Saturday, February 6, 2016

Book Review: Through the Eyes of a Lion - Highly Recommend

I don't often read two books I'm blown away by within the space of a week (of course, The Invention of Wings, reviewed here, took longer than a week to finish in audio form). But, I was totally blown away by this book, Through the Eyes of a Lion: Facing Impossible Pain, Finding Incredible Power, by Levi Lusko. It is amazing - a must read! I have been raving about it and sharing snippets with anyone who will listen.

The book is all about perspective and cannot help but shift the reader's focus from the problems of life to the potential behind those problems. It is devastatingly sad that the author and his wife had to experience the loss of their five-year-old daughter, "Lenya the Lion," in order to gain new insight into the perspective God wants us to have. But, what a blessing we have that we can learn vicariously through their experience, their story, and their new perspective. My sister-in-law recommended this book to me at Christmas time and I went to see if my local library could interlibrary-loan the book for me. Instead, they purchased the book for the library and there is already a hold list for the book because others saw the recent acquisition and signed on to read it, as well.

Early on, Lusko shares a Bible story (from 2 Kings 6) telling of the prophet Elisha's servant, Gehazi, looking out and seeing an approaching army in the thousands. He is immediately dismayed, but Elisha remains unperturbed, Elisha asks him to look outside the cave again and prays for the Lord to open his eyes. When Gehazi looks again, he is no longer fearful of what may come because he is able to see the hundreds of thousands of angels surrounding the army on all sides - heavenly protection normally unrecognized. Lusko builds on this concept by reminding the reader that even on a sunny day, when one looks to the sky, there are stars way out there. Even though we cannot see them, it does not negate the fact that they are there. Our perspective can be so limited by our inability to see the big picture. As he so clearly states, "There are unseen things. Spiritual things. Eternal things. You must learn to see life through the eyes of a Lion. Doing so is to utilize the telescope of faith, which will not only allow you to perceive the invisible - it will give you the strength to do the impossible."

Powerful words. Powerful illustrations. These things are girded even further as Levi begins to unravel the story of the loss of his beloved daughter. At one point in the book, he talks about lions and how the lioness is the one that does the hunting. The male lion produces the terrifying roar that sends the prey scattering in an effort to run away from the roar. They end up running right into the waiting lioness. Lusko encourages us to run toward the roar. Embrace and pursue the things that terrify you because you are at far greater risk if you run from the roar. His words are stirring and embolden the reader in the same way they were emboldened to face the fears and grief associated with their daughter's loss.

The book comes with thirty endorsements in the first pages of the book. There is a reason pastors, authors, and others rave about the book. It is an important message told in an easy-to-read manner with outstanding illustrations and insights. So, get your hands on this book - it is well worth the read and may hold both earthly and eternal value for you.

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Book Review: Peach Cobbler Murder

The Hannah Swensen series by Joanne Fluke is very formulaic and yet the formula works over and over again. I will say that my interest is starting to ebb, but I fully intend to give it some time away and then return to more books (since my library has several of the volumes in audio form from this point on in the series). I guess I'm still hooked enough to be interested in finding out who Hannah ends up with. Sadly, I accidentally stumbled on a spoiler that, in the most recent book published, Hannah is set to marry a different man from the two who are courting her in this murder mystery - seriously?

In Peach Cobbler Murder, Fluke has given Hannah a rival for both her business and one of her two boyfriends. Southern belle Shawna Lee Quinn has opened a bakery business across the street from The Cookie Jar and is seriously cutting into Hannah's customer base. Plus, Mike Kingston continues to dedicate a lot of attention to Shawna Lee (somehow it is okay for Hannah to kiss and date another man, but not okay for Mike to spend time with another woman). When Hannah stumbles upon Shawna Lee's dead body, she knows that she is a prime suspect. Thus, it is truly up to her to solve this mystery and put the right man or woman behind bars. (One of the things that tests the willful suspension of disbelief is how frequently Hannah solves the mysteries while the town's detectives barely lift a finger to find the truth.)

After reading six other Hannah Swensen books, I was almost too familiar with the set up. Hannah does her sleuthing, with the help of her sister, Andrea, and business partner, Lisa. She comes up against the killer in a final show-down, but is saved by an unexpected source. The bad guys are put down and Hannah saves the day for yet another book. Amazingly, the small Minnesota town of Lake Eden, has triumphed despite another murder on the books. As I said, much of it pushes the envelope of plausibility and yet the cozy mysteries are entertaining. Add in the ten new recipes, if you're into that kind of thing, and you can see why some readers keep coming back (including me).

