same. Christian hedonists bless God and others through their pursuit of pleasure and self-gratification. Christian hedonists are addicted to God.

I found Piper’s approach curious, but he really made me think. If you enjoy thinking challenges, I recommend this book!

For more devotional thoughts today, visit the Spiritual Sunday meme.

Wednesday, July 6, 2011

Book Review: The Blessing

As I told you I would, I went from reading A Place Called Blessing to The Blessing. And I wasn’t disappointed! I highly recommend this book.

Originally written by John Trent and Gary Smalley, the updates in this version were written by John Trent alone. The book’s primary purpose is to teach parents how to bless their children, but the concepts apply to all relationships. Readers will learn how to affirm, encourage, and unconditionally love and accept all the people who exist all around them all the time. They’ll learn how to offer The Blessing, a concept taken from the story in Genesis of Jacob stealing the firstborn blessing from Esau.

Readers who did not receive The Blessing as children will also learn how to recover from that, so they can move on contentedly and begin to bless others.

The book is divided into four sections: why the blessing is important, what it is, when it doesn’t happen, and living it. Also scattered throughout the book are links to websites with video presentations or other information to enhance what’s in the book. At the end of the book is an invitation to join The Blessing Challenge.

Thank you, Thomas Nelson Publishers, for sending a complimentary eCopy of this book for my honest review. The Blessing is definitely a worth-your-time read!

Sunday, July 3, 2011

Book Review: A Place Called Blessing

Though I haven't yet read The Blessing by John Trent and Gary Smalley, I've heard good things about it. That's why I chose to read A Place Called Blessing by John Trent when Thomas Nelson Publishers offered a complimentary copy for my review through their BookSneeze program. I loved this simple book!

A Place Called Blessing is a fictional story meant to illustrate the five principles of The Blessing put into practice. It's the story of Josh, an orphan from a neglectful home who finds himself, first, in the foster care system, then, through a tragic accident, labelled an unadoptable, problem kid. Josh gives up on himself and on all other people--until he encounters people who relentlessly believe in him and encourage him to pursue good things.

I could not put this book down, and the absolutely perfect ending totally surprised me. I can't say any more without giving important details away, but it's a short and inspirational story with a carefully thought-out note from the author and discussion questions for each chapter at the end. I'm happy to recommend this book to you. (And now I need to go read The Blessing!)

Friday, July 1, 2011

Book Review: Billy Graham in Quotes

Growing up, I always thought of Billy Graham as someone who ministered to older generations. In recent years, however, I’ve developed a great appreciation for him and for his ministry that is truly relevant to anyone who will listen. Billy Graham in Quotes helped me understand why.

In the forward to this book, Graham’s son Franklin tells how his father has always been careful to communicate to others not his own message, but God’s message for them. He teaches the Gospel as presented in God’s Word. This is what makes his preaching timeless and relevant to all.

The book is a collection of Billy Graham quotes arranged in chapters topically. Each chapter begins with a Scripture quotation. Graham's quotations on the topic follow. I enjoyed reading through the book, but readers with specific concerns can pick and choose topics of interest to benefit from Graham’s Bible-based insights. Every single quotation in the book is followed by an endnote number, so readers can turn to the back of the book to learn when the quotation was originally spoken or written. (The endnotes actually take up about a quarter of the book!)

I thank Thomas Nelson Publishers for sending a complimentary eCopy of this book to me. I’ve enjoyed reading it and am sure I will turn to it as a source of wisdom and understanding again and again. Presenting Graham’s quotes in this format was a well thought-out idea!