Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Pet Sematary, by Stephen King

This book describes what happens when Louis Creed moves his family to a small town in Maine, opening himself up to the power wielded by an ancient Indian burial ground. When the family suffers not one but two losses, Louis makes the decision to try to right these wrongs the best way he knows how. But sometimes, Louis, dead is better.

I believe I have mentioned before that I am a big Stephen King fan. His books are my guilty pleasure reading. I never seem to tire of them, even when I have read them before, and they never really seem to bother me. In short, his books typically provide me with an escape, where I can shut off my mind.

Imagine my surprise, then, when I struggled through this book. Not because it was poorly written, nay, on the contrary, it was one of the more stirring and creepy of the King novels. This book actually disturbed me, and took me several days to get through, because of the focus on deaths of animals and children. It is hard to escape into a book about the an evil cursed animal burial ground with a black kitty and a dappled dachshund sleeping on either side of you as you read.

Funny, death of adults in King books never bothers me. And other stories of his, whether novels or short stories, involving children did not seem to evoke such a strong reaction either, so I must be led to conclude it is the animals that got to me so bad, which is odd, because they play such a little part in the actual plot of the book.

Another problem I suffered was that I had seen the movie adaptation of this book long before reading it. For a book written in the 1980's, it is amazing that I am just now getting around to reading it. Some fan I am, right? Sorry, I was too busy re-reading the books of King's that I already owned, and I just snagged this one for fifty cents at a library sale less than two weeks ago. Besides, I do not want to get stuck into ruts!

As a horror book, this is a good read. Not too terribly violent or vulgar, but the themes of children and animals could be problematic for some. If so, I would recommend you steer away from this, as well as some of King's other books like Cujo and The Shining. However, if you like King, want a good thrill, and are not easily bothered, give it a shot. If you liked Cujo or The Shining, you should like this, and vice versa.

Monday, April 26, 2010

The Lost Boy, by Dave Pelzer

Note- the full title is The Lost Boy: A Foster Child’s Search for the Love of a Family

In his second book detailing his survival from a life of abuse, Dave Pelzer discusses his removal from his biological mother, his dealings with the legal system, and his life as a foster child. Told in a very frank manner, Dave never once condemns the foster system, as so many are apt to do. Instead, he honestly talks about his relationships with his social workers, probation officers, foster parents, teachers, classmates, and friends. Dave also honestly discusses his flaws, and how he contributed to his own troubled path through adolescence.

As I read this book, my heart continued to break for the child that David was, and yet my heart rejoiced knowing the man Dave had become as a result of his journey. It was painful to watch the slow, painful healing of the festering wounds inflicted by his mother. There were times when I thought she really was glad he was taken from her and given a second chance, and there were other times I found her incapable of having such feelings.

Honestly, there were times I wanted to just shake young David and say, please know that people love you and not everyone behaves like your mother. I think he learned this lesson eventually, thankfully. The most heartbreaking part of the book is when he sees one of his younger brothers, and suspects that the brother is now the target of mother’s wrath. I cannot imagine how one would feel in that situation, guilt for leaving, relief that it is not you?

As with his first book, Dave does an excellent job allowing the reader to experience this situation from the child’s point of view. Again, I think this is an extremely important book for every youth minister, teacher, social worker, pediatrician, or any other professional working with children. Also, anyone considering becoming a foster parent should read this, because it paints an accurate picture of the hardships, as well as the joys, of fostering. Thankfully, the social views of foster children have improved somewhat since Dave was in the foster system.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

A Child Called "It", by Dave Pelzer

Note- The full title is A Child Called It: One Child’s Courage to Survive

This book chronicles the early years of young David, who suffered terrible abuse at the hands of his mother. He was isolated until he was no longer part of the family, was starved, beaten, forced to drink ammonia, and suffered numerous other horrendous acts. Through it all, David had the will to survive, for that was the only way to beat his mother at her game of abuse. One of five children, David was the sole target of the mother’s wrath and abuse during his early childhood, to the point she no longer considered him her child, and referred to him only as “the boy” or “it”. His father, once his hero, slowly surrendered control of the situation to the mother. It was only when David’s teachers contacted authorities with long documented accounts of abuse and neglect that he was rescued from this terrible situation.

