Monthly Archives: June 2012

What Will You Do to Save Your Sister? A Review of Alana & Alyssa’s Secret by Joana James

This is the second book I have read by Joana James. While it’s less perfect technically than Nightmare at Emerald High, it’s still a very moving, powerful story about the power of God and the prayers of the faithful.

Could anybody have more to overcome than Alana and Alyssa? You won’t know unless you read it for yourself. But what a powerful lesson Alyssa learns about what we can and can’t do to protect those we love. Sometimes even a second chance isn’t enough.

Only the greatest tragedy can sometimes shake us out of our reliance on what we have the power to do in our own strength. Realizing that we need help, accepting that help, and getting it from the Source of all true help, makes all the difference in what happens to these two sisters.

Eric is almost too good to be true, but he’s not an angel sent to escort Alyssa safely home. He’s a real person, and the only thing he wants is the truth. If Alyssa’s ready to face the truth herself, Eric will hang on for the emotional ups and downs of Alyssa’s life. It’s up to her.

I appreciated the author’s afterword explaining the terrible tragedy described in this book. It was jarring to me, but sometimes life will jar us out of our self-sufficiency. It’s something we have to accept, and this book is fundamentally about accepting help. Help from others, and help from God. In the end, Alyssa kept trying to help her sister Alana, never realizing how much she needed help herself, and what a terrible price she would have to pay before she was ready to accept that help.

http://www.amazon.com/Alana-Alyssas-Secret-Ashes-ebook/dp/B005JJDVG2

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Through the Windshield 4: Exploding Potato Chips

Open bag of potato chips

On a blog devoted to life and death issues, this really does not fit in, but here it is anyway. When you buy snack chips, there is air in the bag. This helps prevent the chips from being crushed. It also means that snack chips must be packaged for the altitude where they will be sold. Chips packaged in Denver, CO and sold at sea level will be flat and the air inside the bag will not protect them. Chips packaged in Phoenix, AZ (about 1100 feet) expand to make each bag look like a pillow.

We picked up a load of snack chips in Lubbock, TX headed to Vancouver, WA, just across the river from Portland, OR. The most important instruction was follow their routing to keep the bags from exploding. Lubbock, TX is approximately 3200 feet, so that gives us a little more altitude than chips packaged at sea level. We safely crossed NM (7200 feet @ Cline’s Corners), Cortez, CO (6200 ft) and Price Canyon, UT (approx 7700 feet).

Our personal chips have often exploded, when we used different routes. We attempt to stay on interstates, so these are not the highest roads possible. Some bags have popped at Homestake Pass, Montana 6393 feet. Bags that are still intact will usually pop on I80 @ Happy Jack Road in Wyoming; 15 miles east of Laramie, Wyoming (8665 feet). But if that still does not work, I70 across Colorado will finish off anything that has not popped yet. At 11,192 the Eisenhower Tunnel, about 75 miles west of Denver, is the highest point anywhere on the US interstate highway system.

Not all bags pop the same way. Usually the bottom pops with just a little poof and the contents are fine. But we had a bag of cheese curls pop around 10,000 feet that were mostly cheese powder. That taught us that loud bangs turn the contents to powder. Enjoy the remains. 🙂

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Impossibilities and Possibilities: a Review of The Beautiful American by Marilyn Holdsworth

The Beautiful American

“La Belle Americaine” is a phrase often repeated in this story. It appears in the diary which Abby Long finds hidden in a beautiful antique desk she buys at auction. But it isn’t used to describe the person I believe is the truly “Beautiful American” in this story.

Jasmine is a slave who providentially comes to live on the plantation of James Monroe around the time he serves as ambassador to France. This story is about slavery only incidentally. Mostly it’s about true freedom. The polar characters Gabriel and Jasmine exemplify two kinds of bondage. Gabriel rebels violently. He has reason to be bitter. But Jasmine serves cheerfully and dutifully. Jasmine asks for nothing but is given clothes, an education, and a privileged place in the household. The mesmerizing, powerful Gabriel seeks to take what he wants by force. Gabriel insists Jasmine is “his girl” and he is coming for her someday.

