Monday, March 30, 2015

Lenten Reading: The Unveiled Wife by Jennifer Smith

From Goodreads:
As a young bride, Jennifer Smith couldn't wait to build her life with the man she adored. She dreamed of closeness, of being fully known and loved by her husband. But the first years of marriage were nothing like she’d imagined. Instead, they were marked by disappointment and pain. Trapped by fear and insecurity, and feeling totally alone, Jennifer cried out to God: What am I doing wrong? Why is this happening to us? It was as if a veil had descended between her and her husband, and between her and God—one that kept her from experiencing the fullness of love. How did Jennifer and her husband survive the painful times? What did they do when they were tempted to call it quits? How did God miraculously step in during the darkest hour to rescue and redeem them, tearing down the veil once and for all? The Unveiled Wife is a real-life love story; one couple’s refreshingly raw, transparent journey touching the deep places in a marriage that only God can reach. If you are feeling disappointment or even despair about your marriage, the heart-cry of this book is: You are not alone. Discover through Jennifer’s story how God can bring you through it all to a place of transformation.
Writing
I have to be honest, after having just read This Is My Body, I found the writing here to be a bit less than I had hoped for.   I hate to say it, but in terms of quality of writing it's more in line with the simplistic and less literary forms of Christian memoir than it is with the literary style of memoirists like Ragan Sutterfield and Anne Lamott.  That doesn't mean it's a bad book or that it has no value - it may appeal to a wider range of readers because of its style - but it didn't appeal as much to me personally.  I felt like it was probably written for those who don't usually read outside of the "inspirational" category of non-fiction.  It has more of a glossy magazine depth than what I'd consider to be truly amazing writing.

Entertainment Value
Despite my disappointment with the writing, I did enjoy reading Smith's story.  Almost immediately after my wedding (on my honeymoon, in fact) I developed some serious health issues that plagued the first few years of my marriage.  I could so identify with her story of struggling in her new position as a wife and feelings of inadequacy.  Because it does read fairly easily and it's not terribly lengthy I was able to finish it in just a few sittings, and I found the story compelling enough that I didn't want to stop reading.

Overall
I recommend it to those who may have similar experience to Smith or who are struggling in the early years of a marriage.  I don't think it's going to appeal to many readers outside of young women in the early years of marriage and in the evangelical Christian religion.  It's really written for a fairly specific audience and I think that that audience is certainly out there (I'm proof of it) and will enjoy this book, but it does have a narrow reach.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review!


Friday, March 27, 2015

Book Review: Death on Diamond Mountain: A True Story of Obsession, Madness, and the Path to Enlightenment

From Goodreads:
When thirty-eight-year-old Ian Thorson died from dehydration and dysentery on a remote Arizona mountaintop in 2012, The New York Timesreported the story under the headline: "Mysterious Buddhist Retreat in the Desert Ends in a Grisly Death." Scott Carney, a journalist and anthropologist who lived in India for six years, was struck by how Thorson’s death echoed other incidents that reflected the little-talked-about connection between intensive meditation and mental instability.
 
Using these tragedies as a springboard, Carney explores how those who go to extremes to achieve divine revelations—and undertake it in illusory ways—can tangle with madness. He also delves into the unorthodox interpretation of Tibetan Buddhism that attracted Thorson and the bizarre teachings of its chief evangelists: Thorson’s wife, Lama Christie McNally, and her previous husband, Geshe Michael Roach, the supreme spiritual leader of Diamond Mountain University, where Thorson died.
 
Carney unravels how the cultlike practices of McNally and Roach and the questionable circumstances surrounding Thorson’s death illuminate a uniquely American tendency to mix and match eastern religious traditions like LEGO pieces in a quest to reach an enlightened, perfected state, no matter the cost.
 
Aided by Thorson’s private papers, along with cutting-edge neurological research that reveals the profound impact of intensive meditation on the brain and stories of miracles and black magic, sexualized rituals, and tantric rites from former Diamond Mountain acolytes, A Death on Diamond Mountain is a gripping work of investigative journalism that reveals how the path to enlightenment can be riddled with danger.
Writing
Last year I read and reviewed Carney's The Red Market about trade in humans and their various body parts.  It was great, but I think this is the book that has cemented him as a must-read author for me.  His reporting style here is very similar to Krakauer's Under the Banner of Heaven.  He takes on a specific case of an inexcusable death and uses it to examine the entirety of Tibetan Buddhism, focusing in on one particular guru and the cult that sprung up around him.  It's incredibly detailed and accessible to all readers, including those who are unfamiliar with the concepts of Buddhism.  As detailed as he is with his explanations of the religion, its history, and its practices, he also manages to keep the pace active and the reader involved in the story.

