Joanne Collings

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So what makes a novel a Christian novel? There's no quick answer. The four novels considered here are but a small taste of the wide variety now available in Christian fiction. Each fills the category's basic requirements: good and evil are clearly defined, and characters are tested by real-world temptations and aware of what their choices mean in religious terms.

For suspense fans
Sinner is part of author Ted Dekker's Paradise series, which, along with the Circle Trilogy and the Lost Books, makes up his Books of History Chronicles. Dekker describes them as "circular, not linear," and has created a world readers can really dive into. This fast-paced tale is a thriller involving characters with very special powers, a series of lynchings and a constitutional amendment limiting free speech in order to prevent hate crimes. One of the amendment's results is the National Tolerance Act, which "opens the doors to laws that could make the teachings of Christ a hate crime" because they include claiming that Christ "is the only way to enter the Kingdom, [implying] that another's path is wrong."

Dekker is especially adept at examining the way people can be seduced into thinking that their talents give them rights others don't deserve. Sinner is thought-provoking; it left me feeling uncomfortable, but that may have been Dekker's intention.

The dangers of tolerance are also part of the plot of James David Jordan's Forsaken. Former Secret Service agent Taylor Pasbury, a woman who is haunted by her loss-laden past and who drinks and avoids relationships, gets a big client for her new security firm: televangelist Simon Mason, who's been getting threats from Muslim extremists and is especially concerned about the safety of his daughter and only child. Simon, too, has had a large personal loss to shoulder in the death of his wife, but his faith has buttressed him. Taylor is drawn to Simon, who is not without flaws and secrets, and who can be extraordinarily thick when it comes to women.

Simon's faith is tested in a terrible way when his daughter is kidnapped. The drama then moves to another stage, and some last-minute surprises are sprung. Forsaken is a highly readable book, and Taylor is a character who is worth another visit—Jordan is hard at work on the sequel, Double-Cross.

Traditional romance
Cathy Marie Hake's Whirlwind is well named: it's a traditional historical romance that moves from England to Texas without a hitch. After Millicent Fairweather loses the two little girls she's been nanny to for years when their father unaccountably decides to send them to boarding school, she sets off for America with her sister and brother-in-law. When widower Daniel Clark discovers his young son's nursemaid has fled the ship, Millicent finds herself employed. Millicent is something of a super nanny who soon wins over her young charge and, unbeknownst to her, his father. Although they end up marrying for the sake of appearances, each is hiding romantic feelings for the other. This is classic Christian fiction: the characters are devout, and it is common for them to talk with and about God. It is tempting to complain about the too-neat ending, or to find Daniel too perfect. But this frothy tale will entertain fans of inspirational fiction and romance.

Women's fiction
In Heavenly Places, the affluent African-American residents of P.G. County, Maryland, also talk to God regularly, even the not-entirely-saved Treva Langston. In Kimberly Cash Tate's charming debut, Treva has reluctantly returned to the place where she unhappily grew up and the mother who caused her misery. She can't find a new job (she was a lawyer in the Washington, D.C., area), and now has to stay at home with her three daughters, something she's never done. Treva can't get out of joining her sister's prayer group for stay-at-home mothers, but she doesn't feel at home with the women in the group.

Readers will identify with Treva, berate her for her lack of appreciation for her husband (who is on a level with Whirlwind's Daniel in terms of perfection) and her inability to see how great her daughters are, all the while admiring her for her honesty. Treva is not guilty of wanting it all, because she only wanted the career, not the children; and like most of us she's never had it all because something has always had to be sacrificed in order for her to have something else. In the end, she finds balance and discovers what Heavenly Places are.

So what makes a novel a Christian novel? There's no quick answer. The four novels considered here are but a small taste of the wide variety now available in Christian fiction. Each fills the category's basic requirements: good and evil are clearly defined, and characters are tested by real-world temptations and aware of what their […]
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It is fascinating how two mysteries with first-person narrators, similar settings (small towns) and heroines (women struggling over whether to divorce their husbands) can be so different. Working Stiff goes for laughs, while For Better, For Murder tugs at the heartstrings.

