Monthly Archives: September 2009

Christless Christianity, by Michael Horton

christless-christianityMichael Horton has a simple thesis: American Christianity has lost sight of Christ, and is selling a product that bears little resemblance to historic, Christ-centred Christianity. 

It’s a thesis a lot of people, from many corners of the Christian world, would agree with.  He argues that most of American Christianity has been colonized by American culture, and rather than transforming the world, has been transformed by it.  Again, a lot of us would agree. 

 So far, his thesis seems to resonate with some of the conclusions Nadia Bolz-Weber reached in her twenty-four hours of viewing Christian television (Salvation on the Small Screen): the name of Jesus was rarely mentioned except as a talisman, and little reference to His life, teachings, or death made it into the Trinity Broadcasting Network’s 24 hours of exhortation to a fuller, better, more properous and successful Christian life.

 Having just read Bolz-Weber’s book and enjoyed it, I was thinking of that when I began Christless Christianity, and nodding along in agreement with the author’s condemnation of American Christianity.  But this author was about to take me into different territory, and not necessarily territory I was comfortable navigating.  Continue reading


Filed under Nonfiction -- general

Dahveed, by Terri Fivash


OK, I write Biblical historical fiction.  And in fact, Terri Fivash and I have the same publisher.  But Terri Fivash makes me feel like an absolute amateur in our common field. Dahveed is my favourite of her three books so far.

Fivash does the kind of hard-core historical research that makes you feel like she has a time machine and has gone back and lived in Israel, circa 1000 BCE.  She’s taken classes in Blbical Hebrew, for crying out loud – and it shows.  But not in the bad way, the “Look at my research!” way.  She’s created a great story with believable characters in a fully realized world that seems real because of the groundwork she’s done.  Continue reading


Filed under Fiction -- historical, Fiction -- inspirational

Fashionably Late, by Nadine Dajani

fashionablylateThis book looked so promising. A young Lebanese-Canadian girl, Aline, is living the life her parents have always dreamed of for her – a successful college graduate with a job in a big accounting firm, in a steady relationship with a nice, reliable fellow accountant. 

Sure, Aline is a little rebellious on the side – she’s not a perfect Muslim girl, since she drinks and has sex with her boyfriend, and her boyfriend is Anglo-Canadian rather than Lebanese, but she’s doing a pretty good job of meeting the expectations of an immigrant family who only want the best for their little girl.

The problem is, Aline hates her job and is so bored in her relationship with Brian that she freezes in terror when he asks her to marry him.  As she’s still reeling from that blow, things start to fall apart at work, and Aline takes off with her two best girlfriends, Sophie and Yazmin, on a spur-of-the-moment vacation to Cuba that forces her to confront her worst fears, her true desires, and possibilities she’s never imagined before.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- general

The White Queen, by Philippa Gregory


Philippa Gregory strikes again.  This time, the wildly successful historical novelist has moved away from the tried-and-true Tudors and stepped a little back in time to the messy situation that brought the first Tudor to power – the Wars of the Roses.

 Possibly the nastiest family feud of the last millenium, the Wars of Roses involved the Lancasters and the Yorks – distant Plantagenet cousins, for the most part – fighting over the throne of England.  It all ended with the much-maligned (and also much-admired, in other circles) Richard III. But before Richard either did or didn’t murder the Princes in the Tower, the Princes’ father, Edward IV, enjoyed a brief but popular reign with his controversial wife, Elizabeth Woodville.

Elizabeth is a great character in a story, so much so that I’ve even been compelled to write a short story about her.  I’ve never read an entire novel with her as the main character, and I’m glad that if someone was going to take on Elizabeth, it was Philippa Gregory.


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Shanghai Girls, by Lisa See

shanghaigirlsI’ve never had that fascination with China that a lot of people have, but Lisa See — first in Snow Flower and the Secret Fan, now in this novel — has managed to awaken my interest in that country and made the hidden lives of Chinese women come alive for me in a way no other writer, even Amy Tan, has been able to do.

Shanghai Girls begins in 1935 with the first-person narrator Pearl and her sister May, young girls who consider themselves modern and liberated from traditional Chinese values.  They live in the cosmopolitan, urban centre of Shanghai; they earn their own money as “beautiful girls” — i.e. models — posing for advertisements and calendar art; they plan to marry for love rather than allowing their parents to make an old-fashioned arranged marriage.  The sisters’ relationship is intensely close even though there’s as much jealously as there is admiration between the two of them.

All their optimistic plans for life shatter when their father loses all his money to a gang leader.  The girls are forced into the very kind of arranged marriage they’d dreaded, but that’s only a foretaste of the horrors to come as the Japanese invade China, and Pearl and May are forced to flee for their lives.  They end up in the United States, where the book turns to a vivid portrayal of the hardships faced by Chinese immigrants during World War Two and the years that follow.

The historical background is superb and detailed, but the human story is always front and centre, with absolutely believable and absorbing characters working out their lives in difficult times.  I loved this book.


Filed under Fiction -- historical

The King’s Daughter, by Barbara Kyle

kingsdaughterMy first thought on this book is that the title is misleading, because although the book is set in the reign of Mary Tudor, it’s not really about Mary Tudor at all.  It’s the second in a series (I didn’t know that until after I read it, but I can see where there’s a lot of room for the prequel and subsequent sequels) about the fictional Thornleigh family, who live through the roller-coaster ups and downs of religious and political changes  in Tudor England.

The main character in this book is young Isabel Thornleigh, a young girl engaged to be married, who thinks she knows what her future holds.  But the future takes some very unexpected twists and turns when Sir Thomas Wyatt raises a rebellion against Queen Mary and her plan to marry Philip of Spain.  Isabel’s family is torn apart, secrets about her parents’ past she had never guessed are revealed, and she ends up spending a lot of time with a handsome Spaniard, at which point the story occasionally descends into romance-novel cliches that I found a bit predictable and irritating.