My one other note about the writing is that it's obvious that Carney has done his research and spoken to a variety of sources.  In addition to references, he includes detailed notes on each chapter describing who he spoke to and where the information came from.  It's incredibly helpful from a documentation standpoint, and also serves to provide an interested reader with a jumping off point for further study.

Entertainment Value
Cults in general fascinate me, but all of the cults I've read about have largely centered around a Judeo-Christian worldview (Jim Jones, who started as a church, the FLDS church, etc).  I was thrilled to have a chance to see a cult that centers around something so completely different, but that works in the same ways.  I couldn't believe how such disparate religions could become cult followings so similarly. At the same time, it made sense, particularly when paired with Carney's observation that cults tend to form in any religion when mystical experiences take precedence over religious traditions.

Overall
I thoroughly enjoyed my read of this book and would recommend it to anyone who is interested in cults, Tibetan Buddhism, religious extremism, or even true crime.  Carney is an author who is now officially on my radar and who I'll be watching for in the future.

Thanks to Roshe and Gotham Books for providing me with a copy to review.

Thursday, March 26, 2015

New Pintrest!

I posted a week or so ago with a list of all the best places you can find me on social media.  I decided after thinking about it to go ahead and devote a Pintrest page to books only.  So from now on, if you're looking for me on Pintrest, you can find me at:


I'd love to follow your bookish boards as well - if we're not already friends, let's make it happen!

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Book Review: The Turnip Princess and Other Newly Discovered Fairy Tales by Franz Xaver Von Schonwerth, Erika Eichenseer, and Maria Tatar

From Goodreads:
With this volume, the holy trinity of fairy tales - the Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and Hans Christian Andersen - becomes a quartet. In the 1850s, Franz Xaver von Schönwerth traversed the forests, lowlands, and mountains of northern Bavaria to record fairy tales, gaining the admiration of even the Brothers Grimm. Most of Schönwerth's work was lost - until a few years ago, when thirty boxes of manu­scripts were uncovered in a German municipal archive.

Now, for the first time, Schönwerth's lost fairy tales are available in English. Violent, dark, and full of action, and upending the relationship between damsels in distress and their dragon-slaying heroes, these more than seventy stories bring us closer than ever to the unadorned oral tradition in which fairy tales are rooted, revolutionizing our understanding of a hallowed genre.
Writing
When the blurb says "unadorned", they truly mean "unadorned".  I've seen others critique this aspect of the stories, but honestly it's what stood out as authentic to me.  I loved reading these as simple tales, exactly as they would have been told to Schonwerth, without the years of embellishment and "prettying up" that has gone into many updated stories of Grimm, Anderson, and Perrault.  Schonwerth's work is a straight from the source, unfiltered by repetition version of the traditional stories that were told in Bavaria (now Germany).  I thoroughly enjoyed the chance to read something fresh and new in tone, even if there is some overlap with traditional fairy tales.

Entertainment Value
I'm a huge fan of fairy tales, so of course I thoroughly enjoyed this collection.  As I mentioned above, it does contain some overlap with the stories of the Brothers Grimm and Perrault, but Schonwerth's voice is obviously unique from theirs and the stories contain unique adjustments.  There are also a multitude of new stories, many of which are dark and bloody, which is exactly how I like my fairy tales.  I'm also very intrigued by the idea of oral histories and stories and legends that are passed down from person to person.  Reading this collection felt like having a window into the oral history of Eastern Europe.

Overall
I certainly recommend this one to fans of history, particularly in Eastern Europe, as well as to fans of traditional fairy tales.  I'm not sure it's for those who are expecting Disney-esque versions of fairy tales in a form that is formal or eloquent.  The value of these lies in the history and oral tradition and readers should enter the book from that perspective.

Thank you to Andrea at Penguin for providing me with a copy to review!

Tuesday, March 24, 2015

Audiobook Review: Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Cahalan

From Goodreads:
One day, Susannah Cahalan woke up in a strange hospital room, strapped to her bed, under guard, and unable to move or speak. Her medical records—from a month-long hospital stay of which she had no memory—showed psychosis, violence, and dangerous instability. Yet, only weeks earlier she had been a healthy, ambitious twenty-four year old, six months into her first serious relationship and a sparkling career as a cub reporter.

