Reviewed for THC Reviews I agreed to read and review Mark Tedesco's book, I Am John, I Am Paul: A Story of Two Soldiers in Ancient Rome, because I haveReviewed for THC Reviews I agreed to read and review Mark Tedesco's book, I Am John, I Am Paul: A Story of Two Soldiers in Ancient Rome, because I have a certain degree of interest in the history and culture of Ancient Rome but have only had the opportunity to read a few stories set in that era. The book got off to a rather slow start for me, partly because the first few chapters didn't really draw me in very well and partly because of the writing style. We discover in the opening paragraphs that John is in prison and he's basically starting at the beginning and writing down an accounting of his life. Therefore, it's written in more of a journal or memoir style. It tends to skim over the surface of John's life, hitting all the high points, and in general, it's an interesting and adventurous journey. However, it doesn't delve too deeply into his feelings, nor does it go into great detail with regards to most events. He often skips quickly through time, jumping over days, weeks, or even months. It's written in such a way as to emulate the feel of sitting down with a friend and having him regale you with his life story. This made it very difficult for me to get into at first, because it's pretty much all telling and no showing. I primarily read fiction to escape into another world for a while, to live alongside the characters, which to some extent I was able to do with this story. However, I also like to immerse myself in their experiences, feeling what they feel and understanding how they think, and I didn't really get this kind of reading experience with this book. I will admit though, that around Chapter 4 or 5, when John and Paul strike out on their own to rescue Constantine's kidnapped daughter, things started to pick up a little. I gradually became more and more invested in the story, which is why I was able to give it four stars in the end.
After finishing the book, I did a bit of research, and discovered that this is a biographical fiction, inspired by the lives of Sts. John and Paul. There's apparently enough of a historical record to know that these two men were indeed Roman soldiers, who were eventually martyred for their Christian faith and were later granted sainthood by the Catholic church. Their remains are buried in their own home, over which the Basilica Santi Giovanni e Paolo was later erected. These underground areas were rediscovered in the late 19th century by the rector of the Basilica, who was searching for the tomb of the martyrs. I've seen some of the photographs of this underground area, and it's quite impressive. I can see why Mark Tedesco might have been inspired to write about it and these men.
That said though, because of the telling and not showing style of the writing, I can't say that I got a strong sense of who John and Paul were. We learn quite a bit more about John than Paul, because he is the first-person narrator of the entire book, with the exception of the last chapter. We learn that he is a loyal and skillful soldier, who is a leader of men and who follows orders even when being treated unjustly. He's also brave and physically strong. He loves his family, particularly his mother and sister, and misses them when he's stationed far away. John is also a man of faith and a spiritual seeker. He initially follows the teachings of the Roman god, Mithra, but he still feels an empty space in his life and is searching for something more. Most importantly, we also know that John shares a deep friendship with his fellow soldier, Paul. Except for three years when John was stationed in Egypt, the two men are pretty much inseparable. They do most things together and after earning the gratitude and favor of Emperor Constantine for rescuing his daughter, which included a prominent home, they also lived together. While there are a couple of very subtle remarks that could be taken as there being more between these two men than mere friendship, this part of the story is left pretty ambiguous. While I don't think it's necessarily important what the exact nature of their relationship was, it's obvious that they were at least best friends and brothers of the heart. Where I kind of had a problem though was in understanding exactly how they came to be so close. I was willing to accept that their friendship was a fact, but since the author doesn't delve into feelings and emotions, showing how that friendship came about, I simply didn't grasp the why of it.
I enjoyed the parts where John and Paul rescue Constantina, and I especially enjoyed the parts where they begin to learn of and follow the new Way of the Christus. I've always had an interest in early church history and the beginnings of Christianity, so that part drew me in more than some of the others. I also liked that the inspirational message is present, but not in any way overpowering. I can tell that Mark Tedesco's background in history served him well in writing this story too. He even includes several endnotes, which while not unheard of, are definitely unusual for a work of fiction. The fact that he piqued my curiosity sufficiently to make me want to look things up on my own says something as well. The lack of emotional engagement, however, left me feeling distant from his characters. If he had drawn out their humanity more and made me feel what they were feeling, I could easily see this book having keeper-status potential. The book is also free of anything potentially offensive. It has no bad language, no sensuality, and considering that the two main characters are soldiers, even the violence is kept at a minimum, so IMHO, it would be appropriate for most readers. Even without the emotional attachment I would have liked to see, I'm willing to recommend I Am John, I Am Paul to readers who are interested in the history of Ancient Rome or early Christianity, as long as they don't mind a more journalistic style of writing.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews So much can get lost in the commercial hustle and bustle of the Christmas holiday that it's nice to take a step back and rememReviewed for THC Reviews So much can get lost in the commercial hustle and bustle of the Christmas holiday that it's nice to take a step back and remember the real reason for the season. That's exactly what Donna VanLiere has endeavored to accomplish in The Christmas Journey. The story of the nativity is familiar to millions worldwide, but nativity scenes have become so sweet and perfect, how often do we really think about that arduous journey that Joseph and Mary undertook? This book begins with the biblical passage from Luke that recounts this journey, and then Ms. VanLiere gives her own take on it. Written from the perspective of Joseph and Mary, it takes a look at how they must have felt and what it must have been like for them.
