Sunday, May 21, 2017

THE ZOOKEEPER'S WIFE BY DIANE ACKERMAN

Image: goodreads.com
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

I was really excited to read The Zookeeper's Wife by Diane Ackerman. One because I nominated it as a book club selection (and it won! I rarely win things.) and two because I enjoy reading books set during the WWII/Holocaust time period.

This well-researched non-fiction book tells the story of a zookeeper, Jan Zabinski, and his wife, Antonina, who, together, saved more than 300 Jewish residents after Germany invades Poland. By hiding them in plain sight, the couple and their young son work together to smuggle Jews out of the Polish ghetto and hide them in the zoo before pushing them along the "Underground." Similar to the Underground Railroad in the United States during slavery, the Warsaw Zoo was a stop for many on the path to freedom and away from the horrific torture and terror of the Nazis. Much of the content is pulled from (and attributed to) Antonina's diary in which she documented the daily activities at the zoo.

At times the book was a bit difficult to read because of the enduring injustices and abuses to not only people but also animals that were recklessly used for sport and food. Knowing the history does not help numb the pain endured. The author paints a vivid picture of the time period by viewing it through a slightly different lens. However, the book is bearable, because in times of trouble, there are always helpers. This book, of course, focuses on Antonina and what she and her family did to help, but Ackerman also gives nods to other people who risked their lives to save Jews.

At the end, the author quotes Jan describing - in the most beautiful, relevant way, his wife's bravery during that tumultuous time:

"Her confidence could disarm even the most hostile. It wasn't just that she identified with them, but from time to time she seemed to shed her own human traits and become a panther or a hyena. Then, able to adopt their fighting instinct, she arose as a fearless defender of her kind." 

Ackerman does get a little bogged down in documenting the details and proving the accuracy of her content by offering pervasive annotations and citations throughout. Because of this the book sometimes reads like a dissertation rather than a story, and I tend to appreciate non-fiction that reads a little more like fiction than this book did.

Recommendation: If you are a slow reader who gets easily distracted, you may find it difficult to make it through this book. However, this book does provide another perspective on this time period that is worthy of telling. A movie by the same name featuring Jessica Chastain was released in April of 2017. While I haven't seen it, my guess would be that the movie is a little easier to digest after Hollywood adds its drama and removes some of the mundane detail the slowed the pace of the book.

Until next time ... Read on!

Wednesday, May 10, 2017

HOW TO WORSHIP A KING BY ZACH NEESE

Image Credit: goodreads.com
Rating: 2.5 of 5 stars

I read this book as part of a worship study at the church I attended, and it's been very difficult for me to attempt this review because I don't want the greater message to be lost in my review of how this important content was delivered. Everything I write, and especially this review, is written through my perspective as a Bible-based Christian.

The author, Zach Neese, is the worship pastor at Gateway Church in Texas. I have no doubt he is a well-read believer. There was a plethora of inspirational passages that created revelations for me in this book. Discussing portions of it with my small group was also helpful. However, much of the book was tainted by some egotistical, short-sighted, and down-right ugly commentary.

As a Christian, I understand we falter. That is the key that is often misunderstood by non-believers. Being a Christian does not make one perfect but rather makes one forgiven and redeemed for one's shortcomings. However, I just don't see how some of the language was left in this book after the writing and editing process. Some of this language included:
From page 45: Yes, every voice should sing to God, but only the best voices should leading the singing. 
As with most books like this, Neese offers some personal anecdotes. On page 47 he shares some information about fellow students at a Christian college who "took him on as a challenge" before he was saved. He writes, "They (the students) had two problems: they didn't know their Bibles well enough, and they didn't have the Spirit of God. I ate them for lunch."

My first issue here is in Neese's post-saved, redeemed life he would describe his response as "eating them for lunch." It reeks of an over-inflated ego, and it is my personal belief that it could have been worded better. It wasn't that he ate them for lunch; he was being disobedient. The way he crafted the story, it made the believers look weak, and I didn't think that was a fair assessment of the situation. We are called to go and make disciples, and that's what they were trying to do.

