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A Severe Mercy–love and the struggles of life

A Severe Mercy

by Sheldon Vanauken

Sometimes good books, even nonfiction, can be a rollercoaster ride, and A Severe Mercy falls into that category for me. Sheldon Vanauken is a very good writer with a special devotion to words. His subject in this work is actually two-fold—marriage and Christianity. In the first part of the book, he focuses on the “pagan” love he and his wife Davy share and the commitment they make to be completely and solely taken up with each other. He tells of their conversion to Christianity and how their new relationship to God affects their lives and their union as a couple. They are both adventurous and intellectual. In their pursuit of God they begin a friendship with C.S. Lewis that proves to be very important in their daily walk with Christ, especially during a health crisis that confronts them.

My opinion of Vanauken as a person changes several times in the course of the events recounted in A Severe Mercy  as he changes and grows as a person. It is not light nor easy reading as it mines the depths of their efforts to achieve a perfect union, to talk everything through, and to glory in Beauty. In making decisions, they always choose based on what would be best for their love. Vanauken describes their two different paths to Christianity: Davy through her need for absolution from sin and Sheldon through a yearning for the Jesus he learned about as he studied the New Testament. Vanauken has lengthy discussions on believing despite doubts, the “Oxford experience” of intellectual friendships, and the difficulties of readjusting to life in the United States. He devotes a chapter to Davy’s illness and another to his grief at her death. It is in these chapters that his love for her shines most clearly and that his writing takes the more theological bent as he tries to reconcile his devastation with his belief in God. He examines these events in the light of human views on time and eternity. Included are eighteen letters from C.S. Lewis with whom he shared a special bond as Lewis also suffered through the illness and death of his wife Joy. The letters from Lewis are clear, straightforward and understandable, mincing no words. 

I needed a tissue during the chapter recounting Davy’s struggles with her sickness. I didn’t always like Sheldon. It was, however, his story to tell, and he told it from his viewpoint with soul searching honesty. I am glad that I read A Severe Mercy. It is the love story of Sheldon and Davy, and also of their love for Christ.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Memoir, Christian, Nonfiction

Publication:  May 26, 2009—Harper One (first published January 1, 1977)

Memorable Lines:

He stood there in the stillness, looking. A tiny breeze touched his face like a brief caress. He closed his eyes for a second or two, fancying as always that she was in the wind. “Davy?” he murmured. “Dearling?”

If one of us likes anything, there must be something to like in it—and the other one must find it. Every single thing that either of us likes. That way we shall create a thousand strands, great and small, that will link us together. Then we shall be so close that it would be impossible—unthinkable—for either of us to suppose that we could ever recreate such closeness with anyone else.

The grim and almost fierce will to do all and be all for Davy that I had held before me like a sword for half a year became now, upon her death, tired though I was, a no less resolute will to face the whole meaning of loss, to drink the cup of grief to the lees.

Lineage Most Lethal–secrets from the past

Lineage Most Lethal

by S.C. Perkins

Having read a very positive review of the debut novel in S.C. Perkins’ Ancestry Detective Mystery Series, I decided, when the opportunity arose, to give Lineage Most Lethal, the second book in the series, a try. I am fairly neutral on the interest continuum when it comes to genealogies, but this cozy mystery afforded a different perspective for me on family trees. I also learned a little about the intricacies of researching lineages.

Lucy Lancaster is an outgoing young woman who shares office space with two friends in downtown Austin, Texas. Currently she is spending a week at the high-end Sutton hotel working for Pippa Sutton to investigate her family’s history and compile the information into a video to be presented at a family gathering. As the plot progresses, we learn about Lucy’s own beloved grandfather’s involvement in World War II and a little about her former boyfriend, Ben, an FBI agent who has ghosted her.

Lucy’s research turns dark when a stranger dies before her eyes, Pippa’s mother Roselyn begins acting strangely, and Chef Rocky is found dead. Lucy’s grandfather shares secrets from the past, and suddenly it seems many in the present are in a dangerous state. As Lucy tries to juggle all the balls, she is pushing against a murderer’s timetable as well as her professional and personal commitments.

