Saturday, July 7, 2012

Skimming the Surface of the Liturgical Year

For several years now I’ve been wanting to try observing Lent.  I didn’t grow up in a church that observed any of the liturgical year (except Christmas, Good Friday and Easter), and I was curious.  But I didn’t want to jump into a long period of fasting without understanding why people give up something before Easter.  I received a copy of The Liturgical Year by Joan Chittister from the publisher in order to review it.  In reading it I hoped to understand Lent, and also to see what the rest of the liturgical year was about.

Most importantly, after reading this book, and specifically the chapter on Asceticism, I felt ready to observe Lent.  Because of that I got the main thing I wanted to out of this book.  There was also an excellent chapter on joy, and Chittister’s writing style was very poetic.  However, I would have loved to learn more about each feast itself.  I felt that the reader needed to already have a somewhat working knowledge of the liturgical year to understand this book.  I would have liked to have learned how the feasts are observed.  The beginning chapters were a bit long as well.  Less telling us what we’re going to read about and more meat in the book itself would have been nice.

All in all, The Liturgical Year was a helpful and beautiful read.

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

I thought it would be fun to check out a picture book for my next review, so I asked Waterbrook to send me a copy of Lisa Tawn Bergren’s God Gave us the World, illustrated by Laura J. Bryant. They were nice enough to comply. I used two test subjects to help me with my review—Jase, age 6, and Joy, age 7.

This adorable picture book follows a family of polar bears as they visit a museum exhibit of bears around the world. The mama bear explains to one of the little bears that God made all sorts of bears, all of them different. When the little bear asks why he didn’t make all bears the same she shows him how fun the differences in bears can be.

It was a hit! As soon as we closed the book Jase asked to read it again. He giggled his way through both readings, loving the pictures. He also had a fun time reading the signs on each page that showed what exhibit in the museum was next. When we read the pages describing the differences bears have (some are quiet, some are loud, etc) he acted out the descriptions. Both times. Jase gave the book a 10 out 5.

Joy also liked the book, saying she liked the pictures the best. When I asked her what her favorite part was she said, “the bears,” because they were cute. She didn’t say a lot about the book (she’s a quiet one) but she gave it a 4 out of 5.

The only complaint we had were a few pages in the middle of the book that went on for quite a while about the attributes of God. While sharing the wonderful aspects of God with our children is great, it took us out of the story. I would have loved to see it integrated into the action more or just have that section pared down to one or two sentences. When I was reading it I could feel that it was dragging and when I asked Jase if there were any parts that he didn’t like, he pointed to those pages. “They’re not doing anything fun,” he explained. Fortunately, the rest of the book was plenty fun.

All in all, God Gave us the World was a hit. It will be a repeat read for years to come for sure.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

The Narnia Code

When Tyndale e-mailed me offering to send me a complimentary copy of Michael Ward’s book The Narnia Code, I was wary. Was this going to be a conspiracy theory book claiming that CS Lewis wasn’t really a Christian? I had no need for a book like that. However, after doing a little research I found out that Ward is a big fan of CS Lewis and even lived at the Kilns, Lewis’ old home. He wasn’t going to slander Lewis’ name. I gave Tyndale the go ahead.

In The Narnia Code, Ward explains his theory that CS Lewis based each of the books in the Chronicles of Narnia on one of the pre-Copernican planets—the sun, the moon, Mercury, Venus, Mars, Jupiter and Saturn. Lewis was extremely familiar with the medieval views of the heavens, in which the Earth was the center of the universe and everything else circled around it. Each planet had certain characteristics attributed to it, which Ward claims go along with the Narnian Chronicles. For example, Prince Caspian has the spirit of Mars, the war planet. In most of the books the greatest evidence of the spirit of the planet is found in how Aslan is portrayed.

I have to admit, Ward makes a good case. His theory explains some of the random things Lewis put in the Narnia books, like Father Christmas appearing in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, and Bacchus appearing in Prince Caspian. I wouldn’t go to my death defending his ideas, but I do think what he said is possible. The evidence he gives makes sense.

