June 26, 2012

Book Review: Taliesin (Book 1 of the Pendragon Cycle)

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , at 12:07 am by Tamara

Title: Taliesin

Author: Stephen R. Lawhead

Genre: Fantasy, Christian

Star Verdict (out of 5): **

Princess Charis lives in the beautiful land of Atlantis, where peace has reigned for years and (in her opinion) nothing exciting ever happens.  Her boredom is quickly shattered, however, when the country erupts into civil war and a wild prophet arrives, claiming that the end of Atlantis and everything the Atlantians love is at hand.

Far away from lovely Atlantis lies the rough and uncivilized Isle of Britain, where the unlucky heir to one clan’s throne, Elphin, stumbles upon a baby abandoned in a salmon weir.  His luck begins to change from that day forward, and the bards prophesy that the child will be great and herald in a new age.

After tragedy strikes Charis’ family, she begins to believe the prophecy that Atlantis is soon to be destroyed, and begins to try to convince the rest of the Atlantians that they need to flee their home.


I have to say that I really didn’t enjoy this book.  I probably wouldn’t have finished it at all, except that it was recommended to me by several people.  My main complaint about it is that the character development is either non-existent or utterly unbelievable.  Charis, throughout the book, inexplicably changes from a bored little girl to an emotionally dead warrior woman to a fluffy, swooning, docile lover.  I found it very hard to care about a character who, as Atlantis is sinking and “dragging screaming thousands with it…watched it all with cold and ruthless objectivity, feeling nothing” (p. 306).  And then to expect me to believe that she suddenly turns into a love-sick, sweet, sensitive wife was ridiculous.

In another rip-my-hair-out bad character switch, a king is about to have Taliesin’s tongue cut out when Taliesin starts singing, and the king instantly melts into a puddle of remorse, banishes his own priest, and all but hands his kingdom over to Taliesin.  I could go on with several other examples of inexplicable and unbelievable character shifts.

In addition to the dismal lack of believable character development, I found the plot to be jarring and full of too-easy solutions to problems.  It was grating to make the jump back and forth from mythical Atlantis to Britain during the dark ages; it felt like I was reading Hercules and Arthurian legend at the same time, and the two story lines just didn’t combine well.  Also, every problem the characters run into is solved almost instantly.  For example, (spoiler warning:) when Charis and Taliesin begin to fall in love, she first protests that there is no way they can be together because of their different lineages, their responsibilities to their people, she’s not sure she’s in love with him, etc.  Then, suddenly, without any resolution to these issues, they run off together.  With, of course, zero negative consequences.  (End spoiler.)

Last but not least, at least half of the book consists of long descriptions of pagan rituals, including human sacrifice.  I found these to be both disturbing and boring, and do little to advance the plot.

One positive thing I can say is that Lawhead writes beautiful prose.  His scenes are richly described, vivid and often poetic.  If only his plot and character development matched his prose, this could have been a much better book.


June 14, 2012

Book Review: Loving the Little Years–Motherhood in the Trenches

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , , at 12:45 pm by Tamara

Title: Loving the Little Years–Motherhood in the Trenches

Author: Rachel Jankovic

Genre: Christian Parenting: Young Children

Star Verdict (out of five): ****

With five children five and under, Rachel Jankovic says that she didn’t write this book because mothering is easy for her; she wrote it because it isn’t!  I had been looking for a book that was applicable to parents of toddlers, and this was recommended to me by several friends.  This is a short book, only 102 pages, and each chapter is only a few pages long (perfect for the few moments you can snatch in the bathroom.  Heh.)

It is not a heavy doctrine book or “parenting manual,” but is simply thoughts, stories, and thought-provoking questions.  The strength of this book is her focus on our attitudes as mothers, as well as creative analogies to help  kids think about their actions and the attitudes behind them.  My favorite by far was one comparing emotions to horses in order to help kids understand that their emotions are a powerful gift from God, but one that needs to be trained and properly handled so our emotions take us in the right direction.  Throughout the book she brings up all-too-common scenarios (like kids bickering over a toy) and puts a perspective on them that made me think “Huh, I’d never thought of it that way.”