This book is pretty standard reading for college students, yet somehow I never read it until now. I actually borrowed it from my sister, who in fact did just read it for college. It is hard to describe this book as “good”, because you are reading about the cruelest, most heinous acts imaginable, and they are being perpetrated on a child by his own mother. Throughout the book, I almost wished that the story was being exaggerated, because I did not want to believe any parent, or any person for that matter, would behave in such a way. But I do believe it, because I have seen it with my own eyes. This book stirred up very raw and organic feelings within me- anger, fear, pity, contempt, and most importantly love.

Child abuse is so common, I am sure we all know someone who has suffered, whether we realize it not. And the abuse is not always just physical. Mental abuse leaves scars too, we just do not see them. As a former social service worker, I can attest that many children seem to be damaged by the abuse they suffer. Sadly, not all will survive; however, to help those that do, we must be able to relate to them. This book is an excellent resource. Because we see the abuse from David’s point of view, we are given a better idea what he, and the countless children like him, have gone through, their fears and insecurities, and we can help to heal the wounds the abuse left behind, wounds that are physical, emotional, and spiritual.

A word of caution, this book portrays very graphic scenes of abuse, so please take that into consideration. That being said, I believe this book is a must read for anyone in a ministry or job that deals with children, because so often children who we see as just being “bad” or “troublemakers” are actually victims of abuse, and understanding their situation may better equip us to help them.

Friday, April 23, 2010

My Bangs Look Good & Other Lies I Tell Myself, by Susanna Foth Aughtmon

Note: The full title of the book is My Bangs Look Good & Other Lies I Tell Myself: The Tired Supergirl’s Search for Truth

In this book, Susanna goes through over twenty common lies we tell ourselves, about who we are, who we need to be, who God is, and what He wants for our lives. Each chapter reviews a common lie we may have told ourselves, and uses scripture, and common sense, to dispel the lie, and bright the truth to light.

I cannot tell you how much I adored this book. I read the majority of it on my recent vacation, and it brought me so much joy and peace that I am convinced I enjoyed my trip so much more, all because of Susanna. Susanna has a fantastic wit and sense of humor. It was not even like I was reading a book, it was like I was having lunch and chatting with an old friend. I found so much in this book completely relatable.

As women, we often feel like we lack good role models, and that as a result, we have to chase perfection in order to earn God’s love. This book shows that instead of chasing perfection, we need to chase Jesus, and know that God, while desiring us to be open to change and His will for our life, loves us right where we are, here and now.

Sometimes I have felt as if no one would understand the crazy, contradictory thoughts about God, and who He was, and who He wanted me to be, that swirled through my head. Church teachings sometimes were not personalized enough to touch my heart or make me feel safe. But this book really moved me, and set in motion the winds of change. This book was so cleansing, and came at such the perfect time in my life. It is certainly a book I will revisit when I feel the seduction of lies like “God doesn’t hear me” or “I am never going to be free”, because I know the world will present opportunity for these lies to try to win me over.

This is a wonderfully empowering book for women of all ages, and I would strongly recommend anyone with a daughter high school or college age to purchase this book for them, to help them on their journeys as supergirls.

This book was provided for review free courtesy of Christian Review of Books.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Just Shy of Harmony/ Signs and Wonders, by Philip Gulley

Just Shy of Harmony
By Philip Gulley

It is Sam Gardner’s second year ministering to the Harmony Friends Meeting. In this second book of the Harmony series, we learn a little more about the members of the church, and some of the conflict that is so often found within church families. During the course of the year, Sam suffers a major crisis of faith, and the behavior of the church members does little to reassure him. Love blooms among a couple of the townspeople, until the wife of the man returns with a shocking secret. The town turns against two of their own who have been blessed with good fortune. A sad situation finally brings the church together.

Signs and Wonders
By Philip Gulley

We return to Harmony for the third year of Sam Gardner’s pastorate. We follow the activities of Bob Miles Jr., as he writes for the newspaper. We watch as the ladies in town try to fix up an available young lady. We watch Sam continue to be troubled by the activities of Dale Hinshaw, and other church members, and cause an uproar simply by changing the church sign. We see two very different ways that Christians approach having a gay person in their church.

I just loved both the second and third installments in the Harmony series. Philip Gulley has a wonderful gift as a story teller. The best part of these books is that, while it makes for cleaner continuity, it is not entirely necessary for one to read every book in the series to still be able to make sense of the stories.

