Book Review 51: Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

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It has been interesting as a book review blogger to see what books you gravitate towards in posting a review. I have noticed in the couple of years of doing these reviews that you choose some books and some books choose you.

That was the scenario for Bel Canto by Ann Patchett.

I heard her interviewed on the Book Lust podcast last year and the host was asking Ms. Patchett questions about her latest novel, State of Wonder, when the host mentioned to the author that Bel Canto was one of her favorite novels. The host’s genuine enthusiasm about Bel Canto changed the entire interview and I sensed that Ms. Patchett appreciated her passion for that novel.  I knew I would read and review Bel Canto after that interview.

Bel Canto was loosely based on the Lima Hostage Crisis of December 1996. Where members of a revolutionary guerrilla movement took hostage of high-level diplomats, government and military officials, and business executives who were attending a party at the official residence of Japan’s ambassador to Peru, Morihisa Aoki, in celebration of Emperor Akihito’s 63rd birthday.

Ms. Patchett’s version left the country unnamed and the birthday party was for a wealthy businessman, Mr. Hosokawa. The home belonged to the vice president of this unnamed South American country and the hook of the novel revolved around Roxanne Coss, opera’s most revered soprano who performed at birthday party per request by Mr. Hosokawa. The businessman loved opera and the only reason he would have came to this unnamed country because his favorite opera singer was performing at the party.

The guerrilla fighters took hostage of the residence because they thought the president of the unnamed country would be attendance for the birthday party. And if they could have taken the president as a hostage, all of their demands for freedom and overthrowing the government would be realized. However, the president did not attend the birthday party and they decided to keep everyone else as hostages.

The strength of Bel Canto was the characters and their interaction with each other under this extreme situation. Patchett created a colorful, multicultural cast of characters (Russians, Italians, Americans, Japanese, Swedes, & Germans) that grabbed my attention and made it a fascinating read.

Roxanne Coss was definitely a “diva” in a stereotypical sense but after an incident early in their captivity, she began to reveal a warmth to her personalty that belied her ‘world renowed opera singer’ persona. Mr. Hosowoka grew as well and learned the meaning of love in an entire new way. Even of the some guerrilla fighters showed their humanity and reading the story made you hope for a different outcome to their eventual fate.

Most of all, Bel Canto was a romance novel in the best sense of that genre. It seemed that the novelist was asking the question, does love really conquer all?  I would write that Patchett gave a definitive answer to that question in this story.  But, I didn’t quite agree with it.

That will not stop me from writing from how much I enjoyed reading Bel Canto and would recommend the novel be added to your reading piles and discussed at your book clubs.

I’m pleased that Bel Canto chose me to read and review this fascinating story of crisis, opera, and ultimately of love and romance.

 

 

Book Review 50: Why Jesus? by Ravi Zacharias

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I must admit I did not think my first review for 2014 would be a non-fiction book. Since I tend to read more fiction than non-fiction and all my reviews reflect that truth.  Anyway, there is always a book that jumps out at you and asks to be read and reviewed.  Why Jesus by Ravi Zacharias is such a book.

Also, I have one more admission to make before I get into the review.  Ravi Zacharias is my favorite Christian apologist.  I’ve hesitated in reviewing this book because I didn’t want to have my objectivity compromised by someone you truly respect and admire.  However, I believe in reading this book has been this best thing for me because you still have to judge the book on its own merits and not about your personal feelings towards the author.

Zacharias tackles one of the biggest themes currently in Western Spirituality.  The subtitle of the book (Rediscovering His Truth In An Age of Mass Marketed Spirituality) covers a wide ground and Zacharias does an admirable job in presenting his argument for Christianity.

He explains how the New Age Movement got spiritual lineage from Eastern pantheistic religions like Buddhism, Hinduism, and Taoism.  The attractiveness of those religions have been craftily repackaged for Westerners who are seeking spirituality away from Christianity.

Zacharias argues that all religions are not the same and have exclusive tenets for their believers.  However, one of the effective marketing methods of the New Age Movement is that you can have spirituality without the religious and theological dogma of monotheistic religions like Christianity, Judaism, and Islam.

