“On This Foundation” by Lynn Austin

Summary

Nearly thirty years after his parents were murdered, Nehemiah, now a cup-bearer for King Artaxerxes, is visited by his younger brother. Nehemiah learns that the cities walls of his hometown are in shambles and the people are suffering to survive the famine and high taxes placed upon them by wealthy landowners. With this information, Nehemiah feels compelled by God to return home to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall.

Chana, a young woman whose fiance was killed because of the lack of security in Jerusalem, feels pressure to accept the advances of a wealthy vineyard owner, Malkijah, to free her younger sisters to marry. When her father volunteers to help with the rebuilding of the wall, Chana insists on helping, hoping to rebuild her faith and heal from the past.

Nava works with her family on a small piece of land, but with the famine, her father doesn’t have enough money to repay the landowner, Malkijah. Though she wants nothing more than to marry her sweetheart, Dan, when Malkijah asks for payment, Nava agrees to go with him as his bondservant for six years to repay the debt. While missing her family and Dan, trouble follows Nava when Malkijah’s mischievous son begins to follow her around the vineyard.

Many oppose the rebuilding of the wall, especially local politicians who view the positive attention Nehemiah receives as a threat to their own political agendas. As these men attempt to thwart the project, all are challenged to have faith and trust, in God and in each other.

Pros

With great historical detail, Austin tells the story of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem. There is so much insight into the building procedure and ancient tradition, especially in regard to the Torah. The characters come alive in this well-researched, and well-imagined world, as do their struggles.

Despite the length, the story remains fairly fast-paced throughout as the characters’ struggles and storylines overlap. The narrative switches between multiple perspectives which also makes it an engaging read. In addition, though this book is third in Austin’s The Restoration Chronicles Series, I had no difficulty picking up where this story began and getting to know the characters.

Cons

While I liked the switch between different characters’ perspectives, some of the characters emerged at the end of the story a bit underdeveloped, simply because there wasn’t much time to spend with each character.

Tension built throughout the story as different politicians, attacks, and unforeseen circumstances threatened the building of the wall. In the end, the story fizzled out a bit, in my opinion. There are certainly historical restraints, but I hoped that a story with so much buildup would end with more gusto.

Conclusion

On This Foundation was an engrossing read full of interesting storylines and history. Despite the ending, it’s a great Biblical story that teaches the importance of trusting in God at all times.

Get your copy of Lynn Austin’s On This Foundation at Bethany House or your local library.

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“Beyond the Skyline” by Brody Lane Gregg

Summary

Alex Lane is getting released from a juvenile detention center at eighteen years old for reasons he doesn’t want you to know about. Writing has become his outlet, and he shares his story beginning when he gets picked up on his release day by his estranged brother, Brandon. Turns out, Brandon is now a millionaire living with his wife and daughter in a New York mansion. Alex gets to stay with them, but soon learns his end of the deal is going to high school. Out of his element, Alex goes to school, quickly finding a band of misfits who befriend him as well as trouble. Then there’s the girl he met at his sister-in-law’s church, Ana. Alex feels something for her, but he thinks he’s just the same criminal who doesn’t deserve anyone or anything. As he tries to move on with life, making friendships and learning to love, Alex resolve is tested when he asks himself if he is worthy of this new life, or if he has really changed at all.

The Pros

Told through Alex’s journal entries, the reader gets a deep first person narration of the story. Alex’s voice is strong throughout the story, and though he’s a rough, broken young man, the author keeps the narrative clean of any foul language. As the story progresses, the reader can see how Alex is changing because of the people he meets, the stories he hears, and the circumstances he faces. Alex’s story is a strong proof of God’s redemptive power to change anyone’s story.

The friendships, situations, and relationships in Beyond the Skyline are realistic, portraying issues that many young adults face today. The author, Brody Lane Gregg, provides insight into characters dealing with abuse, rape, drug addictions, alcoholism, and grief.

One of the underlying themes of the novel is breaking stereotypes, or judging people before you know them. Gregg reminds the reader that everyone has a story and unique hurts by including many characters with emotional baggage and backstory that makes them who they are.