Susannah’s astonishing memoir chronicles the swift path of her illness and the lucky, last-minute intervention led by one of the few doctors capable of saving her life. As weeks ticked by and Susannah moved inexplicably from violence to catatonia, $1 million worth of blood tests and brain scans revealed nothing. The exhausted doctors were ready to commit her to the psychiatric ward, in effect condemning her to a lifetime of institutions, or death, until Dr. Souhel Najjar—nicknamed Dr. House—joined her team. He asked Susannah to draw one simple sketch, which became key to diagnosing her with a newly discovered autoimmune disease in which her body was attacking her brain, an illness now thought to be the cause of “demonic possessions” throughout history.

With sharp reporting drawn from hospital records, scientific research, and interviews with doctors and family, Brain on Fire is a crackling mystery and an unflinching, gripping personal story that marks the debut of an extraordinary writer.
 
Writing
Very well-done.  Calahan's experience as a journalist surely provided her with the means necessary to write exactly the kind of in-depth story I appreciate.  She uses videos, notes her family took, and interviews with doctors and those who were present to reconstruct the story of her month of psychosis as completely as possible.  If you've read this blog before, you know I love a good reference, and I appreciated that in her memoir Cahalan took the time to share with the reader where her information came from.

Entertainment Value
Again, I feel like the book greatly benefited from Cahalan's experience as a journalist.  It reads easily and is straightforward, and tells a story that is so compelling you can't help but keep reading (or listening in my case).  I think just the premise - that a healthy young woman could so suddenly be brought into the depths of mental illness by an infection - is fascinating, but the way Cahalan tells the story is also remarkable.  She manages to connect to the reader on an emotional level while also maintaining the distance of a journalist, which I found remarkable.

Narration
Very well done.  I have no complaints and found the reader pleasant to listen to.

Overall
This is great for fans of memoir, psychology, or medical mystery.  It reads like a novel, and is improved for knowing that it's a true story.  I highly recommend it.

Monday, March 23, 2015

Book Review: How to Be A Heroine by Samantha Ellis

From Goodreads:
While debating literature’s greatest heroines with her best friend, thirtysomething playwright Samantha Ellis has a revelation—her whole life, she's been trying to be Cathy Earnshaw of Wuthering Heights when she should have been trying to be Jane Eyre.

With this discovery, she embarks on a retrospective look at the literary ladies—the characters and the writers—whom she has loved since childhood. From early obsessions with the March sisters to her later idolization of Sylvia Plath, Ellis evaluates how her heroines stack up today. And, just as she excavates the stories of her favorite characters, Ellis also shares a frank, often humorous account of her own life growing up in a tight-knit Iraqi Jewish community in London. Here a life-long reader explores how heroines shape all our lives.
 
Writing
The writing here is the perfect combination, for me anyway, of memoir and literature.  We've got details about the author's life and how she has changed and the things that are important to her and we have the ways that the books she read throughout her life impacted her.  And on top of that, she's going back through with a critical eye to the benefits and potential issues created by those books.  They're largely classics, but she's got some light and fun romances in there too.  I added a ton of books to my TBR, which is just what I like from books about books.  I think she did a great job of combining literary criticism with personal preference and her own life experiences.

Entertainment Value
Again, I added almost every book mentioned to my TBR list, even those I've read before.  It made me anxious to reread some of my favorites with a more critical eye.  It's a quick read and certainly engaging - I didn't want to put it down.  If you're a huge fan of book lists, you're going to love reading this one.

Overall
The perfect choice for fans of books about books, particularly if you're a woman, as the book does tend to focus more on the feminist aspects of reading and literature.  I think those who enjoy memoir will also find something to love here, as Ellis delves into her personal experiences in romance, education, and religion throughout the book.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review!

Friday, March 20, 2015

Book Review: An Uncomplicated Life by Paul Daugherty

From Goodreads:
A father's exhilarating and funny love letter to his daughter with Down syndrome whose vibrant and infectious approach to life has something to teach all of us about how we can better live our own.

Jillian Daugherty was born with Down syndrome. The day they brought her home from the hospital, her parents, Paul and Kerry, were flooded with worry and uncertainty, but also overwhelming love, which they channeled to "the job of building the better Jillian." While their daughter had special needs, they refused to allow her to grow up needy--"Expect, Don't Accept" became their mantra. Little did they know how ready Jillian was to meet their challenge.

Paul tells stories from Jillian's mischievous childhood and moves to her early adulthood, tracing her journey to find happiness and purpose in her adult life, sharing endearing anecdotes as well as stories about her inspiring triumphs. Having graduated from high school and college, Jillian now works to support herself, and has met the love of her life and her husband-to-be, Ryan.

