Monday, December 31, 2012

Snowbound Seduction by Helen Brooks

Snowbound SeductionSnowbound Seduction by Helen Brooks
My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

This Christmas-themed romance has a thought-provoking level of character development within it. Rachel and Zac are both struggling with some massive emotional wounds, and their meeting is the catalyst for a great deal of healing.

Rachel struggles from a childhood of being unloved by her parents, especially her mother. It has made her feel less than adequate to everyone else, always failing in comparison. In fact, her conversations and remembered memories of interactions with her mother made my hair stand on end. It's actually surprising she turned out as well-adjusted as she did. She can't believe a man will love her enough...enough for anything. Yet, she shows a great deal of self-respect. I appreciated that she wasn't willing to settle for less with Zac.

As for Zac, he certainly was a layered character. He seemed like a really decent, straightforward guy, and I believed he was straight shooting. So when he owns up about his intentions, I admit I was shocked. Finding more about his past drew me even deeper into this story. That was dark. While I really don't like commitment-phobic heroes, rationally speaking, I can understand why he had issues with the idea of marriage. At the same time, I didn't want Rachel to be with him on his terms. She deserved better than that. I was glad he realized that at the end too. He came to the understanding that some things are precious, and they are worth holding onto instead of standing back out of fear. I wouldn't have been happy with this story if Brooks hadn't written Zac to make the gesture. It worked out just how it should have.

I really liked this story, more than I thought. It didn't sound like it would have much going on story-wise, but it turned out to be very deep, and I was very emotionally involved with the characters.

Brooks has a way of writing very modern stories, but with characters who have their own distinctive values true to themselves that manage not to be anachronistic or disjointed within the overall storyline. It makes her books resonate with me. Another good Christmas story with hidden depths. Thumbs up!

Overall rating: 4.25/5.0 stars.

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Saturday, December 29, 2012

Alpha Course Manual by Nicky Gumbel

Alpha Course ManualAlpha Course Manual by Nicky Gumbel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is the coursebook for the Alpha course that I attended through my church between September and November.

What is Alpha?

Alpha is a course that introduces people to the fundamentals of the faith of Christianity. It's broken down into fourteen topics concerning the faith, and after a short talk, the members divide into small groups and discuss the issues. It is a way for people who have some tough questions and issues about God, faith, and Jesus to have a safe, non-judgmental forum for this discussion.

I decided to attend since it was free, and since it sounded like a worthwhile opportunity. It definitely was. I have never gotten this opportunity to sit down and talk about fundamentals of the faith like this course allowed. The book is a good adjunct. I finished the course and a few weeks ago, I read through the book again, referencing some of the Bible verses again. Reading the coursebook again cemented some of the concepts and allowed me to take the time to digest and reflect on the information offered in the weekly sessions.

What I really like about this book is the easy to follow outline style. I like that it's organized and it gives support for the points made with Bible verses and historical references.

I don't think God ever intended for faith in him through his Son to be complicated. He wanted each person to have the opportunity to know him, and that's the model that the writer of this book, Nicky Gumbel follows. Also the essence of Christ's personality, to speak the truth in love, is evident in the layout of this book.

While this isn't a scholarly approach like one would find with something like CS Lewis'
Mere Christianity, it shouldn't be. It's simple and straightforward, well-suited for the course and the group discussion style.

Taking the course was a real blessing, and having the coursebook to go back to, not to mention the notes I took during the talks (because I am a huge nerd), will be very useful and worthwhile in the future.

I am rating this book as I would any coursebook. On that level it's a five star rating. As I alluded to above, it's not written in sentence style, but more in bullet/outlines, but that doesn't detract from its usefulness. I'd recommend taking an Alpha course if you get the opportunity. You don't have to be a believer in Jesus to benefit from it. It's a good place to go even if you have questions about the faith and the idea of God in general.

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Friday, December 28, 2012

The Case for Christ by Lee Strobel

The Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for JesusThe Case for Christ: A Journalist's Personal Investigation of the Evidence for Jesus by Lee Strobel
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This review is probably not as well-crafted as I would have hoped, since I am very swamped right now, and unable to do better. However, I wanted to write my thoughts on the book to the best of my ability as soon after I finished the audio version as possible so I wouldn't forget too much. I hope to reread it and analyze it more at a later date.

