12/20/12

The Girl in the Glass

Author: Susan Meissner
Genre: General Fiction
Publisher: Waterbrook
Pages: 328

Having only read one of Susan Meissner's books before this (A Sound Among the Trees, Click Here to read my review), I was already familiar with her writing style, but wasn't sure what to expect from the story itself.
As before, Meissner drew me into her story world completely with descriptions and settings and details so vivid and sensory that it felt like I was actually there. Reading writing that skillful is always refreshing, and I totally want to take a trip to Italy now.
The story itself was somewhat... how shall I put it?... foggy. I don't mean the plot. The plot was very easy to follow. The message of the story, however, not so much. Basically it comes down to some of the characters being people who see the world as black and white with no in-between, and the rest of the characters being people who see the world as a blend of hundreds of shades of gray, and different people making decisions based on their different perceptions. Not that there's anything wrong with that. Personally I tend to lean more towards being a black and white person, but I can still allow room for gray areas where needed. Unfortunately, the theme of this story seemed like it was so gray that there was nothing solid, nothing that you could grab hold of and take away from the story other than a vague, hazy notion.
Definitely a feel-good story, but not one that offers a solid moral to take away, in my opinion. Nothing wrong with that, but if you're looking for a book with a strong, clear message, this might not be the best choice.

I received a copy of this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my review.

12/13/12

Resurrect

Author: David E. Stevens
Genre: Action/Thriller
Publisher: Monarch Books
Pages: 374

I wasn't entirely sure what to expect from this book when I requested it, since I don't have a lot of experience with this genre. But I have to say, it kept me engaged and intent from the first to the last page. The author doesn't waste a minute getting to life-and-death action, and rarely stops for a minute for the rest of the book.
In all honesty, were it left to me I wouldn't categorize this as a 'Christian' book. Sure, one of the central characters claims to be an 'Evangelical Christian' (though she doesn't exactly behave like one), there are a few references to faith and spiritual issues throughout, and I expect that the author is probably working towards some kind of faith-based conclusion over the course of the trilogy as a whole, but by itself Resurrect comes across more as just a good action/thriller. Not that I have a problem with that, per se, it's just something that I think readers ought to be aware of.
This book was very frank and no-nonsense in presenting the facts, which makes for a very clear and vivid read... though at times it got a little overly frank for my personal tastes. Some parts of it were also a tiny bit over-technical, leaving me feeling a little like a deer in the headlights, but I was always able to follow the important facts of what was happening. (I do have to mention, though, that I was greatly disappointed when the author - who should know better - called a magazine a 'clip'. Ach!)
But on the whole, this book was a thrilling, edge-of-your-seat adventure from start to finish. Let me know when they decide to make the movie! Seriously, in spite of the few overly-frank moments, there was nothing that I considered unclean or indecent - even when one of the characters takes off on a profanity-laced tirade, the author simply says that he 'let loose a string of expletives' without reproducing any of them. You have to admire an author with that kind of taste. And the humor sprinkled throughout the book was absolutely delightful.
I wouldn't recommend the book for young readers; it was definitely intended for an adult audience. But personally, I loved it and I'm looking forward to the rest of the series!

~*~

I received a copy of this book free of charge in exchange for my review. A favorable review was not required, and my opinions are entirely my own.

9/26/12

10 Christians Everyone Should Know

Various Authors
Edited and Compiled by John Perry
Genre: Biography
Publisher: Thomas Nelson

I really loved this book. It's a compilation of excerpts from the Christian Encounters series, basically condensing and hitting the highlights from 10 of the Christians featured in that series. If you're curious about some of these historical figures but aren't sure you're curious enough to buy a complete biography of them, this book would be perfect for you! Or, if you just want to have a few quick and basic facts about these people on hand for reference, this book would also be perfect.
Personally, I've had my interest and curiosity aroused by reading this book, and I'm now eager to get the complete biographies of several of these people so I can learn more. The time spent reading this book was time well-spent, that's for sure!

I received a copy of this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my review. A favorable review was not required. My views are my own.

9/12/12

Mockingjay

Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Post-Apocalyptic
Series: The Hunger Games
Publisher: Scholastic
Pages: 496

Okay, since my last review consisted almost entirely of incoherent blather, I shall do my best to make this one more sensible, objective, and useful to the general readership.
Well, I finally finished The Hunger Games trilogy. And, much as it galls me to say it, I'm a fan.
The series tells a story that is very dark, violent, and brutal - not exactly light reading. But in the process it also tells a story of human resilience, and the incredible feats that can be accomplished by just a few good people who take the initiative to stand up against evil and tyranny.
I love the realism of the characters - they make mistakes, they struggle, they make foolish decisions, they hurt each other. But they also help each other, pay for their mistakes, apologize to each other.
Before reading The Hunger Games I'd only read one book that was in first-person present tense, but I really liked the sense of immediacy it created. Well... most of the time I liked it. When a swarm of grotesque mutts is chasing you through the sewers, immediacy is not exactly a pleasant sensation. : )
I was extremely worried for the last half of the book or so, wondering how on Earth the author was going to take all the disaster in the story and bring it to a satisfying ending. I won't spoil it with details, but I will say that I was satisfied and happy. It was intriguing to me, though, to look at how scarred and damaged the surviving characters were. They will never be 'normal' after the trauma of all they've been through... and yet they're surviving, making their way through life and dealing with the scars of the past as best they can. It makes me think of Frodo after he destroys the Ring - only these characters don't have the Gray Havens to sail off to. They just have to hang onto each other and make the best they can of it. To me, that speaks volumes. Yes, those characters will never be the same, they can never go back to the way they were. But their sacrifice wasn't in vain. They did it for a cause, and in the end, in spite of all they'll have to suffer and all the scars they'll have to live with, it's worth it. As a writer, that's a message I would love to communicate through my own stories.
I doubt I'll get it done as clearly or powerfully as The Hunger Games trilogy did, though.

9/4/12

Catching Fire

Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Eh... still don't know for sure. We'll stick with post-apocalyptic.
Publisher: Scholastic
Pages: 490

I don't know what to say about this book. It kept me riveted from cover to cover, and I'm already reading the next one because I absolutely cannot wait to find out how things turn out.
But even though it was a fantastic read, I can't pretend to have enjoyed all of it. A good portion of it kept me in agony trying to figure out how the characters were going to get out of whatever situation they were in, or how things could possibly turn out okay in the end. And I still don't know, so enough of trying to review this book when I have the second one to read!

8/27/12

The Hunger Games

Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: I honestly have no idea. Post-Apocalyptic maybe?
Publisher: Scholastic
Pages: 374

So, I finally got around to reading this. I know, I know, the entire rest of the world had read it months ago. That's kind of the reason I hadn't. I just have this passionate aversion to following the crowd, so if the crowd is reading a runaway-best-seller, I'm going to be avoiding said bestseller.
But, after the raving recommendations of several friends whose judgment I trust (and because my brother is dying to see the movie but I don't want to see it without reading the book), I decided to relent. My thoughts?

Oh. My. Goodness.
This book is completely unlike anything I have ever read - as evidenced in part, I'm sure, by my inability to assign a genre to it above. The story and characters are completely engrossing, utterly captivating. I don't remember the last time a book has kept me on the edge of my seat like this one did!
Set in post-apocalyptic North America, the story follows the main character Katniss on her forced journey to the Hunger Games - a sadistic ritual bloodbath labeled a sport by the iron-fisted government. The goal: Kill or be killed. As if that's not bad enough - it's not even that simple.
I don't dare try to say any more than that for fear of giving something away, but I will add that I was surprised at how clean the story was for a work of secular fiction. There were a few brief instances of nudity, which I obviously disliked, but there was no sexual connotation to it at all which is one consolation... I guess. In fact, though it wasn't stated as such in so many words, some of Katniss' thoughts and internal monologues even suggest a belief that sex is something reserved for marriage - an amazing find in a secular book! Of course there was a good deal of violence in the book, but it wasn't gory or glorified or anything disgusting like that.
I would feel comfortable recommending this book to anyone eighteen or older. Recommending it to anyone younger would depend on the individual person. One word of caution: make sure you have the sequels on hand when you start reading The Hunger Games. Once you start reading it you won't want to stop, and once you reach the end you won't want to wait for the second one. I'm already reading Catching Fire, and it shouldn't take me long to get through it... since I can't seem to put it down.

