Quirky Love Story

Who wants to be normal? How many secrets do we hide only from ourselves? I pondered those questions as I read Shine Shine Shine. The advanced readers’ copy that I was given began so weirdly that I questioned if it was truly scheduled for release in July. Because I promised to review the book, I persevered. To my relief, it all came together into a family history that is no more or less “normal” than our own. Imagine a psychedelic scrapbook about a family with a number of dysfunctional members. Now shuffle the pages so that they are in random order. At the end, add a few pages that act as a crystal ball ten years into the future. That’s Shine Shine Shine.

I don’t enjoy reading vulgar language or explicit sex scenes and this book has some of both. However, as I skipped the sex scenes and read past the vulgarity, I found the book to be very satisfying in a quirky sort of way.

Share

Harold Fry’s Heroic Life

We know all too well people whose lives are lived in quiet desperation. At first, this seems to describe Harold Fry’s life. As the miles unroll under Harold’s feet and the memories of his life reveal themselves, we find that assumption wrong. Instead, the shattered pieces of Harold’s life fit together, picturing a life of unexpected love lost and a mute struggle to regain that love after 20 years of frozen grief. Warped and distorted as Harold’s life had been, his life had also been an act of heroism. Once seen in context, Harold’s pilgrimage was anything but unlikely.

Rachel Joyce writes eloquent prose. Occasionally, she uses vulgar language, jarring the reader out of the story. She needs no vulgarity to show her characters’ personalities. She sketches them in with a few words and a sure hand. She uses the same skill to describe the places through which Harold walks. Several times, I reread passages simply for the beauty of the description. Ms. Joyce drew me into the story and made me care about Harold and Maureen, his wife. And when the story came to an end, it was a very satisfying end. Congratulations, Ms. Joyce on a fine first novel.

(I received a free advanced reader’s copy of the book for review.)

Share

Can I really Trust God?

As I picked up my complimentary advance readers’ copy of Jerry Jenkin’s new book, The Breakthrough, I reached in a basket and took out a bookmark. It turned out that picking up the bookmark was a waste of time. I read the book without stopping.

Every book I read by Jerry Jenkins reminds me that he is a writer at the top of his craft. The Breakthrough polishes that reputation to an even higher sheen.

The story revolves around Boone Drake, a bureau chief in the Chicago Police Department. His wife sustains a serious head injury in a freak accident at the same time kidnappers steal his 5-year-old adopted son. The events produce emotional, physical, and spiritual crises that keep him uncertain about where to be or what to do. His pastor, friends, and coworkers rally to discover the facts surrounding the kidnapping, care for his wife in the hospital, and uphold him in his faith.

The action is nonstop, the plot twists more times than a mountain road, and the characters are complex and believable. Without preaching, Mr. Jenkins shows us how intense trials in a Christian’s life can prove his trust in God. Prove it not to God – He already knows – but to himself and to those in his community. Mr. Jenkins also shows us that even good friends can fail us and that forgiveness can heal that breach of trust.

Madelein l’Engle in Walking on Water expresses my emotions when I finished The Breakthrough. She states, “We don’t want to feel less when we have finished reading a book; we want to feel that new possibilities of being have opened up to us. We don’t want to close a book with a sense that life is totally unfair and that there is no light in the darkness; we want to feel that we have been given illumination.” That’s it. I felt illuminated and strengthened to face my own trials when I finished Mr. Jenkin’s latest book. See what I mean when The Breakthrough becomes available in bookstores (September 2012).

Share

It’s Not My Cup of Tea

It’s much harder to write a negative review than a positive one. However, I’ve put off writing this one long enough. Thomas Nelson sent me a free copy of the unabridged audio edition of The Skin Map with the understanding that I would write an honest evaluation of it, so here it is…

Issue number one: the plot. The Skin Map begins with both heroes and villains searching for a hidden map of the locations for moving around in time and space. About halfway through the book, Stephen Lawhead decides the race to get the Skin Map is just a smoke screen for the real prize. He does not foreshadow this plot change in any way and only the villains know the true goal even at the end of the book. Finally, when the hero’s situation at the end is hopeless, one of the characters in a subplot rescues him quite melodramatically (think cavalry coming over the hill). The plot disappointed me.