When I finished this book, I felt that Mr. Strobel tackled the tough questions about Christ that one might ask if they were skeptical about the faith and the person of Jesus Christ. I grew up in a Christian home and I have been a personal confessor of faith in Jesus for well over twenty years. However, it was good to take a hard look at the questions I didn't have the answers for from a scholarly standpoint. And I believe that Jesus wants anyone who chooses to follow him to count the cost and look hard at who he is. He is honest and righteous and doesn't want anyone to be misled about who he is. So I would say that anyone of my bent is encouraged to do the same.

I felt that Mr. Strobel showed his investigative journalism chops in addressing those important aspects of Christ's identity and the reliability of the evidence of his claim as the Son of God who died for the sins of every person who ever lived, and rose again from the grave, and the areas that one might use to discount his message and the affirming power of faith in Jesus Christ as the Messiah. Ultimately, those who choose not to believe will probably continue to not believe (and they have that choice), but those who want to take that step to believe in him and have some factual proof about him and what faith in him offers, they will find enough here to further confirm that faith in Jesus is not blind faith, but a reasonable, eyes open step of faith. What I do not propose here is that this book takes the place of the Holy Bible, but instead, Strobel's investigation shows that the Bible is a reputable historical document and what it says about God and Jesus Christ is historically accurate. And for those who seek further inquiry, one will find a very good bibliographical source of reputable scholars who can offer even more sound information about Jesus Christ, the historicity of his persona, and the proven historical accuracy of the New Testament Gospels and how they relate to the Old Testament. In fact, this was one of strongest elements of the book for me, since it gave me even more books to read as I get the opportunity.

While I have seen plenty of 1 star reviews for this book, I personally feel justified in giving it 5 stars. One might argue that I like it because it justifies what I believe. That's not completely untrue. It does justify what I believe. I'm glad that I walked into this book with my brain prepared to take a hard look at the evidence and that scholarship was rewarded in Strobel's methodical and thorough investigative process. Let me add that I would have believed what I did anyway based on the process of my individual faith walk. Instead, this book just provides more solid evidence to underpin what I already believe.

I am a rational person. Very analytical, and I have never felt that having faith in God requires throwing out the thought processes and rational inquiry. After all, God gave us brains and he expects us to use them. So for me, this book takes a thinking person who values factual evidence and solid inquiry on a logical investigation into the identity of Jesus of Nazareth, who has proven he is the Son of God in so many ways that those who believe in him will not find themselves disappointed with that decision in the long run.

I would recommend this book.

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Coming Home for Christmas by Carla Kelly

Coming Home for Christmas: A Christmas in Paradise\O Christmas Tree\No Crib for a BedComing Home for Christmas: A Christmas in Paradise\O Christmas Tree\No Crib for a Bed by Carla Kelly
My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

Spending Christmas with three generations of the same family written by Carla Kelly was an enriching experience. Ms. Kelly explored the way that war affects families during wartimes. In the case of the Wilkie-Warton family, all three generations of the family have met during a war and married. I liked how Ms. Kelly took the very depressing concept of war and loss and used it as a backdrop to romances in development, and in a way that felt realistic and involved me emotionally. I especially appreciated how each story read differently, but was no less enthralling.

My thoughts on each story:

1812: A Christmas in Paradise
: This story resonated personally with me because I lived in San Diego for six years, and it did feel a bit like being in paradise, although there were also some less desirable aspects about it. No, I wasn't shipwrecked there, a Scot in a strange land of perpetual warm weather, fish galore, and lots of Spanish/Mexican culture. But I think that I can identify with most of those things I listed. What I loved the most about this story was the earnest good-heartedness of the hero, Thomas. He is a Navy surgeon who genuinely cares about people. While human, that caring part of him motivated him to do the right thing and offer marriage to Laura Ortiz, who was truly in desperate straits. That marriage works out very well for them both, as they find true love. I admit one part made me cry like a baby. I'm sappy like that.

