The First Phone Call from Heaven by Mitch Albom

The First Phone Call from Heaven

Mitch Albom (Adult Inspirational)

It was a rather ordinary day in the small, quiet town of Coldwater, Michigan. A day when a phone call would forever change the town—and soon the world—forever. The last time a phone call had such an impact was on March 10, 1876 when Alexander Graham Bell made the world’s first phone call to his assistant, Thomas Watson, and infamously uttered, “Mr. Watson—come here—I want to see you.” The phone call received by Tess Rafferty was just as improbable and consequential because this call came from Heaven. As more people came forward to share their own calls, one man remained skeptical and determined to prove this wonderful miracle was nothing more than a cruel and heartless hoax.

I fell in love with Mitch Albom after reading Tuesdays with Morrie and he has again presented me with another beautiful bouquet in the form of The First Phone Call from Heaven. He gives us several characters to follow as each receives a phone call from the afterlife, but he keeps us focused on three central individuals: Sully Harding, widowed father and newly released from prison who refuses to buy in to the religious narrative; Katherine Yellin, real estate broker who receives the second call but is the first to announce it publicly; and Police Chief Jack Sellers, divorced and father to a son lost in combat who must maintain law and order while trying to grapple with his own truth. Woven through all of these stories are historical facts and tidbits about Alexander Graham Bell, which I really enjoyed learning: stories about his mother and wife who were both hearing impaired, his close brush with obscurity, and the actual creator behind the standard telephone greeting “Hello” (hint: it wasn’t Bell who suggested “Ahoy!”). All of these references could have seemed forced and out of place, but Albom connects the past to the present as effortlessly as we are able to connect with one another today.

Albom’s faith is clearly the heart of this book as heavenly callers reassure their living recipients that they are well, happy, and that Heaven is indeed real. Sadly and realistically, we witness a beautiful event spiraling out of control as protestors seek a platform and news outlets realize the potential profit that faith and hope hold. It was Winston Churchill, working to form the United Nations after World War II, who said, “Never let a good crisis go to waste.” I’m sure it was a media mogul who might have been tempted to tack on “…or a miracle either.”

This is a wonderful story of faith challenged, hope questioned, and lives altered as the impossible becomes possible and the unknown is made clear. And whether you’re a believer, non-believer, or agnostic, one thing we can agree on—that remains as true today as it did in 1876—is that a single voice spoken through wires has the ability to change life forever.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to:

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The Walk by Richard Paul Evans

The Walk

The Walk

Richard Paul Evans (Adult Inspirational)

Alan Christoffersen had it all: a successful advertising agency, a big house, luxury cars, and a beautiful wife who was the love of his life.  But a horrible accident would set off a series of events that would send his world crashing down.  Within weeks, he would lose everything and Alan Christoffersen, the man who had everything, was suddenly left with nothing.  It seemed that even God had abandoned him.  So, Alan decided to walk away from his troubles…literally.  With nothing more than a backpack and a few essentials, Alan set off on a near 3,500 journey stretching from Seattle, Washington to Key West, Florida hoping that this walk might bring him some clarity to a life that didn’t make sense anymore.

I’ve read many What-would-you-do-if-type books: What would you do if you could live forever?  What would you do if you had one wish?  Go back in time?  Trade places with someone?  Were invisible?  This one was different.  Tackling the idea of how to move forward after you’ve lost everything is daunting.  Alan faced this situation, questioned his own faith, and wondered why love, hope, and grace had been so mercilessly taken from him.

The Walk is the first in a series of five books in The Walk Series by Richard Paul Evans.  This first installment takes Alan all the way across the state of Washington: from Seattle to Spokane.  During this first leg of his journey, he meets several people who remind him what kindness, generosity, and gratitude look like: a handless man looking for answers, a scarred woman offering hope, an innkeeper who faced death, and a stranger returning a favor.  Each person along his journey offers Alan little bits of wisdom and insight and their brief presence in his life leaves him undeniably changed.

The Walk is an easy and quick read.  Evans deals with religion and faith without being overly preachy and gives us a likeable protagonist who seeks the good in humanity although he himself has been betrayed by those he had trusted most.  In the opening pages, we know Alan completes his walk and eventually reaches Key West, but as Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “It’s not about the destination, it’s about the journey” and we know that Alan has a very long journey ahead of him.  A journey that will hopefully answer some of his questions and perhaps even restore his faith.

Alan keeps a diary of his walk.  In one entry, he wrote, “We truly do not know what’s in a book until it is opened.”  Likewise, we often don’t know what’s in a person until we ask or until we have the opportunity to get to know them.  We don’t know their past, the burdens they may carry, or the pain they may be enduring.  The few people that Alan encountered during his walk through Washington began as unopened books, but by extending a kindness or even just a simple greeting, those books began to open and Alan discovered that perhaps the love, hope, and grace that he thought had been denied him had never really abandoned him after all.

Rating: 4/5

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…and now Miguel by Joseph Krumgold (J)

And Now Miguel

…and now Miguel    

Joseph Krumgold (Juvenile Fiction)

“I am Miguel.  For most people it does not make so much difference that I am Miguel.  But for me, often, it is a very great trouble.”