Issue number two: the style. Mr. Lawhead wrote this book in the style of Charles Dickens, Jane Austen, and George Eliot. Since I like A Tale of Two Cities, Pride and Prejudice, and Adam Bede, I anticipated adding another author to this list. The style didn’t work. I kept waiting for the ebb and flow of the characters’ lives to draw me in and capture me with the events of their lives. That never occurred. Almost everything felt flat and uninteresting. (One of the subplots was better than the main plot.)

Issue number three: the characters. I’ve alluded to this in the other two issues. Even in a melodrama, the heroes are heroic. In The Skin Map, the heroes bumble into and out of one dire situation after another, never getting anything right and losing at every turn of the plot. The villains are appropriately villainous, but all of the characters appear to be vague and moved around rather like the pieces on a board game.

The technical aspects of the audio edition met my expectations. I listened to it on a 900-mile road trip, which was just about right for this 11-hour book. The reader’s pacing and style are good. If you buy this book, be prepared for English accent and pronunciation.

Share

Horror in the Ordinary

Random House scheduled The Age of Miracles by Karen Thompson Walker for release later this summer. Not everyone should buy the book. It is not for anyone for whom depression is a problem. It is not for readers whose vivid imagination causes the horror and fear from the story to leak over into their real lives. This book is for people captivated by a compelling story written with insight and skill.

In an era when dire predictions sell everything from bottled water to bomb bunkers, Ms. Walker introduces us to a scenario for which no preparation is possible: the planet slows the spin on its axis. She invites us into this world through the eyes of an 11-year-old American girl. The horror becomes genuine as she describes the ways this catastrophe distorts Julia’s life. (It reminds me of Anne Frank’s Diary.) Even trivial-seeming events become important in capturing the terrible truth of the beginning of humanity’s end.

I was disappointed with the book’s ending. The Age of Miracles ended with an empty wheeze. No happily-ever-after ending would have worked. Nevertheless, even sad books can have a satisfying ending. In my opinion, Ms. Walker could have cut the last two sentences from chapter 34, pasted them at the end of the paragraph in chapter 33 where she told about the wet cement and deleted the rest of the book. Read the book and see if you agree.

 

Share

What does it mean to be super-human?

A Confusion of Princes is a new science fiction book by Garth Nix scheduled for release later this year. In the book, Khimri discovers that being a Prince — one of many with super-human abilities constructed into bodies and minds — means not that he is above the ordinary people or “normal” humans. Instead, he learns that he is the ultimate puppet. As he is forced from dangerous situations into unmanageable crises, he discovers the power of love and the ability to determine his own destiny.

This book was something I seldom find in books I’ve reviewed lately; it was fun to read. Khimri began the book as a very smart 16-year-old know-it-all. He matured into an intelligent adult who knew the dirty little secrets of the rulers. He failed often. However, he usually failed forward, trying to do what he thought was required of him. The manner in which Garth Nix portrays Khimri’s dreams and experiences makes the book both amusing and dramatic. I highly recommend it.

Share

The Way We Were

World War II is ancient history to anyone under the age of 40. For my generation, however, the aftermath of that war marked us in our childhood. Too young to understand how greatly our country changed during the 1950s, we simply grew into the morphing culture, considering it “normal” — as do all children in every generation. The Eighty-Dollar Champion: Snowman, the Horse That Inspired a Nation illuminates one facet of that time and place. Show jumping was an aristocratic hobby for equestrians of that era. Nevertheless, a war refugee from Holland and an injured plow horse taught a generation of horse lovers that miracles are possible.

Harry de Leyer struggled to provide for his family while following his dream of showing his own jumper in the ring. Snowman didn’t know that he shouldn’t jump fences higher than he could see over; he just loved to jump. The man and the horse became partners in an amazing series of events that became legend and a parable for all the possibilities of the 1950s.

