A good book is an event in my life. — Stendhal

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Bethany House Fiction Mini-Reviews

Feb 24, 2012

Back on Murder by J. Mark Bertrand

Release Date: July 1, 2010
Website | Twitter
384 (Paperback)
Christian Fiction, Crime/Mystery
Source: Public Library
My Rating: A+ (View Scale)
Buy from Amazon | Add to Goodreads

Detective Roland March is a homicide cop on his way out. But when he’s the only one at a crime scene to find evidence of a missing female victim, he’s given one last chance to prove himself. Before he can crack the case, he’s transferred to a new one that has grabbed the spotlight–the disappearance of a famous Houston evangelist’s teen daughter.

With the help of a youth pastor with a guilty conscience who navigates the world of church and faith, March is determined to find the missing girls while proving he’s still one of Houston’s best detectives.

Back on Murder is the best mystery I’ve read in years. The characters are well developed, the plot is enthralling, and the writing is gritty and realistic. My first thought after finishing it was, “Now that is Christian fiction at its best!”

All of the characters are very believable. The protagonist, Detective Roland March, is thoroughly human, his flaws and frailty plainly presented. Oftentimes in CBA novels where the main character is an unbeliever, the author will make the Christian characters to look too perfect. Bertrand avoids this and lays bare the faults of his Christian characters as well, which I appreciated.

I absolutely loved this book and I’m looking forward to reading the second book in the series, Pattern of Wounds.

About J. Mark Bertrand:

J. Mark Bertrand is the author of the three crime novels featuring Houston homicide detective Roland March. He has an MFA in Creative Writing from the University of Houston and now lives in South Dakota with his wife Laurie.

Other Reviews: Discerning Reader | God with Us: Finding Joy Title Trakk


Falls Like Lightning by Shawn Grady

Release Date: July 1, 2011
304 (Paperback)
Christian Suspense/Action
My Rating:
B- (View Scale)
Buy from  Amazon | Add to Goodreads

Smokejumper Silas Kent never expected to see pilot Elle Westmore again. In fact, reuniting makes him realize what a mistake he made all those years ago. But before he has a chance to try to make amends, he’s called to lead a new crew into battle against a massive fire in the Sierra Nevadas.

And then things go very wrong, very quickly. A suspicious engine explosion forces the crew to parachute early while Elle barely survives a crash landing. Silas reaches the ground safely, but in beginning a desperate race to reach the downed plane, he soon realizes he has more to fear than just a raging forest fire.

Falls Like Lightning is a fast-paced, action-packed read with a little mystery and romance thrown in to shake things up. I am a huge mystery buff, so that was my favorite aspect of the story. The relationship between Elle and Silas was not as well developed as I would have liked. I am more drawn toward character-centered stories and I felt like this book was more action-oriented.

There is a fair amount of technical jargon related to smokejumping which readers will have to adapt to. I didn’t feel like this bogged me down too much while reading, and it was interesting to learn about a profession which I knew nothing about. Grady is able to write with authority and authenticity on this subject because he was a firefighter himself.

Falls Like Lightning was an entertaining read and it took me no time to fly through it, but the underemphasis on character development ultimately makes it pretty forgettable.

About Shawn Grady:

Shawn Grady has served for over a decade as a firefighter and paramedic in Reno, Nevada, where he lives with his wife and three children. He is the author of Through the Fire (2009) and Tomorrow We Die (2010).

Other Reviews: God with Us: Finding Joy

If you reviewed either of these books, leave a link to your review(s) in a comment and I will add it the link to this post.

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Review: Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber

Feb 13, 2012

Release Date: August 9, 2011
Website | Twitter | Facebook
Thomas Nelson
480 (Paperback)
Nonfiction, Christian Memoir
My Rating:
A+ (View Scale)
Buy from Amazon | Add to Goodreads

When Carolyn arrived at Oxford for her graduate studies, she felt no need for God. Her childhood in a broken but loving family taught her to rely on reason and intellect–not faith–for survival. Eager and expectant, Carolyn set out to study Romantic literature in one of the most inspiring and beautiful academic environments in the world. She had no idea that she was about to embark on a love story of her own–one much deeper, more colorful, and more surprisingly God-shaped than any she’d read before.