The trip from Nazareth to Bethlehem could have taken up to a week, and Mary endured it on the back of a donkey while nine months pregnant. Even before the trip, Mary had likely dealt with disdainful looks if not outright hostility because her of perceived indiscretion, and despite receiving messages from the angels, both prospective parents may have been frightened or feeling inadequate at the thought of caring for and raising such a special child. Then of course, there was the fact that Mary had to give birth in a lowly and probably dirty stable with no one to attend her but her husband. This little book drives home the unvarnished truth of Joseph and Mary's experience on that blessed night, and it's all presented in a lovely way. The story is beautifully illustrated by Michael Storrings and laid out in a very pretty design. However, I should point out that anyone who is expecting one of Donna VanLiere's typical novels should be aware that this is a short story, more akin to a children's picture book, although written for a slightly older audience. The Christmas Journey is more of a gift book that would make it a great present for this or any holiday season and something that can be shared with the family as a Christmas tradition....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews A Long Way to Go is a sweet, heartwarming historical romance in the same vein as Little House on the Prairie or Janette Oke'sReviewed for THC Reviews A Long Way to Go is a sweet, heartwarming historical romance in the same vein as Little House on the Prairie or Janette Oke's pioneer stories. I think fans of these books would probably enjoy this one as well. Being a long-time fan of both, I liked it quite a bit. It is also the ultimate “road trip” story with the bulk of it taking place as the main characters journey to Oregon via wagon train. I always love these types of stories, because I never fail to be amazed at the courage and fortitude of the early pioneers who braved hardships in order to settle this great land of ours. In the author's note at the end, she mentions how she drew on actual journals and first-person accounts of pioneers who traveled the same trail as her protagonists. I wondered all throughout reading the book if this might be the case, because I felt like I was right there on the journey with them. This is an area where Ms. Belfie really excelled in her storytelling, so kudos for that.
The only thing that kept me from giving the book a higher rating was that I felt her character's motivations could have been explored a little better. In this area, the author has a tendency to skim over things rather than delving into deeper POV. I would have loved to see more narrative introspection to help me better understand what the characters were feeling and thinking, as well as a little more descriptive narration to better set some scenes. I noticed that the introspection often consists of rhetorical questions that the character asks of themselves or God (eg. Why am I feeling/acting this way?). In this respect, it would have been nice if Ms. Belfie had dug into her character's psyches to actually answer some of these questions instead of merely asking them and then leaving it up to the reader to speculate. Despite this small deficiency though, the characters were extremely likable.
Rachel is one of the main narrators of the story. She is a widow who has been struggling with taking care of her farm and raising her three children. Knowing that she needs help, her pastor brings around a nice man who is staying in the area temporarily while waiting for the wagon train to head west and is willing to work for meals and a place to sleep. She likes David and thinks he's attractive, but she's a little prickly toward him at first. It's a combination of her wariness of strangers and viewing David as being partially responsible for her sister and brother-in-law leaving her to go west. After all she'd been through with losing a husband and a son, I suppose she was entitled to feel that way, because she wouldn't have had any family left other than her three children had she stayed in Missouri. Rachel does warm up to David fairly quickly though, perhaps a little too quickly. She goes from being adamantly against going west, even after finding out her beloved sister is going, to accepting David's marriage proposal and being OK with moving seemingly overnight. She supposedly did it so her children would have a father and because she was afraid of facing another winter with no male help, but there wasn't quite enough substance to her thought processes to fully understand her quick change of heart. This is one place where deeper POV would have been really helpful. The other is that Rachel is unable to tell David she loves him until the very end of the story, even though from all appearances she cares for and respects him deeply. She goes through some kind of guilt process, feeling bad about loving David and enjoying being married to him, because she somehow feels unfaithful to her first husband. Without that all-important deep introspection, this didn't fully make sense to me, but otherwise, Rachel was a likable and admirable heroine. She weathered the grueling journey quite well and without complaint and treated David very well in spite of her guilt.
David was a wonderful hero. Right from the start, it's obvious that he's a sweet, kind-hearted man. He's a hard worker around Rachel's farm, and her kids take to him almost immediately. In spite of having lost his first wife and baby in childbirth years ago and never having experienced fatherhood, he's extremely good at it. He relates to each of Rachel's children at their own level, whether it's holding and playing with baby Helen, fishing with young Josiah, or giving advice to the teenage Lucinda. He's very protective of his new family as well, always looking out for their well-being. David is very patient with Rachel too, giving her the time and space she needs to recover from her losses and adjust to being married to him, while biding his time in hopes that someday she'll come to love him every bit as much as he already loves her. Since the majority of the book is written from the perspective of two female characters, I have to admit to missing the male POV a bit, but what we see of David through the other character's eyes paints a picture of a gentle, loving man who would be impossible not to adore.
The other primary POV character is Rachel's sixteen year old daughter, Lucinda. She gets her own budding romance with Ben, a young man she meets on the trail. Lucinda is a very well brought up young lady who seems to have a lot of self-respect. She also takes a page from her mother's book by being a hard worker and never complaining. Instead, she willing helps out by cooking, cleaning, caring for her younger siblings, or doing whatever needs to be done. Despite her youth, I had no trouble believing she would make a good wife for Ben. Ben was every bit as nice and wonderful as David, and I really enjoyed this sweet secondary romance.
Overall, A Long Way to Go was a very enjoyable read. The other secondary characters who were a part of David and Rachel's group on the wagon train added flavor and interest. Rachel's other two children, were rendered age-appropriately. Little Helen was cute, while Josiah's exuberance was contagious. I thought the story gave a nice taste of what it must have been like for the early settlers as they made their way to a new home. The author even used a few real-life personages who were key players in this westward expansion as background characters. I also liked how the faith message was a gentle, organic part of the story. All in all, A Long Way to Go was a nice, easy read that was well-written. I would definitely recommend it to fans of this type of story.
Note: I received a copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews Love's Abiding Joy is another lovely addition to the Love Comes Softly series, but unlike the first three books in the series,Reviewed for THC Reviews Love's Abiding Joy is another lovely addition to the Love Comes Softly series, but unlike the first three books in the series, this one is pretty much pure inspirational, historical fiction. There's really no romance to speak of. The story is primarily a continuation of Clark and Marty's relationship as they face more trials and joys with a side helping of Willie and Missie. There are no new budding romances, and even these two married couples don't so much as share a kiss on the lips, only extremely chaste pecks on the cheek or forehead. This was a tad disappointing, because the first three books had just enough romance for me to be comfortable categorizing them as such. However, it was still a wonderful book that is every bit as good as the Little House on the Prairie series, which it resembles, and fans of frontier stories are sure to enjoy it.