1855: O Christmas Tree : I don't have the pleasure of reading too many books set during the Crimean War, but this is one of them. That alone was one more advantage of this story. Added to this was the beautiful friends-to-lovers story between widowed Lilian, the daughter of Laura and Thomas from the first story, and an American Army Corps of Engineers officer, Trey Wharton. I loved how shy Trey was. He was constantly blushing, although he had a good sense of humor and a warm way about him. I wanted to give him a hug. I was glad that these two people found each other in a war-torn landscape where they saw too many bad things that weighed on their souls. I also like the unique way that they were able to bring and celebrate Christmas with the wounded soldiers and the Sisters who worked in the hospital. It had a bit of the "Gift of the Magi" by O Henry vibe to it. This one made me tear up as well. Yes, sap here!

1877: No Crib for a Bed: Ms. Kelly takes the reader and Captain Wilkie Wharton, Lilian's son to the Old West, where this Army surgeon sees the aftermath of the Indian Wars in a very personal way. He's asked to escort a regained Indian captive white woman back to her people in Iowa. Only Nora doesn't want to go, because she has to leave her children behind, since their father was Indian. His heart hurts for her, but he doesn't have a choice otherwise. Along with Wilkie is Frannie Coughlin, a cheerful teacher in Fort Laramie, who is also traveling back East. They find a companionship together that is problematic, considering that Wilkie has a fiancee' waiting for him back home. When Wilkie delivers a baby from a dying mother with Frannie's assistance, both realize there is no going back when that strong a bond forms between two people. Yes, again this one made me cry. I felt so bad for Nora. To think that they were forcibly separating her from her own children because they were half-Indian and she wasn't. I couldn't imagine the pain she was in. Also the newborn baby was so cute. Yes, my sap quotient goes up even more. The romance part was good too.

Overall Thoughts: Carla Kelly successfully writes a trio of books that are interconnected in an ingenious way, all around the theme of wartime, medicine and Christmas away from home. Each one touched me in different ways, and I just plain like and respect her characters. They are all grounded and realistic people in the best of ways. While I didn't finish this one before or during Christmas, but in fact, three days afterwards, I still love immersing myself in the Christmas spirit, and this book provides that feeling in spades, along with a great romance.

For that, I give it 4.25/5.0 stars.

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Tuesday, December 25, 2012

His Christmas Virgin by Carole Mortimer

His Christmas VirginHis Christmas Virgin by Carole Mortimer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

His Christmas Virgin sort of has that 'A Christmas Carol' vibe.  That's a good thing because I love 'A Christmas Carol.' Jonas is sort of a modern-day, toned down Scrooge. He has divorced himself from emotional relationships because of his parents' horrible marriage, and how it affected him.  While Mac is an artists, she shatters the stereotype that all artists are bohemian in their morals. In fact, hers are rather old-fashioned. She doesn't believe in sex without love.  She is close to her family and embraces the commitments of family.  While Jonas tells himself he needs to stay away from Mac and doesn't want to be bothered with her, he continually finds himself in her sphere, falling deeper and deeper for him.  Mac doesn't like Jonas' attitude towards relationships, and finds him rather brisk and hard to like, but he is an intensely attractive, appealing man who 'does' it for her.  Love breaks through all their barriers and causes both to risk their hearts to each other. 

Mortimer wrote a story that is passionate and romantic, and with a modern feel.  Never is there a doubt that Mac is a modern woman. She is just a modern woman who doesn't believe in casual sex, and had good reasons for her virginity. She finds it nothing to be ashamed of. While Jonas is quite uncharitable to her in that regard, I felt that he was making a last ditch effort to wiggle out of the trap of his feelings for her, and using that for an excuse, knowing she won't settle for just his physical body and not all of him.  He falls in love while he doesn't believe in such a thing.  I liked that each person stayed true to who they were, but also realized that being locked into a certain mindset can limit ones' possibilities.  When they come together at the end, it feels right and felt very romantic.

His Christmas Virgin was a pleasant and fairly quick read. Definitely what I needed for this time of year when things are so hectic.

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A Royal World Apart by Maisey Yates

A  Royal World ApartA Royal World Apart by Maisey Yates
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

A Royal World Apart stands out as a Harlequin Presents in good ways. We have a hero here who is very self-controlled, and physically dangerous, not just a guy with a lot of money and charisma who likes the ladies. In this case, Makhail is a man who took his responsibilities so seriously that he nursed a wife through a long illness (staying faithful to her while she was alive and even afterward). While Makhail isn't what I'd consider a passionate hero for most of the book, I loved that he was the 'still waters run deep' type man, very focused, intensely self-controlled. He had a maturity that was beyond his almost thirty years. I could see why Eva fell for him. He had traits that her brothers and father lacked, and even when he didn't have to care about her feelings and needs as her bodyguard, he took the extra step to do so.