The Art of The Fellowship of the Ring

Author: Gary Russell
Genre: Entertainment
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Pages: 192

This is another one of those great books made just for browsing through and enjoying at your own pace, in your own way - whether that's reading it cover to cover or not. The Art of the Fellowship of the Ring is filled with everything from pencil-drawn concept art to stunning full-detail paintings, costume ideas, CGI scenes and figures, and more. It's so cool to see the ideas that the designers and directors started with before the full glory of the movies ever existed. And there are hundreds of pictures to enjoy - enough to keep any LOTR fan busy for hours and hours on end.

8/24/12

The Bad Beginning

Author: Lemony Snicket
Genre: Children's General Fiction
Series: A Series of Unfortunate Events
Publisher: HarperCollins
Pages: 162

After the recommendations from several friends, I decided to finally get around to giving this book a look. I'm glad I did. The author's sense of humor is delightful, as is the story he tells. The content is clean, and the story is straightforward without being dull. The author manages to create a creepy, scary villain without carrying it too far like so many authors who seem to forget that they're writing a book for children. And I love the way he paints the relationship of the siblings.
This is a fun story that I would feel perfectly comfortable letting my little sister read - which is high praise, coming from me - and I definitely intend to continue following the lives and events of the poor, miserable Baudelaire orphans in the rest of the series. ; )

8/23/12

LOTR - The Making of the Movie Trilogy

Author: Brian Sibley
Genre: Entertainment
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin
Pages: 191

This is another one of those fun books that you can read cover to cover if you want to, but in my opinion is better suited to browsing - read a bit here and a bit there, gaze at photos and drawings, and turn pages as the fancy strikes you.
I love this book! It contains snippets of conversations among the cast and crew, memories shared by various actors and production staff, behind-the-scenes looks at casting, set-building, costume design, and more. Plus tons and tons of pictures.
This book would make a fabulous addition to any LOTR nut's library. Great for browsing through with a group of your LOTR-nut friends, too!

8/20/12

Serpent of Moses

Author: Don Hoesel
Genre: Fiction, Suspense, Archaeology
Publisher: Bethany House
Pages: 313

For quite some time during my teen years, I seriously considered becoming a biblical archaeologist. So needless to say, I love a good archaeology novel.
Serpent of Moses was certainly not the best book from that genre that I have read. It sort of gave me the feeling of being dropped into the middle of a story that was already underway, but I was able to put the pieces together and follow the flow fairly easily.
And, I have to say, the setup was rather cliche and predictable - happy-go-lucky and slightly irresponsible archaeologist; exotic, gorgeous, brilliant girlfriend whose field of expertise happens to be very beneficial; old friends all over the world who just happen to have skills and positions to be of tremendous (and convenient) help; a particularly close old friend who happens to be former CIA and has a few favors he can call in; and a creepy European bad guy who's insane. None of that is particularly original and anyone who's read a few archaeology novels (or seen Indiana Jones) has seen that kind of setup before.
I wasn't sure about some of the implications of events in the story, as far as biblical accuracy is concerned (I can't really explain what I'm referring to without giving something away). The matter can really be considered open to speculation, since the Bible doesn't actually give specifics in this case, but I don't know that I would agree with the direction the author's speculations took.
All that being said, if you like archaeology novels (or Indiana Jones) and don't mind a few cliches (the genre is what it is, after all) I think you'll enjoy this book. I think I might have enjoyed it more had I been familiar already with the central cast of characters, present in other works by Hoesel, but this was my first time reading his work. And while, like I said, this wasn't the best book I've read in the genre, it has definitely aroused my interest, and I fully intent to investigate this author's work further.
I received a copy of this book free of charge in exchange for my review.

8/18/12

The Grasshopper Trap

Author: Patrick F. McManus
Genre: Humor, Outdoors
Publisher: Owl Books
Pages: 214

What is there to say about a McManus book besides the all-too mundane terms like 'hilarious, hysterical, and side-splitting'?
I don't know if The Grasshoper Trap would rank as my all-time favorite McManus book (it's just really, really hard to beat A Fine and Pleasant Misery) but it's very close to the top, for sure.
This book is complete with the cast of characters any reader of McManus will know and love - Retch Sweeney, Crazy Eddie Muldoon, Rancid Crabtree, The Troll, and more - and the outrageous antics thereof, from the dangerous wilds of an eight-year-old's back yard to the Brazilian jungle, and from the horrors of incarceration in the fourth grade to the domestic challenges between hunter/fishermen and their wives.
I laughed myself silly reading this book, and even managed to read several chapters of it aloud to my family (it's very hard to read aloud when you can't even breathe from laughing so hard), which had them all rolling too. No complaints - another great humor book for anyone in need of a good laugh.

8/8/12

The Orphan King

Author: Sigmund Brouwer
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Series: Merlin's Immortals
Pages: 220

This was my first time reading anything by Sigmund Brouwer, so I wasn't sure what to expect - one can never tell with historical fantasy, anyway.
But I have to say, while the plot was great, the execution felt very slow-paced and everything seemed to drag by so slowly. Looking back, now that I've read it, and summarizing the plot points, by rights it should have been a fast-paced, action-packed book. But, for whatever strange reason, it wasn't. I can't explain why, but it just failed to hook me and make me believe in the adventure and the mission. The main character's thoughts and emotions felt distant, leaving me feeling like an outsider and confused about his motivations and thought processes, and never really engaging me.
It also got rather confusing - two-thirds of the way through the book brand-new, major characters were still being introduced, bringing layers of the plot and the plots-behind-the-plot with them. That in itself isn't necessarily a bad thing - I've read many books in which key characters get introduced late in the story - but in this book it just didn't work, for whatever reason. I suspect it was because so much of the aforementioned plot-behind-the-plot was left vague and shadowy, and never really fully explained.
And the ending was just a bit too easy. Everything just sort of fell into place just right with a few half-hearted complications, and ta-da, we win!
Definitely not my favorite read of the summer. If the other books in the series were to fall across my path, I don't know that I would necessarily avoid them, but I don't see myself going to great efforts to seek them out.

I received a copy of this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my review.

7/29/12

Call of a Coward

Author: Marcia Moston
Genre: Non-fiction, Missions, Memoir
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Pages: 184

I love missionary stories and devour missions books every chance I get, so naturally I jumped at the chance to read this one.
However, I was disappointed with Call of a Coward. The author, Marcia Moston, was an average Christian housewife until her husband decided that they needed to move to Guatemala to manage an orphanage for a year. The bulk of the book was taken up solely with her accounts of how hard it was for her to cope with the situation and deal with moving from the USA to a third-world country, and how afraid she was of this and that. It was like the ministry they were there to do was playing second fiddle to the hardships they were suffering to do it. Throughout the book I kept thinking 'Okay, when are we going to move on and talk about something besides you and how hard it is to go without your chocolate?' Honestly, aside from a few small mentions of projects here and there, I didn't feel like I got any real information about the actual ministry they were there to do. It was all focused on the author's personal struggles.
But then, after they had moved back to the States and had been called to a church in Vermont, the author suddenly starts talking about how much she doesn't want to go to Vermont and how much she does want to go back to Guatemala. And I, the reader, am left thinking 'Really? When did this sudden love of Guatemala come about? Last I checked you had spent three chapters complaining about how miserable it was.'
Maybe I'm being a little harsh, but I really did feel like the entire book was 'all about me' from the author's perspective, and I really have no use for that kind of a book.

I received a copy of this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my review.