In Working Stiff, set in Wisconsin, Mattie, a former nurse, has just started working as a coroner after finding her surgeon husband in a compromising position with another nurse. Since the house she shared with her husband is right next door to her new place, Mattie can’t help spying on him, and one night she witnesses him arguing with the other woman. Shortly afterward, Mattie is called to a murder scene: the victim is the other woman, making her husband the primary suspect.

Mattie has earthy sensibilities and big appetites; despite her unresolved marital situation, she finds herself very attracted to the detective investigating the case. Unable to contain her own curiosity, fueled by her need to know if her husband is guilty of more than infidelity, Mattie, in her new role as deputy coroner, starts her own investigation. Since she knows everyone in the victim’s world, she can do this with some ease. Both Nancy Drew and Agatha Christie are invoked, and several funny episodes occur on the way to Mattie solving the crime and coming to a decision about her marriage.

Here’s hoping Annelise Ryan will give us more of Mattie’s mother (“a modern day Nostradamus” and “many-times honored member of the Disease of the Month club”) in the next installment.

Meanwhile, in Lisa Bork’s For Better, For Murder, set in New York’s Finger Lakes, Jolene Asdale is struggling to keep her car business alive when a dead body falls out of the Ferrari she is showing to a customer. That’s bad enough, but the victim is a man she briefly dated and recently had a widely witnessed (and wrong interpreted) discussion with about business zoning. The man who is investigating the murder is the husband she hasn’t been able to bring herself to divorce even though she left him three years before. And then Jolene’s bipolar sister, who has been overhearing threats to Jolene (or are they just more of her voices?), disappears from the state psychiatric facility. Is she now part of a team robbing local convenience stores? Jolene’s husband Ray is convinced Jolene knows more about everything than she is admitting. Meanwhile, she’s trying “not to notice that Ray still carries a picture of [her] in his wallet.”

Jolene turns detective to save herself and her sister, giving Bork a chance to explore what’s it’s like to own a small business in a small town where everyone knows your business. Like Ryan, she includes gay characters while taking care to point out that there are still difficulties with being gay in a small town. Jolene, whose family history of mental illness haunts her, is a touching character. The plot is a little complicated, but the series has promise and the book ends with a happy twist.

Joanne Collings cozies up with a good book or two in Washington, D.C.

It is fascinating how two mysteries with first-person narrators, similar settings (small towns) and heroines (women struggling over whether to divorce their husbands) can be so different. Working Stiff goes for laughs, while For Better, For Murder tugs at the heartstrings. In Working Stiff, set in Wisconsin, Mattie, a former nurse, has just started working […]
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The English invented the cozy mystery and Simon Brett—creator of famous characters Mrs. Pargeter and Charles Paris—is a master of the form. The Poisoning in the Pub, the 10th book in the Fethering series, demonstrates the author’s inventiveness within an established genre.

Jude (no surname), an alternative healer, and Carole Sedden, a retired civil servant, have discovered in earlier Fethering books that despite their obvious differences, they are a formidable team when it comes to solving mysteries. On a day when some “off” scallops are served in their local pub, the Crown and Anchor, they are among the group who gets food poisoning. Jude and Carol are friends of the pub owner Ted Crisp and his staff, and given the high standards the kitchen adheres to, they smell something fishy.

In an attempt to attract more visitors to the pub, Crisp lets his mate, Dan Poke—a has-been comic—arrange a comedy night. The event draws the (negative) attention of the neighborhood association and its leading light, Greville Tilbrook. When the show attracts a big crowd, including a number of bikers, an inevitable parking lot melee occurs. The result is in the death of young Ray, a developmentally disabled man employed by Ted.

Already disturbed by what they’ve learned while looking into the scallop incident, Jude and Carole redouble their efforts to find Ray’s killer and uncover the motive behind all the trouble. They eventually discover a pattern linking these crimes to those at other pubs. Another possible murder does nothing to discourage our heroines. They may be “women of a certain age,” but time has done nothing to wither their curiosity or resolve. They are cut from true cozy detective material. I loved Mrs. Pargeter, but I could become very fond of Jude and Carole.

