Sunday, December 30, 2012

Wrapping Up the Year with a Few Nonfiction Titles

My goal this year was to read 50 books, and I knew I was pushing it when I reached December and had yet to finish three nonfiction titles I was counting on to round out the 50. But I did it. Though each of these probably deserves its own post, I'm going to give myself a break and punch out shorter, but hopefully pithier, reviews all at once together.

One Thousand Gifts
By Ann Voskamp
I started to read this New York Times bestseller around the end of this summer. It was given to me as a gift, ironically enough, and I never would have guessed the impact it would have on me. I found it strange at first when I started reading. It was too poetic, a style of writing that was way over-the-top compared to what I normally read. I don't hate poetry but, you know, it's poetry. Voskamp's book doesn't appear to be poetry, at first glance, and it's not meant to be. It's definitely prose, like most other semi-autobiographical, inspirational, self-help books out there. But the way she writes, the images she uses, the turns of phrase and the word choice, all have a poetic bent to them. It's just how Voskamp is. She's this farm girl with a soul on the lookout for beauty, whether that be through her camera lens or in the very way she sees the world and expresses it verbally. It doesn't make her book easy to read, but perhaps the words stay with you longer. I managed to drag the book out over a third of the year, but it wasn't because it was a bad book. Rather, it was hard to read in more ways than one. I quickly got over the poetic nature of the book; that wasn't even the issue. It was a hard book to read because it made me cry. It challenged me. It met me where my soul was at. The beauty seeker in Ann found a match in me, and I needed time to let her words percolate and dissolve. And time is something I didn't have a lot of this year with two young children running around. That's why I was pushed to get 50 books read, this one included.

So, what is it about this book that gripped me so hard? It's really a very simple message, so simple you'd scoff unless you took the time to read it yourself. It's about giving thanks. It's about how counting the daily gifts God gives you leads to a fulfilled life, even if you are just a busy mother with no obvious "greater" calling from God. Count the gifts, even the ones that don't look like gifts. Realize God is in total control, ordering all the events of your life, the painful ones included. See God's love in it all. Let go. Live. That's what this book is about, and I challenge you to read it, too. As for me, my next goal is to count my own gifts. I believe it has the potential to revolutionize my life.

Night Light: a Devotional for Couples
By Dr. James and Shirley Dobson
My husband and I started reading this book at the beginning of the year. There are only 26 weeks of mostly one-page daily devotionals, but I'm not gonna lie, this was difficult to get through in 52 weeks. Maybe we were too busy. We probably could have taken the time. Instead, we were left to scramble through whole weeks at once in an effort to get this book done this year. Thank you, Nick, for bearing with me through this crazy 50-book goal! But despite the fact that we were busy, I'm going to just go ahead and blame the book itself. It isn't applicable enough. It isn't entertaining enough. It isn't always believable, and the questions are often textbook rather than thought-provoking. I have to confess that my husband and I often have a hard time finding marriage self-help books to be applicable to our circumstances, so where it doesn't match us, it might match you. But I can only tell my own experience.

Each week of this devotional has a theme. Sunday usually starts off with a story, often written by someone other than one of the Dobsons. Monday through Friday, the devotionals are followed by three or four questions and a prayer. Saturday is a recap day of sorts, often with some sort of story or insight from the lives of the Dobsons. This set-up isn't bad, but the content is sometimes filler stuff.

It just didn't always seems that applicable to us, and even when it was, the questions often required regurgitation of the message rather than self-scrutiny and application. Some weeks were better than others, and even some questions were decent. But overall, it didn't impress me.

I also had one other major problem with the stories shared. I wasn't always sure they were real. I am a writer, and there is a practice some writers have of embellishing the truth, especially for devotionals. I hate that practice. If you want to write fiction, own up to the fact that you're writing fiction! Don't pretend a story is true for the sake of a lesson! In this book, I'm not saying stories were made up, but I'm not sure they were always verified true accounts. In one case, the Dobsons make a point of saying they verified the story. But if they felt the need to clarify that in one instance, that makes me wonder how many times they just included other stories that have been passed along by word of mouth. For instance, one particular story they shared was something I'd heard in a different setting told a little differently. Maybe the Dobsons were the ones who had it right, but really, how do you collect so many perfect stories and anecdotes together? I just have that feeling that many of these kinds of stories are only based on truth. It really hurts your credibility if you can't even tell an honest story.

Anyway, I'm not sure my husband and I really gained anything from this book except the awareness that we really do need to spend that quality time together, albeit perhaps with different material.