Andre is a charming example of the right kind of man, a rare thing in modern fiction. His master demands a hole in the roof to get the right lighting for his artist’s work. But Andre isn’t above climbing up to plug it when they need to keep out the rain. He is a gentleman even while being a persuasive wooer. He has plans, and he’s not just dreaming about them, he’s working to make them a reality. His possibilities in the midst of Jasmine’s insistence on impossibilities make the story that much sweeter.

The frame tale in modern times also includes a good man, Nathan Edwards. He’s also a hard worker, decisive, able to make dreams come true and lead Abby to find a new life. James Monroe is also a good man, loving his wife, calling her his “champion,” finding ways to make his whole family stronger and wiser and happier in subtle ways.

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Cancer Lite is still Cancer Guest Post by Lora-Beth Barnett

Lora-Beth Barnett has been my (Mary’s) friend longer than I have known my husband. We are honored that she chose to share her story with us and our blog readers.

A few months ago I went to the doctor to get some prescriptions renewed.  I happened to mention that even though I was well past menopause I was having some period-like bleeding.  Before I knew it I was having a pelvic ultrasound that revealed extra tissue where a woman of my age should not have extra tissue.

The gynecologist did a D and C and when I went to his office for the results he said that he had good news and bad news for me.  The bad news was that he had found cancer cells in the lining of my uterus.  The good news was that it was in the early stages and a hysterectomy would take care of it. It seems to me that only cancer can make the need for a hysterectomy the good news. Within a month I was in and out of the hospital.   New procedures in robotic surgery make hysterectomies less invasive and one night short of out-patient surgery. Two weeks later I was back to work with only a small row of incision scars to remind me of the last three months.

Yes, just three months start to finish. Cancer Lite.  No pain, no chemo, no nausea, no hair loss, no t-shirt proclaiming survivor, no golf tournaments to raise money for my treatment.  It was a no muss no fuss cancer to be sure.  As someone told me, it was the cancer to get if you are going to get cancer.  So why write about this seemly boring cancer experience that really has none of the drama most cancer stories feature? Because there are still lessons to be learned.

The most important lesson is that this is not the cancer to get if you get cancer. It is a dangerous cancer because it has virtually no symptoms.  If I hadn’t already had a doctor’s appointment I would never have told her about the bleeding which by the time of my appointment had not recurred for several weeks.  My experience was fuss free because the cancer was caught early.  If it hadn’t been caught things would not have gone so smoothly.  I might have died as did the wife of one of my friends. She had the same cancer but it was not caught until it was too late. Get those screenings. They may save your life.

Since I was past menopause children were no longer an option.  When I told people that I was to have a hysterectomy the most common comment was “Well, you weren’t using your uterus or ovaries anyway.” No, I wasn’t and I laughed along with them.  I even suggested that maybe I could sell the good parts on the black market to pay for the operation. But the truth is that the surgery took away part of what it means to be a woman and part of what it meant to be me. The loss may not have been as visible as the loss of a breast but it was still a loss that was not only physical but emotional as well. It is also a loss that may have other physical consequences down the road.  We have to keep our sense of humor in these kinds of situations but we should always realize that sometimes real emotion pain is hiding behind that humor and needs to be addressed.

Just because I didn’t look sick didn’t mean I didn’t need to be babied now and again. Now I didn’t tell a lot of people the reason for my surgery because cancer will sometimes make people uncomfortable. They don’t know what to say or do. Neither did I. We don’t like to believe that we are self-centered people but there are just times in our life we want and need it to be about “me.” At those times a card, or balloon, or really big cookie can go a long way. Or a hug just to let someone know that they are not alone.  The Cancer Society or the Heart Society or any other society may not notice us, but it doesn’t matter as long as our friends and co-workers do.

Even going to the doctor’s office with a sick friend goes a long way in helping them face a serious illness.  Yes, they may be able to drive themselves, but it can be a lonely, lonely feeling entering that office by yourself especially when the sign on the door says Cancer Center. I am thankful I had my husband for all my visits except one. I know someone else who also had a supportive husband but he was not able to attend the office visits due to work.  She said it was hard to go alone even though she knew he was at work thinking and praying for her.