Although I suspected the identity of the murderer, I did not grasp the intricate connections of the victims, potential victims, a nutcase who appeared sane, and their descendants. The tale includes a few red herrings dealing with cipher codes and given names as well. The solution is definitely complicated. Well played, S. C. Perkins!

I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to St. Martin’s Press for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: #2 in the Ancestry Detective Mystery Series, but worked well for me as a standalone.

Publication:   July 21, 2020—St. Martin’s Press/Minotaur

Memorable Lines:

The point is, do yourself a favor and halve your problem by sharing it with someone.”

I would do my part to protect these people, even if I would never meet them and got branded by the APD as a genealogist who was a taco short of a combination plate.

Ben took my hand and led me out the French doors into the winter wonderland, the white fairy lights making the falling snow glitter like diamonds.

Sowing Malice–page turner

Sowing Malice

by Wendy Tyson

I am overwhelmed at the plot complexity in Wendy Tyson’s Sowing Malice. When a rich man dies in Winsome, Pennsylvania, a storm of activities is released including a murder, distraught widows and lovers, planted evidence, semi-abandoned houses, and inheritance issues. More importantly, a murder victim is transferred to Megan’s property where it can’t be missed and attention is diverted to Megan Sawyer. Megan, the widow of a soldier she loved deeply, lives in Winsome with Bibi, her grandmother. She owns and manages an organic farm that supplies her café and other restaurants with fresh organic produce. In this book in the series, she is also finishing renovations on a house on adjoining land she purchased. Her goal is to convert it and a barn into an inn, education facility, and event center. Her Scottish boyfriend, the local veterinarian, continues to play a role as he supports her and patiently waits for her to be ready for a deeper commitment.

All of this story background is the vehicle for delivering a plot with more legitimate suspects than you would think possible. Megan has to work hard to discern the motivations of the various characters and determine who is lying and why. Family relationships keep the focus on tangled connections; extra effort is needed to sort out what occurred when and who benefits from it.

It will come as no surprise to Wendy Tyson fans that she achieves success with this cozy mystery as she racks up yet another page turner. As the book concludes, there are also several surprises in the personal arena that will leave the reader smiling with satisfaction.

I would like to extend my thanks to Edelweiss and Henery Press for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: #6 in the Greenhouse Mystery Series, but would be great as a standalone.

Publication:   July 14, 2020—Henery Press

Memorable Lines:

“My grandfather liked to play games with people. If you understand that about him, then everything makes sense.” 

“You’re impossible, you know.” “I think these days I’d be called strong and independent.” Megan laughed. As usual, her grandmother was right.

“I don’t follow.” “Because you’re probably sane, and the actions of cruel people don’t make sense.”

Green Leaf in Drought–a missionary story

Green Leaf in Drought

by Isobel Kuhn

Arthur and Wilda Mathews and their baby spent a frustrating two years trying to discern and follow God’s will as missionaries for the China Inland Mission, a group spread widely over mainland China. Under the Communist regime, they were not allowed to witness to people about Jesus  or to help people in need. They were eventually confined to their meager and uncomfortable quarters and socially isolated. Their living situation was desperate as the authorities tried to starve them and forced them to live in unhealthy conditions. Why had God brought them to this place? Why wouldn’t the authorities allow them to leave? Having arrived with enthusiasm, they eventually suffered through round after round of seeking God’s will in the midst of despair. Their little girl was a bright note as she absorbed and repeated the songs and Scriptures that sustained her parents during the difficult times.

If you are inspired by missionary stories or want to read about God working in the hearts of His children when times are hard, then you would probably find Green Leaf in Drought to your liking. The content is very interesting. Stylistically speaking, this book is not in the excellent category. Author Isobel Kuhn had very difficult resource materials to work with, mainly the writings of Arthur and Wilda Mathews. Their compositions were letters intended for family and recordings on paper of their thoughts, prayers, and poetry, which we would refer to today as journaling, often written in tiny script on thin airmail paper. Others were involved in deciphering and organizing the events which Kuhn then transformed into a readable narrative. As Kuhn tries to translate the couple’s thoughts into dialogue, the result is somewhat stilted. The descriptions, however, are well executed. Kuhn maintains the integrity of a biography. She does not veer off into historical fiction and is to be commended for that. Readers who want a more in depth character study will not find that because it was not  provided in the source materials.

