Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Angel's Den, by Jamie Carie

Set in Missouri in the 1800’s, Angel’s Den opens at the wedding of Emma and Erik. Before she can blink, Emma realizes that she is getting more than she bargained for with her beautiful husband, and that his beauty is surface only. When he plans to lead an expedition west to follow in the footsteps of Louis and Clark, Erik demands Emma accompany him, so that he can maintain control over her life. Little does he realize that with the influence of the expedition’s cartographer, Luke, Emma will forfeit the control of her life to someone far more powerful than Erik; instead, she will submit to God. But what will Erik do?

As soon as I picked up Angel’s Den, I knew this would be a book unlike anything I had ever read. First of all, the setting of Missouri in 1808 was utterly foreign to me. I remembered very little from my high school history classes regarding exploration of the ever expanding West, so I feared it would be difficult for me to get into the story. My fear was completely unfounded. Jamie Carie weaves a story so intricate that the reader becomes fully immersed in the setting, with no need for prior experience of the time and place. Not only is the historical detail enough to engulf the reader, the characters are also so fully developed that one has difficulty putting the book down.

From her first clumsy stumble, my heart ached for Emma, and I sensed she was in for a struggle throughout the story. As the plot unfolded, I felt fiercely protective of her, and understood exactly how Luke would come to feel for her later. I must confess, I had a love-hate relationship with the character of Erik; I knew he was necessary for the story, and loved the fact that his actions led the story as it did, but I hated the pain he inflicted, and the ugliness I could see as a reader that the other characters seemed to overlook (it caused me to be frustrated with the supporting characters more than once).

The theme of redemption is so strong throughout this book. Several characters redeem themselves, to loved ones, to each other, to God. Even Erik is given a chance at redemption, and while the outcome of his decision was surprising, I found it fitting that Jamie chose to handle it the way she did.

There are rough, difficult topics covered in this story- abuse, rape, adultery, murder, prostitution. However, even the most difficult topic is handled in the appropriate manner, and is in no way salacious. This book would even be appropriate for more mature young adults, in their late teens. I thoroughly enjoyed Angel’s Den, and look forward to reading more works by Jamie Carie.

A free review copy was provided courtesy of the Christian Review of Books in exchange for my honest opinion.

Sunday, March 28, 2010

I Was Told There'd Be Cake: Essays, by Sloane Crosley

For this post, I am revisiting one of my favorite books of the last couple of years, I Was Told There's Be Cake. This is a collection of essays by Sloane Crosley.

I can not even begin to tell you how much I love this book. Why? Because it makes me want to be a writer. For several years, I tooled around on my myspace page, writing blogs full of snarky humor and sometimes vitriol, much to the pleasure and excitement of my friends. People often told me I should write a book, and I always thought, how successful could a book of ridiculous stories about the life of a girl be? Sloane adeptly answered my question.

I saw so much of myself in Sloane. She hates weddings, I hate weddings, she loves Oregon Trail, I love Oregon Trail, well at least the Facebook version. I even have a friend who had a friend use her kitchen wastebasket as a toilet (if you read the book, you will understand the4 relevance of this statement). But it was more than that....I wanted to be Sloane. She is just that cool.

She has sharp wit, and just enough self deprecating humor to make you feel ok about laughing at her. Because you know that what you are really doing is laughing at yourself.

She has a fantastically engaging web site, where she actually turned some of her essays into fantastic dioramas, which you can see here.

I think reading this book all those months ago planted the seed that landed me here, writing this blog, along with my other two (to be found here and here). Sloane, in all her, well, sloane-ness, inspires me to bare my soul, even if it means being laughed at, or rejected.

I am thrilled to learn that she has a new book coming out this June. That gives all of you plenty of time to read this one, and pre-order her new one. Look for it to be reviewed later this summer.

So, thank you Sloane, for the poinies, and Christmas in July, and Oregon Trail, and the most amusing take on one night stands I have ever read (it's not what you think people, but you have to read the book to find out!).

Friday, March 26, 2010

Thin Places: A Memoir, by Mary DeMuth

Mary DeMuth explores memories from her childhood and their impact on her continued spiritual life.

In the book’s introduction, Mary explains that a thin place is a Celtic concept, describing a place where the earthly world and heavenly world come in contact with each other. The boundaries between man and God literally become thin, and one has the opportunity to open the doorway to the spiritual realm, feeling God more fully present than in other times and places. Each chapter in the book goes on to describe one of Mary’s personal thin places, how it impacted her life at that point in time, and the continued impact she feels today.

