Saturday, March 15, 2014

Book Review: Outcasts by Jill Williamson

Summary: Outcasts is the sequel to Jill Williamson’s Captives. Faced with new freedom – and new challenges – the brothers and the rest of the Glenrock captives. As tensions to rescue the remaining captives mount, difficult decisions must be made and the consequences will change many lives forever.

What I liked: While the plot is pretty good, what I really enjoyed was the complexity of a few of the main characters.
Mason and Ciddah’s relationship is fascinatingly grey. What I mean by that is that it is morally complex, and while I found myself cheering for them, I also understood some of Mason’s concerns, as well as those of some family members. What I’m saying is that the characters and relational dynamic is well imagined and well written.
I found myself really enjoying the character of Omar, also because of his grey/complex/dynamic nature. I found I related to him, even in, or especially in, the moments when I was most frustrated with him.

What I didn’t like: Occasionally, the writing comes across a little too on-the-nose – not quite preachy but a little too obvious is the moral message trying to be sent. At least, that is how I perceived it. When this happened, it was odd because there are many other parts of the story where Williamson lets the story tell itself and the “message” comes across much stronger and more naturally.
The other thing I didn’t care for is that it seemed like a lot of the descriptions of minor or passing characters focused a bit much on their body shape. Why I found this especially odd was because a big part of the previous book dealt with body image and so I felt like there were contradicting messages being sent. I guess there is a fine line between portraying how people view others and reinforcing such ways of thinking.

In conclusion, like its predecessor, Outcasts has a few flaws that are easily overlooked in favor of the three or four well-developed the main characters. I am looking forward to the final book in this trilogy.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

I received this book free from the publisher through the book review program in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, December 16, 2013

Book Review: Captives by Jill Williamson

Summary: Captives is a post-apocalypic/dystopian novel about the Safe Lands a walled community of people who, though infected, live in relative luxury compared to the rest of the surrounding villages. When infertility and conception problems began to threaten the Safe Lands’ survival, they coerce the village of Glenrock into helping them. Each member of the village must decide what path to take, and the decisions of three brothers – Levi, Mason, and Omar – take center stage in this life and death conflict.

I enjoyed the diversity of characters and the unique challenges they each faced. Most of the characters, both from the Safe Lands and the outside were reasonably well developed – some better than others, but as this is the first book in the trilogy, I allow for the possibility that some will just take a little longer. I liked that, for the most part, the plot didn’t develop in so linear a way that I always knew what was coming. Characters and situations were introduced that kept me interested and intrigued to see how things developed. I especially think the friendship between Mason and Ciddah was well-developed, complex, and served to illustrate important differences and similarities between the Safe Landers and the outsiders. I also appreciated how the various spirituality (or lack thereof) played into the characters in reasonably believable ways.

The beginning of the book was a little difficult to wrap my mind around. I know the author was trying to let the situation develop in a way that kept the reader reading, but at times I would have appreciated a more straightforward explanation of what was going on so that the story could move on to developing more important aspects. This pretty much cleared up through after the first third or so.

There were some parts of the story that were not quite plot holes, but required some suspension of disbelief. Some very difficult situations were resolved in remarkably simple ways, and there were a couple points of character development that I didn’t feel made sense or weren’t explained well enough.

In conclusion, Captives is good book and, while not without a handful of flaws, is compelling enough to overlook any shortcomings. The plot and characters are good and will bring me back for book two in the series.

Rating: 3.75 out of 5

I received this book free from the publisher through the book review bloggers program in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, December 2, 2013

Book Review: Merlin’s Blade by Robert Treskillard

“Before the Round Table… before Arthur was crowned… there was Merlin.”

Summary: Merlin’s Blade is a re-imagining of the Arthurian legend centered on the character of Merlin. In this book, he is a partially blind teenager whose father is a swordsmith. The primary conflict is between the Christians on one hand, and the druids on the other, who attempt to sway the village’s allegiance through the power of a mysterious black stone. As tensions mount, the stakes are raised and it is up to Merlin to take a stand, despite his weakness.

Overall, I thought the plot was good. There were a number of interesting storylines weaved together, which ultimately converged as the plot progressed. The character of Merlin was pretty likeable and had some complexity, as did Owain and Uther. I also enjoyed the descriptions, especially those of the swordsmithing – just enough detail to give you a good picture without slowing down the story.

A few main “complaints” from me. First, character development. While Merlin was a pretty well developed character, most of the other characters seemed a little flat, a little one-dimensional. This was especially disappointing with Natalenya, who started to be developed in the beginning but in the end seemed to be diminished into a girl who just screams and needs rescuing or hides in the corner when trouble comes.

Second, relationship development. Again, there was some parts that were done decently well, like with Merlin and his father, while others seemed lacking. Notably, the relationship between Merlin and Natalenya seemed to move forward in leaps and bounds without sufficient accompanying experiences to show the reader why or how this had taken place.

Third, I thought the spiritual conflict of the story fell a little flat in that it seemed a little too simplistic to me. Perhaps this is just personal preference, but for the spiritual struggle to be compelling, I think it has to go deeper than “If you abandon your beliefs, you’ll get everything you want – riches, power, etc. – otherwise, you will be killed.” While aspects of that may be involved, I would have appreciated a more complex portrayal of the struggle.

Lastly, while the writing was good overall, it wasn’t great. As a first time author, Treskillard did well, but I feel like a little more editing would have helped the story flow more smoothly from scene to scene. There were a lot of times where it just felt choppy, or where scenes that were ripe for developments were shortchanged. It is hard to put my finger on just what exactly was wrong, but I guess I felt overall the writing could have been a bit sharper.