In the last book of the series, Love's Long Journey, Missie and Willie headed west in a covered wagon to settle on the frontier and build a cattle ranch. They are now prospering in their new home, but Clark and Marty dearly miss their oldest daughter. With a new rail line now running through a town not far from Missie and Willie's ranch, Clark and Marty are finally able to go visit them. Although this part of the story moved a little slowly for me, I did find it interesting. Compared to modern-day travel, their week-long journey by stagecoach and train seemed downright primitive, but in many ways, Clark and Marty felt like they were traveling in luxury. Although it was still exhausting for them, I suppose when you consider the alternative of traveling overland by covered wagon it was luxurious. The accommodations in their departure city were as well, but from there on, not so much, which makes me very thankful for our modern hotels and travel conveniences.
When Clark and Marty finally arrive, they couldn't be more thrilled to finally see Missie and Willie again and be introduced to the grandchildren they've never met. After a rocky beginning, Missie has settled into her life on the frontier very nicely, and they have built a wonderful group of people around them as a support system. Missie now loves life on the ranch every bit as much as Willie always did, and their two boys are as cute as a button. Clark and Marty only plan on staying for two weeks before heading back to the family they left behind, but a tragic accident, extends their stay for much longer.
Just like the first two books of the series, a large part of this book is in Marty's perspective, but a decent chunk of it is from Clark's POV, which was a refreshing change. I've always adored Clark for his patience and gentleness, and I loved the way he teases Marty. He has always been the perfect foil for Marty's bluntness and impatience. We see a touch of that here, but it's mostly about her strength and resilience which I admire. What I've always admired more though, is Clark's quiet faith and optimism. When tragedy strikes, he does get upset to some extent, but only for a short time, and he doesn't allow himself to dwell on it too much. That's because he believes wholeheartedly that everything that happens to him, good or bad, has a purpose. He also believes everything will be OK no matter what, because God is watching out for us and wants the best for us. With that in mind, he also puts his sharp mind to work figuring out ways to overcome these new obstacles with which he is faced. The other thing I've always loved about Clark is how he quietly lives out his faith in a way that is easy for others to see but non-threatening. That's because he never tries to shove his religion down anyone's throat, but instead, is a good friend and gentle teacher to everyone, no matter where they are in their walk with God. In this way, he is able to reach many people in a positive and often life-changing way. Clark is such an easy man to fall in love with even when the book technically isn't a romance.
Overall, Love's Abiding Joy was a very pleasant and heartwarming read. I love that the faith message is a more gentle one, and not preachy, like many inspirational books nowadays. It also paints a vivid picture of life on the frontier and many of the difficulties inherent in living so far from civilization. I very much enjoyed my time reading Love's Abiding Joy. It has earned a spot on my keeper shelf next to its predecessors, and I look forward to continuing the series....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews The Christmas Promise was another great Christmas story from Donna VanLiere. The first three books in the Christmas Hope serieReviewed for THC Reviews The Christmas Promise was another great Christmas story from Donna VanLiere. The first three books in the Christmas Hope series embodied a sense of sadness with death taking center stage in each of them. While I loved all those books, it was nice to have one with a more whimsical tone where no one dies or is struggling mightily with someone else's death. There are some heavy themes, such as loneliness, alcoholism, domestic abuse and a missing child, but there was enough humor and lighter moments to keep those things from becoming depressing. This book also had more of an ensemble cast than the first three with several characters playing significant roles. Overall, The Christmas Promise was a heartwarming Christmas story that I would recommend to anyone needing to lift their spirits this holiday season.
As with the other books in this series, The Christmas Promise is written in alternating first and third person POV. The first person narrator this time is Gloria aka Miss Glory. She is a retired widow whose adult son has been missing for seven years. He left home just before Gloria's husband, his father, died, and she hasn't seen or heard from him since. She somewhat recently moved to the unnamed small town that has been the setting for all the Christmas Hope books. In an effort to keep busy and to help others in lieu of helping her son, she collects and sorts donations of food, clothing, household items, and even the occasional car, which she them redistributes to the needy in the community. I have to say that Gloria has my dream job. Being a philanthropist is something I've always longed to do. Gloria is a very kind-hearted and loving woman who cares about everyone she meets and helps, maybe a little too much, as it takes her a while to figure out that she can't always help everyone in the way she would like to. Still she is generous to a fault with the only possible exception being her next-door neighbor Miriam. The woman is something of a snob, who always threatens to call the city on Gloria each time someone leaves donations in her driveway. Even Miriam has her own story though. Gloria just hasn't heard it yet. They've spent so long as rivals, she hasn't really taken the time to get to know the other woman, but that all changes when an unfortunate incident leaves the two of them living together temporarily. It was really fun to see these two develop an appreciation for one another and a deep friendship after feuding for so long.
Then there is Chaz who just moved to town and got a job as a security guard at Wilson's Department Store. At first, he's very much a loner and a drifter, who only intends to stay long enough to earn a little money. He obviously harbors some secrets he doesn't want anyone else to know and on top of it all, is a functioning alcoholic who spends all his free time at the bottom of a bottle. He isn't exactly the most likable character initially, but things begin to slowly change for him as he discovers a caring side to himself he didn't realize existed. He works the night shift, and the turnaround starts with him caring for the little boy of a cleaning lady, who had nowhere else to take him and so brought him with her to work. Chaz develops a strong friendship with the little boy, Donovan, and to the extent she will let him into her life, the boy's mother, Carla, who is being abused by her boyfriend. Chaz also begins to feel a connection to Mike, the homeless man who sometimes stands outside Wilson's, and worries when Mike is hit by a car. Last but not least, Chaz falls in love at first sight with Erin, a pretty but very pregnant young woman who Gloria is helping.