Documented over the course of her first school year and organized according to the Oxford liturgical academic calendar, Surprised by Oxford tells the real-life tale of a young woman’s search for–and eventual discovery of–purpose, identity, and what it really means to be human.

One Sentence Review: Surprised by Oxford is a delightful memoir that reads more like a novel and will have you engrossed from start to finish.

In-Depth Review

Surprised by Oxford opens with an encounter Weber had with her seventeenth-century poetry professor while pursuing an undergraduate degree at the University of Western Ontario. She went to ask what he thought of her presentation on John Donne’s sonnet XIV which she “thought was a brilliant analysis of the domination of rape imagery” and “classic subversion by the dominant patriarchy” in the poem. (Pages 2-3)

Dr. Deveaux paused, looked thoughtful, and then resumed walking. I kept pace beside him, expectant. Without missing a step, he said quietly, “It is an interesting reading of the poem, Miss Drake. And you obviously have command of the language. But you didn’t seem to get the point. To really get at the essential grappling. You didn’t untie that ‘subtle knot which makes us man,’ so central to Donne’s spiritual pilgrimage.”

He quickened his stride: “The truth is in the paradox, Miss Drake. Anything not done in submission to God, anything not done to the glory of God, is doomed to failure, frailty, and futility. This is the unholy trinity we humans fear most. And we should, for we entertain it all the time at the pain and expense of not knowing the real one.”

“Huh?” I managed to puff, for Dr. Deveaux was a hard person to keep up with, physically and mentally.

Dr. Deveaux stopped and looked at me hard. He leaned in and whispered, “The rest is bullshit, Miss Drake. It’s as simple as that. Your purpose here in life is to discern the real thing from the bullshit, and then to choose the non-bullshit. Think of the opportunity that God has given you to study as a means by which to attain your own personal bullshit detector. Sometimes that will be particularly difficult, because those who proclaim to know the truth, well intentioned or not, are spewing the most bullshit. But you will know when you have been properly ravished. And then you’ll see, then you’ll see, how the entire world is eyeball deep in it and that we choose it, and that we choose it every day. But the good news is that, although we struggle with it, there is a way out. Yes, there is a very worthy antidote to all the bullshit.”

-Pages 3-4

This is only the first in a series of divine appointments Weber had with scholarly believers who spit out more eloquently phrased nuggets of wisdom than I could ever hope to proffer. One might think that sort of thing (plus the fact that the author is a through-and-through academic) would make this book inaccessible to common folk like myself, but I found it to be quite the opposite. Though most of us will never visit, much less study at such a prestigious institution as Oxford, Weber’s journey to faith is relatable because she struggled with the same doubts, fears, and anger that we all grapple with on the road to faith.

One issue in particular that she wrestles with throughout the book is how the doctrines of Christianity impact women.

How was Jesus as a He relevant to me as a she? . . . being a feminist and a Christian seemed like a no-win scenario. If Jesus has been a woman, feminists would have seen her as just another woman in subordination to a man. Even worse, to the Man.

All of this seemed to be the worst kind of paradox: a feminist Christian, or a Christian feminist. It’s an implosion of such difficult terms. Again, so messy!

-Page 200

Later, Weber describes one solitary stretch of a morning run in early spring:

Anytime I jogged this part alone, I felt nervous. A woman does not have the luxury of obliviousness in a parking lot late at night; a similar threat blemishes an otherwise carefree jog along a secluded path. Fear is at the core of what it means to be a woman, I thought with a twinge of that familiar anger. It is far more empowering to be angry than sad.

. . .

I picked up my pace yet again, motivated by my uneasiness. Were those footsteps behind me?

. . .

Moving my hand to my pocket, I wove my keys through my fingers, just in case.

Running completely on adrenaline now, I heard breathing that was not my own coming up behind me. heavy breathing. I ran clenched, every nerve and every tissue tight.

I stopped breathing. The other breathing was rightthere.

Suddenly it passed me. A fellow runner, focused, steady, gave me a nod over his shoulder as he flew by. I felt his wind on my face like a spirit from the woods. My fear imploded against it. The shards then dissipated in the wake of comprehending the bold black words on the back of his plain white shirt: GOT GOD?

