Book Review | Roger is Reading a Book by Koen Van Biesen

Shh! Quiet. Roger is reading. Roger is reading a book.

9780802854421If you have ever lived in an apartment or tried to read a book or attempted any task in the presence of small children, then you can relate to Roger is Reading a Book by Koen Van Biesen.

Published in English by Eerdmans Books for Young Readers, Van Biesen’s illustrated delight features the eponymous Roger trying to read while his neighbor, Emily, enjoys hobbies of her own–loud hobbies. The illustrations are simple and sumptuous, a combination of intricate line drawings and digital photography. The lines are repetitive but enjoyable and leave much of the action in the mind of the reader.

The message of the book is clear–in order to have a good neighbor, one must be a good neighbor. And that is a lesson that we can all stand to hear again, especially when it is expertly executed by a skillful wordsmith and illustrator.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, Josh is reading a book.

Book Review | You’re Not Doing It Right by Michael Ian Black

9781439167861I don’t remember when I first read Michael Ian Black’s essay “What I Would Be Thinking About If I Were Billy Joel Driving Toward a Holiday Party Where I Knew There Was Going to Be a Piano.” What I do remember is loving it. So when I happened upon Michael Ian Black’s book, You’re Not Doing It Right, I had to pick it up.

Michael Ian Black is a very famous actor, writer, husband and father. It doesn’t matter that you may not know who he is. In spite of his fame, Michael Ian Black’s experiences and humiliations are common to most men.

In fact, aside from being older, more famous, thinner, funnier, probably wealthier, and less religious, we could be twins. Well, also my parents didn’t divorce because my mom was a lesbian. They divorced for other reasons. But Michael Ian Black and I both experienced vertigo, so we’re essentially the same.

Black’s book, You’re Not Doing It Right, is a frank memoir of the actor’s life and failures. Imagine sneaking into your sibling’s bedroom and stealing their diary, that one labeled “Keep out!!! This means you!!” and taking into the bathroom (so you can lock the door behind you) and reading all of their secrets. If nothing else, you won’t be able to look at them in the same way thereafter. That’s what it is like to read this book, but in the best way possible.

Michael Ian Black’s book is nothing less than a sledgehammer for whatever pedestal you have put him on. It is an invitation to stop feeling crazy and know that there are people (even very famous people) who struggle with selfishness in marriage, frustrations in parenting, and relationships in general.

True, it was utterly unlike any memoir that might have passed my desk at a Christian publishing house, but that is one of the reasons that I read it. If you can get past some colorful language and a potentially sordid history (let’s be honest, none of us are proud of every part of our history), you can’t go wrong with You’re Not Doing It Right.

Book Review | Edda by Adam Auerbach

Have you ever had an idea for something, and then you go to the store and find that thing on the shelf, even though you’ve never seen that thing available before? I had a very similar experience recently at my local library.

I’ve been toying with the idea of writing books for kids featuring the legendary characters of Norse mythology for a little while now. I just love the tales. As they inspired J.R.R. Tolkien to create Middle Earth, and C.S. Lewis to dig into his spirituality, they inspire me with their depth and insight into the human condition (even though they focus primarily on gods and goddesses).

9780805097030And then Adam Auerbach beat me to it. And worse, he did it in a really cute and fun way.

Edda tells the tale of a young Valkyrie from Asgard and her decision to attend school on Earth. But things couldn’t be more different between the life that she is used to among the gods and the rules that she has to follow in the classroom. Using the imagery of Norse legend, Auerbach expertly captures the struggle of all children to adapt to the differences between home life and school life.

This is a perfect book for parents of children who are about to enter school. It is also the perfect book for people who appreciate Norse mythology. Edda is slightly less than the perfect book for people who cannot yet read, but it is still really good because the illustrations are quite endearing.

So instead of pouting about the fact that Auerbach wrote a great book using my beloved characters, I’m going to be encouraged and say that there’s a market for the type of books that I want to write.

Now I just need to learn how to illustrate.

5 Reasons to Read Wonder by R. J. Palacio

9780375869020I just finished reading Wonder by R. J. Palacio and it has all the hallmarks of a modern classic. This will be a book that will be taught in schools for many years to come. As To Kill a Mockingbird talks about racism, Wonder talks about being bullied, all with the same childhood innocence.

