Review: To Know Christ Jesus

To Know Christ JesusFrank Sheed, To Know Christ Jesus

“This modern spiritual classic by Frank Sheed, the renowned author, publisher and lecturer, is brought back into print for the benefit of new generations of readers to develop a deeper, more profound knowledge of Jesus Christ. Sheed’s concern with the Gospels is to come to know Christ as he actually lived among us, interacted with all the various people he encountered from his infancy to his passion and death–the God-man who was like us in all things except sin. Sheed has tried especially to see Our Lord in his effect upon others–seeing how they saw him, trying to see why they saw him so. There is much about Mary and Joseph in their task of bringing up a baby who was literally adorable; about John the Baptist; about Mary of Bethany and Mary Magdalen; about Nicodemus; about people we meet only for a moment, like the man born blind and the owners of the drowned swine; and why the Pharisees, not only the worst of them but some of the best, would not accept Christ. Faith, doctrine, prayer, worship–all the content and consequences of Christian belief–rest on the person of Christ Jesus as recorded in the Gospels.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

This book does pretty much what it says on the tin: it examines Jesus’s life and teachings as recorded in the four gospels. I really appreciated this deep dive into Scripture, and it definitely gave me a lot to think about. Sheed discusses the historical context of Jesus’s life, including the Roman occupation of Palestine, background on the Pharisees and Sadducees, and contemporary expectations of who the Messiah would be. He also interprets Jesus’s words about the “kingdom of God” in a very interesting and (to me) unique way. This book is definitely written from a Catholic perspective, which may annoy other Christian readers, but I think the focus on the Biblical text would be appreciated by Christians of all denominations. Overall, I would recommend this book to Christian readers and think it might make good supplemental material for a Bible study.

Review: Unapologetic

UnapologeticFrancis Spufford, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense

“Francis Spufford’s Unapologetic is a wonderfully pugnacious defense of Christianity. Refuting critics such as Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and the “new atheist” crowd, Spufford, a former atheist and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, argues that Christianity is recognizable, drawing on the deep and deeply ordinary vocabulary of human feeling, satisfying those who believe in it by offering a ruthlessly realistic account of the grown-up dignity of Christian experience.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

A coworker recommended this book for my Lenten spiritual reading project, and I honestly had no idea what to expect, but I ended up liking it quite a bit. As the summary blurb indicates, Spufford is in some sense responding to popular atheist writers like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens; so the book’s tone is conversational, informal, and peppered with swear words. Spufford isn’t concerned with making logical arguments in favor of Christianity. Rather, he describes how it fulfills people’s emotional needs in a way that (in his opinion) modern secular culture doesn’t. I liked the premise and found the book a quick, enjoyable read. It doesn’t go into very much depth about Christian theology, but that might make it more accessible to a secular audience.

Review: God or Nothing

God or NothingRobert Cardinal Sarah and Nicolas Diat, God or Nothing: A Conversation on Faith (trans. Michael J. Miller)

“In this fascinating autobiographical interview, one of the most prominent and outspoken Catholic Cardinals gives witness to his Christian faith and comments on many current controversial issues. The mission of the Church, the joy of the gospel, the heresy of activism , and the definition of marriage are among the topics he discusses with wisdom and eloquence.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

I read this as part of my Lenten spiritual reading project, but I must say, it isn’t quite what I expected. I thought it would focus on theology and Christian living, but it reads much more like a memoir or autobiography. I did find the story of Cardinal Sarah’s life fascinating; he was born in a small village in Guinea, was educated by French missionary priests, and eventually joined the priesthood himself. I was especially interested in his time as a bishop, during which he often came into conflict with the Communist regime of Sékou Touré. Ultimately, I think this is a good read for people who are interested in the history of postcolonial Africa and/or the institutional history of the Catholic Church. But it’s not great for devotional reading or for learning more about Catholic doctrine.

Review: Reflections on the Psalms

Reflections on the PsalmsC.S. Lewis, Reflections on the Psalms

“In this wise and enlightening book, C. S. Lewis—the great British writer, scholar, lay theologian, broadcaster, Christian apologist, and bestselling author of Mere Christianity, The Screwtape Letters, The Great Divorce, The Chronicles of Narnia, and many other beloved classics—examines the Psalms. As Lewis divines the meaning behind these timeless poetic verses, he makes clear their significance in our daily lives, and reminds us of their power to illuminate moments of grace.” (Summary from Amazon.com.)