In An Uncomplicated Life, the parent learns as much about life from the child as the child does from the parent. Through her unmitigated love for others, her sparkling charisma, and her boundless capacity for joy, Jillian has inspired those around her to live better and more fully. The day Jillian was born, Paul says, was the last bad day. As he lovingly writes, "Jillian is a soul map of our best intentions"--a model of grace, boundless joy, and love for all of us.
 
Writing
The author is a sport writer for a newspaper, and, in this case, I think his background in journalism serves him well.  He tells his daughter's story thoughtfully and with feeling, but he avoids being overly saccharine or emotional, which could easily happen in this kind of memoir.  I was also impressed with the way that his writing reflected his goals for his daughter's life: he and his wife decided from her birth that she would be treated like other children as much as possible.  In the book, he doesn't make his daughter out to be an icon or a saint - he portrays her as she is, with faults and foibles and makes her a human being.  He also acknowledges his own shortcomings and the shortcomings of others in a practical way that doesn't feel like pandering or martyrdom.

Entertainment Value
Of course I fell in love with Jillian.  Who wouldn't?  She's so determined and devoted to everything and her lively and happy spirit radiates off the pages.  It was an absolutely joy to read and a book where I could really enjoy the "everydayness" of the author's experiences which are so different from mine.  I loved reading little snippets and stories of their life and seeing Jillian grow into womanhood.  It's pleasure reading at it's best.

Overall
I think this book will have a pretty wide audience.  I recommend it to fans of memoir, fans of uplifting stories with happy endings, and those with an interest in the developmentally disabled.  I'd also recommend it to those who have no experience with anyone who is disabled, as it will certainly education and provoke compassion in readers.  My mom works with developmentally disabled adults and I know this is one she'll also appreciate and enjoy - I can't wait to pass it on to her.

Thanks to TLC for including me on the tour!  Click here for a full list of tour stops.

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Lenten Reading: After Acts: Exploring the Lives and Legends of the Apostles by Bryan Litfin

From Goodreads:
What happened to all those biblical figures once the Bible was finished?We've all heard it said: "According to early church tradition Peter was crucified upside down," or "Paul went to Spain." Did Thomas found the Indian church? Or did Mary live in Ephesus? Were the twelve disciples all eventually martyred?

Where do these ancient traditions come from, and how historically reliable are they? What is meant by the term "early church tradition?" After Actsopens up the world of the Bible-right after it was written. Follow along with New Testament scholar, Dr. Bryan Litfin as he explores the facts, myths, legends, archaeology, and questions of what happened in those most early days of Christianity.
Writing
As always, in non-fiction, including religious non-fiction, I look for an author who has done his research and cited his sources.  In this case, I have absolutely no complaints.  Every assumption made in the book is thoroughly sourced and readers are pointed towards these sources explicitly, including a short description of how to locate more difficult to find ancient sources.  I love a good footnote, too, and this one does not disappoint.  The information itself is fascinating, and the writing is superb.

Entertainment Value
Obviously, this is a case where an interest in the subject matter is going to be necessary in order to enjoy the book.  Personally, I found the book to be engrossing.  Because of my years (and years and years) of Christian education, sometimes I get a bit smug with my knowledge of the Bible.  I was pleased to find that there was so much more to be learned from other ancient sources about what happened in the lives of the Apostles after the Bible ends.  I also thoroughly enjoyed the background and historical information on the writers of the gospels and how they actually experienced Christ and came to write His story.

Overall
This is a crucial read for anyone with a knowledge of the Bible, but without a firm grasp on church history.  It provides information on a level accessible to the general reader, but backed with sources and citations for further study that would benefit a more academically inclined reader as well.  I learned so much, which is the highest praise I can give any book, and is especially meaningful when it involves my faith.

Thank you to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review!

Tuesday, March 17, 2015

Book Review: As Good As Dead by Elizabeth Evans


From Goodreads:
At the high-octane Iowa Writers' Workshop, small-town Charlotte is thrilled and confounded by her relationship with charismatic and sophisticated Esmé: One moment, Esmé appears to be Charlotte's most intimate friend; the next, her rival. After a tumultuous weekend, Charlotte's insecurities and her resentment toward Esmé reach a fever pitch. Blindly, Charlotte strikes out-in an act of betrayal that ultimately unleashes a cascade of calamities on her own head.

Twenty years later, Charlotte is a successful novelist. A much-changed Esmé appears, bringing the past that Charlotte grieved over, and believed buried, to the doorstep of Charlotte and her beloved husband. Charlotte finds herself both frightened and charmed. Though she yearns to redeem the old friendship and her transgression, she is wary-and rightly so.