Tuesday, February 2, 2016

Book Review: The Invention of Wings - Highly Recommend

I was thrilled to find this outstanding book, The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd, available in audio form at my local library. Having thoroughly enjoyed Kidd's previous book, The Mermaid Chair, (reviewed here) I was eager to take up this new offering. Kidd has such a magical way with words. They are spun like candy and create a world as vivid as anything you and I actually experience. I was immediately sucked into the world of Sarah Grimke and her slave, Hetty (Handful).

On Sarah's eleventh birthday, her mother presents her with ten-year-old Hetty, to serve as a handmaid. Sarah attempts to refuse the gift, but is forced by her parents to accept. Handful's mother, Charlotte, is a strong woman who has infused Handful with hope and pride in her stories of African slaves really being blackbirds, able to fly. This image of rising above the limitations of life and society play out through the novel in many ways in the lives of both Handful and Sarah. While Handful is held back by the institution of slavery, Sarah is kept in chains by virtue of her sex, but both have spirits that soar beyond those limitations with hopes, dreams, and convictions of their purpose in life.

One of the benefits of listening to the book in audio form is the ability to hear the narration from two different narrators, clearly articulating the white and black dialect and vocal inflections. Chapters weave back and forth between Sarah's account and Handful's account. Another benefit comes in the form of an author's note, read by Sue Monk Kidd, at the end of the audio presentation. Within those tracks, we hear what prompted the story within the author's imagination, what parts were based in fact, and what parts were fabrication for the benefit of conveying the story. Sarah and her sister, Angelina, were actual female abolitionists in Charleston and much of the story is historically accurate.

Although the book is long (11 discs presenting 13.5 hours of narration), I never tired of the story. Moreover, because it covers such a long span of time (35 years), it ambled a bit, but still managed to keep me engrossed in the tale. I own a copy of The Secret Life of Bees, but I'm hoping to find a time, later this year, when I may check out the audio version of that Sue Monk Kidd book. She is an author I trust to provide beautiful prose and an intriguing story.
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Note: The link above will lead you to the audio version on Amazon, as several reviewers expressed great frustration with the Oprah Book Club version. I guess Oprah's notes interrupted the flow of the story and many people preferred to read without those notes. I can only highly recommend the same audio version I experienced.

Saturday, January 30, 2016

Book Review: Story Fix

I have been pursuing a goal for several years now. At first that goal was simply to complete a first draft of a novel. When I discovered Nanowrimo (National Novel Writing Month), it freed the inner editor that had long plagued me and, with diligent effort back in November of 2009, I reached that initial goal. Every November since then, I have dedicated the month of November (and sometimes into December) to completing another rough draft. I spend the rest of the months in the year refining the manuscripts and shopping them out to various agents, editors, and publishers.

While I've had nibbles (agents requesting manuscripts, editors reviewing manuscripts, and a publishing house actually requesting two book proposals), I haven't achieved success in finding a place for my manuscripts. Many people urge me to self-publish, but I feel deeply committed to the process of seeking a traditional publisher. Perhaps I will feel differently in a few years, but for now, I continue to look to the loftier goal of finding an agent or a publisher for one of my seven manuscripts.

Enter this life-changing book by Larry Brooks. Story Fix: Transform Your Novel from Broken to Brilliant was a fantastic guidebook to turn to as I begin the process of refining and editing my most recent manuscript. It is one of the best books on novel writing I have ever read. I took six pages of notes and feel like I learned a treasure trove of information about how to milk the most success out of my rewriting efforts. While I hadn't really viewed my manuscript as "broken" prior to reading this book, I have certainly come to see many of its flaws and weaknesses more clearly. I think this book will really benefit my coming efforts for this particular manuscript.

How discouraging to read at the outset of the odds against me. Brooks cited that 990 out of every 1000 manuscripts are rejected. Yikes! Brings to mind The Hunger Games and the image of the woman at the reaping calling out to Katniss and others, "May the odds be ever in your favor." How lame a sentiment in the face of such challenging opposition.