The Narnia Code is a good read for any Lewis fan (and you’ll want to be familiar with The Chronicles of Narnia before reading The Narnia Code). As someone who is quite familiar with Lewis, I learned quite a bit, not only about the Chronicles of Narnia, but also about his science fiction trilogy (of which I’m a huge fan), and Lewis himself. Ward also touches on history and science. Really, it’s quite the informative book. It is, however, a bit on the academic side. It reads a little like a very long research paper, but an interesting research paper. Interesting, but not intriguing—it was easy to put down, and sometimes I would forget to pick it back up for a while. Once I did pick it back, however, I almost always found something interesting in it.

If you’re like me and have a wall hanging made from the pages of The Magicians’ Nephew, give this book a try. Okay, even if you don’t have Narnian themed d├ęcor I think you’ll still enjoy it.

Sunday, January 23, 2011

Don't Pass This By

By far, Under the Overpass by Mike Yankoski has been the best book I’ve received from a publisher so far (Yes, it’s true. Waterbook Multnomah sent me the book in exchange for an honest review). Right now there are 10 books by my bed with bookmarks in them. The competition for my time is high, but Under the Overpass consistently made it off the stack and into my hands.

Let me introduce you to the two main characters in this gem of a memoir—Mike and Sam, two college-age guys who are homeless. They didn’t loose their jobs. They didn’t succumb to addiction. They didn’t get kicked out of their parent’s houses. They chose to live on the streets to find out what it would be like to fully rely on Christ for all their needs. Intense, right? I would never want to go on that adventure, but I sure did enjoy reading about it. Traveling from Denver to DC, Portland to San Francisco, Phoenix to San Diego, they slept through rainy nights and panhandled in over 100 degree weather. They got ignored and they got loved. Sometimes the people who you would expect to love them the most treated them the worst, and vise versa.

What I loved about Under the Overpass was the story. I wasn’t reading a book about how to help the homeless. I was reading a story that involved a lot of homeless people—a story that caught me up and made me want to keep reading. It was within that story I saw some of the issues that homelessness brings. I saw interactions that were helpful and encouraging and I saw reactions that were harsh. It made me want to act like the people who were loving toward Mike and Sam, and to make sure I didn’t act like the people who ignored them and treated them like they weren’t human. That’s way more life changing than reading a book telling me facts about homelessness, in my opinion.

Whether you read it because you’re looking for an interesting story or you read it to be inspired, I think you’ll be glad you read Under the Overpass.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

Here are Some Books that you Should Read

The last few blogs I’ve posted have been about books that were sent to me from the publisher for reviews. They weren’t amazing. I don’t want my blog to be only about book that are okay, and ignore the books I’ve been reading that I have absolutely loved. So I thought I would write about a few books that I would whole-heartedly recommend. Today I’d like to tell you about two middle grade/young adult series I’ve recently read.

The first is The Wind on Fire Trilogy by William Nicholson. It consists of three books, starting with The Wind Singer. There are three books in the series, which seems like it would be obvious seeing as it’s a trilogy, but you don’t know how many “trilogies” that I’ve read that end up having four books in them. What is the world coming to?

The reason I so whole-heartedly recommend this series is the fantastic creativity in the books. Remember the first time you read The Voyage of the Dawn Treader? Well, I don’t. I was way to young to remember that. However, I do remember the last several times I’ve read it. I love the way each island is totally different from the others and has it’s own culture and intrigue. This series is much the same. It focuses on three children—Kestrel, Bo and Mumpo—who come from a society much like the kind you see in The Giver or City of Ember—very regulated, no room for going against the leaders of society. They find out that life in the city isn't as great as it seems, and they leave to save the ones they love. As they travel they encounter cultures that are vastly different from their own, or from any that I’ve read in other books. Each time they came to a new place I was floored anew. How did Nicholson think of such things? That’s just the first book. The next two are wonderful as well, but I won’t get into what they are about, lest I give away what happens in the first one.

The second series on my must-read list is the Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. So far there are three books in the series, but I don’t think it’s claiming to be a trilogy, so more might be one the way. I’ve read the first two, and I’m looking forward to the third one in a big way.