7/19/12

Angels, Miracles, and Heavenly Encounters

Various Authors
Compiled by James Stuart Bell
Genre: Non-Fiction, Christian Life and Thought, Spiritual Warfare
Publisher: Bethany House
Pages: 240

I have to admit, I was a little skeptical when I first picked up this book. I've met more than my share of off-the-deep-end people in my short life, and I was somewhat concerned that this book might fall into that category, or turn out to be some sort of ghost story book finagled around to fit under a 'Christian' heading.
Thankfully, I was wrong. Angels, Miracles, and Heavenly Encounters is a lovely, encouraging compilation of true stories from people all over the world and in all walks of life. The nature of the stories varies widely, from casting out demons to quitting smoking, and from impossible rescues to miraculous healing. Not once did I feel like I was reading some televangelist's advertisement campaign. In fact, the book left me feeling refreshed, uplifted, encouraged, and in awe of the power of our God. It made a wonderful reminder of His constant protection over His children, the very real presence of both angels and demons, and the peace God's redeemed can experience and enjoy.
The book kept me turning pages from start to finish. I wouldn't recommend it for young readers, for obvious reasons, but I believe any Christian adult would enjoy it...even a Christian as skeptical as I tend to be. ; )

I received this book from the publisher free of charge in exchange for my review. A favorable review was not required.

7/13/12

Guardian of the Flame

Author: T.L. Higley
Genre: Historical Fiction
Series: The Seven Wonders
Publisher: B&H Books

For quite some time now, Shadow of Colossus has been my favorite T.L. Higley book. After reading Guardian of the Flame, though, I might just have to switch my sympathies. I mean, really - Egypt, the Alexandrian library and lighthouse, Cleopatra, the Antikythera mechanism... it's a recipe for a fantastic story. What's not to adore?
And adore it I did. Sophia, the main character, has been in charge of maintaining the lighthouse at Alexandria for the last twenty years after tragically losing both her husband and his world-changing life's work, the Proginosko. Sophia has let her loneliness make her bitter, ugly, and reclusive, and everyone under her authority is intimidated by her. Except of course, for Ares - her cheeky assistant. But when Caesar comes to Alexandria to settle the conflict between Cleopatra and her brother, the situation only becomes more complicated for everyone involved - especially when a sarcastic Roman centurion is assigned to take control of Sophia's lighthouse.
I don't know what more I can say. I loved, loved, loved this story. The complications, the twists and turns, the character developments, and T.L. Higley's signature gift of transporting her readers back in time and across the distance to the story's setting made this a read I absolutely couldn't put down. I literally slept with the book in my hands... after I fell asleep mid-page at one in the morning.
If you want a phenomenal historical fiction read, any of T.L. Higley's books would be an excellent choice. But Guardian of the Flame would be the one I most highly recommend.

7/11/12

Grieving God's Way

Author: Margaret Brownley
Genre: Christian Life and Thought
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Pages: 195

Having recently lost both of my closest grandparents in less than a year's time, I thought it might be interesting to get another Christian's perspective on the grieving process, so I picked this book up.
While the author does have some excellent advice for the grieving Christian, such as turning your focus onto others, keeping yourself active and healthy, dealing with survivor's guilt, and making a conscious effort to learn and grow in your faith through your grief, I have to say that I wasn't terribly impressed with this book.
Yes, grief is an ugly, brutal, complicated thing that doesn't go away over night and is tough to deal with. But there were several instances while reading this book when it seemed like I was being encouraged to dwell on my grief, analyzing and bisecting it rather than actually healing and moving on. The entire book wasn't that way, but a few sections of it definitely gave off that impression.
Some of the author's statements seemed overly poeticized, making grief and bereavement into some vague, almost mystical idea. In my experience, there is nothing mystical about grief. The writing was beautiful, but not always meaningful. There were several times when I felt like quoting Cap Rountree from The Sacketts: "Now ain't that purdy? I don't know what it means, but it sure did sound elegant."
"The stillness of grief is an invitation to sail into the inner self and explore the harbor of forgotten goals and still-cherished dreams..." (Pg. 4)
Lovely writing, I'll be the first to acknowledge. But someone please explain to me exactly what that is supposed to actually mean. My personality and upbringing are both very much geared towards keeping it real, and this book fell a ways short of that mark. I'm just not that touchy-feely.
As I said, there was some very helpful content in this book. I had been my grandmother's primary caretaker for seven months when she passed away, and I've struggled with survivor's guilt as a result. This book did offer some very practical advice on how to deal with that in a positive way.
But on the whole, it was just too poeticized and touchy-feely for my tastes.

I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my review.

7/9/12

Fearless

Author: Eric Blehm
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography/Military
Publisher: Waterbrook
Pages: 253

As a patriotic, pro-military American and a soon-to-be military sister, I had high hopes for this book, but was somewhat worried that I would be disappointed. I wasn't. Everything this book promises, it delivers... and then some.
Fearless is the story of larger-than-life Adam Brown, a down-to-earth Arkansas boy whose surrender to Jesus - pointed out in the book as the only time in his life he ever surrendered - pulled him out of a vicious tailspin through drug addictions and everything that went with it. His remarkable character and personality, dominated by his compassion, protectiveness, and as the title implies, fearlessness, shine from every page. His journey was dark and frustrating at times, even for me as a reader. Honestly, there were times when I genuinely wished I could deck the guy for some of the things he did and the mistakes he made.
But the power of Christ was unmistakeably evident in this man's life. From the county jail he made his way step after dogged step into the ranks of SEAL team SIX - one of America's most elite fighting forces. His testimony as a Christian, his example as a husband, father, and compassionate human being, and his amazing commitment as a soldier are incredibly inspiring. I was literally in tears for the last 50 pages of the book.
I cannot recommend this book strongly enough. In addition to Adam Brown's incredible life story, Fearless is filled with amazing insight into the war efforts in Iraq and Afghanistan, unflinching looks into the true nature of radical Islamic terrorism, eye-opening descriptions of the training and screening our soldiers go through, and inspiring accounts of the families who stand behind those soldiers. Every American adult should read this book. Period.

I received this book free of charge in exchange for my review, but a favorable review was not required.

6/25/12

The Legend of the Firefish

Author: George Bryan Polivka
Series: The Trophy Chase Trilogy
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Harvest House Publishers
Pages: 347

I. Loved. This. Book. Seriously, I couldn't put it down.
I came across this book completely by accident while looking for something else online, but when I saw that it was fantasy and written by a Christian author, I figured it was worth a look. And boy howdy, was it worth the look!
After being dishonorably expelled from seminary, Packer Throme became the star pupil of Nearing Vast's fencing school. Now he has a plan to help the friends and neighbors of his youth out of the poverty of the fishing industry by learning to hunt and kill the legendary Firefish - a monstrous sea creature whose meat has healing and strengthening properties. Armed with information from his deceased father's journal, Packer sets out to stow away on the Trophy Chase, a pirate ship turned Firefish-hunting boat, and learn the art of hunting the beasts.
Unfortunately, it isn't quite that simple. What follows is a fast-paced, heart-pounding adventure that includes swordfights, high-seas adventure, deadly encounters with Firefish, love, betrayal, and more, and it doesn't relent for a minute from the first page to the last.
As I said before, I loved this book. Some aspects of it were very dark, violent, even brutal, but it was all necessary to portray the depravity of the pirates' world and lifestyle, and it was handled very skillfully by the author. And I loved the way the author managed to transition from darkness to humor without making the story feel forced or awkward. Both sides of the coin felt completely natural, which takes rare skill on the part of the author, and the results in The Legend of the Firefish were delightful. One scene I found particularly entertaining is when one of the characters drowns and another character performs CPR. The other characters, born and raised in a culture similar to our world's eighteenth century, are horrified when the drowned character coughs up a bellyful of water and starts breathing again. They come to the conclusion that the character who performed CPR must be some kind of voodoo witch to do such a thing. You've gotta love that kind of humor.
A few things to be aware of: One is the violence, as I've already mentioned. I wouldn't say it was gory, but there was definitely a lot of bloodshed and death.
Another is the fact that the main characters all drink. There is very little actual drunkenness, and none on the part of the main character (though he does drink as well), but it's something to be aware of if that is a problem for you.
The main character and his love interest/almost-fiancee kiss a couple of times over the course of the story. There is nothing worse than that anywhere in the story, but it's also something to be aware of.
One last thing, this one more of an annoyance than a real problem, is that the author very frequently changes the character point of view in mid-scene... sometimes even mid-paragraph. Over all it didn't cause a ton of problems for me as a reader, but there were a few places where I did struggle to figure out whose viewpoint I was supposed to be in.
And in a few places, the individual characters' spiritual arcs felt kind of muddled and confused, or like they were waffling sporadically back and forth without much rhyme or reason. At first it was vaguely annoying, but if you think about it, how often is a real person's real spiritual journey cut and dried and uncomplicated? So that really didn't bother me that much. And although I didn't always agree with the choices the characters made, I could always see how they had arrived at that conclusion, which is much better than wondering 'Where in the world did that come from?'.
There were a couple of instances where the thought: "Christian version of Pirates of the Caribbean" crossed my mind, but not at all in a bad way. A few of the story elements had a somewhat PotC-esque flavor to them, but I never felt like I was reading a Christian 're-make' at all.
Aside from those few things, as I've already made abundantly clear, this was an awesome book! I will be re-reading it very soon, because it had me so riveted that I sped through in record time so I'm sure there are details I missed. If you're looking for a riveting, rip-roaring nautical adventure, The Legend of the Firefish is for you!