I love the fact that as the books in this series continues, more and more difficult topics are discussed, topics that are sometimes taboo for Christians, such as homosexuality. I love that Sam sometimes disagrees with, and stands up to, the people of the church. He often acts more Christian than any of his flock.

Again, a nice, easy, entertaining read, perfect for low key book clubs. I highly recommend the books in the Harmony series!

Wednesday, April 14, 2010

For Every Dog an Angel, by Christine Davis

This is a lovely little book about dogs, and how every dog is granted a guardian angel. The angel follows the dog through its life, and when a dog finds its forever owner, the angel forges a bridge between the two that can never be broken, not even by death.

As a new dog owner, I am a bit of a sucker for anything dog related right now. When I saw this book at the library, I was intrigued. It is a short read, so I decided to bring it home and look it over. I actually ended up reading it to my dog. The book is a wonderful little inspirational book about the journey a pet owner takes with their dog, and the heavenly guidance they receive along the way.

It is a perfect book for new pet owners, like me, to help them forge a bond with their pet, even under trying circumstances, like puppy tantrums and potty training. It is also a very comforting book for someone who recently suffered the loss if the pet. Because of the gentle nature and beautiful illustrations, also done by Christine Davis, this would be the perfect book to help explain the loss of a dog to a child who has never dealt with death.

The book is touching, and sweet, and evokes memories of the pets that have passed on. I will just say, a few tears were shed in my household the day this book was read. And you can bet that both our pets received some extra hugs and kisses.

The publisher, Lighthearted Press, specializes in books for animal lovers, and receives high praises from many veterinarians, who use the books to comfort their clients when a pet passes on.

I highly recommend this book to any and every dog owner. It will help you understand how special you relationship with your dig really is.

Monday, April 12, 2010

Home to Harmony, by Philip Gulley

This book is about life in a small, conservative Indiana town named Harmony. Life centers around faith and the book’s stories usually involve members of the Harmony Friends Meeting. The characters are so vivid, and quaint, reminding me of everything I love, and hate, about life in a small town. Written from the first person narrative point of view, we follow Sam Garner, the Harmony Friends pastor, through his first year in the pastorate of Harmony. The book is divided into the four seasons, with each season having several chapters. Typically each chapter is a story revolving around one character, but characters make appearances throughout. The set up of the book very much reminded me of the book Winesburg, Ohio by Sherwood Anderson; it definitely had the same feel.

This is the first book in the Harmony series, so we really are just getting introduced to the townspeople, the lay of the land, and the pace of this Midwestern town. We learn about the sinners and the saints, peoples’ failings, the Friendly Women’s Circle, town traditions, and the humorous misunderstandings that often happen in a well intentioned ultraconservative small town. It is lighthearted at times, serious at others, and I think there is something in this book that can appeal to everyone. While the book was published by HarperCollins at large, as opposed to its Christian division, Zondervan, I still would consider this a Christian book. That being said, I think this book has wide mainstream appeal, due to the way it was written.

I have to say, I just loved this book. The storytelling in it was so tender, the characterizations so vivid. Many of the characters and situations made me recall people from my own home town. It was like being home again, reading about Harmony. Because the chapters served as mini-stories that contributed to the overall novel, it was a great book to read in down time, when I only have ten or fifteen minutes here or there. For this reason, it would make a fabulous book for a book club, especially a book club for those who may be a little book shy. The book is long and detailed enough to be engaging, but short enough to not be intimidating.

For a new series opening book, I think this was perfect. It establishes a connection between the reader and the characters, before delving into any really serious topics. After reading this book, I was excited to see where this series was going to go next.

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Pledged: The Secret Life of Sororities, by Alexandria Robbins

I must admit, I have been putting off writing this review for several days. Reactions to this book are mixed (at best) by the public at large. The book delves into the secret, and sometimes scary, world of college sororities. The author follows 4 young sorority sisters for a full academic year at “State University” to get a full idea of what sisterhood is all about. Along the way, she sees drunkenness, covered up date rapes, girls pawned off as sex objects (which probably helped contribute to the date rapes), begrudging attempts at charity work, and mixed messages galore.

