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Review: Kabul Beauty School

Kabul Beauty School I had been looking forward to reading Kabul Beauty School . Deborah Rodriguez, the author, heads to Afghanistan after the fall of the Taliban, in part to offer humanitarian aid, and in part to escape the difficulties her life and marriage hold. More than any of the skills she learns before being sent to Kabul, she uses her knowledge of haircuts and color to serve the NGO community in Kabul, and eventually the Afghanis as well.She opens Kabul Beauty to school to train and empower the women of war torn Afghanistan, so many crushed under the weight of Taliban rule.
While I applaud her involvement, and her genunine desire to help Afghani women, even at a danger to herself, I struggle to embrace the author herself. I didn’t trust the voice of the author, the brash American who would so blantly disregard the culture of Afghanistan, favoring her own. She loves the people, but doesn’t seem to want to bend to meet them. Her recollections, instead of being heroic and charming leaned slightly more towards selfish, insincere, and at times judgemental. The beauty of the story is lost among the seeming insincerity of the narrator.

I give Kabul Beauty School by Deborah Rodriguez one star.


Review: The Book Thief

Image from the NY Times Book Review, published March 27, 2006.

In her review of The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, New York Times reviewer Janet Maslin writes, ” “The Book Thief” is perched on the cusp between grown-up and young-adult fiction, and it is loaded with librarian appeal. It deplores human misery. It celebrates the power of language. It may encourage adolescents to read. It has an element of the fanciful. And it’s a book that bestows a self-congratulatory glow upon anyone willing to grapple with it.” [Full review]

The Book Thief is a rare work of literature indeed, dancing on the line between adult and young adult literature, yes, but dealing with topics of death, of hope, of loss, of ethics, and yes, of literacy. The narrator is death, the time and place Nazi Germany, a horrifying combination until you realize Zusak’s touch is both tactful and realistic. At times the narrator switches back and forth between his perspective and that of the characters, even interupting himself to provide a bit of clarification.

There are both breathtaking and heartrending descriptions throughout the narrative. Death describes colors using smells and vice versa. At points, it turns graphic novel as we read a books written for Liesel.

Not every moment in the book is spot on. It drifts here and there. But that does not at all hinder it from being one of the finest works of literature I’ve read, and among the most creative. For that reason, and so many others, I give The Book Thief and its celebration of the written word five stars.

Review: An Unmarked Grave

An Unmarked Grave by Charles Todd brings us to French front in the Spring of 1918 as the Spanish epidemic is wiping out troops and civilains alike. Among the bodies waiting for burial is a body that was had suffered neither from battlewounds, nor influenza, and Bess Crawford goes after the murderer.

Originally, when I picked up An Unmarked Grave I thought it was the first book in the Bess Crawford Mystery series. Um…oops. It was actually the forth. Reading it out of order definitely made it difficult at times- it appears that characters and relationships were established earlier in the series, so there was more focus on the story itself and its movement forward. That’s not at all a complaint- I am the one who read them out of order.

I was surprised by some of the plot twists, including the reveal of the murderer. I enjoyed Bess Crawford’s character, and was intrigued by her relationship with Simon and Barclay. And although I was aware of the Spanish influenza epidemic, I had never considered it in the context of World War I.

I will definitely going back to start from the beginning of this series. I give An Unmarked Grave four stars.

Review: A Girl Like You

I came across a review for A Girl Like You and thought it would be the perfect pick for a beach day, which I was still hoping for in mid-August. When I actually had the chance to go to the beach Labor Day Weekend A Girl Like You was tossed into the beach bag along with a blanket, towel, and sunscreen.

Gercaci’s light story centers on Emma Frazier, a writer for Florida! magazine who has a definite crush on her boss, Ben Gallagher. To impress Ben, Emma promises an interview with the incredibly elusive NASCAR legend Trip Monroe, who grew up in Emma’s hometown of Catfish Cove. Emma quickly finds however, that the interview may be more difficult than she ever imagined to land. In the midst of trying to track down Trip, she finds herself pursued by an old friend in Catfish Cove and untangling parts of her past that she never thought existed.

While I enjoyed the subtle and at times, rather unexpected, twists and turns of plot that occurred in the story, I felt that there were alot of elements to the story that just felt unnecessary to me.  Some of it was, well, just drama, and it didn’t add anything to the story. Geraci did impress me with her use of first person narrative, particularly in the moments when Emma would “address the audience”- those moments were funny, and they added to the enjoyment of the read…and honestly, I can’t think of many novelists that can pull of self-deprecating humor from a narrator quite so well.

Although there were things I enjoyed, it was incredibly hard to get past the drama in places. I give A Girl Like You one star.

Review: The Secret Life of Bees

When I was first given a copy of The Secret Life of Bees by Sue Monk Kidd, I wasn’t sure what to think of it. It made it to the bookshelf, and occasionally, I would pick it up, read the back, and place it back on the shelf. I just wasn’t interested. Until I actually started reading it…

What finally prompted me to read The Secret Life of Bees is its placement on my Summer Reading Challenge List, and the fact it was short. What prompted me to finish is Sue Monk Kidd’s fantastic writing and ability to tell a story. Lily Owens has wondered all her life about her mother, who died tragically when she was young. She misses her mother, who lives blurred on the outskirts of her memory as she is raised by her abusive and angry father, T-Ray.

