Two book reviews: Defending the Line: The David Luiz Story and Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook: Recipes and Stories to Celebrate the Bounty of the Moment

(If you’re looking for Saturday Spankings, Weekend Writing Warriors, or Snippet Sunday, please click here for Kat’s birthday celebration)

Today, I’m posting two reviews at once in order not to flood email subscribers with three posts in one day. 🙂 I’m also writing these reviews free-form, but they were both provided as a review copy from BookLook, a subsidiary of HarperCollins Publishing.

Gourmet Southern-influenced recipes based on seasonal produce

Content: 4.5 gingersnaps

Craft: 4.5 gingersnaps

Presentation (photos, layout, organization): 5 gingersnaps

Combined score: 4.5 gingersnaps

I ordered Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook: Recipes and Stories to Celebrate the Bounty of the Moment planning to give it to one of my cook friends. However, I was so impressed with this book that I’m keeping it for myself. What other recommendation do you need? 🙂

The book is not without flaws, nor is it for everyone. While it may have been cost prohibitive to provide a photo for all of the 150 recipes, I would have preferred photos for the more unusual dishes. Most people, for example, have an idea what a watermelon bowl would look like (or can search for it on the internet). Instead of a photo of the watermelon bowl salad, I wish the book provided a photo of, say, glazed lemon-rosemary shortbread cookies. They sound divine, and I can’t wait to try making them. I’d love to have a photo for reference.

Second, this cookbook is absolutely not for a beginner or for someone who wants a quick and easy recipe. The directions are minimal and expect knowledge and familiarity with cooking fundamentals. Vienneau’s career as a professional caterer, coupled with her disdain for canned ingredients and store-bought dip, make these recipes both expensive and intimidating for someone who would rather throw together a Jell-O salad or a casserole.

Still with me? If you are, this cookbook will be a treat. The layout is wonderful, the recipes are organized by month (and which produce is in season), and the staggering wealth and variety of recipes guarantees that you should find at least one recipe you can’t wait to try. The backstory of how the author founded her Third Thursday potluck continues with a short narrative to introduce each month’s chapter of recipes. Some recipes have a little history about the person who contributed it. The book offers recipes for everything from flourless cayenne chocolate cake to Indian curry to garden margaritas to gourmet homemade ice cream. I put post-it flags on the recipes I want to try, and here’s my list:

  • Cooling cantaloupe soup (p. 5)
  • Fresh dill-feta quick bread (p. 21)
  • “Posh squash” souffle casserole (p. 39)
  • Blueberry-peach coffee cake (p. 43)
  • Glazed lemon-rosemary shortbread cookies (p. 69)
  • Jessi’s German pretzels with spicy old-world mustard (p. 103)
  • Not your ’70s green bean casserole (p. 133)
  • Sweet potato quesadillas with lime zest crema (p. 173)
  • Indian potato and onion curry (p. 193)
  • Garam masala kitchen sink cookies (p. 205)

I can’t wait for cantaloupe and peaches to come into season! I always run out of ideas how to use fresh produce, and this book will be a good resource for anyone in the same situation. One caution, though: if, like me, you’re more of a hands-on cook than one with fancy machines (ice cream maker, stand mixer, pasta maker, etc.), you’re out of luck for many of the recipes. When I give recipes, I always give alternatives in case someone doesn’t have the same equipment. I wish that the authors had done the same thing, but Vienneau may have decided that her target audience would be likely to have fancy equipment. With some creative adaptation, such as rolling and cutting the pasta by hand, these recipes are potentially adaptable–but without any guidance from the chefs.

This book makes a terrific gift for the cook in your family, but it should only be used by those with cooking experience.

Third Thursday Community Potluck Cookbook will be available for sale starting June 17th.

