"You can never get a cup of tea large enough or a book long enough to suit me."

-C.S. Lewis

What we read has such an impact on us, and I am always on the lookout for something that will inspire me to be a better person. Here is a sampling of books that have been in the teetering stack sitting on top of what is rumored to be my bedside table.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

The Lincolns: Portrait of a Marriage, by Daniel Mark Epstein

    I've been curious about the marriage of Abraham and Mary Lincoln for quite some time.  They are an intriguing subject even without the Presidency and the Civil War.  I suppose they serve almost as a cautionary tale of two souls who start out in love and on equal footing, only to slowly transform into a very strange relationship that makes so many wonder if either party regretted their decision to marry.  In short, Abraham married Mary with great plans for their future... and then life happened, as it does to so many of us.  The fact that their lives became such an influential part of American history doesn't mitigate the fact that I think many of us identify with them.  The struggles they dealt in their marriage with could happen to any of us on different scales.

     The book begins with their courtship, and ends with the moment of his death.  The pages in between are so well researched it is easy to picture every detail clearly.  Some of their struggles were kept fairly well hidden, but Epstein is still able to give us glimpses into their life through his careful research.  Both Lincolns, of course, battled mental illness of varying degrees.  But Mary in particular struggled with issues for which there was no adequate treatment.  And the further she slipped into her illness, the more their marriage changed as a result.

     I closed this book with new sorrow for Mary, but also a new respect for Lincoln.  He seems to have taken the "in sickness and in health" portion of the marriage vows very seriously.  The book shows a definite shift in his attitude and behavior toward Mary the worse she became.  And with the personal turmoil of their family life, it is a wonder that Lincoln the President was able to guide this country through arguably the worst time in its history.

     And just as an aside, Epstein's writing of the assassination is inspired.  He shifts the point of view to that of Mary's and we get a final glimpse into the fragility of her mind during one of the worst moments of her life.

     Well worth the read for any history buff.

     Five out of Five Stars

Saturday, December 27, 2014

Don't Give Up, Don't Give In, by Louis Zamperini and David Rensin

  This is the book I've been waiting for since I finished Laura Hillenbrand's biography of Louis Zamperini, Unbroken.   I loved that book, but it seemed to me that the real story of heroism came after the war, when Zamperini was able to overcome the atrocities that he was subjected to.  

     This book, which was finished just before Zamperini passed away, tells that story.  I felt on reading Unbroken that it glossed over the power of God in Zamperini's life.  Don't Give Up gets more into how instrumental Zamperini's faith was in helping him overcome post traumatic stress and its symptoms.  As his son writes in this book, "miracles happened to [Zamperini] to demonstrate the power of God in his life."  And that's the story that I think most people don't get to hear about outside of this book.

     More than just a testament to Zamperini's faith, this book also tells the lessons that he learned throughout his life's journey.  How do you forgive someone who has deeply hurt you?  How do you stay positive enough to weather the bad times?  How can you maintain your self respect and dignity at all times?  These questions and more are answered in this book.  And in providing us with his wisdom gained through years of unspeakable trial and a life given in service to humankind, I think Louis Zamperini has shown himself to be the kind of hero our society desperately craves.

     I highly recommend this book not just to those interested in Zamperini's story, but also to anyone who feels that there should be more to life than what they have. Life is not meant to be simply survived, but lived.  And Louis Zamperini understood that.

Five out of Five Stars

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Messy Beautiful Love, by Darlene Schacht

     This is a book that is well worth the read.  Darlene Schacht, creator of the blog "Time Warp Wife," has done a fantastic job of showing what God can do through one woman.  

     The book discusses what it is to be a wife in a God-honoring marriage.  More than any other book I have read, the role of the wife is carefully delineated here.  And in doing this, Schacht gives Christian women a true gift.  So much of what is written in women's ministry - and particularly the "trendy" books - does not follow Scripture.  It instead twists Scripture into what we want it to be.  

     Darlene Schacht doesn't do this.  This book is Scripturally sound, and I love it for that.  A woman seeking to learn what she can do to better her marriage can read this book without worrying about false doctrine.  And you can't say that about a lot of books out there.