Brett is always readable and often drolly amusing, and he is a man with opinions. In The Poisoning in the Pub, he tackles many social issues: the disappearance of the independent English pub and its conglomerate-owned cookie-cutter replacements; the Iraq war and the treatment of its veterans when they return home; and health and safety standards gone mad (no hanging plants or children playing with conkers lest anyone get hurt).

Finally, although Brett follows the usual cozy rules (no sex or overt violence on the page, etc.), there is considerable vulgarity in one notable scene. Consider yourself warned.

Joanne Collings cozies up with a good book in Washington, D.C.

The English invented the cozy mystery and Simon Brett—creator of famous characters Mrs. Pargeter and Charles Paris—is a master of the form. The Poisoning in the Pub, the 10th book in the Fethering series, demonstrates the author’s inventiveness within an established genre. Jude (no surname), an alternative healer, and Carole Sedden, a retired civil servant, […]
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It’s hard to imagine a more topical cozy mystery than Casey Daniels’ Dead Man Talking: not only is Pepper Martin a detective for ghosts—helping them by solving crimes that keep them from moving on ("I don’t waste my Gift on dumb stuff," she likes to tell those who are trying to locate missing items and people)—but her job as a tour guide at Monroe Street Cemetery in Cleveland is about to involve her in a reality television series for PBS. The show pits two groups against each other. On one side are the genteel ladies of the Historical Society, a group Pepper is none too fond of for personal reasons. That group also includes former supermodel Bianca, who now runs an exclusive boutique that’s just the kind of place Pepper would like to work. On the other are a ragtag group of minor criminal types who have been sentenced to community service. Guess which team Pepper is leading?

This is the fifth in the Pepper Martin series, but have no concerns about jumping in at this juncture: Pepper, a first-person narrator, provides all the information the reader needs to know from previous novels without ever giving too much away.

If Pepper didn’t have trouble enough with trying to keep her group in order while still impressing Bianca with her fashion sense, she’s also the target of dead former prison warden Jefferson Lamar, a man who says he was falsely accused and convicted of the death of his secretary. He can’t rest until his widow knows that he wasn’t guilty, and Pepper hasto help him. So soon Pepper is stealing time from her work at the cemetery—and her appearances on the increasingly popular television show—to interview anyone who might know more about Lamar’s situation, including a number of perhaps not-so-former criminals.

Though I found a late present-day murder in Dead Man Talking a disappointing and unnecessary surprise, Pepper is a heroine notable for her refreshing lack of self-censorship: she doesn’t hesitate to hide her ambition or her own snobbery (a quality she doesn’t care for in the ladies of the opposing team). Her boyfriend, a cop, bears no resemblance to the almost saintly husbands featured on television series about women who see ghosts or dream about crimes. When Pepper finally bares her soul to him about what she does and why, he doesn’t believe her. Pepper deserves better.

Joanne Collings cozies up with a good book in Washington, D.C.

It’s hard to imagine a more topical cozy mystery than Casey Daniels’ Dead Man Talking: not only is Pepper Martin a detective for ghosts—helping them by solving crimes that keep them from moving on ("I don’t waste my Gift on dumb stuff," she likes to tell those who are trying to locate missing items and […]
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Debut novelist Tracy Kiely has come up with the smashing idea of marrying Jane Austen’s wit and social acuity to the form of the modern cozy mystery and gotten excellent results in Murder at Longbourn, which has all the signs of beginning a fine new series. Kiely uses some Austen plot lines, particularly from Pride and Prejudice, and gives her own 21st century take on many of Austen’s favorite social situations (the poor cousin dependent on a wealthier one is particularly notable).

The appropriately named Elizabeth Parker has just broken up with her boyfriend, a man “obsessed with argyle,” and is desperate to find something entertaining to do on New Year’s Eve, something that won’t make her feel so alone. Fortunately, her favorite relative, her Aunt Winnie, is opening a Cape Cod B&B that night and is celebrating the holiday with a planned murder party. Despite the presence of Peter McGowan, the bane of her childhood, Elizabeth decides this is just the way to start off her New Year.

