Friday, September 29, 2017

Book Review: Lighthouse Faith

The enticing cover of this book hooked me. I found the subtitle compelling: Lighthouse Faith: God as a Living Reality in a World Immersed in Fog. I was drawn to the beauty of the image, an attractive photo of the author, a one time Miss Minnesota and third runner up for Miss America. When I began to skim and my eye happened upon a reference to Oliver Sacks, my desire to read the book increased even more. But, the content is what really causes me to recommend this book.

Author Lauren Green, a religion correspondent for Fox News, has had the opportunity to meet and interview many interesting people. I appreciated the intellectual tone of the book and enjoyed reading about various individuals who helped shape Green's arguments for the importance of faith in a muddled world. Using a lighthouse metaphor, Green draws a parallel from the lighthouse to the structure of the Ten Commandments, God's holy law and a fitting primer for effective living. The first commandment is key, just like the beam of light dispelling darkness and assisting navigation: "I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of Egypt, out of the land of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me." All other commandments hold up the first and foremost one. Man was created with a God-shaped hole. We were made for worship, but if we are not worshiping God, then we will certainly be worshiping something else in His stead. It might be success, wealth, the approval of others, or any number of other idols that take the place of God.

I loved the question posed on the back cover: "Is God simply an accessory that we carry with us?" Basically, the author is asking us to delve internally and discover what foundation we are building on. This is a book with equal appeal to both Christians and non-Christians. For those who have scorned religion, it opens up arguments for the existence of God and the perfection of His plans and purposes. For those who already believe, it challenges faith to become real and dynamic, a light in a darkened world. With passages exploring things like music, epigenetics, mathematics, and architecture, alongside things like theology, sacrifice, covenant, and worship, Green causes the reader to think deeply. Indeed, the book contains a fascinating appendix: "A Small Lesson in Music History and a Harmonic Analysis of the 'Hallelujah Chorus'" - sure to appeal to musically inclined readers.

Green argues against "facades of faith" that "mask the temple to a false god within." No one would dispute the presence of evil in the world today, but are we acknowledging that God's light alone illuminates through the darkness and are we structuring our lives on that foundation? The light is there, if we're willing to use it as a guide in the storm.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Book Review: Sisterchicks Go Brit!

I fondly remember my mother telling me she had found another good writer of Christian inspirational novels - Robin Jones Gunn. How I loved hearing her recommendations! It is so sad that she no longer reads books, or even my blog, due to her dementia. My dad says that she tries, but just cannot retain enough to stick with it. So, as I read Sisterchicks Go Brit!, I not only thought of my upcoming trip to London, but also thought about how my mother and I would have discussed this book, if I had read it a few years back.

Overall, I enjoyed the story and the travelogue feel to the novel. Since I studied at Oxford with the Wheaton-in-England program the summer of 1985, and worked for six months in London on a student-work visa in 1987, I was lucky enough to have experienced quite a few of the tourist activities outlined in the novel. The only thing I didn't attempt (nor will I ever, probably) was a hot-air balloon ride.

This is certainly not a plot-driven story. It primarily introduced two women who have a wish fulfilled when they are given tickets to travel to London, escorting an elderly neighbor back to her home in Olney. Liz and Kellie, who teasingly call themselves Lady Ebb and Lady Flo (for their intention to go with the flow of whatever transpires during their trip), are contemplating going into an interior design business together. Liz's love of British literature shines through and Kellie's appreciation of patterns and designs carry much of the side-story, but the pace and intention of the plot didn't really entice all that much. Throughout the story, the two are drawn closer to the Lord (after all, it is a Christian novel, and I guess that is to be expected) and enjoy a time of blessing throughout their travels.

As someone intending to depart on an upcoming trip to London, it was a fun read. It is sure to appeal to Christian women who experience wanderlust of any sort, and especially those who, like Liz, dream of seeing Big Ben. I can think of one friend, in particular, I should recommend it to, because this Christian friend absolutely loves travel and has recently started her own travel agency. I could imagine an agent offering a tour that lives out the experiences of Sisterchicks Go Brit! - a Sisterchicks Go Brit tour, so to speak.

