Sunday, June 30, 2013

A Sadistic Killer Stalks Slaughter Creek

In this sequel to Dying to Tell, Brenda Banks, an investigative reporter, tries to get an exclusive story on Commander Blackwood, a sadistic madman who tortured children in the insane asylum at Slaughter Creek. Blackwood is now in prison, but another killer, possibly one of the children he tortured, is strangling people in Slaughter Creek. Nick Blackwood, one of the Commander's sons, is now an FBI agent trying to clean up the mess his father created. He has loved Brenda Banks since high school and he doesn't want her involved with his father, but his plans to keep her out of the investigation are thwarted by the killer who leaves a trail of clues that only Brenda can understand.

If you like suspense, this novel has plenty as Nick Blackwood and Brenda Banks try to understand their childhoods and track down a sadistic killer. There were too many scenes of sadistic torture involving children for my taste, so I didn't enjoy this novel.

I found the main characters less interesting than the comparable characters in Dying to Tell. Sadie and Jake seemed much more real. They were focused on trying the help Amelia, Sadie's twin sister, one of the Commander's victims. In this novel, Nick and Brenda focus on their own pasts. I found it hard to get to know these characters, particularly with all the scenes of torture both remembered and current thrown in between glimpses of their interaction.

I can't recommend this book unless you like gritty, sadistic mysteries with a hint of romance, but if you want to follow the lives of the Slaughter Creek characters, you may enjoy this second installment.

I reviewed this book for the Amazon Vine Program.

Saturday, June 29, 2013

Family Secrets and the Tragedy of Stardom

Logan and Kelsey grew up together, cousins, but closer than sisters. Then something happened. Kelsey's family moved away, and the girls haven't seen each other since. Now Kelsey is a famous singer living an incredible life at the top of her profession. Logan struggles with a job that isn't as fulfilling as she'd hoped, a roommate that leaves the condo a mess and a boyfriend who appears and suddenly disappears.

All this changes when Delia, another cousin and Kelsey's personal assistant, invites Logan to come to California for a reunion with Kelsey. At first Logan is overwhelmed with the beautiful home, cars, clothes, and servants, but as she and Kelsey reconnect, she realizes that there is a darker side to Kelsey's stardom. Her boyfriend, Eric, is marrying someone else; her life is completely controlled by her parents, who manage her career; she has a killing performance schedule and no friends. After a confrontation with Kelsey's father, Delia quits and Logan becomes Kelsey's assistant. Neither set of parents is happy about it. The incident that drove the families apart is still an issue. For awhile, it looks as if things will work out, but Kelsey is being pushed closer and closer to the breaking point, and hard as she tries, Logan can't save her cousin.

The background of the book is fascinating. It feels voyeuristic to peer behind the scenes and see how the stars
live. The connection between the cousins is well done. You can't help but hurt for Kelsey and root for Logan to be able to help her, but sometimes things have gone past the point where there are easy fixes.

The family secret that caused the original estrangement is used effectively to keep the reader turning the pages to find out what really happened. It's not the center of the story, but it does keep the action moving.

The characters are the center of the story. I found it very easy to dislike the parents who kept Kelsey tied to them like a little girl although she was twenty-five years old. I liked Logan. She was independent, worked hard, and genuinely like Kelsey and tried to help her, but in the end, she had to save herself.

I recommend this book if you're looking for a good beach read for the summer. It will definitely entertain.

I reviewed this book for Net Galley.  

Thoughts on Being a Christian Writer: Letters and Life by Bret Lott

Brett Lott makes no bones about being a Christian writer. He begins the first essay by reciting the Apostles' Creed. However, the book is more than a presentation of his faith, it is also a treasure trove of thoughts on what it means to be a writer.

The first five essays cover topics ranging from a discussion of literary fiction to thoughts on precision in writing to an essay on Flannery O'Connor. My favorite was the discussion of precision in writing. As Lott points out, it's a difficult concept to articulate, but I found by the end I had a better grasp of what it means to write with precision. I particularly enjoyed his example of precise writing in the Bible, Judges 3:12-26, in which Ehud kills Eglon, king of Moab. I had read the passage before but completely missed the reference to Eglon's bowels letting loose after Ehud stuck his sword through his belly. The smell made the guards think that Eglon was relieving himself and therefore didn't disturb him and Ehud got away. It's a small detail, but it makes the picture of the assassination very real.

