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.

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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 11, 2011

The Daily Paws

Posted in Watermarks in Progress tagged , , , , , , at 12:26 am by Tamara

You can’t really see it in this picture, but Bear’s shirt has a picture of a dog delivering a newspaper called “The Daily Paws.”  I love it because I’m realizing that Bear is my “Daily Pause:” taking care of him, particularly when he needs to nurse, forces me to pause for a minute, which I think is more valuable than I realize.

The other day right after Adam left for work I got a call saying someone might want to look at the house.  So far Adam has (miraculously) been home every time we’ve had a house showing, and I’ve been dreading the first time I have to get the house perfect and get Bear  and the two dogs out of it all by myself.  When we put the house on the market I emptied out our storage ottoman in the living room so I could throw stuff in there in a pinch (can I just say how stressful it is to not even be able to shove things in closets, let alone close doors on messy rooms?  Thank heaven for that ottoman!)  I now measure the cleanness/messiness of our house in terms of how many ottomans the mess would fill up.  Haha!  Thankfully the house was only about one-half-ottoman messy, but I needed to do cleaning (bathrooms, floors, etc), so I was a little panicked.

About halfway through my cleaning Bear woke up from his nap and wanted to eat.  Panicked though I felt, I still told myself that he is the most important thing and sat down to feed him.  Pausing in the middle of panic seems counter-intuitive, but I think it’s probably a really good idea.  I’ve written before about how I love nursing Bear because it’s one of the few times I’m sure I’m doing the most important thing right at that moment.  Having an immanent house showing definitely tested that theory, but I stuck to it, and I was glad I did because I was more calm in the end, anyway.  Pausing to take care of him also gives me time to think and time to pray.  I think I’ve done more praying since he was born than probably any other time in my life.

I know that as Bear gets older and stops nursing it’s going to get harder and harder for me to take a “daily pause” with him.  He’ll be running around and we’ll probably have more kids and twenty activities I’ll want to do in order to give them “every opportunity” and make myself feel like a model wife/mother/Christian/missionary.  But it’s a lesson I don’t want to forget: I can, and need to, take time to pause and just invest in and enjoy Adam and our kid(s).

It’s also a lesson I need to learn on a spiritual level.  We all need time to pause and invest in our relationship with God; He instituted Sabbath for that very reason, but we Americans are very, VERY bad at pausing.  My Sundays (or any other day) aren’t always truly restful, refreshing, and renewing.  I think they (and the rest of my life) could be more so if I would make pausing and focusing on God more of a priority.  Reflection, meditation, quietness, and listening prayer are all spiritual disciplines that are under-emphasized and in my case seriously under-practiced.  I’d like to read something about them, if anyone has any book recommendations.  An excellent book about rest in general is called The Rest of God, by Mark Buchanan.  I think I need to reread it!  (Oh, and I just saw he’s coming out with a novel about David.  I am SO EXCITED!!)

But for now, I sure am treasuring my daily pauses with Bear.  I never would have thought the business of motherhood might teach me to pause, but I hope it does.  I may need to frame that onesie when he grows out of it….

October 6, 2011

Calling All Future Best-Selling Authors!

Posted in Writing Spashes tagged , , , , , , at 11:57 pm by Tamara

If you didn’t guess from my last post, I’m writing a book during National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) again this year!  I wrote here about the experience last year.  I don’t know how, but I seem to have forgotten how hard it was, because I am SO excited to do it again!  (In spite of the fact that we will be driving to Colorado the first two days of November and then trying to do things like, oh you know, find a place to live, take care of a baby, and still pass my classes.)

The goal of NaNoWriMo is to stop saying “Someday I’m going to write a book” and just do it.  Last year (on October 30th) a friend asked me to do it with her and I decided on a whim to go for it.  It felt a bit like running a marathon after two days of training, but after much blood, sweat, tears, mental blocks, twitching of my eyes, and aching of my wrists, I finished!  (See my winner button??  *ridiculously excited grin*)  Because I had to write so much so quickly (50,000 words in one month), it forced me to focus on quantity, not quality, which is perfect for perfectionists like me.  As they say, a horrible first draft can be edited (and believe me…it was horrible), but you can’t do anything with a blank page.  Having a set goal and some competition was exactly what I needed to stop saying “someday,” stop overanalyzing, and just make writing a priority.  And it was amazingly gratifying to finish the month and be able to say I’d written a book!