     Beyond that, Schacht is a good writer, and this book is an enjoyable read.  She answers many questions about the Christian marriage.  She talks about so many issues that are central to a good marriage - the choice we must make to be kind when we don't feel like it, the difference between submission and inequality in marriage, the importance of nurturing our husbands, and many other topics important to the Christian wife.

     This book isn't a deep read, nor it is an examination of the psychology of relationships.  It's just one woman's impression of what our role as wives should be.  But it's appropriately backed by Scripture, and for me, that is more than sufficient.  

     I highly recommend this book to any wife who is seeking what her role should be in a God-honoring marriage.  I'll be keeping this book around for further study.

Disclaimer:  I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Five out of Five Stars


Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Before You Plan Your Wedding Plan Your Marraige, by Dr. Greg and Erin Smalley

     There are 3 weddings (that I know of) in my family's immediate future, and so I've been looking for good engagement gifts.  One thing I've discovered is that wow there are a lot of books on this topic!  Unfortunately, I've also discovered that for every good pre-wedding book out there, there are 3 or 4 not-so-good books.  There are also a few that are so downright awful you wonder if the author is conducting an experiment to see how much one book can contribute to the high divorce rate.

     Before You Plan Your Wedding... Plan Your Marriage is one of the good ones - the best of the good ones, actually.  So I thought it merited a review.  Because honestly, every couple from the newly engaged to the long married would benefit from the wisdom in this book.  Each chapter lends itself to both personal reflection as well as discussion between the engaged or already married couple.

     The authors start by discussing how to have an engagement that truly prepares the couple for marriage.  That segment is followed by chapters that delve into better self-awareness.  The reader is guided through a series of highly effective (I know because I've done them!) exercises on learning more about what drives his or her own fears and expectations.  Why is all this self-evaluation important?  Because those fears and expectations are going to affect you in ways you can't always imagine.  If you can't articulate them to yourself, they're going to control you, when it should be the other way around.  They're also going to control your approach to difficulties in your marriage.  And an argument where you don't realize exactly what is bothering you is an argument that is never going to be truly resolved.

     Once the authors lead the reader through this journey into self-awareness, they teach how to use this self-awareness in a manner that is healthy to not just the individual, but the marriage.  The rest of the book is largely devoted to good communication strategies, forgiveness, and teamwork in a marriage.  There is also a great section on marital roles in a God-honoring marriage (and no, this doesn't mean the husband gets to boss the wife around).  There is also a very important section on leaving and cleaving, the Biblical ideal of becoming one with your spouse, forsaking all others.

     I feel that this book is Scripturally sound.  As such, it's going to be of benefit to the Christian couple.  However, if you aren't Christian, this book is still going to be immensely helpful to you.  The sections on self-awareness and good communication apply to everyone.  I've read many books on marriage, both Christian and secular, and this book leaves most of the others far behind.  The authors do a good job of mixing sound advice with amusing anecdotes, and it's a pleasure to read.  I recommend it to anyone who is engaged or just simply wants a better marriage.

Five out of Five Stars

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Palace of Darkness, by Tracy L. Higley

Palace of Darkness: A Novel of Petra, is the third book of Higley's that I have read, and this novel did not disappoint!  This is a tale of a woman who has to make a life for herself and her son after her husband's death.  Her journey takes her to Petra (you may recognize the city carved out of stone from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade).  There, she seeks her husband's family.  In doing so, she encounters new friends, new challenges, and ultimately grows into the strong woman she is destined to become.

As usual, I admired Higley's writing style.  But this book in particular shone because of the love between Cassia and her son.  Her willingness to make sacrifices for her little boy must resonate in the heart of every mother.  This book grabbed me in a way that few do.  I was emotionally involved in Cassia's journey.  Her pain became my pain, her joy my joy.  I so rarely become so attached to characters as I did to Cassia, and that made this book spring to life for me.

Through all of this, there is Higley's usual attention to historical detail.  This is a time period which I know little about - the establishment of the early Christian church.  Cassia's new friends in Petra try to eke out a place for their faith in this city, and unbelieving Cassia is witness to this.  Higley offers a perspective on the early church that I had not thought much about.  The book opened my mind to ideas that were new to me, and I am always grateful for a writer who can do that.