In chapter 4, Neese attempts an analogy about hypothetical wait service he and his wife might receive at a restaurant with putting our focus solely on God. He comments:
And Christ is one fellow you don't want to compete with. Let's make this personal. I have a beautiful wife. When I take her to dinner, it is because I want to spend time with her, not because I want her to be entertained by a waiter. This is a warning to waiters - if you want a tip, serve us; don't try to entertain us. I don't need a jester at my table; I need my glass refilled (p. 61)
Again, just the pure ugliness of this statement resulted in a loss of credibility with the author. These are not words of love, and they eroded his thesis rather than strengthening it.

From page 70, Neese drives home the point that we must demonstrate our love for God. While I do not disagree with this, as a communicator when he furthered his statement by writing, "As the saying goes, words are cheap," he lost me. No, they are not. Sticks and stones do break bones. Words do hurt. And yes, Mr. Neese, words have great power.

On the next page, Neese distracts with:
I have no idea why they call the thing they do to your fingers a manicure. It should be called a "womanicure." All I wanted was something that shoots, cuts, or blows up. I'm a boy! 
This is immature and sexist. Neese is a smart man. I can tell by the amount of research that was put into this book. I'm sure he knows the "man" part of manicure comes from the process dealing with the hand, and has nothing to do with gender. Why add this bit and take away from illustrating God's Word and the purpose of worship?

In chapter six, What is Praise?, Neese talks about people making excuses for not honoring God. He writes, "Why are people always looking for the exception? Why do some people look for a way to do as little as possible to honor God? The answer is simple. Those people don't love Jesus very much. 

Oh, Mr. Neese, why are you hurting (with your words that DO have power) already hurt people? I do not think passing judgement is in line with God. Instead God wants us to love His people. And really that was my prevailing issue with this book that had so much potential. Neese focused on beating people up rather than building them up in what they should do and what they can do through worshipping and loving the true and living God. I think this happens often, in churches all over the world. It's part of the reason so many people are leaving the Church.

Also, in chapter six, Neese resorts to name calling describing people as "whiney brats." On page 104, he passively passes judgments on churches who don't use instruments to worship saying, "And, just in case your denominational culture frowns on the use of instruments, notice they used instruments to praise the Lord." (2 Chronicles 20:27-28). Bashing other denominations does not glorify God, it makes the author look petty, and, in reading it, it chipped away at his credibility with me.

Later in chapter six on page 108, Neese attempts to emulate a Spanish-speakers accent. I found this distracting and disrespectful.

In chapter nine on page 148, Neese returns to name calling by describing a neighbor as a "spoiled brat." 

I could go on, but I think these examples demonstrate my main point. I did finish the book because I try to finish what I start, and I wanted to fully participate with my small group. Additionally, I don't want to do in this review exactly what I am accusing the writer of doing. How to Worship a King was published in 2015. I hope Neese has grown and matured (and continues to do so) since that time. There were great nuggets of truth in this book. If you follow me on social media, I shared some of those nuggets over the weeks that I read the book. My physical copy is tattered with "Amens" and "I <3 this!" but  the overwhelmingly negative comments are what stuck with me because they were so harsh. Furthermore, they took away from the good intent I believe the author had when writing the book.

In closing, I will share this positive thing I took away: God didn't create me to use me but instead to know me. And from that I must grow my relationship with Him to truly worship Him (p. 3, 26). My prayer is the Neese continues to know the Lord and hone his words ... and that's my prayer for me too!

Recommendation: Perhaps, I've become too accustomed to Proverbs 31 Ministries and the less abrasive approach these women of God take on when facilitating Bible studies. As you can glean, this was book was not a favorite. I am aware we have to discuss difficult issues in the Church, and it's not all nice and neat, but I do think that the author of this book would have better served those wishing to learn about worship if he would have expressed his concerns through a veil of love. With anything, we do not have to be disagreeable to disagree.

Bottom line: If I participated in another study on this topic, I would not choose this book to help guide discussions.

Until next time ... Read on!

