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review 2017-04-22 00:09
The Dog Who Was There by Ron Marasco
The Dog Who Was There - Ron Marasco

No one expected Barley to have an encounter with the Messiah. He was homeless, hungry, and struggling to survive in first century Jerusalem. Most surprisingly, he was a dog. But through Barley’s eyes, the story of a teacher from Galilee comes alive in a way we’ve never experienced before. Barley’s story begins in the home of a compassionate woodcarver and his wife who find Barley as an abandoned, nearly-drowned pup. Tales of a special teacher from Galilee are reaching their tiny village, but when life suddenly changes again for Barley, he carries the lessons of forgiveness and love out of the woodcarver’s home and through the dangerous roads of Roman-occupied Judea. On the outskirts of Jerusalem, Barley meets a homeless man and petty criminal named Samid. Together, Barley and his unlikely new master experience fresh struggles and new revelations. Soon Barley is swept up into the current of history, culminating in an unforgettable encounter with the truest master of all as he bears witness to the greatest story ever told.





In 1st century Jerusalem, a pregnant stray dog gives birth to a litter of pups in a wooded area near the river. The runt of the litter is spotted by Micah, the young son of a wealthy landowner. Micah sneaks away from chores each day to play with the pup, until the day he is found out by his father. The father tries to have the whole litter killed but thanks to the efforts of Duv, a woodcarver, and his wife, Adah, the young pup is saved and named Barley. 


It is in the home of the woodcarver that Barley first starts to hear stories of an already near-mythic man from the land of Galilee. That's right, none other than than big man himself, Jesus! For seven years, Barley has a cozy home life full of love and treats. But one regular work day in town leads to tragedy for the woodcarver and his wife, a turn of events that once again puts Barley out on the streets. The scared canine is soon spotted by Samid, a homeless man / petty criminal, and his lady friend Prisca. Though the accomodations are significantly more humble than his previous pad, Barley takes what he can get and soon settles into a moderately comfortable routine with new pal Samid. Barley's life with Samid puts him in close proximity to Jesus, now in Jerusalem, so Barley is there to witness the final days leading up to the Passion of Christ


For dogs, no less than for people, firsts matter. They echo long past their point in time, especially in dreams. It's true of the good firsts, and very true of the bad ones. That's why when a dog cries in a dream -- even a full-grown dog, even an old dog -- the cry it cries is the cry of a pup, because that's what it is doing when it sleeps -- reliving a first. 


Well, right off, I will say that this is a unique way to breathe fresh new perspective into a tale that's been told a million times over! The writing sometimes struck me as somewhat simplistic but that could just be a natural by-product of the author choosing to tell the story from the inner thoughts of a dog. Perhaps the simplicity is intentional? Regardless, the benefit of a simple voice is that it makes this story perfect for sharing with readers within a wide age range.


Note that I was careful not to say "of all ages", because there is material within this novel that may be a little traumatic for the littlest ones in your life, whether they read independently or have you read to them. Barley witnesses (and describes) seeing the bodies of people executed by hanging, there are moments of extreme violence within Barley's own life, moments where he is injured, not to mention Barley relaying the sights of the Crucifixion itself near the end of the novel. The fate of Duv & Adah (the woodcarver and his wife) show just how rough and sometimes lawless this time period could be. So when it comes to the smallest of your story lovers, I'd recommend maybe first doing a read-through to see what you need to gloss over for them. 


Much of the story, as far as plot, while solidly enjoyable, lacked that little something extra for me. For the majority of the book, I kept waiting for that extra oomph to kick in. That said, I did enjoy the "voice" of our dog narrator and one of my favorite bits of the whole story was Samid and his friendship / something more? with Prisca. There was a good dose of humor and lively banter between them. I agree with Prisca, Samid outwardly appears rough around the edges, but you get the sense there's a good guy there deep down.




Samid said the word before she could. Which made them smile at each other, sweetly but sadly. 


"Why is our despair such a difficult thing for us to give up?" asked Samid.