What impressed me most about The Christmas Promise is how the author manged to seamlessly weave together all the lives of these characters until it was like they became one family unit. She even brought back a few favorites from past books like Robert Layton (The Christmas Shoes) and Jack and Nathan Andrews (The Christmas Hope). The Christmas Promise was very much a story of new beginnings. Each one of the characters in the book received some sort of second chance after life had thrown them a curveball. This time they chose the right path, but it wasn't without the help of strangers. The one thing I loved most about this book is the serendipitous nature of the characters' meetings which underscores the It's a Wonderful Life principle that each person's life touches so many others in ways that we often don't even know. The Christmas Promise is simply a warm, feel-good story that was a welcome respite from the hustle and bustle of the holiday season....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews Love's Long Journey was another wonderful story in the Love Comes Softly series that is so reminiscent of the Little House onReviewed for THC Reviews Love's Long Journey was another wonderful story in the Love Comes Softly series that is so reminiscent of the Little House on the Prairie books. The author really brought to life the stark reality of the hardships on a wagon train and how sometimes people died along the way. There was also the sheer boredom and monotony of doing the same things and eating the same things day after day. Even once Missie and Willie get settled in a temporary home on the frontier, dangers and boredom still factor in, especially during the winter months. In between the wagon trip and getting settled, Missie and Willie experienced a long, difficult separation as she stayed in the closest town, which was several days ride from their ranch, awaiting the birth of their baby, while Willie went on to get things set up for them. And of course, there was the homesickness of being separated from their families who were so far away with very little means of communication. It all makes me really thankful to live in modern times, and also thankful for those courageous souls throughout history who braved the hardships of the frontier to expand our nation.
Much the same as with her mother, Marty's book, this one is told entirely from Missie's POV. She was a brave young woman who obviously loved Willie a lot to want to help him pursue his dream of cattle ranching. Although the journey itself and living in such an isolated area was often difficult and brought disappointments, Missie rarely complained. She just set her mind to doing what needed to be done and eventually she adjusted quite well. Her attitude was admirable, but that's not to say that I always agreed with her decisions to keep certain things from her husband. I understood that she was trying to avoid adding stress on Willie by not telling him at first about being pregnant or about her severe homesickness, but as someone who shares nearly everything with my husband, I felt like she should have trusted that he could handle it. Once she finally fesses up, Missie comes to that same conclusion herself, but later in the story she still keeps a couple of things from him, including an incident where one of the ranch hands menaces her. I really felt like she should have told Willie about that and allowed him to share her burdens a little more. Even though I sometimes didn't agree with Missie, overall, she was still a very relatable heroine with all of her emotional ups and downs. Missie is a keen observer of people and seems to have an intuitive sense about how they might be feeling or what they might need, and was always ready to lend a hand, which is something that I can really identify with.
I do kind of miss having the male perspective in these books, but the reader can get a pretty good feel for Willie through Missie's eyes. He is a kindhearted man toward others, a good husband to Missie, and a loving father to Nathan. He is a hard worker, a great provider for Missie and his child, and very protective of them both, always doing what was in their best interests even if it was difficult. Willie is a bit of a dreamer with his aspirations of starting a cattle ranch, but still pretty practical, and doesn't really take chances. I think what I liked most about him is the way he comforts Missie in times of sorrow and truly wants to share her burdens, and also his quiet faith and optimism.
There are many things to love about this book. The young love that Willie and Missie share and the way they can hardly stand to be apart from one another is so sweet and tender. The faith message is not at all preachy, but instead is a gentle one of relying on God to sustain you through difficult times. There is a full compliment of secondary characters, other pioneers, ranch hands, townspeople in Tettsford Junction, and more, who all give the story the flavor of the Old West and the sense of oneness as a community. Everything just came together to make Love's Long Journey a very enjoyable read, or perhaps I should say re-read, since I'm pretty sure I first read it years ago as a teenager. In any case, it was every bit as good today as it was back then, and I'm really looking forward to continuing the series. I can tell that there is more story for Missie and Willie, and I'm eager to find out what happens next for them....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews "4.5 stars" The Shack is one of those books that ended up being far more than what I was expecting, although I have to admit tReviewed for THC Reviews "4.5 stars" The Shack is one of those books that ended up being far more than what I was expecting, although I have to admit that precisely what I was expecting, I'm not sure. I knew that this book was billed as Christian literature, but I also knew that it was highly controversial. However, I wasn't entirely certain whether it had caused upheaval in non-Christian or Christian circles. Turns out it's apparently both, which in my estimation means that it has done a good job of hitting its mark. If both sides are simultaneously criticizing and loving it, then the book has struck a good balance in my opinion.
I've mentioned several times in my reviews of other “Christian” books that in spite of being a Christian myself, nothing will turn me off faster than a book that is preachy, which is why I approached The Shack with a certain degree of caution. What I found in it was something that I never would have imagined. It is a deeply moving, spiritual story of a man seeking answers to some very tough questions. I wouldn't call it a religious book, because it doesn't seek to moralize. It is more of a journey in faith to a richer understanding of who and what God is and is not, and how God relates to the human race as a whole. I know that it has challenged me to think of God in a new way which is something that I've been trying to do for a while now, but I often find myself being held back by the strictures of religion. The story in The Shack succeeds in breaking down those barriers to give a look at a God who many people, Christian or not, may never have encountered or even considered. The message here is one of a God of love, gentleness, patience, and goodness, rather than one who is angry, wrathful and ready to smite us at the slightest provocation.
As I read The Shack, I sometimes found myself trying to label it, but it doesn't fit neatly into any one category. It contained elements of apologetics and elements of allegory, but it is difficult to stamp it as having been born out of any one literary device. Instead it is very much rooted in the author's own faith journey. The beginning and ending chapters, as well as the foreword and after words give the uncanny feel of a non-fiction story. It is definitely written in a more factual tone and style. I'm apparently not the only reader who wondered if Mack was a real person who actually had experienced the events detailed in the book. The author states elsewhere that The Shack is a work of fiction, but rightly implies that there is a little bit of Mack in all of us. Pretty much anyone who has experienced difficult or life-changing circumstances or have struggled with their faith could be a Mack.