After the surgery it was assumed that because there were no casts or bandages visible that everything was ok.  People forgot that internally I had had major surgery and needed time to mend. This meant that I occasionally needed help with the small things of life like cooking and laundry. I had to remind myself that I was not superwoman and could not do what I normally did. If I did I would risk making my recovery time just that much longer.  We need to look beneath the surface when someone we know has been sick or had surgery. Appearances do not always give the whole story.  For the first week I was back at work, people could see me standing and talking but didn’t know how much effort it took to stand long enough to say hello. They probably never notice how closely I hugged the wall and for the first time ever took the elevator rather than the stairs. Notice the small things that tell us what our friends will never say out loud.

Yes, everything went well, there is little chance that the cancer will return, and I am back to work. I am still left with the aftermath to deal with. There are the bills.  Maybe not as many as those folks who have to do the chemo and years of treatment but for someone in my economic bracket the bills are no less daunting. So maybe no one needs to do a charity golf tournament for those of us with less advanced cancers but that doesn’t mean we don’t need a little help too. Insurance is great but doesn’t cover everything. Each bill that comes is a reminder of what might have been. Some are small but when you have many of them they mount up. My credit score has plunged in the last three months.  Consider the needs of your friends. Sometimes a surprise tank of gas or trip to the grocery store just may help them pay at least one of these “little” bills and ease some of their stress.

Intellectually I know that there is little chance that the cancer will reappear. Still for weeks after the surgery every pain, weakness, or sneeze put me on the edge of panic.  The occasional emails that let me know my friends were still out there went a long way to keep me grounded.  At least until someone just had to tell me in detail about their aunt or uncle or cousin that had also cancer.  Maybe those stories are best left for another time.

So I have now told my cancer story. I fought no battles. Endured no chemo. Enjoyed no medical marijana. Gave no interviews.  I doubt that I will ever wear an “I am a cancer survivor” t-shirt but I am a survivor nonetheless.  The people in my life who were with me are survivors too.  For it was an emotional time for them as well.

It is not easy to face the possible loss of a spouse or friend.  It doesn’t matter how “treatable” the doctor says it is, our minds inevitably go to that worst case scenario. I take two lessons from this experience.  Don’t skip the screenings and pay attention to the needs of those around us. Just because the disease isn’t newsworthy doesn’t mean the need isn’t great.

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Can Fantasy/SciFi Be Christian? by Michael J. Findley

I intended to make this a review of Shawn Lamb’s book All0n, Book 1. Instead it morphed as I wrote it into a personal view of what makes good Christian fantasy/SciFi.

Though I have written fiction, I usually write nonfiction. I read fiction, such as The Hobbit, The Lord of The Rings, War and Peace, The Lucky Starr series, etc. To be honest, I analyze as I read more than read for enjoyment anymore.

Reader’s Digest is written on the 7th grade reading level. That means that the vocabulary, writing style and sentence structure is easily grasped by anyone with a 7th grade or higher education level. It also limits the content to material easily grasped by an adult with no more than a 7th grade education.

MGM created a firestorm, including lawsuits, when they sponsored a particular band of liquor in a James Bond movie. MGM has openly admitted that the target audience for the James Bond movies starts at 13.

The Flesch-Kincaid scale rates 3 of my blogs at 6.5 (reading grade level) with an ease of reading of 73, 5.3 grade level with 80.5 ease of reading and 10.0 grade level with ease of reading 53.

Allon is a print book, so I only typed in a few paragraphs to get a Flesch-Kincaid scale of 6.0-grade level and ease of reading of 80,7. This puts Allon in the same reading level as the James Bond series, Harry Potter series and most of our blogs. The F-K scale puts it in the same target age group, 13+. Unlike James Bond, in Allon sin is treated as sin and has consequences. Violence, sex, magic and other sins are dealt with, but unlike the Harry Potter Series these sins have correct consequences. In Allon, sin is not mocked nor is it justified as a tool for gaining a greater “moral” victory.

