Friday, December 23, 2011

Christmas Stories

My son and I have a tradition of reading Christmas stories each night during the month of December.  Here are a few:

 The 25 days before before Christmas are called advent.  For each week we light a particular candle on our advent wreath and read scripture from a book that we have enjoyed reading these past few years.  A Family Advent:  Keeping the Savior in the Season by Zondervan has a whole month's worth of Bible verses, history, Christmas trivia and recommended hymn singing for each day and week of advent.  Each candle (hope, love, joy and peace) are described and explained in the daily devotionals.

Another favorite book is The Legend of the Christmas Tree by Rick Osborne and Bill Dodge. This story is about a father who is concerned that his children are missing the point of Christmas.  They go to buy a Christmas tree where the proprietor tells them the origin and symbolism of the evergreen tree and how it came to be a tradition of decorating one inside our homes for Christmas.

Then there's The Legend of the Candy Cane by Lori Walburg and James Bernardin.  This story takes place in the pioneer west.  A stranger comes to town and sets up shop in a deserted building.  To the children's delight he turns out to be a candy vendor.  One little girl takes courage and gets to know the stranger who shares with her the symbolism and history of the white and red striped candy that's shaped like a shepherd's hook (and also the letter, "J".)

Last but not least, one of the best Christmas stories out there was written by Ruth Bell Graham, the late wife of Billy Graham.  It's called One Wintry Night.  A young boy gets lost in the snow covered mountains and sprains his ankle to boot.  He comes across a secluded log cabin in the woods.  An elderly lady lives there who takes the boy in and cares for him while he convalesces.
   While the boy lies there, bored and frustrated, this sweet lady explains the reason for Christmas to him.  She doesn't start in Bethlehem either.  She goes all the way back to the beginning of the world, the fall of man, and God's plan for redemption which brings her and the boy not only to Bethlehem but continues on to the cross and the empty tomb.
    What makes this book so spectacular are the illustrations. Richard Jesse Watson  took four years to create them and they alone are worth the book's price.  The rich and vivid colors and impeccable detail bring each Bible story to life.  If you had to choose a book this Christmas, this would be it.
For reviews of some of our other favorite Christmas reading you can read about The Candle in the Window and The Christmas Miracle of Johnathon Toomey here.

Monday, December 19, 2011

From Strength to Strength by Carol Littleton

Carol Littleton once shared a charming story about how she had met her husband.

“Was it love at first sight?” She was asked.
“He had been a friend of my brother’s so I had known him for years. Once when they were fourteen years old, my brother and his friend went on a boy scout camp out in the woods. After dropping my brother off, I split from my family for a few minutes. I wandered around looking inside the different tents. I barged into one tent and, much to my surprise, my brother’s friend was there. Completely in the buff. He had been changing to go swimming and I’m sure he thought his tent was a safe place to change into his suit!”
“You must have been embarrassed!”
“Well, you could say that then it was love at first sight.”
After I heard this story I knew Carol was the sort of person I was going to have to get to know. When I heard she had written a book I asked to read and review it.

In Carol’s book, “From Strength to Strength,” she speaks of her marriage to “that boy scout in the buff,” Mike. As funny as the nascence of their romance was, it became less funny as the years went by. What started out as social drinking in the first few years of their marriage became everyone’s nightmare come true when they find themselves tied to an alcoholic spouse. On page one Carol writes:

“After seventeen years of marriage, my husband Mike and I were constantly at odds with one another. His drinking had become an all-day long habit; His “happy hour” often stretched from before breakfast to long after dinner…I was often harsh and cruel to the man I once loved so much. I hated his drinking, yet said nothing about his supply of booze in the house. I even agreed with his buying a liquor store because I liked the idea of making a lot of money… and I’m sorry to admit, I let him drive our kids to their activities when he had alcohol sloshing in him.”

Things got worse before they got better. The turning point came when one night, in a drunken rage, Mike tried to strangle her.

“On the brink of passing out, I cried out to a God I hardly knew: “God, please just make him quit yelling at me.” Immediately, my husband dropped his hands from my throat, stalked over to the bed and passed out until morning! To my utter astonishment, God actually came to my rescue! The Ruler of the Universe and the King of Kings reached out to save me-a nobody, a confused, cowardly, faithless little girl housed in a woman’s body.” (Pg 1)

This experience led to Carol accepting Jesus Christ into her life and soon after, her husband’s salvation as well. Still, it was not a smooth road and there were many hills and valleys. Over the course of time, however, both Mike and Carol became Addiction Specialists. For the last twenty years of their marriage, before Mike’s passing, they ministered and counseled countless families who suffered from life destructive addictions.
“From Strength to Strength” is Carol’s labor of love so she can share the strategies and solutions she and Mike came to discover as they both conquered their unhealthy addictions. In her book she takes a step by step, methodical approach to identifying an unhealthy self- image, addictive personality traits, dangerous life style choices and how to overcome them. She has done a thorough job researching her topic and has combined reliable sources with personal experience in an interesting and readable way.

The whole book is infused with Carol’s love for the Lord and at the end you will have no doubt who her Source of strength is and Who is also beckoning you to lay your burdens down at His feet as well.

I received this book free from the author.

For more links on this subject you can go here:
turn to help
Christian Help

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

The Night Sky: a Journey from Dachau to Denver and Back by Maria Sutton

    When Maria Sutton was four years old her family immigrated to America after WWII as displaced persons and settled in Colorado. One day, when Maria was thirteen, she overheard her mother and a fellow DP talking about the old country. Both had lived in labor camps in Germany during the war. From the bits and pieces of Polish Maria was able to pick up, she heard something that shocked and deeply disturbed her: for the first time in her life she came to know that the man she had believed was her father was not really her father. Another man still living in Europe was her and her sister's biological father.