New Testament (NIV)
It seems like cheating, but I'm counting half the Bible (and not even the longer half!) as one of my books this year. It was my goal to get the New Testament read through this year, and I was planning on counting it as a whole book if I was down to the line at the end of the year. Well, turns out I need it for the numbers. I'm not really going to review the Bible. If my readers don't know it by now, let me just say it straight out: I'm one of those who believes the Bible to be written by God through man, and I believe it's infallible and complete. It doesn't need my review or approval, but I do have an observation to make on my reading this year. Reading the New Testament in a year is easy. It requires five chapters a week. Even so, I had almost more trouble staying on task than I did last year when I read through the Old Testament as well. I guess, last year, I knew I didn't have room to skip. This year, I could read a whole week's worth in a day if I got behind. Granted, I probably needed the leeway this year (have I mentioned how crazy two little kids has made life for me?), but I don't feel like I got as much out of my reading as I did last year. I feel like I didn't spend as much time with God this year because, well, I didn't. I would like to try to read the whole Bible again next year. It's not just the content. It's the time spent. My soul needs both. What about yours? Want to take the challenge with me?

So, that's it then. Fifty books in fifty-two weeks. Next year, I likely won't be reading that many. No goals about it anyway. But I'll still be reviewing what I do read, so stay tuned!

The Sanctuary

Ted Dekker strikes again! The Santuary is a stand-alone thriller (not young adult, I should clarify, since most of the other stuff I read is), but readers will recognize its two main characters from The Priest's Graveyard. The Sanctuary doesn't have to be read as a sequel, but it does pick up where the other book left off, in a way. If you haven't read The Priest's Graveyard and want to, this review may contain unwanted SPOILERS. Thematically, the books are related, but the emphasis is different, and the two stories are separate and self-contained. I guess, however, that you could say the themes from The Sanctuary are a natural progression of the thoughts from The Priest's Graveyard. Although you wouldn't have to read both, I would recommend reading them together and in order.

Danny Hansen confessed to two murders he didn't commit in order to spare his wife a prison sentence, but Danny is by no means innocent. In his old life, he was a priest who took the law into his own hands. Now, Danny willingly pays the price, knowing he's become the very monster he tried to keep off the streets, but someone from his past doesn't think Danny and Renee have suffered enough, and the villain has concocted a game to get his revenge and expose Danny for the monster he is. Danny, however, has taken a vow of nonviolence. How hard will his enemy have to push him to break him? And can Renee rescue him before it's too late for both of them?

As usual, this latest Dekker thriller is hardcore and not for the faint of heart. Dekker is a Christian, but I think a lot of Christians would have a hard time reconciling his worldview with their own. As my husband puts it, Dekker likes to make Christianity "visceral." He uses extreme imagery to get across simple but deep truths about what it means to follow God. His thrillers may be fit for the secular market, but they are anything but cheap, shallow entertainment. Yeah, there's a lot of shock value, but it's there to shock us awake, which has to be a good thing.

In The Sanctuary, the main issue is violence. Is it wrong? What if the person you love more than life itself needs your protection? How do you stand up for the weak when the world is full of violent predators? What kind of justice does a murderer deserve? What does it mean to be human? What is grace? These are all questions that are tackled in a plot that delves right into the middle of some of the worst kind of violence. Murder, rape, torture; it's all in there, handled carefully but not lightly. Dekker likes to open up the black holes of the world and blast a floodlight on them. You've been warned. But time and again, the trip has certainly been worth it for me.

I have a shelf full of Dekker books, most in hard cover. My favorites among them I've rated five stars. The Sanctuary read quickly but didn't have quite the same impact as some for me, falling at about a three-star rating. Still good. And it delivered one of Dekker's famous end twists, which I really didn't see coming and which made me kind of want to go back and see how the book might read differently had I known what was really going on.


Speechless, by Hannah Harrington, was a nice surprise. I thought the premise was interesting when I originally got ahold of the book, but then I wasn't sure it could keep my attention. Happily, it ended up being a pretty fast read, which I needed as I neared the end of the year and tried to cram in the last of 50 books.

Speechless is about a girl who can't keep her mouth shut. She's a gossip, popular only because of her best friend. But when Chelsea's mouth is instrumental in nearly destroying the lives of several of her peers, she suddenly finds herself in a dark place. Not only are all her old friends her enemies, but Chelsea herself isn't so sure she likes the person she's become. So, ashamed by what she's done, she takes a vow of silence. Her old friends take it as an opportunity to rub her face in the mud without impunity, but she finds some surprising new allies, including an unexpected romance. When she speaks again, it has to mean something, but will she ever be able to pay for the harm she's done?

