Book reviews: 52 Life Lessons from Les Misérables and Let There Be Light

52 Little Lessons from Les Misérables

This book is a mixed bag for me. I want to love it, and everything I usually rate would mean I love it. The introduction is well done, Bob Welch does a great job explaining his purpose and methodology, and the premise is a winner. I spent days in the basement of my childhood home, devouring a dusty library copy of the unabridged Les Misérables. (The unabridged version is worth the read, and it’s not the literary snob in me saying this. With the abridged, we get the familiar story and action most people have heard or seen in the musical and movies. With the unabridged, we get the whole setup for why and how.)

The life lessons from a narrative point in Les Misérables are well-chosen, if a bit cliched, and the examples from Welch’s real life give a folksy, down-to-earth application. As I said, I should love this book…but I don’t. Perhaps the error was mine in thinking a “52 Life Lessons” title would mean more than short and superficial messages. However, the richly detailed and nuanced introduction left me disappointed when the following chapters gave only an oversimplified message.

Perhaps this is what the target audience wants. For someone wanting short, to-the-point, and easy-to-understand chapters that can be read in any order, this could be a useful devotional. I did enjoy some of the chapters.

by Bob Welch

Let There Be Light

By Archbishop Desmond Tutu

Illustrated by Nancy Tillman

Archbishop Desmond Tutu’s name on this cover commanded my attention, and I was eager to receive the book for review. It may be the small size and the board book version, but I didn’t enjoy it as much as I’d anticipated. However, it would be difficult for any book to live up the expectations of Tutu’s name.

It’s a pleasant Christmas story that children will enjoy, and the message is certainly a good one.

(Books provided for review by BookLook, a subsidiary of HarperCollins.)

G is for Gifts, Simple

Connections

G is for Gifts. Not just any gifts, but Simple Gifts.

This is one of the most beautiful settings I have ever found. Allison Kraus and Yo Yo Ma, complete with gorgeous photos:

I’ve written about Simple Gifts before, including a few snippets:

The lyrics are here, although I use a slightly different version in the book.

‘Tis the gift to be simple, ’tis the gift to be free

‘Tis the gift to come down where we ought to be,

And when we find ourselves in the place just right,

‘Twill be in the valley of love and delight.

When true simplicity is gained,

To bow and to bend we shan’t be ashamed,

To turn, turn will be our delight,

Till by turning, turning we come ’round right.

 

 

Simple Gifts

Simple Gifts

Simple Gifts

Music. Without the love of her life, how can Leila learn to live again?

Professional violinist Leila Feran is accustomed to fame as the youngest and first female concertmaster of the Philharmonic Symphony. Driven to achieve ever-increasing heights, she injures her wrist so badly that she may no longer be able to play. While she recovers, she moves in with her childhood best friend, a pianist and beloved orchestra teacher in a small town.

Carene welcomes Leila with open arms and only one condition: no divas allowed. And if Leila can’t follow the house rules, she might find herself over Carene’s knee…or worse. In between arguments over physical therapy and house rules, Carene’s zero-tolerance policy regarding divas results in some old-fashioned discipline that changes into something more.

Will Leila and Carene’s new feelings for each other blossom into something wonderful? Or will Leila lose not just a friend, but also her potential soul mate?

For anyone who has read and reviewed Simple Gifts (or who does so now), I will send you a free copy of their short story sequel, “Complicated Gifts.” Please post a link to your review in the comments. 🙂
Offer is good through the end of the month!

Church of the Wooden Spoon

Church of the Wooden Spoon

So. I believe in lighting candles rather than cursing the darkness. In my dismay at the new laws allowing people to refuse service based on religious beliefs (which, as far as I can tell, do not exempt emergency service providers such as EMTs or firefighters), I felt dispirited. Disappointed. Sad for what this might mean for the future of our society.

I could complain about the laws, or I could do something instead. I may not have the legal or political clout to do something that way, but I’m a writer. I enjoy humor. So…in response to this law, I have founded a Church of the Wooden Spoon. I created it as a joke and added two people because Facebook doesn’t allow a group without members.

