Of Men and Mary by Christine Watkins

Of Men and Mary by Christine Watkins
Publisher: Queen of Peace Media
Genre: Contemporary, Inspirational, Non-Fiction
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

Powerful in the spirit, OF MEN AND MARY also delivers tasty doses of pure entertainment. You will find yourself inspired by a murderer, a sweet lamb who lost it all, and a man who literally died—and then came back to life. You will suddenly root for a football player tackled by the Blessed Mother, a man caught up in illicit sexual liaisons, and a man whose marriage was as good as dead.

While OF MEN AND MARY may be about six males, it is for everyone, because it is also a book about a woman. In the heat of the fiercest of spiritual battles, when all seemed lost and these men were left with nothing to stand on but stormy seas, they were given a lifeboat. That lifeboat—that woman—is the Blessed Virgin Mary. She is the boat of safety for all of us, the surest and safest passage to the heart of her Son. She is our victory and sweet reassurance that God’s plan is infinitely better than our own; and she is our challenge to follow her Son, no matter the cost, no matter how fierce the battle. Read the stories of these brave men, and you will inevitably come away with a desire to climb in the boat with them and sail safely home.

One day, I listened to a guy on a YouTube video talk about his life and I was intrigued. He was overwhelmed by life’s challenges, and a little messed up but somehow turned his life around. Then I found this book, Of Men and Mary: How Six Men Won the Greatest Battle of Their Lives and realized that the very guy I watched in the video was one of those six men whose lives were affected and changed by discovering their faith. I guess this book touched me at a deeper level because I wasn’t reading about a faceless, unknown person with only a name. I had heard his voice, saw his facial expressions, and could confer that experience to the words I read. The other five men in the novel became a bit more ‘alive’ to me because I could trust that their stories were real, that they were real. Reading this novel was an enlightening experience, in a good way, because it also encourages hope.

Initially, I expected a dry experience because I was reading about how religion changed these men’s lives. There is nothing dry or boring or uninteresting when you ‘meet’ a man who was a murderer, another who actually died, or a guy who was prone to infidelity and one who lived a lifestyle full of mistakes and kept making them, over and over, and over again. I think his story was the hardest to read and yet the most inspirational because it illustrated what I’ve heard; that God is a loving, forgiving God who only wants the best for us, and to bring us home to him when we die. But, and it’s a big ‘but’, we have to be heading that way in our lives while we are around to use our free will to make the right choices. All six men were not making the right choices and this book is about what happened, what changed them, and what it looks like after they’ve made the changes.

Like I mentioned, there was one man’s story that I found hard to read because he was given so many chances, even some amazing interventions, and he STILL reverted to his old mistakes. I wanted to shake him. How can he experience something that proved that there is a God, that He loved him and answered his prayers, and yet go backwards? His story showed me a few things, namely that God really is a forgiving God, he doesn’t give up on us, even when we purposely or accidentally screw up, we’re given chance after chance to repent and return onto the right path. The act of loving someone is exactly that, an action, a doing. And that loving action is expressed in each of the six men.

The story of the man who would be a famous football player amused me and wowed me at the same time. Boy, did he test God. Every time he said, “If you do this, only then will I do …”, except he kept moving the goalpost – numerous times. I’m thinking, ‘Uh-oh, he’s going to push God too far; that’s really poking the bear!” Except how it all resolved took me by surprise. It was like reading a convoluted mystery book – nothing seems to make sense or go in the direction you think it’s going to go, then, Boom! – the big reveal. I enjoyed his story the most.

Of Men and Mary earns the tag of inspirational. It’s also entertaining, thought-provoking, immensely interesting, and it gives one hope. No matter how bad a person thinks their sins might be, God’s healing love will help overcome and conquer that taint – but it comes with a price. You must love God back. I’m not talking about feeling like you love Him, but actionably demonstrating that love in your life in all aspects. Sounds hard, right? The six guys in this book sure felt that way … until they didn’t. That’s the mind-blowing part. When you’re happy, it’s not so much a hardship anymore, because you’re doing it out of love. And because these stories are about real people who overcame incredible odds, some more dire than others, it inspires me to never give up, and to keep moving forward because the ultimate goal is worth it.