Twelve-year-old Miguel is a Chavez and in the Chavez family there is always one thing—sheep.  To raise sheep is the work of the family.  Wherever you find a Chavez man, you’ll find a flock of sheep.  Miguel lives near Taos, New Mexico and is straddled between two brothers who have it easy: little Pedro is small and has all that he wants and big brother Gabriel is old enough that anything he wants he can get.  But being Miguel is not so easy.  What he wants, what he truly desires, is to go to the Sangre de Cristo mountains where the Chavez men take the sheep to graze each summer.  But year after year, Miguel is left behind.  How can he prove to his father that he is finally ready for this responsibility?  But since he is only Miguel, he knows that this will not be an easy thing to do.

…and now Miguel is based on actual people whom Krumgold spent time with and got to know.  Hearing him tell Miguel’s story and his desire to prove himself worthy to a father he adores and respects is intimate and personal.  The reader deeply connects with Miguel as he attempts to be needed and longs to make a difference.  Miguel’s biggest obstacle is not his will or desire, but simply time.  As his mother once said to him, “To become something different from what you are, it takes more than being strong.  Even a little time is needed as well.”  How often do we find ourselves pursuing opportunities that we know we aren’t ready for?

This story has so many positive messages and relatable situations for young readers (aged ten and above).  Unfortunately, it does lag quite a bit near the end when Miguel and Gabriel discuss the strengths and weaknesses of making a wish, which is actually the two coming into their own spiritual awakening through the recognition of Devine intervention and providence.  This was a weighty and lengthy dialogue between the two that could have been greatly condensed and had the same effect.  Although this is a pivotal moment for the two brothers, the momentum of the story ultimately suffered and was never able to fully recover.

Miguel reminds us that things don’t always go the way we wish or plan for life always seems to get in the way somehow.  Big surprises or unexpected announcements are never delivered or received in the way in which we hope.  Miguel is a deeply devoted boy who, in the end, realizes that his life—his fate—is not in his control.  He must rely on his faith in knowing that everything will work out as it should.  His mother and father understand this, Gabriel understands this…and now Miguel will understand this and will realize that by him just being Miguel has already made a great difference.

Rating: 4/5

* Book cover image attributed to 



Mr. Ives’ Christmas by Oscar Hijuelos

Mr Ives Christmas

Mr. Ives’ Christmas    

Oscar Hijuelos (Adult Fiction)

It was around Christmas when a young foundling named Edward was given a home, a family, and a last name.  His adoptive father, Mr. Ives Senior (a foundling himself), managed a printing plant and gave his new son two brothers and a sister, provided him with a good amount of encouragement, and—most importantly—taught him how to pray.  While growing up, Edward basked in the cultural richness that surrounded him in New York during the 20s and 30s.  By the 1950s, his creativity landed him in a Madison Avenue ad agency where he worked, thrived, and would eventually retire.  His simple and humble life would involve marriage, children, delight and despair and through it all, Edward will come to realize that the life he imagined for himself is very different from the life that he’s been given.

Oscar Hijuelos delivers a beautifully written novel that is vividly detailed and rich in historical insights and context, yet I found myself disappointed and wishing that I had enjoyed this book more.  First, it was difficult connecting with the main character.  Hijuelos often interjects various characters’ backstories throughout the book.  This was helpful in creating history and perspective, but the constant interruptions ultimately sacrificed intimacy for insight and greatly hampered the flow of the story, which leads to the second point.  It was extremely challenging to stay immersed in the story.  Rather than focus on a central theme, this book read more like a series of random thoughts, insights, and memories.  Hijuelos simply went off on one tangent too many and the book becomes a regrettable product of information overload.

This book mainly centers on New York and spans over several decades.  In that respect, it was interesting to see a city in constant transformation and evolution during the cultural, political, and social movements of the 50s, 60s, and 70s.  I also appreciated the spiritual issues that Hijuelos covered without being overtly religious.  We see Edward’s struggle to reconcile his religion with his faith and the eventual effect it has on his physical and mental health.  But through life’s tragedies and triumphs, Mr. Edward Ives remains a sentimental, kind, and honorable man, father, husband, and friend who realizes that Christmas isn’t his story, but it’s His story—the babe born in a manger who would die on a cross.  Although Edward often finds himself grappling with a life full of uncertainty and anguish, through his faith and belief, Mr. Ives finds peace in knowing that his afterlife is secured and in good hands.  Merry Christmas, Mr. Ives.

Rating: 3/5

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Joy in the Morning by Betty Smith

Joy in the Morning

Joy in the Morning

Betty Smith (Adult Fiction)

            “Weeping may endure for a night, but joy cometh in the morning.”

                                    —Psalm 30:5

 Carl Brown and Annie McGairy are young and deeply in love.  Just past her 18th birthday, Annie travels from her home in New York to the Midwest to join her beloved in marriage.  Much to their mutual surprise, Carl and Annie’s first year proves to be unexpectedly difficult.  Carl is attending the university studying law and holding down several jobs while Annie tries to adapt to her new surroundings without the security and familiarity of friends and family.  Together, through lean times and unforeseen events, they must rely on their faith and love to pull them through.

What I admire most about Smith is that she gives us a strong, witty, and self-assured female character without diminishing her male counterpart.  All too often we see one character being lowered for the sake of elevating the other.  Despite their differences in education and social standing, Carl and Annie view each other as equals and share a mutual respect and passionate devotion for one another.  This alone is refreshing to see in a novel.

Set in 1927, Smith presents us with a small university town populated with principled (albeit flawed) people who all share a strong work ethic, solid moral compass, and innate desire to be decent, kind, and fair to their fellow man.  Her stories are charming and heartwarming without being overly sentimental or trite. A truly uplifting book that focuses on the goodness of humanity rather than its faults and follies.

Rating: 4/5