Mini-reviews: Books about which I have little to say

The MartianThe Martian by Andy Weir
Published by Crown

If you’re not familiar with The Martian, you must have been living under a rock these past few months. EVERYONE has been raving about this book and I now understand why. Basically, it’s about this guy, Mark Watney, whose mission to Mars was aborted after a huge sandstorm occurred, which caused his crew to believe he died, so they had to leave him there. Except he didn’t die, so he has to figure out how to survive on Mars all by himself for quite a long time. While the scienc-y stuff wasn’t the easiest for me to navigate, the technicalities of it aren’t necessary for understanding the novel, so I was able to skim a lot of those parts. And there’s a point at which NASA figures out Mark is still alive, and that’s when the book really picks up speed and goes from interesting/good to great. Mark is hilarious, super sarcastic and totally makes the novel. I really enjoyed this one and I totally see what all the fuss is about.

Believers: A Journey into Evangelical AmericaBelievers: A Journey Into Evangelical America by Jeffrey L. Sheler
Published by Viking Adult

I don’t really know why I read this book. I guess it’s because I can’t resist any kind of book about any kind of faith, and I’m even more intrigued when I see a different perspective on my own faith than my perspective (which is kind of the case with Believers). The book was mostly good, well-researched, but I’m uncertain as to what exactly Sheler’s point was. I guess he wanted to figure out what Evangelical Christians are all about? It seemed to me like he was looking for generalizations, looking to find out what exactly motivates and inspires and pushes Evangelicals but what he discovered, instead, is that (shocker) Evangelical Christians are a diverse group with tons of different kinds of people in the mix. The conclusion kind of felt like he was saying “gosh, Evangelicals are people too. I didn’t expect that.” But I liked learning more about groups of Christians I was somewhat unfamiliar with – Wheaton College scholars, Focus on the Family (not personally a fan, but interesting to learn more about them nonetheless), Saddleback Church (where my in-laws are members, actually), and more. So, overall, interesting to me but not particularly enlightening.

The Lonely PolygamistThe Lonely Polygamist by Bradley Udall
Published by W. W. Norton and Company

I really did not like this book. I started reading it in audio but it was SO LONG and taking forever that I read the second half in print, and I didn’t enjoy the novel in either format. The book is about (obviously) a polygamist named Golden Richards, who has four wives and twenty-eight children. It’s told from three alternating points of view: Golden’s, his fourth wife, Trish’s, and one of his sons, Rusty’s. Despite the complicated family dynamics and tons of tragedy and even some comedy, I just did not get why I’d heard such great things about this novel. It seemed monotonous, over dramatic, and mostly the people within its pages were just plain miserable. And while the ending was heartbreaking, because I couldn’t bring myself to care about these characters, I wasn’t too emotionally affected by it. I don’t know – this one just wasn’t my thing.

This Side of Salvation by Jeri Smith-Ready

This Side of SalvationThis Side of Salvation by Jeri Smith-Ready
Published by Simon Pulse

From the publisher:

Everyone mourns differently. When his older brother was killed, David got angry. As in, fist-meets-someone-else’s-face furious. But his parents? They got religious. David’s still figuring out his relationship with a higher power, but there’s one thing he does know for sure: The closer he gets to new-girl Bailey, the better, brighter, happier, more he feels.

Then his parents start cutting all their worldly ties to prepare for the Rush, the divine moment when the faithful will be whisked off to Heaven…and they want David to do the same. David’s torn. There’s a big difference between living in the moment and giving up his best friend, varsity baseball, and Bailey—especially Bailey—in hope of salvation.

But when he comes home late from prom, and late for the Rush, to find that his parents have vanished, David is in more trouble than he ever could have imagined…

This is another book I learned about through another blogger, but this time it was Michelle who raved about This Side of Salvation. It peaked my interest because books about different kinds of faith almost always appeal to me. Apparently the author also wrote a paranormal series? I’m not super into fantasy but she’s an excellent writer and now I’m interested to see what else she’s got out there. Anyway, let’s get to the book.