6/23/12

The Truth About the Lordship of Christ

Author: John MacArthur
Genre: Theology, Christian Doctrine
Series: The Truth About
Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Like the rest of the series, I have to say that this book was greatly refreshing. As a long-time Believer, it's easy for me to begin taking principles of doctrine and theology for granted. The Truth About series has taken me back to those too-often overlooked fundamentals and refreshed them.
In regards to this book in particular, I should mention that the title is a bit... well, not deceiving, but it made me expect something different than what I got. The basic mission and achievement of the book is a good, solid discussion of what it means and looks like to truly be a follower of Christ. I have no complaints. MacArthur walks his readers through a heavily referenced look at dozens of real-world applications of following Christ, as well as offering a no-holds-barred discussion of the problems and lies Christians can and have allowed to seep into the church and our lives.
As I said, this book and The Truth About series as a whole were deeply refreshing and I recommend them for anyone wanting or needing a trip back to the beautiful fundamentals that form the foundation of our faith.

I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my review.

5/26/12

'The Truth About Forgiveness'

Author: John MacArthur
Genre: Christian Life and Thought, Theology
Series: The Truth About
Publisher: Thomas Nelson

I requested this book after reviewing (and loving) it prequel, The Truth About Grace. (Click to read my review.)
I don't know if I would say I enjoyed this book as completely as I enjoyed Grace, but it was still a very enjoyable study of core truths about something that we Christians tend to throw around as a byword very casually.
The parable of the prodigal son is one of the book's main focuses, and the author goes into explicit detail about what is both said overtly and implied in each tiny aspect of the story. Honestly, I'm still on the fence about whether I actually liked that or not. True, I'm not an expert on ancient middle-eastern cultures, so the detailed explanations of what even the smallest detail implied to the Pharisees Jesus was addressing provided some interesting insight. However, I still get very nervous when people (no matter how much of an expert they may be) begin expounding in great detail on what is implied by, but not actually said in, a passage of Scripture. The fact that the author was simply trying to get to the bones of the story rather than trying to promote some radical new idea made me feel better, though.
Over all, this book is focused on God's forgiveness of humans and spends very little time discussing the forgiveness of one person to another. But that shouldn't be a problem, since the forgiveness God has extended to us is the pattern we use to forgive each other.
As I said of the prequel, The Truth About Forgiveness was a lovely, refreshing read that took me back to the basics while still challenging me to think in new ways about the incredible nature of God, and I would highly recommend it.

5/14/12

'The Truth About Grace'

Author: John MacArthur
Genre: Religion/Christian Life and Thought
Series: The Truth About
Publisher: Thomas Nelson

I really wasn't sure what to expect when I picked this book up, but I was delighted with what I got. The Truth About Grace is not a cutting-edge, ground-breaking revelation like so many books flooding the market today claim to be. Instead, it is just what the title says: a straightforward look at the fundamental truths about grace as laid out in the Bible.
The book is heavily referenced, which I love. To make it even better, the references are all from scripture rather than from other theologians or scholars.
I wouldn't call this book a heavy-duty study, necessarily (although I do plan on re-reading it in the near future), but it made a wonderfully refreshing look into the founding principle of the Christian faith. And it's always good to revisit the basics of what we believe; otherwise it becomes very easy to get lost in the details. This is a book that will be staying on my shelf for a good while, I suspect.

I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my review.

5/2/12

'Elisabeth of Austria: The Princess Bride'

Author: Barry Denenberg
Genre: Historical, Historical Fiction
Series: The Royal Diaries
Publisher: Scholastic

Elisabeth of Austria is an independent young lady who loves spending time outdoors, riding horses, and looking after her host of pets. Her family life is a little less than ideal, which seems to be typical of royal families, but she nonetheless enjoys a peaceful, somewhat isolated life in a secluded but beautiful palace.
When Elisabeth accompanies her sister and mother on a trip to introduce her sister to the emperor in hopes of arranging a marriage, she instead finds herself caught up in a whirlwind romance and engaged to the emperor her sister had hoped to marry. With barely enough time to realize what's happening, she's been swept into the new, very different, very strict life of the emperor's court.
I have to be honest, while the descriptions of Elisabeth's home and the quiet life she led there were beautiful and appealing, the story left me feeling sad and disappointed for Elisabeth. Several times throughout the book I found myself thinking 'Don't do it, girl! Back out of it while you still have a chance!' Unfortunately, she didn't listen to me. And the epilogue confirmed the fact that Elisabeth and her emperor did not live happily ever after.
I will say, though, that the author did a fantastic job taking the historical facts of Elisabeth's life and putting them together into the fictional young version of her featured in this book. History tells us that throughout her adult life Elisabeth was obsessed with her appearances (particularly her hair) and struggled with anorexia. Author Barry Denenberg did an excellent job of showing the beginnings of those tendencies in his fictional reconstruction of Elisabeth.
As always, a book from the Royal Diaries series makes a great supplement to a history lesson, or a fun way to begin learning about a historical figure... even if it isn't always the most uplifting lesson in the world.

4/30/12

'Prize of My Heart'

Author: Lisa Norato
Genre: Fiction, Historical, Romance
Publisher: Bethany House

So, this book randomly showed up in my mailbox last week, and I have no idea why. It was sent directly from the publisher, though, so I suppose I must have requested it at some point. The jury's still out on why I would have done such a thing (I am totally not a romance reader).
With that in mind, I will try to be as fair as possible in my review. I've never read an actual romance novel before, so I don't know what the norms and expectations of the genre are.
What I did observe in reading Prize of My Heart was a strong tendency towards melodrama and gooey-ness carried to the point of excess. And, while I understand that this was not written to be an action novel, it did feel like the few action-type scenes there were were played down far too much in order to give place to the emotions and thoughts the characters were having during that particular moment.
The descriptions of characters' clothing were also a bit excessive. A little word or two of description here and there would have been fine, but I really don't need a stitch-by-stitch diagram. And for some reason I have yet to figure out, the author was particularly preoccupied with the main male character's 'knee-high black Hessians'.
The gooey melodrama was the biggest turn-off for me, though I have to admit that at times it almost became entertaining, it was so over-the-top. I mean, I've met and talked to guys who I thought were extremely handsome, but I've never felt 'overwhelmed by his masculinity'... whatever that means. And, although I have never kissed a guy, I find it difficult to believe that doing so makes a girl feel like 'her bones had turned to dust'.
Which brings me to the next issue I had with Prize of My Heart: the anachronisms (or historical inaccuracies) scattered throughout the book. Under no circumstances would a young lady in the early 19th century be allowed to barge into a man's quarters in her nightgown, no matter how horrific his dreams were and how much he was yelling about them. And I understand that a romance novel probably wouldn't be very romantic without some holding hands, kissing, etc. but I feel obligated to point out that both those activities were greatly frowned upon during that time period if the couple was not married.
The plot line as a whole was interesting, and the book was skillfully written. But as I said before, I'm simply not a romance reader, so I doubt seriously I'll be reading this one again.