The essay on Flannery O'Connor is also a favorite. Using her life and words as an illustration, Lott discusses the importance of the story more than the prestige of the author. Too often, writers crave fame and their desire to tell a story becomes secondary.

The final section is about Lott's life. He begins to tell the story after the death of his father. Losing a father is never easy. It makes you reflect on life: what was and will never be again.

I recommend this book for Christian writers, but it also provides thought provoking concepts for anyone who hopes to write meaningful fiction.

I reviewed this book for Crossway.

Thursday, June 27, 2013

The Medium and the Message: Redemption by William E. Jefferson

Redemption is the companion volume to “The Point: The Redemption of Oban Ironbout” In the original volume two newlyweds, Goodwin and Hollie Macbreeze visit the Isle of Estillyen. Hollie wants to hear the series of twelve readings given by the monks on the subject of redemption. Goodwin is more interested in meeting the owner of the house on the point, Oban Ironbout. In that volume the twelve readings are given in summary form. In this volume the complete readings are produced.

The twelve readings are conducted by the monks of Estillyen, one monk being the reader and presenting the relevant scripture passages, the other playing the role of Satan. It's an interesting presentation, particularly the portrayal of Satan. The prose is often poetic, but it can also be difficult to follow.

The readings emphasize the importance of the connection between the medium and the message. Lecture Five, “The Word Became Flesh,” is the clearest example of this premise. The opening of the Gospel of John has the words “And the Word was made Flesh.” Jefferson uses this analogy to present his thesis that words are important, but not in and of themselves. Words are important because of the concepts they express and most importantly who says them. Jesus Christ is the perfect example of the inextricable nature of the medium and the message.

I particularly enjoyed the section of each reading devoted to Satan. He is presented as a slimy, slinking character berating his followers and spying on what I AM is doing with the “Fleshies” he created.The depiction of Satan and his omnipresence are very well done.

I recommend this book if you read “The Point” and want a more complete set of readings. I also recommend it if you're looking for
a unique way to look at the story of the old and new testaments leading to Christ and his crucifixion.

I reviewed this book for Handlebar.   

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

The Last Bend in the Road

I hope becoming sixty-five doesn't presage the last bend in the road. Personally, I'd like ten more years or even twenty, but I agree with John Reynolds that reaching sixty-five, possibly retired and with gray hair, one begins to think about: what's coming next; what's in the past; and how did I become the person I am?

My favorite poem is “One by One.” We see friends and relatives die. That they are no longer here can leave us lonely and sad, but if we can create a place for them inside our heads, “Then thankful I can always be/ That they can travel on with me.”

My other favorite is “Green.” The author looks out over his childhood home remembering it as it was with meadows and a stream, but that isn't the way it is today. Progress has torn up the meadows and diverted the stream to a pipe below the ground. Sometimes all you can do is be thankful for what you had. “In no place can I clearer see/How good my childhood was for me/By that remark I simple mean/I grew up when the world was green.”

Each poem is introduced by a quote from a well known work and accompanied by a picture. They are perfect choices to set the stage for the poems. I recommend this book for the thought provoking images whether you're sixty-five, twenty-five, or eighty-five they will speak to you.

Friday, June 21, 2013

Horse Racing, Drug Smuggling, Murder, and Romance

Christian's father is dying. Although Christian has been estranged from his father since his parents' divorce, his father, a small time horse trainer, begs Christian to come see him at his small Thoroughbred farm outside Ocala, Florida. Although down on his luck, his father has a special colt. He wants to give the colt to Christian on the understanding that the colt will be trained and race, hopefully making them a lot of money.

