Thursday, June 27, 2013

June 2013 Bookshelf

"L" is for Lawless by Sue Grafton

Well it's been a while since I picked up a Kinsey Millhone escapade so I thought I'd kill some time with the next one in the series.  "L" is for Lawless.  It was okay.  Truthfully none of Grafton's books are going to get more than 2 or 3 stars from me.  They are decent but not great.
In this particular book Kinsey does a favor for Henry, the 80-something landlord she's got a crush on.  So this time around she isn't even getting paid for all the danger she finds herself in.  What starts out as a simple investigation into a dead man's history so he can get a proper burial turns into searching for loot from a heist 40 some years before.  Yes, because that's how it happens in real life.  Along the way Kinsey gets joined by some rough characters who also are searching for the loot.  Gee, anyone wanna guess what happens?!
In this book Grafton was following Stephen King's advice about staying true to the character.  By far, it was the first book in the series that had the most language.  The ex-con's Kinsey finds herself keeping company with have dirty, dirty mouths and Grafton doesn't hold back with that.  The series is starting to amuse me some.  I'm not taking any of them seriously but they do help me pass the time when my bookshelf has a gap.




Ruthless Trust by Brennan Manning

If you are following what I am reading these days then you'll notice that I am making a concentrated "effort" to get through some of the classic Christian authors - Brennan Manning being one of them.  So here's my second Manning book.  I tackled first his "The Ragamuffin Gospel", you can read my thoughts on that here.  I liked this read better than that one.  I found this one easier to read, he didn't seem to be so redundant, and I highlighted a lot more which tells me I got more out of it.
We don't trust.  We don't trust God, we don't trust others, we don't even trust ourselves.  Manning tackles the topic of trust - specifically trusting God - in this dialogue.  I really appreciated his various unpackings and rabbit trails that he takes the reader on to get them to see what ruthless trust is.  As Manning explains, Webster's defines ruthless as "without pity" and so in the context of trust Manning defines it to mean "without self-pity" because self-pity is the arch-enemy of trust.  My highlights indicate that I really got a lot out of chapters 1 (The Way of Trust), 6 (Infinite and Intimate), 9 (Humble Confidence), 10 (The Cracked Pot), 11 (The Geography of Nowhere), and 12 (Ruthless Trust).  Ruthless Trust is many things, but as Manning says, it is ultimately comes down to faith in the person of Jesus and hope in his promise.  He spends the book talking to the reader about how to get to that place.
To live a life of trust we must first trust in God.  Manning helps us see the way to that.




Food Rules: An Eater's Manual by Michael Pollan

Why in the world would I give this book 5 stars?  I mean what is so amazing about a bunch of food rules?  Well, they make sense - they are realistic - they are smart - they are balanced.  In my opinion that makes this book a 5 star one.
Pollan polled a bunch of people and came up with 83 food rules, er policies if you will.  A lot of these I have heard before but I am one that needs a reminder - over and over and over.  The reader doesn't read the rules with dread but with curiosity at the next one.  Pollan presents them in a lighthearted, knowledgeable manner and before you know it you've read the book.  Pollan is excellent at giving the reader space to pick up a rule or two and incorporate it into their life.  He suggests the reader pick one from each section, there are three, to make part of their lifestyle.  Just three!  Anyone can do that.  What he doesn't tell you but I will is that the initial three will lead to three more and so on and before you know it you are practicing more of the rules than you aren't and you feel better about yourself.
I really appreciated Pollan's easy and gracious approach to eating and how to get us Western Americans to change our habits so we can live longer and healthier lives. And I like Pollan's writing style.  I just may pick up another one of his books and give it a go.  :)