Following an incident where Rosaleen insults some of the meanest racists in town, Lily and Rosaleen escape their difficult life in Sylvan, South Carolina and head for Tiburon with a picture of a Black Madonna and a vague notion that the story of her mother lies in that town. Their search ends at a pink house where three black sisters reside and keep bees and they are taken in.

As I mentioned, the writing is phenomenal. Sue Monk Kidd has the amazing ability to paint a picture with words, and paint she does, showing us the world through the eyes of fourteen year old Lily. Isolated on her father’s farm, she doesn’t completely understand the racism that surrounds her until she is thrown into the middle of it.  In Tiburon, Lily discovers who she is, and finally has the freedom to embrace who she wants to be.

Although painfully tragic in places, the descriptions are fantastic, and the characters well developed. I give The Secret Life of Bees five stars.



Review: A Love That Multiplies

I am not sure why I picked up A Love That Multiplies by Michelle and Jim Bob Duggar. Up until Tuesday, when I caught a 19 Kids and Counting marathon on TLC, I’ve never watched the show before, nor read their previous books. But their philosophies on children and child-rearing and their faith intrigued me, so I picked this book up.

The book is not so much a memoir, as an up-close, conversational look at the Duggar family’s daily life, and the events surrounding young Josie’s birth. Topics range from managing the home and packing for trips, to homeschooling such a large group, to taking care of bad behavior from young ones at the first incident. Interspersed between each section and story is a favorite recipe, a list of snacks, or general home management tips.

They talk a lot about their faith, which is a very central part of their lives, and I can appreciate the way that it is really shaped their decisions as a family. Michelle and Jim Bob do not just say that children are a gift from the Lord, they live their lives as a testament to that as they arrange their days to teach their children and to spend time with them. Based on this book, it would appear that although the Duggar children may have some pretty strict rules on internet usage, and they may not own the latest and greatest gadgets, the Duggar children develop practical life skills and conflict resolutions skills from incredibly early age, making them more mature than their peers.

The writing was okay, more conversational in nature which doesn’t always translate well to the page. There was also the assumption that the reader had both watched 19 Kids and Counting or read their previous book, as they made many references to the show, or referred to things they had shared in their previous book. While I can appreciate that they didn’t want to bore readers with repeated information, it tended to make things feel choppy and incomplete.

Overall, I liked the book, and I really appreciate the Duggar family and their commitment to their faith. I would recommend the book to young parents, or to those looking to a non-traditional story of those choosing to live out their faith. I give A Love That Multiplies three stars.

Review: A Farewell to Arms

A Farewell to Arms by Ernest Hemingway is my first foray into Hemingway’s writing, and my second novel this summer about World War I (my first was All Quiet on the Western Front). For those unfamiliar with the novel, it is the story of Frederick Henry, an American ambulance driver on the Italian front. It follows his increased confusion and disillusionment with the war, and his relationship with English nurse Catherine Barkley.

Written in sparse, terse, prose with script-like dialogue, it is, in some places a challenge to read. Adjectives and descriptions, when used, were mostly present in battle scenes, like the retreat at Caporetto, or when Henry was injured. They weren’t used to describe emotions or relationships, but the actual physical setting, which to some extent, makes the book jarring, but in other ways makes it completely brilliant. There is something to be said about the way that Hemingway used restraint in his writing.

Hemingway, an ambulance driver himself on the Italian front is challenged the way in which the reader viewed the war. Henry is constantly encountering individuals who honor him for his service in the war, has medals of honor and valor pressed upon him that have no meaning- he wasn’t rescuing anyone when he was injured, he was eating dinner, and yet no matter what he tells anyone, they won’t listen. The situation is  repeated when he is captured by the Italian army police, who are executing those separated from their regiment with charges of desertion. No one is listening to the explanation of the men who have been captured, they simply read  the charge and shoot them.

Henry is an increasingly rudderless and disillusioned character who is serving on the Italian front with those increasingly confused and disillusioned by the war themselves, rootless as he realizes that war is not at all what he thought, seeing the tragedy around him and desiring instead a life with Nurse Barkley. But even in that, neither can escape the realities of life and death.

Although the manner with which Hemingway writes may be off putting to some, his story is still engaging. He draws a picture, and although it is not filled in with vibrant colors and numerous details, it is still a picture. Through the pages spills his own disillusionment and confusion after the war. I give A Farewell to Arms three stars.

Review: Anna Karenina

I originally started Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy in 2004 when it was taken up by Oprah’s Book Club. It was the only book I ever picked up for Oprah’s Book Club, and I didn’t get far before I decided it would be better to quit. Anna Karenina moved with me from my parent’s house, to my first apartment in Baltimore, back to their house, and later, to New York where it would be packed and unpacked, all the while collecting dust between moves. Until this summer when I decided I needed to finish it.