Disclaimer:  I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Four out of Five Stars

Sunday, October 5, 2014

Bug Swamp's Gold, by Billie H. Wilson

     Bug Swamp's Gold, by Billie H. Wilson, is a memoir of a young girl's experiences growing up during the 1930s and 1940s in rural South Carolina.  I appreciated this book for the great gift that it must be to the author's family.  There are so many fantastic stories of the lives, loves, and losses of one family during a trying time in our nation's history.  Billie Wilson's family is blessed indeed to have a grandmother who had the time, talent, and determination to turn her memories into this book.  This book must be a treasure to them.

     The author writes with such love of family members who have since passed from this world to the next.  And the portrayal of one small corner of this world, Bug Swamp, is a reminder of what makes this country great.  Despite the Great Depression, despite the atrocities of the War, one family's daily experiences - the small things in life - become the most important things in the world.  Life is made of a thousand small moments, and Bug Swamp's Gold is a testament to that.  Life during the Depression and the War was anything but easy.  However, the love that weaves its way through these family members proves to be strong enough to withstand anything this fallen world throws their way.  And for a small girl - for anyone regardless of age - that love makes all the difference in the world.

     I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in personal accounts of the effect the Great Depression had on rural families.  It also provides an interesting childhood perspective of the World War II homefront.    I would also like to both thank and congratulate the author for her work on this memoir.  It's a tough feat, and the end result is a jewel that her family will cherish for generations to come.

Disclaimer:  I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Three out of Five Stars

Wednesday, August 20, 2014

Seven Ways to Be Her Hero, by Doug Fields

Seven Ways to Be Her Hero is a self-help book on marriage written specifically for men.  It offers advice on various topics essential to a good marriage - listening, putting your wife’s needs on high priority, putting aside pride, and shepherding your wife’s heart.

Every piece of advice in this book is true (speaking from the perspective of the wife).  It’s backed by Bible references.  The only problem is that so much of it is generalized.  I really think the author tried to cover too much in one book.  I also found instances of circular logic to be confusing.  For example, in the chapter on shepherding the wife’s heart, the author explains that to truly be a shepherd, you must “exude real manhood.”  And how do you exude real manhood?  By shepherding your wife’s heart.  Very few details are given on exactly how to do this.  

The most impressive piece of the book is the recommendation section.  The publisher got some very prominent Christian authors to recommend this book.  Yet in many cases, the reviewers wrote books that are better reads than this one.  

In short, this book is well-meaning and is a worthwhile read.  But there are far better books out there if you want marital advice that is easy to follow.

Disclaimer:  I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

3 out of 5 Stars

Saturday, July 19, 2014

Scripture Saturday

"Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.  Six days you shall labor and do all your work, but the seventh day is a sabbath to the Lord your God."

-Exodus 20: 8-10a

   Well, here's a verse that's harder to follow than it sounds.  I learned this one so long ago, it seems I've always known it.  And unlike the tenth commandment about not coveting your neighbor's belongings (my bestie's Barbie dream house, ugh!), this one seemed like a no-brainer to a small child.

     Flash forward a decade or so, and I'm working on a group project with a high school classmate.  Mind you, this was in the days before instant messaging and Google Docs.  So if you wanted to work on your group project over the weekend, you either had to do it over the phone or *gasp* have a face to face meeting!  And while I was trying to set up such a meeting with my partner, he explained to me that he was unavailable on Sunday because he kept the Sabbath holy.

     Red blooded American teen that I was, I figured he was just being overly pious.  But I pretended to agree with him, because what self-respecting Christian openly disobeys the Ten Commandments?  And I kept his comment in my heart for years.

     Flash forward again to my first years as an employed adult.  As a first year teacher, you get really overwhelmed with your work.  I mean, really overwhelmed.  Every single teacher I've ever met has horror stories about that first year.  And I'm no exception.  So determined was I to be that A+ Teacher like all the mugs say, that I was working to the bone many hours a day, seven days a week.