A Field of Darkness by Cornelia Read

My first read of Cornelia Read was decent.  She writes a good mystery and keeps the reader on the edge between confidence that they knew who committed the crime and second guessing that confidence.  For a first time novelist Read does a good job crafting an engaging story, a story line that keep the reader invested in the book, and strong character development - for the most part.
Madeline Dare is a young, married woman whose husband works in Canada.  At his family farm one weekend she's handed a set of dog tags that bear the name of her favorite cousin and they seemed to be linked to an unsolved murder from years ago.  This leads her to sleuth out the story behind this gruesome crime and ends up putting her, and others, in danger as she uncovers more and more clues that lead her closer and closer to the murderer.  In the end she discovers the secret but just a bit too late.
I liked this read okay but I'm not sure I'll pick up books 2 and 3 in this series.  A couple of things about this book don't compel me to go further.  One is the lack of character development in Madeline's husband and mother.  They seem to be fairly important to her story but I still felt confused by their inclusion to her story since they weren't well developed.  For example, I never did quite grasp what her husband did and why he worked in Canada.  The other thing that will keep me from picking up the next book is the language.  I can take a fair amount of language but I felt like Read overdid it a bit.  It was A LOT of language, it became wearying to read after a while.  I felt like it overpowered the characters instead of fleshed out the characters. There's a fine line.  It felt to me like Read relied on it a little too much to keep her characters talking.  But all in all I liked the story and the mystery.




Family Pictures by Jane Green

This was my first read of Jane Green's titles.  I'll be picking up other ones I think.  I really like her style and her ability to tell a story.
This is an intriguing story.  Green weaves the tale of two families that share one husband and father and the only one who knows it is him.  Maggie, wife number 1, and Sylvie, wife number 2, couldn't be more different from how they raise children to how they decorate a home.  And Mark relates to each family very differently, throughout the years he becomes a masterful con man and liar.  You get the sense that he justified it and thought he would be able to get away with it forever.  But as we all know, nothing like that kind of deception can stay a secret forever and a series of "random" events lead to exposure of Mark's double life.  As you can imagine the feelings of anger, betrayal, sadness, shock, and devastation run deep and everyone responds differently.  This is the story of Mark's two wives, children, and lives both before the exposure and after and how they all found their way to healing.
Gosh this story was SO interesting.  You know this is happening somewhere in America - with more than one family.  Some of them are not secret (TLC's Sister Wives is one example of a not so secret bigamist) and others are steeped in deception like this particular story was.  Green did a masterful job of almost making even the reader believe it might not be true!  It was well-written and the character development was pretty good.  I wish that Green had written some chapters from Mark's POV, it would have been interesting to have his voice in the midst of the wives and children.  That would have helped, in my opinion, the reader get a sense of what Mark may have been thinking.  Because the entire way through the book I was thinking, "Dude, what in the hell are you thinking?!" Just sayin'.  :)




Messy by A.J. Swoboda

Truth be told I'm undecided about my rating for the book.  I didn't not like it but something about it makes me feel reserved about it.  And I'm not even sure what that "something" is.  For those familiar with terms/labels/etc I am pretty sure some would call Swoboda emergent but reading this book made me take a step back from that label (overused anyway).  The people Swoboda studies, quotes, etc in his additional studies of the Bible point him more toward 5 point Calvinist.  Guess you can't judge a book by its cover...My feeling is he probably falls somewhere in the middle of emergent beliefs and 5 point Calvinist beliefs. I'm not a huge fan of labels anyway as emergent is the newest one to be used on someone who doesn't believe exactly the way *you* do.  Ugh. Talk about messy - the Christian church is M.E.S.S.Y.
Swoboda takes the reader through the messes of life and shows us where God is in them.  His writing is easy to read, I don't take any real issues with his doctrine, and he makes some really good observations.  I think he's kind of hipster and his approach in writing is to take the lighter tone and while he had me laughing at a lot of points I also feel like he relied on the lighter tone just a little too much.  But he does make the Bible easier to "get" with his tone and for today's generation that's probably a good thing.  Swoboda is real and that I can appreciate, I think that critics tend to look down on authors who don't use the big words and spin the great theological observations but they aren't being as real as Swoboda is.  He lays it out as we all experience it, I appreciate that.
All in all it was a good book, as I said earlier he made some great points.  What my reservation is about I'm not quite sure but it's there.  Reading his book did make me want to do one thing.  Visit the church he pastors in Southeast Portland, I'm intrigued by their community and would love to visit them.