Many of Mary’s thin places spring from pain. Rape, father loss, envy, pornography, and perfectionism are just a few of the very painful topics that weave their way through the memoir. Yet, in the midst of pain, Mary finds growth, and peace. It is incredibly inspirational to read the story of a woman of faith who cannot be tied up in a neat, pretty package, yet know that to God she is a beautiful gift. I think often women are given the message that once they are flawed, particularly when they feel somehow “spoiled” but sexual assault, they feel they will never be worthy of God’s love. The reality is we all fall short, regardless. Jesus does not save us because of our worthiness; He saves us because of His love. One of the clearest messages Mary drives home in the book is that Jesus does not want us to chase our own perfection; He only wants us to chase Him. The part of the book that spoke to me the most was the chapter entitled “Like Me”. It describes a struggle I share with Mary, desiring acceptance from everyone around me. The book now challenges me to see this as slavery, and to stop seeking the favor of people, but to instead seek the Lord.

There are also joyful thin places described in the book, and probably the most touching is Mary’s narrative of her relationship as a daughter, and how it impacts her role as a mother. She describes her children as gifts, and explains how God reveals Himself differently through each child. It was a place of peace in the book, and helped to balance out some of the sorrow the reader inevitably feels when reading of Mary’s past hurts.

Despite touching on a lot of dark times in her life, Mary’s frank and open recounting of her thin places is inspirational. As a reader, I am inspired to reflect upon my own life for thin places, and to realize the impact those meetings with God continue to have on me today. I am also challenged to continue seeking out thin places, and being open to experiencing God in new ways.

Mary is a fiction writer, and unfortunately, I have not had a chance to read any of her fiction works. In some ways, I am glad. This way, I was able to learn who Mary was as a woman, as an author, before meeting her characters. I have heard that authors put parts of themselves even into works of fiction, something Mary actually discusses in this book. By meeting Mary in her Thin Places, I will be better able to know her characters, and understand their struggles.

This book was provided to me free of charge courtesy of the Christian Review of Books.

Thursday, March 25, 2010

Trial By Fire, by Cara Putman

Trial by Fire is the follow up book to Deadly Exposure. Cara Putman revives her characters of Caleb Jamison and Dani Richardson from Deadly Exposure. This time, it is Caleb’s sister, Tricia, who is in trouble. A tough as nails county prosecutor, Tricia is used to dealing with difficult and painful situations in her professional life. However, when one of her cases exposes some pain from her past personal life, she is forced to show her weakness to those around her.

At the same time, an arsonist is targeting the people that Tricia loves, forcing her to continue to cross paths with fire fighter Noah Brust. Will Caleb and Noah be able to find the arsonist before he gets to Tricia? Will Tricia be able to open her heart?

Trial by Fire, like its predecessor, is an action packed mystery that readers will find difficult to put down. The story is powerful, echoing the struggles many female readers will find too familiar. The characters of Tricia and Noah are well developed, and Tricia’s back story is woven into the books plot seamlessly.

The book is the Christian equivalent to a Harlequin novel. It is a short and easy read, but still very captivating. If you liked Deadly Exposure, you will love Trial By Fire. If you have not read either, but have read similar suspenseful romances in the past, whether Christian or not, chances are that you will enjoy both books by Putman.

This book was provided to me free of charge courtesy of the Christian Review of Books.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

A Stray Drop of Blood, by Roseanna M. White

The highest praise I can give a book is that it makes me forget I am reading. If a book is well written, I see it play out in movie form in my head. If a book is extremely well written, I feel myself living the story. The latter most definitely describes Roseanna White’s A Stray Drop of Blood. As I count Roseanna among my newly made friends, it gives me great pride to review her book, which has completely captivated me.
From the minute I picked the book up, I was enveloped in the story. I smelled the smells of the marketplace, I felt the breezes, I heard the singing of Hosanna. A Stray Drop of Blood is one of those rare stories that provides such thorough and intricate details as to weave the story around the reader like a tapestry, yet it is not overly detailed to the point where the reader gets bogged down.