The book has a strong message with even a study guide included, but it mostly pulls it off well, meaning it's an enjoyable read and not so pushy it will turn readers off. On the other hand, from a Christian perspective, I do not totally agree with it. (Spoiler Alert!) The book, while secondarily being about gossip, is essentially about gay rights. Now, while I don't think a gay person is any less of a person than anyone else, on this blog I have clearly delineated my views on sexual content in books and movies. I don't think sex outside of marriage is right, and so I don't agree with the book's emphasis that there's nothing wrong with two young gay lovers. I wouldn't agree if they were straight either. This is my main problem with the book: it's acceptance of teenage sex. I totally realize it's a part of our world now, but that doesn't mean I agree with it or that I want to read about it outside of the context of addressing it as a problem. Now, I do agree with the book's stance on treating all humans as equals, just to be clear.

There is one other minor point on which I disagree with the book that I think is worth mentioning. Chelsea basically punishes herself for her sin, and even her new friends aren't willing to forgive her without seeing proof of her change. That's just not in line with my Christian worldview. Christians are supposed to forgive no matter what the other person does, even if that other person isn't repentant. That doesn't mean I would try to be friends with a dangerous lawbreaker (sins do have consequences, after all), but it would be my responsibility not to judge that person personally, even if the sin was committed against me.

I also need to nitpick one little point with the book that doesn't have to do with beliefs. It's just about something in the plot itself, the justification the author has for Chelsea to begin speaking again. Actually, the reason Chelsea begins speaking again is fine; I just don't entirely like the way the author has her do it. I guess it's realistic, but it feels like something is missing. It doesn't feel big enough. It's enough reason for Chelsea to start speaking again, yes, but at the same time, I feel like there needs to be something more, a weightier reason, a little more significance somewhere. When Chelsea speaks again, the reader doesn't quite believe she hasn't been speaking for a long time. She doesn't have quite as much hesitation as you'd expect. The silence doesn't seem to have changed her in any significant way. Don't get me wrong, she is changed, just not necessarily by her silence. I guess I wanted her words to be more significant, to mean something more, to be chosen more carefully. Instead the author almost purposefully makes her new words be nothing special. Chelsea herself expects to say more brilliant things, and she doesn't. It just felt odd to me. It cheapened Chelsea's experience for me (cheapened my connection and identification with her experience, that is).

But aside from what I felt was a somewhat unfocused and slightly less meaningful ending than it should have been, I mostly liked what the book had to say and how it said it. I thought the characters were extremely well-done. I wanted to know Chelsea's new friends myself! Chelsea herself is not a nice character when the book starts, obviously, but she grows as a character and grows on the reader. Overall, the book is an enjoyable, thought-provoking, three-star read with a relevant message for our culture. I'd read more Hannah Harrington.

Saturday, December 22, 2012

The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in Theaters Now

Oh, wow, where to start? By the way, that wasn't a good "wow," I'm sorry to say. The Hobbit left me and my husband, overall, disappointed. There were some great parts, I'll admit, and I'll get to those in just a bit. But, first, the "bad and ugly."

Perhaps my main problem with the movie is that it feels like a copycat of the Lord of the Rings movies. In fact, switch out a few characters, settings, and plotlines and you have The Fellowship of the Ring. A mismatched group goes on a quest, gets chased by orcs, visits the elves, gets caught in a storm (of sorts) on a narrow mountain path, and gets chased beneath the mountain (which is ludicrous; they fall continuously, even hundreds of feet, some of them getting smashed by a huge, fat goblin king, and come out unscathed). Now, isn't that line-up of events exactly The Fellowship of the Ring? Granted, some of that is straight out of The Hobbit, but a lot of the details aren't, my husband informs me. (It's been too long since I read The Hobbit for me to compare. My husband just re-read it.) And then as the flames rise and all hope seems lost, the eagles swoop in and save the day. My husband says a form of this is actually in The Hobbit, too, but I remember it best from The Return of the King movie, where Frodo and Sam are waiting to die, hot lava all around, after destroying the ring. Not much about this newest movie stands out from its predecessors, but it could have. It's not that The Hobbit is badly written, not at all! So, it baffles that Peter Jackson and his crew felt the need to change it so much, to add pieces of history from other Tolkien manuscripts but not even follow those correctly.

Now, had I not seen the other three Lord of the Rings movies, I would have thought this movie was beautiful. I don't mind the CG effects as much as others, my husband included, who would prefer a more realistic art and backdrop. I love the settings of Middle Earth...but I've seen it all before. The first few times Lord of the Rings panned over a straight line of travelers traversing a mountain ridge with breathtaking majesty behind them, I thought that was awesome. This time, it's just old...and time-consuming.