I heard him speak about this book recently and he wanted to title the book From Oprah to Chopra.  But, the publisher decided against it and went with the aforementioned title. Zacharias devotes a couple chapters to Oprah Winfrey and Deepak Chopra and I feel that non-Christian believers would read those chapters and see him attacking them for their embracing of New Age Spirituality.

However, I thought in reading those chapters were worth the entire price of the book.  Zacharias shows quite a bit of sympathy towards Oprah while bringing up strong arguments against some of the beliefs she had incorporated on her TV show.  While he does go after Chopra quite strong for some his views, Zacharias argues point-by-point against those beliefs in a fair manner.

What reading Why Jesus reveals  that most people have a spiritual hunger inside and are determined to seek it.  Now that we have a religious supermarket where people can choose some of this religion and a little bit of that religion unfortunately misses the mark.  Zacharias reveals that all religions have a worldview and to create a gumbo spirituality will truly not make you spiritual or religious.

In closing, I would like to write as a Christian reading and reviewing a book like this one does affirm and strength my faith.  That’s easy.  However, I believe that non-believers should give a book like this one a try. Because it isn’t always about affirmation but information.  Even though you may not believe in Christanity. Whatever your beliefs are have an origin and worldview they subscribe to. At least one should have some kind of knowledge on where your beliefs come from.

Also, I would like to write that I studied Taoism and practice Astrology before I became a Christian.  I have always been a searcher for spiritual truth and it has led down some interesting paths.  And reading a book like Why Jesus shows that knowledge and truth about different faiths is needed in order to satisfy the spiritual hunger that man has always had.

I give Why Jesus by Ravi Zacharias a highly recommended rating and a good start to my reading and reviewing year in 2014.

Wisdom of Kammbia 3.32: Favorite Reads of 2013

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Another year has come and gone and I’ve read and reviewed 16 books for the blog in 2013.  I had a good year reading and looking forward to a better reading year in 2014.

Here’s my favorites in 2013: (click on the title to read that book’s review)

1) Gilead by Marilynne Robinson

2) Captives (The Safe Lands Book 1) by Jill Williamson

3) Cold Fire by Dean Koontz

4) Middle Passage by Charles Johnson

5) A Mind to Murder by P.D. James

6) The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith AKA JK Rowling

7) Gray Matters by Brett McCracken

8) All God’s Children & Blue Suede Shoes by Ken Myers

9) The Disappeared by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

10) Extremes by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

11) The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

So what were you favorite reads of 2013?

Book Review 49: The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman

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One of the things, I have tried to do as a book reviewer for this blog is to read fiction outside of my comfort zone. I believe it’s important to stretch your reading experience and grow as a reader in the process. It’s too easy to only read in the genre you are comfortable with and never leave your favorite reading neighborhood.

I get this sensibility from my love of music.  I can go from Pop to Old School R &B to Gospel to Jazz to Salsa and to Rock when I’m listening to music.  But, in the literary world there’s an unwritten rule that if you only read Science-Fiction and Fantasy, then you must stay there as a reader.  Or if you only read Christian Fiction you better not read Secular Fiction.  I must admit I do not understand that unwritten rule.

My hope is that readers would take more chances on reading outside of their favorite genre.  What’s the risk? You may not like it.  I’m sure there are books in your preferred genre that you have not liked.  I want to spend time reading things I comfortable with.  Well, being comfortable can make you stale and doesn’t challenge you.  What’s wrong with being uncomfortable and getting challenged once in awhile?  I know there are plenty of reasons (excuses) for reading the same old thing.  We only live once, right?

Sorry for getting on my soapbox, but after reading The Ice Queen by Alice Hoffman brought those thoughts from the prior paragraphs to mind. I had not read anything by Hoffman before and I had heard about her reputation as being one of the best contemporary novelists working today.

I saw this novel in the local used bookstore here in San Antonio and picked up from the shelf.  The cover intrigued me and I read the blurb and decided to make it my last read and review for 2013.

What if you were struck by lightning? How would that affect you emotionally? Would you try to find comfort or solace in others who had the same fate? Would you open yourself up to love? How would treat your family and friends?

All of those questions are answered in the story. The novel is narrated by unnamed woman who has been struck by lightning in her home state of New Jersey. She grew up with a distant mother and had a lukewarm relationship with her older brother.  Because of those family relationships, the narrator was dubbed the nickname, The Ice Queen.