This spurred a deep unrest in Maria that propelled her to undertake a long and arduous journey into her and her mother's past. “Night Sky” is Sutton's account of this journey. It takes place over several years and leads her to the labor camps of Germany as well as to Poland and the Ukraine where her mother and biological father's family still resides.

Maria is a good story teller. Her descriptions of her feelings, her near-obsession with finding her “real” father, plus the events and people she meets- either in person or through second hand testimony are painted in rich, colorful detail and plenty of suspense. Maria's faithful rendition of her mother's harrowing experience-being snatched from her family while still a young girl, being forced to work on the farm of a German family where she meets and falls in love with Maria's birth father- a tall, handsome, blue-eyed and blonde Pole, Jozef Kurek, adds yet another poignant personal picture of what so many endured in Europe in the 1930's and 40's.

As Maria travels through the past while investigating in the present she makes many discoveries about her family, some wonderful, some horrific, some that unites her to long lost relatives and others that shatter cherished dreams.

Anyone interested in world history would enjoy this book but I believe all citizens of a free world should read “Night Sky” as a reminder of a nightmare that happened not too long ago. As Maria quotes in her book, I also quote:

Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it. (George Santayana)

I received this book for free by the author.

For more information about Maria you can visit Tattered Cover Bookstore
For another review of Night Sky you can visit Lesa's Book Critiques or Lavender Dreams Too

or the Kindle Edition $7.99:

Thursday, December 8, 2011

The Grace Effect by Larry Alex Taunton

   Simply defined, the 'grace effect' is an observable phenomenon-that life is demonstrably better where authentic Christianity flourishes. (From the author's web site )

“Does she want a bribe,Viktor?” He looked startled and uncomfortable.
“Uh, a 'gift' might be helpful.” Viktor shifted nervously in his seat.
“Then do it,” I ordered.
 Viktor sprang from the car and went back inside. Upon his return, Viktor appeared anxious.    Getting into the car, he turned to me.
“Did she accept it?” I asked impatiently.
“Yes, she did.”
“Excellent! How much?”
“ hundred dollars.”
 Why wasn't Viktor pleased? That seemed like a bargain.
“Well done!” I congratulated him.
“Well, not exactly,” he began. “She accepted the gift but still will not give us the document we need. She says that if she expedites our papers, (her superiors) will think that she has taken a bribe.”
“Let me get this straight." I could feel a rising anger. “We have 'gifted' her to expedite this adoption-that is, to give us a paper that sits on her desk even now. But she isn't going to do it; is that right?” Viktor nodded, averting his eyes. (pg. 53,54)

The Grace Effect begins with a dinner with atheist Christopher Hitchens, Christian apologetist John Lennox, and the author. The crux is that Hitchens believes that religious beliefs are evil and cause people to do evil things. What Tuanton provides in his book, The Grace Effect, is a personal testimony of how our most basic human rights in America and Europe are based on Judeo-Christian tenets and when you take away this belief system you end up with countries like the Ukraine.

Taunton takes us on a depressing, extremely frustrating, and ultimately rewarding journey as he and his family attempt to adopt a ten year old girl, Sasha, from a Ukrainian orphanage.

His descriptions of the harrowing conditions in theses orphangages are only a little more horrifying than the government and populace that could care less. Why should these children be treated with respect? Why should they have other than rotten food to eat? Why do they need toilet paper?

What little accommodations that have been done to make these children's lives a little more bearable have all been done by short term missionaries from the U.S. For that matter most of the people trying to adopt these children are American citizens. The Ukrainians don't understand why anyone would.

“Learning that I was in their country, a small group of academics asked me to come and speak on the religious climate in America. A hand went up and a woman asked, “Why are you in Ukraine?”

“My wife and I are here finalizing the adoption of a ten year-old girl.” 

A man asked, “Why would you want to adopt?” Frankly, this seemed a silly question. Aren't the reasons for adoption self-evident? A couple loves children; a child needs a home and a family and so on. I then realized that his question was shared by the whole room. 'Why adopt? Who would want to do that?'

The rest of the question-and-answer period became a referendum on adoption and my party did not win. The whole concept was anathema to most of them. This is because the concept is anathema to a culture not heavily influenced by a Christian worldview. Atheists don't do benevolence.

Adoption facilitators will tell you that very few Ukrainians or Russians adopt or volunteer their time for these abandoned children. And there is little help being offered from the Islamic world, countries where the slave trade continues to thrive. No, as with most aid, most adoptions are to parents from Western countries, overwhelmingly, to those from the United States.” (pg.117,118)

After going through this interminable process and finally adopting Sasha, Taunton lets us know that this little girl has AIDS. In spite of this they were allowed to return to the States with her. So much of what is described in this book makes me very angry. Like the twenty-something judge with bleached blonde hair, tight mini-skirt and stilletos who after finally showing up (after many last minute cancellations-one because she was watching a movie on TV) signed the papers then gets back in her Lexus and zooms off.

An irony is how Taunton and his family were treated by all the officials involved. They were rebuked by the orphanage director for feeding Sasha McDonalds because it's bad for her then rebuked again when she didn't eat much of the subsequent healthy meal they got her. All the while knowing that the food served to the children in the orphanage was so bad that if anything edible is offered, the first child near it will spit on it so no one else will get it.

Then there were the adoption officials who kept asking them over and over again how big their house was, what kind of room Sasha was going to sleep in etc..When they were well aware that even living in a shack would be an improvement to where she was currently living.