I’m super glad I discovered this book. All because I watched a video. See? You never know where inspiration is going to come from.

The Lies Among Us by Sarah Beth Durst

The Lies Among Us by Sarah Beth Durst
Publisher: Lake Union Publishing
Genre: Sci-Fi/Fantasy, Contemporary
Rating: 5 Stars
Reviewed by Cholla

After her mother dies, Hannah doesn’t know how to exist without her. Literally. In fact, Hannah’s not even certain that she does exist. No one seems to see or hear her, and she finds herself utterly alone. Grief-stricken and confused, her sense of self slowly slipping away, Hannah sets out to find new purpose in life—and answers about who (and what) she really is.

Hannah’s only remaining family is her older sister, Leah. Yet even Leah doesn’t seem to notice her. And while Hannah can see and hear her sister, she also sees beautiful and terrible things that don’t—or shouldn’t—exist. She learns there’s much more to this world than meets the eye and struggles to make sense of it all.

When Hannah sees Leah taking the same dangerous path that consumed their own mother—where lies supplant reality—she’s desperate to get through to her. But facing difficult truths is harder than it looks…

What happens to a lie after the liar is gone?

For two decades, Hannah’s only focus has been on her mother. But when her mother dies, Hannah’s world and everything she knows is shattered. How does she find her way without the most important person in her life?

Hannah is one of the most interesting characters I’ve ever met. While she stumbles a bit after her mother’s death, she eventually finds her direction after a chance meeting. Sylvie is everything Hannah never thought she could be, and together they alter each other’s perception of the world and the reality they live in. They are truly the biggest catalyst for character development in each other, which was really fascinating to watch.

Leah, on the other hand, doesn’t handle her mother’s death very well. There were so many unresolved issues between them that it’s extra hard for her to process the loss. She lashes out, acts erratically, and attempts to shut out everyone who cares about her while she struggles through her grief. It was heartbreaking to watch, but very real and extremely visceral.

The thing that will stick with me long after I’ve put this book up on my bookshelf is how Hannah reinvents herself after her mother dies. She finds new purpose and new adventures, all while holding onto her past. In addition, there is so much insight into how humans work in this novel. A favorite quote, “Who we are is who we’ve been. And who we’ve known.” That hit me right where it hurt. Every person we meet, even peripherally, becomes a part of us in a way.

The Lies Among Us is one of the most interesting and unique stories I’ve read in a long time. It’s hard to even review it properly. Beautifully written and strewn with intriguing characters, I couldn’t stop reading once I started. We all know that we’ll inevitably lose someone who means the world to us, but we’re never quite ready for it, even when we have advanced notice of it. This novel shows you both the horror and beauty of love, loss, and moving on in a relatable and emotional way.

The Convenient Roommate by E.C. Finnegan

The Convenient Roommate by E.C. Finnegan
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Romance, LGBTQ, Contemporary
Rating: 3 Stars
Reviewed by Astilbe

Caught Between a Rock and a Hard Place…

After enduring a devastating betrayal, Fox finds himself in dire need of a fresh start and a new place to call home. When his loyal friend offers him a spare room in the house he shares with his charismatic brother, Fox cautiously accepts the invitation. Little does he know that this housing arrangement will ignite a flurry of unexpected emotions within him.

Caught off guard by a magnetic pull towards his friend’s older sibling, Fox battles with the fear of embarking on another vulnerable relationship. Despite his reservations, he soon realizes that there’s no escaping the undeniable chemistry that intertwines their lives.

As Fox navigates the intricacies of cohabitation, he discovers a bond beyond what he ever imagined. With shared moments of laughter, secrets exchanged, and tender gestures that hint at something more, can Fox find the courage to let go of his past heartbreak and embrace the tantalizing possibilities that lie with his conveniently attractive roommate?

It’s never too late to heal from the past.