I hate to fault the book for my common complaint with Christian fiction (the message feels forced into the story, instead of the story carrying the message), but the spiritual applications did, indeed, feel intrusive at times. It was as if the author wrote of a friendly girlfriend trip across the pond, but needed to add layers of Christian observations so it would appeal to the intended market. Having recently attempted to write my own inspirational novel, I can appreciate how difficult it is to avoid allowing the spiritual observations to overshadow the strength of story. Nonetheless, I can see why this author appealed to my mother, and I would still be willing to read another of her books. I'll have to check out the Paris excursion Sisterchick novel called Sisterchicks Say Oo La La!

Friday, September 22, 2017

Book Review: The Skeleton Crew

This was a book for my book club. I had to request it by interlibrary loan since none of the nearby libraries carried it. My interest was definitely piqued by the subtitle, The Skeleton Crew: How Amateur Sleuths are Solving America's Coldest Cases. It was an intriguing, if a bit gory, read.

Hard to imagine, but there are over forty thousand unidentified dead bodies in America. Even when the bodies carry interesting clues, like dental work and tattoos, it can be hard for the police to identify the person. Oftentimes, the cases merely go cold because funds cannot really be spent to dig into the complex puzzle of identification. Enter a weird kind of common man, who enjoys puzzles and surfs the Internet for clues that might solve the mysteries behind these often faceless individuals. Criminals sometimes go to desperate lengths to obscure the pertinent clues like fingerprints, cutting off hands and bashing in faces. Or, the elements often deteriorate the condition of the body to the point where it is unrecognizable.

Deborah Halber descends into this gruesome world of facial reconstructions, autopsies, and arm-chair sleuthing. She outlines several cases, both solved and unsolved. She highlights the eccentric individuals who come home from their day jobs, fire up their computers, and seek to match missing person bulletins to the details of unidentified corpses. While I don't think I'll take her advice, and seek out the websites often used, I did find the various stories interesting. My only complaint would be that the writing occasionally felt disjointed and jumbled. Indeed, everyone in my book club expressed the same observation, even to the point of agreement that this probably isn't the most well-written book on the subject of amateur sleuthing. Still, it would probably appeal to readers who are interested in true crime stories and who root for the underdog to answer questions the authorities don't have time, money, or energy to pursue. Just don't expect an in-depth explanation of how to go about solving these troublesome mysteries.

Monday, September 18, 2017

Another Boy in the Family

For years, and I mean YEARS, my youngest has been begging for another dog. When he was two we purchased a Goldendoodle named Harley. We didn't change the name since he'd been called that for the first 9 months of his life. His name should have been Handful, because he was that. We had hoped for a Goldendoodle ever since we saw one at my oldest son's soccer game and the owners explained that the dog didn't shed (an important factor, given my husband's allergies to pet dander). Alas, the dog did shed ... and bolt out the door and into the street the minute my young boys opened the door ... and roll in dead animals ... and climb up on the counter to eat chicken bones ... and .... Eventually, we rehomed the dog and hopefully he found an owner who knew how to deal with animals enough to meet the challenges he presented. I, having never owned a dog, was certainly unprepared to be the alpha over Harley.

Thus, the years of nagging and pleading. We argued that we needed to find a dog that fit our needs ... especially potty-trained and non-shedding. The boys argued that our expectations were too high. I have been scouring the Internet, looking for the perfect fit for our family. I finally found a Hoobly ad for some adorable Shichons (second generation Shih-tzu/Bichon Frise mix). Sean was immediately drawn to the photos of the dogs. He begged and begged. We discussed and discussed. I emailed the breeders to ask if any were still available ... there were three out of six left. We went around and around about it and I eventually had to write back to say that my husband wanted to hold out for a dog that was already potty-trained. The breeder wrote back. He wished us luck and pointed out that often getting a dog who is already house-broken, but not very old means the owners are rehoming the dog for some reason they might not be expressing (perhaps the case with Harley). After thinking about his words and more discussion, we decided that we would at least see the dogs.

We came ... we saw ... we fell in love ... we bought. He's like a little fluff-ball. Here is my happy boy with his long-awaited dog:

The boys immediately agreed on a name ... Toby. We are, indeed, struggling with the housetraining (mostly our fault, because we fail to see the signs he gives prior to his accidents ... we'll get the hang of it and hopefully, he'll get the hang of only relieving himself outdoors). Although he didn't meet all the requirements, he is actually feeling like a perfect fit. He is very calm and quiet. In many ways, he is a good dog. And he certainly couldn't be more adorable ... could he?