The Abolition of Man by C.S. Lewis

HUH?  Seriously.  This book made me feel like I was going mad.  Lewis writes so far above the "common" person's intelligence and ability to comprehend that I felt, after a while, like I was listening to Ben Stein in "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" saying over and over "Bueller".  Oh my gosh, if one can glaze over from reading a book I did with this one.  I honestly can't even give it a proper rating because I don't know what to give it.  Many people gave it 5 stars and to them I want to say REALLY?  Are you giving the book 5 stars or are you giving Lewis 5 stars?  There is a difference.  I really, really like Lewis. I really, really dislike this book.  Again, as I said in my review of "Mere Christianity", Lewis writes above the common reader and I believe that hurts his writings in the end because if I, with reasonable ability to think well and comprehend more difficult theories, can't even get 98% of what he is writing about then a whole group of people are alienated from his writings/thoughts.  How he was able to write children's books is beyond me.  But anyway back to this book that ended up sounding like a bunch of big words rushing around inside my head.  Several times I literally shook my head and said out loud, "WHAT?" Oy.  It was a tough read and at the end of it I think the whole point of his book can be reduced down to one or two sentences.  Man, through education, has diminished the strength of humanity and has weakened it with its supposed advances in science, technology, government, and education.  There.  That's the best understanding I could come out of the book with.  I almost want to stop reading Lewis' non-fiction but now I feel I am on a quest to find some non-fiction of his that I get and will even like.


"M" is for Malice by Sue Grafton

Grafton's "M" in her alphabet series was decent.  In this book Kinsey is hired by her newly found cousin to find a missing person for a estate reading.  As with any of Kinsey's investigations this turns out to be more complicated than it seems.  The Malek family has lost their patriarch and lost brother Guy is part of the will, much to their dismay.  Kinsey sets out to find Guy and feels uneasy when she actually finds him and introduces him to the family.  Something doesn't seem quite right.  But unless something happens Kinsey just has this gut instinct.  Of course something happens and Kinsey is on the hunt for the truth.  About halfway through this book I figured out who the real culprit was but Grafton did a decent job of keeping me second-guessing on how and why.
Grafton's series is improving with each letter.  They still aren't mind blowing amazing but they are improving.  She's developing Kinsey in her personal life and that's a bit of a relief as Kinsey has been underdeveloped and a little too rough around the edges, to cliche.  To bring some life to her and blur the cliche a little bit is nice, it was getting tiring.




Generous Justice by Timothy Keller

Timothy Keller's book on biblical justice clearly defines God's definition of justice and gives a thorough explanation of God's heart for justice and its role in the Gospel.  In his effort to show the Church how justice helps promote the Gospel Keller takes a good look at several components of justice.  While this statement is written near the end of the book I feel like he wrote the book around it as evidence for this statement, "Many believe that the job of the church is not to do justice at all, but to preach the Word, to evangelize and build up believers.  But if it is true that justice and mercy to the poor are the inevitable signs of justifying faith, it is hard to believe that the church is not to reflect this duty corporately in some way.  And as soon as you get involved in the lives of people - in evangelism as well as spiritual nurture - you will come upon people with practical needs.  You can't love people in word only (cf. 1 John 3:16-17) and therefore you can't love people as you are doing evangelism and discipleship without meeting practical and material needs through deeds."  (page 135) Keller takes the reader through a study of the Hebrew words tzadeqah and mishpat to show how God weaves social justice throughout his Word.  Building on that he takes us on a very in-depth, thought provoking journey towards God's heart for justice.  This was a really good read, it is a very important part of God's nature that we are commanded to practice a just life.  If you are curious about God's heart for justice, wondering if he really does even care, then this book is a good start to seeing how justice should be a part of your life.




Chasing Rainbows by Kathleen Long

What a pleasant surprise this book about a woman who is forced into a second chance at life is.  Bernadette Murphy has had a bad month when we first meet her.  Her Dad has died suddenly, her husband has left her, and she is still grieving the loss of her baby girl 5 years ago.  Bernie is, quite simply, stuck in her life.  As Bernie tries to figure out her life - how to let go, how to love, how to lose weight, how to start living again - she is aided by a book of cryptograms her Dad had left for her.  As the months pass and Bernie confronts all of her hurts she finds healing and a new life waiting for her.  In the end she learns some important things about herself, her life with her soon-to-be ex-husband, and her family - both blood and by love.
I liked this book by Kathleen Long.  It was a character development driven book but she did a good job at it.  The plot was a familiar theme in second chances but Long's development of Bernie makes it feel fresh in a lot of ways.  I liked how Bernie's raw honesty made the reader feel "at home".  Bernie's struggle with emotions and dealing with them is one that almost any woman can relate to.  Long also did a good job with the deteriorating relationship between Bernie and her soon-to-be ex-husband, she didn't make him be the villain but gave Bernie some culpability in the demise of the marriage.  That's refreshing simply because it takes two to make and break a relationship and Long allows this to be acknowledged.  I also liked the lifelong friendship Bernie has with her best friend, Diane.  It's the kind of friendship that every woman wants to have.
I'm open to reading Long's other titles, but I'm fairly certain they are all a variation on the same theme and I wonder how she can keep them from being "cookie cutter" books.




