Book Reviews for January 2019

Long, long ago when it was spring,
I thought life was a lovely thing,
And now with snow on dale and hill,
I think so still.
-Minnie Case Hopkins

I don’t always see life as a lovely thing in the month of January, to be honest.

But it’s still a great month to snuggle up with a book, and what’s lovelier than that?

Here are my first reviews for the new year:

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The Gospel According To Harry Potter by Connie Neal

Published back in 2001, this is a book comprised of short, devotional-like chapters. As its title suggests, each one draws a parallel between the themes of Harry Potter and the Christian gospel message. There are some bright spots— I definitely saw the Sorting Hat in a new light, and Neal’s assessment of Professor Snape was very intuitive. Many of the chapters, however, stretched the imagination a little too far for me. I was baffled, for instance, by the author’s use of Fred and George Weasley to illustrate the principle of original sin. Their practical joking isn’t just innocent comic diversion, but an example of mankind’s depravity? What?!?

To the author’s credit, she freely disclaimed the liberties she was taking and does not misrepresent the intentions of J.K. Rowling’s writing. I also appreciate her defense of the books to those members of the Christian community who have been known to evaluate them unjustly.

Still, I think this could have been a much better book if it had been written after the whole series was complete. It would have allowed for an expansion on Harry Potter’s richer themes, and some of the more straw-grasping material could have been left out. Oh well.

Bottom line: Imperfect, but not unworthy. An easy read for Potter devotees and over-protective Christian parents.

Size Matters Not: The Extraordinary Life And Career of Warwick Davis, by Warwick Davis

I don’t often read in the celebrity memoir department. The genre usually strikes me as rather shallow and pompous. Sometimes, however, it is worth branching out and making exceptions. A footnote on the first page of “Size Matters Not” warns readers: “Brace yourselves: this book is pun heavy”. It was obvious from that point that I had not erred in trusting the apparent above-average coolness of Warwick Davis.

The actor’s story is full of fun anecdotes, written with exuberant charm. The puns, as promised, are not in short supply. There are some poignant anecdotes describing the struggle of Davis and his wife to start their family, but for the most part this is an easy-breezy type read.

If I take something away from this one, it is yet another reason to appreciate entertainment of the sci-fi and fantasy genre. Warwick Davis is a wonderful actor. How many non-fantasy films, series, etc., can you think of that offer wonderful roles for little people? Besides “The Station Agent”? This doesn’t say much for “real world” entertainment, but it does make me rather proud to be a geek.

Hats off to fantasy and science-fiction creators* everywhere, for opening those diverse doors.

*Not including Peter Jackson, who favors special effects over diversity. Pooh!

The Flight of Swans by Sarah McGuire

Sarah McGuire earned my attention with her rich and inventive debut novel, “Valiant” (based upon the tale of the Brave Little Tailor). So when I heard that she planned to follow it up with a retelling of The Wild Swans, I let my expectations skyrocket. If you haven’t read “Valiant”, I recommend doing so at once. Then see if you don’t feel the same going into “The Flight of Swans”.

The original is one of my favorite fairy tales, due in part to an animated film version narrated by Sigourney Weaver that I remember from my growing-up years. It centers around a girl who must not speak a word for years in order to save her six brothers from a curse which has turned them into swans. I like the story enough to have tackled retelling it myself.

Given all this, it is not too surprising that by the halfway point, I was completely disappointed. McGuire starts her story off in the middle of the beginning of the action. Which isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but in this instance I felt robbed of the opportunity to get to know and care about her characters. The retelling was almost too straightforward. Where, I began to ask myself, are the freshness and sparkle I loved so much in “Valiant”?

Just when I had despaired of their appearing, I got into the second half. And daggone if it didn’t snare me like an unsuspecting rabbit. I devoured the final quarter of the book, under the kind of page-turning trance that no one but a true bibliophile will understand.