The Shack definitely left me with a great deal of food for thought. I'm not sure that I'm even doing it justice in my review, because there are so many wonderful messages to be gleaned from its pages that I have a feeling I'll be thinking about it for a long time to come. I loved the imagery in the story. It spoke volumes to me, as did Mack's struggles with understanding God and His mysterious ways. I, without a doubt, related to him in a very profound way. The only reason I didn't give this book the full five stars is because I felt like it was a bit slow in places and the philosophy, no matter how hard I tried to understand, occasionally eluded me. However, I'm willing to admit that when this happened perhaps my spirit just wasn't ready for that particular message yet. The rest of it though made absolute perfect sense. The Shack is definitely a book that will be worth coming back to over and over, and I'm sure each time I'll find something new and exciting within its pages. There are many spiritual truths housed in this simple yet elegant story that I know I will need to be reminded of time and time again which is why it is going on my keeper shelf. I highly recommend The Shack to anyone who wants to be challenged in their faith and understanding of God or anyone who might be looking for a different interpretation of God than what many churches are offering today....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews I loved the first two books in Donna VanLiere's Christmas Hope series, and now I can add The Christmas Hope to my list of all-Reviewed for THC Reviews I loved the first two books in Donna VanLiere's Christmas Hope series, and now I can add The Christmas Hope to my list of all-time favorite holiday-themed stories. In spite of my Christian background, I often find it difficult to read inspirational fiction, because it too frequently seems trite, vapid and/or preachy to me. Not so with Donna VanLiere's books. She somehow manages to impart an inspiring message full of depth and meaning that utterly warms my heart without making me feel like I'm being beaten over the head with it. In my opinion, she doesn't water down the faith aspect of her stories, but neither is it exactly overt which I think makes the books accessible to people of many different faiths and backgrounds. Ms. VanLiere just has a very gentle way about her writing that really speaks to me.
The Christmas Hope is told primarily in first-person from the main protagonist, Patricia's point of view. Patricia is a dedicated social worker who goes above and beyond the call of duty in loving and caring for the kids she helps. She had a rather rough life growing up. When her father left them, it was only through the kindness of strangers that her mother, brother and she survived. Now she seems to be paying it forward to other people through her work, but when the story opens, she has no Christmas spirit left and hasn't celebrated the holiday in four years. Patricia is a little on the OCD side, but I later came to understand that her obsession with tidiness was her way of trying to feel in control after the chaos that has been wreaked on her life by the death of her son. Her marriage is failing, with she and her husband acting like little more than polite strangers which I found quite sad especially after learning about their closeness and the very romantic start to their relationship. Everyone grieves in their own way, but I occasionally had a hard time relating to Patricia's way of dealing (or not, as the case may be). On the surface, she seems to have it all together, but inside she had buried herself so deeply in her grief that she wouldn't let anyone in to share it, not even her husband. Patricia frustrated me a little when she kept saying that she didn't know what to do to stop her marriage from crumbling and her husband from leaving, but her friend and co-worker, Roy, had it right when he said that she did know. It was at those moments that I kept wanting to jump into the story and tell her, "Just do it! Just hug him or do something, anything, to show him you still care." Luckily, a sweet little girl named Emily came along to gently wiggle her way into Patricia's closed-off heart when she least expected it, and a Christmas “miracle” finally brought closure to her deep-seated grief.
Patricia's husband, Mark, seemed like a really great guy who was very kind and loving. Since we don't get any scenes from his point of view, I can't be absolutely certain what he was thinking, but I always got the feeling that he didn't really want his marriage to be over. He was just at the end of his rope and didn't know what to do to reach his wife and couldn't stand living in the same house like strangers anymore. Emily inspires Mark every bit as much as she inspires Patricia, and he seemed a little quicker to respond. He saw what Emily needed and was ready to give her that long before Patricia was willing to admit it. He really got into the holiday spirit, buying the perfect gifts for Emily like a regular Santa's helper and excitedly putting up decorations. I just love how when the door opened a crack he eagerly walked through it, more than happy to soak up the love Emily gave and give it in return, as well as being there for Patricia when she was finally ready.
Emily was an absolutely adorable little girl who was a ray of sunshine in Patricia and Mark's lives. Even though she's been through a lot, she has a generosity of spirit and a peace about her that is like a gentle rain on this couple's parched souls. In fact, she touches the lives of so many people just by being herself. Emily's youthful wisdom reminds me of the Bible verse, “...and a little child shall lead them,” because she certainly did lead Patricia and Mark out of a very dark time in their lives and into a brighter future.
Since the main characters weren't familiar to me when I started The Christmas Hope, I wasn't sure if it had a direct connection to the first two books of the series or not. I was very pleasantly surprised when Nathan and Megan Andrews (The Christmas Blessing) showed up, eagerly awaiting the birth of their first child. Nathan also has another unexpected connection to Patricia which he slowly figures out when she brings another of her “kids” to him for treatment of a heart condition. Nathan is a wonderful doctor who is amazing with children. It's obvious that he's finally found his true calling in life. Another former protagonist, Robert Layton (The Christmas Shoes), also shows up in a brief cameo role.
It almost seems like Donna VanLiere has a preoccupation with death especially around Christmastime, but I have to admit that I really like the way she handles this ofttimes difficult topic. As someone who has had trouble with this issue, I can say that she really imparts an inspiring message about death being another step in life. It also wasn't quite as sad for me in The Christmas Hope, because no major characters were dying. In fact, I was surprised to find that this book actually had some lighthearted moments too, with characters gently teasing each other which made me smile. Overall, The Christmas Hope was a heartwarming story that was an inspiration to read, and I'm proud to put it on my keeper shelf to be enjoyed again and again during future holiday seasons. I love Donna VanLiere's way with creating stories in which the characters lives intricately intertwine in wonderful, miraculous and unexpected ways. I can't wait to see what's in store for the next book of the Christmas Hope series....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews "4.5 stars" I'm pretty certain I read Love's Enduring Promise years ago in my teens, but prior to picking it up again, I couldReviewed for THC Reviews "4.5 stars" I'm pretty certain I read Love's Enduring Promise years ago in my teens, but prior to picking it up again, I couldn't really remember a thing about the story. As a consequence and knowing that this was a continuation of Clark and Marty's relationship, I was kind of expecting an epic love story which isn't quite what this novel is all about. The book opens about two years after the ending of Love Comes Softly. It is still primarily about Clark, Marty, and their growing family, but more like a series of snapshots of their lives together over a span of approximately twelve years. It is also about how the community in which they live and the people within it grow and change as time goes by as well. I didn't find this one to be quite as romantic as the first book of the Love Comes Softly series, probably because it doesn't focus in on the building of one couple's relationship, but I suppose there was enough romance present in the multiple courtships and marriages among secondary characters and the next generation of the Davis family to loosely characterize the story as a historical romance.