Poorly organized and written

Content: 3 gingersnaps

Craft: 2 gingersnaps

Presentation (photos, layout, organization): 2 gingersnaps

Combined score:  2.5 gingersnaps

Defending the Line by Alex Carpenter earned the distinction as the second review book to put me to sleep. Literally. At only 98 (small) pages with large print, this is quite a feat. No, it’s not because I don’t know a lot about soccer (football) or didn’t who David Luiz was before reading the book (both true). I don’t know much about soccer, but I would love to be able to talk intelligently about the sport with my many friends who do. I’d love to watch a game and be able to cheer/groan for the right reasons (and not because I heard the commentary or a knowledgeable friend explained it to me). Or, considering how high emotions run during the World Cup, scream/cry. 🙂

The main problem with Defending the Line is that the book can’t decide its target audience. The “Aligns with Common Core standards for informational reading for grades 6-8” endorsement on the back cover suggests this may be used in classroom reading instruction. In that case, I would expect basic background knowledge in soccer and competitive play. Nope. The heavy use of sports jargon without any contextualization suggests the book is intended for diehard soccer fans, presumably boys, who adore soccer and/or David Luiz. Nope. At every turn, the author makes clumsy attempts to compare soccer events to major basketball and football events, as if expecting the reader to need an explanation. Who could possibly be a fan of soccer and need to be told about the World Cup? Yet none of the jargon about the game (scoring, positions, rulings, etc.) are explained, so the book ends up being a poor fit for everyone. The book begins with a glossary of a few Portuguese key soccer terms, but every term is translated immediately after its use in the book. It’s a waste of a glossary. Instead, the reader could have used a glossary of basic soccer jargon that the author expects readers to know.

To contribute to the confusion, the book contains only one visual representation of information: a list of cities hosting the 2014 World Cup in Brazil. The list of cities is not key to understanding the information of the book. Again, it’s a waste of resources. For a non-fiction book geared toward children (I question the 6-8 grade rating, unless it’s for remedial reading instruction), we should instead see a geographical map of the places David has lived and played, a timeline of major events in his life and career, a flowchart depicting how tournament play occurs and how David worked his way to his current position, etc.

The written information is not presented in an organized way, either. While the later part of the book does follow a loosely chronological order, the narrative jumps around in such an erratic fashion that the story is hard to follow. To make it worse, the passive-laden writing lacks technique, clarity, and focus. Typically, children’s nonfiction books are the best resources (better than adult resources) for learning about a subject, for a simple reason: only good writing will hold a child’s attention. The author’s biography lists a MFA in creative writing, but the writing does not reflect this level of expertise. After finishing this book, I found the Wikipedia article on David Luiz and found more comprehensive and interesting information.

Defending the Line is suitable for fans of David Luiz or for reluctant readers who want soccer-themed books, but a thorough Google search would most likely turn up more interesting and better-written information for those who want to learn about soccer.

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.

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.

Samantha Sanderson at the Movies book review

  • Title: Samantha Sanderson at the Movies
  • Author: Robin Caroll
  • Print length: 272 pages
  • Publisher: Zonderkidz
  • Publication date: May 6, 2014
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
  • Rating:
  • 4 gingersnaps (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 4 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

Note: I received a print copy for review, but Amazon currently offers only the ebook version. I’m not sure when or if this will change, but please keep in mind that there may be issues with the ebook that were not in the print copy.

The periphery details:

Samantha Sanderson at the Movies is exactly what it sounds like: a book in a series aimed at upper elementary and middle school students. So far, the series has two books. The 22 chapters are followed by an acknowledgements page, two-page list of discussion questions, a preview of the second book in the series, and an invitation to join the Zondervan (parent company of Zonderkidz) street team.

The book itself is pleasing to hold and read. The pages are laid out well, the font is clear and easy to read, and the matte cover is nicely done. My very small complaint is that the title seems to target a younger audience (reminiscent of the Cam Jansen mystery books whose heroine is two years younger than Samantha).

The book:

Picture a Disney family movie, Cam Jansen for a slightly older audience, and a Christian setting. That’s Samantha Sanderson at the Movies, with a dash of 21st-century technology. Seventh-grader Samantha, who prefers to be called “Sam,” divides her time between cheerleading, writing for her school newspaper, and enjoying her best friend, Makayla. Her detective father and international journalist mother spend a good deal of their time apart, but her mother keeps in touch with her through daily phone calls.