Maisey Yates is a very good writer. While this book took me a while to read (because I am just very busy right now), I felt that it was a rich story, with well-developed, multi-layered characters. I was emotionally engaged in their story. Eva is a rich princess, but she's not spoiled as you might assume. Her life has been so controlled that she hasn't even had the opportunity to figure out who she is and what she wants, and she starts to act recklessly because of that fear that she will never have that opportunity. I loved that her and Makhail's developing relationship was so well-described in this book. I could see the progression from bodyguard and charge to man and woman deeply in love with each other and willing to give up everything to be together.

A Royal World Apart is a good romance for readers who enjoy royal romance and the bodyguard theme. Yates does a great job of combining both into an enjoyable story. Makhail is quite different from a typical Harlequin Presents hero, but in a thoroughly refreshing way. Some readers may not care for him because he seems so controlled and is not an arrogant man (very atypical for HP heroes), but I really liked him (and not just because he's Russian and I love Russian heroes). In fact, he might be one of my favorites. Another good book by this author.

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Monday, December 24, 2012

Just One Last Night by Helen Brooks

Just One Last NightJust One Last Night by Helen Brooks
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Just One Last Night is a very good and quick contemporary romance about an estranged married couple who have a very tragic event in their lives that causes a rift in their marriage.

Without spoiling readers, I would say that what happens to this couple was very devastating, and it would take two very devoted people in love to overcome it. Melanie is already carrying baggage from her childhood, on top of their recent tragedy, and this acts as the icing on the cake for her belief that she is poison to love. What I loved about this book is that Forde is a man who loves his wife enough to fight for her, and he loves her in spite of the way she pushes him away. When he made those marriage vows, he took them seriously, and is more than willing to fight for his marriage. A devoted hero is Helen Brooks' stock in trade, and she does it very well. One of my favorite kinds of heroes is a devoted one who will surmount any obstacle to win the woman he loves.

I could understand Melanie's emotional wounds. I could even give her some slack for how she was pushing Forde away, although she was admittedly being irrational about her past and how it affected her self-image. I mean, that's very human to be less than level-headed when it comes to emotions and their impact on our lives.

I especially enjoyed the cozy days around Christmas that Melanie and Forde shared, their feline companion(s), and the unique way that this couple becomes reunited. I'd have to be honest and admit I'm not big on stories with estranged married couples. However, Brooks acquitted herself admirably with this book. The execution was well-done, and Just One Last Night was a very good book to read in the month of December to get me in the Christmas mood.

I recommend it!

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Wednesday, December 05, 2012

Devil's Kiss by Zoe Archer

Devil's Kiss (The Hellraisers, #1)Devil's Kiss by Zoe Archer
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Devil's Kiss is the first in the Hellraisers historical paranormal romance series by Zoe Archer, and she has created an interesting world and an intriguing storyline that will keep me coming back to this series.

I loved how immersive this story was. I felt like I was in the Georgian period, where anything goes, if you have the money, power and status to make your own rules. With this background, the character have validity and their choices and motivations make sense. Whit is a hero that really sucked me in. He is not a good man, but he is a man that you want to be good, to make the right decisions in the end. I have to say that force of his personality pulled me right into this story. I found Whit very magnetic. Ms. Archer does an excellent joy of portraying the tug of war that Whit has between his good nature and his darker one. I don't think gambling was his vice in itself, but the desire to control fate and have power to manipulate fate and circumstances. Losing his family so young and becoming an Earl so early in his life gave him this vacuum inside, this feeling that he is being buffeted by fate, so that living on the knife's edge became the only valid lifestyle for himself. It's probable that he might have been a thrill-seeker, explorer or adventurer if he hadn't inherited his title. I found him quite fascinating as a character. I could see why Zora found him so irresistible and fell in love with him even though he's not a good man by any stretch. This aspect of the story, as well as the manner in which Archer establishes her story in the Georgian period reminds me of Anne Stuart, and that's always a good thing.