Thursday, May 4, 2017

LISTEN LOVE REPEAT BY KAREN EHMAN

Image Credit: goodreads.com
Rating: 5 of 5 stars

People who know me can usually tell I am a Christian by faith. As such, some of the book reviews I post here are based on Bible studies in which I've participated. One of my favorite ministries is the Proverbs 31 Ministry. This group conducts several five-week studies throughout the year. The latest, and the fourth for me, is Listen Love Repeat: Other-Centered Living in a Self-Centered World by the very empathetic and hospitable Karen Ehman. (The Proverbs 31 Ministry is based on Proverbs chapter 31 in the Bible. As such, much of the educational and spiritual material is targeted towards women.)

Not to take anything away from this book, but Listen Love Repeat isn't rocket science. It's core message is about taking the focus off of your own issues and loving God by loving His people. It's really a simple three-step approach: 1. Love God. 2. Love People. 3. Then, do it again and again. But what seems so simple is principle is often difficult to put into practice. In this book, Ehman makes the theory practical, tangible, and attainable. She shows us how easy it can be to care for the hurting, care for our families, and even care for people who at first glance don't seem very lovable. The author's practical approach, based in God's Word (aka The Holy Bible) is thought-provoking. For me, it convicted me in many areas of my life stretching me to grow, go, and give more of myself.

I truly believe Ehman is a strong woman of God who has a passion for not only caring for people but helping women grow into more developed, mature Christians.

Recommendation: If you're feeling like your life doesn't have as much purpose as it should, I think this book will help show you how the little things you are doing (or can do) help you help others. And in today's cantankerous climate, I think we can agree that we can all use a little more love.

Until next time ... Read on!

Saturday, April 29, 2017

THE TRESPASSER BY TANA FRENCH

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Rating: 4 of 5 stars

If you've read previous posts on my blog, you know that I am a fan of Tana French. Her mystery books feature fictional detective characters from Dublin's Murder Squad that are completely engrossing. I've reviewed the last two (of the currently six-part series) on this blog. The Secret Place and Broken Harbor were both good. I found The Trespasser to be excellent. It's one of my favorites of the series. The special thing about these books is that they do not necessarily have to be read in order.

In this sixth book, we again meet partners and detectives Antoinette Conway and Stephan Moran. Both of these detectives were featured in The Secret Place. The difference is that Moran's character narrated the former while Conway gives voice to this latest novel. We learn Conway has a bit of a chip on her shoulder having suffered a considerable amount of harassment and hazing as the only female detective on the squad. Additionally, because she and Moran are the new kids on the block they tend to get the lesser profile cases. So, when they are given what seems like an open and shut domestic abuse turned murder case, it doesn't surprise them. However, Moran, who tends to be more emotionally aware and creative in exploring all options before giving up on a case pushes Conway out of her black-and-white, matter-of-fact comfort zone. While this dynamic makes them good complementary partners, it causes a bit of a rift between the two because throughout the book Conway becomes more paranoid about her place on the squad. The two also have to contend with two fellow detectives who don't appear to be on the up-and-up, and who certainly aren't trying to help them with the case. These factors push Conway and Moran to evaluate the case more closely and take the reader on a roller coaster ride of a murder mystery.

I don't want to give too much away because the building suspense is what makes this story so compelling and what makes French such a great writer in this genre. All of her books in this series, delve right into the case. Along the way you learn about the featured detective and how his (or her!) relationships shape their respective lives. Just like real people, the characters are flawed but have redeeming personality traits. The mystery keeps you, the reader, invested, but the character development is what really rounds out the story.

Recommendation: I would definitely recommend this book as well as all of the books in the series. All of them are available at my local library, so stop by yours and pick up one today. It doesn't have to be the first one. I bet you won't be disappointed. And don't forget to come back and share your thoughts here!

Until next time ... Read on!

Sunday, April 23, 2017

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

THE ODDS OF LOVING GROVER CLEVELAND BY REBEKAH CRANE

goodreads.com
Rating: 4 of 5 stars

After consuming several books with heavy topics, The Odds of Loving Grover Cleveland was a nice departure from the norm. I think Rebekah Crane capture the voice of adolescents very well.