While visiting the local movie theater, Sam and her father discover a bomb set to go off during the showing of a Christian film. Desperate to prove her journalistic mettle, she begs for the story assignment and spends the book sleuthing for the culprit. In the process, she comes to learn lessons of integrity, ethics, witnessing her faith, friendship, and loyalty.

The positive:

Samantha Sanderson at the Movies receives top marks for its handling of Christian themes. During a conversation, Sam realizes that her classmate is not a Christian and that this is the first non-Christian she has encountered. Misunderstandings occur on both sides.

“Do you have a problem with that?”

“No. It’s none of my business,” Sam said.

“Right. Just because we’re not part of some religious mumbo-jumbo group, we’re weird, right?”

“I didn’t say that,” Sam argued.

“You didn’t have to. It was all in the curl of your lip.” Grace shook her head. “Hypocrite.”

“I didn’t mean that. You’re putting words in my mouth. Or in the curl of my lip.” Sam’s heartbeat hiccuped. She really did like Grace and didn’t want to offend or upset her. She hadn’t meant to do that at all.

“Since we’re not some holier-than-thou Christian types, you think we’re weird, don’t you?”

[. . .]

Sam fell into step alongside with her. “I can’t speak for anybody else, but I just don’t understand it is all.”

[. . .]

Grace shook her head. “I just can’t buy into a loving Father or anything. Look at all the evil in the world. All the bad things that keep happening … even that bomb at the theater. If there’s a God who wants what’s best, why does stuff like this happen?”

The same questions Sam wrestled with. “I don’t know, exactly. But I believe in God. I believe in His Son. [. . .] I don’t have all the answers, Grace. I wish I did. But I do know that our time here is marked in years, but after here? Yeah, that’s forever. I want to have eternal life, and the only way for me to have that is to know that Jesus is God’s Son, He died for me, and I accept Him in my heart.”

[. . .]

“I still don’t buy it, but thanks for not thinking I’m a freak for being different,” Grace said as she took two steps toward her own class.

(pp. 126-128)

Wow. First, Sam apologizes for appearing to judge when she acted out of ignorance. Second, she admits to not having answers. Third, Grace the non-Christian is given worthy, weighty questions that all Christians should struggle with in order to strengthen our faith. Best of all, Sam’s response to Grace is reinforced by her mother and later her youth group leader. Smug, know-it-all, superficial Christians do far more harm than good when they judge without understanding. Hats off to Caroll for portraying real faith instead of a cardboard cutout faith suitable for a six-year-old. Hats off for portraying non-Christian characters with respect and dignity.

I also appreciated the portrayal of Sam’s parents as loving, attentive adults who aren’t afraid to set boundaries or teach ethical behavior–without getting preachy. While her father comes across as lenient to the point of indulgent for much of the book, he does not shirk from his parenting responsibilities when Sam steps over the line he’s drawn. The balance is written well. Because he is such a permissive parent for the most part, his boundary-setting is all the more effective when it happens. Samantha deals very well with the ethical questions involved, and Sam comes to a more mature understanding by the end of the book.

The book’s writing is fast-paced and flows well. While there are too many red herrings and the denouement feels rushed, there is enough suspense to keep the reader interested. While good values are reinforced through the storyline, they appear naturally in the background rather than being pushed as a dominant propaganda under a thin veneer of story. Samantha is a story for story’s sake, and its values are an added bonus. Sam’s church and youth group are mentioned in passing, as part of her everyday life, rather than forced down the reader’s throat on every page. Caroll follows her own characters’ advice to demonstrate a life of faith without becoming pushy.

One especially nice touch is the principal’s reaction to Sam’s use of “mental illness” as an inflammatory tactic. Well done.

