Return

Return (Redemption, #3)Return by Karen Kingsbury

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This is the third book of the Baxter Family Saga. At this point, there are three main protagonists, Kari, Ashley and Luke. Luke’s story is the main story of this book. He has really spun off into rebellion against his parents, God, and all that he formerly held dear. At the same time, in New York, his former girlfriend is pregnant with his child. Will he ever find out about the child? Will he ever turn back to God? Will he ever reconcile with his family?

At the same time, we see glimpses of Kari and Ryan’s life as they prepare for their wedding day. This is a really great payoff from the indecision and hesitancy that plagued their relationship throughout the first two books.

The other main character that we are graced with in this book is Ashley. Her and Landon’s relationship continues to develop and hits a major speed bump or two. After all, they are in different cities and at different places in their lives. Will they ever actually get together?

I enjoyed this book, but I found it to be a little melodramatic. Ashley and Landon’s story took up a good piece of the book, and I find it emotionally exhausting. Every time I think they’re finally going to be happy, some other reason comes up that they can’t be together. I’m hoping for some resolution in the next book because we didn’t get it here, and the fact that there relationship is so melodramatic is a main reason that I had difficulty enjoying this book as much as the first two in this series.

I did find Luke’s story to be interesting and I am glad that it has reached some resolution. I felt like his issues with faith and God were tied up a little too quickly and easily. As someone with a naturally skeptical nature, I did not find it to be believable, and I had doubts that Luke really had the faith doubts that he displays in the book because of how quick and tidy the resolution was. I also did not find the comparison with Peter to be believable for someone who is having faith doubts. However, I will grant that perhaps this is the author’s way of showing us that perhaps instead of doubts, perhaps Peter just had some rebellious and unhappy feelings toward God. I always felt like Peter’s denials were more of the “I need to save myself” type than the actual doubt in Jesus as his Messiah. That’s just my interpretation though.

This book also introduces Brooke as the next major character in this series, and I am hoping that her story is great. I am also hoping to finally see some resolution on Ashley and Landon and an end to their exhausting drama in the next book.

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Remember

Remember (Redemption, #2)Remember by Karen Kingsbury

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This book continues the Baxter family drama, focusing on Ashley Baxter. A single mom who has gotten away from God and has committed a series of bad mistakes, Ashley has erected high walls over her heart. She holds everyone at length, especially Landon Blake, the man who has loved her since they were in high school. She’s convinced no one can love her, including God, because of the mistakes she has made. Still, after getting a job working with Alzheimer’s patients and after beginning to spend time with Landon following an accident he has at work, cracks begin form in the walls around her heart.

However, this book does not completely follow Ashley’s story. Kari and Ryan’s story also continues as Kari heals from Tim’s death and as Ryan works on the coaching staff of the New York Giants. Luke Baxter is also introduced as a major character, and he is a college student who shares a sweet relationship with his girlfriend Reagan.

When the events of September 11th enter into the world of their family, the story of these relationships twist and turn as does the nation. Ashley finds herself drawn back to God, but Luke finds himself driven away by his disappointments and his questions.

I found this book to be an interesting book. The world of the Baxters has expanded and grown to where, instead of this being a book mainly about one character, the book has begun to follow the whole family. The story is pleasant and was enough to keep me hooked. I especially loved the sweet interplay between Ashley and her Alzheimer’s patients. They really made the book for me. 🙂

One of the lingering interests that I had from this book was Luke’s story. He was firm and rigid in his beliefs about God. Then, a little sin, and what he felt was punishment and unanswered prayers from God completely turned him away into humanism and atheism. I think that this part of the story is a part where we can all relate.

