Archive for the ‘In My Opinion’ Category
In My Opinion…
A Book Review of Heaven by Randy Alcorn
On the back cover of Dr. Randy Alcorn’s book Heaven, a quotation reads, “The next time you hear someone say, ‘We can’t begin to imagine what Heaven will be like,’ you’ll be able to tell them, ‘I can.’” This description is a microcosm of this weighty 473-page (not counting the appendices and notes) book. Written by a pastor and seminary professor who has devoted twenty-five years to researching Heaven, this text attempts to do something so unusual, it may be shocking even to adherents of the Christian faith: it describes, explains, and prepares the reader for Heaven.
I can’t believe how much information Dr. Alcorn has uncovered, all derived from scripture, about a topic that is very rarely discussed in Christian churches. I had never heard a sermon or participated in a Bible study about Heaven. We hear a great deal about how to get to Heaven, but surely everyone has wondered what it will be like once we are there. It is a subject cloaked in obscurity for most believers (and non-believers). This is particularly strange when one considers Dr. Alcorn’s observations of the numerous descriptions of Heaven in the Bible.
Heaven seeks to disillusion people from the mundane images of Heaven that are so popular in the media. Honestly, it turns out that most people picture Heaven as a spiritual realm in the clouds, full of spirits and white-robed angelic figures playing harps, a place of extreme holiness and extreme dullness. Even true believers have made statements expressing fear of Heaven, or at least fear that they will be terribly bored and unsatisfied in such an ethereal existence. Dr. Alcorn paints a picture of a very different place, a Heaven that is full of life, light, relationships with God and fellow people, a place where we will live in perfected physical bodies and enjoy eating, drinking, working, worshipping, playing, and living as God intended us to do. I can’t believe that in all of my years as a Christian, I have lived in such total ignorance about Biblical revelations of eternity. According to Dr. Alcorn, scripture reveals the existence of a temporary Heaven in which God, Jesus and the souls of deceased believers reside. At the end times, God will establish a New Earth, and Heaven and Earth will become one. In other words, our eternal dwelling place will be here, in the same place we’ve always been, only it will be perfected and renewed. It’s all in the Bible, folks. You’ve got to read it to believe it!
This is a fascinating book, jam-packed with information about the present Heaven, the promise of resurrection, and the New Earth and Heaven. Alcorn includes a lengthy question and answer section that covers a wide variety of common fears, worries and misconceptions about Heaven. To the best of his knowledge, he answers everything from “Will there be space and time?” to “Will we drink coffee in Heaven?” Alcorn doesn’t claim to have perfect knowledge about Heaven, and in the cases where he surmises an answer, he freely confesses doing so. While the length of the book may seem daunting at first, this book contains Biblical facts and valuable research that everyone needs to see. Furthermore, Heaven offers something even more precious: a clear picture of the hope that we can have, the hope of a great adventure when this life is finished. This hope belongs to all who call on the name of Jesus Christ.
In My Opinion…
A Book Review of Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins
Warning: Contains spoilers if you haven’t read The Hunger Games
I’m sure it’s no surprise to see my review of Catching Fire, the second book in The Hunger Games trilogy, after my glowing review of book one. I was addicted to The Hunger Games and read it in a single day. Did I feel the same compulsion for Catching Fire? No, I must say I didn’t, but I still enjoyed the book a lot. Catching Fire is a good read, and I never lost interest in the story of futuristic Panem and our hero, Katniss Everdeen. But Catching Fire did not catch me on fire like The Hunger Games did.
In book two, we find out what happens to Katniss and Peeta after winning the Hunger Games. Life for Katniss back in District 12 appears to be amazingly perfect. Removed from the shack her family once occupied in the Seam, Katniss has been given a mansion; for the first time, she experiences abundance. Katniss and Peeta embark on a Victory Tour of all twelve districts, and Katniss views true opulence in the exorbitant lifestyle of the Capitol’s citizens. But beneath the veneer, Katniss is truly unhappy. Her relationship with Gale seems to be destroyed, and while she and Peeta must maintain the illusion of their romance, in private they are barely speaking. Katniss wishes she could go back to the way her life was before the Hunger Games, meager as it was. Soon, Katniss discovers that her actions during the Hunger Games have inadvertently sparked a civil unrest that spreads across the districts of Panem, and the Capitol makes it clear that she will be held personally responsible if an uprising occurs. After walking on pins and needles, putting on a great display for the TV cameras and feeling that the strain will break her, Katniss learns exactly how high a price she will be forced to pay.
