Monday, October 17, 2016

Befriend, by Scott Sauls

I was sent an e-mail pitch asking if I'd be interested in reviewing Befriend, a new title by Scott Sauls, published by Tyndale House Publishers. I'm usually always up to read a book about friendship as there always tends to be room for improvement. The book arrived and I launched right into it.

Befriend is a relatively short book containing twenty-one chapters. It can be devoured in a few sittings but was designed with the idea in mind to use as a devotional or a group study. I read it in about four different settings, taking in a small chunk at a time.

This main idea behind this book is to encourage the reader to reach out and show love and friendship to others in a world that doesn't really "do" relationship away from a screen. It's a call to think more of others than yourself and to be willing to build bridges to people who maybe do not think and act exactly as you do. As he points out, he's easy to be friends with people who are just like you and who like the same things you do. It's much harder to be friends with those who are different. Certainly this a challenge and a topic worthy of its own post.

Sauls opens his book with the first chapter pointing out that it's going to be hard for you to love others unless you can love the person you see in the mirror. I see what he's getting at, of course, but I have to say that the whole "love yourself" argument rubs me the wrong way most of the time and so I mentally held the book at arm's length at first. My hesitation on the whole "love yourself" way of thought is that it tends to make us selfish and self-focused to the detriment of all other relationships. I've heard the phrase, "I need to focus on me" too many times from people and I find that a more destructive attitude than a helpful one. Sauls' message that he wishes to communicate is that, in Christ's eyes, we are all "enough" so we shouldn't try to avoid being friends with others because we are ashamed of ourselves or because we think we are less than others. I agree with him, I think I just use more caution in the way that is all phrased and argued because people are quick to hear, "I need to love myself" and slow hear "I need to die to self so that others might live." And, really, a genuine relationship with anyone requires a bit of death to self.

While I wasn't thrilled with Chapter One things improved from there and I appreciated the arguments he made about needing to reach out to people we can't control, sexual minorities, children, the rich and powerful, bullies, dysfunctional family members, the poor and empty-handed, etc. He needles a lot of people right where it hurts: their pride. We humans naturally gravitate towards relationships we find to be easy. We want to relax with our friends, not have to work at being around them. Somehow that strikes us as being unnatural and, if we're honest, unfair. Relationships shouldn't require work, should they now? Or should they? Worldly wisdom tells us to think about what makes ME comfortable, about making sure that MY feelings and thoughts are considered. When we stumble across people who think differently then us we frequently wonder if it's worth our time and effort to know them or to care for their needs. That's where Sauls' book is useful because he challenges you to think about treating your neighbor as you want to be treated, more or less. Sure, some people might be difficult to love but does that give us the excuse not even to try? (Hint: the answer is 'no'.)

Beyond arguing that you should make friends with people who are not like you, Sauls also spends a lot of time arguing why and that's important. This is necessary work on Sauls' part because we humans are a stiff-necked lot and easily get bogged down in the mire of What We Like. The older I get the more I understand why I need Scott Sauls-types in my life to encourage me to peep outside of my own little box in order to see the world at large. It's so easy to live (and to want to live) in my own bubble where I'm not ever flustered or made to interact with a person or situation that makes me uncomfortable. But Jesus didn't call us to be comfortable, did He? Instead He issued a challenge to look for opportunities to go above and beyond in reaching out to others and to serve them. It's a difficult call which is why not many people do it. If it was easy to all get along then we would. We don't because it isn't and because we don't want put down our own prejudices and see what the other person might be trying to say. For the silent ones who feel alone and ignored, Sauls has written this book to share why it's important to break down the walls so that we can reach one another for the glory of the Lord. All in all, I found this a beneficial read.

I must tell you though that I received an ARC of this and it was missing Chapter 20 which is entitled, "Befriending the Opposite Gender." This is a topic that I would find hugely interesting and would rather have liked to have heard what Sauls had to say. I didn't have that chance and so my opinion of this book isn't entirely completely. That explained, I do have 90% happy thoughts towards this read and no hesitations in recommend it to you. It contains a lot of good food for thought.

The temptation surrounding Befriend is going to be in wanting to have other people read it so that they will know better how to treat you. Resist the temptation to think that way. (I mention this because I understand the temptation quite well!) If you're going to read it, read it for yourself and make applications where necessary. Sure, there may be a speck of the inconsiderate in the eye of your friend, but get rid of the log in your own eye before thinking about them.