Now, to get to the point of this post, I’m doing it again, and I’m looking for writing buddies to do it with me!  If you have even a hint of an inner author begging to come out (and I am thinking of quite a few of you who I know do), why not give it a go?  It is so much easier to keep going when you have the accountability of friends, so I hope some of you will do it with me!  And imagine the amazing satisfaction of finishing the month and being able to say you wrote a book!!  Once you sign up on the NaNoWriMo website, there are lots of fun things to keep you motivated and accountable, like charts where you can track your daily word-count progress, hilarious and encouraging pep-talks from published authors, forums on writing techniques, etc.  The new site for this year will be up on October 10th.

There’s a famous Ira Glass quote (see video below) about how when you start doing creative work there’s a gap between your ability and your taste, and the only way to bridge this gap so your work becomes the wonderful thing you want it to be is to do lots and LOTS of work.  NaNoWriMo is the perfect way to start doing that!

So…who’s ready to join me for a month of literary abandon?

 

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.

February 1, 2011

Great (and Awful) Books I Read in 2010

Posted in Book Reviews tagged , at 10:36 pm by Tamara

If you’re my friend on Facebook you probably saw a lot of posts toward the end of last year about my attempt to reach my reading goal.  My goal was to read 55 books from January to December 2010, and I did it!  Not only that, but in writing this post I discovered a few I’d read but forgotten to record, so I actually beat my goal.  I don’t know what goal to set for this year–somehow I doubt I’ll be beating last year’s (unless I get a lot read during bleary-eyed 2am feedings, which I doubt.)

I thought I’d post what I read and some brief reviews of ones I had stronger opinions about (good or bad).  I posted the month/year I finished it, and the stars are out of five: one star meaning I thought the book was awful and five meaning excellent.  I read a lot more fiction this year than I have in the past—probably because I heard so many books recommended at work.  Unfortunately I also feel like I read more duds last year than I have in a while (this list doesn’t even count all the books I started but gave up on).  Still, some were great, and I hope you get some good book ideas!

AND, please leave me a comment with a book you love!!

1)  Voice in the Wind—Francine Rivers 1/10 *****

Set in Rome around 70AD, this is a fantastic book about a Roman family, a Jewish girl who is forced into slavery and a German gladiator.  I’ve lost track of how many times I read this series; it’s one of the best Christian fiction books I’ve read (the sequels are great too).

2)  Sarah’s Key—Tatiana de Rosnay 1/10 ***

  • Set in France during WWII and paralleled in the present, the book follows a journalist as she researches how the French government (and civilians) followed German orders to round up Parisian Jews to be sent to death camps.  The story is well written, starkly riveting and heartbreaking, especially since it’s based on true events.  I finished it with a sad ache of emptiness, however.  Even though a major theme is the main character’s attempts to somehow make restitution, there is little hope or redemption in the story, and I couldn’t help thinking that the author needs the hope and peace of Christ to be able to cope with the brutal sinfulness of humanity.  Still, we can’t forget history, or we’re doomed to repeat it, and some stories are just too awful to have a neat sense of closure at the end.

3)  Amazing Grace—Eric Metaxes 2/10  ****

  • The story of William Wilberforce’s fight to abolish the slave trade in England.  His life is a fascinating, inspiring story; what he accomplished both politically and in the mindsets of the people is incredible.  I can only compare it to what it would be like if someone inspired the majority of Americans, including politicians, to become pro-life and outlaw abortion today.  The author waxes a little too poetical sometimes, almost sounding ridiculous in parts, but the story is incredible.  (The movie version is also wonderful, perhaps even more so, if I dare say it.)

4)  Be the Pack Leader—Cesar Millan 2/10  **

  • Good ideas: dogs need exercise, authority, and structure.  Bad ideas: fixation on new age “energy” concepts.  Verdict: skip the book, watch a few episodes of the show

5)  Sheet Music—Dr. Leman 2/10 ***

  • If you need inspiration for God’s desire for your sex life, read Sacred Sex, by Tim Alan Gardener.  If you need more “technical” inspiration, this one is okay.  I disagree with him on some points, however.

6)  Same Kind of Different As Me—Ron Hall & Denver Moore 2/10 ***

  • A wealthy art dealer and his wife meet a homeless man who grew up in modern-day slavery.  A Christian true story told from both their perspectives

7)  I’m a Stranger Here Myself—Bill Bryson 3/10 ****

  • A hysterical, if a bit cynical, commentary on the idiosyncrasies of American life

8 ) The Prince—Francine Rivers 3/10 ***

  • A novella about Saul’s son Jonathan.  It was okay in and of itself, but a horrible disappointment compared to her incredible early novels.