I received this book free of charge in exchange for my review... I guess.

4/29/12

'Coming Apart: The State of White America, 1960-2010'

Author: Charles Murray
Genre: Non-fiction/Social Science/Sociology
Publisher: Crown Forum

This book was my first reading experience in the field of social sciences. After reading it, I now know why I am not a sociologist.
The facts that Murray presented in Coming Apart concerning the shifts and changes that have taken place in American society over the last fifty years were very interesting, and he put into words and numbers trends and movements that I have vaguely sensed but never fully understood before.
However, the sheer amount of detail he included was overwhelming, to say the least. Three hundred pages of detail, followed by another hundred pages of appendices. Everything was presented in an orderly manner with plenty of explanation and interpretation of the data, but I couldn't help thinking as I read, "You could have made the same point just as powerfully in about 1/3 the words".
As I said, I'm not a sociologist, so there could be elements of the book that I failed to appreciate. However, as a reasonably good reader, I found Coming Apart to be simply too overloaded with dry details. The points the author made were interesting, though, and I for one wouldn't mind reading a condensed version of this book if one were to be published.

I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my review. A favorable review was not required; my opinions are my own.

4/17/12

'Spirit Fighter'

Author: Jerel Law
Series: Son of Angels - Jonah Stone
Genre: Supernatural
Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Jonah Stone is a somewhat-below-average kid, struggling to keep his grades up and avoid getting picked on at school. His dream is to make the basketball team, but after the first day of tryouts, the coach pulls him aside and tells him rather bluntly that 'basketball's not your sport'. Devastated, Jonah walks out to the soccer field and asks God why he's not good at anything, and can't God please do something to help him? Out of frustration Jonah kicks a nearby soccer ball... and sends it flying hundreds of yards. When he gets home he tells his dad, who hands him a football, which he then throws hundreds of yards. He's able to do the same thing with a baseball.
That's when Jonah's parents decide that it's time to tell him the truth: he's not fully human. His mother is in fact a nephilim, the daughter of a human and a fallen angel, making Jonah one quarter angel. The nephilim in the Bible became famous, mighty warriors; the nephilim today apparently share the same superhuman abilities. Suddenly Jonah is a different person - from standing up to the bullies at school to embarking on a mission a few days later to rescue his mother after she is abducted by fallen angels.

I was extremely disturbed by the content of this book, mainly because it is intended for young children - the main character Jonah is thirteen. This is not something I would want my children reading, for several reasons.
Reason #1 - In Spirit Fighter, Jonah is something of a loser until his 'angel powers' kick in. Then suddenly he's the strongest, fastest kid around. If this is the kind of fiction we're giving our kids to read, how long will it be until a kid who has just flunked a math test or failed to make the football team starts thinking 'Man, if only I was part angel'?
Yes, the nephilim are real beings whose existence is recorded in the Bible, and they did become mighty warriors. Yes, fallen angels really did have offspring by human women. But on no level is this normal or okay, and we should not be 'normalizing' it by writing modern children's fiction about it. Why would we want our children even thinking about things like that, anyway? The Bible makes it clear that the days of the nephilim were dark days, when the thoughts of man's heart were only evil continually.
Reason #2 - I am not convinced that Jerel Law's portrayal of parenthood in this story is biblical. I'm a writer, so I do understand that the parents frequently have to be moved out of the way in order for the children to be able to have their big adventures; that being said, in Spirit Fighter, Jonah's mom is kidnapped and the task is apparently something that a fully human person can't do, so Jonah's dad is forced to sit at home against his wishes, doing nothing while Jonah and his sister are sent to rescue their mom with their angel powers. Seriously? That's pushing it, folks.
Reason #3 - I don't like the attitude the author takes towards spiritual warfare. Yes, I absolutely believe in a spiritual realm and spiritual battles being waged around us. I believe that humans are occasionally called to play active roles in these spiritual battles, and sometimes humans are even given glimpses into the spiritual realm. And I believe that God gives us whatever strength we need to do what He wants us to do. But Jerel Law's portrayal of this - Jonah's sister throwing up a 'force field' around them when they're in danger, an enemy with an opposing force field that saps her strength, a bow and arrows that just materialize when needed - is way too flippant, more like a video game than serious spiritual battle.
Kids do not need to be reading books that are going to make them think spiritual warfare is no big deal ("I'll just say a little prayer, throw up a force field, take down a demonic cougar with a shovel, and it'll all be good, right?"). I understand that this is fiction, but it is fiction written about real spiritual matters - matters that are not something to be toyed with or taken lightly. Yes, even faith as small as a mustard seed is enough to do wondrous things - but the spiritual war going on around us is not something we should be taking as lightly as it is taken in this book.
I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

4/16/12

'Scaramouche'

Author: Rafael Sabatini
Genre: Historical Fiction
Original Publishing Date: 1921

My first introduction to the work of Rafael Sabatini was through his book Captain Blood, with which I fell completely in love. (I'll post a review of it on here sometime just to have it in the database : )
Scaramouche didn't open with anywhere near the bang and gripping drama of Captain Blood; in fact, it was kind of a chore to get into, though I have to give it credit as having what is probably the best opening line ever:

He was born with the gift of laughter, and a sense that the world was mad. And that was all his patrimony.

Really now, what's not to love?
In Scaramouche, Sabatini has created a vivid main character, almost raw in his realism. Andre, the hero of the story, is a brilliant young man who seems almost bored with life since it presents no challenge to him. Raised as the godson of a local nobleman, Andre manages somehow to prosper wildly at whatever he puts his hand to - first as a lawyer, then as an orator in the cause of the French Revolution, then as the actor Scaramouche, then as master of a fencing academy, then once again as a politician. But his wild success always manages to end in Andre fleeing for his life from one pursuer or another, and for various reasons.
At times I found myself getting very frustrated with Andre's almost arrogant confidence, and his determination to put a Stoic face on no matter what happens... but I just couldn't help loving him anyway. His dry, almost caustic sense of humor and his conviction that 'the world was mad' are underwritten by his deep commitment to those he loves... no matter how infuriating they all are and how unfair or nail-biting the circumstances.
One thing that particularly jumped out at me that carried over from Captain Blood was the author's love of poetic justice. In both Sabatini books I have read so far, irony and poetic justice both play significant leading roles. And you've gotta love that.
One thing that does bother me is that Scaramouche, like so many other books set in this time period, is that there are quite a few instances of the Lord's name being taken in vain. Unfortunately, there seems to be no getting around it in this type of fiction.
Another issue with this book that's very minor (and really more of an annoyance than a problem) is the fact that it's interspersed with heavy doses of French here and there, most of which have no translation provided. Since my entire French vocabulary consists of bonjour, merci, champagne, and ooh-la-la, the lack of translation got kind of irritating. However, I was still able to understand the story, conversations, etc.
On the whole, another great book to add to my Rafael Sabatini collection, and a great book for anyone wanting an exciting French Revolution adventure!

4/9/12

'Midnight'

Author: Erin Hunter
Series: The New Prophesy Warriors
Genre: Fantasy
Publisher: Harper Collins

I had seen this book on several occasions, so I picked it up at the library over the weekend to preview for my little sister.
Midnight echoes with Redwall-esque themes - clans of animals with their own distinct societies living together in the forest, away from humans, or 'Twolegs' as they call them - only all of the characters are cats.
The many similar names of characters made them somewhat difficult to tell apart (Tawnypelt and Cinderpelt and Dustpelt and Sorrelpaw and Squirrelpaw... you get the idea) but the book still had the potential to be delightful.
Unfortunately, the author took it in the other direction. In this cat society Erin Hunter has constructed, there are separate cat clans - RiverClan, ThunderClan, etc. - and when a cat dies, they become part of 'StarClan'. StarClan in turn is the force that guides the cats in the still-living clans. The books starts off with StarClan sending a prophetic dream to the main character, calling him to some grand but vague destiny he doesn't understand. Throughout the story, the cats use phrases like 'StarClan willing' or 'thank StarClan', which is a deal-breaker for me.
I didn't even bother finishing the book. My little sister won't be reading it, either.

