Monday, January 23, 2017

American Patriots by Rick Santorum, 2012

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The United States of America was founded and established by ordinary citizens just like you and me. In their struggle for independence, these heroic men and women willingly shed their blood, sweat, and tears--often sacrificing their own lives and fortunes in order to hand down the precious legacy of freedom we all enjoy today. Now is the time for a new generation of American patriots to rise up and join in the fight. Now is the time for every American to return to the virtues, values, and ideals that formed our foundation of freedom, and enable America to remain a great nation, a powerful democracy, and a beacon of hope for the world.

American Patriots highlights the heroic men and women who valiantly fought to secure our God-given rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness--not only for themselves and their children, but for countless future generations. Their stories are a true reminder of the extraordinary faith, courage, and determination that set this country on the path to greatness centuries ago, and an inspiration for future generations of great American patriots.
(148 pages)

This may not put me in the best light here, but when I chose to receive a copy of American Patriots I honestly didn't know that Rick Santorum was a politician. His name on the cover looked vaguely familiar, so I assumed he was some historian or author I'd read something from a long time ago. When I actually cracked the cover open and read the author description, I realized my mistake. He's a pretty conservative Republican, right? I honestly haven't read up on him at all, but after reading this book I'm pretty sure that must be the case.

Basically, he takes everything and makes it about religion. And I guess that's not entirely unreasonable, since people were so focused on faith back then and several of the patriots he described were literally pastors, but when he started explaining how "the pursuit of happiness" from the Declaration really meant "the pursuit of virtue," he lost me. I'm a Christian, sure, but I don't believe in twisting history to make it fit your personal outlook. Then again, I don't worship either the Declaration or the Constitution (and there's no way I think all those slave-owning men really meant for the rights given to "all men" to go to minorities and women!), so I'm probably not Santorum's target audience. Every time he mentioned how modern-day America is "under attack" from liberals who want to destroy the principles established by the Founding Fathers, I could barely suppress an eye roll. I'm not exactly stirred to action by that sort of rhetoric; I'm mainly just annoyed by the constant finger-pointing and devil-calling that goes on in modern politics.

Anyway, that aside, I did enjoy reading about all these little-known people from history. I think the only historical figures I recognized in the entire book were Phillis Wheatley and Nathan Hale; the rest of them were completely new to me. My favorite was probably Haym Salomon, the Polish-born Jew who single-handedly kept the revolution financially stable through the war and into its first years as a nation. He seemed like a great guy! Each little chapter focuses on a different historical character (or sometimes a couple characters who have attributes in common). There's a little description of their backstory, key details about their dramatic contributions to the revolution, and then a summary of what happened to them later in life.

Also, just a note: out of twenty-five people mentioned in the book, only six of them are women–and only one of them get a chapter to themselves. Four of them (Emily Geiger, Elizabeth Maxwell Steele, Phillis Wheatley, and Elizabeth Lewis) were lumped into a single chapter. I know that the world was a much more man-dominated place in the 18th century, so it might have been impossible to get enough details to flesh out a lot of character sketches of women patriots, but I for one would have  liked to see a little more emphasis given to the women from history.

Basically, I enjoyed learning some more about important characters from history (even if I'm a little hesitant to apply the word "hero" to all of them). If you don't mind the messages Santorum is trying to mix in with his history lesson, then you might love this handy little anthology. Otherwise, though, it's probably best to steer clear.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book through the Tyndale Rewards program (click here to check it out, and by using my link to make an account you'll get 25 credits (enough to order a book) just to start and I'll get 10!).

Friday, January 20, 2017

Crossing the Thinnest Line by Lauren Leader-Chivée, 2016

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FROM THE VERY FOUNDING OF OUR NATION, diversity has been one of our greatest strengths but also the greatest source of conflict. In less than a generation, America will become "minority-majority," and the world economy, already interconnected, will be even more globalized. The stakes for how we handle this evolution couldn't be higher. Will diversity be a source of growth, prosperity, and progress-or perpetual division and strife?

America has the potential to realize huge gains economically and socially by more fully capitalizing on diversity, but significant challenges remain and it's a problem that all Americans should be focused on solving. Despite tremendous progress, women and minorities still face barriers to accessing the full promise of the American dream. It doesn't have to be this way. Many of the solutions are right in front of us, and many exceptional, committed Americans are doing their part to make a difference.