Luke had always worshipped a God who answered his prayers in the way that he wanted them to be answered. He had never had a major prayer that wasn’t answered and had never felt disappointed by God. Then, he has an unanswered prayer and his faith comes tumbling to the ground. This is a struggle that is so common, especially among those who are coming of age in their faith. It is a struggle that I have had in my own faith walk. God does not always answer our prayers in the way we expect or prosper us in a way that aligns with the “American Dream.” Therein, lies a problem we often find in ourselves and our faith. I will be going into the next book as I have finished this one because I am interested in seeing how Luke’s story is resolved. It is clear to me that Kingsbury’s goal is to bring all the siblings to God, but the how is the interesting part of the journey, and one I’m looking forward to reading.

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Redemption

Redemption (Redemption, #1)Redemption by Karen Kingsbury

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I will confess that I don’t actually like Christian fiction. It’s often too formulaic, and the characters and situations are too contrived. Often, I feel like the faith statements are too shallow, and the whole thing just turns me off. However, my sister and mother have both been in love with a series from Karen Kingsbury for a while, and they kept recommending to me that I read the Baxter books. I would listen to them and find something else to read, but my mother bought me several series of them to try out for Christmas, so I just had to put them on my reading list. (This book will actually be a part of my #vtReadingChallenge as “a book recommended by a family member.”)

Redemption is the first book in the Baxter family saga and it’s the beginning book where we meet the whole family. The protagonist of this book is Kari Baxter Jacobs. The book begins with her husband walking out the door because Kari has discovered his affair. Despite the fact that Kari is still committed to their relationship, Tim wants nothing to do with their marriage. In his mind, he has found a new love and the old love is gone, despite the guilt and the small voice in his head reminding him of his sin. He decided to just drown that voice out with alcohol.

In her pain, Kari moves out of her home and and moves in for a few weeks with her parents. We are introduced to her whole family and to the dynamics between them. (We’re especially introduced to her sister Ashley, who will be the protagonist of the second book in the series.) An old flame also comes back into her life, and she has to make a decision to remaining committed to her marriage or allowing it to slip away. She also has to face an incredible tragedy in her life to overcome (as if her husband’s infidelity isn’t enough!!).

When I started reading the book, I was bothered by the formulaic feel of the writing. I was annoyed at the chapters from the point of view of Tim, who I considered to be very shallow and of low character. I had just finished reading the books of A Song of Ice and Fire, and after reading those, it was difficult to go to a writing style that was, quite frankly, much less beautiful. Yet, by the time I was fifty pages in, I was completely drawn into the story and the character.

I found myself tearing up several times during the book, especially as Kari faces her decision whether to stay in her marriage or to allow herself to reinitiate a relationship with her high school boyfriend. The love that puts duty over personal desire and is not self-seeking is still one that I have difficulty with, so to see her make the choice to commit herself to her marriage, even when it is hard, was something that I found beautiful and heartbreaking for her personal happiness. It reminds me of the lovely Gary Thomas books on marriage (Sacred Marriage & A Lifelong Love) where I was really brought home to the fact that my marriage wasn’t about me and weather I was happy or not (and I am!!). Instead, I was struck again by how much my marriage has to do with my sanctification and my relationship with God. This section is beautifully handled in illustrating both the right decision and the personal pain that it caused.

Kari had already been through so much that I just couldn’t stand it when she had to suffer more hardship before the end of the book. Yet, she still was able to sing “Great is thy Faithfulness” before the end of the book, and that is enough to remember.

Because of the way that this book emotionally moved me and reminded me of the purpose of marriage, I have to give the book five stars. I am going to momentarily pause my list of books to read for the challenge that I am working through and work through some more of the Baxter books because I have so enjoyed the time that I have spent in their world at this point. After all, it’s no good to get back to a reading challenge until I’ve read enough of these books to be ready to move on without worrying about “what’s going on in their world.” 🙂

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A Heart for Freedom

A Heart for Freedom: The Remarkable Journey of a Young Dissident, Her Daring Escape, and Her Ongoing Quest to Bring Justice to ChinaA Heart for Freedom: The Remarkable Journey of a Young Dissident, Her Daring Escape, and Her Ongoing Quest to Bring Justice to China by Chai Ling
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

As a part of thee 2017 reading challenge that I’m working through, I am being challenged to read books outside of my normal reading genres. I was looking for a book on a current event to read, and I realized that I had something that qualified already in my Kindle cloud. So, I began to read Chai Ling’s A Heart for Freedom.