Many thanks to Ravū Collective who sent a copy of this book my direction in order to facilitate this review. I received no additional compensation and all opinions are 100% my very own.

Friday, October 14, 2016

The Girl in the Castle, by Santa Montefiore

Oh, how I wanted to love The Girl in the Castle, by Santa Montefiore! Set in Ireland, this is the fictional story of Kitty Deverill. The story is set during the Irish Revolution shortly before World War I. Kitty lives with her family at Castle Deverill which has been owned by their ancestors for generations. Although they are Anglo-Irish, Kitty feels more connected to Ireland than England and finds herself essentially between two worlds.

The Girl in the Castle is the first in a trilogy of books that Montefiore is planning to write about the Deverill family. This is a great thing if you loved the book and not so great if you aren't feelin' the love. As I say, I wanted to love it but I simply could not. I enjoyed learning more about the history of the Irish Revolution. It was like getting to know the other half of Tom from Downton Abbey and having his political positions explained more thoroughly. It's a time period and situation I know little about which is one of the reasons I was drawn to reading the story in the first place. On the whole though, I could not relax with the book because, aside from Kitty herself, I could not admire a single other character.

Montefiore is a conservative writer by modern standards but not conservative enough for my tastes. All of her characters seem bent on destruction in some form or fashion and frequently this involves sexual exploits. It's fair to say that if you've seen Downton Abbey (and I have) you won't find anything more shocking within the pages of this book, scene-wise. Still, it's there and so I found myself having to skim and skip along to get past descriptions that I didn't want to read.

The first half of the book is all about character development and in this I enjoyed myself well enough. I was easily lulled into the history of the Deverill family and interested in their outcome. However, by the second half of the book things were much more intense and everyone's life was in almost perfect shambles. There was nothing to love, nor even to like. It was hard for me to finish this book, but finish I did.

The Girl in the Castle has many promising things going for it in a spirited leading lady who loves the land she is born into. It's an interesting story from the historical perspective, but when it comes right down to it it's full of dishonorable men and women who care little for doing what is right and more about doing what they want.

Some will find my opinion of this book harsh. Some will find it very vague and I'm keeping it that way on purpose because if anyone out there wants to dive into the history of the Deverill family and read this trilogy then I don't want to offer spoilers as to the storyline. In my opinion, the storyline is fascinating. It's the cranky, immoral characters who did me in. Who wants to spend time with a group of people that they cannot in any way admire (or barely stand)? If this were a true history I might suffer through it, but as it is a piece of fiction I'm going to take a pass on it and I won't be recommending it to others.

I will say a  quick thank you though to William Morrow Paperbacks who sent a copy of this book in order to facilitate a review. I received no additional compensation and if you doubt that the opinions expressed above are any but my own I shall find you very funny indeed.

Thursday, October 13, 2016

The Silver Chair, by C.S. Lewis

The Silver Chair by C.S. Lewis is perhaps my new favorite Narnia story. (Just remember that I say that after every Narnia story that I re-read.) I don't know how many times I've read this particular title personally, but it was my second time to read it aloud with the kids. It had more meaning for me this time around because a friend of mine is walking down a dark, hard road and it's been pressed upon me how important it is that we remember the truths of God's word, even when our eyes and minds are blurry and we're having a hard time focusing on Him. I wanted to read this story to the kids so that I could bring home the point to them that it's important to first memorize God's word and then always, always, always repeat those truths to yourself. In this way, I pray that even when my children find themselves in moments of doubt and disbelief, they will repeat the truths of scripture to themselves until they find themselves able to believe again.

If you are unfamiliar with the story of The Silver Chair, it picks up where The Voyage of the Dawn Treader leaves off, at least in our world. Roughly fifty Narnian years have passed since Eustace was there. Eustace and one of his school chums, Jill, are whisked into Narnia where they are tasked with finding King Caspian's missing son, Prince Rilian. Aslan gives the children four signs which they are to repeat to themselves and obey in order to find the lost prince. The two children are also given a companion for the journey, a Narnian Marsh-wiggle named Puddleglum. This is the story of their adventures in finding Rilian.