As the title indicates, this book is a collection of C.S. Lewis’s reflections on the psalms. His thoughts aren’t presented in a systematic way; he doesn’t go through every psalm in order, for example. Instead, he discusses some themes that struck him personally in his reading and prayer. The end result is somewhat disjointed — I think this is one of Lewis’s lesser-known works for a reason — but I still found plenty of food for thought. His ideas about some of the psalms’ more surprising elements, such as the cursing of one’s enemies, make a lot of sense. He also discusses how 20th-century Christian interpretations might differ from (or, from his perspective, enhance) the psalmists’ original intention. Overall, I’m glad I read this, especially since Psalms is one of my favorite books in the Bible, but I’d recommend that newcomers to Lewis start elsewhere.

Mini-reviews: Winter, Wed, Spy

Winter in JuneKathryn Miller Haines, Winter in June

In this installment of the Rosie Winter series, Rosie and her best pal Jayne have joined the USO, and they’re headed for the South Pacific to entertain the troops. There, Rosie gets involved in various forms of trouble, from disagreements with the local WAAC corps to mysterious thefts of military supplies to an inevitable murder investigation. In the meantime, she’s also looking for her ex-boyfriend Jack, who was rumored to have resurfaced in the South Pacific. It’s been years since I read the first two books in this series, and I think I’ve just lost my taste for it. I couldn’t remember who one character was at all, although he was apparently a big part of the first book. And I didn’t find Rosie consistent as a character, although I did still find her voice fairly enjoyable. I’ll read the fourth and final book in this series, just to see how everything turns out, but this series is not a keeper for me.

Someone to WedMary Balogh, Someone to Wed

Wren Hayden longs for the companionship of marriage, but a “disfiguring” birthmark on her face has led her to become a recluse. Nevertheless, she thinks her large fortune might be enough to induce someone to marry her. Alexander Westcott has unexpectedly inherited an earldom, along with the debts and huge financial responsibilities that go with it. He knows he must marry a rich wife, but Wren’s forthright proposal shocks and troubles him. He agrees to test the waters, hoping that at least friendship and respect can grow between them. But can Wren overcome her insecurities and be open to the possibility of a real relationship? I really felt for Wren in this book, and I liked that she and Alex aren’t immediately attracted to one another. In fact, he has to overcome some revulsion — not so much from the birthmark, but from Wren’s cold demeanor toward him. Their relationship is not romanticized, if that makes sense; it felt plausible and real. Another winner from Balogh!

Spy Wore RedAline, Countess of Romanones, The Spy Wore Red

This is a fast-paced, entertaining memoir that reads more like a spy thriller. Aline Griffith was a young woman working as a model in New York, when a chance encounter with a US intelligence operative propelled her into the world of espionage. The book covers her training and her first assignment in Spain, where she must get close to various people suspected of being German spies. The narrative has everything an espionage lover could wish for: code names, double agents, assassination attempts, and even a bullfight or two! Highly recommended for people who like spy novels or who are interested in WW2-era intelligence work.

Review: The Napoleon of Crime

Napoleon of CrimeBen Macintyre, The Napoleon of Crime: The Life and Times of Adam Worth, Master Thief

Ben Macintyre’s enthusiasm for larger-than-life historical figures is evident once again in this biography of Adam Worth, one of the most notorious thieves and con artists of the late 19th century. Worth began his criminal career as a pickpocket but soon established himself as a gang leader, gaining notoriety through planning a series of successful bank jobs. Eventually Worth set up shop in London, where he created a public persona as a wealthy English gentleman, which he was able to maintain for decades even while continuing his criminal activities. His crowning achievement was the theft of Gainsborough’s famous portrait of Georgiana, Duchess of Devonshire. Worth’s criminal genius, plus his short stature, prompted a Scotland Yard detective to dub him the “Napoleon of the criminal world” — a phrase famously used to describe the ultimate fictional criminal mastermind, Sherlock Holmes’s nemesis Moriarty.

I’m a big fan of Ben Macintyre’s books about World War II-era espionage, so I was excited to try this book even though it has a different subject matter. I’m not sure if it was the different focus or the fact that I was extremely busy in real life at the time, but I just couldn’t get into this book the same way I did with Operation Mincemeat, for example. I think Macintyre overstates his thesis, which is that Worth was the real-life inspiration for Moriarty; the evidence that exists really doesn’t seem very conclusive. Also, he focuses a lot on Worth’s theft of the Gainsborough painting and engages in some psychological speculation about Worth’s supposed obsession, which according to Macintyre had a sexual component. In this area, there really seems to be NO evidence supporting the book’s claims! I did find the interactions between Worth and William Pinkerton (yes, one of those Pinkertons) to be very interesting and would have loved the book to focus more on that relationship. Overall, the book is entertaining enough, but I didn’t like it as much as I expected to.