As Taunton points out, anyone who thinks that Christianity is a fake or even evil, they need to go visit countries lacking Christian values and make an objective comparison.

Or at least read The Grace Effect.

I received this book for free from Thomas Nelson Publishers

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Pershing: Commander of the Great War by John Perry

Let's not talk high-sounding phrases.  Let's not use old words, shopworn words, words like "glory" and "peace" without thinking exactly what they mean.  There's no "glory" in killing.  There's no "glory" in maiming men.  There are the glorious dead, but they would be more glorious living.  The most glorious thing is life.  And we who are alive must cling to it, each of us helping.  (John Pershing- from the book)

Pershing is one of America's unsung heroes. The first man to be promoted to General of the Armies, he's largely responsible for winning WWI but is all but forgotten today. John Perry does an admirable job of reminding the rest of us who General John J. Pershing was and why he deserves our respect and a place in history.

A graduate of West Point, Pershing was a inflexible, impeccable leader that cut no slack with himself or anyone else. As one reporter wrote, “no one will be calling him 'Papa Pershing'.” But it was this minute attention to detail that whipped every troop under him into tip top fighting shape and insured the success of every battle Pershing and his armies were engaged in.

Perry traces Pershing's career through commanding the Buffalo soldiers out west, fighting Pancho Villa during the Mexican War,  fighting with Teddy Roosevelt against the Spanish in Cuba and again in the Philippines and ultimately taking inexperienced American soldiers and training them to push back the Germans and regain the land the Allies had lost in WWI.

Perry shows a man who refused to compromise his principles when the French and English demanded that the untrained Americans be absorbed into their own armies. He insisted the Americans had to fight on their own under his command. When he was relieved of duty, he ignored it, took his untrained troops and in a very short time trained them into an army the Germans couldn't push back and ultimately surrendered to.

Yet Pershing was a man of justice and wisdom as well. He took the command over black soldiers, the “Buffalo Soldiers”- when nobody else was willing to take on the job of leading black men- and turned them into a powerful fighting force. With the American Indians he treated them with respect and always chose peace talks rather than battles with them, earning their trust and cooperation. He worked the same way with the Muslim Phillipino natives, and as a result acquired peace there as well.

Perry does a good job showing Pershing's courageous and strong sense of honor that made him only fight when there was no other alternative and treating all men-regardless of race- as he would himself expect to be treated.

The descriptions of the battles and strategies that caused so much unnecessary death and carnage in WWI as well as Pershing's own strategies and battles that led to the German defeat is especially interesting to read and, in short, I recommend this book to anyone interested in Military history and an extremely important epoch of American and European history.

Additional links:

I received the book for free from Thomas Nelson Publishers

Friday, November 11, 2011

A Book To Think By: Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey

Because the word secular is the opposite of religious, many assume that the rise of secularism is a problem for religious groups only,” Pearcey says. “Not so. When politics loses its moral dimension, we all lose. When public discourse is debased, the entire society suffers.”
In this riveting account, Pearcey exposes the stealth secularism that permeates society through education, media, politics, art, literature, and movies. (from Nancy Pearcey's blog.  For the entire review you can go here)

I'm reviewing a couple of books that were on my TBR pile that I bought for myself and were not given to me by a publishing company. They're excellent books and should shake off the notion that Christian literature is limited to self help non fiction or mediocre fiction.

The first one, Saving Leonardo by Nancy Pearcey, is one of many books and lectures that I have been reading and listening to that confronts the image that Christians are not intellectual or cultural leaders in our society. Pearcey has so much meat and thought provoking essays that I rank this book right up with anything C.S. Lewis wrote and as a sequel to Francis Schaeffer's book, How Should We Then Live?

Pearcey takes us on a trip through history showing how originally Christians were the intellectual powerhouses of Europe and were the ones to develop Europe from tribal savagery to a sophisticated society. This is in line with many other sources I've read. It was the Christian church that started the universities, hospitals, orphanages, were the forerunners of fine art and preserved writing and history.

Then in the 17th century, the “Enlightenment” thinkers came and decided that life had no meaning and the only thing any one could believe in was what they could quantify. This created an upper story/lower story mentality that resulted in our society, including Christians, believing that anything “scientific” was objective and anything that had to do with God or religion was subjective.

Pearcey traces the development of this thinking, how the philosophies of Immanuel Kant and Voltaire colored Darwin's thinking, giving him a predetermined interpretation of his findings and consequently the development of his theory of evolution (yes folks, it's still a theory-yet to be proven) and the consequences of his “scientific discoveries” that we are living with (or suffering from) to this day.

She exposes the hypocrisy and circular thinking of secularists, showing how when they reject the truth of the Bible they derail their own ability to understand truth. One highly relevant example is the pre born child. When Roe vs Wade was in court, the conclusion of the courts was that it was impossible to know when life began so the woman's right to privacy took precedence. With today's technology proving beyond a shadow of a doubt when a baby's life begins, the secularists comfortably changed their argument. Now it's now longer a matter of when life begins, but rather who is a person. Unfortunately, secularists can't agree on who qualifies. In fact in order to prove their points on any subject they have to disqualify their own line of thought from the, “nothing is knowable” philosophy they impose on the rest of us. They continually defeat their own argument against absolutes by asserting one absolute argument after another.

According to some secular philosophers, many people who have already been born aren't qualified to be considered a person with all the rights a person is entitled to. And, of course, the downfall of the person hood amendment in Mississippi is an excellent example of a population group who are mostly pro life refusing to take a stand for pre born babies. No doubt their “upper story” believed in the person hood of pre born babies, but their “lower story” told them they weren't allowed to impose their personal beliefs on others. The secularist culture has done its job well.