The story is set in Jerusalem, in the days just before Christ’s teaching began, and as the story progresses, through Christ’s teaching, trial, death, resurrection, and the birth of His church. Yet that is only a small part of the story at first. The story is primarily about a woman named Abigail, the journey her life takes, and what happens when her path quite literally crosses that of Jesus.

Roseanna does a phenomenal job of developing her characters. They are not just characters, actually, they are us. There are qualities in these people that we recognize in ourselves. I find it refreshing that Roseanna touched upon the theme of the female role in biblical times. So many biblical stories revolve around strong male central figures, their struggles, their triumphs, that we as Christian women sometimes struggle to find relatable role models for Christian life. I liked the fact that Abigail struggled with her faith, struggled with be sin and redemption, fell only to be lifted again into the arms of God. These are all struggles I too have had, and as a result of which felt unworthy. It is amazing how a work of Christian fiction can bring peace when partnered with biblical teachings.

In the past, I have not always been a huge fan of Christian fiction, having found it to be a bit heavy handed. However, Roseanna’s book is more than a work of Christian fiction. The amount of historically accurate detail would appeal to secular readers as well, and the Christian lessons in the story, while powerful, are subtle, something you must be open to in order to let them swell your heart.

In this Lenten season, this book is a fantastic tool for Christian reflection on how we let God guide our lives, and the very real impact of Christ’s sacrifice. I would highly recommend this book for book clubs, Christian fellowship groups, and particularly youth and young adult groups, as the female protagonists is a young woman herself, dealing with adult situations not that different (at the root of the matter) than what today’s youth face.

For those who like biblical and historical fiction, I would also recommend that you check out The Red Tent, by Anita Diamant. Focusing on figures from the Old Testament, this would be considered more Jewish fiction than Christian fiction, but it remains one of my favorite fictional works involving real biblical figures. It also focuses on the lives of biblical women.

I cannot say enough positive things about A Stray Drop of Blood. Its beauty made me weep, and as I neared the end of the book, I felt myself saddened that my time with its characters was coming to an end. Perhaps this will become a part of my annual Easter reflection.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Wanted: Bear Cubs for My Children, by Gary Fingercastle

* Note- Full book title is Wanted: Bear Cubs for My Children. One Hundred of the Weirdest Posts Ever Seen on Craigslist (and Their Responses).

I will admit it. I am a sucker for snark. I especially love snarky websites. The really viral ones, like LOLCats, and Lamebook. I know it is not right to make fun of people, and I often feel pretty darn guilty about it, but sometimes I just can not help it. I am only human after all.

My husband knows my affinity for snark, so he knew this book would be right up my alley.

Basically, this author, Gary Fingercastle, used his evil genius to create fake (and completely ridiculous) listings on Craigslist, to see if people would respond. And boy, howdy, did they respond.

A few times, people may have questioned the legitimacy of the postings, but for every person who was suspicious, I would bet there were 10 responders who were not. Fingercastle varied the types of language used, types of postings placed, and used misspellings to blend in with the online community, so people would not connect all the posts to the same person. The whole thing was really a brilliant exercise in what people are willing to do, willing to buy, or willing to take if offered for free. My favorite postings included in the book were a request for someone to "live my life for 6 months", someone requesting to be made into a giant sandwich, and someone trying to give away a free cutout of Pauley Shore.

The book is lighthearted and hilarious, and an excellent reminder to: 1. not take things so seriously, and 2. be careful of that crap on Craigslist.

Monday, March 15, 2010

Four Perfect Pebbles, by Lila Perl and Marion Blumenthal Lazan

* Note- the full title is Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust Story.

Four Perfect Pebbles: A Holocaust StoryFor many years now, I have had an indescribable draw to the Holocaust, particularly to reading survivors' stories. It will be a reoccurring theme you see in my reviews. I love to read survivor stories in all forms, which is why I am choosing to review a Young Adult book.

The story is about the Blumenthal family, and the six and a half years they struggled during the Holocaust, as well as their struggle for a normal post war life. We learn about the early events of the Holocaust, such as Kristallnacht, in a very personal, emotional way, easy for a child to understand, but with enough impact to affect an adult as well. We learn about the family's attempts to flee Germany, and various plans they made, only to be thwarted by the advancement of the German Army's invasions. We learn of the motivation to stay alive while the family was imprisoned in the concentration camps, the promise of liberation, and the disappointments that met after liberation occurred.