4/5/12

'Garden of Madness'

Author: Tracy L. Higley
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Thomas Nelson
Series: Seven Wonders

Ever wondered what was happening to the kingdom of Babylon during the seven years King Nebuchadnezzar was stricken with madness? Who was in charge? Were outsiders trying to take the throne? How did one of the most powerful kingdoms in the world manage to stay on its feet while its king lived like a wild animal?
In Garden of Madness, T.L. Higley spins a thrilling story as her own speculative answer to that question.
In regards to the book itself, what can I say besides 'T.L. Higley has done it again'? I was certain she couldn't outdo herself after Shadow of Colossus, but now I strongly suspect that she's just getting better with every book she writes.
The setting of ancient Babylon feels lifelike and vivid all throughout the book - another gift T.L. Higley seems to be blessed with. The descriptions are almost tangible, and you may find yourself squeamish, or sweating, or shivering along with the characters as the scene dictates. : )
The story is riveting. I stayed up half the night last night, unable to put it down. And while much of it is based on speculation regarding a story we don't have much biblical detail on, it didn't leave me feeling like the author had taken too many liberties. Some liberties, sure. But it didn't feel stretched like so many works of historical fiction do.
One thing I did kind of question in the book is the accuracy of a couple of scenes where a devout Jewish man kisses a woman he's not married to. I'm no expert in ancient Jewish custom, but I did wonder about the accuracy of that.
The title 'Garden of Madness' doesn't really do the book justice, in my opinion. Maybe it's just me, but it seems a little melodramatic, which is not an accurate reflection of the book itself. So if you share my loathing for melodramatic book titles, don't let it turn you away from this book.
From start to finish, this book had me by the throat, desperate to know what happens next. Yet another fantastic installment in the Seven Wonders series by T.L. Higley... and I'm waiting eagerly for the next one!

I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my review. A favorable review was not required... I just have to rave about my favorite author! ; )

3/28/12

'The Man Who Created Narnia'

Author: Michael Coren
Genre: Non-Fiction, Biography
Publisher: Eerdmans

Definitely not the most thorough or in-depth biography I have ever read, but nonetheless I truly enjoyed this book. In fact, I couldn't put it down. To be completely precise, I read the entire thing in an hour and a half.
The laid-back writing style and numerous photographs of Lewis, his friends and family, and significant places in his life made this a very easy read, which I'm sure contributed to my enjoyment of it.
I did gather from some of the remarks that were made by the author throughout the book that he is most likely not a Christian, so his perspective on a few things seemed a bit skewed to me, but that didn't prevent him writing a lovely overview of Lewis' life, fortunately.
For a diehard, hardcore Lewis fan like myself, The Man Who Created Narnia was just enough to sufficiently whet my appetite and drive me to the brink of yet another Lewis craze (which I experience on a fairly regular basis), so expect some reviews of Lewis books coming up in the next few weeks. ; )
For anyone wanting to do serious research on the life of C.S. Lewis, this book would need to be read in concert with others more detailed and in-depth, but it would definitely be a good volume to have on hand. Or, if you're not familiar with Lewis and his work at all and would like to get acquainted, this book would be a great place to start.

'How the Irish Saved Civilization'

Author: Thomas Cahill
Series: The Hinges of History
Genre: Non-Fiction, Historical
Publisher: Anchor Books

The period between the fall of the Roman Empire and the rise of the High Middle Ages is a difficult one to study and learn about, due mostly to the state of almost total chaos the entire civilized world had fallen into. Much of the knowledge accumulated over the centuries was lost completely, and what did survive did so just barely.
In this book, author Thomas Cahill makes the compelling assertion that, thanks to the work of Saint Patrick and the fervor with which the Irish embraced the Christianity he brought to them, the tenets of civilization - complete copies of the Holy Bible, great works of literature such as The Iliad, and other writings - were preserved and eventually redistributed to the world by the Irish.
While I would naturally want to do some more research and investigation before taking Cahill's conclusions as gospel, I'll admit that it makes a lot of sense. The Irish were an isolated people group relatively untouched by the influences of Rome until Saint Patrick's time, and remained isolated throughout the period of Rome's decline and fall, so it seems completely reasonable that knowledge and literature could have been preserved there.
The author's worldview was somewhat difficult to determine, (though I suspect he's probably Catholic based on some of his statements) but nothing he said seemed at all disdainful towards Christianity - a refreshing find in a history book!
The only real problem I had with this book was in regard to the pagan religion held by the Irish prior to Saint Patrick's work among them (and even held by many afterwards). Many of the practices recorded and described by the author are distasteful at best, obscene at worst. I know that such practices are historical fact, so I'm not saying the author should pretend they didn't exist, but it still made this a book I definitely wouldn't want anyone but a mature adult to read. (Fortunately, these passages made up an extremely small portion of the book.)
Along that same line are two or three of the photographs included in the book, which are of pagan sculpture and artwork. Again, I understand that those sculptures and carvings do exist, and we shouldn't pretend that they don't, but I still would much prefer not coming across them in a book I'm reading.
Overall, How the Irish Saved Civilization made a compelling historical read and a fascinating look into what is perhaps the most uncharted period of western culture.

3/26/12

'Anacaona: Golden Flower'

Author: Edwidge Danticat
Series: The Royal Diaries
Genre: Historical, Fiction
Publisher: Scholastic

Within the context of the Royal Diaries series, this book was definitely a unique reading experience. Most of the books in the series are building up to either the main character's marriage or assumption of power, and end when one of those is achieved. This book actually carried through Anacaona's marriage to the chieftain of a neighboring territory and the first couple of years of their life together.
I loved the way it portrayed her loyalty to and love for her husband, and her devotion in both ruling and fighting beside him. That alone would have made the book a joy to read.
But in addition to that, it was a great look into the Haitian culture of the 1400s. Their perception and measurement of time were confusing and even a little frustrating, since they don't have the spring-summer-fall-winter season pattern that I'm used to, and their 'months' are all twenty days long and measured by the moon. But I learned to enjoy it, and the descriptions of the tropical climate, landscape, and lifestyle were beautiful and delightful.
A word of warning: Fans of Christopher Columbus either won't like this book, or won't be Christopher Columbus fans by the end... or possibly both. Just sayin'.

3/21/12

'Where Lilacs Still Bloom'

Author: Jane Kirkpatrick
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Water Brook

Based on the life of Hulda Klager, Where Lilacs Still Bloom tells the story of a woman with a passion for plants of all kinds - particularly lilacs. Her passion leads her to a fascination with hybridizing and selectively pollinating to improve the flowers and share their beauty with others.
While the scientific aspect of the book was both interesting and entertaining (people had some crazy ideas in the early 1900s, and I loved the author's portrayal of social concerns revolving around scientific issues), the rest of the story was somewhat... well, lacking.
The main character, Hulda, frequently keeps things from her husband who doesn't share her all-consuming passion for plants and doesn't always approve 100% of it. That really bothered me. That, and the way her gardening and hybridizing projects always seem to take equal or even greater precedence over her family. Everything that happens gets twisted around into an opportunity/excuse to work more in her garden, and I often felt like the garden mattered more to her than her family did.
On top of all that, the storyline itself was somewhat depressing. I really can't be more specific than that without giving something important away. I understand that it's based on a true story and all, but still, I like reading books that leave me feeling refreshed and uplifted at the end... not tired and depressed.
All in all, Where Lilacs Still Bloom, while providing a great peek into science's past, wasn't really a book I would want to read again.

I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my review. A favorable review is not required; my opinions are my own.