     But somewhere in that year, I read a commentary of the Ten Commandments that stated that God wasn't punishing us by making us take a day of rest, he was rewarding us.  God, the commentary said, wanted us to have some time to ourselves.

     Now, I think that commentary missed the mark because the whole point of the Sabbath is to keep it holy.  That doesn't mean it's a party day.  It's not set aside for us, it's set aside for God.  But in taking that time to get closer to God, we are in fact allowing ourselves the greatest reward we could ever have.  And by taking the focus off ourselves and all the crazy busyness of daily life, we do end up getting that break that we really do need.

     Am I perfect at this?  I wish!  But, like my high school friend, I now strive to set aside my work for that one day each week.  And I do work at honoring God on that day, because it shouldn't be just a common day like any other.  It makes a difference, it really does.

     So, as another school year gets ready to begin, I find myself starting to get charged up, working on school projects.  I need to remind myself, as God had to remind the Hebrews, that the Sabbath day is meant to be holy.  And I pray that I can remember that throughout this school year.  

Monday, July 14, 2014

Samantha Sanderson: On the Scene, by Robin Caroll

This is the second book in a middle grades Christian series about Samantha Sanderson, a seventh grade reporter.  I didn’t like the first book because I thought the characters had questionable values.  But I wanted to try this second one because I did like the basic premise.

This book was much better than the first.  I did not have the same issues with values that I did with the first book.  

There were two serious issues here - bullying being the most central to the plot.  As an educator, I’m always interested in books that discuss bullying.  I feel this was handled in a very appropriate way, giving good advice to students who are being bullied.

The second issue was that of whether or not First Amendment rights apply to the staff of a school newspaper.  And while this was also handled in an accurate manner, it may not be very interesting to readers who are not interested in journalism or the law.

The characters are more likable in this installment of the series.  New characters are introduced that make the plot more interesting.  However, the book does start to drag on and become slightly repetitive by the end.  

I’d recommend this book to any middle grades reader, Christian or not.  I do not feel that the Christian portions would be offensive to a non-Christian.  The great discussions of how to handle bullying are hard to find in other middle grades books.  I do, however, urge parents to read and discuss these books with their daughters because of my issues with the morality of the characters in the first book.

Three out of Five Stars

Disclaimer:  I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Saturday, July 12, 2014

Scripture Saturday, Romans 8:28

     In the interest of not stagnating, as I have a tendency to do when I'm on summer break (ah, summer break!), I'm going to try something new.  And by new, I mean new to the blog.  

     I'm always amazed at how I can be surprised every. single. time. I read the Bible.  It's ironic that I can believe in an omnipresent God and yet wonder how it is that He can know exactly what I need to hear at the moment that I need it.

   So, in the interest of learning more about this Creator whom I love, and more about myself in the process, I'm starting Scripture Saturday.  It will give me the chance to reflect on a verse that means a great deal to me.

    Romans 8:28 is the verse that has had the most impact on my life.  "And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love Him, who have been called according to His purpose."  You see this verse everywhere.  I wear a ring engraved with it, in fact, to remind me of this truth that has been lifesaving for me.

    I know people who will roll their eyes and say that this verse isn't what you think it is.  But for me, I first understood this verse when I was in the doldrums.  Because it's true - this verse isn't about that whole "new Christian" idea.  You know it because I'm sure you've felt it, like I have.  "Now that I'm a Christian, God's going to make sure everything is awesome for me."  Like that song from The Lego Movie, but with a Christian spin.

     The key to this verse is the phrase "in all things."  That's right, Paul wrote it, I read it - all things.  Even the horrible things that keep us up at 3 am.  And thank God, really.  Because we all go through terrible times that we'd rather forget.  Times that seem impossible.  Times in which we feel like there's just no point to life.

     That's the beauty of this verse.  There is a point to it all.  Maybe we don't see it now, maybe we will never actually see it in our life on this planet.  But God does.  He may not make it "awesome" for you in particular, but He will use you and your situation for good.   

     And that means that you have value.  No matter what, you have value.  Sometimes, just knowing that is enough to keep you fighting that good fight.

   Happy Saturday, everyone! May God bless the Lord's Day for you tomorrow.