Friday, September 15, 2017

Book Review: The London Eye Mystery

Before I leave on my London/Paris/Rome trip, I've been attempting to saturate myself in preparatory reading and viewing. I watched the entire Sherlock series (oh, how I loved it!) and Three Coins in the Fountain on Netflix. So, of course, I jumped at the chance to read this book, The London Eye Mystery, by Siobhan Dowd. While it didn't really provide much background about London (beyond a description of how the famous London Eye works), it was an entertaining story.

Ted has a unique way of approaching things. His Asperger's Syndrome causes him to analyze things more thoroughly than others and miss cues that others pick up easily. So, when his cousin, Salim, goes up in a sealed London Eye pod and fails to exit when the pod returns to the ground, Ted immediately begins to process all the options and seeks to ferret out the truth. Together with his sister, Kat, he follows clues all over London and solves the puzzle of what happened.

I enjoyed the quirkiness of the narrator. It was a pleasant little read. Kids who are getting ready to visit London, and especially the London Eye, will enjoy immersing themselves in this story first. It would be interesting to see if young people who have Asperger's feel a kinship with the narrator.

Monday, September 11, 2017

Book Review: Property of a Noblewoman

With little time for seeking out an audio book, I decided to gamble on another Danielle Steel option. Property of a Noblewoman once again took the characters on a journey between the United States and Europe in search of the trail of the owner of a safe deposit box full of jewelry. It was another engrossing story and I'm so glad I selected it.

Jane is a law clerk, begrudgingly assigned to the surrogate's court and Philip is a representative from Christie's jewelry department. When Jane contacts Philip to set in motion an auction of the unclaimed items, they both feel caught up in the story of the countess who died with no heirs, only $2000 to her name, and a safe deposit box full of extremely valuable brooches, necklaces, and rings. Marguerite Pearson was an outcast when she was shipped off to Europe in the midst of World War II. Betrayed by her family, Marguerite makes her own way and ends up marrying an Italian count. But can Jane and Philip find the rightful heir of the jewelry before it is auctioned off and proceeds distributed to the state?

The story unfolds beautifully with expert pacing and character development. The reader cannot help but root for Jane and Philip in their quest for love and for the best resolution of the case they share. Although the denouement wasn't quite as stunning as the one in the previous Steel book I read, it was still satisfying. I was thrilled to see a whole host of audio books by Steel in our audio book section at the library. Apparently, I can count on Danielle Steel to make the miles slip away as I walk on my treadmill.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Book Review: Everything, Everything

Jennifer Niven, author of All the Bright Places, described it as "powerful, lovely, heart-wrenching, and so absorbing I devoured it in one sitting." Everything, Everything, by Nicola Yoon, was truly that! I, too, read it in one sitting. Even at over 300 pages, this love story flew by before I knew it. It served as a healthy reminder to me that even though my upcoming trip to Europe by myself is daunting, I would be far worse off if I didn't take the risk and stayed home instead. It encouraged me to suck the marrow out of life, while I have the chance.

Madeline Whittier has more limitations than your average teen. No, more than that, she has every limitation imaginable, because she suffers from a rare disease that makes her allergic to everything. She has grown comfortable in her little isolated world with her mother and her nurse and her library full of books. Life is good, despite her illness. Until ... Olly moves in next door. He may shake her world more than she ever imagined.

Their love affair begins with a witty email correspondence. I'm a big fan of epistolary novels, so I thoroughly enjoyed this inclusion. It progresses when Madeline convinces her nurse to allow Olly to go through the decontamination procedures for a brief visit. Danger, Will Robinson! Danger!

So if I plowed through it so quickly and enjoyed it so much, what held me back from highly recommending it? First, I felt there could have been so much more depth to the novel. Second, call me a prude, but I really hoped the girl would hold back from experiencing everything, everything. I begin to wonder if authors are presenting cleaner manuscripts and being told by their publishers that in order for them to turn a profit, they must bow to the social norms of the day and include sex. So disappointing. Still, it was a fully-engaging book and worth the read, as an adult. I don't know that I would offer it up to my daughter, had I one, because it sends the message that teenagers should seize the day and experience absolutely everything. Why wait? Grab it while you have the chance. Just not the message I enjoy seeing young teenagers devour.