As Good As Dead performs an exquisitely tuned psychological high-wire act as it explores the dangers that lie in wait when trust is poisoned by secrets and fears.
Writing
For the most part, I think the writing here was nicely done.  I think the author did a fantastic job of capturing the characters, up until the end.  And maybe my critique of the end belongs more in the entertainment value portion of the review.  The problem I had was with a character who basically abdicates all personal responsibility to her husband and allows him to solve her problems for her.  I'm not sure whether I can legitimately consider this a writing issue, because it is in line with how the character behaves historically, but it ultimately means that our protagonist shows absolutely no growth.  It's something I'd love to discuss with the author and perhaps understand better.  Are we meant to see that Charlotte hasn't changed at all from her graduate school days and has learned nothing from her experience with Esme or is that a flaw in the writing?  From what I can tell, we are meant to sympathize with Charlotte, which leads me to lean more towards a flaw in characterization.

Entertainment Value
Again, I thoroughly enjoyed the story until the ending, where I felt like rather than resolve the open ended tension and conflict with Esme, Charlotte hides behind her husband.  The result is a let down, as you spend the majority of the novel expecting a much more dramatic and satisfying conclusion after everything that builds up over the course of the novel.  I loved the college setting and the elements of writing and academia throughout, and I did find the book to be engrossing, but it was ultimately unsatisfying.

Overall
I'd say read it if the academic setting or the novel's themes of writing as a profession, writing workshop experiences, etc. are particularly appealing.  If you're expecting something with high drama or dark overtones, that's not exactly what you'll find.  It's more of a character study centered around women's relationships in a competitive environment.  If the setting or the idea of female competition don't attract you, I think this is one you'll want to skip.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review.

Monday, March 16, 2015

Book Club Girls: Early Decision Review and Skype with the Author


My book club friends and I have been participating in a Harper Collins program called Book Club Girls, which has provided us with a new book to read monthly.  It culminated on Saturday in a Skype conversation with Lacy Crawford, author of Early Decision.  First of all, I have to say that the opportunity to Skype with the author was an absolute treat.  We had a blast spending an hour chatting with Lacy about everything from the book and its heroine to our various and sundry love lives.  I have to admit that we were super nervous about how it would be to Skype, but it felt totally natural and the author was hilarious and so much fun to talk to - it was a complete pleasure!  A huge thank you to Lacy Crawford for the chat and to Onalee and the folks at Book Club Girl who made it all possible!

From Goodreads:
In Early Decision, debut novelist Lacy Crawford draws on 15 years of experience traveling the world as a highly sought-after private college counselor to illuminate the madness of college admissions.

Working one-on-one with Tiger-mothered, burned-out kids, Anne “the application whisperer” can make Harvard a reality. Early Decision follows five students over one autumn as Anne helps them craft their college essays, cram for the SATs, and perfect the Common Application. It seems their entire future is on the line—and it is. Though not because of Princeton and Yale. It’s because the process, warped as it is by money, connections, competition, and parental mania, threatens to crush their independence just as adulthood begins.

Whether you want to get in or just get out, with wit and heart, Early Decision explodes the secrets of the college admissions race.
Writing
I have absolutely nothing negative to say about the quality of Crawford's writing.  It's exactly what I look for in contemporary fiction: smart, funny, full of lovable and believable characters, and a plot that carries the reader along.  I loved that Crawford avoided many of the tropes frequently found in this kind of book, particularly in the area of romance.  It was a treat to read a book with a female main character who focuses on herself and doesn't wind up meeting someone cute and quirky with floppy hair to help her figure things out.  The characters take center stage, not cliched genre tropes, which I greatly appreciated.

Entertainment Value
So anything dealing with academia appeals to me right off the bat.  I also had the privilege of attending an academically rigorous high school that placed a huge emphasis on college admissions.  While I never had a private admissions counselor, I did spend quite a bit of time over the course of several years preparing for my college applications.  I could identify with the pressure felt by the students as well as Anne's struggles in justifying helping the over-privileged.  The high school students themselves are well fleshed out and completely believable as teenagers, which made the book even more of a delight to read.

Overall
This is a great choice for fans of contemporary fiction, particularly those who enjoy women's lit that has less of a focus on families.  It seems like we're either given chick lit or books about parenting, so it was refreshing to read a book with a main character my age who is contemplating her future career and life goals, but who is interested in more than dating and shopping.  And while our main character isn't a parent herself, I think this will also appeal to those who are looking towards their own children's college admissions with fear and anxiety.  I'd even consider recommending it to YA readers who are facing their own admission woes.  It's got a wide range of appeal, it's smart, and it's funny - what else can I say?

Thank you to Lacy Crawford, Onalee, and Harper Collins for providing me and my friends with copies to read and discuss!

