Friday, May 30, 2014

Review: "30 Days to a More Beautiful You" by Kylie Bisutti

30 Days to a More Beautiful You is a devotional for teenage girls written by former Victoria's Secret model Kylie Bisutti.  Each day includes a Bible verse, a 2-4 paragraph connection, two reflection questions, and a true beauty tip, such as "Let the roots of your life grow deep into Christ" (37).

The devotions are so short that it makes it easily manageable for the teen reader to fit into a busy schedule.  The book covered a lot of really great topics and encouragement for young women of faith: finding your worth, valuing modesty, being good enough, putting God first, and accepting forgiveness.  However, nothing stood out to me as being particularly ground breaking or inspiring. Instead, it was more a general overview.  In fairness, in only a few paragraphs, it's hard to tackle major life struggles that girls face, but I expected more from this devotional.

I was disappointed that the Bible passages were so short, usually only a verse or two. When I was a teen, I would've rather seen more of a passage for context.  There could've been a focus verse for Bisutti's personal connection and life applications, instead of only having one verse to work off. It just didn't feel like much care was put into the God's Word part of the devotional, especially with a typo in the one verse that was featured for day two.

Bisutti also has a book titled I'm No Angel, and I'd be willing to give that a try someday.  This devotional didn't have enough depth to make it worthwhile, but her points were solid and perhaps a different medium is all it needed to blossom into something great.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Tyndale Publishers for this review.  The opinion in this review is unbiased and reflects my honest judgment of the product.

Monday, May 26, 2014

Review: "One Realm Beyond" by Donita K. Paul

One Realm Beyond is the first book (and currently only book) of the Realm Walkers series by Donita K. Paul.  Once young realm walkers have learned all they can under their mentors, they are free to roam the realms looking for a dragon companion.  Cantor thought that would be an easy task compared to all of the things he would do once an official member of the Realm Walkers Guild: protecting and defending the realms.

Upon stepping through his first portal to another realm, he immediately encounters a dragon that is intent on becoming his constant companion.  Cantor is thoroughly unimpressed by the clumsy, goofy dragon and tries repeatedly to send him away.  This dragon, Bridger, may be one of my favorite dragons of all time. He's endearing, eccentric, and fiercely loyal, qualities that Cantor stubbornly ignores.

Cantor learns of the corruption in the Guild, from which his mentors had sheltered him for his entire life.  The unique characters he meets along the way join forces to attempt to bring the Guild back to the noble cause it was created to uphold.

On top of an exciting adventure, plenty of mishaps, and likeable characters, the book had an encompassing positive message. Even when facing the bad guys, it doesn't mean the heroes have to stoop to their level:
"Darling, one should always have weapons at hand [...] But sometimes a sharp tongue parries an evil intent.  A witty retort may stymie an enemy. And best of all, a kind and generous reply can take the wind out of the sails of a foe." (274)
It's also simple messages, such as looking at what's going right, instead of everything that's messed up, that make me love the message this book would give to any reader, especially teenagers.

One Realm Beyond, published by Zondervan, is a book with a Christian theme that is not over the top or out of place.  As it takes place in another world, they refer to God by another name: Primen.  Much of the characters' motivations are influenced by their loyalty to Primen and doing what is right.

As a lover of language, I appreciated that the book had nice vocabulary in it. The book is witty in introducing words that may not be so familiar to the teen audience:
"Deprived tongue?" She scoffed.  "You've a depraved mind, I'm thinking."
"The words aren't the same, Ahma. Depraved means he commits evil deeps involving blatant turpitude." (20-21)
To go a step further, the book even talks about how "vulgarities and profanity demonstrated lazy thinking" (343).  When the corrupt guild members spoke like that, the heroes recognized that it was their uneducated, evil minds that couldn't come up with words that carried real weight.

There was one odd time jump that put me off a little bit.  The chapter ends with a dragon on the roof of a building in the middle of a heavily guarded city.  It would seem as though it might be challenging for our heroes to escape the city without notice, but the next chapter begins with the characters outside the city. I guess it must've been an uneventful exit.