Samantha Sanderson: At the Movies, by Robin Carroll

This middle grades book for Christian girls is the first in a series about Samantha Sanderson, a seventh grader with a passion for journalism.  In this installment, Samantha tries her hand at investigative reporting as she tries to solve the mystery of who planted a bomb at the local movie theater.

I wasn’t a fan of this book.  As a parent and an educator, it bothers me that Samantha resorts to fairly sneaky tactics to gain information for her articles.  Eavesdropping and disobeying her father are just the start.  And although Samantha comes to her father for forgiveness at the end of the book, she still has the attitude that it was all in the name of good reporting.  Add to that her BFF, a girl who will be recognized by readers of this age as a hacker for several of her actions.  For example, she admittedly breaks past the school firewall so she can access information that has been blocked.  This kind of thing is seen as endearing.  There are never any consequences for it, even though this would be a suspendable offense in most public schools.

In terms of the plot, it became very repetitive.  Samantha blogs an “article” that’s really more of a libelous op-ed piece.  She gets called in by the school principal and the newspaper teacher.  Her dad gets upset and her reporter mom warns her about libel.  Then, she wakes up and does it again.  Wash, rinse, repeat until the case is finally solved and everyone who criticized her before now lauds her for her amazing journalistic prowess.

I’d want to read another Samantha Sanderson book before deciding whether I want my daughter to read this series.  But based on this book, it would be a no go.  For me, it would be a one star book, but I’m giving it an extra star because it did have appropriate advice on witnessing.

Two out of Five Stars

Disclaimer:  I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Sunday, July 6, 2014

The Butterfly and the Violin, by Kristy Cambron


The Butterfly and the Violin surprised me with its beauty.  It is a poem in an otherwise prosaic world, a work of art that should not be missed.

The plot is wonderfully woven, telling two stories across time.  The first is that of Adele Von Bron, a Christian violinist who is sent to Auschwitz for the aide she gives to a Jewish family in hiding.  She becomes a member of the Women’s Orchestra of Auschwitz, forced to play during prisoner marches and arrivals.  The second story is of Sera James, a modern day art historian who is searching for a painting of Adele that was found among many other hidden pieces of art at Auschwitz.

The modern day story is sweet and reads more like a straightforward romance novel.  It is entertaining, and largely serves as relief for the more serious story of Adele.  It helps to advance the plot of the historical portion of the novel in a very appropriate way.

The beauty of this novel lies in Adele’s story.  Condemned by her own father, a general of the Third Reich, she loses the love of her family and is separated from the man she loves.  She is forced from her life of privilege into the brutal conditions of a Nazi death camp.  Within her story, we learn of perseverance, of hope for the future, and of resilient faith in God even under impossible circumstances.  “But worship in the midst of agony?  That is authentic adoration of our Creator,” is the line that best sums up the value of this novel.

Cambron gives us a well-researched story of the death camps.  I’ve always had an interest in this era from my own grandfather’s stories, and I found the book fascinating.  The existence of the Auschwitz orchestras was new to me, and I so appreciate the homage that Cambron has paid to the victims of the Holocaust.  This book is an emotional journey that is not to be missed.

Five out of Five Stars

Disclaimer:  I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

The Queen's Handmaid, by Tracy L. Higley

The Queen’s Handmaid is Tracy L. Higley’s finest work yet.  She has taken the history of the era of Herod the Great and Cleopatra, and woven a compelling fictional adventure throughout.

Lydia is valued servant to Cleopatra - but she is forced to flee Egypt with Herod to protect herself and a secret she harbors.  She becomes the handmaid to Herod’s Hebrew wife in Jerusalem.  This allows her to attempt to fulfill her destiny - to deliver scrolls about the coming Messiah to a Hebrew group that is committed to taking Israel away from Herod.  As she makes a new life for herself in Jerusalem, she confronts her discovery that she herself might be Hebrew.  Along the way, she meets a man who may well be the only person she has ever been willing to wholly love.

The story itself is fascinating, but what really grabbed my attention was Higley’s devotion to bringing this era to life.  The research she put into this project causes the characters and the setting to leap out of the Kindle and into the room with the reader.  Lydia is a delight to read, and the points of view of the other characters make this story truly shine.

