Monday, June 30, 2003

Joseph and Mary: a Love Story by N. Ashton Walker

Fingerprint Press, 0971119929, $12.99

To review a fictional work based upon the life of Christ is always a tricky prospect, particularly when one must consider the audience to whom one is recommending the book. The premise of Joseph and Mary, a fictional account of the marriage of the Blessed Virgin and St. Joseph, is intriguing, then again what Christian would not find the story of Holy Family so? It is a timeless tale, peppered with adventure and mystery, and ultimately leads to a happy ending for all.

Author Walker's account is somewhat modernized. Here Mary lives in an apartment and converses over the phone with her cousin Elizabeth, who calls her "girl." Mary's speech, too, is colloquial. She wears jeans and T-shirts and watches television, and she is in love with Joseph but afraid at first to tell him that she has conceived of the Holy Spirit. In keeping with the Gospel story, Joseph is taken aback, yet a Heavenly visit assures Joseph of his role in the Holy Family. He takes Mary as his wife and raises Jesus as his own, taking in stride "miracles" performed in the schoolyard and Jesus's blunt revelation of the end of Joseph's mortal life.

As a story taken out of its intended context, Joseph and Mary reads as a touching story of devotion between two people who love God and each other. As accurate biblical fiction...this is the tricky part. Some readers will find Joseph and Mary problematic, as Mary is portrayed as having more children (all of whom are practically surrendered to the background of the story). Catholics and Evangelicals have argued for centuries over whether or not Joseph and Mary ever consummated their earthly relationship and expanded the family. Being Catholic, I accept the doctrine of Mary's perputal virginity (see the article "Mary: Ever Virgin" by Catholic Answers), though I recognize that these reviews are often visited by those whose beliefs are not the same as mine. I don't fault others what they believe of Mary having other children, and it is my hope nobody faults mine, yet for me to recommend this book would be impossible.

Therefore, I leave the verdict of Joseph and Mary to the reading public. If you feel so inclined to explore the themes of this book, do so with a prayerful heart. The idea of fictionalizing the story of the Holy Family should not be discouraged, but like actual interpretation of the Bible itself not everybody is destined to agree.

Wednesday, June 25, 2003

Living Sacrifices by James Haywood Rolling, Jr.

Pleasant Word, 157921522X, $15.99

Is it possible to lead a successful, important life without feeling the need to shut out others, especially God? It is, so author James Rollings stresses in Living Sacrifices. Growing up in a self-imposed isolated state, Rolling recalls the folly of his youth and the ensuing emptiness he experienced and realized as a result. His story is not unique.

A life centered in self is doomed to wither and perish, while a life centered in others can only grow in strength and foundation, Rollings writes in this short (just over 200 pages) book, which reads more like a series of mini-books. Some sections dissect what Rollings calls the lies of self-importance, self-indulgence, and self-reliance, proposing that success in any aspect of life is not possible while these are observed. Later parts of the book are steeped heavily in biblical passages and Christian testimony. All chapters are tied together with eloquent poetry and spiritual reflection.

Rollings writes with an enthusiasm for the Lord borne of many years suffering from the same self-imposed afflictions he discourages in Living Sacrifices. A worthwhile read, Living Sacrifices is good therapy for the isolated soul.

Friday, June 20, 2003

Jonah Christopher and the Last Chance Mass by William Ferguson

Writers Club Press, 0595258794, $11.95

Like his Bibilical namesake, Jonah Christopher has seen his share of adventure. Now settled contentedly into the life of a middle-school teacher, Jonah's only concern is a relaxing Spring Break away from his troubles. He wants to take his girlfriend Catherine fishing, and forget for a moment her free-thinking father and his fundamentalist neighbor, both of whom have proven to be constant thorns in his sides.

The Blessed Virgin, to whom Jonah is very much devoted, has other plans. One night after falling asleep in the garage, resting in the wooden boat he made especially for his vacation, Jonah awakes to find himself in "aeviternity," in a timeless state where snow is warm and a mysterious priest/guide is popping through a new hatch at the bottom of Jonah's boat. Jonah learns Mary has chosen him for a special mission - to battle the ultimate evil. Jonah isn't entirely certain what to look for, but knows at least that the red-haired girl with the eerie blue eyes following him throughout this strange journey in one harbringer of doom. Luckily, for this adventure Jonah has the ultimate weapon - prayer.