I was drawn into this novel immediately. Smith-Ready does this really great thing where she alternates telling the story between now (right after the parents disappeared) and then (starting from about a year before the disappearance). This keeps the energy of the novel up, as David and his sister are frantically trying to figure out what happened to his parents, while at the same time constructing the back story and helping the reader get to know these characters and their motivations. I liked this a lot because I was kept VERY invested in what was going on, in both time periods. I do tend to like when authors do that, though, so I might be a little biased.

The characters in this novel are great. David carries a lot of pain in his heart because of the death of his brother, but he doesn’t quite know how to express it, as his parents have taken their grief to a whole different level and aren’t really interested in dealing with David’s. I liked seeing the brother-sister dynamics between David and his sister, Mara, because they actually liked each other a lot and got along well, despite the fact that they were two very different teenagers. And when their parents went missing, they were truly there for one another, they put their heads together and came up with a plan, instead of fighting or arguing.

I liked David’s girlfriend, Bailey, and I particularly liked that Smith-Ready wasn’t afraid to write a girl with more sexual experience than her boyfriend. This is treated SO well in this book, there is no shame or negativity at ALL attached to the fact that David is a virgin and Bailey is not – it just IS. It’s so, so easy for books to take sex, especially when teens are involved, to this good girl/slut dichotomy, and the author stayed so far away from that, which was fantastic to see.

While the truth about what happened to David’s parents is fairly predictable, that’s really not the point. This Side of Salvation is more about the relationships between these people, about the potential reconciliation of this family, and about how everyone has to grieve – and recover from grief – in their own way. The ending was pretty perfect and I loved where Smith-Ready took these characters by the time the book was over.

Highly recommended! I’m glad I gave myself the opportunity to read this new-to-me author.

The Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris

The Cloister WalkThe Cloister Walk by Kathleen Norris
Published by Riverhead Trade

To summarize this beautiful book is not an easy thing to do, but basically it is the fragmented diary of sorts of Katheen Norris, a woman who spent ten years as a Benedictine oblate and another two years living at a Benedictine monastery. In The Cloister Walk, she muses on just about every aspect of faith you can imagine and delivers for the reader a perfect balance of education, beautiful writing, and her own observations and opinions about the faith and her experiences within said faith. The style is rather disjointed and, at first glance, seems disorganized, but when I allowed myself to sink into the book, the writing style and organizational layout of the book felt absolutely right, somehow.

The Cloister Walk is not a book that’s easily explained or understood until you actually experience it. The book is truly an experience – each chapter provides a new and unique perspective on some aspect of religion, usually pertaining to Catholicism but not always. She comes at the faith as a lapsed Protestant filled with doubt, so her observations and ideas are incredibly refreshing for those seeped in the faith for years and years – she’s bound to see things differently than someone who’s always been a believer.

This book is just really quiet, contemplative, reflective, just a beautiful piece of nonfiction. Norris is a gorgeous writer and I loved thinking through the many thoughts and discussions she posed to the reader. Highly recommended.

The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion by Martin Thielen

The Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No ReligionThe Answer to Bad Religion Is Not No Religion by Martin Thielen
Published by Westminster John Knox Press
Review copy provided by NetGalley

From the publisher:

If you think the only logical response to bad Christianity is to leave the church completely, this book is for you. In an effort to help those who’ve been hurt by or turned off by negative religion, Martin Thielen explains that there is an alternative to abandoning religion: good religion. Thielen uses personal stories to illustrate the dangers of religion that is judgmental, anti-intellectual, and legalistic. While addressing the growth of the new atheism movement and the “Nones” (people [who] have no religious affiliation), this book argues that leaving religion is not practical, not helpful, and not necessary. Thielen provides counterparts to the characteristics of bad religion, explaining that good religion is grace-filled, promotes love and forgiveness, and is inclusive and hope-filled. Perfect for individual, group, or congregational study, a Leader’s Guide and a Worship and Outreach Kit are also available to further the discussion and increase community involvement.

