Book Review: I Am – 40 Reasons to Trust God

I AmTitle: I Am: 40 Reasons to Trust God

Author: Diane Stortz

Illustrated by: Diane Le Feyer

For: children ages 3+

Star rating (out of 5): *****

I love the premise of this picture Bible: forty stories that illustrate the character of God. One of my main complaints about much of Christian children’s literature is that it boils the Bible down to lessons in morality that parents can use to encourage children to “be good.” While it is obviously important that we obey God, children need to first understand that it is only because God came to rescue us through Jesus’ death and resurrection and the Spirit’s enabling that they can obey at all! This book points every story not just toward a moral lesson, but to God and what he has revealed about himself in the stories. THEN it explains how that aspect of God’s character impacts our lives and actions.

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Another thing I love about this Bible is that each story has multiple parts which parents can use to customize the lesson for their child’s age and spiritual maturity, or even the amount of time they have to read right then:

  • A name of God (ex: “Creator: Elohim”)
  • A story from the Bible that illustrates that aspect of God’s character (ex: the creation story)
  • A key takeaway from the story (ex: “We live in a colorful, wonderful world with amazing sights and sounds. Someone powerful and loving made it all!”)
  • A “What Does It Mean” section that draws an example from everyday life (ex: making crafts or baking) and helps apply the story to life
  • One or two verses quoted directly from the Bible. The translations vary; many are from the English Standard Version (ESV), and others are Amplified, God’s Word, the International Children’s Bible, and the New Living Translation.
  • A “Learn More” section suggesting another Bible passage parents could read to their kids to further explain the name of God. This is a great resource to go deeper with older kids
  • A short “What Happened Next” paragraph either summarizing events that happen between the story and the next story, or introducing the next story
  • A short prayer thanking God for what the story reveals about him (ex: “Dear God, thank you for making the world. Thank You for making me, my pets, and the people I love! You are my powerful, strong Creator. I love you, God. Amen.”

 

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For young children (around 2-5 years old), I think the story and “What Does It Mean” sections are the perfect length and depth, and the other sections are fantastic to go a little deeper with older children or even adults!

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The illustrations in this book are STUNNING. I literally caught my breath several times when I turned the page and saw the next beautiful spread. The colors are vibrant and beautifully gradated, and the detail in many of the pictures is just exceptional. Diane Le Feyer deserves an award for this work; it is absolutely lovely.

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I read pretty carefully looking for any particular doctrinal positions (Calvinism/Armenianism, Dispensationalism/Covenant Theology, Lordship Salvation/Free Grace, etc), particularly in the “What Does It Mean” sections, and nothing in particular stood out to me. Because the book focuses on what the Bible stories reveal about God’s names and character, there really isn’t much in here that I feel would be controversial.

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I appreciated that the book includes some lesser-known stories that are not often included in children’s Bibles, such as Jacob’s dream, manna from heaven, Solomon asking for wisdom, and the day of Pentecost. The stories are all definitely “G-rated.” For example, Joseph’s story doesn’t specifically explain that he was a slave or talk about Potiphar’s wife trying to seduce him or the baker who dies. It focuses on “The Lord My Rock” and how God turns our problems into something good. The crucifixion is also not explained in detail, beyond saying that Jesus’ hands and feet were nailed to a cross and he died. Parents can of course add more detail to the stories as they believe it is appropriate.

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We own many children’s Bibles, but I think this one has catapulted to the top of my list of favorites. I love the focus on who God is and on how we can rely on Jesus and his enabling, not just our own efforts to “be good.” And the illustrations are by far the most beautiful that I have seen in a children’s Bible. This is a fantastic picture Bible that I highly recommend.

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(Disclosure: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookLook Bloggers in exchange for my honest review. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.)

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Book Review: The Great Gatsby

GatsbyTitle: The Great Gatsby

Author: F. Scott Fitzgerald

Star Rating (out of 5): ****

For: Fans of beautiful prose, psychological insight, classics, tragedies

This is a sad cautionary tale of obsession, infidelity, and the emptiness of excess and immorality. I feel like I would have hated it if it wasn’t for the gorgeous, affecting prose, and Fitzgerald’s sharp insight into the way insecurity can make us turn accomplishments, wealth, or people into idols that eventually destroy us. So, I’d say read it if you’re looking for some fabulous writing, but skip it if you’re looking for an uplifting plot.