 

The not-so-positive:

My biggest problem with the book was its pacing. While the initial buildup uses a great hook to spark interest, the multiple dead-end tangents of finding the bombing culprit dominate too much of the book. The sub-plot about her cheerleading is extraneous and distracts from an already sufficiently complex story line. The denouement comes abruptly and does not offer Sam ways to come to terms with the consequences of her journalism. Her daily blogging articles for the school newspaper, correctly termed “sensationalizing” by the movie theater owner, suggest blame for several innocent adults whose reputations are hurt by the process.

In a nod to political correctness without any substance to back it up, Caroll throws in two references to the “mocha” colored skin of Makayla, Sam’s best friend. (Note: Makayla is portrayed as light-skinned on the cover.) Really? Really? If we’re going to write about white main characters in a white family, without mentioning that they are white, there is no need to mention the skin color of the one non-white character of the book. I’ve referred to this before as the “Harry Potter” type of diversity writing, which is to use an “ethnic” name without any “ethnic” characteristics whatsoever. If Makayla is African American (we’ll skip the issue of people of color only representing sidekicks for the moment), then make her African American. Race is about more than skin color, and Caroll would have done better to either omit skin color references entirely or do justice to her token attempt at writing diversity.

Finally, Sam takes entirely too much credit for Makayla’s computer sleuthing skills. I recognize that these types of books, like a Disney family movie, tend to place plaudits on the heroine’s shoulders because they make the audience feel good. I have no objection to some child-targeted wishful thinking, but I’d like to add this to the discussion questions at the end. “Sam receives praise, but many people help her obtain the information. In what ways could Sam express her appreciation for all the people who helped her?”

 

Conclusion: Samantha Sanderson at the Movies deftly weaves a tale of a young girl raised to become an ethical, responsible Christian. While the storyline occasionally takes unnecessary detours, the mystery will draw in young readers. Recommended for upper elementary and lower middle school students.

(UPDATE) After reading the Kirkus Review, I have to agree with these statements:

Her ambition leads her to write a series of witch-hunt pieces, each strongly insinuating the guilt of a suspect du jour [. . .] Self-righteous Sam ignores the effects her articles have on her suspects and her father’s investigation; aside from occasional, fleeting moments of remorse, she faces very few consequences for her actions and sees too little character growth.

I objected to these points, too, but had already written far too long of a book review. I still recommend the book for the reasons I described, but the Kirkus Review explains why I gave the book four gingersnaps instead of five. “Witch-hunt” is an apt description of Sam’s articles, and I became increasingly uncomfortable with her sensationalizing that is praised in the book as honest and courageous journalism. I would hate for any young, aspiring journalists to follow in Sam’s footsteps by accusing community members without any proof.

  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.

The Rainbow Egg book review: Trite, inauthentic, and insulting

  • Title: The Rainbow Egg
  • Author: Linda Hendricks
  • Print length: 24 pages
  • Publisher: Westbow Press
  • Publication date: November 27, 2012
  • Rating:
  • 0 gingersnaps (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 0.5 gingersnap for craft(2)
  • 1 gingersnap for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 0.5 gingersnap (strongly not recommended)

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

The peripheries:

The Rainbow Egg is only available for review as an ebook, which was a severe miscalculation from the publisher. I tried viewing the book on three devices (Calibre, Kindle Paperwhite, and Kindle Fire). The book is nearly illegible on the last two and too slow to load on the first. While the page layout may be better on the printed page, the layout of the ebook is disjointed and unappealing to the eye. Even on a large-size Kindle fire, which should have shown off the illustrations to their best advantage, the pictures were tiny and hard to see. At several points, odd placement of text and a small graphic made it seem as if the page had failed to load completely. Any electronic picture book for children should be optimized for tablet and e-reader viewing, and this one missed the mark by a mile.

Also, the Amazon sample only shows the cover illustration and the title page. It does not hint at the readability issues. If I had bought this book as a regular customer, viewing the tiny pictures on the first non-sample page would have made me immediately file for a refund.

The book:

The Rainbow Egg uses simple, childlike illustrations of a chicken named Hope who has a rainbow egg and no nest. She finds an eggless chicken couple living in a coop, and she offers her egg to them before disappearing, presumably never to be heard from again.