In the twenty-first century, nations will prosper only insofar as they embrace and celebrate the individuals, organizations, and collective efforts to advance every kind of diversity. Lauren Leader-Chivée believes America must lead the way. In CROSSING THE THINNEST LINE, she explores the state of our diverse union and shares important stories of progress and potential, highlighting those who are crossing dividing lines of race, gender, culture, and political party to build a more united and prosperous nation. Her revelations will transform the discussion and set the agenda for America's progress on these critical issues. A work of originality and ambition, CROSSING THE THINNEST LINE changes our understanding of diversity and offers lessons to change our lives and our country.

(336 pages)

Okay, first, I have to admit that I didn't read this whole thing. About halfway through I got so sick of it that I started skimming. The author claims to be striving for adversity, and she does concede that Republicans are probably people too right near the very end of the book, but most of the 300+ pages consist of her presenting one passionate argument after another for why America should follow every single left-leaning Democrat policy ever.

From the bitter way I say that, you might think that I'm a Republican. I'm not. I think of myself as being in the middle of the road, conservative about some things but liberal about others. I am not inherently opposed to diversity in any way, and in fact I do think we need more diversity in this nation. That's why I chose to review Crossing the Thinnest Line in the first place! I just got annoyed by the author's tone: she spends the entire time talking about how awesome and amazing her beliefs are, and uses the words "Republican" and "conservative" like they're slightly insulting. She interprets every single possible thing that happens to a person of color as being about race (even when they don't seem remotely related to me), and refuses to consider the fact that people who disagree with her are just as entitled to their opinions as she is to hers.

Anyway, I jotted down a few quotes that particularly struck me. Here are the ones that stuck out the most, in no particular order:
  • This might be controversial because of the media, but I had to include it: Freddie Gray. The author says that his death was purely because of race, despite the fact that Baltimore is extremely diverse and several of the policemen charged with his murder were black. As someone who lived in Baltimore for five years (including when all of that happened), I am so sick of the way people turn Freddie Gray's death into something it isn't. Police brutality is an issue here, yes. Racism? I seriously doubt it.
  • She writes "In 2013, when Republicans forced a shutdown of the US government in a standoff over the budget . . . " Right. Because a standoff between two political parties is totally only one of those parties' fault. I don't even remember the details of their conflicts, but I doubt the Democrats were innocent victims.
  • This is probably my favorite: "By some estimates, given the changing demographics of the nation, even a candidate who won 60 percent of the white male vote could not win the presidency without meaningful support from women and minorities. It's a reality that may ensure a democratic president for a generation–unless the Republican Party changes course and returns to the politically sound and morally decent tradition of inclusion that George W. Bush exemplified." Whew! First, it's kind of hilarious to think about how wrong Leader-Chivée is right here (even though Donald Trump becoming president isn't something I normally find very funny). Second, "returns to the . . . morally decent tradition of inclusion" sounds a lot to me like Leader-Chivée is calling current Republicans immoral and indecent. Yeah, very open-minded of her.
Well, great, there goes my resolve to never discuss politics on here. Blast this book for being way more political than I thought it would be! Anyway, I suppose what really grated on my nerves was that in a book all about encouraging diversity, the author constantly just focused on using her platform to push her own political agenda at the expense of all others. We need ethnic and religious diversity, sure. But we also need ideological diversity, we need people who think about the world in different ways. We need to be able to recognize that some people have morals that are different from our own, and to respect that. I don't think Leader-Chivée has much respect for anyone who isn't a flaming Democrat, which is a pity. I hope that her experience near the end of the book meeting George W. Bush (and realizing he isn't as horrible a human being as she'd thought) might help her reach across the aisle and find respect for conservative Americans.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, January 16, 2017

In the Shadow of Denali by Tracie Peterson and Kimberly Woodhouse, 2017

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Cassidy Ivanoff and her father John, a wilderness guide, work at a prestigious new hotel outside Mt. McKinley. John's new apprentice, Allan Brennan, finds a friend in Cassidy, but the real reason he's here--to learn the truth about his father's death--is far more dangerous than he knows.
(320 pages)

I hadn't read a "chick flick" book in a long while, so I thought I'd shake things up a bit. I always like books about mountain climbing, and I've never read a book set in Alaska before, so In the Shadow of Denali had all the makings of a unique and grabbing read for me.