9)  An Echo in the Darkness—Francine Rivers 3/10 ****

  • The sequel to Voice in the Wind

10)  The Developing Person Through the Lifespan—Kathleen Strassen Berger 3/10

  • Psychology class textbook

11)  The Forgotten Garden—Kate Morton 3/10 ****

  • A spectacularly written page-turner that starts when a four year old girl is abandoned on a dock in 1913.  It follows three generations of women as they try to unravel the mystery of their heritage, sweeping back and forth through plot lines in 1900, 1975, and 2005.  One of the best-written plots I’ve read in a long time, but tainted in parts by some dark family secrets.  Other than that, this is a wonderful, vivid read.  (See review for #50 The Distant Hours, also)

12)  Son of Hamas—Mosab Hassan Yousef 3/10  ***

13)  Redeeming Love—Francine Rivers 4/10 *** ½

  • This is a retelling of the story of Hosea, set in the old West.  Angel was sold into prostitution as a child, and meets Michael Hosea, who is determined to marry her.

14)  City of Thieves—Beniov 4/10 **

  • I picked this up because I love Russian history.  It’s a great portrayal of the horror of the siege of Leningrad (St. Petersburg) during WWII and the characters are phenomenal, but it’s peppered with explicit dialogue that ruins it.

15)  Start Your Family—Steve & Candice Watters 4/10 ****

16)  Nineteen Eighty Four—George Orwell 4/10 **

  • Orwell was a philosopher trying to be a novelist, and in my opinion he failed at both.  I had to force myself to finish this (mostly I did because I was born in 1984 so I felt obligated to).  The first third of the book is painfully slow and plot-less, in the middle third Orwell gave up on expressing his ideas through plot and had his main character “read a book” about the Big Brother society, and the last third is brutal and depressing.  I think Orwell would have done better to simply write the philosophy book he had his character read and forget about the boring, contrived plot he attempted to create.  Also, sex is such a common metaphor throughout the book that it was practically a fourth main character.
  • The only reason I gave the book two stars is because it made me think about the influence of the Holy Spirit.  Orwell was not a believer, and as such saw the possibility of a future with no morals, no absolutes, and a useless, broken human spirit.  I kept thinking, “Even if society was like this, SOMEONE would still know truth and stand up for it.”  The reason I believe that is because of the Holy Spirit and God’s promise of a remnant.  It is comforting to know that, no matter how bad our world gets, 1) man was still created in God’s image and that image cannot be completely snuffed out, and 2) as long as the Holy Spirit and the church remains, there will always be those who recognize and stand up for truth.  The Bible seems to indicate that the Holy Spirit and the church will someday be removed from the world, and the world of 1984 might not be too far off from what that could look like, except that I think it will be worse.  I would say read the book if you want to ponder that, but it’s so poorly written I say don’t bother–I’m sure you can find something better.

17)  Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent—Fred Burton 5/10 ***

  • This was relatively interesting, but the author comes across as rather narcissistic and trying to impress us too much, and I have a feeling he wasn’t able to share much about the really interesting things he was involved in.

18)  Research Methods in Psychology—Shaughnessy, et al.  5/10 *

19)  The Sunday Philosophy Club—Alexander McCall Smith 5/10 **

  • A mystery with some philosophy thrown in.  It was a light read but failed to engage me and had an annoyingly convenient ending

20)  The Mysterious Benedict Society—Trenton Lee Stewart 6/10 *****

  • I really loved this book.  The characters are engaging and unique, and the way Stewart uses their various talents in the plot is a lot of fun.  It’s a kids book, but it kept me interested from start to finish.  Definitely a good read-aloud book.  The sequels are enjoyable, although not as good as the first (I thought #3 was better than #2, and #1 was the best).

21)  God’s Grace and the Homosexual Next Door—Alan Chambers 6/10 *****

  • What struck me when reading this book was how applicable its concepts are to many areas of life besides homosexuality.  The authors adeptly apply the gospel of grace, challenging us that the heart of the matter is not the individual sins we (all) struggle with, but our need of Christ.  While it pulls no punches about what the Bible says about homosexuality as sin, the authors stress that the point is not to help someone be “straight,” but to be conformed to the image of Christ.  A loving, strong, and doctrinally sound book–highly recommended.