This book is a memoir. I am interested in gendercide, forced abortions and choosing life. Chai is the founder and head of All Girls Allowed, an organization dedicated to helping women in China to choose life in the face of government restrictions and pressure to abort female babies. To me, this is an admirable organization because no woman should be forced to end the life of a child against her will. I think they do a great work, and I hope they continue their work, even in the face of a China where the one child policy has been phased out in favor of a two child policy. (It is debatable whether this easement in in the one child policy will affect the culture of forced abortion. I will be interested in seeing the research on this in coming years.)

So, with that in mind, and my interests in mind, I was prepared to like this book. Then, I found that Chai’s work in gendercide is not even mentioned until the last three or four chapters (of an approximately 30 chapter book). Instead, this is Chai Ling’s entire life story. It begins with her childhood, goes through the events in Tiananmen Square and the student protest movement in great detail, and then goes through the events of her life as she comes to the place where she is now.

I was a child when the Tiananmen Square protests occurred and other than the image of a giant tank and red flags, I do not remember much. I was not even sure why the students protested. Even after reading this book, I still am not sure why there were student protests. It was just so disorganized, the protests were so varied and the goals were so unclear that I really can not say what profit these protests would have had anyway. I wonder if perhaps I need to read a few more books about the protests to even understand what they were really about. Because of my lack of clarity in this, I had a hard time following the book through this part and almost put it down unfinished. It does not help that Chai speaks to the reader as if they know the whole story and spends time refuting other accounts of the story as part of her personal memoir. That refutation always makes me feel distrust for a narrator, and gave me a feeling of slight dislike for Chai.

I also found that I felt like she was a person who didn’t really take responsibility for the actions in her life. Instead of having clear principles, she drifted into this and that. She was driven by her desire to prove herself to her father until love caused her to drift into a leadership position in the student protests. I was never certain whether Chai was protesting for China or to please her husband. Still, she was incredibly interesting, and she must have been determined because she made her new life in America work and brought her whole family to America. She heads an organization that fights gendercide. Surely, she is more in charge of her life than she sees herself or portrays herself.

As an evangelical Christian, I did want to take a moment to note that I was a little dismayed by Chai’s perception and understanding of the gospel as portrayed in this book. I would not want it to be someone’s first (or even 100th) exposure to the gospel because Chai is simply wrong in many of the concepts that she discusses. This reason alone would probably be enough for me to not recommend the book to others, but my mistrust of her as a narrator and the distance I feel where I never really connected with Chai emotionally make this a below average book.

View all my reviews on Goodreads!  What’s my next read?  My next read is going to be a book that my mother loves so much that she bought for me, Redemption by Karen Kingsbury.  It’s going to be my A Book Recommended by a Family Member for the #vtReadingChallenge.

One Size Fits All and Other Fables

One Size Fits All and Other FablesOne Size Fits All and Other Fables by Liz Curtis Higgs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

As a woman who has been overweight my whole life, I have struggled with self-acceptance and self-love. (And when I say I’ve been over weight my whole life, it’s true. I dieted down to a size 16 while I was dating my husband, and that’s the smallest I’ve ever been in my adult life.) So, as I was reading Liz Curtis Higgs’s books, I knew that One Size Fits All was a book that I could not skip.

In this book, Higgs takes on several myths that surround fat people and losing weight. She offers her own refutation for each of these myths. For example, she tackles the idea “All it Takes is a Little Willpower” early in the book, showing how, even with willpower, many people can not loose weight and keep it off. Several of these myths hit home and are myths that I have been guilty of believing. I have often felt guilty of some dread, mortal sin, merely because I have had a lifelong struggle with my weight, and this book has helped me gain some freedom from that. This has been a joy to me.