And for the most part, it was that. The characters were slightly flat, it's true, and the romance was truely cringe-worthy (and the villain ridiculously stereotypical), but those things honestly didn't bother me as much as they probably should have. The fact is that I really loved Cassidy, who was a good mixture of sweet optimism and realistic emotions. I didn't like the men quite as much (they were all a little too perfect for my taste), but reading about Cassidy's time in the kitchen, all the foods she makes and her growing friendship with the head cook Mrs. Johnson, was what kept me stuck to the story. Mrs. Johnson is probably my favorite character, actually. I can't say much about her backstory, but I really loved watching her gruff outer shell peel away over time!

It does have to be said, though, that the discussions of both romance and religion are almost uniformly hard to read throughout the book. The characters are so obnoxiously slap-you-in-the-face Christian (and so obsessed with making sure everyone thinks exactly the way they do) that it got a little old for me–even though I actually am Christian! It's not like they act like God makes life one big rose-fest, because all of the main characters grapple with some pretty scary/hard things throughout the book, but something about the discussions of faith just felt cheesy and unrealistic to me. There's also a fair bit of instalove, which anyone who has read this blog for long knows is a big pet peeve of mine. Cassidy and Allan barely know each other at all when they start having feelings for each other that they'd never had for anyone else in their entire lives. Despite the fact that they only spend minimal amounts of time with each other and don't really seem to have anything in common, we're supposed to believe they're perfect for each other. Meh. I'd rather have seen Cassidy wind up with Thomas, the seventeen-year-old kitchen boy who has a crush on her–I honestly liked him better than I did Allan, and the age difference could have easily become negligible if the authors had made Cassidy just a year or two younger!

Anyway, you wouldn't guess it from all the negativity in this review but I really did spend a few happy hours reading In the Shadow of Denali. Now that I'm writing out my thoughts I'm realizing just how many little things bugged me about the book, but when I was actually reading it I was sucked in nonetheless. I love Cassidy, Mrs. Johnson, and Thomas, and I have pretty neutral (though certainly not negative) feelings toward Allan and Cassidy's father John. I liked the basic premise of the story and the conflicts that came up, and I loved getting a look at what life was like in Alaska during the 1920s. We even get to read about President and Mrs. Harding staying at the hotel on their 1923 trip to Alaska right before the president's sudden death! I'd never even heard of President Harding, let alone known that he traveled to Alaska.

Basically, I can't recommend In the Shadow of Denali as fine literature. If you're looking for some clean, fluffy (and slightly preachy) entertainment set in a rural Alaska setting, though, then this might just be the book for you. If you do give it a try, comment below to let us know how you like it!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for my review.

Friday, January 13, 2017

The Wizard's Dog by Eric Kahn Gale, 2017

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Meet Nosewise. He’s spunky. He’s curious. And he’s a dog who can’t understand why his pack mates Merlin and Morgana spend all day practicing magic tricks. If it’s a trick they want, he’s the dog to ask! He can already Sit!, Stay!, and Roll Over!

But there’s no way Nosewise is Stay!ing when his master and best friend, Merlin, is kidnapped. There’s nothing Nosewise won’t do to get Merlin back, even if it means facing the strange Fae people and their magic-eating worms, or tangling with the mysterious Sword in the Stone. But it may take more than sniffing out a spell to do it!

Nosewise’s hilarious escapades and steadfast loyalty get him and his companions through King Arthur’s Dark Ages.

(288 pages)

What a breath of fresh air! This is such a fun new take on the Arthurian legends–from the point of view of his dog, if you can believe it.

I wasn't sure at first how this would be, whether it would be super fluffy and ridiculous or whether it would carry its own weight as a believable fractured fairytale. The idea of a dog (with a name like Nosewise, no less!) narrating a book seemed really goofy, but it worked out wonderfully in practice. Nosewise, by the way, is very sweet, and for the most part he actually comes across like a realistic dog. A dog way more intelligent than any pooch I've ever met, but then I suppose you couldn't really have an intelligible or interesting story told by someone with the attention span of my seven-year-old Boxer.

Setting aside Nosewise, I loved the other characters who filled the book as well. They're all riffs on the class Arthurian legends, with names that are very familiar and backstories that are at least vaguely similar. There are even some medievel fairytale characters thrown into the mix, which I thought was awesome. My favorite non-canine character was probably Arthur, just because he seemed so nice. I hope there's a sequel coming out sometime in the near future, and I hope Arthur plays a large role in it! I also loved Merlin, who seemed like a nice old man. He was probably the most generically similar to the way his character is in the original Arthurian legends, but I think that helps the book by giving it a stronger connection to its base material. The main villain was also really cool to read, as were some other characters who pop up late in the story.