I love the characters in these books, and Collins continues to paint a striking picture in words of this surprisingly believable world. But I didn’t find myself really engaging in the story until the second half. Collins’ writing really shines when the action is intense, and most of the action lies in the latter part of the book. I am still a fan of The Hunger Games, and I will definitely be reviewing Mockingjay, book three in the series, in the near future.
In My Opinion…
A Book Review of The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins
There’s a lot of hype about The Hunger Games these days. The bestselling series has garnered a lot of attention, won favorable comparisons to other popular young adult novels, and the forthcoming movie adaptation looks promising. I want to advise those of you who haven’t yet read the book, do not read The Hunger Games just because of the media frenzy. Read The Hunger Games because it is an amazing book.
I can’t remember the last time I felt this way about a book. It makes me feel nostalgic, thinking back to the days when I skeptically cracked open my first Harry Potter book, only to find myself falling headfirst into one of the most exciting, believable, compelling series I have ever read. This is how The Hunger Games began for me. The first few pages passed by at a normal pace, but before I realized what was happening, I began to grip the book more tightly, to hold it a little closer to my eyes, and soon I found that I could not stop turning the pages. I am not kidding. My family was waiting for dinner, and they had to wait quite a while before I managed to force myself to put the book down. I read the book in one day because I just had to find out what happened.
I will summarize the plot, but The Hunger Games is the kind of book that must be read to be understood; it is impossible to grasp the allure of the story until you are in the middle of it. The book takes place in a future time, in a nation called Panem that was formed after North America was devastated by extreme natural disasters and war. Panem is comprised of twelve districts ruled by leaders in the Capitol. To keep tight control of the districts, the Capitol forces each to send one boy and one girl to participate in the Hunger Games, a yearly televised event in which the 24 teenagers must fight to the death. The last remaining contestant receives great fame and wealth, at an unspeakable price. The story’s heroine, Katniss Everdeen, must volunteer herself as a contestant to save her younger sister. From there, the story launches into a fast-paced, unrelenting battle for survival.
Collins’ writing is superb. She manages to portray Katniss as elusive, a lone wolf, and yet make her so likeable, so relatable, at the same time. All of the characters are larger than life, and the story never fails to surprise you. Read The Hunger Games! It’s one of the best I’ve seen in a long time.
In My Opinion…
A Book Review of The Red Queen by Philippa Gregory
This historical novel, the second in the Cousin’s War series, is the first-person tale of Margaret Beaufort, mother of England’s Henry VII. Gregory attempts to relate the story of an unusual woman, a religious fanatic with an iron will who managed to conspire and strong-arm her son to the throne of England. In spite of its fascinating cast of characters and the rich tapestry of history which it recounts, I am sorry to say that the story falls flat. It isn’t possible to enjoy a book with such a one-dimensional, thoroughly dislikable protagonist.
From the first pages, Beaufort is characterized as a girl obsessed with religion and Joan of Arc. One of the only details given of her personal appearance is her proud description of her “saint’s knees,” an homage to her hours of daily prayer. Throughout the book, Gregory finds it necessary to remind the reader time and time again about Beaufort’s grand religious views, as she believes herself to be personally selected by God to bring about His will for England. After the birth of her son, Henry, this segues into her belief that her son, although some distance down the line of royal inheritance, is destined for the throne. As a genuinely religious person, I find Beaufort fairly repulsive in her unrepentant self-centered religious fanaticism. As another character points out, Beaufort’s exclusive personal knowledge of God’s will miraculously mirrors her own desires, every time. She is even warped enough to pray for the death of her enemies and decides that the slaughter of two boy princes, standing in the way of her son’s ascension, is sanctioned by God. Beaufort, as characterized by Gregory, is not genuinely Christian. She is genuinely insane.
I tried so hard to like this book, but in the end, it was not possible. I love the subject matter, but this could have been written better. Making Margaret Beaufort into a realistic person, a woman of passion, fear, and some degree of occasional inner conflict would have transformed this book. Additionally, the descriptiveness of Gregory’s writing leaves much to be desired. I like a historical book with some details, some realism, and this book provides absolutely no fodder for the imagination.