Pearcey describes how secular thinkers have taken over as leaders in science, art and popular culture-not to mention public education- and this has impacted our society in profound ways. But she also explains how Christians can once again become vital leaders of culture and shed our anti-intellectual image by using our minds and becoming engaged in the public arena. Not just how we vote but in the world of music, fine art, literature and philosophy.

One group who is attempting to do that are the writers of World Magazine. “World” is a Christian magazine that engages the culture in a relevant way in the areas of sociology, politics, news around the world, art, music and philosophy that I have never seen in any other Christian magazine. They are now in the process of airing a radio show constructed along the same lines as NPR- only from the Christian worldview rather than the secular. I hope they will also play classical and jazz music.

In my next post I will be reviewing a very interesting book by Gene Edward Veith called, The Spirituality of the Cross. This is a thought provoking look at the history of the Lutheran church.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

Behind the Veils of Yemen by Audra Grace Shelby


Audra Shelby with her husband and three children lived nine years as missionares in Yemen. This is an account of their journey into a far away place-not only globally but also culturally and religiously- as they attempted to share the love of Christ and His good news to Muslim women.

Shelby writes in an exceptionally good style so I was not surprised to find out that she, in fact, is a professional writer in addition to being a dedicated missionary. I found this book easy to read and hard to put down.

At the get go suspense is created when Shelby describes her husband's tangle with a life threatening but mysterious infection that almost wasn't discovered until it was too late. After he recovers they continue with their trip to Yemen.

As Shelby learns the Arabic language, she develops a special relationship with Fatima, her language instructor. Fatima is a strict Muslim who faithfully makes a huge show of her traditional cleansing and praying-all the way down to greeting the two angels that “sit on her shoulders.” She is openly scornful of Audra's Bible that is “corrupt” and Audra's lack of cleansing rituals before her prayers.

However, Audra and Fatima develop a special relationship and Fatima is Audra's door to a culture and people that she would not otherwise have access to. Because of Fatima, Audra attends a wedding (all three days of sweat soaking dancing “just shake what you have” and waiting for the bride) and visiting family members and others-all who have never met an “infidel.”

Fatima comes to rely on Audra in ways that she can not turn to her fellow Yemenites, not even her family. Life in the Muslim world is not filled with joy but with fear and hatred. Whatever happens, no matter how unjust or cruel, is viewed as, “Emsha'allah,” (God's will). Girls are openly physically abused by their own brothers while their qat-chewing fathers calmly look on. Audra is angered and horrified to see an eight month old baby girl lying in the dirt in the middle of the street, screaming with no one attending her. Although this was not normal, apparently it was acceptable to treat a baby girl like this if it was believed that she brought ill fortune to her family. Every woman she met had lost a child before the age of five.

Fatima draws a strength from Audra that she cannot get from anyone else. Still, she wants the hope and joy she sees in Audra without truly surrendering to the One who is the source of that hope and joy. We don't know what becomes of Fatima because after their language training, Audra and her family move to another area of the country.

Audra struggles to overcome her own discouragement and distaste at the ignorance and impoverished living conditions of these Muslim women and reach out to them with the love of Jesus.
This is exceptionally hard as family and friends back home are unsupportive and the few European and American women in Yemen shun her when they see her wearing a bulgar and head covering and interacting with the poverty-stricken Muslim women.

Also, Audra sees such a desperate need for missionaries to come to a land that is darkened by fear and superstition. Frankly, she doesn't paint an appealing picture. I myself would prefer to be a missionary many places other than a Muslim country. She doesn't sugarcoat the hardship.

One thing I found wanting was her naming any fruit that she and her family produced. Audra focuses on her relationships with the Muslim women she encountered (even her family is kept in the background) but never mentions if any come to salvation. I would have liked to have read whether any of the Muslims became Christians.

Other than that, this book is an eye opener and I recommend it to anyone considering the mission fields and for all of us because we need to know and understand how many people across the globe live. Not everyone lives in an air conditioned house and drives an SUV.   

To learn more about Audra and her work you can go to her website:

For other book reviews about Muslims you can go:  herehere, and here.  To read another review about modern day missionaries you can go here

I received a free copy of this book from Bethany Publishers in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, October 23, 2011

The Book of Man by William J. Bennett

    Boys need heroes to embody the everlasting qualities of manhood:  Honor, duty, valor, and integrity.  Without such role models, boys will naturally choose perpetual childhood over the rigors of becoming men..

    Too many men waste time in pointless and soulless activities, unmindful of the responsibilites, uncaring of their pursuits.  Have we forgotten how to raise men, how to lead our boys into manhood? (from the prologue)

  William J. Bennett has done it again. I had just heard him on Focus on the Family talking about the plight of boys and young men. He discussed with Jim Daly how men are growing up in a fatherless society that gives them no positive or heroic role models. Thus the idea for The Book of Man was born. When Thomas Nelson publishers offered this book to review, I eagerly snatched it up.

As I expected, I was not disappointed. This is a fantastic book and a book that boys need to read or have read to them. I personally have added it to my son's reading list.

Bennett has compiled inspiring stories, poems essays and profiles from ancient history to modern times about men acting like, well, men. Real men. Not men who worry about being politically correct or men who think impregnating women without feeling any sense of responsibility toward their own offspring is a sign of manhood. The men in these essays knew the responsibilities of manhood and weren't afraid to take hold of the reins of their life and say, “I can and will do what is right and even die for it.”

The book is broken up into six sections: Man in War; Man at Work; Man in Play, Sports, and Leisure, Man in the Polis; Man with Woman and Children;and Man in Prayer and Reflection.