The reason I was so torn about reviewing this is because I am not certain if this book paints an accurate picture. The author herself, in the introduction, talks about how she has been threatened, demeaned, and blacklisted by sorority sisters nationwide, claiming the book paints a flagrantly erroneous picture of Greek life. Similarly, when I announced on my facebook page that I was reading this book, angry comments abounded about how “that is not what sororities are like at all”. Maybe not, or more accurately, maybe not your sorority, but I do believe that there are some sororities out there that are pretty close to the image presented in this book. Why do I believe this? Women have been raised to see other women as competition, and to treat each other poorly, but to do so with a smile on their faces. That is why I believe the things in this book are true.

As a high school senior, I had no desire to go far away for college; I knew I was not ready to deal with the pressure of maintaining academic excellence in such a new and intimidating environment, so I chose to live at home, and commute to a college campus. The campus offered no opportunities for Greek life, as it was only a regional branch of the state school main campus. As I read this book, I considered myself blessed to have escaped the fate of a sorority sister. In graduate school, I attended a religious based university, and while there was Greek life represented, students had an alternative choice to being Greek. They could instead enter the Household system. A Household was basically a sorority or fraternity, with its purpose centered on faith. Their activities were God centered, their mission was God centered, and each took a different religious devotion as its name (Lion of Judah, Handmaids of the Lord, etc.). They had weekly prayer, and meetings, as well as charity and outreach. They held dances, date nights, and did basically everything a sorority does; there was the same emphasis on sisterhood, only it was Christian sisterhood. To me, it seemed a healthy alternative. Unfortunately, such things probably would not fly at a state school, even if student organized.

The girls represented in the book really seem more of archetypes for the different kinds of girls who get involved in Greek life. Certainly, the Greek system has something positive to offer; many girls form lifelong friendships, make business connections, meet their future spouses, and find great charitable purpose as a result of being Greek. What concerns me about sororities, however, is the emphasis many (not all) have on conformity. The college years are so formative, with girls being away from home for the first time, really getting their first taste of freedom. It can be overwhelming, and to mask fear or homesickness, some girls will do anything to make friends, even if it means giving up their identities. The book clearly touches on this concept, specifically when it comes to male-female interaction. The author describes how sororities give girls mixed signals regarding boys and sex; be available to boys, but not so many boys that you are a tramp. In fact, one of the girls in the book talks about her overwhelming desire to have a boyfriend, and she becomes so desperate that she ends up going after a boy that had date-raped her the previous year.

This book opened my eyes to what some other girls’ experiences in college may have been. This book was not easy to read; I found myself feeling overwhelmingly sad for these girls, and grateful for the path I chose. Even though some difficult topics are discussed, I think this would be a valuable book for parents to read if they have daughters preparing to go away to school. It could be a great way to open up a conversation with your daughter about if Greek life is right for her, and if so, what her goals and boundaries should be when selecting a sorority.

Thursday, April 8, 2010

Return Policy, by Michael Snyder

This book weaves together the stories of three protagonists- Willy, an writer and college professor dealing with several emotional crises in his life; Ozena, a customer service representative for a company called Javatek, struggling with being a single mother to a son with disabilities as a result of a childhood accident; and Shaq, a man living in a homeless shelter who huge black holes in his memory, and sometimes mistakenly fills them in. As the book progresses, the stories of these three people, and the people in their lives, are synthesized into one beautiful and touching story.

Michael Snyder does an amazing job of bringing these stories together to form a literary French braid of sorts, constantly adding outside information to one of the three strands, all the while strengthening the overall work of art. I was worried when I first began reading that I would not be able to keep all the characters straight, but the flow was so natural, the reader does not really notice the change in first person narrative voice between the three main characters. It was almost as if having a movie play in my mind, a sign to me of a well written book.

There were times this book literally made me laugh aloud, and there were times it brought tears to my eyes. Some of the concepts mentioned in the book include loss of love or never finding love, and fear of death versus fear of really living. I would say love, in all its various forms, is the central theme of the book. Sometimes the way it is approached is poignant, sometimes it is humorous, but always, it is relatable.

I love the fact that that Michael waited until the very end of the book to allow some very surprising resolutions to occur. It is rare that I get caught off guard with a book, but this one certainly did do just that, and I was very pleased. I like the fact that the characters in the story are flawed, and still try to make the best of who they are and what they have to offer.