This is Jill's first visit to Narnia, of course, so everything about it is new and scary to her while Eustace has some amount of comfort due to familiarity. It is Jill who is given the signs by Aslan which she is to teach to both Eustace and Puddleglum. Right off the bat though she flubs the first sign. In fact, the children flub most of the signs which lead them on a series of misadventures which are both exciting and terrifying. In the end its Puddleglum who rises to the occasion, remembers the signs, and helps to make the mission a successful one. Jill and Eustace are still "rewarded" for their troubles, but some repentance is necessary as a result of forgetting and/or ignoring the instructions that Aslan had given them. The story ends triumphantly which is a joy and a comfort but there is sorrow along the way as the reader is forced to acknowledge "what might have been." Simultaneously, there is a relief in knowing that although we are prone to making big mistakes in life, Aslan can redeem each and every one of them and set all things to right.

As I say, I loved this story and I found it incredibly relevant for life and godliness. Life is hard. Period. It is hard for different people in different ways but anyone who ever stands up and makes the bold claim to believe in Jesus Christ is in for hardship. If you expect you'll get away without a struggle then you are misinformed at best and delusional at worst. (Blunt? Yes.) Jesus said we're to take up our cross and follow him. Do we think this means down a tulip lined path? If so, we desperately need to rethink things because this life is designed to teach us to be holy as He is holy. Is life ALL hardship and pain? No, I believe not. There are glorious days of peace and joy which we become more and more grateful with over time and with age. There is great joy in the Christian life but there is also struggle. It's easy to want to embrace the one and not to embrace the other but as Job asked his dear wife, are we only to accept good from the Lord and not evil? If you said, "Yes" then you need to understand that that is foolish talk. Yes, I'm pressing a point here but I think its an important one. If we condition ourselves only to accept good from the Lord and not evil, then we're only willing to accept a god of our own making, a created being which we have defined to be "good" according to our pleasures and fancies. That's not a good god. That's a weak one who exists for our pleasure and our bidding.

Life is hard, yes. But life is also full of JOY. During those moments it behooves us to camp out on the promises of God so that when the hard winds blow and the rain comes pouring down, we can "remember the signs" and repeat them to ourselves ad nauseum. And when we find our faith weak and we find ourselves struggling to believe in those promises? We repeat the signs to ourselves more loudly and pray, "Lord, help me in my unbelief!" Life, I think, is a battle to get to the higher ground again. Sometimes we enjoy so much peace it's hard to imagine that we shall ever meet a trouble. And then the trouble comes and it's hard to imagine that we ever were happy or that we can ever be happy again. Remember the signs. Repeat them. If God is not of our making, then we can trust His promises are true and that He will do all that He has said He will do. If He is not of our making then the journey is bearable. If we serve a god of our own making, then we are lost and there is no hope. Why? Because a created god can only be as strong as we are. This, we must acknowledge, is not very strong at all.

Remember the signs. Repeat them to yourself when you wake up in the morning, as you go about your day, as you go to sleep at night. Camp on the promises - and commit to believing in them even when you don't want to.

In this story, Eustance, Jill, Puddleglum and Rilian are making an attempt to escape from an evil witch-queen who is trying her best to confuse the party as to fact and fiction. She begins attempting to work a spell on the group, lighting a fire and playing soothing music to distract them from what they know is right. Puddleglum says:

". . . [Y]ou can play that fiddle till your fingers drop off, and you still won't make me forget Narnia; and the whole Overworld too. We'll never seen it again, I shouldn't wonder. You may have blotted it out and turned it dark like this, for all I know. Nothing more likely. But I know I was there once. I've seen the sky full of stars. I've seen the sun coming up out of the sea of a morning and sinking behind the mountains at night."

He knew he was being subjected to trickery and he vocalized his beliefs at exactly the right moment. Maybe his present situation wasn't what he hoped for, but Puddleglum wouldn't forget, no sir and no ma'am! Maybe he was being buried in magic but he would hold fast to the truths he knew. The witch continues to sweetly argue against him and truth, trying to subdue both him and the children. She continues to taunt and tease the group, strumming her music and sitting serenely by her fire. Creating an atmosphere that looks and seems relaxing, she tries to lure the Narnians into submission. Finally Puddleglum's head becomes clear enough that he realizes that there is magic in the fire and he determines to put it out -- with his foot! He sacrifices his own true comfort to destroy the false comforts and show the witch for what she truly is. With the following speech he rallies his countrymen to cling to truth.