This book is 20 years old and out of print. Some of the research that Higgs discusses is out of date, and I have no way of gauging what she’s discusses with current nutritional ideas and practices. (which is one of the reasons why this book is not a five star book) In other words, I am not abandoning my doctor’s idea of a soda-free, low-carb eating plan. However, I think that as I have read her book, I have realized that I need to not shame myself for being fat. Instead, I need to focus on healthy eating, and realize that if I do my responsibility for eating, then whether or not I lose weight is not totally in my control. I need to learn to be happy the way that God made me. That is easier said than done, but Higgs book is an important piece in the puzzle of self-acceptance for me.

View all my reviews on Goodreads here. 🙂

Some Thoughts on A Dance with Dragons

I finished my first book of my 2017 reading challenge today.  Because I was in the middle of reading a series that had huge books, I decided to start with my “book with at least 400 pages.” It seemed as good a place as any since I was anxious to read the current book in the Song of Ice and Fire Series.  This book is the fifth book, and it is titled, A Dance with Dragons. Since this is a book that is occurring in the middle of a series, I’m just going to jump in with some thoughts about it without any build up.

This book has a slow build. There are more new characters. There are older characters that haven’t been seen in two books (such as Tyrion, Danerys, and Jon), and the plot lines that were introduced in the fourth book in this series are completely abandoned for the first two-thirds of the book. As I enjoyed, A Feast for Crows, I had a difficult time leaving the stories in there behind to care about Danerys and Tyrion again, but once I began to get into the book, I was so glad that I had picked this one up to start reading. I’m going to share some of my thoughts about the book using my favorite quotes from the book as a starting off point. (I am going to try not to be explicit about any spoilers, but if I have been, let me know, so I can hide it on my Goodreads review.)

One of my favorite quotes from the book was “Men are born to strive and suffer. Our woes only vanish when we die.” This quote was spoken by Hizdahr zo Loraq to Danerys as she continually refuses his wish to re-open the fighting pits in Meereen to the fighters and slaves of the city. I thought it made a great summary of what went on in much of the book. Those who were living were full of strife and suffering (especially Reek!), but those who had died in previous books were finally at peace with the Game of Thrones.

I found this quote quite appropriate to Jon Snow. “That was his mistake, the false humility of youth that is itself a sort of of pride.” Snow has a terror of the white walkers that will be coming that he bases many of his decisions on that, alienating his black brothers who already hold him in suspicion due to his time with the wildlings. When we see him last in the book, it is a definite cliffhanger as the struggle between his actions and the Night Watch’s feelings of alienation from their Lord Commander are bubbling over into some very definite actions. If Jon makes it into the next book, it is my hope that he’s learned a little more about transparency and brotherhood.

My favorite Roose Bolton quote is “Fear is what keeps a man alive in this world of treachery and deceit.” The Boltons are just not good people. Roose keeps his evil hidden from the world but Ramsay is someone who creates fear wherever he goes and with whomever he interacts with. My jaw would hang open as we visited Winterfell through the eyes of Reek. I admit to being a little naive, but just wow. They are sadistic and still alive at the end of book five. I wonder if having fear (or if doling out fear) is really what keeps them alive so far.

Jojen, who travels with Bran, provides me with this next great quote. “A reader lives a thousand times before he dies. The man who never reads lives only one.” Not only is that true of reading, but it’s also true of Bran’s story. We do not hear much from Bran, who is in the north above the wall at this point in the saga, in the second half of the book, but for a child who cannot walk, Bran is able to experience and do so much. He lives through the animals and people that he skin changes with, and he has lived so much that is not his own. I find his story to be a little bizarre, but I also look forward to seeing what the future of his story reveals.

Towards the last quarter of the book, Martin begins bringing back Cersei, Jamie and some of the other characters that were in the fourth book, and I was relieved because I had been missing my Lannister fix. Just their family story makes a great soap opera!!