Within a few hours, the requests for membership starting coming in! So far, we are thirty-eight members strong and still growing. Find us on Facebook and ask to join! The first New Member Class will conclude at the end of today.

What? I’m not any crazier than the people passing these laws. 😀

So far, we have a few rules:

Rules of the Church of the Wooden Spoon (will be updated as necessary):

1. ‪#‎CabbageIsSexy‬
2. We are not celibate.
3. Traditional theology dictates that the edges of the wooden spoon must be rounded. However, a special task force is preparing a study on whether angled spoons (formerly known as spatulas and therefore heretics) may be accepted.
4. Wooden Spoon means WOODEN SPOON. No metal spoons, no spatulas, no silicone!
5. It is our sincere religious belief that the Wooden Spoon forbids us to have any business dealings with homophobes. Therefore, as a protected class under US law, we may refuse to serve homophobes in our daily lives.

We even have two prayers. One was composed in Latin by Emily Tilton:

O coclear fidele, tuum auxilium devote rogamus hodie, ut nates illorum qui flagellationem desiderent!

 

You’ll have to ask Emily what it means. 🙂

The prayer I composed is in English:

O Magnificent Spoon of Wonder
We give thanks to you and strive to honor you
Guide us and protect us, O Spoon,
That we may live in the glory of your ways.

Please don’t ask about the angled spoon debacle. We’re all reeling from the internal conflict. What? You insist on knowing? Okay, okay. Here is the public statement:

It is NOT true that the Church of the Wooden Spoon has splintered into a protest church, the Church of the Wooden Spatula. We at the Church of the Wooden Spoon are working hard to reach out to these lost sheep and bring them back into the fold.

I have commissioned a task force to prepare a statement on the Church of the Wooden Spoon’s position on the shape of the wooden spoon and whether angled edges will be accepted as orthodox.

Please, in times of founding a new church it is easy to get lost in divisive rhetoric. Let’s not get distracted by the little details and instead focus on the glory that is the Wooden Spoon.

We are a new church, and this was an enormous blow. The less said, the better. Even worse, we’re getting reports of publicly expressing love for riding crops, getting seduced by a traveling salesman to love an angled wooden spoon, and *gasp* attending the church of the SILICONE spoon!

The Holy Mistress is not pleased.

If you want to win a wooden spoon of your own, plus an autographed set of cooking chopsticks, visit Jessica Subject’s blog for a post on Hyunkyung Han’s Top 5 Favorite Spanking Implements!

Plus, check out this wonderful 5-star review for Living in Sin by Amy at Inked Rainbow Reads!

 

A Mother’s Secret (Hearts of the Lancaster Grand Hotel) book review

 

  • Title: A Mother’s Secret
  • Author: Amy Clipston
  • Print length: 309 pages
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Publication date: June 3, 2014
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
  • Rating:
  • 4 gingersnaps (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 3 gingersnaps for craft(2)
  • 5 gingersnaps for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 4 gingersnaps (recommended)

Review copy provided by BookLook Bloggers, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Christian Publishing

The periphery details:

A Mother’s Secret is book two in Hearts of the Lancaster Grand Hotel, a series of romances set in an Amish community. I did not read book one, and I was still able to enjoy this book as a stand-alone. The book also includes a glossary of terms used in the Amish community, a family tree, and a set of discussion questions.

The book:

(From the publisher)

 

Carolyn Lapp longs to have a traditional Amish family. But she lives on her brother’s farm with her parents and her 15-year old son, Benjamin. Carolyn has never revealed the identity of Benjamin’s father and lives daily with the guilt and shame of her youthful indiscretion. Her brother simply will not forgive her.

 

His answer is to arrange a practical marriage for Carolyn to Saul, a widower with a little girl. But Carolyn isn’t convinced that Saul really loves her and believes he is simply looking for someone to help raise his daughter.