Besides the characters, I also loved the plot developments–but I can't discuss those, of course, so instead let's talk about the magic! We don't get a huge amount of explanation about how magic works in this world, but the glimpses we do get are pretty cool. People do magic by connecting to special stones (called "Asterias") and focusing their "Inner Eye" on what they want to happen. It's a neat concept, kind of similar to other magic systems I've read about in fantasy novels, and seeing how it allowed an animal like Nosewise perform magic was pretty awesome.

Basically, if you're looking for a fun fantasy adventure full of nods to Arthurian literature, then this is definitely the book for you. Give it a try, and you might just be suprised by how much you enjoy it!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, January 9, 2017

The Missing Matisse by Pierre H. Matisse, 2016

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Nazi planes were bombing Paris the day a lifelong, more personal war began for Pierre. It was the day he lost his identity.

Born into a famous family, Pierre Matisse grew up immersed in the art world of Paris and the French Riviera, spending time with some of the most famous artists of the twentieth century. The man he knew as his grandfather, legendary artist Henri Matisse, encouraged Pierre from a young age, creating a strong desire in him to become a great artist in his own right.

Being a Matisse was an important part of young Pierre's identity. So he was crushed and bewildered when, at the outbreak of WWII, that identity was suddenly snatched from him with no explanation.

So began Pierre's lifelong search to solve the mystery of who he really was, a quest that forms the intriguing backdrop to this memoir of a fascinating and adventurous life on three continents. Spanning the insider art world of 1930s Paris, the battles of WWII, the occupation of France by the Nazis, Pierre's involvement with the French resistance, his post-war work restoring art and historical monuments, and his eventual decision to create a new life in North America, The Missing Matisse is a story of intrigue, faith, and drama as Pierre journeys to discover the truth before it's too late.

(352 pages)

Hmm, wow. This is a very unique outlook on WWII. Pierre's life was so dramatic, full of famous painters and exquisite art when he was small and terrible warfare and underground resistance adventures once France was pulled into war with Germany. His childhood essentially ended when he was about eleven years old, and he saw so many horrible atrocities perpetrated by the Germans (or "Boches," as the French called them). It's heartbreaking to read about the murders he witnessed, and even more stunning to read about his adventures as an underground freedom fighter since this is a true story. It reads like many of the fictional WWII books I've read over the years, but it actually happened! That's both horrifying and amazing to me.

I do have to say, though, that I had a few problems with the book. For one thing, it's told in present tense; I find this to be extremely confusing in non-fiction when the author is talking about things that happened in the past, because it makes me constantly have to guess "is he talking about something he did back then, or something that he does all the time/found out later?" Also, and please don't take this the wrong way, I honestly don't think I like Pierre as a person. He was extraordinarily brave, of course, but he was also an extremely ornery child who never felt any remorse; he stole and lied throughout most of his youth (and not always just against the Germans); after the war ended, he served his time in the French military oppressing Arabian citizens in the French-occupied Algiers; and he was divorced three times (including once after fathering four children, none of whom he took the time to see again for thirty years) before marrying the "love of his life" who was about thirty years his junior.

Also, I simply don't understand his obsession with connecting himself with the Matisse name. His story is very sad, and I do feel sorry for him because it must have been hard to grow up not knowing who his father really was, but it seems like the Leroys were actually nicer to him than the Matisses were. Why couldn't he have just stuck with their name? I for one wouldn't want to be a part of a family that treated both me and my mother like garbage, but then again I suppose I haven't been in his shoes.

The bottom line, though, is that Pierre went through so much–suffered so much–and he's part of that dying generation of WWII survivors (and heroes) who faced the atrocities and uncertainties of life under the German terror and managed to keep hold of their humanity despite everything. I may not respect his principles or all of his life choices, but I do respect him for the actions he chose during the war and pity him for the atrocities that he saw committed during the war. He was a part of action that no one else saw (or at least no one who lived to tell of it), and The Missing Matisse serves as an invaluable record of pieces of history that would have been lost forever if he hadn't written them down. I am grateful that he did.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.