The positive:

The story seems to be an attempt to reassure adopted children that they are loved and special. This is an important message that needs reinforcing through many channels.

The not-so-positive:

This book has so many problems that it’s difficult to know where to begin or whether to list them all. In the spirit of fairness, I will list a few constructive suggestions at the end even though that is not typically the function of a book review.

The first problem lies with the marketing of the book. The book blurb advertises The Rainbow Egg as “a fresh look at adoption,” while the text is trite, clunky, and downright insulting to its audience. Fred Rogers, one of the greatest heroes of children’s programming, was famous in his impatience with adults who tried to get by with shoddy work for children’s shows. The Rainbow Egg is neither fresh nor well-crafted, and its trite wording lacks imagination, artistry, and a feel for its audience. With only 24 pages in a children’s picture book, every single sentence must be well-chosen. Each word must convey purpose and build toward the story’s message. As an example, Max Lucado’s inspirational pictures books are of such high quality that many adults read them. Janell Cannon’s classic, Stellaluna, is another example of a picture book that enchants with its lyrical text and stunning illustrations. The Rainbow Egg instead reads as a bedtime story written for the author’s children that should have remained a private family story.

As a mainstream commercial product published and aimed at children, The Rainbow Egg fails on almost every level. The few attempts at artistry–an effort to convey humor at trying to lay an egg or describe a bird’s song–lack both the writing technique and emotional resonance to pull them off.

Some books shine with sincerity, clarity, and authenticity. This book is not one of them, and the author’s biographical note gives a hint why this might be so:

Her struggle with infertility, followed by the adoption of her two children, has fueled her need to tell her story to children and adults as one of compassion and love.

This book reads as an adult’s need to justify her decision to adopt, preceded by a need to be validated after coming to terms with infertility. In essence, this book lacks sincerity because her message and target audience don’t match. While trying to tell a story of “compassion and love” to children in a picture book marketed to children, instead her book tells of a parent seeking validation and affirmation of her journey to become a parent. A memoir of her journey to adopt, or a picture book aimed at other adoptive parents, would have filled this need in a more emotionally honest way.

Also, writing a story in which a baby chicken should be grateful to be adopted contrasts starkly with a parent who publicly lists adoption as her second-best choice. There was no need to list “struggle with infertility” in her biographical note, and this ambivalence shows itself in the flat, uninspired text of her book.

However, the most disturbing part of The Rainbow Egg is its one-dimensional insistence that the baby boy chick is surrounded by a picture-perfect (literally) happy adoption story for which he must always be happy and grateful. While this may have been the attitude in 1950, by 2014 we have moved to more open discussions of the range of feelings children may experience about adoption. Books such as The Rainbow Egg do a great disservice in telling children to suppress their fears and sadness. Other books, including Stellaluna and a few I will mention at the end of this review, acknowledge children’s negative emotions about adoption. The best way to tell children they are loved is to understand and accept what they feel at the time, even if that feeling is not socially appropriate. When seven-year-old children are put on a plane alone and sent back to Russia with a note pinned to their clothes saying, “I no longer wish to parent this child,” it is neither unreasonable nor unusual for an adopted child to fear abandonment. Superficial happy-happy stories like The Rainbow Egg do not reinforce loving bonds; they stifle honest discussion and perpetuate myths that force adopted children to live up to an ideal of perfection.

Conclusion: The Rainbow Egg misjudges its audience, and its weak craftsmanship combined with serious layout issues make it a book to miss. I would advise parents, teachers, and caregivers of adopted children to instead check out classic picture books on adoption such as Allison by Allen Say, Horace by Holly Keller, Let’s Talk About It: Adoption by Fred Rogers, An American Face by Jan Czech, Tell Me Again About the Night I was Born by Jamie Lee Curtis, or any of the enormous range of books available. All have problems and may not be suitable for a certain child, but they deal more honestly with a child’s right to experience a range of feelings about being adopted. After all, isn’t that the real story of love?