The Cons

While I was engaged throughout the story, the pace isn’t overly fast until about three-quarters of the way through the novel. This isn’t a real issue since the narration is well done and I cared about the characters, however, when the pace did start to pick up it was a bit jarring and some of the events occurred with little lead-in.

Conclusion

Gregg does a masterful job telling Alex’s story through journal entries, and I got a clear sense of who Alex is, how he changes, and how he represents so many young adults today who need Jesus in their lives. This is a powerful and realistic portrayal of the Gospel’s redemptive power to change a life.

Make sure to get your copy of Beyond the Skyline, available on Amazon!

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“Of Mice and Men” by John Steinbeck

of-mice-and-menSummary

Over the years, Lennie and George have traveled California together looking for work. They share a dream of owning their very own piece of land and living off of its abundance, a dream that seems well within their grasp when they find a job at a ranch in the Salinas Valley. George worries that as close as they’re getting to obtaining the dream, Lennie will ruin things by accidentally getting in trouble like he did in his last job. Lennie, over-sized and slow-witted, loves petting soft things like mice and rabbits, but often kills them in his over zealous affection. He promises George that he won’t get them into trouble so that George will let him tend the rabbits at their dream farm. Most of all, Lennie promises he won’t fight Curley, the instigating ranch hand, and he won’t talk to Curley’s flirtatious wife who keeps hanging around. But these are promises that Lennie is unable to keep.

A Christian Perspective

Reading this story with a Christian lens, I was struck by the brotherly love George has for Lennie, a man whom George has no obligation to help. While George grumbles that things would be much easier if Lennie weren’t around, that he would be able to find work and have no trouble, he still chooses to take Lennie with him across the state. He knows Lennie has nobody else. Later in the story, George tells one of the ranch hands how he used to tease Lennie by telling him to do things that would hurt him, and how he would laugh when Lennie unflinchingly obeyed. But as time went on, he had pity for Lennie, and realized how vulnerable he was. Lennie needed someone to take care of him, and George stepped up. One could argue that George gains something from the relationship—camaraderie, and financial assistance in the land purchase—but George gives up much more by taking Lennie with him, having to run away from well paying jobs when Lennie causes a ruckus.

Reflecting on this sacrificial relationship, I asked myself if I would be willing to care for someone so sacrificially. If someone needed help, had nobody else, would I take responsibility or simply pass them along to someone who was more “qualified” to help? James 1:27 comes to mind, which says, “Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to visit orphans and widows in their affliction, and to keep oneself unstained from the world.” While George doesn’t help Lennie in light of God’s love, and though Lennie isn’t an orphan or a widow, this verse speaks to their situation: Lennie is a vulnerable person in need and George provides guidance and friendship for him. This story is a beautiful picture of friendship and love that is genuine and sacrificial.

The ending of the book makes a Christian reading more controversial; how is George showing love through his actions, and was it his responsibility to take matters into his own hands? George wants to save Lennie from certain torture, and he believes that Lennie is his responsibility. Still, the delineation between right and wrong is very grey at the climax of this story.

Cautionary Note

Written by a secular author, this book is full of cursing and some innuendo. In addition, Steinbeck deals with some emotionally disturbing scenes which may not be suitable for younger readers.

Conclusion

Having read Of Mice and Men as a high schooler, I was eager to re-read the slim volume with the Christian lens. I was not disappointed. This story and reading forced me to ask some hard-hitting questions about love, friendship, and sacrifice, well worth the time and reflection.

What do you think?
What aspects of the Christian walk do you see or not see depicted in John Steinbeck’s Of Mice and Men? Are George’s actions at the end of the story justified? What have you learned about life from this story? Please comment below with your ideas and questions!

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“Chasing Jupiter” by Rachel Coker

chasing jupiterSummary

Sixteen-year-old Scarlett is the glue holding the Blaine family together. From caring for Grandpop Barley who lives with them, to cooking for the family, to babysitting her little brother, Cliff, who has unusual behavior, to covering up for her hippie sister, Juli, Scarlett is worn out. When her little brother asks for a rocket to Jupiter, Scarlett and Cliff plan to sell peach pies to buy the needed materials with the help of the peach farmer’s son, Frank. As the summer progresses, Scarlett becomes more attracted to Frank and increasingly overwhelmed by her responsibilities, wondering how God can possibly be good if He can’t improve her circumstances. But when Frank expresses interest in Juli, and Scarlett is forced to take on more responsibilities while her family struggles to make ends meet, Scarlett must confront her faith and her outlook on life.