Jankovic shows refreshing humility throughout.  It’s easy to “harrumph” over books that were apparently written by mothers with perfect angel children who always respond perfectly to correction.  This book doesn’t fall in that category; Jankovic is quick to point out that she doesn’t have it all together, nor is she so far removed from the years with young children that she only remembers the heartwarming things and has forgotten all about spaghetti smeared all over the couch, carpet, and walls.  She does, however, have a clear desire to show Jesus to her children, and realizes that this has to begin with letting God work in her own hearts as mothers.

On the downside, some chapters are stronger than others, and I wished she would have backed her views up with more Scripture.  The book is not heavy on doctrine or parenting philosophy, and is certainly not a systematic “Twelve Step Plan to Perfect Children.”  Every family is different, so not all her suggestions will be “magic behavior bullets.”  However, if you’re looking for some short shots of encouragement, fresh ways to think about the struggles of parenting, and simple yet profound challenges, it’s excellent.

June 4, 2012

Book Review: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , at 11:37 am by Tamara

Title: Mindless Eating: Why We Eat More Than We Think

Author: Brian Wansink, Ph.D.

Genre: Non-fiction, food psychology

Star Verdict (out of 5): *****

For: Anyone interested in psychology, healthy eating, marketing, or getting dinner guests to love your dinners and kids to eat their broccoli. Especially for anyone who hates restrictive, pressure-filled diets but wants to eat better.


First off, this is not a diet book.

Okay, now that we have that clarified, let’s talk about what it is!

Each of us makes approximately 200 food-related decisions daily, on everything from whether to have a sandwich or salad for lunch, whether or not to eat a candy (or 10) from the dish on the desk, and what to say to the carton of double fudge oreo chocolate ice cream that has been screaming at us from inside the freezer all afternoon.  The problem is, we make 90% of those decisions without even being aware we’re making them.

Sound unbelievable?  Most of us think we’re pretty aware of what we eat, but research says otherwise.  The studies in the book are both fascinating and hilarious—everything from rigging restaurant soup bowls so they never empty, to feeding movie-goers popcorn that is five days old (but free), to slapping a “North Dakota Vineyard” label on a bottle of wine and seeing how much worse the diners rate the entire dinner because of it.

The food industry pays millions of dollars to figure out how to get us to buy and eat more.  The scary thing is that these mindless choices easily add up to gaining 10-20 pounds A YEAR without us having any idea where the weight came from.  The good thing is that we can turn this mindless eating on its head—to actually lose 10-20 pounds in a year without noticing we’ve made a change.

Wansink maintains (as we’ve often heard), that diets don’t work because when we cut back 800 calories a day, both our bodies and our minds feel deprived.  However, there is a “mindless margin” of 100-200 calories that we can cut out without noticing or feeling deprived.  This doesn’t sound like much, but it adds up to 10-20 pounds LOST in a year, without us even noticing we’re eating less.  The book takes the millions of dollars worth of research the food industry has paid for and gives many suggestions of how we can trick our minds and stomachs into mindlessly eating less, while avoiding the tricks restaurants, grocery stores, and food packages use to try to get us to mindlessly eat more.

Wansink has a Ph.D. from Stanford University, is director of the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, and has been featured on National Public Radio and in the New York Times.  The book is part psychology, part marketing, and part nutrition, and written in an easy-to-read format with lots of humor but zero guilt or pressure.  It teaches not only how to avoid mindless eating (and weight gain) but how to use mindless eating for your benefit to eat healthier, lose weight, make your dinner guests think dinner is better than it is, and get your kids to enjoy eating “dinosaur trees.”