Rating: 4/5 (3/5 for writing style, 4/5 for interest and historical veracity)

Category: Christian, Biography

Publication:   January 1, 2007—OMF International (first published in 1957)

Memorable Lines:

The bamboo curtain shouts and bellows as it descends, boasts and preens itself. The Feather Curtain of God falls silently. It is soft and comforting to the sheltered one; but intangible, mysterious and baffling to the outsider.

Amazing how we plan everything so carefully and then God walks sovereignly right across the lot with something far better.

The slow wearing down of the human spirit is a species of torture which the communists delight to use and have found very productive for their purposes.

False Conclusion–dangerous inheritance

False Conclusion

by Veronica Heley

Much to her dismay, Bea Abbot, the owner of the Abbot Agency becomes desperately entangled in the affairs of the rich and influential Trescott family. All is not as it appears in that closely knit family…well, closely knit in terms of the secrets they try to keep. Mysterious deaths keep piling up. Bea’s ward Bernice is rather forced at boarding school into a friendship role with the Trescott matriarch’s niece Evelina (Evie), a disheveled and almost incoherent teenager. Evie is meant to marry an older cousin Joshua who has promised to take care of her and, Bea suspects, her fortune too. Meanwhile, some rather disturbing patterns arise when Joshua’s tempestuous brother Benjy takes an interest in Bernice who is only 14 and also destined to be wealthy.

Veronica Heley’s False Conclusion is a good mystery that combines reasoning, investigation, and character conflicts with action. The author’s writing style insists that the reader sneak a quick peak at each “next chapter” which, of course, segues into the next and the next; it is a book that is hard to put down.

If you have been following this series, you will be interested in the relationship developments between Bea and her ex-husband Piers, a famous portrait painter whose artistic skills and quick thinking play a role in False Conclusion’s plot. If this series is new to you, don’t hesitate to dive in; you will quickly be brought up to speed on the characters and find that the plot is fresh. In fact, the intriguing opening lines throw both new and returning reader into the story without hesitation: “Bea Abbot shut the front door on her departing guests and demanded, ‘What on earth was that all about?’ ”

I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Severn House for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery, Christian

Notes: 1. #14 in the Abbot Agency Mystery Series, but would work as a standalone.

2.  Although not overtly a Christian book, the author does show Bea’s reliance on God through a few short prayers for wisdom and protection during difficult times.

Publication:   July 7, 2020—Severn House Publishers

Memorable Lines:

His hand on her shoulder had been heavy. He’d meant her to feel the weight of his hand, and to remind her of the power behind it. He was smiling, but his eyes glittered, needle sharp. He had ceased to dismiss her as a pawn in the game.

She stared into the future. It was a dark pit, filled with crashing noises and a seething tangle of snakes. It was more real than her bedroom. It horrified her. She couldn’t look away. She couldn’t even pray.

“Forgiveness comes with understanding. And remorse. And courage to look into the future and not back at the past.”

Night Shift–using heart and brain

Night Shift

by Annelise Ryan

Two books to read. One—a thought provoking theological memoir with an impending book club deadline. The other—a page turner by one of my favorite authors, Annelise Ryan. She really knows how to tell a story. My decision, given this choice, is not hard to guess. As I finished the mystery, Night Shift, I should have been wearing my “one more chapter” sweatshirt because that is what happened, all the way to a surprising and satisfying conclusion.

Whereas Ryan’s Mattie Winston Mystery Series focuses on forensics and pathology, her equally well-written Helping Hands Series is about Hildy, a social worker who is combining her job with the hospital as a social worker with a newly created position where she rides along with local enforcement officers to support both the officers and the citizens they encounter. The upside is that many of her clients overlap; the downside is that the hours are extended with the jobs back to back not really allowing for any kind of normal sleep routines. Hildy has been trained in appropriate protocol to keep her safe, and she follows it. She has three big advantages in her new job. She is smart and is good at noticing clues and making connections that others may not see. She has a trained therapy dog Roscoe who interacts well with people in crisis helping to calm them. Personal traumas as a child and her experiences in the foster care system make her an understanding advocate.

In this mystery, Hildy’s welfare check on a farmer yields unpleasant results that are just the beginning of an intricate plot. Threads include a female vet with PTSD, a schizophrenic young man who hallucinates, two adult daughters of the victim who are not very nice people, and a militia organization.