Prisca replied, "I think despair is so difficult to let go of because it helps us to justify teh worst things inside of us. We think: I lack, so I can steal. I hurt, so I can injure. I failed at one thing, so now watch me destroy my whole life ... But when the despair is gone, we cannot help but change. We simply must."


The two were silent for a few moments. 



What ended up bumping this up to a four star read for me was simply Barley's observations during the Crucifixion. The way author Ron Marasco painted these scenes gave me a whole new visual of this event I've heard told in stories SO many times over. Yet something in the way Marasco illustrates it (in words) made it more real for me than nearly any other piece on the Crucifixion I've ever read. Ever. I physically flinched at what Barley describes himself seeing as the walk up to the cross is taking place. The attention to detail Marasco provides when describing the whippings Jesus is taking from soldiers, the way Barley winces and whimpers and thinks of him (Jesus) as Kind Man. It all just knocks you right in the heart! Beyond the Crucifixion scene, there is a further twist to the ending that I did not entirely see coming! 



FTC Disclaimer: TNZ Fiction Guild kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book & requested that I check it out and share my thoughts. The opinions above are entirely my own.







Author Ron Marasco has a PhD in theater history and is a professor at Loyola University. He also has some acting credits to his name on shows you've likely watched! 





A note on promo blurbs & cover design:


First off, thumbs up for getting a blurb from Kristin Chenoweth on there. Love her!


But regarding the cover, I was one of a select group of bloggers who were asked to give their opinion on the few different design options designed for this title. Still bummed that my pick was not chosen, as I voted strongly AGAINST having to have a cover featuring a dog anus front and center. Particularly when there was one design (the one I voted for) that featured an ADORABLE dog's profile giving a little glance to the reader. I'll let it go though, because this cover dog does look similar to my mother in law's sweet pup. :-)


But props to Thomas Nelson Pub. for at least darkening that area to a little less off-putting level lol Also funny to read in the book the dog's coat being described as "off-white fur". I know it's a little hard to tell with the lighting but that cover dog looks as if it'd be pretty distinctly brown with maybe some black highlight areas. A little reading peeve of mine, when it seems like the cover designer didn't read the book they were designing for! 



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text 2017-03-06 12:17
Reading progress update: I've read 96 out of 400 pages.
The Great War and the Middle East - Rob Johnson

I'm reading this right now to review it for a publication so I won't be able to post a review here, but so far it's proving quite good. I've long been disappointed by the lack of a really good history of the First World War in the Middle East. This book seems to finally fit that bill; though it's far from a definitive account, Johnson provides a good analytical overview of events, including aspects of the war (such as German efforts to stir up Islamic revolution in Iran and Afghanistan) that have only been mentioned in passing elsewhere.

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review 2016-12-18 20:46
The Way Home by Cindy Gerard
The Way Home by Gerard, Cindy (2013) Hardcover - Cindy Gerard

Killed in Action—the most dreaded words imaginable for a soldier’s wife. Jess Albert has been living with them for four years, since the death of her husband in Afghanistan. Finding blessed numbness in routine, she doesn’t dare to look ahead, any more than she can bear to look back. Then Tyler Brown, a former special-ops warrior, shows up at her small general store in Minnesota North Woods, jarring her back to life. Jess knows better than to fall in love with another man who places duty to his country before love of his wife—but there’s no denying the longing and the hope for a future that Ty makes her feel. A world away, a lost American soldier clings to life and sanity in a lantern-lit cave. At his side is a dark-haired and dark-eyed woman whose touch is caring, despite the resentment he hears in her voice and sees on her face. But is it honor igniting her compassion for her enemy, or is it something more? A heartwarming, richly emotional, action-packed story about homecomings, The Way Home follows two women on opposite sides of the world. While they both walk a dangerous path between betrayal and honor, they each must find for themselves where to draw the line between duty and love.