May 5, 2012

Book Review: At Home in Mitford (by Jan Karon)

Posted in Book Reviews, Watermarks in Progress tagged , , at 10:25 pm by Tamara

Title: At Home in Mitford

Author: Jan Karon

Genre: Christian Fiction

Star Verdict (out of five): ****

For: Fans of James Herriot, Love Comes Softly series, anyone who needs a relaxing, uplifting read.

After a round of books about Nazi Germany, Abnormal Psychology, human trafficking, abused children, etc., I really needed something uplifting, and the Mitford series has perfectly fit that bill.

The main character is Father Tim, a 60 year old Episcopal priest in the small town of Mitford. Although his grouchy secretary is convinced he is lonely and needs to get out more, he maintains he is content with his bachelor life and time-consuming parish duties. The first indication that his placid life is about to change occurs one day when a giant black dog the size of a Buick tackles him and proceeds to cover him in slobber. The only idea that pops into Father Tim’s head is to shout out a Bible verse, and the dog inexplicably stops its vigorous licking and lies down with a contented sigh.

A dog that only responds to Bible verses is hardly the end of the adventure, however, as his life is quickly invaded by a dirt-covered, love-starved, ill-mannered boy named Dooley who arrives on his doorstep one day and bluntly states that he is looking for a place to “take a dump.” We are also introduced to the elderly and strong-willed heiress Miss Sadie, a hilarious and ornery set of old men who meet at the Grill for breakfast every morning, take-charge fireball “Puny” who is forced on the rector when the parish decides he needs a housekeeper, and a host of other local characters. Along with all this, life-long bachelor Father Tim is horrified to admit that he can’t stop thinking about his lovely, quirky new next door neighbor, Cynthia (in spite of the fact that his dog is determined to kill her cat).

The Mitford books are easy to read, cheerful, and uplifting. They are unquestionably character-driven; it is the relatable, funny, and everyday oddball characters that keep you reading. Unfortunately, my biggest complaint is that the plot is infused with several over-the-top events, including a jewel theft, a dog-napping, and a drug bust. It seemed to me like Karon was finding her voice in this first book and was a little afraid to keep the plot ordinary and let it be driven by the characters. Thankfully, Karon seems more confident in her characters in the later books of the series and these outrageous events are much fewer.

All in all, the Mitford books are very enjoyable, and I thought the way that Karon infused spiritual truths through the thoughts and actions of Father Tim was believable and encouraging. There are simple yet profound challenges sprinkled throughout, musing over real-life struggles such as how hard it is to “simply” obey the Word. I didn’t find it preachy, probably because reading about a priest trying to figure out how to apply truth to everyday life is completely believable to me.

Mitford is a sunny, sweeter-than-life town with just enough reality and struggle to make you think, but not enough reality to make you feel bludgeoned with the evil in the world. Personally, it was just what I was needing.

January 16, 2012

Book Review: The Ring Makes All the Difference

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , at 10:47 pm by Tamara

Title: The Ring Makes All the Difference: the Hidden Consequences of Cohabitation and the Strong Benefits of Marriage

Author: Glenn T. Stanton

Genre: Non-fiction, Relationships

Star Verdct:  ***** (out of five)



I’ve often heard my peers say things like that living together is a safe way to “test out” a relationship to see if it is going to work before you make a permanent commitment to marriage, or that they are “practically married” and don’t need a piece of paper to solidify their relationship.  I confess I’ve often been rather tongue tied, not knowing how to respond.