There’s definitely an audience for this book, but unfortunately I am not that audience. Someone who is already a believer, goes to church, reads the Bible, and prays on a regular basis is not exactly the kind of person that this book was written for. BUT I can see the value in the book, so let me tell you who I think should read it.

Let’s face it, Christians do thing sometimes in the name of religion that are just wrong. Christians can be judgmental, even hateful, towards those who don’t share their beliefs. Christians can be exclusionary and shun people who don’t fit the mold of what is “good” and “right”. For those who feel that religion is not for them because of the Christians I just mentioned, this is a great book to read. I personally know a lot of people who have been hurt or just disgusted by what someone has called “Christianity” and have decided to turn away from God altogether. This book is for those people – to show them that just because they have witnessed bad religion, they don’t need to go to the other extreme and choose to practice no religion at all.

Instead, the author lays out a case for what he calls good religion. A Christianity that isn’t judgmental, anti-anything really, and is all about the message of Jesus – that we should love God and love others, pure and simple. And along the way, you know, follow Him, read the Bible, do good works and all of that.

I kind of went through this myself when I first started coming to church with my husband before we got married, and I was able to reconcile this “bad religion” with the fact that the religion I practiced wasn’t that way. The God I prayed to, the Jesus I believe in, isn’t hateful or all about money or anything that turns people away from church. I think that this book would be a wonderful choice for anyone still working through those questions. It sort of sums up why this kind of Christianity isn’t how it should be, and how to find the kind of good religion that most people crave.

I liked this book, and even though I wasn’t the target audience for it, I can certainly see why it would be useful and helpful for those seeking a better experience with Christianity.

Mini-reviews – wrapping up 2013 reading part 1

Since my blogging pretty much slowed to a trickle these past few months, there are several books I never got around to reviewing. So here are some brief thoughts on four books I haven’t told you about yet. I’ll be back tomorrow with four more.

Going Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of BeliefGoing Clear: Scientology, Hollywood, and the Prison of Belief by Lawrence Wright – This is nonfiction but it might as well be horror because it scared the pants off of me! Not that it’s “scary” in a traditional sense – it’s a book about a religion after all – but the way that this religion developed and grew and got so many people to follow it is terrifying to me. It’s brainwashing, pure and simple, and it’s mind-boggling to me that there are so many Scientologists in the world who actually believe everything L. Ron Hubbard taught. This book is incredibly thorough, the research Wright did is very in-depth, and the writing is excellent. For those interested in learning more about Scientology this is a book not to be missed.

The Sister SeasonThe Sister Season by Jennifer Scott (review copy from the publisher) – I decided to read this one because Jennifer Scott also writes excellent YA fiction under the name Jennifer Brown and I was hopeful that her talent for YA would carry over into women’s fiction. It did, to a degree, as I liked this book about three adult sisters who are forced to spend Christmas week together at their childhood home because their father has just passed away. I thought Scott did a great job with these characters and illustrating the way sister dynamics can be so complicated – these women have true love-hate relationships with one another, and I know that’s the way it is for a lot of sisters. But I didn’t love some elements of the story (to say what would be to spoil things) so overall I didn’t end up loving the book. It was like just not love.

The Space Between UsThe Space Between Us by Jessica Martinez (review copy from SIBA 2012) – another book about sisters, this time it’s YA about Amelia (older, more responsible sister) and Carly (younger, wild sister) and a mistake Carly makes that have huge repercussions for both girls. I liked this one a lot and I think that Martinez can really write teenage girls. She truly gets them, the thoughts, emotions, and behaviors that are unique to that period in a girl’s life. The dynamics between these girls were realistic and definitely accurate to real life – I connected with Amelia because as a kid, I was her, and I had a Carly as a sister too (different name, same personality). But there was a big reveal towards the end that I saw coming from miles away, which annoyed me. Overall I’m excited to read more from Martinez even though this book wasn’t perfect.