However, she decides to move to Florida after her ordeal in order to become closer to her brother, who has become a professor at a local university. Also, Florida is the lightning capital of America and her brother is doing research into lightning-strike victims.  (I’m a native Floridian and this was another reason why I chose to read this book.)

The narrator meets another lightning-strike victim named Lazarus Jones. The two have a passionate romance but she begins to find out that Lazarus may not be whom he said he was originally. The narrator learns a lot about herself through this affair and begins a process of character growth because of it.

Also, there is an event with the narrator’s brother that begins to bring the two closer together.  The brother remembers reading fairy tales to the narrator while growing up and that bond becomes an important discovery as he is dealing with this event in his own life.

The Ice Queen is a beautifully written, well-told story of a woman’s transformation after tragedy.  Also, Hoffman shows the role of fairy tales and how the power of story could be used as a healing balm.  I would recommend The Ice Queen and it was a good way to end my reading year of 2013.

Book Review 48: Extremes by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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What happens when a rogue scientist decides she wants to kill an entire moon city with a virus in order to create her own version of a superhuman race? That question is the basic plot of Extremes by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.  Extremes is the second novel in the multi-genre Retrieval Artist Series.

Miles Flint has become a retrieval artist after quitting the police force in the first book of the series, The DisappearedRetrieval Artists are basically intergalactic bounty hunters that track down people who have disappeared in order to escape punishment from the human-alien societies created in this series. Most retrieval artists usually work outside of the law. But, Flint’s background as a detective and his strong moral compass has caused  him to be conflicted as he works on his first assignment as a retrieval artist.

He is chosen by a major law firm to investigate a former retrieval artist work on tracking this rogue scientist, Frieda Tey.  In the process, he comes across a murder at the moon marathon on the colony of Armstrong.  Flint finds out his work for the law firm and the murder are connected.  As a result, he meets up with his old partner, Noelle DeRicci, from the police force who is investigating the murder. The two work together to solve the case and begin to understand that there’s a new dynamic in their relationship now that Flint is a retrieval artist.

Extremes is another solid novel in the Retrieval Artist series that combines elements of traditional science-fiction and mystery into a genre gumbo I enjoyed reading.  Rusch is an old fashioned storyteller where characters and plot both work together to create a solid story.  No fancy or superfluous prose that distracts from the story.  This novel was refreshing to read and I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing Consequences, book three of the series.  Recommended.

Book Review 47: The Disappeared by Kristine Kathryn Rusch

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Has anybody ever read a science fiction mystery?

I must admit I love when authors combine genres in their books.  Dean Koontz is one of the masters of genre combining and twisting in his works. The Disappeared by Kristine Kathryn Rusch is the first novel I’ve read that combines a standard science fiction setting with a traditional detective story theme.

Private detective Miles Flint and his partner, Noelle DeRicci, have been assigned to solve a couple of cases where  people have disappeared from their alien captors in order to escape punishment alien justice style.

Rusch creates a believable world of human-alien interaction and adroitly reveals how a misunderstanding of moral and legal issues can cause an intergalactic diplomatic crisis. The price paid for that misunderstanding is very costly and could even effect one’s own children.

Flint and DeRicci are caught in the middle of several of those misunderstandings where a couple of alien races, The Wygnin and The Rev, are demanding that children be returned into their custody because of the crimes committed by their human guardians.  Both detectives believe the aliens may have bypassed human laws and are determined to keep the children with their parents. Also, an outlaw is on the run because she helped her human client avoid a prison sentence from one of those alien races.

What I liked about The Disappeared that it was a good old-fashioned story.  The beginning grabbed my attention and stayed with me until the end.  Rusch resolved the multiple storylines nicely and I got solid characterizations of Flint, DeRicci, and the aliens.

This is the first book in the Retrieval Artist Series and one of my best reads for 2013.  I’m looking forward to reading and reviewing the rest of the series for the blog in 2014.  Recommended.

Book Review 46: The Husband by Dean Koontz

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“I would have love to read that book with you, babe.”

My wife made that comment after a recent conversation about books.  I told her I had read Stephen King’s Bag of Bones recently and her interest in that book surprised me.  She was more of the movie watcher than book reader in our family.