In My Opinion…
A Book Review of While You are Away by Eileen Spinelli
Eileen Spinelli’s book While You Are Away eloquently expresses the feelings of different children while their parents are deployed in military service. The story follows a boy whose father is in the navy, a girl whose mother is an army pilot, and a boy with soldier dad. The children talk about the things they miss about their parents: “I miss baking brownies, hunting for salamanders, collecting river rocks.” They talk about methods of coping with difficult feelings: “I wrap myself in your old green sweater.” They communicate a precocious sense of responsibility in the absence of their parents, taking on additional chores and expressing lots of physical affection for the parent who remains at home: “I remember what you told me… Give Mama extra hugs.”
While the book certainly conveys a realistic feeling of wistfulness, it maintains a stronger feeling of lightness and hope. A little boy confesses, “While you are on that big ship, Daddy, far, far away, I tell you things. I pretend the wind can carry my words clear across the ocean right to your heart.” The little girl in the illustration dances across the page while the text reads, “I look up into the big blue sky and think my happiest thoughts so you can fly through them as if they are clouds and smile and think of me, too.”
The book’s beautifully soft illustrations by Renee Graef contribute to the perfect blend of emotions; they convey the families’ longing, loneliness, and feelings of great anticipation for the day when they will be reunited. This is the best book I have seen for children of servicemen and women. Here, they will find companions who understand what it’s like to share a parent. While You Are Away concludes with each family greeting their loved one at the airport, a heartwarming scene that will inspire military children to keep dreaming of that special day.
In My Opinion:
A Review of 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper
Since I previously reviewed the book 23 Minutes in Hell by Bill Wiese, it seemed appropriate to also review 90 Minutes in Heaven by Don Piper. This New York Times bestselling book is the true account as told by Piper of his 1989 car accident, during which he was pronounced dead and remained without a pulse for 90 minutes before his heart inexplicably began to beat again without CPR. Piper tells an amazing story of the accident, his visit to heaven, and the return to his earthly body and beginning a long journey to physical, emotional and spiritual healing.
Piper, a Baptist preacher, was driving down a two lane bridge when a semi-truck hit his car head-on and rolled over top of it, smashing the car with an impact of 110 miles per hour. No one expected Piper to survive, and in fact, EMTs pronounced him dead and covered his body with a tarp. For ninety minutes, his body was undisturbed while the paramedics checked the injuries of other people. Another Baptist preacher who happened to be driving nearby came to the accident scene and asked if he might be allowed to pray over the dead man. Climbing into the wrecked vehicle, the preacher prayed for the dead man, not knowing his identity but feeling a strong compulsion to pray for him in specific and surprising ways. He sang the hymn “What a Friend We Have in Jesus,” and that’s when Piper showed a shocking sign of life: he began to sing along.
With nearly all of his limbs severely crushed, Piper faced a lengthy and recovery riddled with surgeries, a bone lengthening device, and most notably, constant agonizing pain. After more than two years, Piper gradually healed to a livable degree and regained the ability to walk. Piper’s story following the accident comprises the bulk of the book, detailing his time in the hospital, the long road to physical healing, battle with depression, gradual return to ministry and his eventual decision to share his heavenly experience with other people.
Most significant to the story are the two chapters relating his experience in heaven. Chapters two and three are the real meat of the story, the reason most people would want to pick up this book. Piper’s account of heaven is not very detailed, as his experience seemed to revolve mostly around his interactions with deceased loved ones waiting to greet and embrace him before the gates of heaven. He also repeatedly disavows his descriptions, saying that no words can adequately describe the beauty, joy, and wonder of the things he saw and felt. Although Piper’s primary difficulty in recovering from the accident was his anger at being pulled out of heaven and put back into an earthly body that was completely shattered, once he came to terms with God’s decision, he found that his brief account of heaven could be an amazing tool to comfort the bereaved and to witness to unbelievers. Indeed, those two chapters certainly held me riveted. Do I believe Piper? Yes, I believe him. But whether or not the reader believes him, this book achieves something rare: a heartfelt rendering of the afterlife. There is a universal, consuming desire to glimpse the afterlife, and 90 Minutes in Heaven affords us such a glimpse. Piper’s story of suffering and the struggle to accept a “new normal” is inspiring, and the picture he provides of heaven is beautiful, comforting, and thought-provoking.
In My Opinion:
A Review of Polar Dream: The Heroic Saga of the First Solo Journey by a Woman and Her Dog to the Pole by Helen Thayer
Helen Thayer simply has to be one of the strongest people on the planet. Never mind that she is 5’3” tall. Never mind that she was 50 years old at the time of the Arctic adventure recorded in her autobiographical account, Polar Dream. Thayer is fearless and tough, sometimes shockingly so.
Here’s the bottom line: Thayer, an accomplished athlete and winner of the 1975 United States National Championship in luge racing, decided to make a solo journey to the magnetic North Pole, on foot and skis. She wanted to travel without a dog team or snowmobile, with only the supplies she could pull on a sled, with no airplane resupplies. In 1988, at age 50, Thayer achieved her goal, becoming the first woman to ever make such a journey. Thayer’s story is told in Polar Dream, a detailed, personal account of her expedition. Let me tell you, it is one amazing read. Had I encountered only one of the numerous obstacles faced by Thayer during her 27 day, 345 mile odyssey, I would have promptly radioed for a helicopter to come and rescue me. Instead of backing out, Thayer went to great lengths to hide her difficulties from her team at base camp so that they would allow her to keep going. A few of the obstacles Thayer faced included horrendously frostbitten hands, multiple encounters with hungry polar bears (including a few that hunted and charged her), facial and eye injuries caused by windswept chunks of ice that reduced her vision to near blindness, and travelling for seven days on starvation rations (100 calories and one pint of water a day) after her food supply was lost. All of this occurred on top of the already torturous conditions that characterize Arctic expeditions: daily temperatures as cold as forty-five degrees below zero, wind chill at around 100 degrees below zero, traversing a barren wasteland of ice with no human contact whatsoever. Thayer handled all of these conditions with no complaining and no self-pity. She must be made of steel.
But Thayer definitely doesn’t have a heart of steel, because she found a place for Charlie, her husky dog. Over and over as I read the book, I said to myself, “Thank goodness for Charlie!” Thayer intended to do her journey in complete solitude, but at the last minute, a friend persuaded her to bring one dog with her, as a companion and safeguard against polar bears. Just days before her departure, Thayer met Charlie, a large black husky who had never formed a bond with any person before. It was love at first sight. Charlie proved invaluable to Thayer over and over throughout their adventure.
I’ve never had any desire to visit the Arctic. Having read Polar Dream, I feel even less inclined to make a visit anywhere extreme north. It’s far more comfortable to sit in a recliner under a warm blanket and read about somebody else’s survival battle. And Helen Thayer is my new hero.
Alive, the true account of survivors of a 1972 plane crash in the Andes mountains, is one of the most compelling survival stories I have ever read. You probably heard of the successful 1993 movie, but even if you’ve seen the movie, you are missing something if you don’t read the book. It’s a story that is guaranteed to fill you with gratitude for your present living situation; no matter what your conditions, they are paradise compared to what you’ll read in Alive.
The book was written by British author Piers Paul Read based on his interviews with the sixteen survivors. The writing is very gripping; Read tells only the facts, letting the powerful story speak for itself. The plane had been carrying 45 people, mainly the young members of a rugby team, when it crashed into a remote, uninhabitable area in the high-altitude Andes Mountains. After losing both wings and the tail section of the plane, it coasted down the mountainside, coming to rest in a snow-covered valley. The thirty-two survivors of the crash, almost all young men in their late teens and early twenties, struggled to stay alive with virtually no food, no emergency supplies, and no real shelter, facing nighttime temperatures well below freezing. Having lost the tail section of the plane, they didn’t have access to the luggage, so they had nothing but the clothes they wore. Eventually, they were able to rig the plane’s radio to receive (but not transmit) a signal, which is how they discovered that the search for their plane had been called off. This devastating news caused the men to rally as they realized they could depend on no one but themselves to save them. Only their faith in God and the sheer, incredible determination to live made the survivors keep going until they were finally able to execute a plan to rescue themselves. Sixteen men kept themselves alive in these conditions for an unbelievable seventy days, long after they had all been presumed dead.
This story of survival is deeply moving on so many levels. The bond of common humanity kept these men together, sharing the work, helping one another as much as possible, and committed to staying alive. The men concocted ingenious ways to address their problems, inventing devices to melt snow into water, rigging the fuselage into a passable shelter, making snowshoes of seat cushions, and most notoriously, finding a source of nutrition. In order to survive in the barren, ice-covered wasteland, the men turned to the only available nourishment, the bodies of the deceased passengers. This occurrence is not written in a sensationalist, grotesque fashion, but in a sensitive manner than made me sympathize with their agonizing choice. All were extremely reluctant to do this, but it became clear that their deaths were imminent without food. The survivors made a pact that whoever died next would offer his body as food for the remaining men.
Sixteen men made it out alive, against all odds. Alive is a story of endurance, bravery and friendship, a testament to life and the will to live. It’s a story I won’t soon forget.
In My Opinion…
A Book Review of Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman
Sharon Kay Penman has made her name writing historical fiction. Here Be Dragons, a critically acclaimed historical novel about thirteenth-century Wales, is a compelling, artful blend of fact and fiction. The story of political conflict and war between England’s King John and Llewelyn, Prince of North Wales (known in the annals of history as “Llewelyn Fawr,” or Llewelyn the Great) is underwritten by the romantic, personal story of Joanna, King John’s illegitimate daughter and wife to Prince Llewelyn. Through Joanna, Penman manages to forge a bond over the seven centuries that separate a modern reader from the characters and create empathy and admiration for these ancient British nobles through their foibles and triumphs.
Joanna, married at fourteen to the much-older Llewelyn, is a likeable character and cuts an unusually powerful figure for a Medieval woman. A surprisingly strong marital bond forms between the couple in spite of the numerous hardships they suffer. Weathering the continual boundary wars between England and Wales, clashes of pride and ego between Llewelyn and King John, and intense rivalry between Llewelyn’s first son and the couple’s younger son are not easy for these two. Joanna often has to negotiate being caught in the middle between two distinct and incompatible forces. The reader has no trouble dedicating loyalty to this royal couple; you really want to see happiness and peace for Joanna and Llewelyn.
All of the grand romance, battles, suffering, secrets and betrayal of a sweeping historical tale are present, but probably the most interesting part of this story is the amazing historical accuracy. All of Penman’s main characters really existed, along with many of the secondary characters. Penman sticks to the historical accounts, adding only details and blending the events to make a smoother narrative. I am simply fascinated that the dry historical documents from seven centuries ago could give way to such a rich, revealing story. Here Be Dragons is definitely recommended reading, but be sure to pay attention as you go. There are a lot of characters, many with similar-sounding names, and it would be easy to get lost in the forest of earls, princes, bishops and nobles.
Whether your summer plans include lounging on the beach or swatting mosquitos in your own backyard, chances are that you’ll find some extra downtime for reading. Finding that perfect summer book can make all the difference in making your summer perfect. Here are ten of my favorite books for summer reading, books that will be a pleasure to read and impossible to forget.
1. Terror by Dan Simmons. This tale of an ill-fated Arctic expedition makes a powerful read anytime, but I suggest reading it in the heat of summer. Otherwise, the descriptions of ice and sub-zero temperatures just might give you frostbite.
2. Things Fall Apart by Chinua Achebe. This classic novel set in Nigeria presents an unforgettable, tragically-flawed protagonist, Okonkwo. His story will make you think about what it means to be a hero.
3. Like Water for Chocolate by Laura Esquivel. Romance, family feuds and fantastic cooking make this the perfect novel for reading on the beach.
4. The Six Wives of Henry VIII by Alison Weir. While not a novel, this historical account of Britain’s most notorious monarch contains enough intrigue and scandal to outpace any steamy paperback. Plus, you will learn something about British history.
5. The Stand by Stephen King. This bone-chilling, heart-warming tale of the ultimate battle between good and evil is my favorite stand-alone King novel. It’s one of those books that begins to feel more real than the world around you.
9. Here Be Dragons by Sharon Kay Penman. A historical novel set in thirteenth century Wales, this book has feuding royals, political marriages, betrayal, murder, and the constant struggle for power. In other words, this book’s got everything.