When I stumbled onto Five Alarm Book Reviews Anna Karenina Read Along for July, I decided I had found the perfect solution, something to keep me motivated, and an opportunity to discuss the rather thick tome. What I did not anticipate, however, is how easy it would be to fall behind. Mid-July I got behind on my reading, and never recovered, but these last  two weeks, I found myself determined to finish.

Tolstoy is a story teller, and a wildly ambitious one. The Russian novelist creates an obscene number of characters for his eight part epic novel, all with overlapping lives, and formal and informal names. It was necessary for the first half of the book to pay close attention to character names and nicknames.

The novel begins,

“All happy families are alike; each unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.”

It is an appropriate opening line, as Tolstoy unfolds the story of three families, each unhappy in its own unique way- Dolly and Stiva as they deal with his infidelity, Anna and Karenin as they deal with her unfaithfulness and her continued relationship with Vronsky, and Kitty and Levin, as they navigate what was a difficult start for both of them as they seem surrounded by infidelity. The backdrop of this magnificently complicated series of stories is the changing political climate of Russia, Tolstoy’s own thoughts on religion, and Europe’s art and culture scene.

In spite of it all, I found myself drawn into Tolstoy’s storytelling, wanting to see how things played out in each of the character’s lives. Would Karenin allow the divorce? Would Anna continue to manipulate Vronsky, and everyone around her? Would Levin and Kitty live happily ever after? I had to know. And though I found myself bored at times, such as when the perspective would turn to Levin whose primary internal monologue involved farming, or when the political discussions took on too many references that I was unfamiliar with, I still read on.

Tolstoy draws the reader in with his narrative arc and complex characters. He changes the perspective and internal monologues the reader observes, giving a fuller picture of the characters relationships and interactions. And he builds the novel to such a climax and holds it that you really start to wonder if anything is going to happen. When Anna does finally take action, it was nearly impossible to believe.

Although I may not have always enjoyed the characters and found myself bored as Tolstoy sought to make a point I really didn’t care about, Anna Karenina is without an amazing piece of literature. I admire Tolstoy’s boldness and his use of narrative and change in perspective in adding depth to the story and characters.

Review: Short Straw Bride

I really wanted to like Short Straw Bride by Karen Witemeyer. It had all the right elements in place: it was historical fiction, there was a little bit of suspense and intrigue, and tension between characters. And Meredith herself was just such a likable, kind character. But for me, the story fell short.

Short Straw Bride is the story of Meredith Hayes, an orphan and ward of her uncle, who is being courted for her land in a deal that would vastly please her suitor and secure her uncle’s business. On an evening out with her suitor, she overhears a plot to burn the Archer brothers off their land, and remembering an kindness by Travis Archer from her youth, she heads out to the ranch to warn them. When she is injured, and forced to stay in their home unchaperoned, her uncle insists that one of  the Archer brothers repairs her reputation by wedding her, and the brothers draw straws.

Meredith navigates a new marriage, a house full of recluse bachelors, and serious challenges to her safety with a surprising amount of grace. It is here, in the midst of these things that Witemeyer introduces the backdrop of Meredith’s faith.

As I said, Meredith is a very likable character, just not so realistic. Is it really possible that she would be forced into the position of marrying the man she fell for so very long ago, or that he would love her back? Would the family really have acted so chivalrously?

I am a huge fan of historical fiction, but I found that the context lacked in this instance. It was difficult to place historically based on the details we are provided with, which made the context, something that could have greatly enriched the story, into something quite a bit more nebulous. Concrete details added to the setting would have made it more believable and would have planted it more firmly in the category of historical fiction.

I give the Short Straw Bride two stars out of five. Witemeyer starts with a great concept, but unfortunately, it didn’t carry though for me.

*I was provided with a copy of this book by the publisher for a fair and honest review.




Review: Truly the Community

Image from

As a former seminary student, I have read an astounding number of theology books and biblical expositions. This book, however, was not one of my assignments- it was actually recommended by a dear friend, who gushed about the author, Marva Dawn. Since gushing isn’t exactly her style, I knew I had to check out the author, so I wrote down her two recommendations Keeping the Sabbath Wholly and Truly the Community: Romans 12 and How to Be the Church and I purchased copies of both. For the record, its one of the best decisions I’ve ever made.

Truly Community: Romans 12 and How to be the Church by Marva Dawn is theology at its best. Dawn handles the biblical text masterfully in rendering her translation, and in communicating it in such a way that it makes sense, and she is incredibly thought provoking in the way she calls believers to live it out. It is easy, when you are assessing a biblical text at the level of phrase by phrase to unintentionally divorce it from its context in that particular body of Scripture, or to miss its connection to the wider arc of the biblical whole, but Dawn manages to keep both in perspective, constantly tying it all back together.

Though Dawn’s rendering, I was challenged by the biblical truths about community. Often, I found myself stopping to think something over, to mediate on a thought, or simply to let something sink in. It took me nearly a year to read, not because it was slow, but because I kept stopping to think, highlight, or re-read a passage. It’s by no means the kind of book you sit down and read in one sitting. You lose too much with that “swallow it whole” approach.

If you’re looking for a great resource on community, this is it. Work through it as a ministry team, read it as a devotional, or read it in a small group- it works well in all of those contexts. I give this one five stars.

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