Here are two of my favorite quotes:
“The lawn started at the beach and ran toward the front door for a quarter of a mile, jumping over sun-dials and brick walks and burning gardens — finally when it reached the house drifting up the side in bright vines as though from the momentum of its run. The front was broken by a line of French windows, glowing now with reflected gold and wide open to the warm windy afternoon, and Tom Buchanan in riding clothes was standing with his legs apart on the front porch.”

“[Gatsby] smiled understandingly—much more than understandingly. It was one of those rare smiles with a quality of eternal reassurance in it, that you may come across four or five times in life. It faced—or seemed to face—the whole eternal world for an instant, and then concentrated on you with an irresistible prejudice in your favor. It understood you just as far as you wanted to be understood, believed in you as you would like to believe in yourself, and assured you that it had precisely the impression of you that, at your best, you hoped to convey. Precisely at that point it vanished.”

Book Review: The Secret Chord

Secret ChordTitle: The Secret Chord

Author: Geraldine Brooks

Genre: Historical Fiction

Star Rating (out of 5): ***

This is clearly well-researched, with most of the events coming directly from the Biblical account of King David. It was interesting to read the events played out in more detail and imagine the emotions and motivations of the characters. However, in some ways the book felt flat. Large sections of David’s life are summarized as dialogue as people tell Nathan about David’s life so he could write his account, which makes them feel more remote. And some scenes really miss the massive amounts of emotion I think the individuals involved must have felt. It’s odd, because Brooks is a talented writer.

David, to me, is a hard character to understand. He is such a mix of wonderful and horrible choices, profound insight and complete blindness. Brooks doesn’t glorify him or gloss over his faults. The book is not PG rated any more than the Biblical account, which includes rape, incest, murder, adultery, and war. Tamar’s rape was especially painful to read. It is also worth noting that Brooks includes a homosexual relationship between David and Jonathan, which would have been a clear violation of Old Testament law.

Perhaps the saddest part of the book, however, is how absent God is from the narrative. There is no real exploration of how David was a “man after God’s own heart” or how his faith impacted his decisions.

So, while this book was a worthwhile read in helping visualize the events of David’s life, I’m afraid it fell flat for me in more areas than it succeeded.

Book Review: The House at Tyneford

House at TynefordTitle: The House at Tyneford

Author: Natasha Solomons

Genre: Historical Fiction

Star Rating (out of 5): ****

For: Fans of Kate Morton, Kristin Hannah, Downton Abbey

In the turmoil of 1938, 19-year-old Elise Landau’s Jewish parents determine it is not safe for her to remain in Vienna. In her broken English, Elise sends out an advertisement looking for a position as a housemaid, promising to “Cook your goose.” She is offered a position at a grand house in England, where the sparkling gaiety of her well-to-do life in Vienna quickly fades as she takes up her responsibilities as a lowly maid. Her parents have promised to send for her as soon as they can obtain visas to go to America, but as the days turn into weeks and months, Elise slowly realizes she may be trapped in her new status as an invisible servant and refugee.

The sedate pace of the household is rocked when the landowner’s son, Kit, returns. He offers to tutor Elise in English, and they strike up a friendship. When Kit enlists in the air force and the war begins to rage in the air above their once-quiet village, life at Tyneford begins an irrevocable change.

 

This book is beautifully written, with musical prose and fantastic character development. There is a scene near the end where the author describes a symphony written to commemorate a family that fell victim to the Holocaust–it is a spectacular piece of prose that showed the author’s obvious understanding of music’s ability to move our souls. As a musician myself, I felt the book was worth the read just for that scene.

The book has a sad but beautiful ache to it that resonated with me as the characters lives are irrevocably shaped by the events of WWII. Not everyone will like the ending, but I did.

One disclaimer: this is not a Christian book, and there is some premarital sex and descriptions of sexual fantasies that pushed the boundaries for me. Also some significant swearing. Really disappointing in what was otherwise a wonderful read.