I admired Higley before I read this book, but she is now one of my favorite authors.  The Queen’s Handmaid is a book that can’t be missed by anyone who is a fan of historical fiction.

Five out of Five Stars

Disclaimer:  I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.

Friday, June 6, 2014

Growing Up Amish, by Ira Wagler

          I picked up this book because like so many of us, I've got a natural curiosity about the Amish.  And no wonder - they've managed to stay in control of their culture while the rest of us feel like our culture is controlling us.  I know more than a few people - including myself - who've often thought of the Amish with a certain wistfulness for days gone by.

          This book surprised me, though.  I knew it wasn't going to give me an account of paradise in Amish country.  You can't expect that from an author who chose to leave the religion of his childhood.  What the book did was make me regard the Amish from a legalistic religious perspective.  Christians are meant to understand the Bible from a post-New Testament perspective, believing that Christ's sacrifice covers all repented sins.  The laws of the Old Testament are important, absolutely, but are not meant to supersede the sacrifice of the cross.  From my understanding, the author became so boxed in by the rules of the Amish that he could not recognize the forgiving power of God until someone pointed it out to him.  And that's dangerous stuff.

          I don't know if that is the experience of every Amish person, but it did leave me with food for thought.  It does make me want to study the culture more.  And I am grateful to the author for sharing his story with us.  He leaves us with a message that God will be there for the repentant, no matter what

          That's a message which is important to all of us, regardless of denomination.

Three out of Five Stars

Tuesday, May 27, 2014

Unbroken, by Laura Hillenbrand

Louis Zamperini, the subject of this book, piqued my interest for a couple of reasons - he was stationed in the Pacific Theater, like my grandfather.  He also attended USC, like myself and my father.  And as I also volunteer in the Rose Parade, his selection as Grand Marshal for the 2015 parade interested me further - although I'd already placed this book on my to-read list.

But Laura Hillenbrand is such a fantastic author, you don't need to find connections with Louis Zamperini to appreciate his story.  The connections are already there.  Zamperini's humanity comes out in this book in a way that has you feeling that you're with him.  And Hillenbrand, with her carefully researched details, allows you to use all five of your senses as you become immersed in the story.

Zamperini, a miler in the 1936 Berlin Olympics, became an officer in the Army Air Forces during the war.  Stationed in Hawaii, he flew a number of missions until his plane went down.  He, his pilot, and a fellow crewman survived the crash, but drifted in a raft for over a month before they were picked up by the Japanese.  Hillenbrand recounts all of this, plus Zamperini's experiences as a POW.

As much as I value the prewar and war portions of this book, I greatly admire Zamperini for sharing his experiences with post-traumatic stress after the war.  Hillenbrand does an amazing job of painting the picture of a man who was tormented by his memories.  So often, I think, we don't hear about this of our World War II veterans.  I feel they were expected to just cowboy up and get over it because of the associated stigma.  But so many of them have struggled with their memories, even 70 years later.  And so, both Zamperini and Hillenbrand offer an important perspective that many war stories ignore.  Zamperini's tale is especially inspirational as he shares the spiritual awakening that finally led him out of his misery.

Hillenbrand's book is a biography that reads like a novel.  I highly recommend it for anyone who is interested in the time period in general, or for anyone who is looking for a truly moving book.

Five out of Five Stars

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Invisible, by Cecily Anne Paterson

          I picked this book up for free in the Kindle store - not always the best place to find good reads, but this book is a definite exception.  An outstanding book for middle grades readers, it's about a partially deaf middle-schooler who is still struggling to cope with her father's death four years ago.  There is no bad language, no sexual content, and it's a very inspiring story.

            Jazmine Crawford has been bouncing around from town to town since her father died.  She's learned to hide her feelings, and has no real friendships as a result.  Her relationship with her mom is strained, and she's gotten in with a bad crowd at school.  But when a sympathetic teacher intervenes, Jazmine finds herself thrown into working on the school play, Frances Hodgson Burnett's The Secret Garden.  And, much like Mary Lennox, Jazmine finds that finding a purpose in life pulls her out of the mire that her life has become.