Zora was a great character. I loved her strong personality, her determination, her independent spirit, and that she doesn't give up on what is important to her. She always felt strange and disjointed in her Romani family and life, although she does value it. When the giorgo men show up in her camp, her eyes are drawn to Whit, and she can't look away. He compels her in a way no other man has. His obsession with her isn't one-sided at all. And she becomes the only means through which he can regain his soul back from the devil. Zora is a good woman, but she's also a vital, primal woman, not a plaster saint. It means that much more when she stands up for what is right when it is so easy to choose self and do what is wrong in the process.

When I read romance, I want the bond and the relationship between the characters to be meaningful, real, and deeply emotional. I felt all that with Whit and Zora. Although they share a very primal sexual attraction, there is also an intellectual connection, and an emotional bond. Zora could have walked away and left Whit to his fate, but she cared for him and wanted to help him get free from his devil's bargain; or she could have destroyed him when she realized that his actions might bring on the end of the world. But love kept her with him. As for Whit, although his actions towards Zora weren't honorable initially, he shows that she is very important to him, her love and her light keeps him grounded and gives him the strength to fight for his soul and to do the right thing. The love scenes are very sensual and well-written, and they fit very well into this intense story about dark passions and desires.

This series has gotten me hooked, probably from the first page. Ms. Archer promises to deliver forthcoming books that avoid being predictable, and where the main character could perhaps be the worst villain of all, if he chooses wrongly. I like that kind of risk-taking when I read a story, especially when it's well-written as Devil's Kiss is.

For this very enjoyable, well-written book, I have to give a rating of 4.5/5.0.

Definitely recommended!

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Lie by Moonlight by Amanda Quick

Lie by MoonlightLie by Moonlight by Amanda Quick

My rating: 4.25 of 5 stars

I really enjoyed Lie by Moonlight, and I think a huge part of its charm was listening to it on audio. The narrator has a great voice, she speaks with an English accent, and she modified her voice for the various characters, based on class, gender, and personality.  I like how she captured the Victorian feel--both a mystery vibe and a romantic in a classic way vibe.  She showed the chemistry that Concordia and Ambrose shared, and also she conveys the sense of family between Concordia and the girls, Edwina, Phoebe, Hannah, and Theodora.  How they become a big family along with Ambrose, Mr. Stoner, and Mrs. and Mr. Oates.

The storyline was good. I liked that although Concordia is a woman who carries herself with respect and maturity, she does own up to her rather unconventional upbringing without letting it define her as a person.  I really appreciate heroines who are independent, but also rational and thoughtful in their decision-making.   Concordia never goes off like a loose cannon, which always seems to invalidate a heroine's intelligence and self-sufficiency to me when I read that in a book. Concordia also showed a lot of heart and integrity in how she protected the young girls in her care.  I personally like heroines who believe in doing the right thing and helping those who have been oppressed, disenfranchised, or who are disadvantaged. Although Quick doesn't beat the reader over the head with the history of the Victorian times and how women were treated, especially orphans with no money or status, I could see that as the background for this story.  I respected that although Concordia's parents shared one set of values, she didn't feel like she had to adopt their own values for herself when they obviously weren't valid or healthy to her. 

Ambrose was a man of mystery and I liked that about him. I liked seeing how his background shaped his future and how he uses his skills to help people, even though he gets a personal high out of shadowy feats of espionage.  It was clear that he fell for Concordia fast, but it was also organic how his feelings evolved with each moment he spent with her.  I was rooting for Concordia to ask him to marry him, and I loved how he put that ball in her court because he knew she needed to have that sense of authority in her life.

The suspense and mystery elements were good. I didn't truly guess what was going on until the end.  I thought things would go in one direction, but with the excellent plotting, Ms. Quick was able to bring the story to a resolution that made sense for the story. 

This is my second read by Amanda Quick, Second Sight being the first.  I liked Second Sight, but I really liked this one.  I am glad I have several other books by Ms. Quick in my collection to read, and I will definitely avail myself of the Quick books on audio at the library when I can.

I do recommend this one on audio.  The narrator adds so much to the charm and appeal of this book. Thumbs up from this reader.

Overall rating:  4.25/5.0 stars.

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