Other than that, though, this was a good, fast-paced story that, like Vanora Bennett’s Figures in Silk and similar novels, illuminated the events of a turbulent historical era through the lives of the common people rather than their rulers.

A parenthetical note to my fellow writers, especially those struggling with publication: it’s worth taking the time to read Barbara Kyle’s story, on her website, of how this book and her previous novel came to be published — and then republished.  It would be hard to find a story that better captures the vagaries of the publishing business.  I’m glad her story had a  happy ending, and I would be interested to read more of her Thornleigh books.

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Filed under Canadian author, Fiction -- historical

Dedication, by Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus

dedicationI know authors hate it when readers say this (I would too, had I written a fabulously successful first novel), but there’s no getting around the fact that anything Emma McLaughlin and Nicola Kraus write (together or separately) is going to be compared to The Nanny Diaries.  And no, I didn’t find Dedication as good — as fresh, as original, or as thought-provoking and funny — as The Nanny Diaries.

Leaving the comparison aside, it’s a good, light piece of fiction — a good vacation or airplane read, which was where I read it.  It’s about a thirty-year-old woman, Kate, who is still kind of stuck on Jake, her first love who dumped her when she was 17.  The reason she can’t get over Jake is that he disappeared from their home town, leaving Kate and all his friends in the lurch, and went on to become a superstar in the music world — writing a series of songs all inspired by his first love.  So even though Kate hasn’t heard from Jake in thirteen years, she can’t turn on the radio without being reminded of him.

For years she’s cherished a fantasy of meeting up with him, finally confronting him, and getting closure on their relationship.  When her high school best friend calls to tell Kate that Jake, along with his superstar fiancee and his entire entourage, is back in their hometown for Christmas, Kate finally gets to live out that fantasy.  The results are fun and satisfying to read, but what I enjoyed most were the flashback scenes that told the story of Kate and Jake’s teenage relationship — the authors got the intense, claustrophic nature of junior-high and high-school friendship and romance exactly right.

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Filed under Fiction -- general

Angry Conversations with God, by Susan Isaacs

angryconversationsYou know how, if you watch a lot of TV, you see certain character actors show up over and over as guest stars in different shows? When I see that, it reminds me of the fact that for every big star in TV- and movie-land, there are hundreds of working actors, making a living booking a job here and a job here, never the headlining stars, just acting regularly and bringing home paycheques.

Then that reminds me that for every one of those working actors, there are hundreds more just aspiring to get to that level — maybe getting the occasional acting job but never stumbling into one steady gig, or a series of steady gigs, that will pay the bills.  Limping along from audition to audition, waiting tables or whatever in between, hoping to make a living as an actor.  And every single one of those people was the most talented, gifted actor or musician or speaker in your high school class, and every one of them went off to Hollywood or New York full of dreams of stardom, only to find a life of struggle instead.

All of which is a roundabout way of introducing Susan Isaacs, because she is one of those people — (check out her imdb page) — who you may have seen popping up in the occasional guest-starring role over the years but who has put in a life of hard work in show business without ever scoring stardom.  She’s had enough near-misses and brushes with fame to have earned a little bitterness — promising pilots she was cast in never got aired, her movie scenes ended up on the cutting-room floor, friends she worked with went on to stardom (she mentions this in a general way in the book, but that same imdb page reveals she was in a comedy troupe with Tony Hale, a name that instantly leaped out at me because he was Buster in Arrested Development).

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Diana Lively is Falling Down, by Sheila Curran

dianalivelyAnother in the collection of “light summer reads” I brought along for my vacation, this one features an English heroine, wife of an Oxford don, who is unwillingly transplanted to Phoenix, Arizona when a wealthy American businessman hires her scholar-husband, Ted, as a consultant for the “King Arthur Theme Park” he’s planning to build.

Diana is terrified, Ted is horrified, and their three children are abruptly transplanted to the new world.  Wally, the American businessman, is sympathetic and kindly, though obsessed with memories of his late wife.  Ted is as selfish and hard-hearted a husband as you’ll find in modern chicklit, and practically begs to be cheated on — but Diana is far too frightened and passive to do anything about it.

The plot unrolls more or less predictably from there, with a few unexpected twists and turns.  My initial feeling about this book was that the characters were too broadly drawn — more caricatures than people — for me to care about them. But as I read on, I did find myself becoming a little interested as the author added more layers to their personalities. The only exception here is Ted, who remains such an over-the-top villain he’s more laughable than hate-able.  This was a quick, pleasant read, but a little too frothy for my taste.

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Julie and Julia, by Julie Powell

juliejuliaYet another of the “set yourself a year-long challenge, blog it, and get a book contract” genre — and I’m not even blaming A.J. Jacobs for this one.  In fact, when Julie Powell was casting about for something  to give meaning to her dead-end life as a New York City secretary, her husband suggested she start a blog and she didn’t even know what a “blog” was. It was 2002, so you can’t accuse her of jumping on any bandwagons that far back.

Frustrated with her mostly directionless life, Julie, who liked to cook, decided to work her way through Julia Child’s tome Mastering the Art of French Cooking, a recipe at a time, and to blog about the process.  The rest, of course, is history — her blog gained momentum, spawned a book deal, and eventually became a big movie, now in theatres, starring Meryl Streep as Julia Child and Amy Adams as Julie Powell.  I suppose it’s that same hope — that something you randomly tap out on your computer for half a dozen friends to read will somehow, seven years later, be in theatres with the name “Meryl Streep” attached — that keeps all us bloggers going.  (If you want to read Julie’s original blog, by the way, it starts here).

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Filed under Nonfiction -- memoir