Once again, I loved reading about life on the frontier, the sense of warmth and love that comes from family, friends, and community, and how they all share in the joy and sorrow, laughter and tears that life can bring. Most of the story is still told from Marty's point-of-view, but occasionally snippets of other character's perspectives pop up. Then Missie takes over some of the bits near the end, probably as something of a transition to the next book, Love's Long Journey, which will be her story. There are numerous mini sub-plots that highlight all the changes in the community. As more people come to the area, the residents welcome a new teacher, new preachers, and new neighbors. I particularly liked the part about the new preachers, because it highlighted a spiritual position with which I agree, that true spiritual sustenance doesn't come from big words or fancy sermons, but from an ability to sense an earthy oneness with God on a much simpler level. The people also say good-bye as some of their fellow residents move on and others pass on. I was very taken with a sweet side story about a young couple's much longed-for child not being exactly what they were expecting, but he ended up being a remarkable boy who was their pride and joy. There was also one of the many romances that ended in heartbreak, which also tore my heart open a little too, not just because of what the couple experienced but because of other issues which I'll address in a moment. Overall, every little piece of the narrative came together to make me feel like I was a part of this little frontier neighborhood.
I would have to say that Marty is still the main character in this book. She strikes me as a no-nonsense kind of woman who works hard, and would do just about anything for anyone. She can be pretty stubborn and independent at times. She can also be fairly exuberant in her faith, and is eager to share it with others, but I wouldn't characterize it as being particularly overbearing or preachy. Underlying everything is a loving woman who is a great wife and mother. I was rather disappointed that Clark didn't play as much of a role in this book, but what we get to see of him through his interactions with Marty and their family, I could tell that he is the same kind, gentle man with a heart of gold. He is a loving, attentive and protective husband and father, always thinking of others before himself. Clark is just an all-around great guy. Clark and Marty's family grows by leaps and bounds until their little frontier home is just about bursting at the seams, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading about their interactions with each of the children and watching some of them grow up and move on to lives of their own.
Overall, Love's Enduring Promise was a gentle book that was a joy to read, but there was one little part involving the secondary romance I mentioned earlier which left me rather troubled. It involved a white young man (a character I had come to care about a great deal) and an Indian girl (who was very sweet in her own right), which raised the issues of racism and prejudice. The couple was obviously very deeply in love and wanted nothing more than to be married, but not a single person in the story supported that desire (except for one short line from his sister who was immediately chastised by their mother for being naïve and having her vision clouded by her own upcoming nuptials). Marty came the closest by agreeing to meet the girl and talk to the boy's mother, but even she wasn't entirely on board with the relationship. What bothered me the most though was when the boy's mother essentially stated that it wasn't God's will for people of different races to be married and have mixed-race babies. I realize that prejudice of this nature was quite common back then, and that no matter what happened the couple would have faced a difficult road. However, they certainly wouldn't have been the first white/Indian pairing of the era, and since the only way to combat prejudice is for someone to stand up and say it's wrong, I couldn't help wondering if things might not have been different for them if well-respected members of the community like the Grahams and Davises had taken that stand instead of being wishy-washy about it. After all, they are supposed to be good Christian people and to me, that seems like the Christian thing to do. Admittedly, the girl's Indian grandfather wasn't any better, but since he had lost many family members in white attacks, I felt like he at least had a good reason for hating them. The main point I'm trying to make with my mini-rant, is that I felt the author opened a can of worms that ultimately went nowhere and then copped out on a very sensitive issue. However, I'm willing to admit that perhaps, I'm applying too much of my modern sensibilities to a historical fiction story that was written over thirty years ago. This was the one and only thing that kept me from giving this book the full five stars. Thankfully, it was a very small part of the overall narrative and otherwise, Love's Enduring Promise was an enjoyable, feel-good story that left me with warm fuzzies all over, and very much looking forward to revisiting Missie's book soon....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews I first read Love Comes Softly when I was only about 15 or 16 years old, and if memory serves, it was my very first romance noReviewed for THC Reviews I first read Love Comes Softly when I was only about 15 or 16 years old, and if memory serves, it was my very first romance novel. It seems I must have picked well, because not only is it an appropriate story for younger readers content-wise, but it has stood up to the test of time. I still enjoyed it every bit as much today as I did 25 years ago, perhaps even more because I'm seeing it through more mature eyes. Love Comes Softly is something of a Little House on the Prairie story aimed at a slightly older audience. Janette Oke captures that same spirit of the pioneers, depicting their day-to-day lives in a way that made me feel like I was there with them. It amazes me how hard-working and courageous these people were. Ms. Oke paints a picture of joys and sorrow, hardships and laughter against the backdrop of the frontier where close-knit communities of people existed who were willing to help each other in any way they could. She also really brings home the harsh reality for people in that time period, especially women, and how few choices they had. Marty would have been in unbelievably dire straits, and could possibly have even died, if Clark, a stranger to her, hadn't proposed a marriage of convenience. Under the circumstances, it couldn't have been an easy thing for him to do either, but he needed her almost as much as she needed him, even though she didn't want to admit it.
The vast majority (probably more than 95%) of the story is told from Marty's third-person point of view. Marty was a great female lead, but she was also a character who had to slowly grow on me. The author did a wonderful job of palpably expressing Marty's grief over the loss of her first husband. Then Clark came along immediately after her husband's funeral with his proposal. After some thought, Marty, being a practical woman, realized that she really had no other choice, but it didn't stop her from stubbornly resenting Clark for it. Although Marty never gave voice to her angry thoughts in Clark's presence, the reader is certainly privy to them. There were times when I felt like she was being ungrateful for this man taking her in and treating her with kindness and respect, and that she was rather selfish in not even considering the fact that he too might still be grieving the loss of his wife. In her defense though, I carefully considered what it would be like to be in her shoes, and decided that she was for the most part simply having a fairly normal human reaction to being placed in such an untenable position. During these times, I wish that a little more background information had been given about Marty so that I could better understand her reluctance to be beholden to a man, her being suspicious about Clark's kindness, and her inability to perform some of the simplest household tasks. I did admire her determination to uphold her end of the bargain (one way in which her stubbornness served her well), her willingness to learn, and that she always tried her best even when it didn't turn out right. Marty's initial ineptness at cooking and doing household chores could be pretty funny at times. As I continued to read, I realized that the story was really all about Marty's journey back to wholeness and being able to open her heart to love again, and I really enjoyed watching her learn, and change, and most of all grow as a person.