The trainer Christian's father selects swindles him out of the horse, but there's another horse, a clone of Secretariat. His father believes this horse will be one of the greatest racehorses ever, but a great deal of money is owed on him, not to mention that because he is a clone he's not eligible to race, but that can be overcome by falsifying his breeding. To buy the colt, Christian becomes involved with the a group of mobsters who loan him the money to buy the colt. When he can't pay, they coerce him into helping them with
drug smuggling off the Florida coast.

Action is the key element in this novel. From Thoroughbred racing to drug smuggling to romance gone bad, the action carries the story. If you enjoy an action filled book. This is one for you. Unfortunately, the action is sometimes a bit extreme. I had trouble with the drug smuggling and psychotic ex-girlfriend, but the horse racing is well done. The author apparently has a good knowledge of the Thoroughbred world and the horse industry centered around Ocala.

The characters are the weakest part of the book. From the horse trainers, to the drug lords, to the girlfriends, they are stereotypes. This may not matter if action is what you seek, but it will bother anyone who expects a character driven novel.

I reviewed this book for Net Galley.  

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Brain Imaging Highlights the Mind/Brain Problem

Modern studies of the brain use sophisticated imaging techniques, MRIs, PET scans, and others in an effort to isolate functions to specific parts of the brain. At first these techniques seemed extremely promising. However, when subjects were given more tests to highlight specific facets of memory and perception, the results were often unexpected. Storage of memories could more around. It might be different in young people and older people. These were fascinating findings and while not negating previous findings they amplified them, and, as often in science, the amplification led to new questions.

Probably the most important part of the book is the final chapter in which Le Fanu reflects on what the findings have shown about the brain and what still remains a mystery. Among the mysteries are imagination, reasoning, and free will. Perhaps the remaining most significant mystery is the self. Nearly everyone perceives themselves as a distinct being. We can think about our thoughts, and most of us have the sensation that our self is located somewhere in the forehead between the eyes. Neuroscience has not yet been able to find the mind that integrates brain functions, so we are left with the mind/brain problem. A problem that has troubled philosophers and scientists for hundreds of years.

I highly recommend this book. The author does a goof job presenting technical information in language
most lay people can understand. He also makes an excellent case for the gap between what neuroscience has been able to accomplish, and that is a great deal, and the still unexplained mysteries of the mind.

I reviewed this book for Net Galley.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

Delicious Amish Recipes From Florida

Before reading this cookbook, I had no idea there was a large Amish/ Mennonite community in Sarasota, Florida. In fact, I had no idea that the Amish were like the rest of us going south for the winter. Learning about this settlement, its history and through newspaper clippings learning about the lives of the people was fascinating. I'd love to visit and see the places Sherry Gore describes, like Yoder's Restaurant.

The recipes make your mouth water just reading them. The ingredients are easy to come by, using standards like cream of mushroom soup for a soup base. I thought the book was heavy on dessert recipes, but that's a matter of taste. If you have a growing family making things for the children is, I'm sure, a priority. Milk, cream, and butter are heavily featured in the main dishes and soups as well as the desserts. This makes them even more delicious, but if you or anyone in your family has a problem with lactose it will take creative planning to adjust the ingredients.

I thoroughly enjoyed the book. Now if I'm in Florida, I'd like to visit Yoder's restaurant and see if I can find an Amish bake sale at the farmer's market.

I reviewed this book for the Booksneeze program.

Monday, June 17, 2013

A Chilling Example of Abuse of Power

Fifteen-year-old Ivy wanders home early one morning to find her older sister, Mary Ella, having a baby. Even worse, she's told by the social worker, Mrs. Werkman, that Mary Ella has appendicitis so she'll have to have the baby in the hospital so her appendix can be removed.

At fifteen, Ivy finds herself virtually in charge of the family. Her grandmother, Nonnie, is diabetic, but insists on eating sugar whenever she can get her hands on it. No one knows who the father of Mary Ella's baby is, but they're hoping it's not Eli, the black boy who lives with his family in the other cabin on the Gardiner's tobacco farm. Ivy's only relief are her meeting with Henry Allen, the son of the farm owner, and people worry that she'll go too far and end up like Mary Ella with an illegitimate child.