When I saw that there was a book compiling the findings of four decades worth of scientific studies on the impact that living together has on relationships, I was instantly interested.  This fascinating book explains research findings on the effects of cohabitation on a wide range of  relational issues and shows some surprising results, such as that:

  •  Couples who live together before getting married  are 50-80% (!) more likely to get divorced than couples who have not lived together beforehand (l. 949)
  • The rate of violence for cohabiting couples is twice as high as for married couples, and the rate for “severe” violence is nearly five times greater (l. 679.)  Similarly, women living with boyfriends are nine times more likely to be murdered by their partner than married women (l. 695)
  • Live-in boyfriends are nearly four times more likely to cheat than husbands (l. 704), and men who cohabited before marriage are more likely to cheat after they get married
  • Married men typically spend 8 more hours a week helping with housework than live-in boyfriends (l. 753) and contribute more financially  (l.2084)
  • Living together without relational clarity/commitment tends to foster controlling and manipulative behavior patterns, which continue into marriage (l. 1076)
  • Married individuals have health benefits roughly equivalent to being ten years younger than they are, whereas living together shows no such benefits (l. 1641)
  • Although cohabitation was originally presented as a way to give women more freedom and power in relationships, studies overwhelming show that men benefit more from living together than women do (l. 1840)

The book was particularly fascinating to me because it simply focused on presenting research findings from respectable institutions, not on interpreting the results or presenting a religious viewpoint on relationships.  The author does briefly discuss Biblical teachings about marriage and relationships in two chapters, but the bulk of the book examines the scientific evidence from the studies on cohabitation.

The well-documented and overwhelming conclusion from the dozens of research studies is that living together before marriage is one of the absolute worst things a couple can do in terms of its negative effects on their overall wellbeing and chance of having a happy, long-term relationship.  I have seen many times that God knows what he’s talking about and says what he does because he wants me to be happy, but it is fascinating to see so much secular research from well-respected institutions clearly backing up Biblical commands.

This is a great resource for anyone trying to make decisions about their relationships or helping friends do so.   The book points out that, thanks to four decades of research, “couples today considering marriage or cohabitation can make informed decisions about what type of relationship  is more likely to lead to the happiness, intimacy, and longevity they seek.  Smart couples will make use of such an opportunity” (l. 579).

October 6, 2011

Book Review: No Plot? No Problem!

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , , , , , at 11:45 pm by Tamara

Title: No Plot?  No Problem!  A Low-Stress, High-Velocity Guide to Writing a Novel in 30 Days

Author: Chris Baty

Genre: Non-Fiction, Writing

Verdict: **** (out of 5)

Written by the founder of National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo), this is a funny and encouraging guide for NaNoWriMo participants.  The goal of NaNoWriMo is to stop saying “Someday I’m going to write a book” and forcibly  kick it off your bucket list by writing a 50,000 word novel in one month (November).  Hundreds of thousands participate in NaNo every year around the world, and I highly recommend it for anyone who enjoys writing but is too much of a perfectionist to just sit down and do it.  NaNo forces you to focus on quantity, not quality, because, as they say, a horrible first draft can be edited, but you can’t do anything with a blank page.  If you’d love to write a book “someday” but the very idea of writing a book in a month makes your perfectionist self want to scream, faint, or huddle in a corner whimpering, this is the book for you!

The first half of the book is tips on preparing for NaNo: imagining your basic plot, fleshing out your characters, choosing a point of view, etc.  The second part is a week-by-week guide for NaNo, offering advice and encouragement for the ups and downs of the month.  This is the perfect book for anyone who dreams of writing a book “someday” but thinks they don’t have the time now, or who finds themselves paralyzed by perfectionism every time they try.  The book is chock full of encouragement to keep writing, ignore your vicious inner critic, and relish the thrill of finishing the month and actually being able to say that you wrote a book!

August 4, 2011

Book Review: Our Mutual Friend

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , at 12:06 am by Tamara

I’ll admit it: I used to hate Charles Dickens.  I blame it on picking up Great Expectations when I was eleven and being totally disturbed.  That is one weird book.  But, I am very grateful for BBC movies, because without them I might never have read what are now two of my favorite books: Bleak House and Our Mutual Friend.

Our Mutual Friend opens when John Harmon, the heir to an old curmudgeon’s fortune, is found drowned.  Harmon was returning to London to marry a girl he had never met: selfish, petulant Bella Wilfer, who old Mr. Harmon spotted throwing a temper tantrum when she was young and decided on a whim to force his son to marry before he could inherit his fortune.  Bella’s one goal in life is to be rich, and she is incensed and frustrated when John Harmon dies and her hopes are dashed.