  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.

Becoming Home book review

  • Title: Becoming Home: Adoption, Foster Care, and Mentoring–Living Out God’s Heart for Orphans
  • Author: Jedd Medefind
  • Contributors: Francis Chan, Jim Daly, Ruslan Maliuta, David Platt, and Carissa Woodwyk
  • Print length: 91 pages
  • Publisher: Zondervan
  • Publication date: January 7, 2014
  • Sold by: HarperCollins Publishing
  • Rating:
  • 1 gingersnap (out of 5 gingersnaps) for content(1)
  • 2 gingersnaps for craft(2)
  • 1 gingersnap for its handling of Christian themes(3)
  • Comprehensive score: 1 gingersnap (strongly not recommended)

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

Earlier this year, I posted my philosophy on writing book reviews. I enjoy writing book reviews, but it can be tricky to balance friendships/work relationships and a need to write an objective (as far as is humanly possible), professional review. For that reason, I’ve decided to begin reviewing books outside of my genre and for authors I do not know personally. I follow the BookLook approach to publishing negative reviews (rather than choosing not to publish):

Of course we want every title to be a home run with readers, but when they aren’t we want to know why. The only way we can continue to bring our readers consistent and quality non-fiction is to receive honest and unbiased feedback from them. We’re not asking for positive reviews in return for free review materials. We’re asking for complete objectivity.

The first book I received for review, Becoming Home: Adoption, Foster Care, and Mentoring–Living Out God’s Heart for Orphans, would have been a DNF (do not finish) if it had not been a mini-book consisting of 91 small pages. The topic, caring for children at risk, is one that is close to my heart, and I had hoped to enjoy the book. The preliminary infographic section was promising, but the first chapter lost me. I contacted BookLook to ask whether I could have the book removed from my account as I could not finish reading it. I was offered the chance to do so but also reassured that I could post a negative review as long as it was honest. After much thought, I decided to finish reading the book and publish this one-star review.

Today’s review will be longer than usual, largely because I feel that a one-star review should give solid reasons for its rating. As to why I published this review, a glance at Amazon revealed glowing reviews that did not touch on any of the book’s serious errors. The book contains dangerous misinformation that could jeopardize children across the world, and no one else has written a respectful, professional review explaining why this is so. I would not want my silence to constitute agreement with the existing positive reviews.

The book:

Becoming Home is part of a series, Frames, put together by the Barna group. Each mini-volume contains quantitative data (in this case, 2005 surveys of adults living in the United States) and focuses on a contemporary topic such as “Schools in Crisis” or “Fighting for Peace.” The book begins with preparatory questions about the topic, such as “When you hear ‘loving orphans,’ what comes to mind?” This is followed by a succinct visual representation of the survey results. The rest of the book alternates between a summary of major issues for the topic and personal testimonials from adults who adopted one or more children and urge the reader to adopt. At the end, a “Re/Frame” section showcases responses from people involved in adoption, such as organization founders and public speakers.

The positive:

The graphics are clear, easy to understand, and appealing in presentation. True to the concept of Frames, they give the reader a quick and intuitive understanding of the survey’s questions and responses. The book achieves its goal with its target audience, an uninformed lay reader.

The not-so-positive:

According to the printed information about Barna group, its mission is “to provide people with credible knowledge and clear thinking, enabling them to navigate a complex and changing culture.”

By its own standards, Becoming Home fails. Sloppy theology, ethnocentric assumptions, a misunderstanding of the predicaments of children at risk, and glaring omissions damage this book’s credibility. Instead of capitalizing on its greatest strength, a large-scale quantitative survey, it uses a simplistic understanding of theology to promote a dangerous message: The Bible tells us to adopt orphans everywhere, and we should spend our money to do so. The book cites “single” orphans and fails to acknowledge the logical flaw of conflating “single” orphans with the Biblical reference to orphans. A child with one living parent is not an orphan in the Biblical sense. A child of a single parent may be at greater risk for poverty or other negative factors, but this is a child at risk rather than a parentless child in need of adoption.