Since she is a fitness aficionado, I decided to create a husband/wife challenge around our interests.  For the month of October, I would exercise and go to the gym with her if she would read one novel with me. She agreed to the challenge and The Husband by Dean Koontz was chosen as the novel we would read together.

The Husband is the story about Mitch Rafferty, a self-employed gardener, whose wife has been kidnapped and the ransom for her return is two million dollars and he has sixty hours in order to come up with the cash.  Mitch loves his wife, Holly, more than anything in this fictional world but Koontz asks a basic question in this story, how far will you go for love?

While, the plot is simple but a writer of Koontz’s skill creates several surprising twists and turns on the way to its resolution.  Also, he deals with family relations and asks another question in this novel, how well do you really know someone that came from the same parents as you do?

I know some of the more perceptive types might think they have already figured out the basic plot from those last two paragraphs.  So I will not go into any more detail about the story.  However, I can assure you it is not quite what you are thinking on who the kidnapper was in relation to Mitch and Holly.  Moreover, I will never the view the state of New Mexico in the same way after reading this novel.  (I lived in both Albuquerque and Santa Fe for a total of nine years.)

I must admit that The Husband was not my favorite Dean Koontz novel.  I’ve read at least a dozen of his books and I would rank it in the middle of the pack.  (I would consider Cold Fire, Strangers, Watchers, and the Odd Thomas series as the best Koontz novels.)  But it was a solid page-turning story and good entertainment.

In closing, my wife liked the novel and it created some good discussion about the characters and plot.  I always thought reading could bring a couple closer together and maybe I should have tried this challenge a long time ago.  I know, we men always think of things much later than our wives would have.  🙂

Book Review 45: All God’s Children & Blue Suede Shoes by Ken Myers

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What is pop culture?

That’s the one question I’ve always wanted to get a definitive answer to in all of my adult life. Well, I believe I have found a book that attempts to give me that answer.

All God’s Children & Blue Suede Shoes by Ken Myers explores the relationship between Christians and Popular Culture. I heard the author on Christian Radio last year talking about the re-issue of his book. It was first published in 1989 and the re-issue got a new cover (see above) and a new introduction by the author.

“My answer to the question about Christian involvement with popular culture is essentially the same. You can enjoy popular culture without compromising Biblical principles as long as you are not dominated by the sensibility of popular culture, as long as you are not captivated by its idols.”

That quote sums up the author’s answer on how Christians should deal with the omnipresence of popular culture. Myers examines the historical lineage of popular culture from its roots in Romanticism of the mid 19th century and how it came into full bloom in the 1960s.

Myers explains how Christianity and Popular Culture have always been at odds with each other because one side believes in history, tradition, and the eternal things of life.  While the other side believes in the present, always looking the next thing, and focuses on self-fulfillment.

However, the author doesn’t take the easy route and totally bashes popular culture as one would expect from a book like this. Myers does warn how much popular culture has affected the church and how modern evangelicalism has a symbiotic relationship with it unfortunately.

As previously mentioned,  All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes was published in 1989, Myers ends the book with the pernicious effect of television but doesn’t address how social media and the internet have taken over television’s role in pop culture.  Because of that, the book does feel dated and out-of-step with the 21st century. Nevertheless, the best books still have timeless principles to reflect on and can always be read even if the culture has progressed from when it was published.

In closing, I believe in reading All God’s Children and Blue Suede Shoes, I have gotten as close to a definitive answer to what is popular culture that I’m going to get.  Because of that, I’m truly grateful and will wholeheartedly recommend this book to those who want to know how to live in a world where popular culture dominates every aspect of our lives.

Book Review 44: Gray Matters by Brett McCracken

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“Christians have a hard time with nuance, gray areas are not out strong suit.”

“Discernment is a tricky business, much more complicated than a checklist or matrix of black-and-white criteria. And it begins on the inside, with an awareness that while discernment is a virtue we should all aspire to, it doesn’t look exactly the same for all of us.”

“Legalism has tainted my generation so much that we don’t even want to go near rules or think in terms of “dos and dont’s.” In the process we’ve lost the idea that character and virtue matter.”

Those three quotes set the thematic scope for my latest book review, Gray Matters: Navigating The Space Between Legalism and Liberty by Brett McCracken. This is my first non-fiction book review for 2013 and I’m glad waited until now to review this important book.