The dialogue was realistic and entertaining. Given the difficult childhoods that both West and Fox experienced, it made total sense that their communication skills weren’t always particularly strong. This is something I’m sharing as a reader who is not generally a huge fan of plots that rely on miscommunications for conflict, but in this case, it worked perfectly for everyone involved given how much they had to hide their sexual orientations, among other things, in order to feel safe as kids. Honestly, I would have been shocked if either of them had emerged from childhood without these sorts of emotional scars. Including them enriched the storyline and made me want to keep reading.

I had trouble keeping track of many of the secondary characters. There wasn’t as much time spent describing their physical appearances, personalities, or interests as I would have preferred to see, so except for the two protagonists I struggled to form mental images of them that could have helped me remember who was who. This did improve once I was more than halfway through it, but it was still something that held me back from enjoying this as much as I would have liked to.

With that being said, I appreciated how slowly and organically the romance was allowed to unfold. The friends to lovers trope is one I already loved, and it was put to great use here. Fox and West both had excellent reasons for not rushing anything, especially given all of the other stuff going on in both of their lives that was rightfully taking up so much of their attention when they first met. In my opinion, romance novels are best to read when the characters in them already have full and satisfying lives before the slightest whiff of a new love interest is introduced. Kudos to the author for putting so much effort into this.

The Convenient Roommate had a fun premise.

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret, audiobook read by Ira Glass

Suddenly, a Knock on the Door by Etgar Keret, audiobook read by Ira Glass
Publisher: Macmillan Audio
Genre: Contemporary, Fiction
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Lavender

Read by an all-star cast and featuring a bonus story special to the audio edition, Suddenly, a Knock on the Door is a one-of-a-kind audiobook.

Bringing up a child, lying to the boss, placing an order in a fast-food restaurant: in Etgar Keret’s new collection, daily life is complicated, dangerous, and full of yearning. In his most playful and most mature work yet, the living and the dead, silent children and talking animals, dreams and waking life coexist in an uneasy world. Overflowing with absurdity, humor, sadness, and compassion, the tales in Suddenly, a Knock on the Door establish Etgar Keret—declared a “genius” by The New York Times—as one of the most original writers of his generation.

This is an interesting collection of short stories written by Etgar Keret about daily life. Daily life, as we all know, can be complex. Many tricky situations can occur.

Keret delves into various emotions and goes from the normal to the playful, wild, or mature. The themes vary throughout this collection, but there is an underlying knowledge of universal yearning to enhance the stories.

Each piece varies in length—some quite short, and some a bit longer. It is a unique set of tales, sure to touch many readers.

A Christmas to Remember by Beverly Jenkins

A Christmas to Remember by Beverly Jenkins
Publisher: Avon
Genre: Contemporary, Holiday
Rating: 3 stars
Reviewed by Ginger

Ever since Bernadine Brown bought the town of Henry Adams, her relationship with diner owner Malachi “Mal” July has had its share of ups and downs. But now they’re finally ready to say “I do.”

Or are they? As wedding preparations go into full swing, and families both local and extended begin to gather for the festivities, that long awaited walk down the aisle hits a speed bump that may derail everything.

But Mal and Bernadine’s relationship isn’t the only one being tested.

Preston Mays aka Brain, loves his girlfriend as much as he does physics but when she decides being a couple is no longer a good thing, his heart is broken. Will connecting with his bio dad’s family ease his pain?

Reverend Paula Grant has been patiently waiting for God to send her someone to share her life. When the town’s charming new chef arrives in town, she wonders if he could be the one.

And then there’s former mayor Riley Curry who throws a parade with his hog Cletus! There’s always a lot going on in Henry Adams, and this will be a Christmas to remember.

The small historical town of Henry Adams has a long history and is still being developed and improving. While reading I could picture the town’s people moving about this well-developed close-knit village. Henry Adams is a respectful place of love, new beginnings, acceptance, and healing. It truly shows the power of community as the town’s people get together for holiday events and festive gatherings.