Things, of course, do not go strictly as planned: local, soon-shown-to-be-unpopular, wealthy developer Gerald Ramsey is found shot. Aunt Winnie is a prime suspect since Ramsey was determined to get the property she bought for her B&B. Elizabeth determines to investigate the crime just in case the police decide they have the guilty party in Aunt Winnie. Complicating matters is her interest in the handsome Englishman staying at the B&B. Is he the lover of the dead man’s wife or is he sincerely interested in Elizabeth? And what is Peter, who persists in calling Elizabeth by her childhood nickname of Cocoa Puff, up to?

Elizabeth, much like Austen’s Elizabeth Bennet, is not always as wise as she thinks she is, but she can be great company. She is often amusingly self-deprecating. At one point she compares her reflection to the appearance of the dead man’s daughter, who is looking particularly good.  The morning after an evening when she’s had far more to drink than normal (in her defense, she had a really awful day), she notes she looks “anything but dewy fresh.” She continues, “In fact, I looked like something that sucked the life out of dewy fresh things.”

In the next installation, this reader hopes that Elizabeth’s newly engaged friend and roommate, Bridget, will get more time on the page. Elizabeth’s known her since childhood and remembers that “her dolls were always clad like some bizarre cross of Joan Collins and Liberace.” Peter does not yet feel fully formed as a character, at least in comparison to Elizabeth, but that’s likely to be addressed in future books, as well.

Joanne Collings cozies up with a good book in Washington, D.C.

Debut novelist Tracy Kiely has come up with the smashing idea of marrying Jane Austen’s wit and social acuity to the form of the modern cozy mystery and gotten excellent results in Murder at Longbourn, which has all the signs of beginning a fine new series. Kiely uses some Austen plot lines, particularly from Pride […]
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One of the biggest challenges faced by the author of cozy mystery series is finding original and convincing ways to involve his or her amateur detective protagonist in murder investigations book after book. After all, the best part-time sleuths have much in common with their readers and it is unlikely that most of them get involved in homicides on a regular basis. That the connection to the crime is in some way personal is a given for the first book; after that, more invention and imagination are required, or, perhaps, just honesty.

That’s where Clare O’Donohue is to be commended. The first death in A Drunkard’s Path (the second Someday Quilts Mystery after The Lover’s Knot) is connected to heroine Nell Fitzgerald only because the local police chief, stands her up on their first date without even calling to explain—a body has been discovered in their quiet Hudson River community. That’s enough to pique Nell’s active imagination, but her life is too full at the moment—she’s working at her grandmother’s quilt shop, starting art classes, meeting a talented but mysterious and apparently homeless fellow student—for her to get too involved in the investigation.

But the next death is someone she knows, and the young woman is killed in the backyard of Nell’s grandmother’s house. One of the suspects is Nell’s teacher, Oliver White, a famous artist who’s been showing a lot of interest in Nell’s grandmother, Eleanor. Though Nell now has all sorts of reasons to be curious, she’s also willing to admit that she’s also just plain nosy, a refreshing confession for an amateur detective.

Nell gets plenty of assistance from her fellow quilters of all ages, who are happy to unleash their own inner Nancy Drews in order to protect Eleanor. She gets less support from that police chief, Jesse Dewalt, and they once again take a detour on the road to romance.

O’Donohue finds a lot in quilting that applies to murder investigations: you’ve got to step back from what you’re working on once in a while in order to see it; the process is important; and “There’s no reason that solving a murder . . . should be any less organized than a quilt meeting.” These are lessons that Nell, a novice quilter, gradually takes in: “[A]nything, no matter how scary it seems at first, can be sorted out if you take it step by step. I just wasn’t sure if I was thinking about quilting, the murder investigation, or my relationship with Jesse.”

Joanne Collings cozies up with a good book in Washington, D.C.

One of the biggest challenges faced by the author of cozy mystery series is finding original and convincing ways to involve his or her amateur detective protagonist in murder investigations book after book. After all, the best part-time sleuths have much in common with their readers and it is unlikely that most of them get […]
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“One lovely big family. For Alison, Allersmead is a kind of glowing archetypal hearth, and she is its guardian. This is all she ever wanted: children, and a house in which to stow them—a capacious, expansive house. And a husband of course. And a dear old dog. And Denby ovenware and a Moulinex and a fish kettle and a set of Sabatier knives. She has all of these things, and knows that she is lucky. Oh, so lucky.”