In conclusion, Merlin’s Blade is an above average book, but not quite compelling enough for me to eagerly anticipate its sequel. Perhaps I will continue the series someday, but it is not on my shortlist.

Rating: 3.5 out of 5

I received this book free from the publisher through the book review bloggers program in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, November 25, 2013

I love Bradley Hathaway and his new album, "How Long"

I wish I knew more about music. Maybe then I could write better album reviews, and maybe then I could begin to explain just why it is that Bradley Hathaway has become one of my favorite musicians over the past few years.

Let’s back up. 

I first heard of Hathaway when a poet friend of mine shared his book All the Hits So Far with me, along with the CD which contained his spoken performances of his poetry. It was pretty cool, if a bit odd – I will always remember “I will windmill kick you in the face!” haha

Anyway, when I found out Hathaway was putting out a music album a few years back, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I found myself thoroughly enjoying his debut Mouth Full of Dust and his follow-up A Thousand Angry Panthers EP and A Storm is Coming single. They’re the kind of songs that really grow on you each time you listen. 

I repeatedly found myself coming back to his songs without really being able to explain why. Recently, I heard it said of Johnny Cash that his vocals, guitar skills, and lyrics wouldn’t have stood out if each taken separately, but when they were combined they produced the magic that was Cash. I feel similarly about Hathaway. If you’re looking for auto-tuned vocals and slick radio tunes, you’ll be disappointed. But if you’re looking for some down-to-earth, simple, raw, honest music, Hathaway is gold.
How Long

So when I heard Hathaway was coming out with a new album, I pre-ordered it without having a single preview of note or lyric. Yes, that is how much of a fan I am. And How Long did not disappoint. In fact, it actually surpassed my expectations. Hathaway keeps getting better.

While there are some stand-out songs, this album really deserves to be listened to from start to finish. How Long is a series of story-telling songs related to love – some are happy, some are sad, some are in-between. The acoustic folk sound of this album is fantastic – mellow and soothing at times, peppy and upbeat at others. We are even treated to a couple spoken word songs.

Of course, for me, it’s the lyrics that really draw me in – yes, framed in the fantastic sounds of the songs, but the lyrics always take center-stage for me. Each song feels like a story you could sink into, have it wash over you, explore it, and discover something beautiful.

How Long is an album I will return to again and again. I invite you to join me.

Monday, November 4, 2013

“Finally Free” by Heath Lambert

In the opening line of Finally Free, Heath Lambert makes it very clear: “This book is not about pornography.” While the book does deal with the issue of pornography and other sexual sins, the book is not about those things. Instead, it is about something far more important: Jesus and His power to free you from sin. Finally Free offers a solution to the pornography problem that, while intensely practical, is rooted at every step in the grace and power of Jesus.

Unlike many resources and books in the genre of fighting sexual sins, I felt that this book put the emphasis where it is truly most needed: on our relationship with Jesus. Practical tactics and strategies are well and good – and this book does include them – but they will ultimately fail unless they are built upon the foundation of a relationship with Jesus. Lambert does an excellent job establishing Jesus as the foundation of his book and then building up from there his “eight gospel-centered strategies for overcoming pornography.” His presentation is straightforward, clear, and engaging – a good balance of both challenging and encouraging the reader.

I would note one area of slight disagreement. In the chapter that discusses pride as the root problem of those who look at pornography, Lambert states that those who teach that this addiction is an attempt to fill an emptiness or loneliness in their life misunderstand the nature of the problem. He asserts, instead, that the core of the problem has to do with selfish ambition. While I really appreciated his insights and agree that selfishness is the heart of the issue, I think he misunderstand the connection between emptiness (a lack of true love inside us) and our own selfish desires. Rather than being mutually exclusive, they actually are two sides of the same coin – in our attempt to find unconditional love to satisfy our existence, we turn towards selfish and destructive sources, rather than to Jesus, who alone can both satisfy and transform us into loving, unselfish beings. Perhaps my disagreement is just a matter of terminology, but I wanted to mention it nonetheless.

Overall, if I had to recommend one book specifically on the topic of pornography, it would be this book. More than any other book on this issue that I’ve read, Finally Free hits the target, emphasizing the balanced nature of Christian victory: active engagement with Christ in overcoming sins in our lives while fully depending on His grace to provide the power to both forgive and cleanse our hearts and actions.

I received this book free from the publisher through the book review bloggers program in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, June 10, 2013

“Second Chances” by Max Lucado

Drawing from Max Lucado’s previous works, Second Chances is a compilation, as the subtitle states, “Stories of Grace.”  Each section contains selected chapters on how God gives grace to all – the rebellious, guilt-ridden, prideful, hurt, etc.  In his classic, soothing style, Lucado addresses these topics with a variety of styles, from personal and modern storytelling to biblical retelling and application.  With each page, Lucado conveys the truth that God’s grace offers us second chances – day after day after day.

Due to the nature of this being a compilation, at times the book lacked overall cohesiveness and flow.  However, as a whole, it was powerful to have a collection of so many of Lucado’s chapters on grace and second chances.  Lucado’s style is a masterful balance between light and heavy – this book is easy to read but also challenges you to think deeper.  In my opinion, sometimes Lucado is too smooth or overly simplistic, but that is also part of what makes him great.  As you read, you are lulled into the easy flow of his words and then you are hit with those frequent moments when it feels like he is writing specifically for your situation and it cuts you to the core.  In those moments, when the love and power of God are so evidently displayed before your eyes, you are grateful for the ministry of Max Lucado and for all the second chances God offers each of us.

I received this book free from the publisher through the book review bloggers program in exchange for my honest review.