Still, I was hungry to learn. Brooks breaks down the problems into two categories: 1) story strength (is the story proposition strong enough?) and 2) craft execution (is the execution of the tale effective enough to carry the strong story idea?). He then offered up 12 story elements to evaluate when judging your manuscript (concept, dramatic premise, dramatic tension, vicarious reader experience, compelling characterization, reader empathy, thematic weight, structure, pacing, scene execution, writing voice, and narrative strategy).

Brooks sets out to teach his readers what sorts of things kill a story. He encourages the writer to approach their manuscript with honest evaluation and see if it is really a manuscript worth spending time refining. As he so eloquently articulates, "The author's primary job [is] to suck readers into the hero's quest on multiple levels, make them live and feel the journey itself, make them fear or respect the consequences (stakes) that drive it all, make them fear and loathe the villain, and make them hang on every scene ... so they can see how it turns out."

I think I learned the most from the section on structure. It was sobering to read that an author should always know the end before beginning to write. If I am honest, I have always been a "pantser" and have started most of the time without a clear view of how the story ends. Still, I do not despair because now that the end is in sight, I can and will go back and refurbish the story with that knowledge. Perhaps in the future, I will approach my November efforts with more organizational intention (then again, maybe I won't be able to muster the organizational intention I desire). No matter what, I will have a clearer view of how my stories should be structured in order to reach the reader's three main goals - 1) intrigue, 2) emotional resonance, and 3) vicarious experience.

If you are hoping to beat the odds and write a novel that will be accepted by agents and publishers, you should definitely take time to read this book. The wisdom in these pages is presented in a clear-cut fashion and will change the way you view your efforts as a writer. It may cause you to see that your manuscript simply isn't worth refining or it may help you to give your very best effort in altering what you have into something someone else will want to read. I will begin my novel revision on February 1st. Now that I have read this book, I believe I stand a much better chance of whittling it into something of lasting value.

Thursday, January 28, 2016

Book Review: Wonderland Creek

Reading Lynn Austin's Wonderland Creek made me sad. It made me sad because it is a book I would surely recommend to my mother if she were still able to focus and process books. She would have loved this book. How I wish I could recommend it to her and then call her after she read it so that we could discuss our shared love of the book. I had recommended Lynn Austin as an author to keep her eye out for back in 2011, when I read and reviewed her book, Though Waters Roar. I'm not sure if my mother ever checked out an Austin book or not. I'm surprised I haven't checked out another book by this fine author since 2011.

Alice Grace Ripley loves books to abstraction (my kind of protagonist). When her intense love of words and books comes between her and her beau, Gordon, causing him to break up with her, Alice is distraught. On top of that, because of the Depression, she loses her job as a librarian. With nothing to do and a strong desire to flee Gordon's presence, Alice decides to hitch a ride with her aunt and uncle and deliver several boxes of donated books to a librarian she has been corresponding with in Kentucky. They drop her off in the small Kentucky town and promise to return for her in two weeks after they visit a spa in the south. Imagine Alice's surprise when she discovers the librarian she has been writing to is a man with a feminine-sounding name and the town is so small there isn't even a hotel or cafe. For the first time in Alice's life, her once boring story begins to take on a plot of enormous proportions. Alice plunges further and further into family feuds, hidden treasure, and saddle-back book deliveries.

Once again, Austin has provided a gripping story (although perhaps not as gripping as in Though Waters Roar).  I loved the supporting characters. Within minutes of Alice's arrival in the small town, the reader is sucked into a whole new world full of interesting characters, colorful landscapes, and daunting obstacles. Even though the Christian message in the book was hammered a bit more than I remembered from the last Austin book (a pet peeve of mine - I hate it when Christian authors put the message before the story, rather than the story before the message), I was still able to focus primarily on the story.

The end of the book offers several discussion questions. The final question read: "If you could write the next chapter in Alice's life, what would it be?" I loved the characters so much that I immediately began to contemplate where life will take Alice. It would be so much fun to write the next chapter in Alice's life.

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Book Review: What She Knew

What She Knew is exactly the kind of book my blogging friend Sheila wouldn't pick up. It contains her book kryptonite of something horrific happening to a young child. I, myself, was deeply saddened when the initial germ of this book actually played out in national news this week with the disappearance and eventual discovery of Noah Chamberlin. When the what if you've created for the sake of a story, is so entirely plausible and possible, it kicks the story up a notch. While I was able to disconnect and read without putting myself in the narrator's shoes, it was still an uncomfortable, haunting story.