Friday, March 13, 2015

My Pretties Featured at Daily Mayo!

No real post for today, just a direction to the Daily Mayo where you can see my bookcases and some of my favorite books featured!


Wednesday, March 11, 2015

A Brief Administrative Note and Piece of Shocking News

First the note:
Another blogger just started a blog using the same name as mind, with a slightly different URL.  I talked to the blogger and asked her to consider changing the name since I had some readers contact me with confusion over her username on social media sites, but she isn't willing to do so.  Obviously I don't own the words "Book Hooked" and it's certainly not worth any amount of upset, but I wanted to clarify that the two blogs are unrelated.  There is also the problem of the other blogger using the handle on social media, so I want to make a quick list of how you can find me (and recognize who is not me) via social media and email.

Twitter: @julie37619 (yogabrarian)
Instagram: @julie37619 (yogabrarian)
Facebook: Book Hooked Blog (this is not up and running yet, but I'll announce when it is)
Pintrest: Julie37619 (there's a Book Hooked board you can follow)
Gmail: cla37619@gmail.com

If you see a Book Hooked running around somewhere that isn't one of those places, chances are it is not me!  I'd love to connect with any of you at any of the above accounts!

Now the Shocking News:
A while back (a few years at least, although I can't find the post and don't remember exactly when) I stopped supporting Amazon.  I didn't like their stance on child pornography overseas, mainly (which has been in the news again recently), but I also resented their domination of the book selling marketplace.  So I closed my account and exclusively used Barnes and Noble and used book stores to purchase books.  

It's been brewing for a while now, but recently I've made the decision to switch back to Amazon.  It's not because I like them or respect them and their business practices.  I feel like I've been pushed to them by Barnes and Noble and the total lack of other bookstores in my area.  Where I live you can shop at Barnes and Noble or you can take what you can find at stores like Target or Walmart.  You can also use two local used book stores, but there are no independents and no other chains.  Two things drove me to the decision to no longer patronize B&N.

The first is the horrible customer service.  Luke recently used my account to order me a copy of Jane Eyre from Penguin's Drop Caps series as a gift.  Since it was a gift, he opened the package and removed the plastic wrapping.  Once he gave it to me, we discovered that the spine, which was covered by the wrapping, was discolored.  Because the wrapping, which concealed the damage, had been removed, I couldn't return it online and because Luke had lost his packing slip I couldn't return it to the store.  Learning all of this took various emails, phone calls, web searches, and chats.  At the same time, I needed to return an Amazon book also given as a gift.  It took literally less than five minutes to print off a return shipping label and I had my refund immediately.  How can you argue with the differences in service?  And I've heard SO many similar stories from friends.

The other issue is that I actually ventured into my local Barnes and Noble with a gift card.  Me, with, basically free money, and a bookstore.  I left with a deck of Dutch Blitz cards and some bookmarks.  I couldn't find a single book I wanted to read IN A BOOKSTORE.  Over half the store is devoted to games, toys, figurines, mugs, chocolate, wrapping paper, and stationery.  And out of the small selection of books, a good quarter were publisher remainders.  From what was left, all I could find were books currently featured on Best Seller lists.  No special editions other than the B&N store brand classics (I was specifically searching for more Drop Caps, but any others would have done too) and nothing remotely obscure or that I would have trouble finding on the shelves at the used bookstore or my small local library.  

I really did want to avoid feeding the Amazon monster, but at this point I don't really have any other options.  I know I can always buy indie online, but honestly I'm on a budget and I'm probably not going to spend an extra $15 on a book when I can get it for half the price and with free shipping from Amazon.  So, basically, Amazon and their book-selling monopoly are, reluctantly, back in my life, at least until a better option shows itself.  

Anyone else having issues finding an ethical but fiscally responsible source for books?

Tuesday, March 10, 2015

Book Review: This Is My Body by Ragan Sutterfield

From Goodreads:
Many of us think of our bodies as burdens that drag us toward failure and guilt. But what if God actually glories in the flesh? What if we had the same joy about our bodies as God does?

Ragan Sutterfield brings us back to a biblical perspective—a freeing, corrective viewpoint that reminds us of the connection between spirit, mind, and body. Along the way, he shares his journey from overweight addict to Ironman competitor. He counts his success, though, not in his decreased clothing size but in his increased understanding of how much God loves the body and what it means to take care of his whole being. This is a story for each of us.

As a teenager, Ragan Sutterfield tried extreme dieting to get rid of childhood chubbiness. As a young adult, he wrestled with his Christian culture’s tenets about the dangers of the body. As a man, he became an obese smoker in a failing marriage. And he began a journey of understanding that changed his life.