I like to make notes of characters’ names and minor details about them when I am reading a book. This book had so many characters that I gave up writing the names down once I got half-way on a second sheet in my notebook. The story and the lives of those in the small town of Henry Adams are simple and there is no drama whatsoever, so this was a quick and easy read. From my understanding the book is part of a series, however this is the only book that I have read from the series.

I enjoyed each of the charming characters. It was inspiring to see examples of strong and capable women within the town. I like the variety of the age range of the characters, from high school age to the town’s matriarch Tamar July and patriarch Bing Shepard. The various storylines readers will follow Bernadine Brown and her relationship with diner owner Malachi “Mal” July as they prepare for their upcoming nuptials. Young Preston Mays Payne is one of the town’s adopted youths, trying to understand why his girlfriend Leah Clark made the decision to end their relationship before they departed for college. And then there is Reverend Paula Grant, readers get to see the courtship and new love develop with new resident Chef Thornton Webb.

This book is unbelievably too good to be true and, though not particularly realistic, it is a comforting, sweet read that offers nearly no drama. There were humorous conversations from the nosey meddling town’s folk. I liked that the town’s people were loving and caring, and the author brought to light so many adoptions and caring couples opening their homes and lives. I noted examples of the characters working on their relationships being respectfully vocal, and I liked that the characters were not afraid to communicate their fears. I also like that the author made efforts to include how counseling can be used to work through individual and relationship problems.

This is a delightful read for readers seeking a happy conclusion for all.

Dance in the Meadow by Cathay O. Reta

Dance in the Meadow by Cathay O. Reta
Publisher: Keep Walking Publications
Genre: Contemporary, Inspirational, Non-Fiction
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Xeranthemum

What do you do when you become widowed, leave your church family of 45 years, retire from your job and move halfway across the country? You get real with yourself. Emerging from a season of loss and the unraveling of every belief and certainty she had so carefully cultivated, Cathay began to sit in conversation with God. With God, not to God. Listening to the still, small voice of her spirit, their conversations went deep and released a well-spring of life and wisdom. These musings will leave you feeling inspired to reflect on your own life and to find answers to questions you didn’t know to ask. They will leave you knowing that you are not alone.

This book took me a while to review because I kept making notes, re-reading certain passages or chapters and brought the book with me on trips. For people who are aghast at readers who mark pages in books, they’d explode because I have chapters, pages and sentences underlined (in pencil) and I have post-it notes sticking out all over the place and weird items being used as bookmarks. I found many references I could relate to in my own life. I found inspiration and experienced more Aha! moments than I expected while reading Cathay O. Reta’s journey with God as she navigated the dark times that followed upon becoming a widow. For the first time, she was defined not by the person she married or the job she had and what she did during it, but as her own person. Thing is, after identifying herself as part of everything outside herself, how does she see herself when all she has is … herself? All good questions.

There are many chapters and sections in the book so at first it might look overwhelming. The chapters are short, like baby-steps on a journey. Each one tackled a perception of self that needed to be torn down and re-written with the focus on how God sees and loves us. There is strength to be gained when we get out of our own way and let the good Lord lead us where we are meant to go. Dance in the Meadow is a year’s journey in the life of the author; what she learned, the internal conversations she had during meditation that led her to self-awareness, and their results. It may sound a bit woo-woo-ish, but meditation is practiced all over the world as part of many religious rituals and practices. The concentration needed to accomplish deep meditation is hard. Our world is inundated with distractions, noise and problems, and they affect the mind to the point it’s as busy as the world. At times, it is almost impossible to shut out. The author found a way to escape from the chaos, but it was not an overnight thing. Again, baby steps.