This is a story of the helplessness of people on welfare, particularly children and young adults. They are at the mercy of what the social workers thinks is appropriate, and what she can convince the child's guardian to agree to. It's chilling, particularly since the story is set in North Carolina in the early sixties when the state ran a eugenics program to sterilize those considered unfit. 

Chamberlin did an excellent job showing us likable people caught in a difficult situation. Although the eugenics program was a bad idea, she shows it in an even handed way. Some women benefited from the free sterilization. They didn't want more children and the procedure allowed them to take better care of their families. However, it crossed the line when dealing with young women, some as young as twelve, eliminating all choice for their future as wives and mothers.

I highly recommend this book. It's an enjoyable read: well researched
and well written. Because the characters are so real, it sticks with you and makes you think about how giving an organization too much power leads to terrible abuse.

I reviewed this book for Net Galley.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Dark Secrets in the Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley

It's 1850. Charles Maddox reluctantly takes on a new case. He's worried about his uncle, the famous thief taker, who suddenly collapsed after reading a letter and is still unable to speak. After a period of inaction, he takes the case mainly because it appears to relate to the reason for his uncle's illness. Perhaps if he understands the relationship, he will be able to help his uncle.

The clients are the only surviving son of Percy Bysshe Shelley and Mary Wollstonecraft, and his wife. They are rigid Victorians intent on burnishing the image of the famous poet, and are destroying any papers that might reflect poorly on that image.

They are allegedly being harassed by the owner of some papers that would cast a very unflattering, if not criminal, light on the image of the poet and his intimates. Charles is commissioned to buy the papers. He accepts, but finds himself in a situation that not only affects the Shelleys, but his own history and that of his uncle.

I thoroughly enjoyed this book. The author has obviously done extensive research on the Shelleys, finding unexplained gaps in their history and documents. Filling the gaps she has created a suspenseful tale of murder, revenge and love. Whether she has the correct explanation for the gaps is obviously unknown, but she's created a riveting tale of
suspense and intricate personal relationships.

The writing is supposed to be reminiscent of the time period. In fact, the author is an omniscient presence watching the characters as though on a stage. It's not difficult to read, but if you don't like author intrusion you may find it jarring.

I highly recommend this book, if you enjoy a good mystery. If you're offended by someone writing about historical personages in a revealing way, it's probably not the book for you.

I reviewed this book for Net Galley.

Monday, June 10, 2013

Remembering Fathers: Imagining the Future by Carolyn Howard-Johnson and Magdalena Ball

It's easy to remember our mother's, but sometimes our fathers, perhaps more distant, slip into the past. I loved this collection. Carolyn Howard-Johnson and Magdalena Ball bring back those precious moments with fathers. In the images, you feel the silent memories and see glimpses of the fathers these daughters remember.

I particularly loved Carolyn short poem, “Remembered for His Smile.” It could have been about my father except he smoked cigars.

A line from “Father Earth” in Magdalena Ball's collection resonated with me, “it's hard to be a father these days.” It is hard to be a father, so it's especially important to take time to think about those important men in our lives.

Sherlock Holmes and Watson Time Travel to Solve Biblical Mysteries

If you love mysteries and Sherlock Holmes, this is a great read. The author has done an excellent job of giving the book the feel of the Sherlock Holmes collection. I loved it.

After a three week disappearance, Watson finds Sherlock Holmes on an unused paddle steamer. At the request of a mysterious client, he has constructed a time machine; the plans for which he pilfered from Moriarty. In addition to commissioning the building of the time machine, the client gives them Biblical
mysteries to solve. Usually these require the sleuths to appear in other lands and other times, sometimes dressed as natives, sometimes a Londoners.

The Biblical puzzles are all fascinating. The author has done a considerable amount of research and all his facts seem to be accurate. I enjoyed each one, although some, like “The Hanging Man” were particularly well done.

I highly recommend this book, if you're a Sherlock fan. I think the mysteries can be enjoyed by both believers and non-believers for the sheer fun of the stories.

I reviewed this book for the Thomas Nelson Booksneeze Program.  