One of the characters who ends up with Jamie as a hostage for the loyalty of his house utters these wise words. “So long as men remember the wrongs done to their forebears, no peace will ever last.” So many actions in all sides of this war are being completed as vengeance or retribution for actions of men long dead. Without forgiveness, there is no peace. I am pretty sure that there will either have to be some forgiveness and genuine healing among the families involved in this series, or one house is just going to have to murder all their enemies to end this story. I am looking forward to seeing how Martin will choose to resolve these stories because right now these families look irreconcilable.

Two characters are brought to serious lows in this book and they are both Lannisters. I thought it was a good thing because both needed to hit rock bottom. Tyrion says, “There has never been a slave who did not choose to a slave. . . Their choice may be between bondage and death, but the choice is always there.” Tyrion has been enslaved to so many things that I was glad to see him hit what I believe to be his lowest point in this book, and I look forward to seeing how he bounces back in the next book.

Towards the end of the book, we see a chapter written from Kevan Lannister’s POV, and I love that chapter. One of the things he says is, “But it did no good to brood on lost battles and roads not taken. That was the vice of old done men.” It struck me two books ago that so much of Cersei’s problems are self-made, and how much she would have been bettered if she had just taken her uncle Kevan’s advice in the fourth book and gone home to Casterly Rock. Alas! She did not and all around her continue to suffer from her bad choices.

This was an excellent book. Many of the story lines are left on cliffhangers, and I wish desperately that there was a book six to begin on the heels of this one. Maybe soon. These plot lines are intricately woven together, and I didn’t even mention half of them in this reflection. No wonder they take so much time to create.

Because I often write about home education, I want to make clear that this is not really a book that you want to introduce to your underage children.  The television show that is based on this series is the HBO show, “A Game of Thrones.” You’ve probably heard enough about that series to know that this isn’t the best book for uplifting and sharing in your family.  However, it is well written, and it is engaging and I enjoyed the book very much. I felt like it was a great start for my #vtReadingChallenge.

I have been debating which book in the Light Reader section that I outlined previously to tackle next, and I have decided to go with Chai Ling’s A Heart for Freedom. I am hoping to learn more about China and about Chinese women and women’s issues through the book. I received this one as a freebie Kindle book that I downloaded a while back, and when I make my Light Reader list, this seemed like a good choice because I already had it on hand. Here’s hoping for the best on my next read.

My Top Ten Reads of 2016

According to my Goodreads account, I read 171 books this year.  That includes my personal books, some homeschool read-alouds and a few new picture books I shared with the children.  It’s at this time of year that I want to share the books that have been most delightful for me, in hopes that, if you’re looking for some new books to read, you will check out the ones on my list.

Breaking Busy by Ali Worthington

2015 was my year of burnout, and I began reading several books toward the end of 2015 and first part of 2016 that examined how to get out of the cycle of busy and how to establish peace in your life. Breaking busy was a valuable read to me because it helped me to establish my capacity, and to learn to say no to things that are beyond my capacity so that I can focus on my primary areas of work and ministry.

Finding God in the Ruins by Matt Bays

In this book, Bays draws upon his memories of abuse, the pains of sister’s cancer, and upon the experiences that he has had with other people in his life to tell a story about God. Bays says that at the outset, he didn’t know what this story was going to be, and he chronicles his pain and questions. He finds himself also, however, chronicling moments of grace and the images and realizations that he finds about God as a result of his own journey through dealing with his pain. This is perhaps the most moving memoir I’ve read in five years. It is an emotional roller coaster though, and I will admit that I wept several times over the course of reading this book.

The Last Ride by Susan K. Marlow

This is the third book in Marlow’s Circle C Milestone series, and this is one that I read aloud to my older two children. It’s a sweet book, full of adventure (with just a little hint of romance), and it is a book where something big and awful happens to the character.  We get to see her response and learn some lessons about bitterness and about forgiveness.  I have to admit that I was just as enchanted by this book as the children were.