In War and Peace, Leo Tolstoy writes a book with over 300 chapters that covers all of Europe, thousands of characters and dozens of major characters. The first chapter opens in a private reception with half a dozen speakers. The people they talked about were either public figures such as Napoleon Bonaparte or initial introductions to people important later in the story. The Hobbit  opens with Gandalf, Bilbo and a dozen dwarfs, introduced one at a time. The Fellowship of the Ring begins where The Hobbit left off, with Bilbo Baggins, Gandalf, and the rest of the hobbits. Once again, the opening introduces a limited number of new characters. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone begins with a husband and wife, two people, and slowly expands from there. James Bond might open with hundreds of soldiers or thousands in a ballroom. But the plot hones in on no more than a half dozen major characters, usually only two or three. Star Wars, like James Bond, begins with either one or two characters and introduces characters with enough time to grasp them. With each of these, more characters are introduced as we become familiar with the existing characters.

Allon opens with two main characters but with an additional one introduced every page throughout the first chapter. There are soldiers, a new language, and an introduction to a fantasy kingdom; complete with geography, nobility and conflicts we know nothing about. I was confused reading War And Peace and Tolstoy used history, people and events I was intimately acquainted with. The style of Allon is interesting, but I am so easily confused.

From Beowulf and Edmund Spenser’s Fairie Queene to C.S. Lewis, fantasy that claims to have any Christian values whatsoever has limited itself. Evil can take any form, because evil is selfish and deceptive. Orcs, dragons, goblins, trolls, ghosts, gnomes, demons, evil or unclean spirits range from mildly troublesome to great powerful evil forces.

But for a spirit to be good, it must in some way glorify God. Spirits such as the ghosts of Christmas past, present and future, in Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol can be good. Though they are fictional, they are acting on God’s behalf, so we must treat them as some form of angel. If we do not believe they are angels, then are they demons?

For a fantasy to be used by God, it must in some limited way help us to understand good and evil more clearly. Sauron in Lord of the Rings represents Adolph Hitler. He was both an individual and an all-consuming selfish power who destroyed all who opposed him. Both Sauron and Hitler are representations of Satan himself. I see Frodo Bagans not as a Christ figure, but more like Moses or Abraham. They were believers who sacrificed all to obey God. Like all analogies, they are imperfect. In the Fairie Queene, Queen Elizabeth is portrayed by the good Queen Gloriana. But in real life Queen Elizabeth promoted some truth but also had some believers executed.

Beowulf, Milton’s Paradise Lost, Spencer’s The Fairie Queene, the works of Shakespeare, Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, the later works of T.S. Eliot, C.S. Lewis and JRR Tolkien all used words, concepts, ideas and morality both directly out of the Bible and based on human traditions which were based on the Bible. JRR Tolkien, the least Christian of this list, used names from both the poetic Edda (old norse) and the prose Edda (Icelandic). Rune script, which Tolkien used for Elvish is a combination of old Italic and Teutonic (Germanic). Elves and Dwarves go back are far as writing itself, in every culture on earth. Elves and Dwarves are usually mischief-makers, and The Hobbit seems to portray them more accurately than the Lord of the Rings. Dwarves and Elves in most folklore seem to be some form of demons similar to gnomes and genies. Hobbits are a variation of Pygmies, a real population group.

Fantasy and science fiction are didactic. They teach. To put it another way, they are sermon illustrations. Like everything else in life, if they do not draw us closer to God, then they drive us apart from God.

A completely made-up culture can be the best possible teaching tool. I used this tool myself. My Space Empire saga is set in a vague point in the future. Every name can mean something, such as Narnia or the Dawntreader. Every place can teach something, such as Paradise. Every action taken by every character is either good or evil. There is no need to explain the mistakes of history. Divine purpose can be revealed in every thought, action or object.

At the same time, a complete self-created culture allows little or no room for errors. “The force” of Star Wars is idolatry, not just a spur of the moment mistake as George Lucas claims. To borrow the National Review slogan, eschew obfuscation! It is not “just entertainment” as Disney claims their movies are. Andy’s empty holster and the armymen without weapons send a powerful message in Toy Story.