August Pullman introduces himself thus:

I won’t describe what I look like. Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.

Wonder tells the story of August’s first year in a public school. I can’t recommend this book highly enough. And because my wife loves lists, I’m going to give you five reasons to read it.

  1. August Pullman is not easy on the eyes. I can name on one hand the books that feature an ugly protagonist, but I can name hundreds of real people who don’t fit into the “attractive” category (No, not you dear blog reader. Other people, obviously). That sets this book apart and encourages the reader to see life from the viewpoint of undesirability.
  2. We see August’s story unfold from multiple characters in order to understand him even more than he understands himself. When books provide multiple points of view, they usually do so to include subplots and adventures in which not all of the characters are involved. Wonder moves the plot between characters, but it is the same adventure. We get to see the feelings of each character as they interact with August.
  3. Though the message of the book is clear, it does not preach. If I feel that a book is written with an agenda in mind, I will probably not finish the book. Most books that have a message are unreadable because the author will give more importance to the message than to the characters or the plot. With Wonder, R. J. Palacio makes us fall in love with the characters, and out of this love is borne the message.
  4. By the end of the first chapter, you are rooting for August. Though the majority of the world will never have to experience the rejection and loathing that Auggie does, we can all relate in some way to his struggle. August feels real. Maybe because we’re all lending him a bit of our own self-loathing and we want to see him overcome it. Because if he can overcome his messed up face, maybe we can overcome our struggles.
  5. I honestly couldn’t guess how it was going to end. It was either going to be beautifully hopeful or beautifully tragic, and either one would have been good with me. But I’m not going to tell you how it ends, because you really need to read it for yourself.

Book Review | The Baker Book House Story by Ann Byle

This coming weekend, I’ll be attending the Baker Book House staff appreciation party with my wife. I’ve been working for the bookstore for a full 10 years now, and I can’t imagine working for a better business.

9780801016585In my time at Baker, I’ve picked up on bits of trivia here and there, but I never knew the full story of the company prior to reading Ann Byle’s book, The Baker Book House Story. And it is a really good story.

Starting as a used book shop during the Great Depression, Herman Baker’s bookstore has grown to become a destination bookstore as well as one of the top Christian publishers in the world. Through it all, Baker Book House and Baker Publishing Group have remained family owned and loyal to the ideals of their founder.

I know that books like this don’t have a wide appeal to people who either don’t work for the company or who are unfamiliar with Christian publishing, but I really think this is a good book on its own merit.

Reading The Baker Book House Story has impressed upon me the great honor that it is to work for the Baker family. If you live in West Michigan, appreciate a good success story, or simply want an uplifting, quick read, pick it up and spend a pleasant afternoon with your nose in this book.

And if you just happen to start shopping at my bookstore more loyally afterward, I couldn’t blame you.

Book Review | The Hero’s Lot

9780764210440In novels, as in life, no good deed goes unpunished.

The Hero’s Lot, second in The Staff & The Sword series, picks up right where A Cast of Stones left off. Fresh from rescuing the kingdom, Errol Stone is arrested and given a likely death sentence. Compelled to travel deep into enemy territory and kill a nearly-omniscient foe, Errol assembles a band of Illustra’s finest warriors. Adventure ensues.

Author, Patrick W. Carr, has hit his stride. Having developed the characters in A Cast of Stones, Carr is free to expand the scope of the story, revealing new races and ancient history. The tension grows throughout and readers will grow to love the world that Carr creates. This book could easily have been twice as long and no one would have complained.

In fact, my only complaint is that I have to wait until February 2014 for the next book (A Draw of Kings) to release.

Though published by a Christian publisher and with specific theological parallels, The Staff & The Sword series stands on its own merit as worthy of reading. In fact, some conservative folk may have issue with the amount of violence and substance abuse within these books. But readers willing to take a chance on this new author will be rewarded with a tale of redemption fraught with true-to-life struggles against the powers that control us. All without being preachy, which is nice.

If you haven’t read A Cast of Stones, do that first, but follow it quickly with The Hero’s Lot. Chances are good that you will have just found a new favorite author.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Read my review for A Cast of Stones here.