Review: You Need a Budget

You Need a BudgetJesse Mecham, You Need a Budget: The Proven System for Breaking the Paycheck-to-Paycheck Cycle, Getting Out of Debt, and Living the Life You Want

In this book, Jesse Mecham, the creator of YouNeedABudget.com, gives an overview of his budgeting system and — perhaps more importantly — his philosophy of budgeting. His four main budgeting principles are (1) give every dollar a job, (2) embrace your true expenses, (3) roll with the punches, and (4) age your money. Using anecdotes from his own life and from users of the YNAB software, Mecham explains these principles in depth and describes how they can help people get out of debt, stop living paycheck to paycheck, and save money for the priorities that matter most to them.

This book felt very accessible to me (a person who is relatively ignorant of all things finance); it’s a quick read, not at all technical, and it offers a very big-picture look at why budgeting is important. I was struck by this quote from the beginning of the book: “[M]oney is not the point, not the end goal. In truth, when we’re stressed about our finances, it’s because we’re not sure our money decisions are aligned with the life we want to be living.” Mecham’s point, which really resonated with me, is that budgeting is about putting your money toward the goals and priorities that really matter to you. I definitely got a lot out of this book and found it very useful in preparing my own budget going forward. I’d recommend this to people who feel like they should be doing more with their money but don’t know quite where to start.

Mini-Reviews: Girl, Prince, Single, Throne

Who's That Girl?Prince in Disguise

Mhairi McFarlane, Who’s That Girl? — This novel follows Edie, a young professional whose personal and professional lives are simultaneously ruined when she attends her coworkers’ wedding and the groom spontaneously kisses her. Of course, everyone blames Edie for the catastrophe, so her sympathetic boss sends her on a remote assignment to ghostwrite the autobiography of a hot young actor. The book is primarily a romance, but it also spends a lot of time on Edie’s dysfunctional family and on her growth as an individual. For me, this is another winner by Mhairi McFarlane, and I eagerly await her next book.

Stephanie Kate Strohm, Prince in Disguise — Sixteen-year-old Dylan has always felt invisible beside her beautiful older sister, Dusty. And when Dusty — a Miss America competitor — falls in love with a genuine Scottish lord, she becomes the subject of a reality TV show that documents their courtship. Dylan is less than thrilled about being constantly followed by cameras, even if it does mean she gets to spend Christmas in Scotland. But when she meets an adorably geeky British boy, things start to look up…until the drama (both real and manufactured) surrounding the TV show threatens to ruin everything. If you like your contemporary romance with British accents, secret passageways, and kissing in barns, this is definitely the book for you! In a word, it’s adorable, and I’d definitely recommend it to fans of YA contemporaries!

Note: this book is one of the ARCs I picked up at Book Expo America, and the projected publication date is December 19.

It's Not You- 27 (Wrong) Reasons You're SingleBehind the Throne

Sara Eckel, It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single — If you’re a single woman over a certain age, chances are you’ve received a lot of well-meaning advice about how to find a mate: “You’re too picky.” “You’re too independent.” “You have low self-esteem.” The problem with this advice, according to Eckel, is that it assumes there is something wrong with you, when in reality, meeting the right person is largely a matter of luck. You can increase your odds by, say, participating in group activities that you enjoy, putting more effort into your appearance, or joining an online dating site. But none of this can guarantee that you’ll meet your match. Ultimately, Eckel’s point is that there is nothing wrong with you; you just haven’t met the right person yet. It’s a consoling message, and the writing is often witty and relatable, so I’d recommend the book for its target demographic.

K.B. Wagers, Behind the Throne — Hail Bristol has spent the past several years making a name for herself as one of the toughest, most dangerous gunrunners in the galaxy. But she’s actually a runaway princess of the Indranan Empire, and when her sisters are assassinated by unknown perpetrators, Hail becomes the reluctant heir to the throne. To do her duty, she must return to her home planet and familiarize herself with Indrana’s political situation and the intrigues of the court. She soon realizes that this job may be her toughest one yet. I found this to be an entertaining sci-fi novel, but I didn’t become invested enough in the characters to really love it. I do think the world building is very creative, and the political intrigue is compelling. Overall, this was a good but not great book for me.

Mini-Reviews #2: May books

Still behind on reviews, so here’s a batch of minis for the books I read in May!

Spy Among Friends, AOne Perfect Day

Ben Macintyre, A Spy Among Friends: Kim Philby and the Great Betrayal — Guys, if you’re at all interested in espionage in the 20th century, you need to read Ben Macintyre! This is a fascinating stranger-than-fiction account of Kim Philby, an old-school English gentleman who rose to an extremely high position in the Secret Service while actually being a spy for the USSR.