22)  The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Perilous Journey—Trenton Lee Stewart 6/10 ***

23)  The Winter Garden—Kristen Hannah 6/10 ****

24)  The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner’s Dilemma—Trenton Lee Stewart 6/10 ****

25)  Theories of Personality—Jess & Gregory Feist 7/10 ***

26)  A Vintage Affair—Isabel Wolff 7/10 ***

  • If you loved playing dress up as a little girl, you’ll enjoy this book, which centers around a woman who opens a vintage designer clothing shop in London.   Phoebe is reeling from a broken engagement and the death of her best friend when she meets an elderly woman who wants to sell her wardrobe of vintage clothing.  The two become friends and Phoebe slowly learns about Mrs. Bell’s experiences growing up in France during WWII.  While the plot is a bit too convenient, I enjoyed it, probably because the protagonist’s love of beautiful old clothes and the lives behind them resonated with me.  (Note: the main character does sleep with her boyfriend, which is not graphic but still annoying.)

27)  Eye of the Red Tzar—Sam Eastland 7/10 ***

28)  A Woman and Her God—Beth Moore, et al 7/10 **  (Shallow)

29)  Mr. Rosenblum Dreams in English—Natasha Solomons 7/10 ****

  • This is a sweet, sad, funny, poignant book about a couple who flee Nazi Germany and relocate in England. Jack copes by trying to forget the past and assimilate, going to great lengths to become a proper English gentleman, while Sadie copes by trying to remember and not let go of her memories and loved ones. Jack religiously follows the guidelines in the not-so-helpful “Helpful Information and Friendly Guidance for Every Refugee” pamphlet he’s given when they arrive in England, eventually deciding to add his own copious notes about the British (his observations are hilarious). But one thing Jack discovers is that every proper English gentleman must have membership in a golf club, which he is repeatedly denied because he is Jewish. So, he uproots the family, buys property in the country, and throws everything into a dream of building his own golf course.  I am not remotely interested in golf, but I loved this book. The sweet, funny observations on life in rural England reminded me of a James Harriott book, while the tension between Jack and Sadie’s individual ways of coping is heart-wrenching and yet tender. I rooted for them all the way.

30)  The Bravehearted Gospel—Eric Ludy 7/10 ***

31)  Beauty: A Retelling of the Story of Beauty and the Beast—Robin McKinley 8/10 *****

  • No matter how many times I read this book (I’ve lost count) I always find myself wishing it wouldn’t end.

32)  Rose Daughter—Robin McKinley 8/10 *

  • I adored McKinley’s book Beauty (above) and hoped this would be an expansion of that story (both are retellings of Beauty and the Beast). “Rose Daughter” fell terribly flat in comparison–a boring, unrelatable heroine, a sinister palace instead of the endearing enchanted “breezes” from her first book, and (spoiler warning) the beast stays a beast at the end! Nothing happens in the first half other than Beauty pruning roses and waking up to find her room covered in various creatures (frogs, hedgehogs, etc, which is never explained or given a purpose), and the last part is a confusing mash of three different stories of “what really happened to the beast” before Beauty defeats all the evil sorcerer’s forces by saying “Go away!” (seriously). McKinley’s descriptions in “Beauty” were vivid and creative, whereas “Rose Daughter” flounders with confusing, pointless descriptions that I couldn’t visualize. I am utterly baffled, as “Beauty” is one of my all-time favorite books. As another reviewer said, “Rose Daughter” is just as awful as “Beauty” is wonderful.

33)  Twilight—Stephenie Meyer 8/10 **1/2 (See review under Breaking Dawn)

34)  Terrify No More—Gary Haugen 8/10 *****

  • This is a true story about an undercover operation to rescue young girls from a brothel in Cambodia.  It’s an incredible look into the horrifying world of sex slavery and what we can do about it.

35)  New Moon—Stephenie Meyer 9/10 **

36)  A Tale of Two Cities—Charles Dickens 9/10 ***

  • I felt like Dickens didn’t know where he was going with the plot for the first half of the book, but enjoyed the second half.