Sunday, June 9, 2013

The Worlds of Ultra Running and Biotechnology Meet in the Fight to Save a Little Girl's Life

As the story opens, Caleb Oberest is running a 100 mile race across the mountains. He hasn't always been an ultra runner. He left his conservative job to join the cult-like training center run by Mack. The rules are strict and the punishment is expulsion. Caleb is breaking the rules, but he can't help himself, he has fallen in love with a new member and her baby daughter. When he learns that the baby has a rare and fatal genetic disease he calls on his brother Shane.

Shane works for a biotechnology company. He isn't exactly estranged from his brother, but he doesn't understand him. When Caleb explains that he needs Shane's help to save the little girl's life. Shane isn't sure what to do, but he is expecting his own baby, and he can't turn away from his brother's need.

I found this book hard to get into. The opening chapters focus on running with a graphic description of how painful running a 100 mile race is, calling on every ounce of endurance the runner has. It was interesting, but not being a runner, I found it a bit tedious.

The characters are not stereotypes, but they're not complex either. Likewise, the plot is quite straightforward. Since it revolves around the baby girl, it is easy to feel sympathetic toward the struggles of the characters. However, for my taste, it wasn't enough to keep my interest.

The book is well researched in both the areas of ultra running, and biotechnology and cancer research. The focus is on people pushing themselves beyond where they think they can go. This is what Caleb finds so addictive about running. I recommend this book if you're a runner, or interested in the sport, but if you're interest in running is low, this is probably not the book for you.

I reviewed this book for Net Galley.

Saturday, June 8, 2013

Christianity and the Arts

Creativity is a gift from God. Great literature, music, and painting, whether by Christians or pagans, present the truths of human existence. This is the basis of Barrs' discussion of the arts as an important part of the Christian experience.

Echoes of Eden are the way God made the world. In almost all good literature the three fundamental themes are: “The beauty of creation, the appalling reality of evil, and the universal human longing for redemption and a better world.” (p. 131) Great works of art can come from the ancients, or from people who embrace another religion, but they all have in common a view of the world as God created it.

I enjoyed this book. In the opening chapters Barrs discusses the relationship of the arts to Christianity. In the subsequent chapters he uses the work of C.S. Lewis, Tolkien, J.K. Rowling, Shakespeare, and Jane Austen to illustrate his point about the presence of Christian ideals in a variety of works.

Some readers may be surprised by the inclusion of J,K, Rowling in this list. However, Barrs makes good points about the themes of the Harry Potter books: self-sacrifice and love. Children and adults love these books, and I think it is as much for the themes as for the delightful world and interesting characters. If anything helps our children to become readers, we should encourage it. Creativity and the ability to enter imaginary worlds through the written word are gifts from God and should be treated as such.

I was disappointed that the only areas of the arts included in this book were the literary examples. However, since this is Barrs area of expertise it can be forgiven. I would love to see a similar book that included music and painting.

I highly recommend this book if you enjoy literature. It is a treat.

I reviewed this book for Crossway.

Thursday, June 6, 2013

A Thrilling Race to Recover a Kidnapped Child

Former US Marshal Simon Fisk has just recovered another kidnapped child in France and is heading home when he's detained by the French Police. Six-year-old Lindsay Sorkin has disappeared from the suite where she was staying with her parents. They are distraught. The police give Fisk an option: go to jail for smuggling the child he recovered out of France, or help find Lindsay. Simon avoids looking for kidnapped children unless an estranged parent is the kidnapper. He can't stand the reminder of his daughter's kidnapping and his wife's subsequent suicide.

With no real option, but to help the Sorkins, Fish takes off on at a high-speed chase through the seedy areas of Paris and on to Poland and Germany. Time is running out for Lindsay, and he doesn't want another dead child on his conscience.

Very fast paced thriller. If you like action this is definitely a book you'll enjoy. The plot has numerous twists.
The ending is a surprise, although the author is good about leaving clues throughout the story.

I highly recommend this book if you like thrillers and a good mystery.