Elizabeth Letts gets high marks for writing a memorable nonfiction book. It contains all the parts of a good story: interesting characters, plot twists, drama and suspense. Ms. Letts writing respects the reader who is a novice to the horse show culture without sacrificing the texture of the show horse world. I highly recommend The Eighty-Dollar Champion. It’s a well-written, fascinating story that also explains some of the roots of the baby-boomer generation.

Well done, Ms. Letts. Only a few authors can successfully write on more than one level as you have done with The Eighty-Dollar Champion.

Share

The Voice New Testament

Not since The Message has a translation of the Bible flowed so freely in the English language. Since translators focused on that attribute, I would say they succeeded in reaching their goal. Another thing that the editors got right was the level and tone of extra information. Rather than scholarly footnotes, The Voice New Testament contains breaks in the columns of scripture with clarifying information written in a conversational tone. (The Preface is helpful in understanding the layout and unique formatting.) Not so successful was the softbound version that I received for review. The font size is so small that reading it in public, which is one of the purposes for this translation, would be stressful. I’m also a little wary of reading passages in public that use the screenplay format to convey who is speaking.

Extra features in The Voice are especially well done. The book contains several reading plans for readers willing to make different levels of commitment. The introduction to the New Testament is a wonderful section that focuses on our covenant-keeping God. The book also has a small topical guide to the notes at the back that will be useful.

I think this translation may prove valuable in introducing Christians to scriptures written in less formal English. The conversational style, however, will probably find some resistance in those Christians who grew up reading one of the more formal translations. (Remember, when the Bible was translated from Latin to ordinary European languages, some of the translators were burned at the stake…)

Share

Africa

What do I have in common with the African lion? According to Stefan Swanepoel, author of Surviving Your Serengeti, the answer is we are strategic. Both the lion and I map out a plan to succeed in reaching our goals. Then we use teamwork to achieve those goals.

The lion is just one of seven animals Mr. Swanepoel uses to embody skills necessary to succeed in life. The other six are the wildebeest, crocodile, cheetah, giraffe, mongoose and elephant. Each animal plays its part in the story of East Africa’s great migration. Each animal’s primary skill perfectly fits it into the ecology of wild Africa.

Surviving Your Serengeti uses the 1,000 mile-long journey that almost two million wildebeest, zebras and gazelles annually run as a metaphor to describe the skills needed to succeed in business and in personal life. The animals who journey across the Serengeti experience hunger, thirst, predators and exhaustion. To get a feel for this great migration, view one of the videos at http://www.kenya.com/great_migration_overview.asp.

Our lives may not be at stake every time we set off to the office, but the skills used by various animals to survive and balance the ecology are useful in identifying the skills we need to succeed. Mr. Swanepoel masterfully tells a story of one couple’s safari to East Africa in order to put these skills in context of both African wild life and American corporate life.

My advice is to read the book, take the test at http://www.serengetibook.com/your-safari/what-animal-am-i/quiz/ (to confirm which animal embodies your strongest skill) and then listen to Perpetuum Jazzile’s version of the song Africa at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yjbpwlqp5Qw&feature=related.

The lyrics in Africa speak of a young man who didn’t like what he had become. If that describes where you are now, perhaps Surviving Your Serengeti will show you a way across your Serengeti.  ??

Share

Old Book Becomes New

Only You, Sierra, written by Robin Jones Gunn and published in 1998, has been released this year as an eBook. The eBook format on my Kindle had a few problems. Chapter headings appeared at the bottom of the page and some words were split in two (“ser vice” for example).

The story centers on sixteen year-old Sierra Jensen who is mature for her age. Her maturity, however, does not keep her out of trouble with her parents as she settles into a new community and her grandmother’s house. A new home, new school, and new semi-relationship with a college student keeps Sierra’s emotions in a constant tangle. The book ends without the happily-ever-after scene, but it is satisfying.

As I read the story, I found myself wishing Robin Jones Gunn’s books would have been available when I was a teenager. None of the books I read at that time reflected my Christian worldview. One of Ms. Gunn’s strengths is to model ways to cope with loneliness, insecurities, and change in a positive manner without being preachy. If you know a Christian girl between the ages of twelve and sixteen, I recommend buying this book for her, as well as Ms. Gunn’s other books.

Share