 

When Benjamin causes trouble at a local horse auction, horse breeder Joshua Glick decides that he must be taught a lesson. Carolyn and Joshua are unmistakably drawn to each other, but Joshua mistakenly assumes that Benjamin is Carolyn’s brother. Carolyn fears that if he discovers the truth, her past will destroy their budding romance.

 

After years of shame and loneliness, Carolyn suddenly has two men vying for her attention. But which of them will give her the family—and the unconditional love—she’s longed for?

The positive:

The writing is more tell than show, Clipston relies heavily on cliches, and the paper-thin plot is no more than a series of romance novel tropes cobbled together. Still, the book is charming. In the world of Christian fiction, this is the equivalent of the new Avengers movie: you know you are being manipulated to cheer, but you do it anyway. Pleasant, formulaic, and inoffensive, this novel ends with a happily-ever-after that satisfies even if it is not quite earned.

By the end of page one, the reader knows exactly how the story will end. There are no surprises here, but Clipston makes the read a pleasant journey. If you want a family-friendly story as a diversion for a few hours, this is a sure bet. I enjoyed reading about a family that has its foibles but genuinely cares for each other. I rate this book four gingersnaps, not because the writing is outstanding, but because the book clearly defines its premise from page one and delivers exactly what it says it will. If you enjoy the first few pages of the ebook sample, you’ll like the book.

The not-so-positive:

While the Amish community Clipston researched may have a stylized, limited vocabulary and repeat the same words in every conversation, in a novel this reads as inferior writing and a distraction. In some places, it felt as if Clipston had to justify her glossary by repeating the same words as many times as possible.

While I enjoyed the sweetness of the romance (a few romantic touches at most), others might have difficulty with a subplot of chastising a teenage girl for talking with a boy. Still, given the context and acknowledgment by the girl’s father that he was too harsh, it works. Potential readers should be aware, though, that some of the patriarchal attitudes toward women and sexuality may not be their cup of tea.

 

 

 

Conclusion: A Mother’s Secret is a pleasant, formulaic read filled with cliches and feel-good moments. Recommended as a quick, light read.

  1. Content refers to the themes and structure of the book. For fiction, this includes macro elements such as the book’s premise, character arcs, and how well the conflict and resolution fulfill the promise of the book. For non-fiction, this refers to the information that is conveyed.
  2. Craft refers to the level of writing technique, ranging from clarity of text to carefully edited prose.
  3. Christian themes refers to the application of Biblical principles as well as the understanding and application of Christian theology.
    .
    Additional note: The combined score generally is a mathematical average of the three ratings, unless an individual rating is especially low or high.

Take This Cup (The Jerusalem Chronicles) book review

 

  • Title: Take This Cup
  • Author: Bodie and Brock Thoene
  • Print length: 388 pages
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Publication date: March 25, 2014
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
  • Rating:
  • 2 gingersnaps (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 3 gingersnaps for craft(2)
  • 4 gingersnaps for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 3 gingersnaps (average)

Review copy provided by BookLook Bloggers, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Christian Publishing

The periphery details:

Bodie and Brock Thoene are two of my favorite authors of gripping Christian fiction. Their Zion Covenant series stands out as a testament to their ability to make memorizing Bible verses (specifically, verses of Isaiah) seem like a privilege won thanks to the death-defying adventures of our predecessors. I chose to review this book, despite it being the second in a series (and not having read the first) because I love their work.

The book:

(From the publisher)

Nehemiah, the young son of a Jewish woman, a weaver from Jerusalem, is born and raised among the Jews who didn’t return to Jerusalem from the Exile. Educated by Rabbi Kagba, one of the magi present at Jesus’ birth thirty years earlier, Nehemiah grows up with the expectation of a soon-coming Messiah. Could the Yeshua of Nazareth, who is walking the earth, reportedly doing miracles, be that Messiah?
When young Nehemiah must travel the long caravan road to Jerusalem, he is charged with an unusual mission—to carry a mysterious object back to the holy city of Jerusalem . . . an object whose reappearance heralds the Messiah’s arrival.Nehemiah arrives in Jerusalem just as the final events of Jesus’ earthly ministry are coming to a climax: the Feast of Dedication, the Triumphal Entry, the last cleansing of the Temple, and culminating at the Last Supper in the Upper Room. Only Nehemiah understands the true sacrifice that is to come as he makes the cup worthy of his Savior.