The essays include speeches by ancient men like the Greek general, Pericles who had to give a funeral oration for all the men who died in the twenty-seven year war between Sparta and Athens; The Campaigns of Alexander the Great told by Arrian a Roman historian; and Colin Powell's response to the Archbishop of Canterbury. He includes poems by Shakespeare, W. B. Yeats, Browning and Wordsworth and profiles of real life men like Donovan Campbell a Princeton graduate who fought in Iraq and Afghanistan as a marine and he includes profiles of Navy Seals and the Navy Seal creed.

He records romantic letters written by men such as General Washington, Leo Tolstoy and Duff Cooper to their respective fiancees and a fantastic essay on “True and False Manliness” by James Freeman Clarke. He has a couple of stories titled “Teddy Roosevelt with His Children” and “Johnathan Edwards with His children”. He's also included several prayers by presidents: Kennedy, Carter, Reagan FDR, and Abraham Lincoln and George Washington in addition to others.

What I've listed is only a scratch off the tip of the iceberg. So many other enriching stories are in this book, giving a paradigm for young males today to aspire to.

Each essay was carefully selected for its quality to inspire boys to be men. Some of the writers are famous. Some are obscure but whose story deserves to be told. Some of the men are people who called to talk to Bennett on his radio show.

 After my previous post relating the desperate thirst my sons had for heroic males in literature (both of whom have grown up fatherless, I might add) and on the crest of the movie Courageous (for a review of Rand Alcorn's novelization of the movie you can go here) this book comes at a perfect time.

I think that this book would be a great read aloud for the family every night.

Sunday, October 2, 2011

Fyodor Dostoevsky by Peter Leithart

 Fyodor Dostoevsky by Peter Leithart is another biography in the Christian Encounter Series published by Thomas Nelson. Since Dostoevsky is one of my favorite authors I eagerly looked forward to reading this book.

Leithart takes a different approach than the other authors of the Christian Encounter biographies in that instead of merely chronicling the life of one of the greatest writers in-not only Russian history but the world, he writes in story form in a style reminiscent of Dostoevsky's own writing. We find out about the events in Dostoevsky's life as the author himself recounts it to his friend, Maikov, over cigarettes and vodka at home while his third wife, Anna, carefully attends to her beloved husband's needs.

It is through the “voice” of Dostoevsky that we learn of his strict upbringing with a disciplinarian father tempered by a loving mother, his personal contact with serfs that would affect his sympathy with their plight. We hear him tell his friend about his work with the socialists, his subsequent imprisonment in Siberian labor camps and his near- execution that was called off at the last second. We learn of his conversion to Christianity because of the devotion of a wife of one of the other prisoners who chose to share in her husband's punishment rather than be separated from him.

As Dostoevsky tells Maikov about the women he loved, his fellow prisoners, the socialists, and the demons that tore at his soul as he strove to overcome his own sinful nature only to fall at the feet of Christ begging for mercy, we gain an insight to the ideas and characters that make up the colorful and exciting novels that this tormented man wrote.

When I read a novel by Fyodor Dostoevsky, I feel as though I'm stepping into a whirlwind. Now I understand it is because this emotional, unstable, epileptic man's life was a whirlwind all the way down to his untimely death at the age of fifty-nine.

Anna woke to find Fyodor staring at her.
“Light a candle, Anna, and hand me the New Testament. I have been lying here awake for three hours now, and only now I have clearly realized that I shall die today.”
She brought him the Testament he had received from Natalya Fonvizina in Siberia. He opened it and read the first passage that appeared to his eye. It was Matthew 13:14-15: 'And Jesus said to John, Delay not, for thus it becomes us to fulfill the great truth.'
“Do you hear, Anna? Delay not?! That means I must die.”
….Anna held his hand and felt his pulse get feebler and feebler. By the time the doctor arrived, Fyodor Dostoevsky was already dead.
Anna was hysterical. “O, whom have I lost! Whom have I lost!”
Involuntarily Maikov broke out, “Whom has Russia lost! Whom has Russia lost!” (pg. 174, 175 the Epilogue)

If you are a fan of this influential Russian author's work. This book is an excellent resource.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, September 27, 2011

A Heart for Freedom by Chai Ling


 I remember when I was attending the Chicago Conservatory in 1989 (back then it was called the Chicago Musical College of Roosevelt University). Shanghai Conservatory was a sister school to ours and we had a lot of Chinese music students from there attending Roosevelt. One of the students wrote an article for our school newspaper, The Roosevelt Torch. In it she expounded eloquently on conditions in China, which she asserted were identical to how Americans lived. Same opportunity, safety, freedoms, etc.. I personally knew this student. She was a very nice, intelligent person whom I respected and admired. Her well-written article persuaded me that all was hunky-dory across the world in the most populated country in the world.

Call it irony or coincidence but right after her article was printed, the massacre at Tienanmen Square occurred. I have to say I felt anger toward this student for blatantly lying to us. Surely she knew that China did not have the freedom, human rights or equal opportunity that our country has. She lost complete credibility with me.

It's been many years since the tragic events at Tienanmen Square transpired and I doubt many people in the Western hemisphere think much about it anymore. That's why I think I think A Heart for Freedom by Chai Ling is an important book to read.

I was born at the beginning of China's Cultural Revolution. Like all Chinese children, I was taught to love my country, sacrifice my own needs, and be ready to give up my life for a greater good. We were not allowed to know God.

In 1989, I became a leader of a student hunger strike in Tienanmen Square, a peaceful movement for a better, freer, and more loving China. There I discovered the truth about the government I had been taught to love. In the early morning hours of June 4, I stood with my friends and watched in horror as the tanks rolled in. During the crackdown, thousands were wounded or killed.