            The Kindle edition has some grammatical errors, but they don't detract from a beautiful story.  The author has great potential, and the power of the story is amazing.  The point of view of the preteen is spot on, in my opinion.  Paterson does a great job of portraying both the dreams and the insecurities of the age level.  And there's just enough early teen romance (holding hands, that kind of thing) to pique the interest of the young reader.

             I look forward to reading Invincible, a sequel to Invisible set to be released later in 2014.

            Four out of Five Stars

Flora & Ulysses, by Kate DiCamillo

         As a teacher, it's surprising that I've never read any of Kate DiCamillo's works until now.  I think she was one of those authors that I'd always planned to get around to, but never did.  So Flora and Ulysses ended up being that one book that I finally picked up while browsing at my local library.  And I'm sure glad I did!

          I fell in love with this book on page one.  I started and finished it in the same bubble bath one  Friday evening.  My family probably thought I'd drowned, but I just couldn't put this book down.  

          It's part standard novel, part graphic novel, which I found entertaining.  And you can't beat the story about a Super Hero Squirrel named Ulysses who helps a young girl work through her issues after her parents' separation.   It's quirky, humorous, inspiring, and just a darn good story.  I highly recommend it to middle grade students, young adults, and grown-ups who've always wished for a Super Hero Squirrel of their very own.  This is the stuff that imagination is made of.  It's an absolute must for any school library.

          Five out of Five Stars

Smart Money, Smart Kids, by Dave Ramsey and Rachel Cruze


   Smart Money, Smart Kids is well worth the read, no pun intended. Speaking as an educator with an undergrad degree in business administration/accounting, I think this book is excellent on two fronts.  First, I think the authors' program for teaching children financial responsibility is both sound and practical.  Second, a parent who follows even half the precepts in this book will be doing a good job of parenting in general.

     The bulk of the book is written by Rachel Cruze, Dave Ramsey's daughter.  She's devoted her career to teaching young people how to prevent financial catastrophe before it happens.  The program she sets forth in this book is basically how she was raised.  She starts with a plan to teach children as young as three how to both earn and save their money.  As the book progresses, the program becomes more involved to allow for older children and teenagers.  But at every level, it is age appropriate and will give your children the gift of financial security.

     Out of the many parenting books I've read, this book has been the best by far in terms of teaching children a good work ethic and responsible living.  The fact that this happens through learning how to manage money is really just a bonus.  I highly recommend this book to anyone with children of any age.

Disclaimer:  I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Five out of Five Stars

Wednesday, May 7, 2014

Unenchanted - An Unfortunate Fairy Tale, by Chanda Hahn


         Mina likes to think she's an average teen - except for the fact that she doesn't fit in at school, and unexpected occurrences of a Harry Potter nature keep happening to her.  And then comes the day when her mother explains to her that she is the descendant of the Brothers Grimm.  As if that weren't enough, Mina also learns that she is the sole heir of the family curse.  She must fight her way through modernized versions of fairy tales.  Once she's completed all the tales, the curse will be lifted.  Unfortunately, all her predecessors have been killed in the process.  But Mina is determined to beat the odds.

          I was excited to read this book because I was fascinated with the idea behind the plot.  I became less excited after I began the book and discovered how superficial the characters are.  Most of them read like caricatures of teenagers, which I don't appreciate in YA.

           Overuse of adverbs and excruciating attention to unnecessary details don't help the situation.  Nor do odd word choices that most Americans don't use in dialogue.  Character motivation is often unsteady, even within one scene.  Overall, the writing style is very juvenile and full of grammatical errors.  The book demonstrates the need for a good editor.

          I was most disturbed by the often stereotypical portrayal of Mina's Asian neighbors.  I think the author meant their accents to be funny, but the whole "Asian Speakee Engrish" thing has been a dead horse trope for decades now.  And it was never funny even when it was in vogue.  It's simply offensive and has no place in a YA book.  I was also bothered by the fact that the author includes in her bio her experience as a youth pastor, yet she has her characters taking the Lord's name in vain in text-speak.