The positive:

The Thoenes are able writers who spin a tale with skill. They dramatize the last few months of Jesus’ life as told through the eyes of a shepherd boy, along with dream cameo appearances by Joseph, son of Jacob and Rachel.

There was a lovely scene between Joseph and Nehi, the shepherd boy, in which they talk about not losing hope.

The use of “Sparrows” for the homeless boys in Jerusalem was well done.

The not-so-positive:

I wanted to love this book. I really did, but it fell so flat that it took me two weeks to finish. I fell asleep for the first five or ten times I tried to read the book. I only managed to finish by using the text-to-speech feature on my Kindle and listening to large chunks of the book while ironing.

It took me most of the book to figure out why this book was dull, and I’ll list them here:

  • Nehi (Nehemiah), the shepherd boy, never does anything wrong and never experiences character growth.
  • The dream visions from Joseph were probably meant to be inspiring, but they felt too much like a deus ex machina to squeeze in narrative that Nehi could not have known.
  • The constant repetition of “This cup is an amazing treasure that will change history” felt forced and did not build a sense of awe and grandeur.
  • None of the characters experience growth or change.

If you want a dramatized version of the Bible verses, akin to a Passion Play, this is a nice (but wordy) way to imagine what it might be like to wave palm branches while shouting hosannas as Jesus entered Jerusalem.

If you want a well-crafted story that can stand on its own merits, this is not it.

Warning: Spoiler!

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I particularly objected to the miraculous reappearance of Nehi’s parents at the end, when they had been presumed dead for the bulk of the book. The book takes great pains to show how Nehi can identify with homeless orphan boys, only to throw him into the joyous arms of his parents a dozen chapters later. Considering the enormous drama involved in the Passion itself, this melodrama was unnecessary and cheapened the narrative. Children do lose their parents to early death, and false death came across as a way to play on the heartstrings of the reader and not because it made narrative sense.

 

Conclusion: Take This Cup gives a dramatized version of the Passion through the eyes of a young shepherd boy. Well-meaning but wordy and slow-moving.

  1. Content refers to the themes and structure of the book. For fiction, this includes macro elements such as the book’s premise, character arcs, and how well the conflict and resolution fulfill the promise of the book. For non-fiction, this refers to the information that is conveyed.
  2. Craft refers to the level of writing technique, ranging from clarity of text to carefully edited prose.
  3. Christian themes refers to the application of Biblical principles as well as the understanding and application of Christian theology.
    .
    Additional note: The combined score generally is a mathematical average of the three ratings, unless an individual rating is especially low or high.

Please Look After Mom book review and giveaway

If you haven’t yet read Kyung-Sook Shin’s international bestseller, Please Look After Mom, you’ve missed out. Published as Omma rul Put’akhae in Korea in 2008 and translated into English by Chi-Young Kim and re-published in 2011, Please Look After Mom is an unforgettable story of a family coming to terms with the loss of its mother. So-nyo Park, an elderly woman in poor health, gets lost in a crowded train station while going to visit her adult children and grandchildren with her husband. The novel is both an intimate portrait of one family’s tragedy and a metaphor for losing what was once dear. So-nyo is both literal mother and representation of a past that can never return. Stunning, moving, and well worth the read.

Warning. This book is not for you if:

You require a happily-ever-after ending and all plot points resolved in a nice, tidy bow.

You are intolerant of ambiguity and multiple possible interpretations of a story.

You need immediate answers to questions posed by the story.

You are unwilling to read a story told in the second person.

You expect all stories to follow a typical pattern.