Jess Albert has spent the last four years believing her husband was killed in action in Afghanistan. She's since buried herself in work as the owner and operator of a small general store in Lake Kabetogama, Minnesota. Just as she feels like she's starting to settle halfway comfortably into widowhood, back into her life walks someone else from her past -- Tyler Brown, a former special ops officer who met Jess when she assisted with a mission some years ago. Tyler was quite taken with her then, promised to look her up one day but never came back... until now. While Jess does feel an intense pull toward Tyler, she still has some unresolved feelings about her husband. Tyler approaches the tricky situation with patience and gentleness, eventually getting Jess to warm up to him. It then doesn't take too long for things between them to progress significantly, and just when they start throwing around the idea of marriage, that's just when news arrives that Jess's husband might not be dead after all.


The novel for the most part is split in two parts. That of Jess trying to re-start her life in MN, soon getting involved with Tyler, and then the story of Jess's husband, J.R., in Afghanistan. The US military officially but mistakenly declared J.R. dead. In fact, he was still very much alive, taken as a POW but finding enough strength to escape captivity. But now he finds himself falling in and out of consciousness, being nursed back to health by a Muslim woman, Rabia, and her father, who have been hiding J.R. in a cave. As J.R.'s basic health starts to return to him, he finds he has no memory of anything prior to his mission in Afghanistan -- no memories of Jess, his childhood, nothing. What he clings to is the affection that he starts to feel for the quiet, mysterious Rabia, whom he realizes has risked her life and the life of her father to keep J.R. safe. But why, he wonders?


To be honest, I was pulled into this book mostly by the cover, thinking it'd be a heartwarming story about a military man making it home for the holidays. Turns out this is actually Book 2 in Cindy Gerard's One-Eyed Jack series and the holiday season, while present at one point, actually doesn't play a big role in the plot here.

I haven't read anything else in the One-Eyed Jack series but had no issues enjoying this book as a standalone work.  I've seen a mountain of 4 and 5 star reviews for this book, so I guess I'm going to have to be in the minority but I just found it a decent 3 star read. It had its moments I liked but mostly I found the writing to be largely generic in terms of romance, underdeveloped plot and over-the-top characters who were laughably superhero level perfect. Except that I will give props to Gerard for actually writing a romance around a guy that's not necessarily built like a super huge linebacker! While there are plenty of passages describing how hot Tyler is, I did catch something that puts his height in the 5'8-5'9 range. Me personally, I'm one of those ones who likes trees to climb, but I liked that the under 6ft boys got some representation :-) 


I also liked the comedic lightness Jess's friend / employee Kayla brought to the plot, even if she sometimes made me cringe-laugh with her cutesy nicknames she would use to reference Tyler, like "Commando Cutie".


I think I would have gotten bored with the Jess / Tyler story pretty quickly had it not been for Gerard mixing things up and periodically taking the reader over to Afghanistan to look in on J.R. and Rabia. While I wasn't all that impressed with J.R. as a character (particularly after some of his backstory gets revealed), I did find Rabia's story as a whole having its compelling moments, I was just bummed she was not given more time in the plot. Getting to know her world a bit better could've led to opportunity for a pretty moving reading experience, but most of her screen time seemed to be dedicated to stripping down under the stars with J.R. Once or twice, okay, but over and over and over again with nearly the same conversation afterward each time? Yawn. 

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review 2016-12-07 21:09
One Small Donkey by Dandi Daley Mackall, illustrated by Marta Alvarez Miguens
One Small Donkey - Dandi Daley Mackall,Marta Alvarez Miguens

Your family will love this heartwarming Christmas story told from an unlikely perspective: a donkey carrying Mary to Bethlehem. Though the donkey wasn’t the biggest, fastest, or strongest of all the animals, he had an important job all the same. Adults and children alike will love the message about how God has big plans for little ones.