Book Review: Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter, and Me

AoGGTitle: Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter and Me: What my favorite book taught me about grace, belonging, and the orphan in us all

Author: Lorilee Craker

Star Rating (out of 5): ****

For: Fans of the Anne books; anyone interested in adoption

I quite enjoyed this “literary memoir.” The author (who was adopted as a baby) weaves her story and the story of adopting her own daughter together with relevant parts of the Anne books. As the subtitle says, it ruminates on grace, belonging, and identity, and the prose is quite enjoyable–sometimes beautiful and sometimes laugh-out-loud funny. A great read for anyone who loves the Anne books, adoption, or both.

Note: Definitely better if you’ve read the Anne of Green Gables books or at least watched the movie. A lot of the book would probably be lost if the reader wasn’t familiar with Anne’s story.

Book Review: Catherine the Great–Portrait of a Woman

Catherine the GreatTitle: Catherine the Great–Portrait of a Woman

Author: Robert K. Massie

Genre: Biography, Russian History

For: Fans of history, influential women in history, Russia

Star Verdict (out of 5): ****

I’ve always been fascinated by Russian history, so I enjoyed this book. Catherine II is probably the only woman ruler whose reign can compare to Elizabeth I of England, but she is not as well known. She ruled the massive empire of Russia in the mid 1700s, around the time when America won its independence from Britain.

Her life was a whirlwind; from her birth as a poor German princess of a lesser house, to the wife of a physiologically disturbed emperor-to-be before she took the throne from him in a coup and ruled with impressive success until her death. She was a patron of the arts (accumulating much of the massive collection in the Hermitage today), a shrewd politician, oversaw the formation of Russia’s navy in what was formerly a land-locked country, was interested in Enlightenment ideals, established schools and orphanages, and was concerned with the injustices against the surfs a century before the slaves were freed in Britain or America (although she was not able to accomplish much on this front). The book does discuss the many lovers she had throughout her reign, but is never graphic or lurid.

This is a long book (650 pages) but it kept my attention; it might be a bit much for readers who are not as interested in Russia, but if you’re at all interested in Russia or powerful women in history I’d give it a try!

Book Review: Fairest – Levana’s Story (The Lunar Chronicles)

Fairest

Title: Fairest – Levana’s Story

Series: The Lunar Chronicles

Author: Marissa Meyer

Genre: Teen Fiction

Star Rating (out of 5): **

I really wanted to love this series, partly because I enjoyed the first book, Cinder, so much.  Cinder was creative, unique, and delightfully clean, with a selfless and smart heroine.  I was thrilled that the love interest, Prince Kai, was kind, thoughtful, and committed to his duties as a king.  He was a welcome relief from all the bad boys that are so popular in teen fiction.

My enjoyment of Cinder has made me even more disappointed as each book in this series (Scarlet, Cress, and now Fairest) has included more and more inappropriate content.

Fairest tells the back story of the series’ villain, Levana, queen of Luna, and her painful childhood, unmet desire to be loved, and rise as queen.  The first half of Fairest revolves around 15 year old Levana lusting after and attempting to seduce a happily married man who is ten years older than she is.  ***Spoiler warning*** (She eventually uses mind control to force him to sleep with her, in spite of his insistence that she is just a child and he does not love her) ***End Spoiler***  There are numerous references to her older sister’s many sexual encounters, including trying to seduce a bi-sexual man, and it is said that no one on Luna is monogamous anymore.  Meyer even goes so far as to talk about blood on the sheets the night Levana loses her virginity.

Another problematic issue in the series is violence: characters are stabbed, shot, have their throats cut, die in childbirth, are burnt alive, have their feet cut off, are maimed, scarred, lose eyes, etc.   Further disturbing is that a portion of this violence is done merely out the character’s sadistic desire to torture others.  True, this is the story of the villain, but does that make it content that we want our 13 year old daughters filling their minds with?

It’s sad and frustrating, because Meyer is a talented writer.  Her portrayal of Levana is very nuanced; you understand why she is the way she is in the series and pity her as much as you dislike her.  It could have been a great book to use to talk with teens about complex issues of how cruelty can be motivated by insecurity, the power of compassion and grace,  and what can happen when we choose to love unconditionally.  It is incomprehensible to me why Meyer chose to ruin the books with so much content that is wholly inappropriate for young girls.  So disappointing.