Catholic journalist Ferguson's first novel-length foray into fiction is an adventure for the soul. Moments of good humor, coupled with orthodox Catholic sentiment that is neither preachy nor stiff, make Jonah Christopher a good summer read.

The Valley of Childhood by Linda Whalen

Bright Books, 0961731729, $14.95

Often the journey towards contentment with Christ is presented in allegory - a winding road leading to the gates of Heaven, the calm eye of a hurricane wherein one can find brief solace with the Lord in the midst of a tempestuous life. For Linda Whalen, the journey is likened to a hike through a valley through which childhood memories are stirred, lessons are learned, and healing begins. The Valley of Childhood, part memoir and part devotional, offers such a raw, emotional testimony, as seen through the eyes of a child struggling to come to Christ.

Each chapter of Childhood presents a different level of the valley, from rocky terrains to sharp dips and hazy floors. Whalen reveals hardships endured throughout her childhood, the film of dust on her skin and mud caked to her shoes representative of past sins and transgressions, the opportunity for refreshment at the valley spring thwarted when the water is discovered to be too salty to drink - alluding to deceptions one often faces in life. A brief respite in a valley garden provides an oasis from hardship as Whalen recalls more pleasant memories of childhood and comes to appreciate the beauty in nature and life God offers us. "The first thing I understand is the need all people have to be in a still, quiet place with the Lord," writes Whalen as the garden dissolves into a desert of uncertainty. Wherever we are in our own personal valleys, be it lost in a maze of trees or threatened by tumbling rocks overhead, Whalen stresses, one need not be afraid if one lets Jesus lead the way home.

Whalen nicely ties each chapter, each leg of the journey with a Scriptural quote, prayer, and reflection. At times very personal, and often a simple book to which anyone can relate, The Valley of Childhood is a unique, vivid devotional.

Wednesday, June 11, 2003

The Spider in the Well by Lee Ann Ward

Publish America, 1592865992, $14.95

On the outset, it appears Paul Ford has everything. He is the star player on his college football team with a chance at the pros, is dating the prettiest girl on campus, and has a loving, faith-filled family. It stands to reason Paul should feel quite happy about his good fortune, yet he continues to be haunted by an accident involving his kid brother for which, despite everybody's objections, he feels responsible.

Worry about football, worry about the future, don't dwell on the past, he is told time and again. Paul certainly does his share of that, and when the final home game ends with a tragedy that seals Paul's fate, he is left to do more serious thinking, and praying. All at once everything falls away: career, love, security, and even his family is threatened by the course of events. Being reminded of the one certainty in his life - God's love - helps him to better examine God's will for his life, and like the spider in the wall he once tried to protect as a child Paul comes to trust in the Lord's protection and guidance in the challenges that face him during his recovery.

A short yet uplifting novel, The Spider in the Well is a novel suitable for young and older readers alike, a fable emphasizing how one can turn tragedy into glory, and how material success does not necessarily yield the treasure God wants for us.

Tuesday, June 3, 2003

Books Read, June 2003

Last Call by Diane Dean-Epps; mystery, McKenna Publishing Group; a regular bar patron witnesses a murder in a parking lot and is soon targeted.

Reviewed for Blether, at the request of the author.

Tahitian Destiny by Julie Eberhart Painter; romantic suspense, Xlibris; a woman in search of her genealogical ties in Tahiti learns she is descended from a legendary princess.

Reviewed for the Florida Writers Association, at the request of the FWA review coordinator.

The Spider in the Well by Lee Ann Ward; inspirational, Publish America; a college football player must reevaluate his life when his promising career is taken away by an accident.

Reviewed for Catholic/Christian Reviews, at the request of the author. This was an eBook galley, and will not be release via BC.

Winning Without Losing Your Way by Rebecca Barnett; non-fiction business, Winning Your Way, Inc.; a former corporate executive examines values and character in the workplace and offers advice on how to maintain a proper balance in work and family lives.

Reviewed for Blether Book Reviews, at the request of the author. Signed copy - not for BC release.

The Honk and Holler Opening Soon by Billie Letts; fiction, Warner Books; a year in the life of regular patrons and new employees of a rural Oklahoma diner.