I read The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings while working my way through college. I had no time for them, but they fascinated me, in spite of the many objectionable elements. I avoided the Harry Potter series because it is drowning in objectionable elements. Yet from the beginning, the story and writing style draws me in. The second paragraph of the book, which introduces the Dursleys is great.

“Mr. Dursley was the director of a firm called Grunnings, which made drills. He was a big, beefy man with hardly any neck, although he did have a very large mustache. Mrs. Dursley was thin and blonde and had nearly twice the usual amount of neck, which came in very useful as she spent so much of her time craning over garden fences, spying on the neighbors. The Dursleys had a small son called Dudley and in their opinion there was no finer boy anywhere.”

All three family members are introduced in a brief four-paragraph sentence. They are identified by important, memorable, humorous characteristics. The descriptions are both enlightening and informative. Which is why I stay away from Harry Potter. It is very well written and makes evil very desirable.

Part of what makes Harry Potter desirable for me is the male point of view, even though a woman wrote it. The movies Sleepless in Seattle and You’ve Got Mail do a good job contrasting the differences between a man’s story and a woman’s story. It is usually a difference in emphasis. Men want action movies, like how many explosions are there? Women want feeling-based movies, like did she get the guy in the end? Pointing out that releasing a lion raised in captivity free into the wild in Born Free is not only a bad idea, but will likely get the lion killed, does not set well with your wife/daughter/date/girlfriend. Even mentioning that fact makes you a cold, heartless brute.

Sleepless In Seattle
“Sam Baldwin: Well I’m not looking for a mail-order bride! I just want somebody I can have a decent conversation with over dinner without it falling down into weepy tears over some movie!
Greg: She’s, as you just saw, very emotional.
Sam Baldwin: Although I cried at the end of “the Dirty Dozen.”
Greg: Who didn’t?
Sam Baldwin: Jim Brown was throwing these hand grenades down these airshafts. And Richard Jaeckel and Lee Marvin [begins to cry]”

Women also love excessive description and adjectives, especially clothing and furnishings. Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote for women. Writers such as Charles Dickens, Sir Walter Scott and Sir Alfred Lord Tennyson were paid by the word which pushed them to use excessive adjectives. Even the Jules Verne’s novel Michael Strogoff is heavy with travelogue details, to the delight of female readers.

Shawn Lamb has an audience that loves her books. On the back of Allon Book 1 is an email address and a website where she may be contacted. This is an unusual plus for any author. I recommend contacting her if you have any questions.

This is definitely a woman’s book written by a woman giving a woman’s point of view. That means she is writing for the majority market since more women than men read books and according to USA today women read nine books for every five that men read. However, Allon is a book I was unable to finish.

I forced my way through Stephen Hawking’s book A Brief History of Time, because it is so popular and influential. A Brief History of Time is religious propaganda. It is simply not true. Allon does not claim to be a book of physics. It is a work of fiction, pure plain and simple.

Most of my objections to Allon are strictly male. What is the point of several sentences of detail for each and every person’s clothing, hairstyle and grooming? For a book that has so much of, what seems to me to be superfluous details, important information seems to be missing. Force placements of troops, why people do things (military reasons), who are the Guardians, who are the Shadow Warriors, what is the purpose of the Guardians and the Shadow Warriors? The most important questions to me are “why” questions? Answers to what I believe are important why questions seem to never to come. Personally, I found this to be one of the most frustrating books I ever attempted. I understand it was designed from the beginning as a series and certain questions were deliberately left unanswered to entice readers to continue the series.

As I said, I skipped around and attempted to answer questions without reading the entire book. But to me, the important questions of “Who are the good guys?” “How does this glorify God?” and “Why does this matter?” are never answered.

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Causing and Calming Storms: A Review of Summer Storms by Rebekah Lyn

Summer Storms (Seasons of Faith)

I was given a copy of the book by the author’s publicist. If you dismiss Christian fiction as sappy or shallow or “chick lit,” you’ll miss really fine books like this one. It isn’t really a romance. It’s certainly not women’s fiction. Several male characters get a lot of ink, men flawed, fine, and being refined.