When Rachel Jenner's husband left her and married another woman, she was left with a deep ache and the daunting task of primary custody of their eight-year-old son, Ben. It is her husband she is thinking of when Ben asks if he can run ahead during their walk in the woods. He would encourage the boy's independence, so she makes the decision to allow him to run with his dog to the rope swing on his own. It is something they've done every Sunday for months and months. He certainly knew the way. Yet, somehow, he is now missing and every hour that passes submerges her deeper into a mother's worst nightmare.

The story is told from multiple perspectives through blog entries, therapy transcripts, newspaper clippings, and the dueling narration from the mother and the chief detective on the case. I thought it was somewhat cumbersome, but did understand the author's purpose in selecting that format. In this manner, the reader is allowed to see multiple perspectives. Moreover, social media response is typical in this day and age, so its inclusion was entirely understandable.

While I didn't dislike the book, it wasn't a book I feel compelled to encourage others to read. The writing is good and the premise is enticing, but I didn't come away with an overwhelmingly positive reaction to the tale. Here's what I liked: the author does an outstanding job of getting inside the mind of a parent who is facing such a devastating loss and mystery. I appreciated the page-turning suspense of the story. I was so absorbed in the story that I became unaware of the author (this is definitely the mark of good writing).

Several areas simply bothered me. It felt like the story barely progressed at all in the first 200 pages. Once the premise was set in motion, no progress on the case was made and it was simply providing background information on the characters (who they are and where they are coming from). At the 200 page mark, the story kicked into gear and became the page-turner it is billed as on the back cover. But, even with more action and deeper trails into the mysterious disappearance, the details felt sensationalized. There are multiple characters who have a dead child in their background. The carnage of human baggage each character carries just got to be a bit too much to believe. There's a revelation about a long held secret. The detective battles his demons. His partners have equivalent demons in their backgrounds affecting their actions. I began to feel there wasn't a single normal (untraumatized) person in the entire story. I began to think "Okay, what is the author going to throw at us next in an attempt to wrangle an emotional response from the reader?"

As far as psychological thrillers go, this is probably considered a good one. It did keep the reader guessing about the truth and how the conflict will finally resolve. I didn't grow fond of any of the characters, but I was eager to get to their true identities. You wonder why the police officer is suffering from PTSD. You wonder if Rachel is, indeed, who she says she is. But, still, I came away unconvinced. Thus, even though the writing was sound, the story just didn't appeal to me in the final analysis.

Sunday, January 24, 2016

Book Review: My Age of Anxiety

I checked this book out way back in November, in the hopes of reading up on what someone with social phobias experiences because the main character in the novel I wrote in November-December suffers from social anxiety. Even though I am not working on revising the first draft yet (it still needs to simmer for a few weeks before I begin to tackle that monumental task), it was an excellent read to prepare me for presenting a believable character. The author not only outlines his struggles with anxiety disorders, but also provides historical accounts of the attempts of philosophers and scientists to understand this perplexing condition.

This was a far more academic memoir than the previous book I read for research purposes, Wish I Could Be There. Although Stossel's experiences with anxiety are peppered throughout the book, it is more a history book than memoir. The historical bits were informative and interesting. The memoir parts were shocking and devastating. Parts of the book were excruciating to read. I had to read aloud to my husband the bits about the author's intense fear of vomiting (a fear my husband experienced as a child) and the therapy attempts to minimize the intensity of the fear. My heart went out to the poor author as he recounted a particularly embarrassing bathroom fiasco.

While I doubt this book will be on many people's radar (unless, of course, you struggle with anxiety disorders or have a close friend or relative who does), it was an interesting read and perfect for my research purposes. I gleaned beneficial passages explaining exactly what happens in a panic attack. Moreover, I was able to see how social anxieties diminish when real fears step in (as in the examples he cited of Holocaust survivors who lost their social anxieties during the horrific events, only to have them resurface once the real threat was over). At this point, my character still struggles with some of her anxieties in the midst of the real terror and perhaps I will need to change that in the manuscript. I'm glad this book was available to inform my treatment of the character.