This movie does not need to be as long as it is, and The Hobbit certainly doesn't need to be three movies. It's a rather short little book, and it's very singularly focused...on a hobbit. It's not The Hobbit: The Fellowship of the Arkenstone. It's not The Hobbit: Thorin is the New Aragorn. It's not The Hobbit: A Dwarf's Tale. It's The Hobbit[: no addendum].

But where the movie went right, I'll admit, it went oh-so-right. I absolutely loved Bilbo. Perhaps it was partly my familiarity with the actor as Watson on the Brits' TV show Sherlock, but I was thoroughly enamored with his portrayal of Bilbo. He salvages a tiny bit of the movie and endears himself to us as well as any previously portrayed hobbit ever has. Bravo, Martin Freeman!

One part my husband and I agree goes particularly well is the chaotic dwarf supper at Bilbo's house. It's wonderful fun and adds life to a cast of characters that are otherwise unremarkable and interchangeable. I also enjoyed the capture by and escape from the trolls and the riddle exchange with Gollum, both memorable parts of The Hobbit.

But even I noticed places where details didn't quite match up with the book, such as the manner in which Bilbo discovers the ring. That seemed so iconic in the book to me that I wondered how you could mess with it. After all, it's been ages since I read the book, and I still remember it. His fingers stumble upon it in the dark. In the movie, however, Bilbo sees the ring fall from Gollum. It bothered me at first, but my husband actually argued in favor of the change, and now I can see why they did it for the movie. It helps establish that the ring was Gollum's, that he lost it accidentally, and even that the ring was looking for a new master. You'd only know the last by being familiar with the story already, but I suppose the movie's take is a more cinematic representation than simply discovering it underhand.

Aside from enjoying the few good, straight-from-the-book events, my overall feeling during the movie was one of boredom. The scenery shots were too long. The extra characters weren't essential to the plot (at least, not the book's plot). The elves were nothing new. Radagast was interesting but nonessential.

Now, contrary to my husband's feelings and despite what I said above about The Hobbit needing to be about a hobbit, I did enjoy Thorin's back story. I only wish it were more true to Tolkien's work, but my husband can tell you all about that; it's not my area of expertise.

My husband could even tell you that Bilbo wasn't quite right, that they tried to make him a hero when he is not, more purposeful than he actually is. Well, I didn't notice that so much during the viewing, but I thought it was an interesting observation worth noting.

My husband and I are not a case of opposites attracting, at least not in the way we think. I must say this so you don't think I'm just being a parrot. I think the people you watch a movie with can influence your take on it, but in this case, I gave Nick my thoughts before he told me his. And I'm refraining from including most of his complaints.

So, star rating? Oh, that's hard...because honestly, I'll probably go see how the story progresses and ends. It's Middle Earth, after all, and who doesn't love the place? I like to see it any way I can. But was this movie The Hobbit? No. Was it an Unexpected Journey? You bet. And for me, that wasn't a good thing. I think I'm rather alone in my views, so if you loved the movie, great! It's just my take.

Sunday, December 16, 2012

The Darkest Minds

[DISCLAIMER: I read this book before the school shooting in Connecticut and wrote some of this before that, as well. I do not mean for this review to reflect an opinion on the shootings or have anything to do with them, but some might find it in poor taste. For sure, the timing is bad. Please do not take my words the wrong way, and please do not read further if you have been personally affected by this tragedy.]

Just in time for Christmas, you can pick up one of the best books I've read this fall. It really pulled me in with its high-stakes danger and underlying theme about being afraid of one's own power. The Darkest Minds, by Alexandra Bracken, is the first novel in a new series for young adults. As the title suggests, there's a large element of darkness to this book. It's similar to the darkness of The Hunger Games, though instead of kids killing kids, it's adults torturing and killing kids, which might be worse in some ways.

Ruby is afraid of what she can do. That's why she's kept her true abilities a secret for six years, ever since her tenth birthday. Not that she could use them anyway. Her kind, meaning kids with powers sorted and identified by colors ranging from blue to red, are imprisoned in camps, forced to work, supposedly being rehabilitated for the outside world, though aside from some experimentation, the only rehabilitation going on is that of making sure they fear and obey the guards over them. All the others of her color are gone, disposed of. As far as she knows, Ruby is the only one left, and then her secret is revealed. No one escapes the camps, but with her life on the line, Ruby manages it. But has she gone from one form of control to another? Desperate to keep her identity a secret, scarred by memories of what she's capable of, Ruby is hesitant to let anyone in, even when her heart is longing for the friendships and romance being offered her. One thing is for sure, Ruby's old life is gone, and she will have to find her own way in a new world.