"One word, Ma'am, he said, coming back from the fire; limping, because of the pain. "One word. All you've been saying is quite right, I shouldn't wonder. I'm a chap who always liked to know the worst and then put the best face I can on it. So I won't deny any of what you said. But there's one thing more to be said, even so. Suppose we have only dreamed, or made up, all those things - trees and grass and sun and moon and stars and Aslan himself. Suppose we have. Then all I can say is that, in that case, the made-up things seem a good deal more important than the real ones. Suppose this black pit of a kingdom of yours is the only world. Well, it strikes me as a pretty poor one. And that's the funny thing when you come to think of it. We're just babies making up a game, if you're right. But four babies playing a game can make a play-world which licks your real world hollow. That's why I'm going to stand by the play world. I'm on Aslan's side even if there isn't any Aslan to lead it. I'm going to live as like a Narnian as I can even if there isn't any Narnia. So, thanking you kindly for our supper, if these two gentleman and he young lady are ready, we're leaving your court at once and setting out in the dark to spend our lives looking for Overland. Not that our lives will be very long, I should think; but that's small loss if the world's as dull a place as you say."

Maybe those who don't believe in the God of the Bible are right; maybe He is just a figment of our imagination, a crutch for hurting souls. But if my only choice is the God of Scripture or a world without Him, I'll take my chances. I might spend the whole of my life "hunting for Overworld" but I believe in its existence and I'd rather press on in that goal than wallow in the dark lands, wondering if anything can believed at all.

All I know to pray is that when I next find myself "buried under the earth", looking for the promises of God to be true, I'll have a Puddleglum alongside me to lead me out of the witch's chambers and back into reality. Sometimes the grace of God looks suspiciously like a Marsh-wiggle; sometimes it smells like a burnt one.

This story is a good reminder to all of us that until we reach "Overworld" we must be bold to encourage one another in faith, love, and good works.

All of the above are the truths I want my kids to remember. These are the very things that will drive us back to scripture and back to Narnia time and time again.

With all that said, I dedicate the following song to my Marsh-wiggle friends. I love you and I need you.

So Spirit, come, put strength in every stride;
Give grace for every hurdle.
That we may run with faith to win the prize
Of a servant good and faithful.
As saints of old, still line the way,
Retelling triumphs of His grace,
We hear their calls, and hunger for the day
When with Christ we stand in Glory.

Thursday, October 06, 2016

The Year of Miss Agnes, by Kirkpatrick Hill

I picked up a copy of The Year of Miss Agnes on a whim. I was visiting a friend in Northern Idaho and we went to her hometown bookstore (which is, in my opinion, the best bookstore in the entire country). The owner of the bookshop, while not very talkative or friendly, clearly was a reader and the shelves were filled with books I'd either read myself or knew to be quite excellent. (See? We had similar tastes. Clearly it was the best bookstore in the country! You doubt!?) I hadn't ever heard of The Year of Miss Agnes before but the selection of books upon his shelves recommended this tile to me. It was a safe bet that I was going to like it and like it I did!

The Year of Miss Agnes is a short and simple story told from the perspective of ten year old Frederika (Fred). The story opens with Fred explaining how many teachers have come and gone from their village's one room schoolhouse out in the Alaskan wilderness. Recently the village lost another teacher who couldn't hack the conditions of the community. A new teacher by the name of  Miss Agnes was being flown in to try her hand at teaching in the area, and Fred is wondering just how long she'll last. Expectations in the village are low but Miss Agnes seems to rise to the challenge. As it turns out, Miss Agnes isn't like any of the other women who have come to teach. Hailing from England, she doesn't seem at all put off by the environment but chooses instead to focus on the adventure of it all, desiring nothing more than to foster a love of learning in her pupils.

This is a sweet story and, at 113 pages, a fast read for an adult. I read it first and then handed it over to Bookworm1 (age 10) who also polished it off in short order. It's easy to breeze through and enjoy this book. The Year of Miss Agnes is a story about a passion for learning but even more so, about the powerful influence that a teacher can have on the life of their students.

I loved this one and am happy to recommend it to others. If you find a copy, pick it up! I sure am glad that I did.

Tuesday, October 04, 2016

The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book, by Chris McVeigh

It's almost that time of year, you know? Will you forgive me for talking about it so soon? I sort of have to, you see. The LEGO Christmas Ornaments Book by Chris McVeigh was just recently released and is a worthwhile title to explore before the season gets underway.

This new LEGO title from No Starch Press offers 15 different ornament designs, complete with full-colored photographs and instructions for how to make your own ornaments with which to adorn your tree. If you are a LEGO lover or know someone who is, this book makes a nice gift and/or also teaches you how to make your own gifts.