The Pros

Set in 1960’s Georgia, this story is charming, cozy, and inviting from the first page. Characters grapple with their changing world, from watching Neil Armstrong walk on the moon to new life outlooks epitomized by hippie culture. Coker grounds her characters in the time period and setting by discussing these topics, and painting a picturesque Georgia landscape.

Scarlett’s story is one that young adult readers will be able to relate with. At a young age, she is forced to take on too much responsibility, which makes it difficult for her to spend time figuring out who she is and who she wants to become. Scarlett’s insecurity and tender heart for her family, among other qualities, makes her an endearing character. The reader watches Scarlett’s spiritual development through the story as she searches for God and meaning in her struggle. Coker brings many memorable and lovable characters together, including Scarlett’s brother, Cliff, who has autistic behaviors. Cliff has many unique interests, like learning Spanish, reading A Farewell to Arms repeatedly, and making unrealistic lists of birthday requests, like a rocket to Jupiter. Then there’s Grandpop Barley who insists on wearing his dirty red tie day after day, and loves peanut butter to a fault.

The Cons

This book is touching and heartfelt, albeit a little slow moving. It takes quite a while to delve into the conflict, but it is still a pleasant, cozy read.

Coker deals with some 1960’s culture, but coming from someone who has a keen interest in the era, I would have loved to see more. There are some musical and pop culture references, but the story would have been even more engaging had the author included more time period detail.

Some characters come out at the end of the novel a bit underdeveloped. Juli, for example, was an interesting character with her carefree, live in the moment outlook, greatly influenced by the ideas of the period, but she came out a little one-dimensional in the end.

Conclusion

This was a charming and touching read with many wonderful characters in a meaningful story. If you’re looking to be swept up in a warm-fuzzy story, or if you have a hankering for a peach pie, this is definitely a good pick for you.

Get your copy of Chasing Jupiter from Zondervan, or grab one at your local library!

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“The Legacy” by Dan Walsh and Gary Smalley

Summary

Doug has drifted further from his parents and his faith in the last few years. At college, he is pursuing a career in graphic design with a passion for graphic novels. Doug and his friend, Jason, plan to enter a contest with their collaborative project, though Doug seems more interested working on it than Jason who prefers parties and smoking pot. Then there’s Doug’s girlfriend, Courtney, complicating his relationship with his parents and the girl he used to confide in back home, Christina. As Doug continues to work on the graphic novel and maintains a relationship with a girl he doesn’t genuinely care about, Doug realizes he is living a double life and must choose which version of himself he wants to be.

The Pros

Because Doug is a college student, he encounters many issues facing young adults today, including drinking, drugs, and premarital sex. Authors Dan Walsh and Gary Smalley handle these complex and controversial subjects with wisdom and finesse, discussing both sides of these issues and never lapsing into graphic displays of the aforementioned behaviors.

With Doug’s interest in graphic novels, there are some interesting settings, including a Comic Convention where attendees are dressed up as various superheroes. The reader also gets insight into their graphic novel project which is an adaptation of the Biblical Prodigal Son story, mirroring Doug’s own path.

The Cons

While the idea of a modern “Prodigal Son” story is interesting, I was not engaged with the characters. The Legacy is the fourth novel of Walsh and Smalley’s Restoration Series, which leads me to believe the characters in this novel are better developed in previous installments. However, even if that is the case, the pace of the story was very slow, especially when I didn’t care about the characters.

Conclusion

While I applaud Walsh and Smalley on their discussion of issues facing young adults today, I felt disappointed that such a promising adaptation of a wonderful Bible story fell short.

If you’re looking for a light, predictable, easy read, this might be a good book for you.

You can get a copy of The Legacy from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.

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