Alone Yet Not Alone | Dove Review

9780310730538I recently did another book review for the Dove Foundation. If you aren’t familiar with Dove, they rate movies and books for family friendliness. If you aren’t sure whether something you want to watch or read is appropriate for you or your youngsters, just pop over to dove.org and look it up!

The latest review was for Alone Yet Not Alone by Tracy Leininger Craven. You can read it here!

Book Review | A Cast of Stones

9781441261021A Cast of Stones, first in The Staff & The Sword series by new author, Patrick W. Carr, is a lot like I was in high school. After a bad first impression, Carr’s first novel needed a little time to explain itself before it won me over. But it did win me over in the end.

A Cast of Stones is set in the fantastic Illustra, a land ruled by the crown, the church, and the conclave of readers. With easily-spotted ties to our own world, Illustra is a land in crisis. The king nears the end of his days without leaving an heir. The conclave charged with approving the future king is shrinking rapidly due to unknown assassinations. And the church has been infiltrated by the very powers it seeks to thwart.

Enter Errol Stone, an orphan addicted to ale who may just be the kingdom’s only hope. To be honest, it took me a full third of the book before I found Errol to be worth rooting for. Then again, Luke Skywalker isn’t likeable in Star Wars until at least Episode 5: The Empire Strikes Back.

Being his first novel, Carr should be alotted a certain amount of grace. He crafts some great passages, but there are a few places where I was pulled out of the narrative by details that probably should have been caught by an editor. The plot follows the traditional hero’s journey, but twists in elements unique to Illustra.

For those willing to push past the first third of the book, A Cast of Stones will capture your interest and leave you waiting for the next installment with bated breath.

Book Review | The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart

Quite some time ago, I reviewed the first book in the Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy. You can read that here.

Today, I’m reviewing the prequel to that series, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict by Trenton Lee Stewart.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

9780316176194Start with a gifted orphan. Add in a few bullies, a few misguided adults, and a treasure hunt. Though the situation may be familiar, Trenton Lee Stewart enriches it to become a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Nicholas Benedict has bounced around from orphanage to orphanage, each worse than the last. When Nicholas is placed in The Manor, his hopes for a better life are quickly met with a cell-like bedroom and a less-than-welcoming welcome party, the bullies known as the Spiders. But locked doors and mean kids are no match for the wits of our narcoleptic hero, and soon Nicholas is hot on the trail of a treasure. With the aid of a new friend (and only friend), Nicholas follows the clues to uncover what he hopes will be the start of a new and better life on his own. Along the way, Nicholas learns about family, selfishness, and what is truly worth treasuring in life.

My favorite parts of The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict reflect what I appreciated in the Mysterious Benedict Society trilogy. And that is that we, the reader, get to see how different characters solve problems. Climbing inside the head of Nicholas Benedict as a child allows the reader to guess how problems might be solved, bullies outwitted, and talents used, albeit not always for good. Stewart creates a wholly likeable cast of main characters, again providing back stories that help us relate to them.

That said, there were a few things that I did not enjoy as much as in his trilogy. As is often the case with YA Fiction, the adults are generally written as either stupid or silly with few exceptions. Many of the secondary characters suffer from being one-dimensional, acting predictably and not exactly true to life. And the thing I liked least was the author’s use of deux ex machina to solve the final problem. For being a story about a genius problem solver, the author might have woven in a better thread with which to solve the final problem. One last, little thing was that the author repeated the fact that Nicholas had a near perfect memory so many times that I wondered if he thought his readers had near goldfish-level memories and would have forgotten this fact.

As it was, The Extraordinary Education of Nicholas Benedict was a story well told and well worth reading. I look forward to Stewart’s future books and hope to learn from them as I have from these.

Dove Review | The Summer of the Wolves

As I mentioned before, I am a freelance reviewer for the Dove Foundation, an organization whose goal is:

to encourage and promote the creation, production, distribution and consumption of wholesome family entertainment.

This includes books.

So far, I have reviewed one book for the Dove Foundation. That book is Lisa Williams Kline’s Summer of the Wolves, the first in her Sisters in All Seasons series.

Read the review here.