Rebecca Mead, One Perfect Day: The Selling of the American Wedding — Mead, a British journalist, examines the contemporary American wedding from a sociological and monetary perspective. If you enjoy weddings but suspect they’ve gone off the rails in recent years decades–particularly in the ever-inflating costs for both the couple getting married and their guests–you’ll find a lot of interesting material here.

Vinegar GirlRaven King, TheLike Water for Chocolate

Anne Tyler, Vinegar Girl — First there was The Austen Project, for which six famous contemporary authors tried their hand at updating the novels of Jane Austen. Now Hogarth Shakespeare is doing a similar project with the Bard’s plays, with Vinegar Girl being a retelling of The Taming of the Shrew. Judging it as a novel, I found it a very pleasant read, albeit not particularly original or memorable. But I didn’t think it was a particularly good retelling of The Taming of the Shrew! So whether you enjoy the book will probably depend on what you’re looking for.

Maggie Stiefvater, The Raven King — If you love the series, you’ll love the ending! I thought certain plot elements were resolved a bit too abruptly, but the heart of the book–the relationships between Blue, Gansey, Ronan, Adam, and Noah–remains true. I was also torn on the addition of Henry Cheng as a character. First of all, I should say that I LOVED Henry Cheng! (Maybe he could have his own book? More Henry Cheng, please!) But part of me felt like the book was already crowded enough between the five main players and all the people at Fox Way. Be that as it may, I found this book to be a deeply satisfying ending to a wonderful series. If you love fantasy, you definitely need to read it!

Laura Esquivel, Like Water for Chocolate (trans. Carol Christensen and Thomas Christensen) — I’d heard a lot of good things about this book; people are always mentioning magical realism and comparing it to Sarah Addison Allen’s books (which I love). But ultimately, it didn’t do much for me. I felt sorry for Tita, doomed to take care of her bullying mother and remain unmarried while the love of her life marries her sister. But I also found the entire situation entirely too melodramatic, and the supernatural elements didn’t charm me. Overall, a disappointing read.

Mini-Reviews #1: Readathon leftovers

It’s pretty obvious that I haven’t spent much time on this blog lately. *blush* What can I say — life has been busy for the past couple of months, and when I’ve had free time, I’ve preferred to spend it doing other things (like reading!). As a result, I have a pretty huge backlog of books that I haven’t written about yet, and the thought of sitting down to compose a full review for each one is incredibly daunting. So, rather than continuing to avoid the task, I’ve decided to do three batches of mini-reviews — just titles and authors of the books I’ve been reading, along with a couple of sentences expressing my opinions. Once I catch up, I plan to go back to my regular style of reviewing. But for now, here are mini-reviews for the books I read during April’s 24-hour readathon:

Love, Lies and SpiesAs If!

Cindy Anstey, Love, Lies and Spies — A fun, lighthearted bit of Regency fluff for those who enjoy YA historical romance. I found the spy storyline weak, and the romance wasn’t quite compelling for me — Georgette Heyer, this is not! But it’s a pleasant enough read for fans of the genre.

Jen Chaney, As If! The Oral History of Clueless as Told by Amy Heckerling, the Cast, and the Crew — This book will only appeal to people who really love the movie “Clueless” and who are fascinated by behind-the-scenes movie knowledge. Fortunately, I fall within this demographic, so I really enjoyed the book!

Hermit of Eyton Forest, TheAlways the BridesmaidWhy Not Me?

Ellis Peters, The Hermit of Eyton Forest — Full disclosure: this installment of the Brother Cadfael series features a male character called Hyacinth. But I still love this series about a 12th-century Benedictine monk who solves crimes! (Who wouldn’t?)

Lindsey Kelk, Always the Bridesmaid — Entertaining British chick lit about a young woman named Maddie whose two best friends are at opposite ends of the romantic spectrum: one just got engaged, while the other is getting divorced. My friend pointed out that Maddie is a huge pushover, which she (my friend) found irritating. While I think that’s a fair criticism, I ultimately enjoyed the book for  its humor and romance, so I’d definitely read more by this author.

Mindy Kaling, Why Not Me? — I think Mindy Kaling is very talented and hilarious, and this book had me giggling pretty much nonstop. I like that she isn’t preachy, she’s very self-aware, and she doesn’t apologize for her confidence (some might say arrogance). As she says in the book, there’s nothing wrong with being confident — as long as you’ve put in the hard work to back it up. Bottom line: if you like Mindy Kaling, you’ll like this book.