I reviewed this book for Net Galley.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

The Aftermath of a Family Scandal

Fifteen-year-old Thea Atwell is angry and somewhat frightened. She knows she's responsible for the tragedy that is ripping her family apart, but she hates the idea of being abandoned at the Yonahlossee Riding Camp in the mountains of North Carolina far from her beloved home in Florida.

Thea has lived a sheltered life with her parents and twin brother, Sam, on their thousand acre citrus plantation. Taking lessons from her father, she's never been to school and has no girl friends. Her favorite companion is her pony Sasi. This makes Yonahlossee particularly difficult. She has no idea what to expect from other girls.

Thea, however, is adaptable and soon has a best friend. She's an excellent rider and shows that she can excel in an area important to camp status. Although she makes a place for herself at Yonhalossee, she is homesick throughout the first half of the novel. It is only after an illness when she realizes that her parents won't come for her that she decides to make a way for herself and forget her family. How well she succeeds is the second half of the book.

I enjoyed the book, particularly the descriptions of the riding camp. The author does a good job of portraying a girl who loves horses and lives to ride. The thirties were a different time when being respectable was much more important than it is today. I thought the setting and time period were well done.

The characters were interesting. The girls all have individual personalities and it was fun to get to know them and become involved in their lives. My one criticism of the book is that the secret that seemed so terrible was used a gimmick to keep the tension high. Personally, I figured out what had happened, if not in all the particulars, at least in general. It was obvious from the opening, so dragging the secret out through three hundred plus pages got a bit wearing.

If you love horses, you'll enjoy this book. I did.

I reviewed this book for the Amazon Vi
ne Program.

Racial Relations in the South of 1958

Ivy arrives home at four in the morning. She hopes to not be caught, but that hope vanishes when she hears her sister, Mary Ella, screaming in the upstairs bedroom. It's not a nightmare. Mary Ella is ready to have her baby. The problem is the baby's father is unknown, and Ivy is terribly afraid that Eli, their black neighbor, is the father.

This is the south, North Carolina to be exact, in 1958 and having a black baby could mean that Ivy, Mary Ella and their grandmother
lose their home.

Ivy was late coming home because she and Henry Gardiner, her long time playmate, were fooling around with a Ouija board in the church. Did they really call up a spirit?

The short story is a good introduction to the longer work “Necessary Lies.” It portrays the difficulty of growing up poor in the south and the racial tensions that sprang from blacks and whites living close together, but supposed to stay apart.

Ivy is a delightful character. She's game to wander around with Henry late at night having adventures, but she cares a lot about her family and tries her best to make things work so that Mary Ella's baby will be born alive.

I thoroughly enjoyed this taste of “Necessary Lies” and hope to enjoy the full book.

Monday, June 3, 2013

What Happens to Someone Caught in a Cover-up?

George is Beckett is naïve. He's invited to a party at the home of super-rich Senator Gregory and envisions himself shaking the senator's hand, telling him he admires his work and learning something about the Washington scene. Instead, he witnesses two of the senator's nephews molest a virtually unconscious girl. It's the turning point in his life.

George castigates himself for not doing something about the rape until it's over. He's even more unhappy when both the father of the girl and a representative from the Gregory family come to solicit his help. The Gregory's want him to cover-up what he saw. The girl's father wants justice.

Years later another murder on Cape Cod appears to involve the Gregorys. George is now an Assistant District Attorney. He owes his job to the Gregorys, but can he let this murder go by and not do the right thing? 

The super-rich, politically well connected family is featured in the book, but the story isn't about the crimes or misdemeanors committed by family members, it's about the cover-up of those criminal behaviors and what happens to the people who are bought off. It affects each life in a different way, but all the people who accept the largess to keep quiet are changed.

The story opens well. Although it's clear from the beginning who is responsible for the murder and rape, the story has momentum because the main character, George, follows the clues and changes his outlook by what he finds. That said, the book begins to drag about halfway through. George visits a great many people but asks basically the same questions. It gets boring, but there is enough violence to keep the story moving.

The setting is good. Wallace clearly knows Cape Cod. T
he other settings are well done although they range from Idaho to Costa Rica. I enjoyed the book and would recommend it as a character study rather than a mystery.

I reviewed this book for Net Galley.