Other than at that one particular chapter break, I absolutely loved the book and would highly recommend it to anyone who likes young adult fantasy books, especially if they love quirky characters and a quick, fun read.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Book Look for this review.  The opinion in this review is unbiased and reflects my honest judgment of the product.

Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Review: "Nick and Tesla's Robot Army Rampage" by "Science Bob" Pflugfelder and Steve Hockensmith

Robot Army Rampage is the second of three Nick and Tesla books, which feature two 11-year-old
children who use science, inventions, and experiments to solve mysteries.

Nick and Tesla find themselves in the middle of solving the crime of a stolen valuable comic book.  Amidst their investigation, new robots keep popping up around town in all of the local businesses.  This inspires Nick and Tesla to make some of their own robots, for which instructions are included in the book.

These inventions seem much more complicated and impractical than the instructions provided in Nick and Tesla's Secret Agent Gadget Battle, the third book of the series.  These robots are not things that could be easily assembled in a half hour with parts from around the house.  Instead, they require motors, wiring that would be difficult for a pre-teen to set up, and drilling, for example.  For the experiments in this book, plan on not only adult supervision, but also an adult completing the instructions with little help from the young reader.

The mystery has plenty of twists, turns, and clues to keep the young reader interested.  What role could a basketball made of bagels possibly play in solving crime?  Wildly creative ideas fill the pages of the novel, leaving the reader thinking that truly anything could happen next.

I enjoy the Nick and Tesla series because of its focus on growing a love for science.  We don't ever see Nick and Tesla watching tv; they're always inventing and creating their own fun, which is a great lesson.  Even their uncle, who they are staying with, is a model that it is possible to keep an imagination even when growing up.  Of course, their uncle also happens to be a stereotypical "mad scientist"-type character, but even his eccentricities are endearing and comical.

Since I mentioned that Nick and Tesla are star role models for the creative mind, it's also worth noting that their need to solve mysteries causes them to overrides good judgment in dangerous situations.  In Robot Army Rampage, the children face no consequence for making foolish decisions: "'Tez, no!' Nick called from the shadows. 'You're supposed to run away from dangerous criminals, not go toward them" (144).

This Nick and Tesla book was still a great read that I would recommend to elementary age children, though I would worry that they would be disappointed in the complexity of building a robot.  I personally preferred the story and creations of Secret Agent Gadget Battle, but this book provides some framework for understanding the setting and the characters before continuing on in the series.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Quirk Books for this review.  The opinion in this review is unbiased and reflects my honest judgment of the product.

Wednesday, May 14, 2014

Review: "Memorial: The Mystery of Mary of Bethany" by Dolores Kimball

Dolores Kimball's Memorial: The Mystery of Mary of Bethany dives deep into the story of Mary, the sister of Martha and Lazarus.  Kimball explains that Mary is one of four people in the Bible that Jesus personally commended (5).  This 120 page book thoroughly researches everything surrounding this woman: where she was mentioned in the Bible, other related stories, and even common misconceptions about who she was.

The most fascinating part of the book was Kimball's explanation of the significance of anointing Jesus for burial.  Jesus tried to tell his disciples that he would suffer, but they did not want to believe.  However, Mary's eyes were opened to the truth that Jesus would die, and her faith led her to use the ointment that was reserved for Jesus' burial day.  Kimball also did a great job of explaining other translations and meanings of the words used in passages, such as explaining that "Jesus' burial day" didn't actually mean the day he was buried - simply near that time.

Chapters were broken into sections that looked into passages from the Bible mentioning Mary, other instances in the Bible that were similar in some way, and life applications, though some sections had a mix of those elements.

The life application-type sections did not hold my interest.  These sections often begin with or include a universal statement, like "for many women", "we have to admit", "if we're honest with ourselves," which felt insincere in their attempt to be all-encompassing.  I was distracted by passages of sweeping generalizations about what challenges the modern woman in her faith journey.  For example, there is almost two pages detailing the life of a "typical Christian woman": "So she says a quick prayer for her family, tosses down her morning jolt of caffeine, and charges into her day like a Thoroughbred out of the starting gate" (12).