Chris McVeigh has designed some pretty cute (can I use that word?) ornaments and offers both a list of parts needed as well as step-by-step instructions for how you can make the same. Of course, once you understand how he uses the various parts and pieces to create his own designs, you can create some of your own and that is what makes books like these so great- they are a launching pad for your own designs!

Most of the parts and pieces that you will need in order to design these ornaments are likely to be in your modern LEGO collection (particularly if you like the Ninjago, Star Wars or Friends lines). Otherwise, you might have to hunt one or two specialty pieces down (but not many). Here are some photos of the various ornament designs included which also gives you a feel for the layout of the book:

Again, if you are looking for a fun Christmas activity to do along with your LEGO lovin' friends and relations, this is a fun title to consider.

Many thanks to No Starch Press for sending a copy of this book my direction in order to facilitate this review. I have received no additional compensation and all opinions expressed above are 100% my very own.

Monday, October 03, 2016

Making Friends with Billy Wong, by Augusta Scattergood

This review has been a long time coming. I read Making Friends with Billy Wong several weeks back but just hadn't gotten around to writing up my thoughts. I have nice thoughts about this book on the whole. Honestly I'm never sure what to expect from Scholastic Books; much of the time it feels like they are just peddling books because they think the reading public is bored and will read anything. (I'm nothing if not honest. You have to give me that much!) Every once in awhile though they publish something that seems worth reading and Making Friends with Billy Wong seemed to me that it might be one of them. I really think it is.

This story focuses primarily on the character of a young girl named Azalea. Her mother drops her off to stay at her grandmother's house after her grandmother suffered a fall which has prevented her from being able to care for herself. The last place in the world that Azelea wants to be is at her grandmother's. To begin with, she doesn't know her grandmother as her parents have never took her for a visit. Secondly, she is an introvert who has a hard time making friends and doesn't really know how she is to pass these summer months.

On the flip side of things, Azalea's grandmother has high hopes for her granddaughter's visit. While she does need help around the house, especially in the garden, she has long wanted to spend time with her granddaughter. If you read between the lines, she truly is grateful for the opportunity to get to know Azalea. Alongside Azalea there are other children from the local neighborhood coming to help in the garden, including one Billy Wong.

Making Friends with Billy Wong is a story about family and relationships in part. Primarily though it is a vehicle to explain a piece of history to young readers. This story is set in the 1950's when Chinese students were not entirely accepted into white schools. Segregation was still the name of the game at the time of this story. Billy has moved to his uncle's in order that he can attend the white school in town, something he is unable to do in the town where his parents live. Although not readily accepted even in this new location, he is both excited about and grateful for all of the possibilities that his new school will offer him.

Most of the story revolves around the friendship of Azalea and Billy. As mentioned, the point of the book is to teach young readers what life in America looked like for minorities during the 1950's/early 1960's. It is a look at a way of life. What would it be like for a white girl to befriend a minority? What would integration into a chiefly white society look like for a person of Asian descent? These and other questions are raised in the reader's mind as they make their way through this tale.

Augusta Scattergood is a decent writer who has a passion to share this portion of history with young people. The story is told well enough, although I wouldn't say that it's brilliantly written. Parts of the book feel rushed and a variety of details are overlooked. Still, for a short story which wants to serve as an introduction, it works. This book makes for very easy reading, coming in at roughly 200 pages. Simple and sweet, it does open the reader's eyes to the status of minorities both in the 1950's and also in today's society. An interesting read, I wouldn't avoid it but would happily point it out to anyone looking to introduce their kids to the concept of racial tensions and life in small town America.

Many thanks to Scholastic Books for sending a copy of this title my direction in order to facilitate this review. I received no additional compensation. If you sincerely doubt it, please let me assure you that all opinions contained in this post are entirely my own.

Wednesday, September 28, 2016

The Secret Keepers (GIVEAWAY)

Did you miss my review of The Secret Keepers, the new title from Trenton Lee Stewart? If you did, go read it. Once you've read it you will understand why it is that you want to read this book.

I am very happy to announce that Little Brown Books for Young Readers has offered to give away one copy of The Secret Keepers to one of you!

Would you care to win? (Of course, of course!) Simply leave a comment below.

Must be a U.S. Resident to win. Make certain to leave a valid e-mail address in the comment section so that I can contact you should your name be selected as the winner.

This contest will be open through Monday, October 3rd. Best to you!

Many thanks to LB Kids for their generosity! And many thanks to them for publishing this title in the first place!

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