3/17/12

'Liberation: Teens in the Concentration Camps, and the Teen Soldiers Who Liberated Them

Author: E. Tina Tito
Genre: Non-Fiction/History
Publisher: Rosen Publishing Group

Most people don't often stop to think about or focus on the teenagers involved in WWII. I know I didn't, which was probably why this book caught my eye at the local library sale.
Both of the author's parents were teenagers during the Holocaust, and both suffered as a result. Drawing on that connection, the author has created a series of horrifying and heart-wrenching first-person accounts of the teens whose lives were touched by the horrors of concentration camps.
The book contains accounts of teens exiled to the infamous Jewish ghettos, teens imprisoned in labor camps, and the teen soldiers who came face to face with living nightmares they wouldn't have thought possible.

While no book like this can really be 'enjoyed' in any normal sense of the word, I have found it nevertheless to be a valuable and eye-opening source of information in my studies of WWII. It provides a glimpse at yet another layer of an incredibly vast subject - a glimpse that is all too necessary for those of us who want to ensure that such a thing is never allowed to happen again.

3/12/12

'Lord of the Rings: Weapons and Warfare'

Author: Chris Smith
Genre: Fiction
Publisher: Houghton Mifflin

As a huge LOTR nerd, I was ecstatic when this book arrived! Over 200 pages of glorious photographs and detailed, thorough, well-indexed information have made it a joy to read, or just browse through.
Weapons and Warfare has also provided me with an indispensable arsenal as a writer, as well. There are pages and pages dedicated to describing and explaining each piece of armor, each weapon, its uses, and weaknesses. So when I need a weapon or suit of armor for a character, I have a wide variety of ideas at my fingertips.
The book doesn't just focus on who carried what sword and wore what armor, though. It provides an excellent overview of the history of the War of the Ring and backstory for several of the central characters.
And it doesn't just focus on the good guys, either! There are entire chapters dedicated to the armor and weapons used by orcs, goblins, and Uruk-Hai.
All that, along with maps, indexes, and battle strategy outlines, make Weapons and Warfare a volume I'll be keeping on hand for a very, very long time!

3/11/12

'1000 Days: The Ministry of Christ'

Author: Jonathan Falwell
Genre: Non-Fiction, Christian Life and Thought
Publisher: Thomas Nelson

Categorically, I would have to say that this book is definitely milk, not meat. Early on in the book, the author makes the statement that the book is intended for anyone, whether a long-time Christian, a new Believer, or someone who's just curious about what Jesus and His life were all about. Having read the book, though, I would definitely categorize it as being geared towards a new Believer.
1000 Days presents an overview of Christ's roughly 3-year ministry, basically just hitting the highlights. For someone unfamiliar with the ministry of Christ, it could be useful.
That being said, though, I don't know that I would recommend it. There were several instances in which it seemed like the author was reading far too much into a given biblical text. For example, in the chapter discussing the Beatitudes, the author suggests that the statement "blessed are the peacemakers", the word "peacemakers" actually refers to people who are helping others make peace with God. However, neither the original language nor the context of the passage suggest this.
In another chapter, the author is discussing the incident of Jesus being tempted in the wilderness. When Satan suggests that Jesus turn the stones into bread and Jesus responds by saying that "Man shall not live by bread alone", Falwell places particular emphasis (his own, not the original text's) on Jesus' use of the word 'Man'. He makes the statement: "Jesus was telling Satan that He was not an animal." According to Falwell, Jesus was implying that He could exercise self-control over His hunger instinct, unlike an animal that simply follows instinct blindly. This may have been a valid point if the wording or context of the biblical passage actually inferred this, but it doesn't.
Statements of that nature (i.e. 'What Jesus really meant was...') always make me very nervous. Yes, the Bible is a deep, many-layered book that requires careful and diligent investigation and searching to understand, but we need to stand guard against making assumptions about 'what Jesus really meant' - especially so when the text itself does not make the issue completely clear.
Along that same line, another issue I had with 1000 Days was the lack of referencing. The author often said things like "Luke 9 tells the story of..." or "such and such fulfilled the prophesy of Psalm 69..." but as a general rule there were very few actual chapter-and-verse references to show where the author got the information he was citing. The Bible makes it clear that we as Christians should not simply take a teacher's word for anything (no matter how qualified or respectable that teacher may be). We are to search the Scriptures for ourselves to determine whether the things the teacher says are true. It stands to reason then that, if a teacher wants to prove the biblical basis for a particular statement, he should provide a biblical reference for it, and this book often failed to do that.
Combining those issues with the somewhat juvenile feel of some of the discussions and study questions at the end of each chapter, I'm sad to have to say that this book was a disappointment. A book that provided an in-depth study of the ministry of Christ, geared towards new Believers, would be a wonderful resource that I would love to be able to recommend to people. Unfortunately, 1000 Days isn't that book.
I received this book free of charge from the publisher in exchange for my honest review.

3/5/12

'Shadow of Colossus'

Author: T.L. Higley
Series: Seven Wonders
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: B&H Books

Set on the Greek island of Rhodes, Shadow of Colossus is the story of Tessa, a slave since childhood. Tessa is hetaera to Glaucus, a powerful politician. In the opening scene of the book, she is planning to kill herself, convinced that suicide is the only way that she can ever be free.
Then Glaucus meets an accidental death--but the circumstances make it appear that Tessa murdered him. If charged with the crime, it is almost certain that she will be executed. But quick-thinking, clever Tessa isn't about to let it go at that, and she sets in motion a dangerous plan to hide Glaucus' death and use it to escape to the island of Crete.
This book doesn't 'open with a bang' by any means. In fact, the first few pages were a little slow getting started. However, once you do get into it (which doesn't take long--by Chapter 2 I was completely immersed) it is absolutely riveting. I sometimes have trouble letting go of my Analytical Writer side and letting myself become completely engrossed in a book as a reader and nothing more. That was not a problem with this book. After years in slavery, Tessa has let herself become impervious to emotions in order to avoid pain and sorrow. Then she meets Nikos, who encourages her to let herself feel, because feeling is what makes you alive. This causes a huge struggle for Tessa, and I the reader could feel every part of that struggle.
Another great aspect of the book is that the romance that develops between Tessa and Nikos actually feels natural, unlike so many books in which the main male character and the leading lady seem to fall in love simply because the writer wanted to include some romance in the story and there was no one else around for them to fall in love with.
And as if all that weren't enough, T.L. Higley transports you completely to ancient Greece with her fabulous descriptions and writing style that presents Rhodes to you as easily as if it was right outside your front door. Reading this, I felt like if I were suddenly transported to ancient Rhodes, I would know my way around (and know which creepy characters to avoid).
Read this book, you guys! If nothing else, use it as a textbook on how to take your readers on a thrilling journey they will not soon forget!

'Replication: The Jason Experiment'

Author: Jill Williamson
Genre: Sci-Fi
Publisher: Zondervan

I've never won a blog book-giveaway before winning this one, and I was thrilled to receive a copy, signed by the author!

Martyr - or, J:3:3 as he's officially called - lives in a state-of-the-art facility deep under ground, safe from the toxic air of the dangerous world above. A few weeks before his eighteenth birthday, he's about to expire - his life will end, a sacrifice that will provide the much-needed antidote for the people trapped above ground in the hostile environment.

Or so he's told.

Out in that 'hostile environment' is Abby Goyer, a brainy high-schooler looking towards studying forensics in college. Her father works for a science lab in Washington D.C, and their relationship has been pretty strained since Abby's mom passed away. The strain becomes even worse when Mr. Goyer announces that they're moving to Alaska, where he's taken a job at a state-of-the-art research lab.

I have to say, I loved this book. The characters were all remarkably well-developed - even Martyr, who naturally has some peculiarities from living in an underground laboratory his whole life. The plot was straightforward and clear-cut, another plus. (I occasionally get tired of plots with so many twists and turns that by the end you can't even remember what the initial point was.) The writing was very skillful, another huge plus.
In this story, the author dealt with the highly controversial issue of cloning with skill, honesty, and grace, which I found highly refreshing. She doesn't mince words, and she calls things what they are, which I admire, but she did it all without sounding in the least 'preachy' or militant about it.
One or two things that bothered me:
First, there were several kiss scenes between teenagers. They were nothing humongous or grossly over-the-top, just straightforward kisses, but they still bothered me, since both characters were Christians.
The only other thing is a pet-peeve annoyance for me, more than anything else. The character Abby - who has studied crime for years and should know better - lets herself get pushed around very easily by a guy from her school who follows her around uninvited and even ends up forcing his way into her house. Abby isn't happy about it, but she doesn't do anything about it. There were several instances in which she should have thrown the creep out of her house at knife-point and called the cops on him, but she did nothing. It made me highly irritated at her.