Hildy is determined, persistent, and very caring. On a personal level, she befriends a young neighbor with autism and initiates a relationship with a bachelor detective who is ready to make changes in his life. On a professional level, she is confronted by her boss at the hospital who was turned down for the law enforcement position Hildy now holds. 

Annelise Ryan’s books have some of the characteristics of a cozy mystery, but they have a little edge to them in the crime scene descriptions. They also have characters with more depth to them than the typical cozy mystery. She takes great care to bring the reader along as she supplies background information from the first novel in a natural and organic way. The characters are interesting and show development. The plot is intricate and fast moving. This is a mystery you’ll be thinking about for days as you wonder what adventures lie in store for Hildy in the next book.

I would like to extend my thanks to Netgalley and to Kensington Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 5/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: #2 in the Helping Hands Mystery Series, but excellent as a standalone

Publication:   July 28, 2020—Kensington Books

Memorable Lines:

If eyes truly are the windows to the soul, one look at Danny’s makes it clear that reason and sanity have left that particular building. At least for now.

As I follow her in there, it occurs to me that this is a kid who never displays emotion, and that I may have just been played by an eleven-year-old.

The rest of the station employees not only haven’t noticed, but they’ve made no effort whatsoever to maintain the newly cleaned state. I’m surprised I got the job I did with this department because, apparently, being a slob is one of the criteria for working here.

Top Ten Tuesday: Quotes from Cozy Mysteries

Great Quotes from Cozy Writers

Carla Loves To Read

Top Ten Tuesday was created by The Broke and the Bookish and is now hosted by That Artsy Reader Girl. It was born of a love of lists, a love of books, and a desire to bring bookish friends together. Each week a new theme is suggested for bloggers to participate in. Create your own Top Ten list that fits that topic – putting your unique spin on it if you want. Everyone is welcome to join but please link back to The Artsy Reader Girl in your own Top Ten Tuesday post.

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Of Mutts and Men–a tired tale

Of Mutts and Men

by Spencer Quinn

Although I really enjoyed reading the first book in the Chet and Bernie Series, I was a little disappointed as I read Of Mutts and Men, the tenth book in the series. I felt like I was reading a clone of the first book, sporting a different cover and title and with the same jokes, but repeated too often. The mystery concerning a murder, an aquifer, and big business is fresh but somehow did not thrust me into a page turning mode. Chet, a K-9 school failure but faithful sidekick to P.I. Bernie, is always devotedly at Bernie’s side, but his role in capturing the “perps” in this book is less than I think he deserves. He has valuable deductions, but as a dog can not share them effectively in this tale. The story includes a personal side of Bernie’s life as a former flame reenters the picture, but there is no deep examination and it doesn’t seem believable.

I recommend this book if you like mysteries that involve canines and you want a light read. Unfortunately, although it reads well as a standalone, it does not compel me to read the eight books that I skipped over in the series. I am planning to read the next book in the series to inspire me to read more or to convince me that the series is not worth investing more time.

I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Macmillan—Tor/Forge for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 3/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: 1. #10 in the Chet and Bernie Series, but can be read as a standalone.

  2. Contains some profanity.

  3. Link to my review of the first book in the series, Dog On It.

Publication:   July 7, 2020— Macmillan—Tor/Forge

Memorable Lines:

“Sometimes I don’t understand you.” Well, right back at ya. Which didn’t change how I felt about him, not the slightest bit. And just to show him, I put my paw on his leg and pressed down firmly, so he’d know how much I cared. We shot through the intersection, the light luckily turning green at that moment, or just about to. 

The big heat of summer was coming very soon, and the back of Bernie’s shirt—one of his nicest, with the flamingos drinking at a bar pattern—was getting sweaty, and he was huffing and puffing a bit. I followed him up the slope, first from behind and then from in front, where I do my best following.

I started feeling very good about the case. As for what it was about, exactly, those details would come to me soon, or later, or not at all. But the important thing was that we were cooking, me and Bernie.