There is a part of me that wishes we could have had a little more insight from Clark's point of view. There were only a handful of times in the entire book where we get to see things from his perspective, and they only last for a couple of paragraphs. However, I think that the author meant for the reader to experience Clark through his actions, and the message that actions speak louder than words came across very clearly through his character. Clark was an incredibly kind and gentle man. He only asked for a mutually beneficial marriage in name only, and even offered Marty an out if she chose to take it. He gave her the space she needed to grieve the loss of her husband. He was never mean or demanding like she expected, but instead treated her with respect and patience when she burned dinner or made a mess of her attempts at cleaning. He even ate pancakes every meal for several days without complaint, and helped with some of the cooking and other chores until Marty got her feet under her. Clark was always caring, thoughtful and understanding, especially after he found out that Marty was expecting. He was an amazing father to Missie, and later, to Marty's child as well. Even Marty realized that Clark always did what was right and best for others, even if it hurt him to do it. I think that the best thing about Clark though was how he quietly “lived” his faith in God through example. He never, ever used it to beat Marty over the head. He just accepted her as she was. It would have been impossible not to love a romantic hero like Clark, and slowly but surely his love (as well as God's love) stole into Marty's heart softly and unexpectedly.
There were a couple of other elements in Love Comes Softly that really drew me in. First was the marriage of convenience which I haven't really read much of in romance before, and I guess had never really thought much about either. After reading this book, I am quite curious to try more romances with this theme. The other was simply the underlying Christian message of the story which I found to be utterly inspiring. I've been very reluctant to read inspirational romances lately because of the preachiness I often find in them, but Love Comes Softly was a truly uplifting novel that brought me back to some simple spiritual truths that had somehow gotten lost in the busy hustle and bustle of everyday life. For that reason alone, I am so grateful that I decided to re-read this book. In fact, the one and only small problem I had with the story was the author's use of backwoodsy vernacular that seemed a little extreme even for the frontier. In my opinion, it made the characters seem somewhat unintelligent which they clearly weren't. Overall though, it was a minor issue, and otherwise, I thoroughly enjoyed every minute of the book. Love Comes Softly is the first volume in the series of the same name. I can't recall how many of the books I read as a teen, but since the latter three were published several years later, I know that I never made it past #5. This all makes me very eager to revisit/discover the rest of the series soon....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews The Christmas Blessing is a lovely follow-up to the first book of the Christmas Hope series, The Christmas Shoes. Nathan AndreReviewed for THC Reviews The Christmas Blessing is a lovely follow-up to the first book of the Christmas Hope series, The Christmas Shoes. Nathan Andrews, the little boy from that story who had been so desperate to buy a pair of shoes for his dying mother, is all grown up and studying to be a doctor, but is doubting whether that is the right course for his life. Every time he looses a patient, it's like reliving his mother's death, and he isn't getting along very well with the doctor in charge of his rotation either. Then he meets a young woman whose zest for life, in spite of being born with a hole in her heart, is absolutely infectious, and his whole life changes.
I really liked the grown-up Nathan. His doubts and fears were very relatable. He is such a sensitive young man, and I have to agree with everyone who kept telling him he'd make a great doctor. Caring so much about his patients was really hard on him, but it made him so much more genuine. Doctors who truly care seem to be few and far between, so I really liked this aspect of his character. His struggle with his belief in whether miracles can really happen was very understandable too. I could also relate to his quiet, unassuming nature, and his difficulty talking with some people which made his immediate connection to Meghan all the more special. Their love was so sweet and their relationship reminded me of the beginnings of my own romance with my husband. I also loved the closeness he shared with his father, sister and grandmother which was just a more mature version of their family ties in The Christmas Shoes.
I couldn't help but admire Meghan for her indomitable spirit. She never let her medical condition get in the way of following her dreams, and her determination led her to be a first-class runner. It was really hard to read about such a vibrant young woman becoming so sick almost instantly, but her illness was the catalyst which helped Nathan finally realize his own destiny. Meghan's young friend, Charlie, a fellow heart patient who acted as her unofficial coach was a big inspiration to her and others. I loved how Meghan and Charlie's families were always there supporting them unconditionally. They, along with Nathan's family, gave the story a great deal of warmth. The spirit of Nathan's mother lived on in the beautiful letters she wrote to her son before she died which was another lovely aspect to the story, as were the sweet little letters that Nathan's grandmother encouraged him to write to his mother over the years.
What I think I liked most about The Christmas Blessing and Donna VanLiere's writing in general is that she has a way with imparting a wonderful message of Christian faith without being too trite or preachy. It's done in a gentle, almost philosophical way through an object lesson that I think readers from many walks of life and faiths could relate to. I have to admit to being on pins and needles wondering how the story would turn out, and although there was definitely some sadness, there was also great joy in the end too. Overall, The Christmas Blessing was a great companion novel to The Christmas Shoes that has also earned a spot on my keeper shelf. There is television movie of the same name based on the book which I look forward to checking out, and although I'm not sure if the remaining books in the Christmas Hope series are related to these two books by characters or plot, I'm eager to read them during future holiday seasons....more
Reviewed for THC Reviews I had recently been lamenting the fact that I hadn't read a true tear-jerker yet this year. I have been know to get a bit mistReviewed for THC Reviews I had recently been lamenting the fact that I hadn't read a true tear-jerker yet this year. I have been know to get a bit misty-eyed at certain scenes, but it is a rare book that makes me actually shed tears. The Christmas Shoes did exactly that and more. It made me cry buckets both while reading it and afterwards while merely thinking about it, and again while trying to write this review. There is a profound and beautiful message packed into this simple short story. It may have been difficult to read at times, evoking many deep and heartfelt emotions, but it was worth every moment. I have been left thinking about it long after turning the last page, which is what I hope for every time I pick up a book to read.