When dealing with a topic as sensitive in nature as the Holocaust, writing for young adults can be difficult. The author does not want to gloss over the details, or insult the intelligence of the young reader, but also a line must be drawn to make sure the content is not for purely sensational or shock value. I think this book was extremely well written for its intended audience, but also still had impact on me as an adult. I have read many books on Holocaust survivors, but this one definitely stood out to me. I would like to see more books on this topic, written in this manner, for this audience. I know I would have devoured them if they had been available when I was younger.

One of the most beautiful things about this book is the metaphor from which the title is derived. While in Bergen-Belsen, Marion convinces herself that if she can find four perfect pebbles, identical in nature, it means that her family will survive their ordeal. This symbol is one of the only things from which she can draw strength, and the impression is indelible.

While preparing to write this blog, I discovered that Marion Blumenthal Lazan has a website, focusing on this book. I strongly encourage all readers of this blog, particularly parents and/or educators who are interested in using this book to impart knowledge to their children or students to visit her website, Four Perfect Pebbles. There is a wealth of additional information there, on lessons our children desperately need to learn.

This book is from my personal library.

Sunday, March 14, 2010

The Last Lecture, by Randy Pausch

* Note, this book was written by Randy Pausch, with the assistance of Jeff Zaslow. For more information on the Last Lecture, both lecture and book, please follow the link in the text below.

This is a book I borrowed from my sister last weekend. After my last review, I needed to follow up with something inspirational. I was worried that this book might be a little to sad. I was so wrong.

The book was written as a follow up to the now infamous Last Lecture given by Dr. Randy Pausch at Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh. Part of a regular lecture series, this would indeed be a last lecture for Pausch, who was diagnosed with terminal pancreatic cancer.

In the lecture, as well as the first part of the book, Pausch talks about achieving childhood dreams. Pausch achieved a lot of amazing childhood dreams. He goes on to talk about how he was able to help so many other people achieve their childhood dreams. And finally, he talks about his wife and children, and the lessons he has learned as a result of his diagnosis, as well as the message he wanted to leave behind as his legacy.

For a book written by a man who knew, undoubtedly, that he was dying, there is very little sadness to be found in these pages. In fact, I felt a little ashamed, as a lay in bed reading it, because I was feeling under the weather, and here was a man making end of life arrangements and finding joy, yes, joy at every turn.

This book made me appreciate a lot of things about my husband that I often take for granted, and Pausch describes his little quirks, and how they affect his marriage. I plan to use some of the lessons he presents in the book as tools to help continue building a strong loving marriage and family. His methods obviously work.

The book is so inspiring, and I only teared up once, when he was talking about his daughter. At the time he wrote the book, she was only 18 months old, and he knew, realistically, that she would most likely not have any real memories of her father, so he writes in the book that she needs to know the he, her father, was the first man to fall in love with her. As a daddy's girl, my heart broke a little and a few tears slipped out. But in general, the book was incredibly uplifting, and made me feel like I, too, could do anything, which is why I continue to write these blogs. So to Randy, up in Heaven (I am sure of it) thank you for the inspiration to go after my dreams. And to all of you reading, thanks for helping my dreams come true, because you are, even if you do not realize it.

Saturday, March 13, 2010

Pregnant Pause, by Carrie Friedman

Pregnant Pause*Note- the full title of the book is Pregnant Pause: My Journey Through Obnoxious Questions, Baby Lust, Meddling Relatives, and Pre-Partum Depression.

I first must explain how I happened upon this book. Frustrated with getting a lot of pressure to become pregnant so soon into married life, I wrote a blog entry on my other blog site Tall Tales from a Small Town about this frustration. I was considering titling it "A Pregnant Pause" and googled the phrase to get a good definition. And then I found the book....and my salvation. I ordered it straight away.

I read the book in a day, because it was manna for my soul. Finally, someone understood.

Carrie wrote this book from a very personal perspective, explaining that she did want kids.....eventually. She talks about the fear of parenthood, the fear of how it will change her life as a woman, and the fear that she will become like those total whackado moms out there. You know the ones.

She also raises interesting, and valid points, about questionable parenting techniques that have become pop cultural norms, and offers explanations for why women push their maternal views on other members of their gender.

The thing I loved best is that Carrie gave a voice to thousands of women, probably hundreds of thousands. She made me feel normal, like there is absolutely nothing wrong with waiting to have a baby. It is not selfish, it is not abnormal, it is just the best decision for me.