Weaving together biblical insight, personal story, and thoughtful reflection, This Is My Body offers an inspiring look at God’s creation of each of us as human beings, in the flesh. It is an examination of spiritual disciplines, sex, self-image, eating, environmental responsibilities, and the church’s role in misunderstandings about the body. It is also a celebration of Communion—the moment when Jesus reminded his disciples that he, too, is flesh. Spiritually rich, this is an eloquent exploration of the body in all its God-given glory.
 
Before I start my actual review, I feel obligated to post a short disclaimer.  I've never met Ragan, but I do know his parents very well and even lived with them briefly before I got married.  Our lives have overlapped in many ways - we attended the same church (although at different times) and he was my sister's eleventh grade Worldview teacher (she says, "He deserved better than me and the rest of our horrible class").  I love his family dearly, but my love of this book is unrelated to my friendship with the author's parents.  It stands on its own merits.

Writing
Absolutely stunning.  I can't say enough about how refreshing it is to read a literary work of Christian non-fiction.  In terms of quality of writing, particularly as memoir, I think it stands in the same realm as the work of Ann Lamott or even Joan Didion's work in Blue Nights and The Year of Magical Thinking.  It's so refreshing to read a Christian author writing beautifully about faith and taking on a subject that is frequently neglected in spiritual writing.

Entertainment Value
I have to say that one reason Ragan's book appeals to me so much is that our lives do overlap significantly.  He writes about the same trauma I experienced in Dennis Rainey's sixth grade Sunday School class about sex and his experiences teaching at a school I attended.  While our paths didn't cross, it's always great to read about experiences you can recognize well.  In addition, a lot of Ragan's struggles with his physical body mirror my own.  We both grew up in a culture that idealized the life of the spirit and minimized the physical body.  We've both struggled with weight and sex and food and the environment.  I could compare many of my experiences discovering yoga with Ragan's experiences discovering endurance sports and triathlons.

Overall
You'll definitely see this again on my end of the year lists.  It's beautifully written and contains life-changing and refreshing ideas about the complete spiritual person, including the physical body.  Chrsitians, particularly those who grew up in the evangelical movement of the 90's, will have a lot to identify with here, regardless of whether or not your life overlaps with the Sutterfields.  I'll be keeping this one on my shelf to refer back to frequently.
 

Monday, March 9, 2015

Book Review: The Deep by Nick Cutter

From Goodreads:
A strange plague called the ’Gets is decimating humanity on a global scale. It causes people to forget—small things at first, like where they left their keys…then the not-so-small things like how to drive, or the letters of the alphabet. Then their bodies forget how to function involuntarily…and there is no cure. But now, far below the surface of the Pacific Ocean, deep in the Marianas Trench, an heretofore unknown substance hailed as “ambrosia” has been discovered—a universal healer, from initial reports. It may just be the key to a universal cure. In order to study this phenomenon, a special research lab, the Trieste, has been built eight miles under the sea’s surface. But now the station is incommunicado, and it’s up to a brave few to descend through the lightless fathoms in hopes of unraveling the mysteries lurking at those crushing depths…and perhaps to encounter an evil blacker than anything one could possibly imagine. 
Writing
No complaints.  It's standard horror, nothing more, but it's well done.  It doesn't have literary aspirations, which is typically not what I want in horror, and is certainly horrific, which is exactly what I want.  So, as far as being a horror novel goes, the writing is successful and enjoyable.  Nothing to distract the reader, remove you from the story, or distract from the terrible terrible things that are happening - just how I like it.

Entertainment Value
I could probably write two reviews for how entertained I was by this book - one for the first 300 pages and one for the last 80 or so.  For the vast majority of the book, I was totally, completely enthralled.  I love the ocean and lakes and swimming, but I do have a particular fear of deep water and things that live in it.  I like to see the bottom and I can totally creep myself out by imagining what's down there that I can't see.  So I knew this book would be chilling and it was.

I think the author perfectly captured the feelings of claustrophobia, tension, and pressure that come with being A) in complete and total darkness and B) at the bottom of the ocean.  I also enjoyed the slowly building tension and the initial horror/gore aspects.  If you've read Cutter's other book, The Troop, you know that his books are not for the faint of heart.  He's all about the gross out scene and I  can typically handle them.

However.  I feel like Cutter built things up to a crescendo that he just couldn't finish well.  I started to get worried around page 300 when I could tell the book was drawing to a close, but things were still building up.  I started to get worried about the big reveal.  The last few scenes are just a total and complete gore-fest that was so over the top it became boring.  It was just too much.  Instead of being scary it became just an ongoing onslaught of gross out after gross out.  And then the big evil entity is revealed and it totally let me down.