          If you're looking for a good YA novel for your Christian teen to read, this isn't it, despite the youth pastor image the author tries to convey.  If you're a middle grades reader who is trying to transition into the longer chapter books, then this might be a good book for you to read.

          Two out of Five Stars

Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Daisies Are Forever, by Liz Tolsma

Daisies are Forever is a story of an American in Germany during World War II.  It is a story of survival, of a group of innocents trying to flee the Soviet occupation of Berlin in the final days of the war.  It is based on the lives of two women - Ruth Lippert, who led a group of ten people to safety; and Lillian Tolsma, who lived in Berlin during the Soviet occupation.

The book really does read like two different stories.  The first half lacks passion, particularly in the dialogue.  The author does an excellent job of description, and the landscape that she paints leaps off the page into the reader's mind.  However, the character development in the beginning is weak, most particularly with Kurt and Audra.  Kurt's motives are not explained enough to make his story plausible, and his story's end seems rushed and too good to be true.  I wasn't able to connect with Gisela and Mitch, the two main characters, as they tried to flee the German countryside to the safety of Berlin.

The second half of the book is a joy to read.  Small wonder, since it is based on the life of the author's grandmother.  The stories she must have told the author heavily influence this last half.  Here, we see characters finally spring to life with the zeal that was missing in the beginning.  We feel their fears, their determination, and their joy.  The love story becomes more believable.  And we get a very real sense of what it was like to live in Berlin just before and during the Soviet occupation in 1945.

The second half of the book is worth the first half.  I recommend this book to anyone who is interested in civilian life during World War II.

Three of Five Stars

Disclaimer:  I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

This Star Won't Go Out - The Life and Words of Esther Grace Earl

I will start this review by saying that I don't know how to write a review of a book like this.  I found this book through John Green's most excellent The Fault inOur Stars.  And I'm so glad I did.

John Green accomplishes an impossible task in The Fault in Our Stars.  He somehow is able to humanize an unhumanizable (yes, that's a word) subject - childhood cancer.  And he does so in a beautifully written fictional narrative that I highly recommend. 

But Esther Grace Earl quite literally gives us her magnum opus - her diaries, poems, prose, blogs - her life.  And through her, we see life's beauty.  We see God's greatest gift of love as it pours out through the heart of a young lady whose star shines brightly even now, four years after her death from thyroid cancer.

As a child, I read a few books that stand out in my mind as being "cancer books."  But This Star Won't Go Out is not a cancer book.  It's a book of love.  It's a book of kindness, of creativity, of the exuberance of a teenager.  Who also happens to be terminally ill.  And through her love and her relationships with the people around her, we learn that our weaknesses do not have to define us.  We learn that God's love triumphs, even in the most painful circumstances.

I know that everyone will take something different from this book.  But whatever gift you are given as you turn that last page, it will leave you with a different outlook on your life.  Don't let the subject matter frighten you.  Just read it.  You'll be glad you did.

Five out of Five Stars 

Friday, April 18, 2014

The Devil Walks in Mattingly, by Billy Coffey

The Devil Walks in Mattingly is an exploration into the lives and regrets of a small town sheriff and his wife.  Both of them are dealing with guilt from their involvement in the twenty-year-old death of a high school classmate. The exact nature of their involvement remains a mystery almost until the end of the book.  It's a Christian book with a supernatural twist, which I find refreshing.

Coffey's writing style is beautiful, even lyrical at times.  I think I fell in love with his style more than I did the plot.  The characters are largely unlikable and lacking in any real emotion until the last quarter of the book.  However, anyone who is walking through such dark shadows as these is not going to be fun to read about.  And because of that, this book is more real than so many other books I've read that aren't in the fantasy genre.  Coffey doesn't write people as we want to see them - he writes people as they truly are, wrinkles and all.

It's all put in perspective by the last quarter of the book, which is one of the most riveting passages I've ever read.  The book ends with a powerful message about grace, forgiveness, and love.  It's a very good read for anyone who has ever felt that their sins can never be forgiven.  And as the devil walks in our world as much as he walks in Mattingly, it's a book that all of us can relate to.

Four out of Five Stars

Disclaimer:  I was provided a copy of this book by the publisher in exchange for a fair and honest review.