When I was a teenager I planned on having six children: three girls, three boys. I wasn’t nearly so offhand about the husband as Alison, and I wanted more than one dog, as well as several cats. By the time I hit my mid-20s, I was off the idea of having children and wasn’t keen on marriage either. But those early yearnings—so true and so deep at the time—all came back while reading Penelope Lively’s wonderful new novel, Family Album.

With an established author such as Lively, readers expect graceful prose, astute insights and deft characterizations. All are present in Family Album, in which we visit matriarch Alison and her husband Charles, their six grown children and the former au pair, Ingrid, via snapshots of past and present occasions, daily life, games and holiday trips. With a delicately wielded scalpel, Lively opens wide this family with quiet precision.

You don’t have to come from a large family to recognize the turbulent dynamics. Eldest daughter Gina (once told by Alison that she was never her favorite child) and her siblings are widely flung and largely successful, but not one of them has escaped the challenges inherent in being part of a large family. Yet, despite their differences—and there are many—this dynamic group is first and foremost a family, and when a loss and a troubling discovery require their cooperation, they band together and do what we all hope our own families will do in times of trouble: whatever needs to be done. Through these efforts, the clan regroups, forming a new, more understanding kind of family.

Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.

“One lovely big family. For Alison, Allersmead is a kind of glowing archetypal hearth, and she is its guardian. This is all she ever wanted: children, and a house in which to stow them—a capacious, expansive house. And a husband of course. And a dear old dog. And Denby ovenware and a Moulinex and a […]
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Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t learn anything from reading fiction. Here is an abbreviated list of things I learned from Jess Lourey’s September Fair: Neil Diamond went to NYU on a fencing scholarship, his fans are called Diamondheads (a fact that would have come in handy when I worked in an office of Neil Diamond fans), there is a competitive “sport” known as sheep riding or mutton busting, and Araucana chickens lay blue and green eggs. But September Fair is a lot more than a compendium of Neil Diamond and State Fair knowledge.

Mira James, a librarian/newspaper reporter from Battle Lake, Minnesota, is on a week-long assignment covering fair activities. She’s glad to be there, having discovered four murdered bodies in as many months after moving to Battle Lake for a quieter life. She’s considered giving up on Battle Lake but decides to stay. “It was a new idea, this sticking-it-out approach, and it looked good on paper.” Then she witnesses the death of the new Milkfed Mary, Queen of the Dairy, and reporting on the fair gets a lot more complicated.

Mira now has to look into the murder as well as the fair’s attractions. She’s assisted by her elderly friend, Mrs. Berns, major Diamondhead and winner of tickets to Diamond’s fair concert, which she shares with Mira; Berns also introduces Mira to sheep riding. Also in attendence is Battle Lake’s steamroller of a mayor, Kennie Rogers, who talks with a heavy Southern accent despite her Minnesota roots.

Lourey’s affection for the state fair is evident. She’s particularly good on the food, especially Mira’s weakness, the Deep-fried Nut Goody on a Stick. (Just about anything you can imagine—and some things you can’t—are sold deep-fried on a stick at fairs.) Mira may question how anyone ever thought of the idea of sculpting a head in butter, but she remains respectful of the talent and difficulty it takes to do this. And, since this is the fifth in the murder-by-month series, Lourey indicates awareness of the darker side of the fair: behind-the-scenes nastiness and more serious crimes and the unsavory influence of big business on the foods we consume, deep-fried or not, in this lively mystery.

Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.

Don’t let anyone tell you that you don’t learn anything from reading fiction. Here is an abbreviated list of things I learned from Jess Lourey’s September Fair: Neil Diamond went to NYU on a fencing scholarship, his fans are called Diamondheads (a fact that would have come in handy when I worked in an office […]
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The author’s motive for writing a novel—if I am even aware of it—usually matters less than being educated and entertained. But that can’t be said about The Puzzle King. In her third novel, Betsy Carter fictionalizes the lives of her great uncle and aunt, now gone, in order to understand how they came to America and eventually rescue hundreds of people—including her parents—from Hitler’s Germany, making the book interesting for those facts alone.