The book’s greatest error is diluting its statistical findings with 14 pages of sentimental testimonials by adults who adopted or wanted to adopt. For a series that promises “data-driven” and “credible knowledge,” those 14 pages would have been put to better use by further discussing its survey results. Or, they could have been used to prepare potential adoptive US parents for the challenges of raising a child born and partially raised abroad, in a completely different language, culture, and environment. It is no coincidence that international adoption soared along with US infertility rates and single mothers raising their children instead of placing them for adoption. In the process, 20 Russian children have died at the hands of their US adoptive parents. Children from other countries, such as Hana Alemu Williams from Ethiopia and Hyunsu O’Callaghan from South Korea, were adopted only to be beaten to death by their new parents.

While people of faith will always disagree on certain points, we can all agree that “rescuing” a child only to kill him or her is not sound Christian theology. Abuse, re-abandonment, and a host of other issues are particularly damaging for children transplanted to the US without family, friends, or familiarity with the culture. Reuters published an investigation last year of “rehoming,” or advertising on the internet for new parents to take in adopted children. Most are internationally adopted children, many of the placements were with parents involved in inappropriate treatment of children, and all were illegal evasions of procedures meant to keep children safe. An example of an advertisement to “re-home” a child:

“We adopted an 8-year-old girl from China… Unfortunately, We are now struggling having been home for 5 days.” The parent asked that others share the ad “with anyone you think may be interested.”

Think about that for a minute. Who scours the internet, looking for pictures of children? Who would most likely snap up a vulnerable child without any friends or family to make sure he or she is safe?

That a new parent would want to get rid of a child after only five days is chilling, and books like Becoming Home exacerbate the problem. True Christian caring for orphans, meaning children who have lost both parents, means stepping back from emotional reasoning and instead taking a hard look at the negative consequences of missionary work (and international adoption began as an overseas missions effort). Kathryn Joyce has written a book, The Child Catchers, on how the evangelical push to adopt children has placed many at risk. If we want to put parentless children into adoptive homes, we must ensure their safety. Absolutely no negotiation! Quick adoptions that result in dead children are far worse than doing nothing at all. We want to improve children’s situations, but we must tread carefully and go in prepared.

Becoming Home promises to give a clear look at what it terms “the orphan crisis.” It has chosen adoption, particularly international adoption, as the solution for this problem. It gives a kindly “I’m sure you meant better” pass to Laura Silsby, who kidnapped 33 Haitian children–who were not orphans–under false pretenses and without any legal authority to do so. It neglects to mention the Hague Adoption Convention (an international agreement signed by 89 countries that pledge to ensure safety of children who are adopted internationally) or adult adoptees who have been deported when their adoptive parents failed to acquire US citizenship.

Becoming Home, rather than providing a lay reader with a brief overview of the many issues surrounding orphan care from a Christian perspective, instead serves as propaganda to push readers to help finance or begin their own international adoption.

Propaganda has its place, and I have no quibble with a publication that seeks to encourage international adoption. What I find distressing, unethical, and downright irresponsible is to promote an action without equipping its readers with tools to prepare for that action. I would be wary of a book that exhorted me to climb Mount Everest or skydive without giving me a sober warning of basic safety issues. Worse, Becoming Home fails to warn prospective adopters of the risks to the very “orphans” they are trying to save. In the end, vulnerable children lose the most. Some have lost their lives, and even one is too many. That children living in biological families have also experienced abuse and murder is beside the point. As Christians, we must take our cue from the Hippocratic Oath: First, do no harm.

Conclusion: I had hopes for Becoming Home, but it failed to deliver. If you are looking for a beginner’s guide on how to wrestle with the needs of the world’s vulnerable children, you should look elsewhere.

Bonus additional reading: an earlier post on Masho, an Ethiopian child adopted to Denmark, only to be re-abandoned to a children’s home. Both of her Ethiopian parents are still alive.

  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.