Fire in the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in AmericaFire In the Ashes: Twenty-Five Years Among the Poorest Children in America by Jonathan Kozol – This book absolutely broke my heart, and gave me hope at the same time. I can’t recall ever having read another book by Kozol but I really need to start, as his approach to writing about poverty and education definitely speaks to me. It’s so alarming to realize that so many children in America have to live in atrocious conditions and then can’t even get the education they need and deserve in order to make a better life for themselves. I liked how Kozol showed readers both children who were able to get out of poverty and those who weren’t, and some who tragically died way too young. There is so much sadness in this book but also tiny slivers of hope that left me wanting to read more of Kozol’s work. I listened to the audio of this one and it was excellent.

Surprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber

Surprised by Oxford : A Memoir, Carolyn WeberSurprised by Oxford by Carolyn Weber
Published by Thomas Nelson
Review copy provided by the publisher

From the publisher:

Carolyn Weber arrives at Oxford a feminist from a loving but broken family, suspicious of men and intellectually hostile to all things religious. As she grapples with her God-shaped void alongside the friends, classmates, and professors she meets, she tackles big questions in search of Truth, love, and a life that matters.

From issues of fatherhood, feminism, doubt, doctrine, and love, Weber explores the intricacies of coming to faith with an aching honesty and insight echoing that of the poets and writers she studied. Rich with illustration and literary references, Surprised by Oxford is at once gritty and lyrical; both humorous and spiritually perceptive. This savvy, credible account of Christian conversion and its after-effects follows the calendar year and events of the school year as it entertains, informs, and promises to engage even the most skeptical and unlikely reader.

I have to say, I liked this book SO much more than I was expecting I would. This was an unsolicited review copy that I never planned on reading, but I was craving nonfiction one day and decided to try it. I figured I’d get 50 pages in and give up. 100 pages later, I was swept into Weber’s story and unable to stop reading.

What I loved about this book so much, I think, is that Carolyn’s path to Jesus was a lot like my own. I, too, was extremely skeptical at first. I didn’t believe that a person could be both feminist and Christian, both intellectual and spiritual. And, like Carolyn, one day for me things just clicked and I couldn’t imagine NOT believing in the Truth that is Jesus Christ. I saw so much of myself in Carolyn and that is definitely what held me captivated as I read this memoir. I couldn’t put it down because it resonated so strongly with my own experiences.

Surprised by Oxford, unfortunately, is not without its faults. At 480 pages, I found the book to be a bit too long, and while the writing is beautiful, for a memoir it felt a bit pretentious to me. Almost as if Weber was trying too hard to come up with lyrical phrases, it came off as a little much. Also, I found that the conversations Weber recalled were incredibly specific – to the point that it wasn’t quite believable that she would remember SO much about these interactions she had all those years ago. However, while these little things bugged me a bit, they didn’t bother me enough to take much away from my overall enjoyment of this memoir.

This come-to-Jesus memoir so mirrored my own experiences that I practically fell in love with the book. If you like this sort of thing, Surprised by Oxford is not to be missed.

The Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns

The Hole in Our Gospel : What Does God Expect of Us? The Answer That Changed My Life and Might Just Change the World, Richard StearnsThe Hole in Our Gospel by Richard Stearns
Published by Thomas Nelson

From the publisher:

WHAT DOES GOD EXPECT OF US? 

Is our faith just about going to church, studying the Bible and avoiding the most serious sins—or does God expect more?

Have we embraced the whole gospel or a gospel with a hole in it?

Ten years ago, Rich Stearns came face-to-face with that question as he sat in a mud hut in Rakai, Uganda, listening to the heartbreaking story of an orphaned child. Stearns’ journey there took much more than a long flight to Africa. It took answering God’s call on his life, a call that tore him out of his corner office at one of America’s most prestigious corporations—to walk with the poorest of the poor in our world.

The Hole in Our Gospel is the compelling true story of a corporate CEO who setaside worldly success for something far more significant, and discovered the full power of the gospel of Jesus Christ to change his own life. He uses his journey to demonstrate how the gospel—the whole gospel—was always meant  to be a world changing social revolution, a revolution that begins with us.