Simon and Flora Phelps are both immigrants: Simon’s mother sent him alone at age nine to New York from Lithuania in order to save him from a life in the army; Flora came as a teenager to join one of her sisters. Flora keeps in touch with her mother and remaining sister and her family who are still in Germany, but Simon, despite his strenuous efforts, has lost track of his. He’s a talented artist who has a successful career, crowned “the Puzzle King” by Time magazine for the jigsaw puzzles he creates as promotional items for various products. But he is increasingly aware of his outsider status as a Jew. He and Flora have a solid marriage, and, while they are never able to have children, they are close to Flora’s niece, Edith, who comes from Germany to visit for a glorious summer in 1923.

Seema, Flora’s older sister, is not interested in marriage or children, or any religion. She is an intriguing character, drawn to crosses, which she begins to collect in secret. “[I]t was the way her fingers wrapped around the cross and the perfect symmetry of its design that reassured Seema that some things in life were permanent.”

As the situation in Germany worsens for Jews, only Simon and Flora see the growing dangers for their loved ones—including Seema, who has moved back to Germany. What they do to help their loved ones forms the heart of the story.

The novel’s episodic structure doesn’t always do full justice to its wide range of characters, and the ending seems too sudden and lacks the emotional weight hinted at by the prologue. Still, The Puzzle King is a vibrant portrait of a time and some unexpectedly courageous people.

The author’s motive for writing a novel—if I am even aware of it—usually matters less than being educated and entertained. But that can’t be said about The Puzzle King. In her third novel, Betsy Carter fictionalizes the lives of her great uncle and aunt, now gone, in order to understand how they came to America […]
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Does the thought of Christmas shopping get you down? Put yourself at the top of the list and pick up a copy of Rick Warren's The Purpose of Christmas. Warren, the founder of the mega Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose – Driven Life, is all for celebrating the holiday. In fact, he's been having a birthday party for Jesus on Christmas Eve since before he was three; five decades later, it's a family tradition. But he sees the purpose of Christmas lost in the frenzy surrounding this holiday. Warren aims his book at both new believers and those who have just gotten distracted by life: "Because of today's pace of life, we quickly forget all the good things God does for us, and we move on to the next challenge." The short chapters are ideal for reading in those unanticipated free moments, and the book is prettily illustrated. The closing section is about peace and reconciliation, giving readers a helpful boost into the New Year.

Pictures worth 1,000 words

Those longing to visit the Holy Land have two new books to pore over this holiday. Reflections of God's Holy Land is by Christian writer Eva Marie Everson and Miriam Feinberg Vamosh, a tour educator specializing in Christian pilgrimages to the Holy Land. The women traveled together, although Vamosh, being Jewish, could not enter some sites. Each section covers an area of Israel and, in addition to the narrative, usually written by Everson, includes Scriptures, rabbinic quotations from various sources and wonderful photographs. It's an excellent armchair book, filled with history, beauty and Everson's joy at finally fulfilling her goal of seeing Israel.

In the Footsteps of Abraham: The Holy Land in Hand – Painted Photographs covers much of the same ground, quite literally, but it's an altogether different kind of book. The photographs, of Christians, Jews and Muslims and their homes and villages, were commissioned in the 1920s by Ari Speelman, a devout Dutch Christian. All of them have been hand – colored, which sometimes involved painting with a single human hair. There are excellent short essays providing information about the photographs, Speelman and the collection, and brief introductions of each image, but otherwise the story is told entirely by the photographs. And they are grand, full of rich detail and without the spooky aspects that often mar hand – painted photographs.

Monasteries and Monastic Orders: 2000 Years of Christian Art and Culture, a coffee – table book only in the sense that it is far too heavy to hold, is absolutely dazzling. The photographs, by Achim Bednorz, are extensive and accompanied by all manner of other helpful and fascinating illustrations, including maps, building layouts, interiors and images of various kinds of art. Kristina Kruger provides extensive text on the history of monasteries, their influence on the development of Europe and the different orders. This is not a book for everyone, given both the subject and the price, but it could provide the right person with a wonderful reading experience during the coming winter (and do wonders for his or her biceps).