McCracken makes the argument that we have gone from one side of the pendulum as legalists and separate ourselves from the culture to the other side of the pendulum as hedonists and accepting everything the culture has to offer. The author shows throughout the book that there is another route to take instead of those standby positions by having proper discernment and learning how navigate those nebulous areas in our lives.

Gray Matters is divided into four sections (Food, Music, Movies, and Alcohol) that covers an area where Christians have taken one of the aforementioned standby positions.  McCracken begins each section with a historical and biblical perspective on how Christians have dealt with those issues.  Then he offers guidance on how to become more discerning with these gray areas.

The most controversial section of the book is the Alcohol section.   Should Christians drink alcohol?  The author walks a fine line……like a dental floss line in this area but I appreciate the fact he didn’t shy away from its dangers and tried to present an objective view on probably one of the most scrutinized gray areas we could have as a believers and followers of Christ.

McCracken has written a much-needed and courageous book in Gray Matters. As Christians, we claim to believe that Christ has the right to speak into every area of lives, then we need to be honest with ourselves and learn how to deal with the gray areas in our culture.  The author skillfully shows its not about retreating from the world and waiting for the second coming.  Also, its not about accepting everything the culture provides and trying to prove you are not one of those stereotypical fundamentalist Christians.   But, it is about having good judgment and faith in Christ that he can guide you through all types of situations in your life.

Gray Matters is one of my favorite reads of the year and will get a highly recommended must read for Christians and even non-Christians who want to learn some principles on having discernment in their daily lives as well.

Bravo to Brett McCracken for being courageous and may this book create authentic dialogue amongst believers in the faith.

Book Review 43: The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith AKA JK Rowling

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I had made it a personal policy to not read and review for this blog the hottest or most publicized novel of the year.  However, I did almost break my policy last year with Gone Girl by Gillian Flynn.  But, I decided against it.

Well, my resistance has finally dropped with The Cuckoo’s Calling by Robert Galbraith AKA J.K. Rowling. I must admit the pseudonym controversy got me intrigued and I knew I had to read and review this novel.

The Cuckoo’s Calling tells the story about the death of Lula Landry, one of England’s most famous supermodels.  She fell from her high-rise loft in London and the police have ruled the death as a suicide. However, John Bristow, the deceased’s brother refuses to believe it was a suicide and hires private investigator Cormoran Strike to investigate the supermodel’s death.

Strike is a hard-livin’ detective who is on the brink of financial and personal ruin when Bristow arrives at his office to see if he will take on his dead sister’s case. The private investigator agrees to Bristow’s request and enters the world of high fashion, fame, and how wealthy Londoners really live.  Also, he is the son of a famous singer and because of that connection gets him entrance into this world without much resistance.

Rowling creates various twists in the plot in order to keep the reader guessing if the supermodel’s murder was really a suicide. The strength of the novel was her descriptive narrative and keen observation of human behavior.  Here’s an example:

“Her antipathy towards Strike seemed to have evaporated. He was not surprised; he had met the phenomenon many times. People liked to talk; there were very few exceptions; the question was how you made them do it. Some, and Ursula was evidently one of them, were amenable to alcohol; others liked a spotlight; and then there were those who merely needed proximity to another conscious human being.”

That passage was early in the novel and it showed Rowling’s strengths of the aforementioned traits that made The Cuckoo’s Calling an excellent  read. But, I must admit there is not a lot of action in the story.  It made me think if Rowling was writing this novel as a tip of the cap to P.D. James.  I could see James writing a novel like this one as well.

I came to reading The Cuckoo’s Calling as someone who had never read the Harry Potter books or her first adult novel, Casual Vacancy.  I had read one of the reasons Rowling wanted to write under a pseudonym was that her work could be judged on the basis if it is good or not.  And not to be judged through the lens as a celebrity novelist.

Well, if this was a first novel by Robert Galbraith…..it would be an outstanding first novel.  But it is Rowling’s second adult novel and deserves to be judged on its own merits as a crime fiction novel.

The Cuckoo’s Calling is one of my favorite reads of 2013 and Rowling is an engrossing, powerful storyteller.  It was worth breaking my personal policy.