Thanks to Harmon’s death, the fortune goes to Mr. Boffin, a kind-hearted, bumbling “dustman” (garbage man) and his sweet wife, who scandalize society with their unsophisticated ways when they set up house in the fashionable district.  The Boffins shock Bella when they express their guilt at how their good fortune has cost her her fortune, and offer to take her under their wing.

Harmon’s body was found by Lizzie Hexam, a poor young woman who loyally takes care of her ill-reputed father, even though he makes his living by dragging bodies out of the Thames (and, rumor has it, helps some of the bodies along to their deaths).  Lizzie’s beauty beguiles a lazy and cynical barrister who is far above her station, as well as a respectable but insecure and deranged teacher.

The tie that connects them all is a mysterious man named John Rokesmith, who happened to appear in London the night John Harmon died, and gradually manages to inch his way into each of the characters’ lives.  He becomes Mr. Boffin’s secretary, and Bella is annoyed and disdainful when she realizes that he seems to be constantly and surreptitiously watching her.

This is quite the motley cast of characters, but this is Dickens, so don’t think for a moment that the fun stops there.  There is also a one-legged man who sells poems and sneaks around the junkyard at night looking for treasures, a man who runs a skeleton shop and is heartbroken that his true love won’t marry him because of his bony occupation, an old lady whose one goal in life is to avoid the workhouse, a down-on-his-luck lawyer who is determined to solve the Harmon murder, an old society broad who calls everyone her lover, a sharp-witted but crippled doll’s dressmaker, a cruel little businessman determined to ruin his wealthy “friends,” a wise and compassionate Jew, a ruthless couple who married each other for money and then found out they were both poor…and seventeen other minor characters (that I counted, I’m sure I’m forgetting some).

As usual, Dickens’ brilliance lies in his ability to spin all these seemingly unrelated lives in their own directions and then suddenly pull a string and tie them all together.  The characters are complex and dark; there are a lot of poor choices made and a lot of character growth.  My favorite part of the book, though, is the ending.  You think you’re really smart and know what’s going on, until you realize that Dickens has just been slyly letting you think that so he could suddenly turn everything on its head, make half the characters different than who you thought they were, and tie it up in one brilliant, neat-as-a-pin conclusion.  Our Mutual Friend was the last book Dickens wrote, and arguably his most complex and profound.  It’s just spectacular, and unfortunately I can’t tell you more about the plot because I would have to give it away.

All I can say is: go read it.  Particularly if, like me, you dislike Dickens’ other more well-known works.  If you’re feeling a little daunted, watch the movie.  The BBC did a great job with it, and it will probably inspire you to read the book.

Five stars, and it makes my list of all-time favorite books.

May 22, 2011

Book Review: A Tailor-Made Bride

Posted in Book Reviews tagged at 9:57 pm by Tamara

Title: A Tailor-Made Bride

Author: Karen Witemeyer

Genre: Christian Fiction

Star Verdict: ** (out of 5)

This really isn’t my normal cup of tea, but since I’m on a mission to find good Christian fiction, I downloaded this because it was free, had decent reviews and I had nothing else to read that night.  Hannah Richards arrives in Coventry, Texas in 1881 to set up a dress shop and immediately has a run in with grouchy livery owner JT Tucker.  It is love/hate at first sight, as JT believes that the fancy dresses Hannah sews will make women vain if they have them and discontent if they don’t, while encouraging men to only value women for their beauty.  Hannah believes that creation is proof that God values beauty and that she can glorify Him through creating beautiful things herself.

The philosophical debates between Hannah and JT are interesting, and Witemeyer does a good job of integrating them into the plot and making us think without sounding preachy.  Both characters have valid points, and the point of the book is that we need to balance them.  The natural world tells us that God loves beautiful things, and He made us in His image with a desire to create and enjoy beauty.  Beautiful things in and of themselves have no ability to corrupt, but our own sin nature may twist them into greed, envy, or self-deprecation.