This children's story opens with -- say it with me now -- one small donkey! Our adorable donkey protagonist is grazing on a hill,  enjoying some fine weather, when he spots two big, gorgeous horses with flowing manes coming his way. Donkey admires their strength and beauty and wishes he could claim the same qualities for himself. Alas, he finds himself of slight size and noticeable clumsiness. He also struggles with speed. But little does he know, HE has been chosen for a very important task and will soon be a key player in every future retelling of the Nativity story ever. This particular donkey will be responsible for carrying a very pregnant Virgin Mary to Bethlehem so she may birth the Baby Jesus. Not too shabby for this wee donkey!  


Admittedly, the biggest pull for me with this board book was the undeniably adorable (and beautifully colored!) illustrations. Illustrator Marta Miguens does a fantastic job bringing real personality to the story's starring mule! But aside from the illustrations, I think this little book offers a great way for parents to share the Nativity story with their youngest readers without overwhelming them with too many details at once. While the basics of the familiar tale are all touched upon, very small readers will enjoy the focus on all the livestock characters that typically take a backseat in more grown up tellings of this Christmas legend. Additionally, this story provides an important message to young readers that everyone has innate gifts that can help better the lives of others, even if those gifts are not always immediately recognizable. Life has a way of calling on those gifts when most needed, even if it seems to take months or years. But when called upon, the person often sees that no one could have helped quite like they were able to! 


I've come across some reviews that mentioned the wording at times being clunky, throwing off the flow of the rhymes. I didn't notice it myself at first but after seeing such reviews I did another read-through and sure enough, a few pages near the story's end do have a few awkwardly phrases lines. Now seeing that, I would recommend adult readers to do a silent read through or two before sharing with your child, just to get a feel for where to put the vocal pauses. 



FTC DISCLAIMER: BookLookBloggers.com and Thomas Nelson Publishers kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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review 2016-09-06 18:57
The Babel Conspiracy by Sylvia Bambola
The Babel Conspiracy - Sylvia Bambola

Two women engineers struggle to develop the world’s first nuclear-powered aircraft amid ever intensifying global terrorism and muddled personal lives. Trisha Callahan has an abiding faith in God, and “those roots of middy blouses and pleated skirts, prayer books and incense-filled churches went deep.” This faith is tested when she finds herself in love with a married man. Audra Shields sees herself as a modern Lady Chatterley, “liberated but not forsaking breeding, intellect, or femininity.” When she becomes involved with a dangerous stranger, she begins to question her lifestyle. Both women try sorting out their personal problems while racing the clock to finish a project fraught with sabotage and murder. And who’s behind it all? When the Department of Homeland Security and the Mossad finally figure it out, the answer surprises everyone.





Trisha Callahan and Audra Shields are two female engineers employed by Patterson Aviation. Their current project is to develop the world's first nuclear powered aircraft, work that could not be more aptly timed as the world falls victim to chaos fueled by ever-growing threats of global terrorism. In this novel, the United States has been almost entirely taken over by multiple Islamic extremist groups, the largest one going so far as to address the US as now being ISA or the Islamic State of America. In this world, the US is still technically governed by a president, President Thaddeus Baker, but our president in this story seems to have become little more than a political figurehead. In fact, those who vocally oppose the political changes taking over the US, citizens deemed "subversives", suspect that President Baker is actually working with the extremists for his own personal gains. But now Baker's term is coming to a close, meaning it's time for the election of a new president -- will the US win a candidate who can fight back against the extremists and get our country back on track or will the citizens be stuck with yet another four years of a sycophantic puppet to ISA leaders?


Trisha and Audra work to keep their focus on this vitally important technology. It occurs to them that if they can get the nuclear technology to work on the plane, there are actually numerous other applications that could greatly benefit from this project, namely their plans to develop nuclear power from the use of seawater, potentially allowing the US to no longer dependent on foreign oil. Once word of this technology starts to leak to outside ears, Trisha and Audra quickly find not only their work but their lives threatened. There's evidence of sabotage to the building site and people tied to the project start turning up dead under mysterious circumstances. 