Elvis Presley was a distraction at one point (I do that kind of thing), the realization that rain isn’t an enemy, it’s adulting that makes it so, and the idea that certain foods weigh you down in unexpected ways (Chapter 25), was eye-opening. In Chapter 27 I learned that clutter isn’t restricted solely to our homes, but our souls and hearts, and is just as distracting and burdensome. What was interesting to me was the explanation of how love works. Not the love we read in romance books, but a healthy, non-commercial, spiritual, and profound love that is hard to put into practice. We’re actually out of touch with its true application in our lives. The author discovers that and more on her relationship journey with God. I even found it fascinating that we really do jump to negative interpretations. When we hear our boss say, I’m going to give you a challenging project, or if you are told, ‘here’s something to challenge you’, our response is most often negative, and we jump into self-protection mode. Yeah, I relate to that. But there’s another way to look at it, and Chapter 31 offers up that way. All I know is, that chapter is me.

There were a few observations and sections I didn’t agree with, some parts I gave the side-eye to, but overall, this book really does deliver an insightful, positive, and uplifting look at healing after the upheaval of becoming a widow after decades of being married and being part of a couple. Healing is not easy or quick, but with the right focus, it can happen.

Dance in the Meadow was a book I savored slowly. It’s going on my keeper shelf, mostly because of all the markings and notes I made, making it a book I’ll revisit for reference and to be reminded of what is and should be important in my life. To remember that I’m loved, not because of anything I’ve done or will do, but just because God loves me, unconditionally, unceasingly, and unswervingly. People can’t help but put conditions on it, whether they realize it or not. This book helped me to remember how it’s supposed to be. I’m glad I read it.

Cobalt Blue by Matthew Reilly

Cobalt Blue by Matthew Reilly
Publisher: Pan MacMillan Australia
Genre: Contemporary, Action/Adventure, Paranormal
Rating: 4 Stars
Reviewed by Fern

For 35 years, the United States and Russia each had their own superhero.

Three days ago, America’s hero died. Today will be bad.

In the face of an overwhelming attack, one young woman – unassuming and anonymous – might be America’s only hope.

Her codename … COBALT BLUE

An accident in the Antarctic unleashed a strange substance and the two infected individuals became the world-renown superheroes – Cobalt from America and the Fury of Russia. In the decades that have followed each have had a number of children – all superheroes in their own right, though only half as powerful as their famous parent. When Cobalt dies, the Fury storms America, devastating the entire country and wreaking havoc. Through the rubble of the damage, it appears the fate of the world rests on the slender shoulders of just one, hidden woman who has never been in the spotlight before. Cobalt Blue.

I really love Matthew Reilly’s books and this was an exceptional stand alone novel that went immediately onto my keepers shelf. With a rollicking fast pace this was an action orientated thrill of a ride and I loved every page. There are a number of moving parts to the plotline and I was really impressed how small sections of the story are in different colours and fonts to help the reader easily understand when perspectives change or something important is said from one of the other colours. There are a few (four or five I believe) colour illustrations that really helped me see and understand exactly the superhero characters that were being described. I really loved this too and it made the book feel even more special than the words and storyline itself.

I can’t say a lot about the plot without giving stuff away, but I was impressed how the main thrust of the plot was very simple – bad guy is trying to destroy the world and good guy tries to stop them – but with about a dozen or so main characters and a number of jumps back and forth in time the book was so much more layered and complicated than at first glance. I also really enjoyed how the story didn’t get bogged down with those layers either, like a good movie the pace kept up a good clip and I easily kept reading for more and more. This is a very hard book to put down.

While there are a few very small aspects to the plot that might not be teen or YA friendly, for the most part I feel this is a book that should appeal to both adults and YA/teen readers. Parents might want to read the book first just to gauge the small parts of plot that are more adult-centric, but I do feel many YA readers will really enjoy this story too.

Fast paced and with some excellent characters and plot this is a great book and one I will absolutely be reading again soon. Recommended.

Fire & Spirit by David St. Leonard

Fire & Spirit by David St. Leonard
Publisher: One Bright Life
Genre: Paranormal Fiction
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Lavender

Dive into a mesmerizing journey of self discovery with Fire & Spirit and follow the life of a young musician-to-be.

Join Dave as his plans to head off to university and begin a ‘normal’ adult life take a drastically different course than anticipated. Discovering his passion for music, it becomes the backdrop to events that are overshadowed by tragedy and inner turmoil. As his world fractures into parallel histories, he questions the balance between fate and free will.