The story is about a group of troubled teens who are sent to a summer camp to help find their respective selves. The main character, Zander, is dealing with a family issue that she is reluctant to share. Other campers have issues with eating/body image, compulsive lying, mental illness, and simply wanting to fit in. From day one, Grover Cleveland takes a liking to Zander.

The story is quite predictable in what happens - unlikely friendships are formed, relationships blossom, obstacles are overcome, and it all kind of ends in a happily every after way. The author took on some serious topics in a very superficial way, but I think it worked well for this genre.

Recommendation: I received a free electronic copy of this book via Amazon's "First" Book benefit from my Amazon Prime membership. I don't think I would have picked this book up on my own or paid for a copy. It's a light, fun read that you might consider borrowing from your local library.

Until next time ... Read on!

Saturday, March 25, 2017

ALL DIFFERENT KINDS OF FREE BY JESSICA MCCANN

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Rating: 2 of 5 stars

Although All Different Kinds of Free was published a mere 6 years ago in 2011, it was next to impossible to find a hard copy readily available for purchase in the Dallas/Fort Worth metropolitan area. That probably should have given me an indication of its quality. However, I purchased and dug into the story as it was a book club selection.

The author, Jessica McCann, made an attempt at producing a creative historical fiction novel based on an actual U.S. Supreme Court case (Prigg v. Pennsylvania). There was great opportunity with the U.S. on the cusp of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850 and the Civil War, shortly thereafter. I don't think McCann was successful in advancing a well-rounded story. There were gaps in her story, typos in her copy, and characters that were not fully developed. After plowing through the 267 pages (that felt more like 672 pages), the ending seemed rushed, like McCann was being forced to get her book to publication, resulting in a conclusion that wasn't particularly satisfying nor complete.

The story is set in the 1830s, during a time when the country was becoming more divided on the morality of the institution of slavery. The main character, Margaret Morgan, was living as a free woman with her family in Pennsylvania. Because there is some ambiguity about her freedom status, her former owner takes advantage of this to produce financial gains for herself. Her former owner hires a bounty hunter to kidnap her and her children (one, who was undeniably born free). The Morgans are forced into slavery to help alleviate debts of Margaret's owner.

Meanwhile, McCann offers up the nitty gritty details of the Supreme Court case regurgitating what is probably the court proceeding's transcript, verbatim. I found this section to be informative, but it slowed down the pace of the story a great deal.

I didn't find any redeeming value in this book. Margaret's former owner clearly has a change of heart, but it's too little too late. Margaret's husband sacrifices a great deal trying to get his family back. The lawyer that argued the Supreme Court case to help prove that the kidnapping was illegal wasn't successful and becomes depressed. Margaret's hometown in Pennsylvania experiences violence and riots as a result of the Supreme Court ruling. I think McCann tried to give the reader some hope at the end of the story through Jim Green. However, after so many defeats it's difficult to see that as a true win, especially since the story wasn't developed beyond Jim's heroic actions and the story ended so abruptly.

I understand that slavery is often a central topic in historical fiction. However, this was not the best execution. She would have been better served writing this as a research paper or a literary journalism article, perhaps.

Recommendation: I purchased this ebook because it was not available at my local library nor was it available in hard copy at any bookstores in my area. I wish I could get my money back. Clearly, I am not extending a recommendation to read this book. There is a plethora of stories about slavery. Choose another one to read.

Until next time ... Read on!

Sunday, March 5, 2017

THE GARDEN OF SMALL BEGINNINGS BY ABBI WAXMAN

Image: Courtesy of Goodreads.com
Rating: 3 of 5 stars

I received an advance copy of The Garden of Small Beginnings by Abbi Waxman from Net Galley. I have not been compensated for this review.

Who says grief can't be funny? In this novel, we meet 34-year old Lilian Girvan (Lili), widowed mother of two daughters - Annabel and Clare, sister to her polar opposite Rachel, and daughter to her brutally honest mother.

Her husband's untimely death, right in front of her on their neighborhood street, understandably emotionally wrecked her life. The book opens after Lilian has a stint in a mental health facility and is back at work as an illustrator for a small publishing company. In an effort to save the business, she's tasked by her boss to attend a six-week gardening class for a related book the company hopes to publish.