While all this is going on, there's also a secondary story that unfolds with Joshua Chapman. Joshua is an Israeli Jew with dual citizenship and the brother of Daniel, one of Trisha's best friends. He also happens to be a member of the Mossad, a Middle Eastern intelligence agency (a sort of Secret Service, you might say) quietly trying to assist members of the US government wanting to bring down the terrorist groups. He poses as a computer security specialist with the company Global Icon and is hired by Cassy, the niece of presidential candidate Senator Merrill to monitor any technologically based threats sent his way. While working together, Joshua and Cassy uncover some shady information regarding the other major presidential candidate Senator Garby whose dealings with the current president might not be all that much on the up & up. Just as Joshua and Cassy become privy to these details, President Baker comes out and declares the US under a state of martial law while also throwing around a bit of eminent domain. Scary, scary times for our characters! 


Bambola definitely gets you thinking with some of these passages!



It doesn't stop there though, this is one layered plot! While all that business with political murkiness is going on there is an additional side story written around the personal / romantic lives of Trisha and Audra. Trisha is a woman of deep faith and religious convictions, but even so finds herself in love with her married boss, Mike Patterson, now the owner of his father's company, Patterson Aviation. Due to her moral code though, Trisha forces herself to keep silent about her feelings. Meanwhile, Audra is living the complete opposite lifestyle. Audra feels like the world is going into the proverbial toilet, so she's all about living in the moment, having casual, fun hookups with men without developing any strong attachments to anyone. This YOLO type thinking lands her in a number of less than enjoyable circumstances, one such being her dalliance with bar fly Bubba Hanagan. It's her dealings with Bubba that finally wake Audra up and get her thinking that just maybe she DOES want more out of life than what she's been bringing home lately. 



Author Sylvia Bambola provides the reader with a note on the text before you even get into the novel, notifying you that this book is a bit of an updated, expanded version of her now out of print novel, Vessel of Honor, a story she wrote three years prior to the 9/11 attacks. Though she is upfront with that information, she is also quick to point out that it's not a straight up repackaging, but more like she used the previous novel as a starting point for some other plot ideas she wanted to work into a story... just so happens the ideas that came to her more recently worked in nicely with that older work.


I never read Vessel of Honor, so I can't give you a comparison here. I will say that I did enjoy this story and could appreciate the amount of work that went into making this such a layered, complex work. I found myself impressed at how well the little details of the plot were laid out, how all the characters seemed to have these faint connections to one another, the kind that would almost go unnoticed but if the connection wasn't there the story as a whole would lose some of its impact in the pivotal moments. One example being how Mike's wife, Renee, gets involved in campaigning for Senator Garby... or even how Joshua, the brother of Trisha's friend Daniel, ends up playing such an important role in protecting her down the road. In the grand scheme of things, their connections / interactions to more major characters is quite small, but their contributions to the story prove to be essential by novel's end. That's some serious writer skill right there!


That being said, in all honesty it was not my favorite of Bambola's works to date. What was lacking for me was what I've come to love from her other books, her seemingly effortless ability to make characters come alive. What's stood out to me as a reader is her way of getting through to this admittedly maybe slightly jaded reader. I go through A TON of books each year, I read some great stuff but let's be real, there's a mountain of mediocre out there. I sometimes go through stretches where I read several books that, while well written, I realize didn't profoundly move me. Bambola's books have given me that sensation of deeply caring that I so missed, but I don't know what happened with this one. It falls under that category of definitely being well-written but I didn't really fall in love with any one character here. The closest I could maybe say was reading the closing of Audra's story. I was saddened at how her exit plays out, and though Bambola provides an afterword explaining why she gave Audra the ending she did, I still didn't love it. 


Note To Readers: Sylvia Bambola is an author of Christian Fiction. While I've noted in past reviews that much of her historical fiction (of what I've personally read anyway) is pretty light on the religious aspect and thus friendly to readers of any and all faiths, be aware that this one is much heavier on the Christian themes. Just wanted to make note of that for any readers who prefer to steer away from that. 



FTC Disclaimer: BookCrash.com and Heritage Publishing kindly provided me with a complimentary copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. The opinions above are entirely my own. 

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