Mother and Son: The Respect Effect by Emerson Eggerichs

It’s a book that I’ll be reading again as I need advice going forward. It’s full of great details for practical advice, but it’s also a firm reminder of the fact that I can correct and instruct in a way that is affirming and respectful of my sons. I don’t want to ever be in the position that my sons can say that “My Mom loves me, but she doesn’t respect me.” I want to be able to give them what they need, and this is a very helpful and eye-opening book for helping me to do that.

The Wired Soul by Tricia McCary Rhodes

This book really resonated with me. I’ve found myself going back to an older habit that I had abandoned a couple of years ago to writing down all the quotes in a book that resonated with me and reviewing/rereading those quotes on a regular basis. (I used to keep a notebook just for favorite quotes, and had abandoned it because of my busyness.) I also have read a little more meditatively and really felt like I’ve dug into both the scriptures and other books that I’ve read (whether in paper or on my kindle) a little more deeply. There’s a lot of other great advice here, and although I didn’t work through all the exercises and ideas at this time, I’m going to keep it on my bookshelf so that I can come back to it and add more ideas for scripture memorization, responsive reading and deep breathing in once I’ve built a couple of the things I’m working on now into habit. Rhodes also references much great research and several other books that look very helpful, and I would like to take some time to read some of those books as well.

Searching the Scriptures by Charles R. Swindoll

I found this to be an interesting and exciting book because it places tools into people’s hands. It gives a simple, approachable and systematic method for reading through the Bible and interpreting and applying it to ourselves and the world around us. There are things I disagree with (like his use of the NLT as a readable translation), but on the whole, I found this to be an excellent book, and an excellent way to pass on his study skills and ideas for sermon preparation onto a new generation.

The Unhurried Homeschooler by Durenda Wilson

This is indeed a simple and mercifully short book on homeschooling. It helped me to re-evaulate what is working in our home and places where I need to adjust my expectations.  I spent a lot of time journaling goals, writing out quotes on this book and thinking of things that I want to remember. This is a book that will help you remember that discipleship is one of the main components of homeschooling and will help keep you from panic attacks over areas of progress (or lack thereof) by your children.

Honest Evangelism by Rico Tice

I was reading this book for an evangelism class that I took at church, and I have to admit that it challenged many of my thoughts about evangelism. I thought of it as a formal “Way of the Master,” tent revival or knocking door-to-door kind of thing. Instead, I found that I was having conversations with other people about my faith that were just a part of being me, and I was challenged to cross the “painline” more often to intentionally add Christ to my daily conversations. After all, I only want people to know about the joy that I have found in Jesus, and I want to get beyond my own comfort to help others experience that joy

Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows by J.K. Rowling

I had the purest joy this year in spending much of the year reading aloud the Harry Potter novels to my children.  It had been years since I read them myself, and I had forgotten how much detail, life and joy are in those books. I admit that the seventh book in the series is my favorite because of the masterful way that Rowling deals with the interpersonal struggles between her main characters throughout the book. Every one is following Harry, but he has no clue what he’s supposed to do. His placement of duty above desire is admirable and to be respected. However, the part that always tugs at my heartstrings is when he gets the opportunity to have his dead loved ones visit him, and he uses it as a opportunity to help ease himself and build up his courage for his own sacrificial death.  I can’t even talk about that portion of the book (or Snape’s story in the book) with getting emotional.

A Storm of Swords by George R.R. Martin

This is the third book in the epic A Song of Ice and Fire, and it is amazing. There’s a lot of detail, but there’s an uptick in the plotting.  I love the way the POV characters change perspective and manage to intensify the action in their chapters. I also found the schemes of many of the characters to be intriguing and well-layered.  This book is truly Martin at his best.

So, those are my top ten for this year.  What are your favorites from 2016?  What do you recommend that I put higher on my to-read list?