I survived. (From the inside front cover) 

In this fascinating account, Ling chronicles her life as the child of Army Doctors, her desire to bring honor and pride to her family through high grades and going to  prestigious Peking University. She describes her shame at getting unexpectedly pregnant in college, undergoing an abortion, and working and striving still harder to prove to her parents that she was worthy of their respect.

As time went on she realized she could not follow in her parents footsteps as ardent believers in the State. She began to see serious flaws in the system. Ling gives a thorough, step by step account of the events that led up to the student protest, how she became one of China's most wanted political criminals and how she escaped and eventually moved to the United States.

One of the things that especially struck me was how hard she and the other students were working toward governmental reform in China yet because they, the students, were just as godless as the government they were protesting, there was no moral paradigm that they could hold on to. Ling vividly and honestly portrays her fellow students and herself as people seeking to work toward good but without an instruction manual.
 Consequently, though they could see the big picture (i.e. government should not be oppressive) they couldn't see their own individual portraits as selfish, sinful humans that made up a part of the larger landscape.

Frankly it was depressing to read about the attempts of these students fighting against an outward system while being blind to the tyrannical inward system of their own self absorbed souls.

After coming to America, Ling graduated from Princeton and became a successful business woman. She was nominated twice for the Nobel Peace Prize. She married and had three children. It is interesting to note here that at first she had difficulty in getting a job because many international businesses were afraid  hiring her would damage their relationship with China.

Even though Ling was now successful and free from government oppression she was still enslaved to her feelings of guilt and emptiness. What was if all for? China hadn't changed. She poignantly describes the suffering especially of women, most of whom have undergone at least one abortion due to China's enforced one child per family policy. By this time, Ling herself had had four abortions.

But something else happens that Ling was not expecting. The last chapters of the book bring Chai Ling to the end of a very long journey. She discovers the One who truly sets her free: Jesus Christ. Through fellow Chinese who had become Christians as well as other Christian friends, Chai Ling came to experience full freedom in Jesus Christ, the one who wipes away every tear and took our burden of guilt and shame upon himself when He died on the cross.  She finally understood what they, the Chinese students, were doing wrong at Tienanmen Square. In the last chapter she states:

....The Holy Spirit is working overtime in China. In 1983, when I started at Beida, people had to talk in whispers about secret gatherings in the countryside to worship God. Today, at that same university alone, more than two hundred Bible study groups meet on campus, and an official class on Jesus is offered to seven hundred students.

The Chinese government seems to recognize this spiritual hunger. They even erected a giant statue of Confucius in Tienanmen Square in January 2011. But their efforts to find something to hold the country together will inevitably be undermined by the massive amount of corruption, violence, and crime that results from the people's lack of transformative belief system. (pg. 326)

The final chapters of Ling's story describes work with All Girls Allowed, an organization that she founded. It is dedicated to “restoring life, value, and dignity to girls and mothers and revealing the injustice of China's one-child policy.” (From the inside back cover.)

I think this is an invaluable book because it brings to light that there are many injustices and violations of human rights going on in our world today. It also shows the hope we have in Jesus Christ which turns every trial to ultimate joy and meaning.  I can't help but compare the outcome of Chai Ling to Ji Li Jiang's in Red Scarf Girl.  (For that book review you can go here) We Americans are insulated to so much of what is happening in other countries.   If you would like more information on All Girls Allowed you can go to Chai Ling's website:   

I received a free copy of this book from Tyndale Publishers in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

Reviewing Books for Free

  I came across a wonderfully informative blog called It is by a young lady who lives in New York City who, by the looks of her blog, is a highly energetic go getter who has wonderful creative powers and knows how to find out what she is looking for. I have found several helpful articles on her site concerning the world of publishing and writing. She has asked me to write an article expounding on my experience as a book reviewer. I feel highly flattered but hardly qualified because I've only been doing this for a few years. But here goes:

A couple of years ago I decided to start a blog simply for the joy of writing articles and posting photos. At first it was a creative outlet to post my thoughts on different subjects, publish photographs I had taken and review books from my own library, which is considerable.

As time went on I began to find my niche as a book reviewer. There are a number of publishing companies that will send you an e book or hard copy of their books in exchange for a review. I currently review books for five different publishing companies. The ones I review for are below. I've posted the links for anyone interested:

They simply require that you post your review on your blog and a commercial website such as Amazon or Barnes and Noble. As you can see I mostly review for Christian publishing companies (with the exception of Dorrance). If you have a specific genre you're interested in, I would suggest getting on Goodreads, writing to and other publishing companies inquiring how to get complimentary copies to review. Search engines are a great resource. Type in “book reviews” or “how to get free books to review” and a lot of different links will come up.

As I produced more and more reviews I began to receive requests from authors to review their books on my blogs. How did I get authors to request reviews? Some, because they liked my posts, wrote and asked me. Others have requests on their sites, in which case, I sent them a note telling them I would be glad to review their book for them.

One great resource is . They have many discussion groups and forums where you can hook up with people who would like to promote their book. Darren Rowse has an informative article on how to get publishers to send you copies at  his web site .

Different people review different ways, many good, some not. My own method has refined over time. Instead of retelling the story I try to give a pithy synopsis and then pluck one or two particular aspects of the book that I liked or hit me in some way. As reviewers, we know the main reason authors want us to review their books is to promote their book. With that in mind, I try to be as objective as possible. Unless the book is about something I strongly object to, I do my best to lay out the facts and give the reader a taste of the story in order to allow them to see if it's their cup of tea or not. I've reviewed a number of books that weren't to my liking but I know that other people are satisfied with that type of writing so I try to paint as plain a picture as I can in order to enable a potential buyer to make an informed decision on whether or not they'd like to buy such a book.