Throughout the course of the book, we learn that even though it's been several years since her husband's death Lilian is still grieving. Much of this grieving is self-focused, setting the stage for opportunities of re-evaluation and reconciliation with her family. All the while, she's attending this gardening class where she makes unlikely friends.

I really enjoyed the self-exploration part of this book. I liked how the author developed the main character through the secondary characters. Most of all, I like that the focus was on healing and friendships and not so much about getting a guy to make your life complete. However, there are some romantic elements, but they are not over done. Additionally, there are various "excerpts" about gardening throughout the book, which made it a fun read for this gardening hobbyist. I would have enjoyed the book more if there was a spiritual element to the healing process, but to each his (or her) own!

Recommendation: There are tidbits of goodness in this book with an overall realistic perspective on grief and and healing; however, I felt like some parts were contrived in an effort to create more humor than was necessary. At times the Lilian character was inconsistent and the happily ever after ending tied the story up a little too perfectly for my taste.

Until next time ... Read on!

Monday, February 27, 2017

HOMEGOING BY YAA GYASI

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Rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is what I call a solid debut! Yaa Gyasi's Homegoing was a wonderful read that spoke to my soul. Not because it was a story about slavery, necessarily, but rather one about family.

Secondary to the familial theme was the author's documentation of the African and black American cultures. Her work is proof that knowledge and maturity do not necessarily correspond with age. If this work is indicative of her budding career, I would bet she will have a long and successful one as a writer.

Homegoing is about two half-sisters born in Ghana and later separated from their homeland as a result of circumstances beyond each one's control. From the 1700s to present-day, we learn about each sister's fate and their lineage. Effia marries a British slaver while Esi becomes a slave shipped off to the U.S. From there, each chapter focuses on one person from the next generation, alternating between Effia's and Esi's respective families.

My only complaint about this novel is, because of the structure, the family tree that is printed in the front of the book is required for understanding. This might make it a little more difficult for those who choose the audio book and do not have the ability to refer back to the family tree.

The descriptive writing, the careful detail, and the honor to the culture are all factors in my rating. I thoroughly enjoyed the book. I do believe we write what we know, and that is typically what resonates with us as readers too. Gyasi has done a fine job, and I look forward to reading more of her work.

Recommendation: Even though this book tackles difficult topics, it does it in a way that makes it an easy read. I highly recommend it for those seeking to read about the African slave trade from a different perspective.

Until next time ... Read on!

Friday, February 17, 2017

THE SUN IS ALSO A STAR BY NICOLA YOON

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Rating: 4 of 5 stars

The Sun is Also a Star is a young adult novel by Nicola Yoon in which the bulk of the story takes place over the course of one day. Jamaican-born, straight-laced, facts-and-figures Natasha, her parents, and brother are on the verge of deportation from the United States. On her last day in New York, she meets Korean-American, dreamer, and poet, Daniel.

Whether fate, chance, or something more, the two high schoolers who were once strangers end up spending the day together learning more about themselves, each other, and the (sometimes, harsh) realities that result from their interactions.

This was a quick read that garnered a varied emotional response from me. Each chapter is told from a different character's perspective. Intermixed with the narratives are some well-researched topics about Jamaican, Korean, and North American cultures. The author did a splendid job of taking a fairly deep topic and making it easily digestable for the intended audience. For most people, the teen years are often wrought with emotions and uncertainties of who we are and who we will become. I think Yoon did an excellent job of illustrating those feelings in her book.

Sometimes a book finds us at just the right time, and this was an uplifting book that I needed to read. It didn't hurt that I'm a sucker for romance! While this is my first read by this author, it is her second novel. Her first, Everything, Everything, is set to debut on the big screen in May of this year, starring Amandla Stenberg.

Recommendation: If you're looking for a fun read that will make you think, smile, and maybe even cry a little, this is a good selection.

Until next time ... Read on!

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Hello! Thanks for visiting my blog. I am an avid reader who enjoys reading fiction. I also read biographies as well as fiction and non-fiction books about the Holocaust and Civil Rights period ... and I've been known to read a blog or two! If you'd like me to review a book, please complete the contact form below my bio. I'll be in touch!

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