The movie came out in May to mixed reviews. Rotten Tomatoes only gave it two out of five stars. Common Sense Media does acknowledge that producers kept the love scene age-appropriate by fading out. I'm not sure yet whether I will take the time to view the movie, but based on the quality of the writing, I would read another book by Nicola Yoon.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Book Review: The Book of the King

I wanted to like this book so much more than I did. I had high hopes of grand adventure and spiritual allegory akin to the Chronicles of Narnia. While it did contain a fair amount of that, I just never fully got sucked into the world the authors created.

In The Book of the King, by Jerry B. Jenkins and Chris Fabry, present-day Owen Reeder lives with his father above their tiny bookstore. He is unaware of the supernatural events occurring around him, until he is chased by a gang of boys one day and finds himself swept back to solid ground when he runs right over a hole in the earth. Soon, he encounters a man with a very special book and is led into mysterious other dimensions in his fight to keep and understand that book.

I suppose I was put off at the beginning. The first two sentences are a mock warning (intended to serve as an enticement) to those incapable of handling the promised adventures within (similar to the tone of Lemony Snicket in The Series of Unfortunate Events books):

"To tell the story of Owen Reeder - the whole story and not just the parts that tickle the mind and make you laugh from the belly like one who has had too much to drink - we have to go into much unpleasantness. So if you are faint of heart and can't stand bloody battles and cloaked figures in the darkness and invisible creatures (or visible ones who don't have much of a sense of humor), and if you don't like to cry over a story when someone you love is taken, then perhaps our tale is not for you."

It was more a matter of the tale not being for me because of the constant insertion of direct interaction with the reader and the pretentious manner. The reader is addressed by the authors repeatedly with warnings about what they will soon see and encounter within the story. I suppose I tend to prefer stories where the reader is so caught up in what is happening that the presence and actual being of the author is temporarily forgotten. Plus, while talking to the reader above the story, so often the message seemed to attempt loftiness. For example:

"When in the course of human events it becomes necessary for a frightened young man to slip the surly bonds of danger and touch the face of freedom, please note that the back door of a restaurant is not always the best exit."

I know I'm not the intended audience. Moreover, I do think young people will be more sucked in by the story and less irritated with the author-to-reader comments. Who knows, they might even be riveted enough to continue in the series (since the ending held no ending at all). For me, I'm not likely to keep the book for my sons to read, even though I purchased it.

Friday, September 1, 2017

Book Review: The Duchess

I'm rather surprised that I've never before read a Danielle Steel novel. The name is so well-known. When my sister remarked that she seldom reads, but when she does, she often selects a Danielle Steel novel, I decided to see if there were any in audio form at my library. Thankfully, I found one that sounded right up my alley. The Duchess presents a tale of a young girl's triumph over tragedy during the 19th century, set in England, France, and the United States. Perfect.

Angelique Latham is the daughter of the Duke of Westerfield. When, at eighteen, her father dies, the entire estate is, according to law, left in the hands of her older half-brother, Tristan. Fearing his eldest's resentment of the younger sister, just before his death, the Duke wisely and silently gives her a small sum of money to tide her over in case the brother throws her out. Indeed, Tristan forces her out the day after her father's death, sending her to work as a nanny for his friends, pretending she is a distant cousin.

When a male visitor wrongfully accuses her of scandal, she is turned out of that home without a reference and forced to flee to her deceased mother's native land of France. With none of her rightful privileges, she must make her way in the world and remain true to her noble upbringing. Her scheme is scandalous and dangerous, but serves her well for a short time. Sadly, fate throws her another wrench and she books passage to the United States. Through it all, she tenaciously clings to her dignity and triumphs in the end.

I adored this tale, despite her descent into scandal. Angelique is such a strong and determined character, overcoming obstacles with grace and style. The plot moves steadily and fully engages the reader. I enjoyed each of the diverse settings and the time-period portrayed. I understand why Steel's novels have received such popular support. She is an excellent writer and master storyteller, whose characters come to life on the page.