I've noticed a lot of people jump on the best seller band wagon-especially if the book is being made into a movie. That is, they only review books that are currently popular. I daresay this is in hopes of increasing traffic to their blog and bumping their link higher up search engines. I personally don't do this because I'm not interested in reading books solely for the purpose of increasing traffic to my blog. I want to read books I actually would benefit from and enjoy reading as well as improve my writing skills. Life is too short to spend it reading books you don't care for. Nevertheless, this may be a good strategy for promoting your blog, I'm not sure. Especially if you're one of a bajillion bloggers posting about the same book.

Having said that, I largely review books I wouldn't normally buy for myself and I think that has affected how I write reviews. You can read some early reviews of mine here and here to see a difference in the review of a book that I bought for myself as opposed to a review that I wrote for a publishing company such as here . If you'd like to see where I lambasted a book given to me by a publishing company you can go here .  You don't have to give a positive review but make sure you well support your assertions if you want credibility otherwise you're just ranting to yourself.

The good side to reviewing for the publishers is that it has expanded my reading repertoire and I have come to appreciate and learn a lot from books I would not have otherwise read.

Well, this has been my personal experience thus far in the blogging world. I haven't been at it very long and I'm still learning a lot. I hope what I have to give benefits others out there. Thanks, Yamina for encouraging me to write this essay.

Friday, September 16, 2011

Book Review for Where Love Once Lived by Sid Frost

Karen, a grade school teacher, is taking her class outside to a book mobile. The book mobile is a new development started by the city to provide library books to people who otherwise cannot access them. The children are excited about getting in the big “library bus” and browsing the different books offered.
Karen, on the other hand, is experiencing painful emotions brought on by sad memories from another bookmobile. Or rather the man who ran the bookmobile. This was the man she was supposed to marry and live happily ever after with. The man who broke her heart.

Years ago while Karen and Brian were in college, they became seriously involved. So seriously that Karen knew it was a matter of time before Brian proposed. With every expectation of this pleasant outcome, Karen said goodbye to Brian as he left for a brief visit to his parents in California. Except Brian never came back. Instead, on that visit he met and married another woman. Grief stricken, Karen spent years burying the pain.

Now years later, standing outside another bookmobile Karen finds herself thinking of the years lost that haven't diminished her grief. The grief that carries a secret that no one but Karen knows: that she carried and lost her and Brian's baby.

As Karen relives her past, she comes to the back of the bookmobile and gasps. In front of her is a man, now in his fifties, that she hasn't seen since he deserted her all those years ago. It's Brian.

Brian has been paying for a sin he committed for the last thirty years. Saying good bye to the woman he intended to marry, he left to visit his parents then come back and propose to Karen. What he hadn't planned to do was get seduced by the most popular girl he knew in high school, have a one night stand with her, and get her pregnant. Out of a sense of honor, he married this woman and, without any explanation, never returned to Austin, Texas and his true love.

His daughter now grown, Brian is divorced from a woman he never loved. He has returned to capture the heart of the woman he always had wanted to marry. Except, she has no intention of marrying him. Her anger and bitterness boils up against him and overflows.
On top of everything else, there's another secret that is being kept from Brian by the woman he chose to marry out of his sense of duty.

The story could be best summed up as a maze. Two people are at opposite sides of the maze and are working their way through all the turns and dead ends in hopes of meeting each other in the middle. Except instead of paths and twist and turns, the barriers are misconceptions, mistrust; stories left untold and the need to forgive another person's betrayal and abandonment.

When reading the book, I saw a number of interesting situations arise that made this book relevant to me.

Firstly, as a divorced, single mom. I felt the pain and ignominy Karen suffered from being divorced (she also eventually marries and later divorces a man who is unfaithful to her). Karen summed up the feelings I've suffered from for many years.

Her friend Cathy tells her:

“Alone? Listen, you'll always have me. You have many friends. The whole church loves you.”

“The whole church,” Karen said. “Like at lunch every Sunday? All paired up. They never notice me, the divorcee slash loser slash nobody.”

Boy, do I know what that feels like.

Do these things happen in real life? You bet your sweet bippy they do! And when they happen what do we do about it? How do we respond when the one we've given our hearts to cheats on us? How do we respond when they separate themselves from us for years? What do we do when they want to reenter our lives?
What's the right thing to do?

In the book, Where Love Once Lived, Sid Frost explores these themes and, at least for Karen and Brian, come up with a particular resolution which, on the one hand may not be appropriate for everyone, on the other hand, models a Godly mandate of forgiveness that is applicable to each and every one of us.

In addition to the value of a Godly message that is timely in our broken down world, Mr. Frost writes a good story with interesting characters. I found his book very easy and quick to read because he had me going to the very end.

I received a free copy of “Where Love Once Lived” by the author in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, September 8, 2011

Book Review for Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber

   Surprised by Oxford is the story of a young Canadian girl who received a full scholarship to attend Oxford University in England. Written in a style imitative of the literature masters (not surprising since her major is Romantic Literature) the author, Carolyn Weber, describes through lots of word painting, her journey from being an angry atheist to a person who comes to understand that she has no earthly lover pursuing her but the very One who chased her all the way down from heaven to bring her to His kingdom.