Emma by Jane Austen

So I didn't finish.  I got to 10% (reading it on a Kindle) and I abandoned the book.  Oh my gosh.  Life is too short to try and force myself to read a "classic" that is as tedious as this one and others. I know, I know.  It's JANE AUSTEN.  Yep.  And if all of her books are like this one I won't be reading her again.  Ugh.
I like to think that I am somewhat well-read and if getting through this book means I am well-read then I guess I'm going to have to live with being the opposite.  If anything, attempting to read Austen's Emma proves to me that I am really am not cut out for the Victorian-era romance genre or that time period at all.  I like words that make sense, manners that make sense, characters that aren't shallow and flighty, a plot that makes sense.  In the 10% I read Emma didn't present any of that.  I found myself dreading picking up the book to read and would allow anything else to distract me from reading it.  Even *you* must admit I needed to abandon the book with such an attitude toward it!  I keep thinking, maybe the movie would interest me?  But then I remember seeing the trailer and having ZERO interest in even the movie. I'm crying "uncle" and moving on.



I thought I was done for the month but 2 books snuck in and got finished in June! 
Here they are:

Finding Emma by Steena Holmes

This book wasn't stellar but it wasn't horrible either.  Far from horrible actually.  It just didn't do a lot for me in terms of a read that was worthy of "rave reviews".
Megan and her family have lost Emma.  At three years old Emma mysteriously disappeared outside their house one day and there's been no trace of her since.  The majority of the book takes place two years into the future when Emma would be five and the search for her has taken its toll on the family.  Megan keeps thinking she sees Emma in places and has taken to grabbing little girl arms who she thinks is Emma and finds out isn't.  Her marriage is suffering, her other daughters are suffering, and she is on the brink of insanity.  Megan can't give up the search for Emma even if it will end up costing her the rest of her family.  Her perceived guilt and mother's heart keep her alert for clues and such. When Megan takes a picture of a little girl she thinks could be Emma will she be taken seriously or will she have "cried wolf" too many times to be listened to?
Here's what bothered me about the book's characters.  Megan's husband was willing to give up on their daughter.  I don't like that.  I don't like that he was pushing her after 2 years to move on or else.  I can see if it was 10-15-20 years down the road but a parent should NEVER really give up on their child.  That frustrated me.  I thought the story of Emma's abduction was an interesting concept but it felt a little short-sighted to me.  It felt too...obvious.  I knew the minute new characters were introduced where Emma was. I read it because it kept my interest just enough for me to finish it. There is a second book and I actually did put it on my "to read" list because I am curious enough about Emma to want to see what Holmes does with her next. Still, all in all, my overall response is "eh."




The First Gardener by Denise Hildreth Jones

This title from Jones drew me in with it's gardener Jeremiah and his POV.  At first I was curious and then I was compelled to see what happened to cause such sorrow on page 1. Jones did a good job of bringing Jeremiah to life and then the rest of the characters.
The London's, Gray and Mackenzie, are the first family of Tennessee.  After many years of waiting and trying to have a baby they finally had sweet little Maddie. At five years old Maddie is growing up and the London's are trying to have another baby.  A tragic accident happens and Mackenzie is left in a deep depression that threatens to steal her very soul.  She shuts down and shuts everyone, including Gray, out. Jeremiah, the mansion's gardener watches Mackenzie as closely as he watches the flowers on the property.  As Mackenzie wages war within herself Jeremiah heeds the voice of God and begins to bring her flowers that mean certain things.  Never knowing why God chooses what he does, Jeremiah is just determined to be faithful to God's voice. Will the gardener of Mackenzie's soul be allowed to bring life back to her?  The choice is Mackenzie's.
This was an easy read and written well enough.  It made me cry and laugh and it intrigued me because of flower meanings (this isn't the first book I have read that is centered around flowers and their meanings). I also liked the way Jones revealed Jeremiah's role and story to the reader, I thought it was clever and had just the right amount of exposure.