My knees almost collapsed with relief.

-Pages 257-258

Reading the passage above, I thought of the countless times the exact same thing has happened to me while out walking–footsteps growing louder, keys clutched in my sweaty palm, scurrying towards home just as fast as my legs will carry me and wishing my hundred pound frame looked more intimidating. This brand of instinctive fear that is unique to womankind affects how we respond to an all-powerful, distinctly male Deity, whether we’d like to admit it or not. How many women have read Scriptures like Numbers 31:17-18 or Deuteronomy 22:28-29 and not been angered by them? You can spin it any way you want; it’s still messy. So while I see the overarching gospel narrative as empowering to women, I still get hung up on the fine print, which is why I so appreciate Weber’s exploration of this issue and her ultimate acceptance of Christianity despite unresolved emotions and unanswered questions.

I thoroughly enjoyed the writing in this book. Weber is a master wordsmith and she addresses her reader with warmth, wit, and charm. In many ways her writing reminds me of C.S. Lewis (which should come as no surprise since they have a similar educational background), though she possesses a style that is all her own.

I also like how the narrative is split into sections corresponding with the Oxford liturgical calendar and further divided into easily digestible chapters. It’s clear that great care was taken to come up with fitting and creative chapter titles and each chapter begins with a quote by a different literary great, from Blake and Dickinson to Tolstoy and Milton. The literary references aren’t confined to chapter introductions. This book is a treasure-trove for quotation collectors like me (index cards at the ready!).

Surprised by Oxford reads much like an intricately plotted fairy tale, which I theorize has something to do with the fact that a) Weber has been steeped in romantic literature for many years and b) God has a funny way of writing stories that are more remarkable than any fiction. Part romance, part philosophical musing, part celebration of classic literature, Surprised by Oxford will keep you guessing, laughing, thinking, and seeing the gospel through new eyes ‘til the very last page.

About Carolyn Weber:

Carolyn Weber holds her BA from the University of Western Ontario and her MPhil and DPhil degrees from Oxford University. She has been Associate Professor of Romantic Literature at Seattle University. Carolyn and her husband share the joy of parenting three spirited children in Santa Barbara, CA, and London, Canada.

Other Reviews: Books & CultureBookwi.seChallies.com | Gently MadThe Lord God Exists

If you reviewed this book, leave a link to the review in a comment and I will add it to the list above. In return, I ask that you link back to my review as well.

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Review: Zora and Nicky by Claudia Mair Burney

Feb 8, 2012

Release Date: April 1, 2008
Author: Website | Twitter | Facebook
Publisher: David C. Cook
Pages/Format: 400 (Paperback)
Genre: Contemporary Christian Romance
Source: Book Exchange
My Rating: A (View Scale)
Buy from Amazon | Add to Goodreads

Nora Nella Hampton Johnson knows exactly where she comes from–and her daddy won’t let her forget. Of course for that privilege he keeps her in Prada and Kate Spade, Coach and YSL. He chooses her boyfriend, her car, her address, and ignores her love of painting, art, and the old ways of her grandaddy’s soulful AME church–where the hymns pleaded, cajoled, and raised the roof. Her daddy may be a preacher, but somewhere among the thousands of church members, the on-site coffee house, and the JumboTron, Zora lost God. And she wants him back.

Nicky Parker, a recent graduate of Berkeley and reformed playboy, also suffers the trials of being a preacher’s kid, and he can’t remember the last time he saw eye-to-eye with his white, racist, Southern Baptist father. What he does remember–and it will be forever burned in his brain despite myriad prayers to Jesus–is the way Zora looked the first time he saw her. Like Nefertiti. Only better. When they meet at a Bible study far from their respective home churches, the first churlish, sarcastic sparks that fly sizzle with defensiveness. But God has a special way of feeding the flames, and though of different flocks, these two lost sheep will find him and much, much more.

One Sentence Review: Zora and Nicky is a refreshingly honest story about race, love, and the God who makes broken people whole again.

In-Depth Review

A number of bloggers have written out about the lack of diversity in Christian fiction. The vast majority of protagonists in CBA novels are white, and even books that have more diversity don’t address racism with the boldness that Mair Burney does in Zora and Nicky. 