The tidbits that explained Biblical significance in words and actions made it a worthwhile read, and I really do feel like I better understand the passages that previously I would've rushed over without giving a second thought.  However, the book was hard to get in to and hard to keep reading.  For those reasons, I would treat this book as a resource for if you wanted to lead a Bible study on a related topic, but I would not recommend it for casual reading or as a personal devotional.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Cross Focused Reviews for this review.  The opinion in this review is unbiased and reflects my honest judgment of the product.

Sunday, May 11, 2014

To Review: "On the Shoulders of Hobbits" by Louis Markos and "Memorial: The Mystery of Mary of Bethany" by Dolores Kimball

Two new books have been added to my "to review" stack this week! In the foreward to On the Shoulders of Hobbits the Road to Virtue with Tolkien and Lewis, Peter Kreeft explains why you should read:
reading great literature, next to meeting people, is the single most effective way to learn not to flunk life.  Life is a story, and therefore moral education happens first and most powerfully through stories, e.g., through books. (8)
In Memorial: The Mystery of Mary of Bethany, "we will look closely at the mysterious Mary of Bethany, a most unique and remarkable woman whose incredible faith, quiet spirit, and uncanny understanding of spiritual matters are a testimony to the power of God in the life of a woman totally committed to her Lord" (back of the book).

Look for reviews of both of these books coming soon to In Media Res!

Thursday, May 8, 2014

Review: "Just 18 Summers" by Rene Gutteridge & Michelle Cox

Just 18 Summers is a novel that follows four families' struggles with their growing-up-too-fast children.  It is told in a rotating perspective where the point of view changes each chapter.  This method allows us to really see the deep rooted inner battles each character is facing: from dealing with the loss of a loved one to worrying about welcoming a baby into the world.  It also gives us a unique view of how each of the characters rely (or learn to rely) on God.

Each family is connected though one person, Jenny, who is not in the book as she passed away before it began.  No matter how minimal interaction the characters had with her, she had impacted all of their lives by being a strong, caring Christian mother.  Her character may be a little idealized because everyone is remembering what they miss about her, but regardless, the way Jenny lived her life and her untimely death helps everyone to appreciate the time they have with their children more.

The novel is full of beautiful family and faith moments, but there was one in particular that resonated with me. Towards the end of the novel where the parents who are expecting their first child recognize that the child does not belong to them, but rather to God: "before he even had a name, he had a purpose and an identity and an everlasting hope that only came from above" (354).  That line, combined with the families praying unceasingly for their children, really expressed what it means to be a family and to put faith in God to care for them.

I enjoyed the focus on family and faith and I found it to be very sentimental and moving, but it seemed like the theme was drilled into my head, rather than just letting those themes play out within the story in a more subtle way.  Every single chapter and issue that the characters face is focused on providing for children and making the most of the time with them.  To add to the neatness of the novel, at the end everything is fully resolved, which just gives an unrealistic portrait of life.

Another small irritation for me was the stereotypical gender roles portrayed.  In the families with multiple children, it always seemed that the mothers were focused on their daughters, and the fathers spent more time with the sons.  It got to a ridiculous level when one of the mothers was hysterical about never having taught her daughter how to cook, but when her son asks to learn, she turns him down.

As I read about the parents in these families trying to make the best possible summer for their children, while also preparing them to be successful in life, I gained a deeper understanding of the emotional challenges parents face raising their children.

This book would be a great read for anyone, no matter what stage of life.  I recently graduated college so I could relate to all of the parents sending their children off to college and learning to let them go, even when it was difficult.  The novel also covers families preparing for a baby, dealing with stubborn teenagers, and raising a child solo, among other family challenges.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Tyndale House Publishers for this review.  The opinion in this review is unbiased and reflects my honest judgment of the product.