It’s mostly about loss. Lizzie and Jeffrey have each lost something. As they deal with their losses they either create storms or calm them. There are real, physical storms in the book (it takes place in Florida during hurricane season). But the storms and calms in people’s lives will keep readers guessing, about who will stir one up or calm one down next.

Lizzie is a wonderful character. She bakes cookies, dozens of them at a time. She stands up to selfish, irrational people on a daily basis and helps and comforts helpless ones at times. She works hard cleaning up some big messes, physical and spiritual. Her story reminded me of how God works to draw people to Himself and to clean them up. Lizzie has to deal with serious setbacks in the process, and so does God. She also has to just buckle down and ride out storms sometimes.

The author clearly loves creating characters, and if there’s a flaw in the story, it’s that some people detract a little from the main plot when they don’t seem that important. But it’s not confusing, not stuffed with characters a reader can’t begin to keep up with. There are some typos and homophone errors but they don’t detract that much.

There is a romantic aspect to the story and it was quite a surprise to me. Nobody goes through the book on a seesaw of attraction and repulsion. That is a big plus. I can’t stress enough that it’s not just a book for women. The portrayal of men is very different from the common “men are scum” or just plain weak or overly emotional. Strong men, good examples, men who love their wives are all here. So are men who are willing to learn and grow.

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Mysteries, Characters and Distractions: A review of Allon by Shawn Lamb

Allon

Allon is the first in a fantasy/allegory series by Shawn Lamb. The biggest mystery is who you can and cannot trust. Lamb presents characters, some only briefly, but startles us with their motives and revelations of good or bad character, and the consequences of their actions. Beware of jumping to conclusions. Some things are predictable but details keep you guessing.

I think my favorite character is Erin. She tries seduction, changing herself, even a very risky personal sacrifice to earn Ellis’s love. Her changing character and motivations are worth the read. (By the way, this seduction is not at all explicit, nor is another seduction scene in the book. There is no objectionable sexual content.)

The writing style and vocabulary are awkward. Sometimes the vocabulary used is plainly, to me, wrong word choices.

One plot incident that I consider pivotal is the point where Ellis’s relationship with Shannan changes. It involves the trust issue I mentioned earlier, and has something to do with a wild boar. But it is only briefly talked about and does not even make it into the action of the book. Shouldn’t that be more important, if it changes their whole relationship?

My second serious objection is to the handling of the Guardians, and it is twofold. Guardians are supernatural beings similar to angels or demons, interesting characters, both the evil and the heroic ones. But this is an allegory about humans and their growth and preparation for service to God. Shannan’s interaction with the Guardians was frequently captivating but these things distracted from the story of Ellis and Shannan. The Guardians steal the focus from the human characters and the main plot time and again.

Some Guardians rebelled against Jor-el, the God-figure in the story, but who did and who didn’t rebel isn’t always clear. Why are Guardians horribly imprisoned, tortured, maimed, even killed in such frequency and detail? If they are not humans, the focus of the story, what is the spiritual purpose for this?

I am not against violence in books, even for younger readers, but I need to understand the reason for the gruesome description of one Guardian’s mutilation during his imprisonment, and the manner of his death. He is portrayed as defiant and heroic in the face of torture, but he confesses to something the author simply does not explain as rebellion. Quite the opposite. This Guardian says in his dying “confession” that he followed the orders of Jor-el. Are all these imprisoned Guardians guilty of rebellion? Can they repent and be “saved”? Other Guardians who become free don’t confess to wrongdoing, at least not clearly enough for me, and I am not a young reader.

I know of no theology that teaches Angels will torture other Angels, no evidence that they fight or die much as we do except for being a little stronger and faster. Lamb insists that they don’t “die,” but we see them wounded and dying over and over. What teaching is this? It’s worse than a distraction, it’s a kind of heresy skewing the whole redemption and growth and preparation for service storyline. What chance is there for these characters we’ve grown to admire and love, who’ve sacrificed and suffered just like the humans? One good stab and poof! They just disappear. Were they saved? Were they lost? We have no idea.

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