Meeting your maker

God Stories: Inspiring Encounters with the Divine lives up to its title. I found many of these stories, collected by former CNN reporter and producer Jennifer Skiff, encouraging. Skiff, who has her own God story, transcribes the reports she has collected from a website she developed for the purpose; there's no editorializing. Divided into sections like "Listening to the Voice," "Accepting the Warning" and "Coming Back from the Other Side," the stories can seem similar, but can also be surprising and, in one notable case, humorous. It's a good devotional book: short testimonies by all kinds of people with one thing in common.

Return of the prodigal

The authors of two current spiritual memoirs, Anne Rice and Joe Eszterhas, don't have much in common beyond returning to the Roman Catholic Church after years away from it. In Called Out of Darkness, Rice recounts her long struggles with her religion – though in this reviewer's opinion, she never totally left it. Rice bought a former church to live in and surrounded herself with Catholic memorabilia (even her most famous novels, the Vampire Chronicles, seem tied to religion). Though her reasons for going back don't seem as persuasive as her reasons for leaving, this is a fascinating book in its own, very weird way, and Rice fans should enjoy it.

Joe Eszterhas, best known for his screenplays for Basic Instinct and Showgirls, had a serious cancer scare. Afterward, he moved with his wife and four young sons back to their native Ohio and became active in their local parish, only to see the priest they loved and respected caught up in a sexual abuse scandal. But they stay, and Crossbearer tells of Eszterhas' daily struggles to be a good Christian and a good Catholic and still make a living, not such an easy thing, especially in his line of work. He's heroic in an everyday kind of way and his memoir is a celebration of how positive change is possible for those with faith.

Does the thought of Christmas shopping get you down? Put yourself at the top of the list and pick up a copy of Rick Warren's The Purpose of Christmas. Warren, the founder of the mega Saddleback Church and author of The Purpose – Driven Life, is all for celebrating the holiday. In fact, he's been […]
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It is impossible to read John Shors' second novel (after Beneath a Marble Sky) without thinking what a great movie it would make. Beside a Burning Sea is wonderfully cinematic, with a cast of well-developed characters, major and minor, male and female and of various races and backgrounds. Despite revealing who the villain is early on, Shors creates considerable suspense, and toward the end of the novel, the question of "what happens next?" becomes "who will make it to the end?"

In September of 1942, Benevolence, an American hospital ship—which, unbeknownst to the majority of those on board, is carrying munitions, making it an acceptable target for the enemy—is destroyed by a torpedo while in the Solomon Islands of the South Pacific. Only a small number of passengers survive and make their slow and painful way to an island. The survivors include the captain, a religious man who feels tremendous guilt for the sinking of his ship; his wife Isabelle, a nurse; and her sister Annie, also a nurse. Annie only reaches the island because Akira, a wounded Japanese soldier and the one surviving patient, helps her make the swim. Rounding out the group are Scarlett, another nurse; ships officers Roger and Nathan; Jake, a black farmer turned assistant engineer; and Ratu, a young Fijian.

Seventeen days on an island lead to many changes in the lives of these characters. Although there is nothing mystical about the setting (well, there is the swimming with dolphins), things happen that normally would not: friendships blossom, future plans are made and love is found as they wait for rescue, search for food and fresh water, and watch for the enemy. Of course, it's not all roses. There's also a villain on the island, and he's hoping that friendly ships will not be the first to reach the Americans.

In Beside a Burning Sea, Shors has combined the classic desert island adventure with touching stories of love among the castaways. These elements provide an irresistible pull; Shors makes the reader a willing accomplice on this rewarding journey.

Joanne Collings writes from Washington, D.C.

It is impossible to read John Shors' second novel (after Beneath a Marble Sky) without thinking what a great movie it would make. Beside a Burning Sea is wonderfully cinematic, with a cast of well-developed characters, major and minor, male and female and of various races and backgrounds. Despite revealing who the villain is early […]

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