You are unable to enjoy a book that is unfamiliar to you.

You dislike any fantastical elements in a story.

Still with us? Great! If so, read on. I will give a copy of this book to one random commenter on this review*. No hidden agenda here, just a deep love for the book and an eagerness to introduce it to new fans. Again, you will not enjoy this book if the above characteristics apply to you. Consider yourself warned!

First, the drawbacks. A few of the scenes were over the top, especially the one about the orphanage. I won’t give specifics to avoid giving spoilers, but the plot point fit too perfectly into a tear-jerker formula. For a book that brought me to tears with its understated prose elsewhere, the orphanage scene went too far. Also, some of the husband’s scenes became repetitive. He’s a jerk who took his wife for granted, and Shin establishes that early on.

The narrative about the oldest son is the only section written in third person. While this may have been an effort to show emotional distance, it seemed inconsistency rather than an artistic choice. In contrast, when the mother uses “I” for her narrative, it’s a clear and effective choice to change the tone of the story.

Other than these few points, Please Look After Mom is one of the best books I’ve read in a long time. I became so involved in the story that I searched book reviews to find out what happened to the mother. One of the reviews warned against reading spoilers and said the book should be savored slowly, learning details as the pages reveal them. I would give the same advice to anyone picking up this book. Do not read spoilers, or you will ruin the book for yourself. My only caveat would be not to expect a tidy, happy ending. As long as you’re willing to go where Shin leads you, this book will be well worth the read.

Why do I love this book so much? It’s difficult to explain without spoiling the plot, but there are two scenes that stand out. In one, So-nyo apologizes to her daughter for expressing dismay at the birth of her daughter’s third child. Through So-nyo’s perspective, we understand this dismay as a mother’s love wanting to protect her child from the sacrifices of raising three children.

In the other, So-nyo sinks into depression and finds comfort when she accidentally touches another woman’s mink coat. The softness soothes her. Without knowing the enormous cost of furs, she calls her recent college graduate daughter and asks for a mink coat as a gift. With only a small hesitation, the daughter agrees and arranges for a shopping date. When So-nyo’s daughter-in-law’s shock and envy at the new coat make So-nyo realize the cost, her daughter lashes out.

“It’s the first time Mom ever asked me to buy something for her! Stop it!” (p. 204)

Such a tiny scene, but the power ripples throughout the entire book. How many of us have known someone, mother or otherwise, who cared for us without asking anything in return? Even for those raised in abusive or neglectful environments, there is usually at least one person who makes an impact.

Please Look After Mom is a life-affirming read about the power of love.

 

 

*Anastasia Vitsky and Governing Ana have not received any compensation, financial or otherwise, to write this review or offer the giveaway.

Samantha Sanderson on the Scene book review

If you’re looking for the Hop Against Homophobia and Transphobia post for International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia, click here.

Because I have already reviewed the first book, Samantha Sanderson at the Movies, at length, you may want to read that review first.

  • Title: Samantha Sanderson on the Scene
  • Author: Robin Caroll
  • Print length: 244 pages
  • Publisher: Zonderkidz
  • Publication date: May 6, 2014
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
  • Rating:
  • 2 gingersnaps (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 3 gingersnaps for craft(2)
  • 3 gingersnaps for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 2.5 gingersnaps (below average)

Review copy provided by BookLook Bloggers, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Christian Publishing

The periphery details:

Same as the first book.

The book:

Sam Sanderson returns, this time in a bullying case. A girl at school receives notes calling her fat, and Sam gets help from her best friend Makayla to figure out who’s responsible.

The positive:

Finding quality Christian fiction for children is always a challenge, particularly fiction that doesn’t package a sermon in a flimsy disguise for a story. I appreciate the light hand Caroll takes in regards to Christianity, even if it gets lost underneath the heavy-handed “After-School Special” approach to bullying.

Without giving spoilers, I will say that the choice of “bad guy” was handled appropriately. There are no true villains in this story, which is a good message and good writing.