From my BC journal: "I read this in two days; it is a quick, enjoyable read that left me a bit wanting, I have to admit. Though the ending was upbeat and positive, it left open the fates of the other characters I had come to like. I'm wondering now if Molly O and Life get together, if Bui's wife will ever come to the US from Vietnam, and if Brenda will ever shape up and stop being such a brat. Lett's style reminds me a lot of Fannie Flagg, whose books I adore. I might just pick up her other book."

I was a stop on a bookray for this title, and it has been released to the next person in line.

* Dirty Jokes and Beer by Drew Carey; non-fiction/humor, Hyperion; the wit and wisdom of Drew Carey, title is pretty much self-explanatory.

Yes, I watch The Drew Carey Show. At least I did until recently, the show shifted time slots and I got out of the habit when I got satellite television. However, when a Bookcrossing started this bookray I signed up anyway. The title is, as I mention, self-explanatory. Almost every chapter begins with a joke (granted, not all are dirty), followed by at times funny, at times raw, observations by Mr. Carey. The last third of the book is comprised by a number of semi-autobiographical stories, which I enjoyed more. The book has been mailed to the next person in line.

The Valley of Childhood by Linda Whalen; non-fiction/inspirational, Bright Books; a woman's spiritual journey to Christ is compared to a walk through the valley.

Reviewed for Catholic/Christian Reviews, at the request of the author. This book is signed and will not be released.

Jonah Christopher and the Last Chance Mass by William Ferguson; fiction, Writer's Club Press; a middle school teacher is charged by the Blessed Virgin to complete a dangerous mission.

This book was a gift from the author, who was kind to interview me for the now defunct CatholicNewsDaily website. Though it was not requested, I completed a review for Catholic/Christian Reviews and added the title to an article on summer reading, which will hopefully be posted to

Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix by JK Rowling; fiction, Scholastic Press; the fifth Harry Potter adventure has Harry, Ron, and Hermione operating a clandestine Defense Against the Dark Arts class under the nose of a humorless bureaucrat intent on taking over Hogwarts.

Received on Saturday, finished on Monday. The book dragged a bit for me through the first third; it didn't really pick up until everybody got to Hogwarts. I won't give much away, but Fred and George Weasley steal the show, and this whole Harry/Cho thing is starting to aggravate me.

Peacetalk 101 by Suzette Haden Elgin; fiction, Lethe Press; a man intent on killing himself and his family receives some valuable lessons from a homeless man.

Reviewed for Blether Book Reviews at the request of the author.

Living Sacrifices by James Rollings, Jr.; non-fiction, Pleasant Word; a semi-autobiographical testimony on the falsehood of self-reliance.

Reviewed for Catholic/Christian Book Reviews at the request of the author.

Joseph and Mary: a Love Story by N. Ashton Walker; inspirational fiction, Fingerprint Press; a fictional account of the life of Joseph and Mary, set in contemporary time.

This was sent by the author for review, review is pending due to some problematic themes.

Monday, June 2, 2003

The Cult Around the Corner by Nancy O'Meara and Stan Koehler

Foundation for Religious Freedom International, 1928575102, $7.95

"Calm not panic." These are the first words of advice authors O'Meara and Koehler offer to anyone concerned about a relative or loved one who has strayed from the relative security of an acceptable faith into something perceived as dubious. Granted, it would not be surprising for one to fly off the handle upon learning his/her child has decided to leave the Baptist/Methodist/Catholic Church for (insert a splinter cult or community here). Uncharted territory is often met with suspicions, and as both authors emphasize in The Cult Around the Corner, the obvious reaction is to become defensive. It is not always the right reaction, as it can lead to alienation.

Research and rationalism are the keys to maintaining good relationships with those fallen away. Counsel with a trusted minister or mediator provides a firm foundation for communication with loved ones. To the authors' credit, no one faith or organization is endorsed or maligned, and belief in God is neither encouraged nor discouraged. Readers are not chastised for being judgmental or critical of other faiths; while the right to hold one's beliefs is recognized, O'Meara and Koehler also stress the need to recognize the rights and beliefs of your loved ones, even if they do not align with yours.

The Cult Around the Corner is a short book, but straight to the point with excerpts of actual case studies handled by the Foundation for Religious Freedom. Its purpose is not to list cults or cultish faiths as a guide for the vigilant, but to help repair the relationships broken by divisive opinions. In this time of uncertainly about particular faiths as they relate to the war, it is an important book to read.