My favorite movie at Christmastime is It's a Wonderful Life, and The Christmas Shoes reminded me of it in some ways. Both stories are about the serendipitous nature of life and how each of our lives are important, intertwined with the lives of others, and can affect anyone with whom we come in contact in unexpected ways. It may not seem like some small thing we've done even mattered, but it's possible that it was the thing that utterly changed another person's life, all by us merely being in the right place at the right time. The meeting between Robert and Nathan in The Christmas Shoes was very brief, but during that short encounter, Nathan gave Robert a much-needed wake-up call, while Robert opened his heart enough to fulfill Nathan's Christmas wish for his dying mother. It all makes me wonder in what mysterious and unknown ways I might have affected the life of someone with whom I've come in contact, over the forty years of my own life.
I believe that The Christmas Shoes is the first book I've read that alternates between first and third person perspective. Robert's scenes are written in his first-person voice, while the rest of the book is written from the third-person point of view of various other characters. I didn't really have any difficulty following it, but it did take a little getting used to. Overall, I think this style worked well. Robert was the character whose life seemed to be the most affected, so it made sense to have his part be in first person. No matter what voice they were speaking in, all the characters were vividly brought to life in a touching and realistic way.
In the beginning, Robert is difficult to like. He is a rather selfish workaholic attorney who has become very materialistic and cynical (think shades of Scrooge from A Christmas Carol). His life is about to fall apart with his wife asking for a divorce after Christmas, but he still can't seem to figure out what he truly wants in life or how to make it happen. He also isn't very nice to some of the other characters in the story, and never really spends any time with his family. Once I came to the realization that Robert is a man who has lost his way and doesn't comprehend what is truly important in life, I was able to feel more sympathetic toward him, but real change doesn't come for him until he meets up with an eight-year-old little boy while doing last minute Christmas shopping on Christmas Eve.
While Robert's lifestyle is one of wealth bereft of human connections, Nathan's family has lived very simply, barely making ends meet on his father's salary as a mechanic, yet they have a home that is brimming full of love. His mother, Maggie made it that way, but now she is dying of cancer. I thoroughly admired Maggie's strength and dignity in the face of death. She didn't complain or ask “Why me?”. She chose to live her final days giving as much as she was physically able to her family. Maggie and Jack had a tragic romance to be sure, but one that was filled with more love in the seemingly short time they had together than some couples experience in a lifetime. That love was obviously passed on to their children, especially Nathan who was thoughtful enough to want to give his mother a very special present for her last Christmas with them and in doing so opened the eyes of a man who was lost to help him rediscover his way in life.
Death can be a very difficult topic for some people, and even I have to admit to being a former death phobic. I have slowly been challenged in my thinking on the subject, first by the death of both my parents more than ten years ago, and more recently by the death of two beloved pets who, through their final moments, taught me some very important lessons. It may seem strange to some, but I found a certain peace and beauty in these creature's passings and know that I wouldn't have wanted to be anywhere else but helping them to make that transition. I mention these things, because I absolutely loved the way Donna VanLiere handles death in The Christmas Shoes. She treats it not as something to be feared, but as something that can be very beautiful, a mere step into the afterlife. I also greatly admired the way that Maggie and Jack handled the subject of her impending death with Nathan. It is my fervent opinion that in cases like this, kids should be treated intelligently and allowed to make their own decisions, which can lead to a better sense of peace and closure for them.
Even though The Christmas Shoes was printed by a mainstream publisher, I have seen the book categorized as Christian fiction, and I suppose in some ways it is. The author is a Christian, and the characters talk about God, heaven, and how Christmas is the celebration of the Christ child's birth. Still, I think that the messages about love, life, death and how the choices we make can affect others, are universal ones that can be appreciated by anyone. In my opinion, the story is never preachy, nor does it seek to advance any sort of religious agenda. It merely tells an inspiring tale, leaving it up to the individual reader to discern the deeper meaning contained within its pages, which to me is the best kind of story, Christian or otherwise. In fact, I lost count of all the characters who were behaving in, what to my way of thinking, was a truly “Christ-like” manner which was very impressive to me. Although several main characters were shining beacons of light too, I was particularly taken by the kindness of some of the secondary characters like Nathan's teacher, Mrs. Patterson, the hospice nurse, Sylvia, and the anonymous lady who merely washed dishes and cleaned the kitchen the day after Maggie's death. They became a humble and sometimes silent expression of the real spirit of Christmas by showing God's love in service to those in need.
The Christmas Shoes is the first book in the Christmas Hope series. There are currently five books in the series, and the next one, The Christmas Blessing, follows Nathan as a young man dealing with new challenges in his grown-up life. I may not get a chance to read The Christmas Blessing this holiday season, but I will definitely be reading it at some point in the future. For anyone who isn't aware, The Christmas Shoes is based on the song of the same name recorded by the group NewSong. I've heard it on the radio at Christmastime a few times, and it always makes me cry just like the book did. There was also a made-for-TV movie adapted from the book which aired on television a few years ago and is now available on DVD. While recently shopping, I chanced to find a copy at Target even though I wasn't specifically searching for it, and I am now looking forward to watching it soon. Overall, The Christmas Shoes is an amazing book that made me cry like I don't think any other story ever has, but also left me with some very profound food for thought. Enjoy isn't quite the right word for such a heart-wrenching read, but it was a beautiful and utterly moving experience that has touched my heart and mind in inexplicable ways with its pure and simple expression of the true meaning of the holiday season. I highly recommend this book to all readers. Just be sure to have a box of tissues handy for the inevitable flood of tears.
Note: This book has no objectionable content, so in my opinion, would be suitable for teen readers and possibly even pre-teens as long as they wouldn't be bothered by the highly emotional nature of the subject matter....more