The feel of the book reminds me a bit of A Series of Unfortunate Events. Four insanely talented kids who are alone in the world respond to an ad in the newspaper for gifted children and find themselves in a mission to save the world. They have to go undercover as students at the Learning Institute for the Very Enlightened to stop the headmaster from taking over the world through controlling the minds of everyone. Good times indeed. What I especially love about these books is how each of the four children have their own set of unique abilities. One can figure out patterns and riddles like a genius, one is the handiest girl you’ll ever meet, one can remember any bit of information he’s ever come across, and one…well, you’ll have to get to the end of the book to find out about her. All of their skills and personalities are necessary to completing their mission-a theme that is dear to my heart.

So there you have it—some exceptional books to entertain and enlighten. I’ll continue to post my review on the books that publishers send me (I’m now getting books from three different publishers!), but I’m going to try to take the time to write about the books that I’m reading on my own.

The Scoop on The Secrets Beneath by Kathleen Fuller

When I first heard about The Secrets Beneath by Kathleen Fuller I was pretty excited. It’s about an Amish girl who sees a man digging in the yard of the house next door and tries to find out what is going on. There were three reasons I thought I would like the book. One, it’s about the Amish. I love the Amish. I even wrote a research paper on them in college. Two, it’s a mystery. Mysteries are totally fun and intriguing. Three, it’s “juvenile fiction” (a term only Christian publishers use. I figure it was middle grade – late elementary). I love middle grade to young adult books. It’s what I mostly read. I was ready for a fun read.

I was sorely disappointed. The Amish-ness of the book was lacking. Instead of giving us a peek into the rich culture of the Amish, Fuller portrayed them as slightly old fashioned, up-tight and conservative people. There is so much more to Amish culture that she could have shown us but didn’t. Then there was the issue of the mystery. It wasn’t intriguing. I honestly didn’t care what was going on at the house next door. The suspense wasn’t there. There was more suspense about if the main character’s mother was going to give her a scolding than what was buried next door.

Then there’s the issue of the writing. Mainly it came down to the fact that the author did way too much telling and not enough showing (which is the cardinal no-no of fiction writing). Here’s an example of what I mean. “Bekah wasn’t surprised that her mother would offer hospitality. That was the Amish way.” If I wanted to have someone tell me directly what the “Amish way” is, I’d read a textbook on the Amish. This is a novel, so I should be able to glean what goes on in Amish communities by seeing it happen, not by the narrator pointing it out to me. The problem isn’t just that it’s written for children. There are plenty of children’s authors that do a fine job of bringing out themes and even information in a creative way.

All in all, this book had real potential, but it didn’t reach it. If you’re looking for a fun way to read about the Amish or introduce your children to Amish culture and good books, look elsewhere.

I was sent a complimentary copy of this book to review for Thomas Nelson.

Thursday, September 23, 2010

The Skin Map

I’ve signed up for a program in which I receive free books in exchange for book reviews (see for more info or to sign up for yourself). You know me, I can’t pass up free books!

First up is Stephen Lawhead’s The Skin Map, the first book in his new Bright Empires series. It’s about a group of people who travel via ley lines—portals that lead to other times and places. Some people are in search of a map originally tattooed on a man’s torso, while others are looking for loved ones who have gone missing in the midst of their own inter-dimensional travel. It’s somewhat of a mix between National Treasure and The Time Travelers Wife, and I found it entertaining. Less of a sci-fi or fantasy book, it feels more like a historical novel, taking place in England, Prague and Egypt. I must say though, if you find it hard to keep up with plots that don’t follow a linear time-line, you may find The Skin Map confusing (ie, if the flash-sideways in the last season of LOST mystified you, this may not be the book for you).

The Skin Map felt as if it were merely a setup to the next books in the series. The suspense didn’t kick in until page 330, leaving 70 pages to bring up questions that won’t be answered until later. I wish we could have gotten more closure or more info on why the characters are traveling through time and searching for the skin map so frantically. I suppose the open-ended ending is there to keep you reading the series, but I think even in a series a book should have it’s own story that rests on itself. At the end of Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone we don’t know everything behind Lord Voldemort’s return, but there is a complete story with a beginning, middle and end. The Skin Map seemed to only have a beginning and middle. Even so, I give the book 4 stars.