Aside from those two little issues, though, I really, really enjoyed this book. I honestly couldn't put it down - and it takes a special book to captivate me that completely. I wouldn't recommend this book for younger readers, certainly. But for anyone 16 and up, this would make a fantastic read. I definitely recommend that you check it out at the first opportunity you get!

3/2/12

'City of the Dead'

Author: T.L. Higley
Series: Seven Wonders
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: B&H Books

Book Two in the Seven Wonders Series by T. L. Higley.
I'll be honest, the cover made me a little edgy when I first saw it. It kind of had that 'romance novel' look to it, and I am really not into romance novels. Rest assured, dear readers, this is not a romance novel! Yes, a romance does develop between two of the characters over the course of the story, but ... well, that's different. And as for the woman on the cover... honestly, I'm still not sure which character she's actually supposed to be. (I know, it's strange. But whatever.)
Anyway, the main character, Hemiunu, or 'Hemi' to his friends, is Grand Vizier to the pharaoh Khufu, and the designer and architect for the Great Pyramid at Ghiza. He and Pharaoh Khufu grew up together, and both are hiding a dark secret regarding the mysterious death of a young woman many years ago, when they were still boys. Both of them are hiding the secret, but neither of them actually knows the full truth of it...or so they claim.
When Hemi's friends start being murdered, he begs Pharaoh for permission to investigate, but uncovering the murderer may mean uncovering the truth of an event they have both sworn to keep secret forever. It also leads Hemi to meet some new and surprising people who introduce him to a God other than the statues he serves in Egypt's temples.
This books makes a fabulous read; it combines an historical adventure with a delicious murder mystery. The only problem I found with it was that it is written in first-person from the viewpoint of a man. Being written by a female author, I think it sometimes doesn't accurately reflect the way a man would view or think about a given situation. But, the character development is deep and thorough, and we the readers get the feeling that we know Hemi personally.
The mystery and intrigue of the story are exciting and kept me turning pages. I wouldn't say it's T.L Higley's best book ever, but definitely a great read I highly recommend!

3/1/12

'Tyger, Tyger'

Author: Kersten Hamilton
Genre: Urban Fantasy
Series: The Goblin Wars
Publisher: Clarion Books

I suddenly found myself in the mood for something different, and at the moment I happened to be standing in the teen department of the library. Tyger, Tyger made its way home in my book bag as a result.
Set in modern Chicago, the book follows the adventures of Teagan, a high-school senior looking towards college, who discovers that her ancestors weren't just Irish... they were the characters of Irish lore and mythology. And not only that, they're an integral part of an ancient feud between the agents of good and evil.
The plot of the story is fast-paced and exciting, and frankly, I loved it. From chases through the streets of Chicago to expeditions into the treacherous world of Mag Mell, this story was definitely the 'something different' I was looking for.
The characters were delightful as well. From walking MP3 player, 6-year-old Aiden, to the tough and chivalrous Finn Mac Cumhaill, and from no-nonsense Mameio to wild-child Abby, the cast was rich, vibrant, realistic, and lovable.
I would be remiss if I didn't also mention the rich layers of Irish mythology and folklore woven into the plot. It added a great deal of depth and intrigue to the story, and it was cool to find the references to characters I already knew from reading Celtic lore.
Tyger, Tyger is not a Christian book, so I wasn't expecting it to behave like one (I say that a lot, I know) but there were still a few elements about it that I didn't like.
One was an incident towards the beginning of the book in which Teagan accidentally pulls her t-shirt up while taking off her sweater. She's on a public bus at the time and once she gets her sweater off she realizes that a guy on the bus is videotaping her. The video later shows up on the internet. As if that isn't bad enough, that incident didn't even have anything to do with the plot of the story, which makes it even more annoying.
Another issue was the language scattered throughout the book. I did appreciate the fact, however, that at one point one of the guy characters uses a swear word and Teagan's dad reprimands him and tells him not to speak that way in front of ladies.
Another issue was the teen-angst-type stuff surrounding Teagan's attraction to Finn, but perhaps that would be better categorized as an annoyance rather than an issue.
One thing that I really liked was the fact that, in spite of this not being a 'Christian' book, the characters (Irish Catholics) made it clear that God, or, 'The Almighty', was the creator of all worlds, not just this one. He created the alternate universes they visited as well as Earth, and He created all the creatures, goblin and human alike. The goblins were evil because they chose to follow that path, not because God made them that way. I found that highly refreshing, coming from a secular book.
On the whole, Tyger, Tyger was fun, exciting, and of course, something different. I don't know that I'm necessarily eager to read the rest of the books in the series, but I certainly wouldn't mind doing so if they came across my path.

2/27/12

'Book of a Thousand Days'

Author: Shannon Hale
Genre: Fantasy/Fairytale
Publisher: Bloomsbury

Having read (and adored) Princess Academy, I was pretty excited to read this book after picking it up at the library.
Book of a Thousand Days is a thrilling re-telling of a little-known fairy tale, 'Maid Maleen' from the Grimm brothers. Having sword loyalty to her mistress, Lady Saren, the main character Dashti finds herself getting bricked up inside a windowless tower after Lady Saren refuses to accept the marriage her father has arranged for her. They're sentenced to stay there for seven years.
But with rats decimating their food supply and a war raging outside the tower, things might not work out exactly as planned.
I won't say more about the plot, lest I give something important away. What I will say is that I really, truly enjoyed this book. A colorful, vibrant fantasy culture combined with adventure and a remarkably sweet love story made it a joy to read.
I wouldn't recommend this book for young readers, for a couple of reasons. One, parts of the story definitely contained some dark elements, fine for mature readers but not so much for younger ones. Two, the polytheistic religion of the main character's culture might be a problem for some families.
But for my part, I found this to be yet another excellent contribution to fairytale fiction from an author who is quickly earning my respect.

'Sondok: Princess of the Moon and Stars'

Author: Sheri Holman
Genre: Historical Fiction
Publisher: Scholastic
Series: The Royal Diaries

I was a little surprised when I came across this book, because I hadn't realized that Korea existed as far back as the 6th century. Actually, though, while the book is set in the area we now know as Korea, it didn't exist as the nation of Korea at the time. Instead it was divided into a few small kingdoms who were constantly at war with one another, all the time worried that they would be overrun by their enormous next-door neighbor, China.
In the midst of all this we find Sondok, oldest daughter of a king with no son in a culture that doesn't believe a woman should rule. These circumstances have left Sondok torn in many directions. Her love of the stars and the belief that the king controls what goes on in the heavens drive her to spend countless nights measuring, calculating, and tracking the movements of the celestial bodies in preparation for the day when she is king after her father. Astronomy is considered a man's task, though, too high for a woman. Sondok is also torn between honoring the ancient shamanistic religion of her native land and embracing the new religion, Buddhism, being introduced from China.
There is hardly any historical information about Sondok today, but using what little there is I think Sheri Holman did a great job on this book. The look into the ancient culture, from shaman rituals to everyday tasks like feeding silkworms, was fascinating. And of course, anything containing astronomy is intriguing to me.
The book is, of course, written in journal form, and the entries are addressed to Sondok's grandmother who is deceased. Sondok has been given the task of caring for her grandmother's spirit, which the family believes resides in a jar they keep in a place of honor in their home. Sondok frequently mentions that she offered fresh rice or wine to her grandmothers 'spirit jar' and that each journal entry is written on a slip of paper and placed inside the jar.
Personally, I don't have a problem with this being in the book, as it is true to what the ancient culture believed, but it's something I feel I should mention in case anyone might be offended by it.
This book wasn't my favorite of the series (it's just really, really hard to beat Cleopatra and Jahanara) but it was definitely a read I enjoyed, and it will be staying in my library for a long, long time.