My grandmother asked me to read this book a few years ago when it was first released, because the writer, Richard Stearns, is good friends with the head pastor of her church (Bill Hybels, of the famed Willow Creek Community Church) and she actually purchased a copy for me and pressed it into my hands. Three years later, I’m finally getting around to the book.

The Hole in Our Gospel definitely gave me a LOT to think about. I think that, for the most part, Stearns is right about the fact that there is a huge gap between what God asks of us as Christians and how we as Christians live out our faith in day to day life. Most of us do not give financially more than the standard 10%, most of us do not travel to other parts of the world where people struggle just for basic needs, most of us do not think about the war, famine, and disease that is a daily reality for much of the world’s population.

I don’t feel that I can really “review” this book, because it is focused on an uncomfortable truth that most Christians (including myself) don’t want to face up to – that we enjoy a life of privilege, and don’t do near enough with our privilege to help the rest of the world. Stearns is completely right about this, though, and while reading this book I was forced to confront myself with the possibility that I could personally do more to help those in need – to be more of the person that God wants me to be. I particularly enjoyed how Stearns gives his entire history in this book, because he spent many years as a corporate CEO, making tons of money and not sharing it with those in need, before he became head of World Vision and changed his outlook completely. It shows how views can change, people can grow, and God is constantly working on our characters and our hearts.

But it’s not easy to read this book and take an honest look at oneself. Personally I know I’m not doing enough and The Hole in Our Gospel made that fact crystal clear. If you’re looking to be challenged in your faith journey, I highly recommend this book.

A Girl Named Mister by Nikki Grimes

Click to see a larger image of A Girl Named Mister by Nikki GrimesA Girl Named Mister by Nikki Grimes
Published by Zondervan

Mary Rudine, called Mister, is a good Christian girl who goes to church and obeys her mother and God. But when she meets Trey, everything she thought she knew about herself evaporates as she is drawn in by his gorgeous face and charming personality. One mistake leads to a huge secret, and as Mister struggles with this huge decision she must make, she turns to Mary, a teen in a similar situation, for comfort.

A Girl Named Mister is a novel written in verse, a format I’ve come to realize is kind of polarizing. Most people either love these kinds of books or can’t stand them. Fortunately, I’m in the love it camp so from the beginning, I knew this book was going to work for me.

I felt intense compassion for Mister as soon as I began reading her story. She had made a mistake, yes, but this mistake was about to change the entire course of her life. What’s worse, she didn’t know how her mother would react so she didn’t feel that she could share her secret with anyone, leaving her feeling incredibly lonely and isolated. The juxtaposition of Mary’s story with Mister’s was an interesting choice on the part of Grimes, I think, but it worked well. Both girls were struggling with a huge secret, one that they could only take to God, and both girls ended up with a deeper understanding of God’s love because of it. While their stories were hugely different, I could see how Grimes made the connection between the two and it helped me see Mary’s story in a whole new way.

A Girl Named Mister is a quick read but it does pack quite a punch. There’s a lot of heart in this story and in Mister herself. I actually loved this book and for those of you who enjoy novels in verse and either enjoy or don’t mind a Christian theme, I would highly recommend it.

Losing Faith by Denise Jaden

Losing FaithLosing Faith by Denise Jaden
Published by Simon Pulse, an imprint of Simon and Schuster

Brie’s older sister, Faith, has just died in a freak accident, leaving Brie devastated and grieving for the sister she wasn’t close to and didn’t really understand. Brie’s parents are deep in their own grief, and therefore completely unable to support her emotionally, and her boyfriend has betrayed her at the worst possible time. To distract herself from her pain, Brie decides to investigate Faith’s death, and what she finds shocks and terrifies her – Faith was involved with a dangerous cult, a cult that now wants Brie to be its newest member.

Losing Faith is a perfect example of a Christian fiction novel that is more edgy/general market, and therefore (I think) appealing to both audiences. I personally enjoy these kinds of novels immensely, as the characters tend to be realistic Christians, instead of caricatures or perfect people. That was definitely the case in this book – Brie isn’t exactly a model Christian; in fact she’s not sure that she’d even consider herself a Christian at all. Faith, on the other hand, is by all appearances a perfect Christian girl, but underneath the surface her faith isn’t so perfect.