Overall
Basically, I think it's worth reading.  The enjoyment that I got from the first 300 pages outweighed my frustration with the last 80.  But I wish the author had taken out some of the continual gore and spent more time and energy fleshing out the evilness and the resolution so that it made more sense.

This does come with a few warnings, the main one being that it's just full of gore.  Horrible things happen to people and to animals throughout the entirety of the book.  If either of those things bother you, it's something you'll find inescapable in this book.  Read at your own risk.

Thanks to NetGalley for providing me with a copy to review.

Thursday, March 5, 2015

Book Review: The Boy Who Loved Rain by Gerard Kelly

From Goodreads:
They say that what you don't know can't hurt you. They're wrong.

David Dryden, pastor of a high-profile church in London, is admired for his emphasis on the Christian family.

But all is not well in his own family. He and his wife, Fiona, have been glossing over his son Colom's erratic behavior. Then, when a commitment to die is discovered in Colom's room after the suicide of a school friend, David finds himself out of his depth--and Fiona, in panic, takes Colom and flees.

A wonderful, intelligent, and searching novel about the toxic nature of secrets, and the possibility of starting again.
Writing
Kelly isn't just a fiction writer, he also writes poetry and non-fiction.  He's hugely prolific and his interest in poetry is evident throughout the book.  However, I'm not sure this is for the best.  I kept getting the feeling as I read that this was a first draft.  There was so much information provided and so much description that just didn't add to the story or to the quality of writing. I think it's full of great potential, but I didn't feel like it was as polished as it could have been.

Entertainment Value
Positives first: I loved reading a story where a family is Christian but the story isn't about their faith.  It plays a large role in the lives of the characters and certainly has an impact on the story, but it wasn't the central theme of the story and there wasn't a religious message to be gathered.  The characters were also nuanced and, for the most part, believable.

I did feel like a ton of description could have been taken out without hurting the novel and would have made it more fun to read.  I wanted to be engrossed because I feel like the plot has a huge amount of potential, but I just never got to a point where I overcame my apathy towards the characters.

Overall
There's definitely an audience for this book.  It will appeal to fans of women's literature and "ripped from the headlines" stories.  I also think it would be a great choice for readers of Christian fiction who want more than a story with a moral.  That said, it just wasn't for me.  I never really started to care for the characters and found myself bored at times.

Thanks to TLC for providing me with copy to review.

Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Book Review: Texts From Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg

From Goodreads:
Hilariously imagined text conversations—the passive aggressive, the clever, and the strange—from classic and modern literary figures, from Scarlett O’Hara to Jessica Wakefield.

Mallory Ortberg, the co-creator of the cult-favorite website The Toast, presents this whimsical collection of hysterical text conversations from your favorite literary characters. Everyone knows that if Scarlett O’Hara had an unlimited text-and-data plan, she’d constantly try to tempt Ashley away from Melanie with suggestive messages. If Mr. Rochester could text Jane Eyre, his ardent missives would obviously be in all-caps. And Daisy Buchanan would not only text while driving, she’d text you to pick her up after she totaled her car. Based on the popular web-feature, Texts from Jane Eyre is a witty, irreverent mashup that brings the characters from your favorite books into the twenty-first century.
The idea behind this is brilliant and the execution is perfect.  I don't really have just a ton to say about it other than that it's hilarious and made me laugh out loud on multiple occasions.  It reads super fast, so you can either devour it in a night like I did or you can read a few text conversations at a time.  If you're not already into books, you may not get most of the jokes as they all come from well-known works of literature.  I'd only hesitate to recommend this to those who are completely unfamiliar with all works of classic literature.  If you've read even one classic, I think you'll find this delightfully funny.

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

What I Read in February


February was absolutely amazing, in terms of reading and pleasure.  We had some amazingly gorgeous days that we spent outside in t-shirts and flip flops and we had several snow days that kept us inside where it's nice and warm.



I did a lot of this:

And even got to take a weekend trip to Cottontown, Tennessee to see my very best friends and to do absolutely nothing but play tons of board games and read books and talk.



In terms of books, here's what I read:

Decompression by Julie Zeh
Pointe by Brandy Colbert
Texts from Jane Eyre by Mallory Ortberg
Skim by Mariko Tamaki
Brain on Fire: My Month of Madness by Susannah Calahan
The Most Dangerous Animal of All by Gary L. Stewart
The Girl on the Train by Paula Hawkins

Total books read in February: 15
Pages read in February: 4225

What did you read?