"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.

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