With broad, impressionistic strokes, Weber describes her childhood. By that I mean that she doesn't prosaically document her family's breakdown and her father's abandonment but rather uses a poetical style that obligates the reader to form conclusions as to why her family was so successful until her father went to jail (she never explains why he went to jail) and why he was so erratic in his participation in their family. Maybe the memory is too painful. What is clear is that after her father left, Carolyn's family was extremely poor and by her own hard work and determination she somehow managed to graduate from high school, go on to earn a Bachelor's degree all the while working with little sleep or food to sustain her.

This chapter of her life comes to an end when she is offered a full ride to one of the most prestigious and oldest institutions in the world. Off she goes half way around the world carrying much more than just a lot of shoes in her baggage. She carries anger, bitterness and more than a little contempt for the male gender as well as God.

The rest of the book describes all the various and diverse people she meets while at Oxford, most of them atheists, like her, but some of them not. This “not” group intrigues her and little by little win her over with their intellect, sound reasoning, joy of life, and unconditional love that flows out from them and pours onto her.
Carolyn has a lot of arguments with these Christians, some fellow students, some professors-all just as intellectual and in love with literature as she is. Carolyn finds herself having more and more arguments with herself, trying to persuade herself that it's all a lot of bunk but having her prejudices “debunked” as the Christians she meets refuse to conform to any stereotypes she tries to apply to them.

One of my favorite passages is when she empties both barrels of her “anti-man” venom on a fellow student she only refers to as “TDH” (tall, dark and handsome). TDH is a Christian who has befriended Caro (as her friends refer to her-Italian for “beloved”). He lets her rant until both man hating fangs are empty then he quietly tells her he won't be her whipping post for man hate.

All in all, Weber does a good job of drawing the reader into her experience in England and all its fine old traditions and customs. While her arguments may seem a little served up, I don't care because I think she was trying to puree down all the many conversations she had with her friends and professors into their basic points. So while much of the dialogue can seem a bit contrived the reasons and arguments are very good and pretty much the standard arguments non believers give for rejecting Christianity. Someone in the searching stage who's questioning whether Christianity might actually be true will find this book a highly interesting and relevant source.

Lovers of classic literature will appreciate all the quotes and references that are peppered throughout the book.

I received this book for free from Thomas Nelson Publishers in exchange for my honest review.

For another review go Parchment Girl and

Thursday, September 1, 2011

The Vengeance Squad by Sidney W. Frost

The Vengeance Squad

   Chris and Sarah sit across from each other at a table in an outlet mall in Round Rock, Texas. Their conversation? Mutual declarations of how happy they are and excited anticipation of their impending wedding, just two weeks away. Well, you and I both know happiness doesn't make a great story only a satisfactory conclusion to a great story. So what happens next?

For a few moments Chris and Sarah have forgotten the rest of the world as they lose themselves in each other's company. This reverie is rudely and abruptly interrupted when a helicopter lands near their table and men dressed in camouflage, masked and armed with machine guns jump out and rob a nearby bank. Fast forward through a whirlwind of mishaps and we find Sarah lying in Chris' arms, dying.

She pulled me closer so I could hear her weakened voice. 'This is God's will. I'll see you again when it's your time. Until then, be happy. Find someone to love you as much as I do...”
“No!"  I screamed. I looked around. “Help us, please.” I relaxed my grip to look into her face once more. She was always beautiful, but I saw something beyond beauty.
“ ….Chris,” Sarah said. “You have to let me go. I love...”
She sank into my arms as her life left her body.

Now that's the impetus for a good story! Chris now embarks on a journey of anger, bitterness and a driving ambition for vengeance. He decides that he is going to hunt down these bank robbers, whoever they are, and kill them. Thus begins an action packed adventure story that rises above the normal fast ride because the author takes the experience to a spiritual level. Our walk with God is what makes any part of life significant.

The Christian apologist, Ravi Zacharias, was asked how all the suffering in the world can be accounted for. Zacharias' reply: It depends on who's asking.
For the Hindu, whatever happens is Karma; for the Muslim it is God's will, for the atheist everything's just an evolutionary accident. Only in the context of the Christian paradigm can such a question justifiably be asked.

Chris McCowan, the protagonist of The Vengeance Squad, struggles with this question. A church goer all his life, he lashes out in anger against God in typical fashion: he decides God doesn't exist. It was C.S. Lewis that said that most atheists are guilty of circular reasoning. They don't believe God exists and are angry at Him for not existing.

Chris is guilty of this reasoning. If God doesn't exist, Who is the object of his rage? Another point this book made me consider is that one can believe they have relationship with God but when crisis happens in our life-that's the proof of where we really stand. Do we endure to the end, leaning on the power of God? Or do we, like Chris, sink into bitterness and rage?

The book introduces us to a number of interesting characters, all of which show us that even though Chris abandons God, God never abandons him. One of the characters is an ex marine/ ex drug addict/ ex convict named Tex who doesn't let being wheelchair bound limit his opportunities or joy.

With the help of Tex, a mothering librarian who nevertheless has powerful connections, a mysterious and beautiful (of course!) FBI agent (or is she?) and quite a bit of computer know how, Chris and Tex are able to trace and chase the killers, uncovering a much bigger and more dangerous plot in the process.

All in all I found this book a fun read with a lot of action and interesting characters plus the spiritual food for thought I already mentioned. I think the book would make an even better movie.

The Vengeance Squad is Mr. Frost's second book. Himself an ex marine and adjunct computer science professor, Mr. Frost draws on personal experience which gives the book an authentic flavor.

Also, for all of you from Texas, Mr. Frost currently resides in Georgetown and his novel takes place in the Round Rock area. Those of us familiar with Austin will recognize a number of the locations mentioned in the book.

I received a complimentary book from the author in exchange for my honest review.  For more information you can visit Mr. Frost's web site: