Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
“Be a Giant Killer” by Ed Norwood may be the best Christian non-fiction book we've read. If it's not, it's very close! And considering that we've read at least a dozen (likely more) this year, that's saying a lot. Of course there was “Revelation Through Science” by Governor James Martin, PhD last season, but that was heavily focused on chemistry and biology with a hint of philosophy. There wasn't too much actual discussion of Christianity or religion in it per se. On the other hand, we've seen some really out-of-the-ordinary, somewhat bonkers spirituality books, many of which don't offer practical advice, or the ones that offer practical advice lean toward things we're not so sure the Bible actually promotes like wealth & prosperity or faith healing.
“Be a Giant Killer” stands apart in that it offers great and positive life advice from a Christian perspective without being over-the-top, ridiculous, or scammy about it. This is actual, practical life advice that you can actually, practically use to be happier, healthier, and closer to God. Heck, it even reminded us to start praying again, and that's saying something.
So, what is this book actually about? The book focuses on overcoming the biggest roadblocks to our success and happiness in life—to our self-actualization—or, in this spiritual/religious context, fulfilling God's ultimate purpose for your life. In one sense, this book is thematically and stylistically very similar to “Doubt Your Doubts” by Rachell Kitchen, which we reviewed two seasons ago. While Kitchen had focused on combating and overcoming what she called your “Gremlins” or your “inner Rachel” (a negative alter-ego who stands in your way), Norwood calls these things “Giants” akin to Goliath or the people of Canaan who opposed the Israelites in the Bible. Your “Giants” are things like addiction (to smoking, drinking, drugs, bad foods, idolatry, sex, pornography, etc.) and also things like self-doubt, lack of faith, and procrastination. These “Giants” are the things that, Norwood argues, keep you from realizing your full potential.
So how is this book any different from other positive-thinking, positive self-talk, and self-actualization/affirmation books? For one, it's well-written. For another, it's actually pretty interesting to read. And, of course, there's a spiritual or Christian slant to it if you jive with that sort of thing. Even if you're just an agnostic or not necessarily a Christian per se, this could still be a pretty interesting read. For one thing, to be blunt, Ed Norwood isn't massively full of crap. He's not a scammy televangelist trying to get you to mega-tithe your earnings in exchange for a miracle. He's actually very down to earth and very clearly has tremendous ethics and moral standards.
Right off the bat, you're treated (or horrified) by the example of Jim Jones and the 1978 Jonestown massacre. The author uses this tragic event in which over 900 people were killed as an example of what happens when you allow evil, toxic people and thoughts to poison your head. These evil, toxic people and thoughts create a cage around you, they encircle and entrap you, they keep you from seeing clearly and realizing that there's a better way: a way out—hope. The devil uses these kinds of people and thoughts to convince us that there's no hope, no way out, no escape, no hope for upward mobility, no point in going on. These things create a “wilderness” for us like the Israelites before they could inherit the Promised Land or Jesus before he could begin his ministry. There's temptation there, and it's our job to find the faith in God and accept the strength and wisdom to resist that temptation.
What's very encouraging about this book is that it reminds us that we matter. We are made in the image of God. Our lives have importance and meaning. We have purpose: a purpose to do something special on this earth whether that means running for office, starting a new business, getting married, starting a family, or ministering a church. Norwood reminds us that not all good things come quickly or all at once, often they take time. For example, the Israelites waited a whole generation to inherit the Promised Land, but while they were waiting, they were cultivating that future generation that would eventually take it—the ones who would go on to conquer it in the name of God. God's plan is always in motion and in action, whether we realize it or not, and he is always nudging us forward, we just have to be willing and able to listen.
Norwood also ventures into the realm of ethics by reminding us that even though we are entitled to good things as children of God, we have to remain ethical in obtaining them. Achieving things through crime or deception are not the actions of a child of God. For example, when Norwood was nearly broke, $10,000 was accidentally deposited into his bank account. Using this money, which clearly didn't belong to him as it was the result of a mistake, would have been unethical. So, instead of spending this $10,000, he trusted that God had something even bigger and better in store for him than just that money and called the bank to report the mistake. Ultimately, Norwood founded his own organization, the National Council of Reimbursement Advocacy, which has stood since 2000. Norwood has become prosperous, making far, far more than that $10,000 per year. He says that the times being on welfare prepared him for a lifetime of making millions.
This book is incredible in that it encourages you to see the bigger picture in the little things. Every time we make a decision God would be proud of, we are coming closer to him and to our purpose in life.
Check out this highly-recommended book on Amazon!
Score: 90/100 (9.0 out of 10)
“Gilraen & the Guilds” by Dr. Joanne Reid is definitely one of the better books in the Jaralii Chronicles. First and foremost, it features great world-building from the presence of bee-like, honey-making creatures to the intricate functioning of the powerful guilds of Nartwortland themselves. If there was any one book in the series that we had high hopes and great expectations for, it would be this one. Just look at the cover! It's arguably the best cover in the series, featuring the beautiful and powerful titular warrior-queen opposed to what we presume to be some gnarly-looking religious zealots and a powerful sorcerer (possibly the villainous Adjudicars). The title also implies that Gilraen will be in the act of recruiting these powerful and interesting guilds, which she technically does throughout the story. Also, following on the heels of other books in the series, the last of which set to reestablish Gilraen in the world, there's the promise of actual action and resolution.
We must've spend about 12+ collective hours reading this 600+ page book.
With all that said, these promising books, their plot, and the characters continue to have problems that could pretty easily be fixed through more beta reading and rewrites. The two most pervasive problems in this series are: 1. Its plodding nature, 2. Gilraen, Gilraen, Gilraen.
Let's digress for a moment and say that this book opens with a bang. It's one of the best openings of any book in the series as we find ourselves in the armored, tailored shoes of Gilraen Gulamae, now going under the guise of Gillian Gilaman. As Gillian Gilaman, she is the Guild Master of the Guild of Weapons Masters, Weapons and Armorers.
Gilraen had realized at the end of the original trilogy that Umbeqjaralii was not going to be able to stand against the Adjudicars and their allies alone for very long. She and King William also realized that this problem was bigger than just their kingdom, their continent, and possibly even their world. The Adjudicars, like a plague, were spreading their influence far and wide, even having their figurative tentacles in the affairs of places like Armjurstton. There were also many more than was originally thought, possibly numbering over two dozen in Jaralii alone, each supposedly able to give even Gilraen a run for her money. Needing allies, Gilraen (as Gillian) seeks to persuade the powerful guilds of the land of Narwortland to her side for what we presume to be an escalation of the war with the Adjudicars.
The book opens by putting us in middle-action, right in the middle of this new adventure, something we were happy and excited to see, especially since “Gilraen Returns” had been mostly dialogue and drama over action. Nothing in either of these two books has yet to come close to the action near the end of “Gilraen & the Prophecy III: I Conquered” but we do get some interesting fight scenes and some battle strategy in this one. Something else we were very impressed with was the unique language used by some of the characters in which parts of speech are mixed, something reading like broken English from our perspective but that probably makes complete sense to the characters in Nartwortland. This is the type of thing you want to see from a work of fiction, especially fantasy. Usually, when a creator is able to formulate their own unique language for the characters, that work of fiction is going somewhere. We see it in Star Trek with the Klingon, for example. Gilraen is not alone as she is accompanied by Haldas, Aaron, and Eamon, later meeting the leaders and members of various guilds and even dukes/duchesses of the land. We're also introduced to Supreme Guild Master Machister, who we kept calling “Machister United” (a play on Mancester United). We typically get through these books by finding our own little humor like that.
Something that's somewhat welcome in this book is that the relationship between Gilraen and William isn't central to it. Yes, the two talk via magic mirror and eventually in person, but it's not overbearing as in previous books. Gilraen is free to go out on her adventure without the ball and chain of her husband, although he does still make off-handed comments that annoy both us and Gilraen, such as when he tells her that it's her job to find out what's going on. He probably means this playfully (as lovers will often tease each other), but it does come across as a little rude considering that we've seen Gilraen go to hell and back for him on numerous occasions. For him to insist on her doing even more seems a little inconsiderate. It's the kind of toxic thing that a lover will say just to spite you, like, “If only my wife did her research before buying that expensive thing that's now on recall...” or “My ex would've been able to do it properly.” On another hand, there are times we kinda want to spite Gilraen ourselves because of the way she is and the way she often acts.
And that brings us to one of the problems that continue to come up with these books: Gilraen can be a very unlikable person and character. No, she isn't quite doing things like committing genocide or cheating on her partner—nothing so severe like that—but she is arrogant, self-centered, and obnoxious without end. We'd called her “insufferable” and an “insufferable bridezilla” in the past, and we meant it. She is also mostly unchallenged throughout most of the series, which becomes very tiresome and irritating. At least in book one, she was captured and in peril, having to use her soul blades to get herself out of that predicament. And at least in book three, she and her allies were losing people they cared about and she wasn't able to just wave her plot armor in the air to bring them back. Here, Gilraen continues to be mostly unstoppable.
Gilraen is a tremendous source of entertainment, but possibly not in the way the author had intended (unless she intended for Gilraen to be polarizing). Gilraen is pretty much John Cena. She is this overpowered character who is constantly and relentlessly forced upon you whether you want to cheer for her or not. If you don't cheer for her, the creator is just going to keep putting her in front of you until you finally do, and darn the consequences. Reading about Gilraen is most fun if you view it as being like a drinking game. Take a drink of diet Dr. Pepper every time Gilraen introduces herself, complains about needing the best, most beautiful clothes, armor, and weapons, or is mean to someone despite being the holier-than-thou heroine who is supposed to be kind to people. You'll be drunk on aspartame and formaldehyde by the middle of it.
Gilraen constantly feels the need to remind everyone how great, powerful, and important she is. She always has to be the top dog. No one else can get the credit or experience-points for anything. No one else can level-up. Yes, Gilraen will artificially boost your stats by putting a +5 hat of weaponsmithing on you, but it's usually only to make herself look good by extension. She can't have ugly, poorly-dressed underlings. They all need to match her attire. The world revolves around her and what she wants.
Even her husband—a powerful king who can lift like 500 pounds and has a personal vendetta against the major villains who keep killing his loved ones—gets relegated to the sidelines. It's not his fight anymore even though it really should be. He's a stay-at-home husband who signs and stamps documents, and it's really unfortunate granted his great potential. When Gilraen learns about the “Supreme Guild Master,” you just know from reading all these other books that this boils Gilraen's blood and throws her enormous ego for a whack whether she says it or not. She can't have it. No one can be greater than her—not her mother-in-law, not her husband, and definitely not this guy who dares call himself “Supreme.” In her mind, if Machister United is the supreme pizza, Gilraen is the supreme-pineapple-plus pizza with extra meat and toppings. Gilraen only plays along with him if it means him buying into her ideas and weapons/armor while supporting her war efforts. In other words, Gilraen only does it because it serves her ultimate ambitions, that's just how she operates.
And what's more about Gilraen is that she's often just downright mean. There's a scene in here in which one of Zhochanges's messengers comes to give her a message while she's forging a sword, then she berates him and throws him to the ground before demanding that her accomplices “sit” on him! There's a scene in which Cheryl and Billie, two loyal chambermaids, are working on Gilraen's hair, nails, and makeup, then start talking about something that makes them happy and excited. What does Gilraen do? Does she laugh along? Does she add to their discussion? Does she thank them for the good work that they do? No. Gilraen rudely interrupts their discussion by saying, “Do you two mind?” It even says she ruined all their fun. That's pretty much Gilraen in a nutshell. If you aren't kissing her butt or propping her up in some way, she's going to shut you down.
The world revolves around her. If you disagree with her or talk down to her, there's always some character who swoops in from the periphery to remind everyone that Gilraen is smart, beautiful, kind, and brilliant, and the Queen of queens. It is very, very much akin to the way Empress Theresa is treated in “Empress Theresa” by Norman Boutin—everyone who loves and praises Theresa endlessly is shown in a positive light while anyone remotely critical of her is demonized.
Can we switch protagonists? Is there an alternate reality where we can read the story from Vigash's, Talbot's, Reuben's, Aaron's, or Merry's perspective?
The other thing that hinders this book is the pacing. At first, this book starts out very well. You're thrown right into the middle of a situation. There's a fresh sense of adventure and exploration. Then, by about page 80 or so, the story just nose-dives into endless dialogue and discussions which seem inconsequential intermixed with Gilraen puffing up her ego. She can't just wear the same dress twice. No, that wouldn't be befitting of a Queen of queens. She needs to go out of her way to have another dress tailored-made for her. She needs to get new armor, and her swords need gems placed in their pummels for... reasons. If this were a roller coaster ride, you'd see a steep rise in the beginning, then a sudden and abrupt plummet followed by a flat-line. Then, at the very end, there's a rise. Yes, in the middle of all this, they capture some highwaymen and resolve a side-plot about counterfeit coins, but this isn't the main quest we were hoping on.
A few similar and familiar problems return from previous books. For one, why do we need to know where everyone is standing or sitting at all times, even the people who have little to no impact on the main story? Every time there is a meeting of some sort, the seating arrangements need to be described. Do you, the reader, actually care? Another problem is that every character needs to be constantly and relentlessly reintroduced as “So-and-so Master of the Such-and-Such,” especially Gilraen (Gillian). This is still done so frequently and so often that it triggers another drinking game. It actually becomes oddly entertaining.
Why is the story still developing 580 pages in? Things should be going down. Characters should be fighting and killing other characters. The Adjudicars and our heroes should be at each others throats. They killed each others comrades and loved ones in previous books. We read about a mass grave of elves in the third book. Why isn't there a titanic new clash between these super-wizards of mass destruction? Why is Gilraen still more concerned about the way she looks than about avenging Ru, Richard, and all the elves who were massacred? Why are they all just standing in circles discussing things over 620 pages into the book? Why do they discuss anything at all if Gilraen only listens to people to disagree with them and insist on her own way anyway? Any dissenting opinion is just there as padding and to show how great, wise, and brilliant Gilraen is. She is so quick to point out to everyone how incompetent and dumb they all are for not buying all the new weapons and armor she's very clearly profiting from.
So here's the thing: this book and this series is actually imaginative, creative, and brilliant, but if you really want to enjoy it and really get into it, you have to read it INCORRECTLY. Don't read it as the story of Gilraen and her heroic quest to save the world. Read this as a villain's origin story: the origin story of the egotistical, self-righteous, imperialistic Gilraen as she falls from being a promising benevolent leader to a megalomaniacal conqueror. She started out as the lesser of two evils to then become the Big Bad herself. It's actually a far more interesting reading of the story. Because Gilraen has all the pieces in place to be that fallen-from-grace villainous character.
Gilraen is Napoleon Bonaparte. She is a new, self-made, megalomaniacal monarch who sees herself surrounded by enemies from all sides. She seeks to innovate and introduce new weapons and vehicles of war to invade anyone who dares align themselves with any side that's not hers. Gilraen—our hero—is very often the aggressor! Gilraen—our hero—is very often leading armies that are laying siege to other people. Whether it seems justified or not doesn't change the fact that she's doing it. Even in this book, while Gilraen is coaching company leaders on how to fight, she tells them bluntly that their enemies will be fighting their hearts out because they're “fighting to protect their homes and families.” Wait, what?! You mean our hero is planning to lay siege to large civilian populations, likely including women, children, and the elderly? She's knowingly going to be killing soldiers who are just doing their moral and ethical duties in protecting their homes and families? She's building rubber tires and bicycles to go on bicycle blitzkrieg campaigns akin to the Axis powers? She sees slavery, shuns it, then turns the other cheek and ignores it most of the time? This is the backstory of a supervillain! She is one step away from having a solid-gold statue of her built in every town she visits and naming the new book of laws after herself, something like “The Code Gilraen.” We swear, if it didn't anger everyone in Nartwortland and ruin her diplomatic mission, Gilraen would do it in a heartbeat. Gilraen cares about Gilraen, everyone else is cannon fodder. Very Napoleonesque.
So, if Gilraen were the surprise villain in this hypothetical retelling, then who would be the hero? Well, Merry, of course! Who's Merry? Meredith Zhochanges is far and away the best character in this book. She is the ancestor of several master and senior master guild leaders, part of the powerful Zhochanges family. Despite this lineage, she is a prodigal child. She is everything Gilraen probably could've been: clumsy, poorly spoken, always making mistakes, constantly looked down on and scolded. It seems like no matter how hard she tries, she always stumbles, and someone is always there to rub it in and remind her how much of a failure she is. It's for these reasons that we love and care about Meredith. We want to see her grow, rise, and do better. And when we see glimpses of her skills and potential, we are hopeful that she might be able to get it right someday. Merry is a main protagonist in the making.
Could you imagine if this were story about Merry Zhochanges, the unlikeliest of little heroes who fails constantly, agrees to serve as an indentured servant to the mysterious, enigmatic, self-absorbed Sorceress-Queen Gilraen in exchange for her family's safety, then learns that Sorceress-Queen Gilraen has actually become just like the Adjudicars she originally sought to destroy—driven by a desire to usurp control of the continent and the world by ridding it of the old rulers and destroying the old guilds including that of the Zhochanges.
Maybe they could even form a bond similar to a mother and a daughter or an older sister and little sister. We could find out that Gilraen only chose Merry as a servant because she thought she was an idiot and a weakling, easy to manipulate, control, and mold, only to find out that Merry's difficult life has made her stronger and earned her the favor of the fairy-god (or something). Maybe the soul blades begin responding to Merry's will as well as Gilraen's? Maybe they're conflicted, like the fates themselves are clashing. Maybe it is Merry's destiny to battle Gilraen, the ultimate final showdown between the sorceresses of light and darkness, student against teacher, woman versus woman, the overwhelmingly powerful old hero versus the plucky, upstart new hero. Wouldn't that be awesome? And it's not like Gilraen would have to die or have an unhappy ending. Maybe she could undergo an arc in which she admits that she saw herself in Merry, or that Merry is the daughter she never had, or that all she really wanted in life was a peaceful life with William but realized that too late due to blood lust or something. Maybe she can have a 70-foot idealized statue built in her likeness after all. The possibilities are endless!
This book, despite its problems, is definitely worthwhile. It is imaginative, creative, and can be entertaining in its own special way. Remember to not take this story too seriously. If you take it too seriously, you're going to grind your gears and your teeth. You need to have fun with it. Start a drinking game. Use your imagination and try to figure out how things might or might've played out.
All in all, this is one of the best books in the series after “I Conquered” and possibly “I Saw.”
Check it out!
Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
WOW! “The Only Blue Crow” by Tuula Pere is not your typical children's book, and we love it for that! This beautiful, lovable, touching little children's book is full of amazing things. A deep, dark, somber, melancholy tone pervades this book from beginning to end, although glimpses of hope and light are also present. For a book starring a crow, you'd expect something a little darker.
No, there's no violence or severity in this book, but the themes of sorrow, loneliness, and sadness are prevalent. You could even argue that the crow suffers from some degree of depression, but don't let that scare you away as a parent. This book isn't intended to make you or your child depressed or sad, it actually seems to be made to help children to come to grips with their feelings and to realize that no matter how bad things seem, there's always hope and always light at the end of the tunnel. There's always someone out there who cares about them whether they realize it or not. There's always some special purpose for their life, and there's always a special place for them in the world. These are powerful, beautiful, meaningful lessons for kids to learn.
The book stars the titular Blue Crow, a friendly, lovable, well-meaning character who'll definitely steal your heart with his personality and his quest for friendship and companionship. The Blue Crow is the only one of his kind that he knows of. One day, when he sees a flock of black crows, he kindly goes to visit them as a show of friendship. Rather than being friendly back, the black crows are mean and spiteful to him, telling him that there are no such thing as blue crows and that he must be crazy. They essentially tell him that he can't be one of them because he's too different. Although this deeply hurts him, the Blue Crow doesn't immediately crumble under the weight of his sadness. Instead, the Blue Crow tries to cheer himself up by collecting and growing blue flowers and playing with the blue butterflies. Sadly, even these things don't go according to plan. The blue flowers whither, and the blue butterflies live only a short time due to their brief lifespans.
These things understandably sadden and depress the Blue Crow who seeks refuge in a cave away from everyone else. It's a very touching and heart-wrenching scene, and the Blue Crow's emotions are incredibly well put across through the beautiful art and words.
The Blue Crow is eventually approached by a friendly figure: a female owl who tells him that there's a whole world out there full of blue birds of every kind including blue crows like him!
The Blue Crow then goes on an adventures seeing all these different kinds of birds and the book ends in an open-ended manner as the Blue Crow is (we assume) about to meet another blue crow.
The writing is decent, but there are times when lines just don't read very well out loud. For example, lines like “At last the tired bird fell asleep” and “He wanted to find out right away” are stumbling blocks when you consider the small size of the text against the mostly-blue background. And it's also quite wordy, which is probably the main issue with this book. However, unlike some other wordy children's books, the character and the story are engaging enough to still compel the reader to trudge on.
As mentioned briefly, the art in this book is really special. It appears to be mostly watercolor. It is colorful enough to appeal to kids but not overwhelming to the senses.
Check out “The Only Blue Crow” on Amazon!
Score: 93/100 (9.3 out of 10)
“The Schatten” by Ashley Greathouse is a short little paranormal mystery novel that packs a huge punch!
In as few as 80 pages, the author crafts a story with humor, intrigue, interesting characters, and—above all—mystery. Who or what is the shadowy figure known as the Schatten? Is it a man? A demon? A ghost? A state of mind? A figure of one's imagination that drives even the best of us to kill? What is the mystery behind Lisa's family? What secrets did Grace take with her to the grave after dying from brain cancer? What is the truth behind Lucy's grandfather who served in a Nazi concentration camp? Who are the Ahnerebe and what role did they play under the Third Reich? Who is Dr. Harrison? How old is Lucy? Why does she act like a pouty six-year-old sometimes and a chain-smoking forty-year-old at other times? Has Obi-Wan talked to her about her use of death sticks? What did the dudes like William and Gerald do in this book? Cause we honestly forgot. Why is Bea so annoying? How can we still care about her despite this? Why is the formatting of this book so tight and cool looking?
These questions and more are explored in “The Schatten!”
Let's kick off this review by saying that Greathouse has a tremendous sense of humor and a coolness that oozes from the book from page one—literally page one! The “Copyright/Dedication” page is one of the most amusing and hilarious things we've ever read. Considering we've gone through over a hundred books this year, that's saying a lot! The author's playful sarcasm is immediately apparent, even warning potential content pirates that they are taking dog food away from her dog. The “About the Author” section is similarly blunt and humorous. Amazingly, this tone is not carried into the book itself, showing the author's range. The book is actually quite serious and suspenseful. Death and danger loom around every corner. It's intense!
So let's go over some of the characters while trying not to spoil too much. Lucy seems to be a prodigal daughter/granddaughter who dragged herself through life by her hair. She is brash and pessimistic while not entirely unlikable. We can relate to her bleak outlook. It's how she was conditioned to be. There are a few captivating figures in this like the Shadowman himself and Shelly, who fills the “creepy girl” role found in many horror movies. Believe us when we say that Shelly is CREEPY.
We're even made to care a little for Bea who is badly wounded near the beginning of the story, forcing Lucy (who somewhat despises her) to set aside her differences, creating a rather interesting dynamic between them.
Lucy's dark side is played quite well. That's why we speculated if the Schatten might actually be an alternate persona of hers: one prone to violent, homicidal acts. Indeed, Lucy's hands are far from clean by the end of this. That allows the reader to consider the possibility that THEY (seeing the story through Lucy's eyes) may have been the villain all along.
The writing and formatting in this book are tight. Yes, there are many usages of italics (usually showing Lucy's thoughts) and even capital letters, but it isn't excessive.
All in all, this is a pretty darn good little mystery novel.
Check it out on Amazon!
Score: 92/100 (9.2 out of 10)
“Heart Disease & Hypertension” by Bryant Lusk is a solid book regarding the use of supplementation in helping to prevent and relieve the symptoms of heart disease and hypertension. Bryant Lusk was inspired by his work as a safety inspector and quality control specialist for the United States government.
While you'd think this book on supplementation would be like many others—full of quackery and proclamations that are too good to be true—Lusk takes a very down to earth and level approach, encouraging readers to take all this information with a grain of salt. He encourages them to think critically and to question everything. Lusk seemingly never insists on his suggestions being any more than that: suggestions. There isn't a “magic pill” or “magic supplement brand” he's pushing. Rather, his approach seems genuinely built on the premise of helping others rather than on financial gain or fame. Lusk would be the first one to tell you that despite all the great benefits of green tea extract, megadosing on it could damage your liver. He'd be the first to tell you that everything is to be taken with caution, in moderation, and only as needed.
Something we really appreciated about this book beside its transparency and honesty is its actionable and practical advice. The reader isn't just having supplements thrown at them, they are told to listen to their body, get adequate sleep, de-stress, avoid toxic relationships, eat well, and get exercise. Some of these seem like common sense, but common sense is not so common. In other words, it's one thing to know something intuitively, it's another thing to act on that knowledge.
There is a great deal of insights that we weren't originally aware of. We all know that lack of exercise and a poor diet can increase the risk of heart disease, but did you know that TOXIC RELATIONSHIPS were found in a study to increase the risk of heart attack or chest pain by 34!? That's incredible to think! Indeed, stress wrecks havoc on our heart and overall health. That goes hand in hand with mental health. The body and the mind are linked. Who would've thought, right? But we often take that for granted.
Any work of literature that motivates you to actually TAKE ACTION as a reader is an exceptional literary work, and this falls under that category. Is it the most amazing thing we've ever read? No. Is it the most amazing book on health or even cardiology we've ever read? No. We've been blessed and honored to read the works of Dr. Harry Graber and Dr. Judson Brandeis, but this book by Lusk isn't slacking either, and we're blessed and honored to have gone through it as well. In fact, this might be one of the few books we've read that has actually nudged us to take action on the information it contains. This is fitting with Lusk's definition of a measurement for success, saying that he measures success by the number of people he affects in a positive and meaningful way.
We recommend you check out this book and take extra good care of your heart and health!
Score: 94/100 (9.4 out of 10)
When it comes to children's books, they don't come any more sweet and simple than “Full of Feelings” by Anna Andrews. But don't let that fool you. This book is useful, educational, and powerful in its own way despite its sweet and simple presentation. There are few things more important than recognizing, acknowledging, and understanding our feelings and emotions, and that's what this book is about. It shines in helping kids to review these things in a fun and interesting way.
What immediately jumped out at us about this book is the level of diversity! This is the most racial/ethnic diversity we've probably ever seen in a children's book. Each emotion/feeling is portrayed by a child of a different race or ethnicity. They have different hair colors, skin tones, eye colors, hair styles, and facial features. And somehow, none of these are what you'd consider stereotypical or insensitive. Everything is presented tactfully.
The art is not phenomenal by any means, but it doesn't have to be. The art itself was not intended to win any art competitions, it was intended to be easily accessible to children and to get its message across in an appealing way. It definitely accomplishes what it sets out to do!
One of the best sections actually asks children about times they've felt certain feelings. They are prompted with such questions as: “What makes YOU smile?” and “What makes YOU frown?”
The young readers are also shown the differences between negative and positive emotions, but also that all emotions are valid whichever category they fall into. It's ok to feel your feelings!
Check out this book on Amazon!
Score: 92/100 (9.2 out of 10)
“Black Butterfly” is a solid self-help book about the power of positive thinking and actualization. It is heavily influenced by both “The Secret” by Rhonda Byrne and Christianity, making it sorta a version of the Bryne book with a Christian lens/angle.
On one hand, this book inspired us. Its message is something worth hearing, and it can be helpful for many people. On the other hand, there are times this seems and sounds like another wealth and prosperity book. While there are many unscrupulous wealth and prosperity preachers and advocates out there, we really don't feel that Vincent falls into that category. For one, Vincent has little to gain from what she's advocating beside some book sales. She's not trying to get you to sign up for some pyramid scheme or to tithe 10% of your earnings to her particular church/organization, but she is encouraging you to be willing to give in order to receive.
There's a beautiful quote from this that reads: “...a closed hand can't receive, and a closed heart can't give.”
But what does she mean by giving? Again, she isn't asking the reader for money or telling her to give to her organization, she is encouraging them to be more charitable and to support God's work in that way as a form of service and as a show of gratitude.
One thing we loved about this book is its focus on gratitude: being thankful for all your blessings, even the ones you haven't received yet. This is something we've tried to incorporate into our own lives, thanking God for health, food, shelter, and our loved ones. The truth of the matter is: you can never be too grateful. Another truth is: we could be more grateful. In our own lives, we've often forgotten or neglected to thank God for these things. It's something that gets lost in the shuffle, and it really shouldn't. Gratitude should be a part of your everyday life. When you are content and happy with what you have, and hopeful and optimistic about what's coming, life is just better. That's objectively true. When you're miserable and always thinking that the grass is greener on the other side, then it's always going to be greener on the other side. That's also objectively true.
Something interesting is this idea that Vincent proposes about thanking God for blessings you want and have yet to receive. For example, if you want a baby, she recommends thanking God for the baby you're getting and to go out and buy baby clothes. If you want to get married, she recommends shopping for a wedding dress already. Thoughts become things. They become your reality. How you respond to this concept will really determine how you respond to this book—whether you'll love it or dislike it. We personally feel that you need balance. God is the king of the universe, he's not a cash cow, and he constantly warns us that wealth is corruptible. You can't serve God and Mammon. Jesus himself seemed to have lived as a simple carpenter for most of his life. John the Baptist was what we might consider “homeless” and ate insects to stay alive. Bad things happened to many of the saints/apostles. The point of the Bible is not to become rich and powerful by following God, it's that despite the slings and arrows that the carnal, physical, materialistic world throws at you, God is still God, and he's still in control. The soul and spirit are more important than things like wealth and material possession, hence Jesus' analogy of the “riches in heaven” versus the moth-eaten riches on earth.
At the same time, we've experienced God's blessings first-hand. And first-hand, we've seen that when we've asked for something, God has answered in some way, shape, or form. Just... be careful what you ask for.
And can we just tell you, Carla A. Vincent: Thank you for your service to this country.
That's right, Vincent isn't just some hillbilly from out of nowhere who wrote a cockeyed-optimistic self-help book. Vincent is a hero and veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, otherwise known as the war in Afghanistan. She fought for this country and experienced many pains and traumas as a result of it. So, when she shares these ideas and techniques with us, they come from a place of experience. These are actually the things that have gotten her through tough times.
All in all, this is a good self-help book with a positive, uplifting, hopeful message.
Check it out!
Score: 93/100 (9.3 out of 10)
“The Sun and the Starlings” by Barbara Hill is a lighthearted, heartwarming little tale about Queenie, the queen of a little kingdom in the forest, as she is forced to leave the relative comfort of her throne to find the source of the famine that's affecting hers and neighboring kingdoms. Intended for ages 9+, the book shines in its playful and fun tone. There is nothing—not famine, not drought, not the potential for mutiny, not even fear of death—that is portrayed as too severe or too serious. This is a cute, fun little adventure story through and through.
Queenie is amazing as a royal who is struggling to do her best in her position. Being “the leader” doesn't necessarily guarantee that everyone listens to you and you can get and do whatever you want. Queenie struggles with that first hand. Despite being the queen, she isn't a tyrant. She is open to the ideas of others and democratic in that sense. This allows her jester (and another major character), Chucklegorgon, to have a lot of autonomy. This even allows him the freedom and time to raise and train racing snails. You heard that right: RACING SNAILS! And apparently these racing snails are prized in the Little Kingdom.
Chucklegorgon also seems to be one of the court members who can quite literally tell the queen “No, I don't like that” or “No, I don't feel like doing that.” For example, he refuses to relinquish an important secret to Queenie, choosing instead to entertain her with songs and jokes.
Along with Chucklegorgon and Queenie, we also meet a cute, charming giant named Tumblehorn and his talking birds, all of whom are just so much fun to read about.
They are pitted up against the villainous Gozgork, an evil sorcerer with the ability to create illusions and affect the environment. Gozgork feeds on the fear and anxiety he causes people. How can Queenie and the others overcome him?
Oh, did we mention there's a kind of cavalry that rides SPIDERS?!
This book has so much charm and so much character. It's made even more spectacular by the accompanying music and sound that comes with the audio version of this book. That's not even mentioning the beautiful illustrations.
Check out this book!
Score: 93/100 (9.3 out of 10)
Now, here's an interesting new take on an old story! Voiceless: A Mermaid's Tale seems to be a version of the classic story of The Little Mermaid--the 19th century tale by Hans Christian Andersen that was later famously adapted by Disney.
However, Voiceless is far more than just a photocopy of the story, it adds more layers than an onion (as Shrek might say). For one, the main character, Moriah, is much more than a naive yet optimistic Mer princess, she is actually very smart, at times even cunning. There is an aspect of naivety in her when it comes to humans, but that's understandable. She just simply hasn't spent as much time with them as she has with Mer folk. When it does come to Mer issues, she is among the wisest and most conscientious of her people. She is able to think skeptically, critically, analytically.
Another aspect of this story is that the infamous sea-witch, Ursula in the Disney tale and Amari in this telling, is not a one-dimensional, mustache-twirling villain who sings an ominous, catchy little tune. Yes, Amari is often rude, aggressive, and has her own ulterior motives, but she is also a mentor and, you could even argue, a friend to our main character. Friends try to strangle each other sometimes, right? They hit each other with aluminum pans, throw each other off of roofs onto stacks of tables, and perform finishing moves on each other, right? That's normal.
Amari is one of the most interesting parts of this story. The reader can tell that there's so much more to her character than what we initially see and what we expect to see from her. The first exchange between Amari and Moriah allows the reader to see both Amari's gray nature and Moriah's intelligence. Moriah knows to expect a contact with strings attached from Amari, and she is clever enough not to play that game. Actually, she plays back. It's not her voice she surrenders in this version. Instead, she forms a sort of teacher-pupil partnership with Amari to learn the secrets of her transformation spell and other magic, seeking to empower herself in the long term to potentially face up to her tyrannical grandfather.
And that brings us to our main villain, the aptly named Abaddon—a name that literally means “DESTROYER.” You would know this if you ever read the Bible, knew Hebrew, or binged watched Supernatural with any brain cells remaining by the end. Anyway, Abaddon is Moriah's grandfather and the tyrannical king of Zoara-Bela, essentially an underwater kingdom akin to something like Atlantis, only a lot more like Rapture from Bioshock with legit torture, capital punishment, and slavery (although a lot of it is implied but not shown, making this book still appropriate for young adults). Taking the place of King Triton from the Disney classic, Abaddon rules his kingdom with an iron fist. Anyone who dissents faces either corporal or capital punishment, even his own children and grandchildren. In fact, the looming threat of punishment persists throughout the story as both Moriah and Amari must tread carefully to avoid being caught. The justice system under Abaddon is also abysmal (pun intended) as it heavily favors the prosecution/accuser, especially male accusers. Women have little to no say in Zoara-Bela, which partly gives the book its title.
Another character who is worth mentioning is Michael, a human male who is rescued by Moriah in the beginning of the story, typical for a mermaid tale. However, Michael is no prince. He really seems like a fairly normal human person. He is, however, a foster child who struggles with severe depression and likely mental illness. He feels unloved and unwanted due to his upbringing, making his relationship with Moriah a bit more special. Michael is made to feel “needed” by Moriah, but not in an overbearing way. Michael is Moriah's mostly-patient tutor when it comes to matters of humanity. He teaches her about things like dancing, history, and culture. It is from Michael that Moriah is able to put together that her civilization might not be so ideal: seeing that it reflects some of the worst aspects of humanity and human history.
Now, it is a little strange that Michael learns very quickly that Moriah is a member of a cult that seems to be mentally and psychologically abusive to her at the very least, yet he still doesn't report it to the police or try to get her help. You could argue that he's just respecting her wishes or that he doesn't feel he has anyone he can turn to for help to begin with, but we digress.
Voiceless is a really good, well-rounded, coming of age story with some fascinating elements.
Check it out!
Score: 91/100 (9.1 out of 10)
“Valiente: Courage and Consequences” by A.G. Castillo is a solid book about an 18-year-old gay basketball player and his struggles with personal loss, his homosexuality, and being the best he can be in his sport despite numerous challenges such as injuries.
At the center of this book is the relationship between Chente, the main protagonist, and Doss, one of his high school coaches and love interest. How you feel about this pairing with inevitably affect the way you feel about the book. For us, the dynamics of a coach being romantically or sexually interested in one of their athletes, especially at the high school level, is very disturbing and troubling. Think about it: as a parent of a high school student, would you want a coach (or teacher) being romantically or sexually interested in them?
The book, at least, acknowledges the taboo nature of this pairing. We are constantly reminded that Coach Doss could lose his teaching certificate if news about his feelings and relationship get out. Also, it is a bit softened by the fact that both individuals in the pairing are technically adults: Chente is 18 and Doss is 22 or “21 and a half” as we are often reminded. It isn't technically ephebophelia, although it gets dangerously close. That actually does help to soften the blow. We've read several books with a similar dynamic, probably the most disturbing of which recently was “A Hundred Honeymoons” by J.S. Wilson, a book in which the two young characters, Todd and Sally, are constantly victimized by pedophiles, hebephiles, and ephebophiles including Sally by clients of her high school cheerleading coach, Mrs. V, and Todd by Miss Lady. “Valiente” is nothing close to that level of depravity.
Still, the dynamic does remain troublesome in the context of the immense sexual tension between the two leads. For example, Coach Doss has a strange habit of finding excuses to stretch and massage Chente. They also seem to run into each other in the shower quite a bit. Yes, it's consensual, and yes they're both technically adults, but again: this is a coach/teacher arguably molesting and leering at one of their players/students, whether if it's portrayed that way or not. We're constantly reminded by the author that Doss is “21 and a half” and that he is a “first-year teacher.” Those sentiments are repeated time and time again. However, as a loving parent, would you support or approve of this? We don't send our children to schools to gain this kind of inappropriate attention from adults.
Now, before anyone goes throwing homophobia accusations around, let's just say that if this were a heterosexual relationship, it would be even creepier. At least Chente, as a mature athletic male, is physically capable of resisting Doss if push came to shove. If this were a male coach showing interest in (and/or taking advantage of) a female player, this would be exponential less comfortable to read about.
If you are able to ignore the student-teacher dynamic of this relationship and just take it as one consenting adult forming a bond with another consenting adult, it can be quite captivating. The two obviously have a degree of chemistry from the very beginning of this book. They both definitely admire each other, not just on their looks (although we're immediately told what great legs Doss has), but on their charismatic and caring personalities.
And that brings us to next layer of the book: Chente, his loving personality, and his personal struggles with profound loss and sexuality. When we meet Chente, he has already lost his father and a close friend named Jimmy. Jimmy is said to have been driven to suicide. In Jimmy, we see what Chente could be. In a sense, Jimmy acts as Chente's foil: what could happen if he allows the slings and arrows of society and his personal demons to get to him. Will Chente give up and cease to be or will he persevere and fight on against the odds?
Chente is legitimately a good guy—if not a great guy—while being far from perfect. He's a three-dimensional character, something which we love to see. The book is clear that his homosexuality isn't the only thing that defines him, although it is still an aspect of him. He is also a great, hardworking athlete who fights through injuries and emotional traumas to not let his teammates and coaches down. He is a great friend who puts up with annoying friends like Haven, and was also there for Jimmy in his darkest hour. He is a good student who is in the running to be valedictorian of his class. And he even seems to maintain his faith and love for God despite some religious people being downright mean to him regarding his sexuality.
All in all, this can actually be a worthwhile read. It's actually well-written and well-presented. You even have beautiful graphics at the top of the pages showing Chente in a very humanizing and sympathetic light.
If you want a well-rounded LGBTQ+ story, then give this one a try!