As far as edgy Christian fiction goes, Zora and Nicky is definitely on the outside edge. There’s a lot of implicit sexual content throughout the story and Burney writes plainly about sexual temptation, which is refreshing. There are also a lot of racial epithets thrown around by both main characters as they grapple with their own prejudices.

There’s a lot of “Jesus talk” and biblical references throughout the book, none of which seemed preachy or out of place to me. Zora and Nicky is as much about two people seeking God as it is about two people learning how to love each other. The Christ-centric dialogue is  just a natural outflow of the struggles and triumphs of the characters.

I can’t say that I particularly liked Nicky or Zora, but in a way that’s part of what made this such a powerful book. Nicky’s a jerk, Zora’s a brat, and they both have racial prejudices that make their relationship very messy. And that’s the whole point of the book–that God takes messes and turns them into something beautiful. Another example of this in the book is Billie, a former prostitute and Orthodox Christian who serves as a spiritual mentor to Zora. Billie is definitely my favorite character in the novel.

. . . You couldn’t get inside?”

“No. I didn’t see the super and my roommate must not have come in.”

“Let me have a look.” Billie steps over to my door and digs through her massive leather hobo bag. She finally exhumes a sharp instrument of dubious origin and proceeds to skillfully pick the lock.

The whole thing cracks me up. “Billie, you got skills.”

“You don’t want to know, baby.”

-Zora and Nicky, Page 152

There are a lot of chuckle-worthy scenes in this book. It’s not quite the laugh-out-loud humor of Susan May Warren’s fiction, but since this novel deals with more serious topics anyway, it’s a nice mood-lightener for scenes that could otherwise be pretty intense. A good example is this scene from chapter nine, where Nicky goes to Zora’s apartment to deliver some clothes and other essentials after her father takes away everything she owns.

“You hate everything I got, don’t you?”


“Aw, man. I suck. But I tried. I really did, Zora. I can’t afford you. And I just didn’t think I should get you Eddie Bauer or Apple Bottoms.”

Apple Bottoms? You were thinking of getting me Apple Bottom clothes?”

“Okay. I’ll admit it. The name compelled me. Would you have rather had Baby Phat?”


“Zora, you’re really damaging my self-esteem here. Cut me some slack. I’ve never shopped for a black woman.”

“You’re damaging my self-esteem, you wretched man. Apple Bottom! You think I’m bootylicious too, don’t you? You’re just like Pete.”

“I’m not. Okay, I am, but, not really. Yes, I am, but in a different way.”

I hear him make a groaning sound. It sounds like he’s been banging his head against the door.

“Zora, listen. What I mean to say is, you do have a nice butt.”


“Okay, that sounded worse than I meant it. It sounds awful, but please bear in mind I’m of the male species, and we tend to be visual. It’s a biological flaw.”

“Get away from my door. You’re perpetrating the myth of the black whore.”

Myth of the … Zora. I don’t even know what the myth of the black whore is.”


“All right. Maybe I know it, but it’s a myth. Aw, man. Zora. Can you tell me exactly where I went wrong?”

“No, I hate you.”

-Zora and Nicky, Pages 128-129

The best word I can think of to describe the writing is feisty, much like our two protagonists. Burney uses a lot of short, blunt sentences and colorful vocabulary. Whether or not you like this style is a matter of taste; I personally enjoyed it.

I’ve written before about Grace-Breathing stories, the ones that leave you feeling like God has just ministered to your soul. Zora and Nicky is definitely one of those stories. It’s an honest look at broken people and the God who redeems them.

About Claudia Mair Burney:

Claudia Mair Burney is a freelance writer and popular blogger. She is also the creator of the Amanda Bell Brown mysteries, Murder, Mayhem, and a Fine Man and Death, Deceit, and Some Smooth Jazz. She lives in Inkster, Michigan, with her husband, five of their seven children, and a rabbit.

Other Reviews: And Another Book Read…Musings of a Trini Girl in London | Title Trakk

If you reviewed this book, leave a link to the review in a comment and I will add it to the list above. In return, I ask that you link back to my review as well.

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