There were many things about Losing Faith that lend itself to recommendation. As I said, the characters seem real and, in the case of Brie especially, there is a true faith journey happening here. By that I mean that her faith in God truly changes as the novel progresses, ultimately coming to her own understanding of what God is and what He means to her personally. As for Faith, she’s only a character in the other characters’ memories, but her faith journey is quite different. She goes from being a normal Christian girl to someone who we learn has become a pivotal member of a cult. Her journey was much sadder than Brie’s because ultimately the reader knows where the journey takes her, but it’s still a faith journey all the same.

The idea of the cult seemed a bit far-fetched to me, but I suppose that these things do exist in the real world. While Jaden made the cult itself fairly believable, when I finished the book I was still left trying to understand how Faith got mixed up with it in the first place. Oh, well. One complaint in an otherwise very solid book isn’t much to be upset about.

What is excellent about this book is the ominous feel it contains, and the fact that the reader doesn’t truly have a full grasp of what Faith was dealing with until the very end of the book, when Brie finally understands. The pacing is spot-on – I was frantically turning pages, desperate to get answers as quickly as possible.

Overall, I really enjoyed Losing Faith. It’s a nice example of a Christian fiction/general market YA fiction crossover, the characters are well-written and believable, and the story itself is one that will grab any reader from the first page. Although it’s faith-based, I would recommend it mostly for older teens because the subject matter can be a bit intense at times. But still – definitely recommended!

Dear America: The Fences Between Us by Kirby Larson

Dear America: The Fences Between Us by Kirby Larson
Published by Scholastic Press

Piper Davis is a young teenager when Pearl Harbor is attacked, and her entire world changes in that moment. First of all, her older brother is a navy sailor stationed there, so she’s terrified for him and desperate for answers on whether he, and other young men in her community, survived the attack. Second of all, her father is the pastor for a Japanese Baptist church, so when her entire church is interned in Idaho Piper must go with her father from Seattle to the internment camp to be with the congregation. Although Piper is unhappy being ripped out of her life back in Seattle, she soon becomes good friends with Betty, a Japanese girl from her church, and she begins to see the world in new ways.

I hadn’t read any of the other books in the Dear America series before picking up The Fences Between Us, but now I can see the appeal these books have and I can imagine reading more of them for sure. The novel is told in diary format, which works remarkably well as the reader gets the unique opportunity to really get inside Piper’s head and fully understand her emotions as they go up and down during this difficult time in her life.

I read this book as a judge for the INSPY awards, so I definitely want to touch on the faith aspects of the novel. It’s interesting because the book is so seeped in history, it’s more a book about the US internment of Japanese Americans during the Second World War than it is a book about faith, but to me this is a perfect example of God being in the details. It was Pastor Davis’ faith in God that led him to know, without a shadow of a doubt, that what the US government was doing to these people was wrong. It was the church members’ faith in God that led them to believe that brighter days would come, that the internment would only be temporary, and that they would get through whatever was thrown at them. And all along, Piper was trying to understand how the loving and just God she believed in could allow something so awful to happen as this war. And if God did allow it, who was right? Was it okay for these people to be in the camps because their country had attacked the US so horrifically? Obviously once Piper got to the camp and saw the conditions her friends and neighbors were living in she understood it was absolutely not okay. But she certainly goes on a faith journey over the course of the novel, just trying to understand where God is and what His plan is amidst all the craziness of war.

The Fences Between Us was an enjoyable read for me. Piper is a very believable teen narrator, her voice is authentic and she goes through many of the same emotional ups and downs other teens do. In her case, everything is just compounded by the fact that she is dealing with the seriously intense fact that war is all around her. I definitely recommend the book for teens (and adults, but this is really a middle grade/YA book) looking for a novel that creates a nice balance between historical fiction and faith-based fiction.