While the philosophical debate in the book is interesting, the plot and romance were a giant cliché.  The love/hate at first sight “plot” just drives me crazy—it’s about as subtle as a ten pound sledge hammer.  I literally lost track of how many times the heroine tripped and fell into JT’s arms, leading to the inevitable “Oh, his arms are so strong and muscular but oh he makes me so mad but oh I can’t stop thinking about him oooh!”  There’s also the requisite heroine-almost-drowns-gets-rescued-by-hero-who-suddenly-realizes-he-can’t-live-without-her scene.

Another thing that had me flabbergasted was when a friend of Hannah’s comes and tells her she’s in love with a man who doesn’t seem to notice her, and Hannah’s solution is to not only make her a new dress (obviously), but put her on a diet and exercise routine so she can “slim down.”  Seriously??

In summary, philosophy-wise this book is above average, but plot-wise it is bogged down in shallow clichés.

May 13, 2011

Book Review: Russian Winter

Posted in Book Reviews at 9:42 pm by Tamara

Title: Russian Winter

Author: Daphne Kalotay

Genre: Fiction

Star Verdict: **** (out of 5)

When Drew Brooks is assigned to manage the auction of elderly Nina Revskaya’s jewelry collection, she is sure the jewels must hold stories of the woman’s past as a prima ballerina in Soviet Russia.  Nina wants to be rid of both the jewels and the memories, but finds herself flooded with recollections of the life she and her poet husband, their composer friend, and her fellow ballerinas lived under Stalin’s oppression.  Russian history professor Grigori has an amber pendant and a love letter that he believes are clues to his unknown family history, a history he believes includes Nina.  When Nina refuses to see him, he decides to end his search for his past and donate the pendant to the auction, but Drew promises to try to help him discover its history.  Nina, however, has no desire to reveal the secrets that Drew and Grigori are trying to uncover.

I was drawn to this book because of my fascination with all things Russian; plus, what girly girl could resist the combination of ballet, jewelry, and history?  This was a beautifully written book with a great deal of atmosphere and texture.  The portrayal of life in Russia post WWII was fascinating and tragic, and I enjoyed the details of the life of a star ballerina in the famous Bolshoi ballet troupe.  The novel explores the exploitation and suppression of art and beauty under communism, as well as the sad personal results of mistrust, miscommunication, and jealously in the characters’ lives.

Negative Elements: This is a secular book, and I did not always agree with the author or characters’ moral standard.  There is one sex scene that is not quite graphic but pushed the limit.

May 12, 2011

Book Reviews

Posted in Book Reviews at 4:46 pm by Tamara

I am determined to write book reviews this year.  I don’t usually post reviews, mostly because so much of what I read ends up being unremarkable.  Why is it so hard to find good books?  But, since I’m always looking for books to read, I LOVE it when I stumble on other friends’ book reviews and recommendations, so it seems unfair to request reviews if I don’t write them myself!

I haven’t set a reading goal number-wise this year, mostly because I don’t have any idea what life with a new baby will be like!  I’m actually only a little behind where I was at last year at this time, though, so maybe I can beat last year’s goal after all.  I’d like to keep up with a book a week, but we’ll see.

One thing I am determined to do this year is find some good Christian fiction, even if that means slogging through stacks of books I end up not liking.  I also haven’t really chosen a non-fiction topic to focus on (a few years ago it was Islam, then refugees, etc).  I almost always have a few Christian books going, as well as textbooks, but I like to have a current events or history topic to focus on, too, and I haven’t really settled on anything.  Guess I need to go in to work and browse!

But anyway, while I’m feeling rather rudderless as to a reading plan, I’m still reading, and I am going to TRY to post reviews.  And if you have any book recommendations, PLEASE pass them my way!

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