In the downhill chapters, McGuire takes all the these elements I’d mistaken for boring or discordant and knits them into a perfectly harmonious big picture. The drama reaches perfect pitch without going over the top. The romantic element is spectacularly subtle. Almost no one does romance like that anymore, and such exceptions make even my supercilious, unromantic heart sigh and flutter.

I still like “Valiant” best. But, despite the initial letdown, McGuire really has pulled off another excellent fairy tale retelling.

My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Jodi Meadows, and Brodi Ashton

Before proceeding with this review, I must admit to an unpopular opinion:

I do not like Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Bronte’s best-known novel may be a classic, and I understand why. But the brooding gothic atmosphere is simply not my cup of tea. And Mr. Rochester is the worst. I mean, just the absolute worst. If anyone wants to tell me how wrong I am, feel free. But you’re wasting you’re time, and Mr. Rochester will still be the worst.

Despite this long-held prejudice, I was pretty excited to get hold of My Plain Jane. The way the Lady Janies trio reshuffled English history in their previous collaboration, My Lady Jane, was a bizarre delight. Might not even Jane Eyre be a little fun, given the same treatment?

Spoiler alert: It was.

Imagine crossing the Brontes with Ghostbusters, and you’ll begin to get an idea of what My Plain Jane is like. There’s lots of fun-poking at the original, with the added charm of easter eggs and pre-Victorian humor. It’s a rollicking good read, really.

A little bird tells me a third book (My Calamity Jane) is in the works. Considering the possibilities (Jane Austen, Tarzan’s Jane, Miss Jane Marple, etc.,) I hope we’ll get to see even more from the Lady Janies in the future.

Everbody Always by Bob Goff

An encouraging, exuberant treatise on becoming love.

That’s my review. The rest of what I have to say is merely in response to some of the criticisms I’ve seen about this book. The gist of said criticism is that Everybody Always, while not completely unprofitable, is not relatable to the average reader. It is true that some of Bob Goff’s ways of showing love to the world are not attainable for the rest of us. He has been financially blessed, which others believe makes him out of touch with the rest of us. Typical upper-class white male privilege, etc., etc.,

I still wanted to read the book, despite the warnings. I braced myself to filter out the more adverse material. Only, I didn’t really find any. I can understand why other readers felt the way they did. My perspective is just different.

Some years back, I was rather startled to discover that a lot of Christian women have really struggled with the scripture of Proverbs 31. They look at it as a checklist of impossible standards that must be met in order to be a real woman. I suppose this is the natural result of living in a culture fueled by comparison. But I’ve never believed Proverbs 31 was meant to be interpreted that way.

I’ve always thought that the Proverbs 31 woman was given as an example to us because she was simply using the gifts she’d been given to the best of her ability. The point isn’t that we have to plant vineyards and hand-stitch quilts in order to please God. Not all of us have been given the gift of vineyard planting, after all. No, the point is that we’re all meant to use our unique gifts to his glory. We must use what we’ve been given. We must start from where he’s put us.

I think it’s the same story with Everybody Always.

Does Bob Goff appear to have more than an average share of wealth? Yes. (On a side note, I think God knew exactly what he was doing when He bestowed this particular blessing upon Bob. Material riches wouldn’t be a blessing for most of us at all. It’d ruin us. If anyone should have it, it’s generous, genuine, whimsical people like Bob.)

Nowhere did it seem to me, though, that Bob was suggesting you have to be just like him in order to love others. The book is written from his own perspective (because, duh). Does that make it exclusive to people of lower economic brackets? To my mind, it did not. To my mind, the book is about pursuing a life of extravagant, selfless, agenda-less, Christ-like love. As far as I can tell, that’s what it was intended to be. You don’t need money in the bank to be love to people, and Bob isn’t suggesting otherwise. We all have to come from where we are.

And, hey. Those who disagree can always just take it up with Bob himself, since he literally gives out his cell phone number in the back of his books. How can you not wish more people were that crazy?

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