In a symphony of choices, follow Dave as he seeks to find the harmony that defines his true self amidst echoes of what could have been.

Dave stumbles into being a musician, and quite the unexpected happens. He goes on a self-discovery journey, making tough decisions about his life.

This is a down-to-earth look that brings readers inside the mind of a young man experiencing changes and choices. He forms relationships that are tested. Themes of friendship, family, love, life choices, resiliency, and music are prominent is this story.

There is a touch of the paranormal to bring Dave’s adventure to a deeper level, making things more complex for him. The tale is moving and sure to inspire emotions and questions about one’s own life choices.

Soul Ryder by Nita Lapinski

Soul Ryder by Nita Lapinski
Publisher: Self-Published
Genre: Paranormal, Contemporary, Inspirational Fiction
Rating: 4 stars
Reviewed by Lavender

“Am I dead?” the young girl, Leah asks. Addie, a Clairvoyant Medium struggling with her own horrific loss, is compassionately hesitant to reveal the truth.

Join Addie and her insightful dog, Roka as they work to untangle the unimaginable tragedy that has left Leah bewildered and confused. They must race against time and Addie’s own unforeseen challenges to guide Leah to a very important crossroad.

This book is an interesting look into the life of a clairvoyant medium. Addie gets visions of dead people, all the while dealing with her own pain, the loss of a child. Leah visits Addie often, trying to give her a message.

Addie experiences people on the other side of the veil, and it affects her deeply. She must figure out how to help Leah, but it is taking her toll on her.

Soul Ryder is a short and easy-to-read story. This paranormal tale unfolds quickly and tugs at the emotions. Hopefully the author will write more stories, giving readers an inside view into her protagonist’s gift and how she helps others.

One Christmas Morning by Rachel Greenlaw

One Christmas Morning by Rachel Greenlaw
Publisher: Avon
Genre: Holiday, Fiction, Paranormal, Contemporary
Rating: 5 stars
Reviewed by Lavender

Eva has spent the past three years burying herself in her work, trying to forget the heartbreaking events of the Christmas that ripped her world apart. This year, the last thing she wants is to attend her friend’s weekend-long Christmas party. But at her husband James’ insistence, here they are.

When Eva—overwhelmed by bittersweet memories—tries to sneak back to London in the middle of the night, she is visited by the ghost of her beloved grandmother. Gran tells Eva that if she doesn’t face her fears head-on and stop shutting out her loved ones, she risks losing them all forever.

When Eva wakes on Christmas morning, she finds herself living not her own life, but that of her hardworking assistant, Diana, whose overflowing inbox isn’t the only secret she’s been keeping. The next day, she wakes on Christmas morning again, this time in the body of her best friend’s little sister. As Eva lives the same day again and again through the perspectives of her friends, she is offered a glimpse into the lives of those she has been pushing away. With each Christmas Day comes a new lesson—and an insight into the secrets and struggles her loved ones have been hiding. To move forward, Eva must let go of the past. But is it too late to fix her future?

The protagonist, Eva, makes quite an impression with her shop. The setting is mostly on the wild moors of Cornwall. Eva is has a strong personality and pushes people around in her life for the sake of her obsession. She takes her friends and family for granted. She also has something painful in her past and a marriage on the rocks.

Eva and her husband James are invited to a Christmas party at the home of her friends, Hallie and Kian. When midnight hits, her grandmother’s ghost comes to see Eva with advice that is hard for Eva to hear. Eva will have to learn a lesson the hard way: When she wakes up on Christmas day, she literally is not herself but is in the body of her assistant Diana. What could she learn from this? Well, she wakes up again the next day, and it is Christmas again. This time, she occupies someone else’s body.

This is quite a clever story and has depth. A main theme is relationships, but there is more. As Eva sees other points of view, it affects her in interesting ways. Surprising things come to light in this delightful tale for the season. It is a good read, with suspense, fun while being meaningful, and is written well.