Because this book has characters that are so different from each other, it will appeal to a wide reading audience. I can see both male and female readers liking the book, and it could be a great book for a married couples’ book club. I found this book to be very entertaining, without requiring too much of an investment of either time or emotion. All in all, a solid heartwarming read.

This book was provided for review free of charge courtesy of the Christian Review of Books.

Monday, April 5, 2010

Plain Jayne, by Hillary Manton Lodge

Plain Jayne
By Hillary Manton Lodge

As the story opens, we meet Jayne, a reporter in Portland, Oregon. Having recently lost her father, Jayne seems to be distracted in her work. When her boss forces her to take some time off, instead of taking a vacation, Jayne travels to a small Oregon Amish community in search of a story about plain living. Jayne meets Levi Burkholder, a business owner in the community, who introduces her to an Amish family. Jayne quickly forms strong bonds with the family, as well as Levi, and learns the meaning of family, faith, love, and life.

This was my first foray into fiction about the Amish, and I must say, I could not have picked a better book to start with. As a new writer, Lodge does a wonderful job of setting the story up, without revealing too much from the beginning. We are able to journey along side Jayne, as she makes her startling personal discoveries, and works through old emotional wounds. Because the female protagonist is not Amish, or as they refer to her as, is English, we are able to quickly relate to the character, so that we want to make the journey with her. As she learns about Amish living, so do we. I could almost smell the freshly baking pies, and feel the quilt squares in my hands.

Much like Amish life, the book is peaceful, quiet. While reading, I could not help but reflect on my own life, and how I dealt with the themes of family, faith, love, and living a bit simpler. The characters are well developed and realistic. I found myself very much identifying with Jayne, having lived in a bigger city for a while, and now living a simpler small town life. I love the way this book led me into reflection, not just about the story, but about myself. And although there are aspects of a romance to the story line, the moral choices of Jayne’s character, for which I completely applaud Lodge, make the book appropriate for young adult readers as well as adult readers.

The book is set up to be the first in a series I believe, called Plain and Simple, with a character from this story setting up the next book. If that is indeed the case, I cannot wait to read the next book.

This book was provided for review free of charge courtesy of the Christian Review of Books.

Thursday, April 1, 2010

Smashed: Story of a Drunken Girlhood, by Koren Zailckas

This first person narrative memoir details how the author falls into the world of drinking at a very tender age. She details her troubled high school years, and the secret drinking that went on. She then talks about college, when drinking is no longer a secret, but an accepted rite of passage. She seems to think that once college is over, so too will be her drinking days. But when she graduates, the patterns forged in college remain, and then she realizes there might be a problem.

Koren shows in this book how easy it was for her to get involved in drinking as a teenager, and how accessible alcohol was for her and her friends. As she moved on to college, she was already an experienced drinker, and it was like a kid in a candy store. I am amazed she ever graduated; I think she was as well. It is plain to see that her drinking is closely tied to acceptance and a need for love, she can only let herself be close to men when she is drinking.

This is not an easy book to read, but I think it is an important book to read. Under 400 pages, typically a book of this length would take me less than a day. This one took me almost 3. It is not a book you can sit and read for extended lengths of time. The themes are dark, to say the least. The imagery is brutal, the language rough. But I still argue it is important for this book to be read, particularly by parents of teen and preteen girls.

It frightened me to read this book, and I am not even a parent yet. For me, the fright stemmed from how easily I could have been this girl, had I made different choices. However, Koren does not seem to take much responsibility for making the choices that let to this lifestyle; instead she blames societal pressures on women, the alcohol manufacturers and advertisers, pretty much anyone but herself. That frustrated me, along with her contention that she only abused alcohol and was not an alcoholic, as if she did not “really” have a problem. And since she has no real problem, she needs no real help, in her mind. She is in control she thinks. I hope she is right, and this issue does not revisit her in the future.

This book elicited very strong emotions in me, and if I am honest, they were mostly negative. However, I am glad I read this book. It helped the scales fall from my eyes a bit, and opened me to the reality of the world. This woman was the same age as me, and yet lived a very different life than I did. I think this book can be a valuable tool for parents, a cautionary tale of sorts. The book also brought me a sense of peace for the choices I have made in my life.