I like plotlines that are a little dark sometimes. Maybe that's why I like to read dystopian and post-apocalyptic fiction. But there's more to it than just the thrill of it. I don't like a book that has no hope. So maybe that's what I like about this kind of book: the trickle of light in the night, the hope that pulls the characters through, the triumph over the trials. The higher the stakes, the better the hard-won victory. I think that's part of the appeal.

Ruby goes through a lot of internal struggle, which I really like, too. It's more than teenage angst. Ruby is powerful, and rather than use that power, she wants to escape it. She doesn't want to be dangerous, but she is. That makes for interesting internal and external conflict.

The plot is fast-paced, a chronicle of one escape after the next with truly loveable companions and complicated bad guys with varying degrees of evilness in a semi-post-apocalyptic United States. I love where the book leaves off for the sequel to pick up at. I don't want to spoil anything, but I think I can give you this: the book leaves you with one tantalizing question: is it sometimes necessary to choose a lesser evil to combat a greater one?

I almost gave this book five stars, I really did. I liked it that much. After all, I gave The Hunger Games five stars. But I couldn't quite do it, so it stands at four, maybe four and a half. Though there were tiny annoyances here and there (like the fact that Canada and Mexico would close their borders to the United States, and the reason given is that they never liked the United States and just needed a good excuse...right), the main reason is that it is truly dark and horrifying at places without the balance of a faith-based worldview. It's not too graphic, but the imagination is afforded lots of room to fill in the blanks. So, be warned, this book may not be for everyone. I do think it's appropriate enough for its targeted age group, though.

It's really too bad this book is just coming out this Tuesday because I'm looking forward to the next book already! But anticipation is fun, too, so join me and let's anticipate this next great series together!

Tuesday, December 11, 2012


This is not an advance reader's copy for once. I picked up a used copy of Starters from my local bookstore. If I didn't already have about 50 books to read (The goal of reading 50 books this year was to diminish that pile, not replace! Too many interesting books!), I'd be ready to read the sequel, Enders, right now. Unfortunately, the release date was pushed back from this month to next year. It appears this is a two-book series with some short e-books between. Very unusual for a young adult series these days to not have at least three novels, but I don't mind. I get to read only the first book of so many series. I'd be happy to read a young adult novel with a solid ending and no planned sequels. Bravo, Lissa Price, for changing things up a bit.

Starters is a little like a tamed-down version of Joss Whedon's TV show Dollhouse, from a few years ago. Callie is a Starter, a teenager at the beginning of her life. Those who aren't Starters are Enders, elderly people who have figured out how to extend their lives to 200 years. Everyone between about 20 and 60 is dead, unvaccinated against deadly spores released in the wars. Starters have no rights, especially if they are unclaimed by grandparents, and Callie is one of those. In order to make some sort of living, she is forced to consider illegal employment at the body bank, where Enders can rent her body for a limited time to live as young people again (Dollhouse-esque). Callie is supposed to sleep through the rental, but then something goes wrong and she finds herself in the middle of a plot to murder. As Callie pretends to be what she is not, hoping against hope to salvage the situation and meanwhile finding unexpected friendship, including a love interest, she becomes part of something bigger than she ever imagined, and there's no backing out now.

Lest you think I am swayed by the hype written on the cover of a book, let me tell you that this is certainly not the next Hunger Games, as this and far too many other books are claiming to be. The next Hunger Games will look so different from The Hunger Games that no one will see it coming, believe me. After all, there's not one single vampire in Katniss's story. Part of the success of big young adult series is their uniqueness.

But Starters is still a decent story that hit me at just the right spot after a month of not having time to read that I'm giving it four stars. It's not brilliant, but it's entertaining, suspenseful, intriguing, and surprising. And those who liked The Hunger Games might find some of the same appeal in this book. The end of Starters was not completely unexpected, but I liked where it was going as it led up to the sequel. It reminded me a little of this fall's half-season finale of the TV show Once Upon a Time, where everything seemed to be coming to a happy resolution until that final "Oh, snap!" moment when they set up the central conflict for the next half of the season. Starters ends that way.

This Christmas, if you need a good book series for a teenager you know (or, let's be honest, yourself), this is one of the better books I've read lately. The sequel comes out in 2013, but details have not yet been announced. For more information, you can go to

Stay tuned to the blog for an upcoming review of another great read, out this month.