Sunday, May 4, 2014

To Review: "Silenced" by Dani Pettrey and "30 Days to a More Beautiful You" by Kylie Bisutti

This week in the mail, I received two new books to review! First up is Silenced by Dani Pettrey. Here's the first two sentences of the back of the book teaser: "A relaxing day of rock climbing takes a disturbing turn when Kayden McKenna's route brings her face-to-face with a dead climber.  Is it a terrible accident or something darker?"  Sounds like an exciting mystery! Can't wait to read it!

30 Days to a More Beautiful You by Kylie Bisutti is a devotional for teenage girls.  It includes a Bible verse, a short anecdote (just a few paragraphs), two reflection questions, and then a "true beauty tip" such as "You have inherent value as God's child" for each day (7).

Friday, May 2, 2014

Review: "Echoes of an Angel" by Aquanetta Gordon

Echoes of an Angel is a true story of how Ben Underwood lost his sight at two years old, but continued to live his life to the fullest and inspire those around him.  His love for God and for everyone he met was constant.  He would never let his blindness hinder him in any way, thanks to his mother's encouragement.  It was a difficult journey for her as well, especially trying to explain what was happening to a two year old child.

Ben was "scared and confused" when he awoke from the surgery that removed his eyes, but his mother was there for to comfort him:
"Oh, Mom, I can't see anymore!" Ben cried to me.
I let love guide me past the fear and sadness I felt inside.  I was ready to carry his burdens, to be his eyes if I had to, and to pray that my happiness would bring light to his newly darkened world.  I reminded him that people see in so many different ways, through their touch, their ears, their noses. (59-60) 
Ben's mother, the author of this memoir, Aquanetta Gordon, never let him live thinking he couldn't do something:
"Baby, yes you can see.  You can see me with your nose....You can see me with your ears....You can see me with your hands.  You will always be able to see me!"
Ben finally understood.  That was the last time in his life he ever told me that he couldn't see me. (60) 
All through his life, Ben takes his mother's words to heart.  He knew he could do anything, including surfing, driving a car, and playing video games.  He even had to remind his mother on occasion that he could see - not in the traditional sense, but he was able to see so much more: "She was pretty [...] I could see her heart" he explained to his mother (182).

The book details both Aquanetta's past struggles with God and how she turned to Him for guidance through all of the trials dealing with Ben's cancer and blindness.  Through her stories, I could see how God used Ben's unrelenting faith and joy in God to strengthen his mother and everyone who came into contact with him.  Aquanetta explains that she heard God tell her that Ben's blindness wasn't for her - it was so that he could inspire the world.  Ben never once doubted his purpose, and he wasn't afraid to carry it out.

Ben was very unique in his skills, which gained him a lot of media attention.  It was probably through his mother's determination that he could do everything just like her other children that led him to developing amazing echolocation skills.  He was able to tell what kind of building he passed or what item was on a table just by clicking his tongue and listening to the sound bounce off things.  It was truly amazing to read.

My biggest disappointment was in the pages of pictures a third of the way through the book, which told the rest of Ben's life story.  Not that I was expecting suspense or anything like that - it's a memoir.  I just would've rather taken the same journey instead of knowing how it all turned out when I had barely started reading.

Echoes with an Angel is an easy, quick, and consuming read.  The stories are interesting and inspiring through Ben's capabilities, his unwavering faith, and his devotion to God.  Cancer has affected the lives of most people in some way, whether personally, or through the experiences of a relative or friend.  It makes parts of this book very emotionally charged and many tears were shed in my read through.

FTC Disclosure: I received this book for free from Tyndale House Publishers for this review.  The opinion in this review is unbiased and reflects my honest judgment of the product.

Thursday, May 1, 2014

A to Z Challenge Wrap Up

After a month of Harry Potter themed A to Z posts, all I have to say is: I'm tired.

Seriously though, it was a great experience to be writing every day and to visit some great new blogs. I plan to continue visiting other blogs that participated in the challenge, too!

I found it really enjoyable to look at the Harry Potter series thematically instead of chronologically.

I hope you all learned something, were entertained, or perhaps were inspired to pick up a new book.

Thanks for reading along with me!

If you missed any posts, here's a rundown of my April 2014 A to Z Challenge:

Mischief Managed!