37)  Found: God’s Will—John MacArthur 9/10 ***

38)  Eclipse—Stephenie Meyer 9/10***

39)  The Scarlet Pimpernel—Baroness Orczy 9/10 ****

40)  Breaking Dawn—Stephenie Meyer 9/10 *

  • Since I have a heart for ministering to high school/college girls I’m always interested in the latest trends, and these books have had such an overwhelming cultural impact that I finally caved and read them.  I’ve done a fair amount of pondering what makes them so attractive, but that would require a much longer post than this.   Review-wise I can say the plot is sometimes interesting, the “romance” is nauseating, the writing is poor, and the ethical/philosophical issues raised but not addressed are disturbing.  I can’t say I think this series has had a good impact on our society, but if you’re interested in what’s impacting the way girls think, the books are worth the read.

41)  Royal Assassin—Robin Hobb 10/10

  • I’m having a hard time deciding what to say about this one.  This series came so highly recommended that although I didn’t love the first one, I picked this one up on a whim at a used bookstore.  I enjoyed the writing style and the complex plot very much, more so than the first book.  Hobb is excellent at creating vivid characters and keeping all their plotlines moving seamlessly.  What disturbed me about these books was something called “the Skill,” which is a sort of glorified telepathy which reminded me too much of possession.  Granted, that was when it was being abused by the villains, but it still made me uncomfortable.  I think in any fantasy writing you have to tread very lightly with the supernatural, because it only comes from one of two sources.

42)  Speak Through the Wind—Allison Pittman 10/10 **

43)  A Proper Pursuit—Lynn Austin 10/10 ***

  • This was entertaining, if a bit vapid and predictable.  I enjoyed the protagonist’s overactive imagination and laughed out loud a few times.

44)  Core Christianity—Elmer Towns 10/10 ***

45)  Assassin’s Quest—Robin Hobb 10/10

46)  Theory and Practice of Counseling and Psychotherapy—Gerald Corey ****

47)  Pillars of the Earth—Ken Follett 10/10 **

  • The plot and characters were interesting, but I had to skip several scenes detailing the villain’s sadistic sexual abuses, which ruined the book for me.

48)  Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, Deuteronomy, Job

49)  I Samuel, II Samuel, I Chronicles, II Chronicles, Psalms, Joshua

50)  A Christmas Carol—Charles Dickens 11/10 ****

51)  The Distant Hours—Kate Morton 12/10 ****

  • The Distant Hours begins when its narrator learns that her mother was evacuated to a castle outside London during the blitz of WWII.  She is curious about the story and the three sisters who lived in the castle with their father (a famous author) and slowly unravels the mysteries behind her mother’s and the sisters’ past.
  • I really love the way Kate Morton writes—she has a way of describing things that leaves me speechless.  She’ll toss in one-sentence descriptions that are so unique and vivid I find myself  stopping short to read them again.  Honestly I would read her books if only for that.  She is also a master of time and point of view shifts—she unravels the story in a non-linear way that is just brilliant and keeps you guessing and trying to piece together the clues from all the character’s lives.  The Distant Hours was an enjoyable read, and had me particularly riveted at the end, wondering how she was going to tie everything together.  The three sisters have complex, distinct personalities, and Morton slowly lets you get to know them and decide what you think of them (fascination? pity? love? disgust?) The ending had a definite gothic feel (think Jane Eyre or Wuthering Heights) that I didn’t particularly enjoy, but, like I said, I adore the way Morton writes so it was well worth the read.

52)  Voyage of the Dawn Treader—C.S. Lewis 12/10 *****

  • This book is tied with A Horse and His Boy for my favorite Narnia book.  It gets more profound every time I read it.

53)  All Creatures Great and Small—James Herriot 12/10 *****

  • This true story about an English country vet is one of my all-time favorite books.  It never ceases to make me laugh out loud.

54)  The Screwtape Letters—C.S. Lewis 12/10 *****

  • This is one of those books I could read a dozen times and still get new insights out of.  Anyone who at all enjoys satire, humor, or psychology should read it—Lewis’ grasp of what makes us tick (for good and bad) is just brilliant.  I don’t agree with all of his doctrinal points, but the book is still wonderful, and (for all its depth) an easy read.

55)  Spiritual Rhythm—Mark Buchanan 12/10 *** ½

56)  The House at Riverton—Kate Morton 5/10 **

  • This was a real disappointment after how much I loved The Forgotten Garden.  It has an almost Gothic, depressing feel and moral-less characters.

56)  Number the Stars—Lois Lowry 12/10 ****

  • This is a great book for introducing children to the Holocaust.  It is honest but not graphic

Note:  All cover images are copyrighted to their respective books