I also appreciate seeing fiction about Christian girls with positive role models and supportive parents.

This book’s mystery, the bullying of a schoolmate, is more plausible (than the first book in which Sam investigates a bombing) for a middle-school girl heroine.

 

The not-so-positive:

This book had the same issues as the first in regard to pacing. In fact, the book used exactly the same formula: opening mystery, multiple dead-end red herring trails, an abrupt resolution a few pages from the end of the book, and no consequences for any of Sam’s inappropriate behavior.

However, this book magnifies the flaw of the first one and adds another one. It’s an odd mixture of preaching about bullying and allowing its main character to flout ethics without consequences.

I was disturbed by Sam’s slap on the wrist followed by praise for confessing that she broke into an administrator’s computer. In the first book, Sam used her school newspaper blog to launch wild accusations at innocent adults without any consequences. In this book, Sam does confess and receive a token punishment (clean-up duty), but she receives many pats on the back for owning up to her mistake. I agree that fiction should depict real people, rather than a morality lesson, but Caroll takes such pains to reinforce the lesson (BULLYING IS BAD) that the contrast is unsettling.

What was worse, however, was Makayla’s gossip about students’ counseling files. Again, as in book one, Sam breaks rules in order to get information for her sleuthing. In the first book, Sam regularly eavesdropped and ended up getting her dad in trouble at work. In this book, she pressures a friend to break ethical rules about confidentiality. As an aside, why would a school allow a student to see confidential files, anyway? I would be very upset, as a student or a parent, if private details were shared without my permission.

What I found most disappointing about this book was its issues with superficial attempts to include diversity. Unlike the first book, that only mentioned “mocha” skin in passing and therefore rated only a small mark-down, this book tried to address race and failed. I beg of any author:

Write diversity well, or skip it entirely.

One of the worst lines of dialogue in the entire book is when Tam, an Asian character, says that she was bullied “about my Asian heritage.” Few adults of color would say that, let alone children. Honestly. What middle school student would talk this way, particularly an American child who is half Chinese? The line rings tone-deaf to the actual racism and bullying faced by children of color every day.

Makayla, who is this time identified as “African American” (but still portrayed as white on the book, this time with even lighter skin), is surprised when Sam informs her that bullying can take racial forms. I guarantee that if Makayla were an actual living middle school student, she would be the one teaching white Sam about racial bullying. I have never met a person of color who could not instantly come up with several instances of racially inappropriate behavior. Are they willing to share it with a white author gathering source material for her book? Most likely not.

I beg authors to either write racial diversity the real way or omit it. This kind of ethnocentrism is a poor message in applying Christianity to our day-to-day lives. Nearly thirty years ago, The Baby-Sitters Club mentioned its one member of color in passing as a token nod to diversity. Surely, in 2014, we have moved past this kind of superficial representation?

Lest this review come across as harsh, let me point out that I am critiquing this representation within its own context. I would not apply the same criteria to a book that never mentioned skin color of its characters, or a book that used some self-awareness about its superficiality regarding race.

(Bonus reading: “Where Are the People of Color in Children’s Books?” from the New York Times and “The Apartheid of Children’s Literature”, also from the New York Times)

Children of color are Christians, too. They deserve stories for and about them, not to be relegated as a white-washed sidekick who must be taught about racial bullying by the white protagonist.

 

Conclusion: Samantha Sanderson on the Scene offers a Christian-based story for white readers. Not recommended for children of color.

  1. Content refers to the themes and structure of the book. For fiction, this includes macro elements such as the book’s premise, character arcs, and how well the conflict and resolution fulfill the promise of the book. For non-fiction, this refers to the information that is conveyed.
  2. Craft refers to the level of writing technique, ranging from clarity of text to carefully edited prose.
  3. Christian themes refers to the application of Biblical principles as well as the understanding and application of Christian theology.
    .
    Additional note: The combined score generally is a mathematical average of the three ratings, unless an individual rating is especially low or high.