Thank you, Carrie, for making me feel at home in my identity as a married woman, something I was struggling with. I have recommended that my husband read this as well, since it could have so easily been written by me, to allow him to better understand why I get so frustrated with the cultural baby craze on my behalf.

As a personal note, I did still write my blog on the same topic, and if interested, you can find it here. It is not nearly as brilliant as Carrie's book, but read it, and if you feel the same way, go buy Carrie's book, and spread the word.

This book is from my personal library.

Thursday, March 11, 2010

Hail to the Chiefs, by Barbara Holland

Hail to the Chiefs: Presidential Mischief, Morals, & Malarkey from George W. to George W.*The full title of the book is Hail to the Chiefs: Presidential mischief, morals, & malarkey from George W. to George W.

Once again, I shopped my husband's bookshelf. It was an accident actually. I was running bathwater for a nice relaxing soak, and realized I had nothing to read while in the tub. Hubby had left his bathroom reading material on the window sill, so I decide to give it a shot.

The book helps dispel some myths about each president, and sums of his time in office in about 4-6 pages, with wit and humor. As a product of public schools, there was a lot in this book that I never knew. Heck, I think there were presidents in this book I never knew. So it certainly served its purpose to educate the American public in a way that was engaging and entertaining. However, I found it hard to interpret the author's intentions at times. I could not tell if her tone in regard to certain presidents was political satire or legitimate snark.

One caution about this book is that it does not flow well. It took me almost 4 days to read this book of less than 400 pages. It is not a book you can sit down and read for hours. My hubby had the right idea. It makes good light reading, a president at a time, while in a waiting room, the bathroom, or the tub. I struggled to push to the end of the book; the presidents I lived through were not as interesting to me.

However, I despite having to plod through the book, and the difficulty in detecting the tone, I would recommend the book to anyone interested in politics or history even slightly. It is a worthwhile addition to any bathroom library.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

The Good, the Bad, and Me: In my Anecdotage, by Eli Wallach

The Good, the Bad, and Me: In My AnecdotageI actually borrowed this book from my husband’s bookshelf. Although they are never anything I would buy for myself, once he gets them, his books always look so interesting to me. He has very different tastes in books than I do, and while I am interested in his books, I seriously doubt he is interested in mine. But I digress.

This book is quite a departure for me. For one, I hate, and I do mean HATE, autobiographies. Most of the time, I find them poorly written, boring, badly edited, and generally lackluster. The last time I read an autobiography I actually liked was when I read “Elvis and Me” by Priscilla Presley, and I was in the 5th grade, so my expectations were pretty low (thanks to the Sweet Valley Twins). I guess I take that back, I love Frank McCourt’s books, but those are more of memoirs. Maybe that is why I liked this one so much, it is also more of a memoir.

Another reason I am shocked I read this book, and liked it, is because it is about Eli Wallach. All I knew of Eli Wallach was he was in westerns. If there is anything I hate more than autobiographical books, it is western movies. So an autobiography about a western movie star? I was more than a little doubtful. But my husband read me a couple of snippets one night, and I knew instantly I HAD to read this book.

So what makes this book about Eli Wallach so great? ELI WALLACH. He excels as an author for the same reason he excels as an actor; the man is one hell of a storyteller. The book is a simple read, I think I completed in a little over 26 hours. My husband said he wished the book was 75% about the film “The Good The Bad and The Ugly”, and 25% about everything else. I love the book precisely because it is not.

We learn about Wallach’s struggle for legitimacy within his own family, when it came to his passion for acting. We learn about his loyalty to the theater. We learned about the Method Acting movement in America, and the part he played in it. We learn about his struggle to balance his career with that of his wife, also a successful actress. I learned so much.

The first time I ever heard of Eli Wallach, being the western hater I am, was New Years Eve 2008, when my then boyfriend, now husband, begrudgingly watched the movie "The Holiday” with me. All of the sudden, he exclaimed, “Oh my god, it’s The Ugly!”. Never did I think some chick flick would result in me reading a book about a man who acted in westerns, but I am so glad it did.

As I said, I get into reading ruts. This means I do not really stretch my reading muscles that much, and I do not always grow as much as I could from reading. However, this book really pushed me. It took me to places I had never been. I was in Brooklyn with him, I was in Hawaii with him, I was on the stage with him, hell I was on a horse with him. And I loved every minute of it.