Mums and Mayhem–Bellewick’s famous fiddler returns

Mums and Mayhem

by Amanda Flower

Fiona Knox transplanted herself from Tennessee to the east coast of Scotland when she inherited Duncreigan, a very small cottage with its magical garden, from her godfather Ian. She became Keeper of the garden and is learning how to care for it through trial and error. She also owns a floral shop in the little town of Bellewick where she has made a number of friends despite some animosity against her as an American.

In this mystery, world famous fiddler Barley McFee has returned home for a concert, but there are complications to his visit. Fiona’s parents have also come to Scotland for a visit. She plans on pinning them down on the identity of her biological father. Fiona and her sister Isla also want to introduce them to the men in their lives. Complications added into the plot are disputes in Barley’s backup band, a historian who wants access to the magic garden, a businessman who wants to restore a tumbling manor house, a fire at sea, vandalism in the magic garden, and a murder.

With so much going on in the little village, Fiona is stretched to her limits, but her boyfriend, Chief Inspector Neil Craig, her friend Presha, and her Scottish Fold cat, Ivanhoe, are a constant source of support.

Amanda Flower’s Mums and Mayhem is a cozy mystery with a Scottish flair and a sprinkle of magic of the whimsical variety. Fiona is desperate to restore the magical garden and the conclusion not only reveals the murderer and resolves the personal conflicts with her parents, but also shows Fiona regarding the garden in a new light.

I would like to extend my thanks to Netgalley and to Crooked Lane Books for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4/5

Category: Mystery

Notes: #3 in the Magic Garden Mysteries, but can be read as a standalone allowing the author to fill in any needed background information.

Publication:  July 7, 2020—Crooked Lane Books

Memorable Lines:

The American tendency is more and bigger and better and new. We don’t always buy into that in Scotland. We appreciate old and tradition.

My heart sank. I wanted to grab the words out of the air and shove them back into my mouth. But it was too late for that.

“I think it’s the right thing to do. It feels right, in any case, and when dealing with the garden, I have learned that going with my gut has always been the best choice.”

Hannah Coulter–“living right on”

Hannah Coulter

by Wendell Berry

The narrator through the voice of Hannah Coulter ends the first chapter of this novel with the simple line “This is my story, my giving of thanks.” Do not, however, be lulled into thinking you are going to read a book consisting of platitudes on gratitude. Hannah reflects from old age on a full life, but what most would consider a common, ordinary life. She grieves over those she lost whether to sickness or the War. She keeps moving forward because what else is she to do?

Wendell Berry, the author of Hannah Coulter is an agrarian, a novelist, a poet, and an essayist. He brings his characters to life with carefully chosen words that reflect their deepest thoughts about difficult subjects as well as their humanity. This is a book that you may want to reread, that may make you tear up, and that will certainly be the cause of reflection as you identify with certain characters or events.

Perhaps because I usually prefer linear storytelling and Hannah Coulter strays from that paradigm in its first and last chapters, it will not be one of my favorite books. I do recommend it as a book of depth with passages that are worthy of sharing orally for the way the words delight or for the descriptions meant to be savored for the images they evoke. Hannah Coulter opens the door to her heart, her life, and her community to the reader in an honest and touching manner.

I would like to extend my thanks to NetGalley and to Counterpoint for giving me the opportunity to read this book in exchange for an honest review.

Rating: 4/5

Category: Literary Fiction

Notes: 1. Part of the Port William series but they don’t have to be read in order.

  2. Map and Genealogy included at the end.

Publication:   October 10, 2005—Counterpoint

Memorable Lines:

Time doesn’t stop. Your life doesn’t stop and wait until you get ready to start living it. Those years of the war were not a blank, and yet during all that time I was waiting. We were all waiting.

He told of the time he went fishing and the mosquitoes were so big and fierce that he had to take shelter under a lard kettle, and the mosquitoes’ beaks were so tough and sharp that they pierced the iron and came through, and he picked up his hammer and clenched their beaks, and the mosquitoes flew off with his kettle.

The chance you had is the life you’ve got. You can make complaints about what people, including you, make of their lives after they have got them, and about what people make of other people’s lives, even about your children being gone, but you mustn’t wish for another life. You mustn’t want to be somebody else. What you must do is this: “Rejoice evermore. Pray without ceasing. In everything give thanks.” I am not all the way capable of so much, but those are the right instructions.

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