Review: Within the Sanctuary of Wings

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Within the Sanctuary of Wings is the fifth and final book in the Lady Trent Memoirs.  Marie Brennan brings her personal knowledge of anthropology, archaeology, and folklore and shapes a wonderful, Elizabethan world full of dragons.

The action in this book takes a bit longer to develop than it did in books three and four.  This was a bit disappointing as reading through non action scenes at the beginning of a novel can be a bit dry and boring.  Once we move past those initial events, we get taken on an interesting journey (Lady Trent’s last) to the snow covered mountains at the edge of the country.  This particular border divides them and another country with which there is a “cold war” brewing.  Both sides have a vested interested in finding a way through the mountains, and Trent has proof of an unknown and ancient dragon species in those mountains.

This book sheds light on mysteries Marie Brennan started hinting at in the first book and slowly intensified throughout the series.  The reveal is engaging, and I don’t want to spoil it here, but it’s worth while.

Strangely I’m both glad and sad that this series is over.  The way these books were written as a memoir with constant direct statements of foreshadowing feels insulting to the reader.  Foreshadowing is a part of most great novels, but it should not be blatant.  When you tell the reader, this next statement is a foreshadow, you ruin the suspense.  On the other hand, Marie Brennan did develop an interesting world, and dealt with many issues in today’s culture.  It’s also nice to have a story with a female protagonist.  It’s often hard to find good fictional stories that center around women, which is odd since 50% of our world is made up of them

Overall, I give this book 4 stars.

Up next:  A three book review of commentaries on Daniel:

The Message of Daniel by Dale Ralph Davis

Daniel by Tremper Longman III

Daniel: An Exegetical and Theological Exposition of Holy Scripture by Stephen R. Miller

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Review: Night

Night

Night is a must read story.  It is the true story of Elie Wiesel’s experience as a Jew in concentration camps in Germany during WWII.  It’s heart wrenching and real.  It begins before Elie and his family believed that anything was going to happen, moves through their doubts about clear warning signs, moves forward into the ghetto, the march to the cattle cars, the separating of prisoners at the camps, the slave labor and malnutrition, and ends in a place that leaves you feeling the weight of the evil of these events.

This story is masterfully written, you feel like you are there, your mind will race with images that now seem unimaginable, and in the end you’ll feel a small portion of the despair felt by so many at the end of WWII.  You see the anguish of a Jew who lost his faith in the pits of evil.

I should end the review here, that’s all you need to know to want to read this story; except I will warn you not to read the intro until after you’ve read the book, there are some spoilers in there that are best avoided.  However, I can’t end here.  It’s impossible to read this story without your mind reeling with thoughts of human nature, evil, and vileness of the events that took place.  I want to take a moment to share one of the things that impacted me.  There’s no spoilers here, but if you plan on reading the book in the next little while, I might suggest you hold off on reading further.  The thoughts below will make more sense and perhaps impact your heart more, if you’ve read the story.

When the story ends, there is an added chapter with the text of Elie’s acceptance speech for the Nobel Peace Prize.  It’s a great glimpse into the what Elie learned through this heart breaking story, and it is full of great insight into our hearts and the thoughts and actions we ought to be taking to protect the vulnerable and innocent around us.  Consider this quote:

“And then I explained to him how naive we were, that the world did know and remained silent. And that is why I swore never to be silent whenever and wherever human beings endure suffering and humiliation. We must take sides. Neutrality helps the oppressor, never the victim. Silence encourages the tormentor, never the tormented. Sometimes we must interfere.”

What a gut punch.  Elie directly says that concentration camps happened via indifference; they happened via silence.  He also said “to remain silent and indifferent is the greatest sin of all.”  Is he wrong?  Do you find yourself bucking against his words?

I can think of many situations today where Christians are indifferent.  They hear someone clamor with an issue in our culture or our world and their response is to ignore that issue and, often, point to another one.  Instead of getting fired up about things that Jesus hates, they sit on the sidelines in complete apathy.  This should not be!  Christians have the most reason to get fired up over injustice.  We know the God of justice, the God of love and compassion who desires that none should perish.  We know the weight of our sin and the surety of how much we deserve hell.  But we also know the great relief and joy of grace and the lifting of a due and just punishment.  That relief should push us to act.

Don’t be lukewarm in indifference.  Stand up for the victim, the abused, and the down trodden.  Stand in the way of those that would cast stones against them, protect them and show them what it truly means to know love and grace.  That’s the kind of good works Jesus called us to in Matthew 5.  That’s what Newsboys talked about in the song Shine:

Shine

Let it shine before all men

Let ’em see good works, and then

Let ’em glorify the Lord

The seriousness and weight of this book cannot be underestimated.  You’ll find your thoughts forever changed by the shear horror and evilness humanity presented in this book.  I can’t recommend it more.

Overall, I give this book 5 stars.

Up next:  In the Sanctuary of Wings by Marie Brennan

Side note:  If you want to see the worst music video I’ve ever seen, go check out the Newsboys music video for Shine here.

Review: In the Labyrinth of Drakes

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In the Labyrinth of Drakes is the fourth book in the five part Lady Trent Memoirs.  Marie Brennan takes her personal knowledge of anthropology, archaeology, and folklore and creates a wonderful world full of dragons and fantasy.  Lady Trent is the protagonist and she seeks to learn more about dragons as an anthropologist in a world that is masochistic.

In this book we see Lady Trent set off for a dry arid land (very much out of her comfort zone) in an attempt to develop a method of breeding dragons that can be used for scientific and military purposes.  If you’ve read other books in the series, the latter part of her purpose may surprise you, but I can assure you it is done in a way very consistent with her character.  While in the desert country, she makes a landmark discovery about dragons and their breeding habits.  This part of the book was so fascinating, that I won’t spoil it here.  The creative genius of this discovery is something I haven’t seen in a novel before, but expect will be used by many writers going forward.

Lady Trent also goes on a harrowing adventure into the desolate desert regions and learns much of dragons, an ancient civilization, and herself.  This book is full of good character development, action, and plot twists you won’t see coming.

In my last book review for this series, Review: Voyage of the Basilisk, I gave this book 5 stars.  I also give this book 5 stars, but for different reasons.  The last book was full of action and adventure, and this one was too, but in a very different way.

Up next:  Night by Elie Wiesel

 

Review: The Cost of Discipleship

I’ve found myself thinking this week about all the Christians I’ve met over the years.  Some of them, when I am first confronted with the idea that they are a Christian, I find myself reeling.  The revelation comes on the back of them saying something very unChristian… gossiping, slandering, making racist comments, proclaiming love for things that are clearly called sin in the Bible, or over the years I’ve known them they’ve never once talked of anything remotely spiritual.  How can such a person exits?

This is, in part, the question Dietrich Bonhoeffer answers with his book The Cost of Discipleship.  These people believe in what Bonhoeffer calls “cheap grace.”  By definition grace is the free gift of God’s love poured out (for now we’ll ignore the more technical definitions of common grace, efficacious grace, and prevenient grace).  Cheap grace is grace that is so “free” it has no lasting meaning.  You can sin today with no care for consequences, because you know that redemption is one free step away.  All you have to do is return to the gift giver and snatch up forgiveness; it has no cost.  Bonhoeffer puts it this way:   “Cheap grace means grace sold on the market like cheapjacks’ wares… Grace without price; grace without cost!  The essence of grace, we suppose, is that the account has been paid in advance; and, because it has been paid, everything can be had for nothing.”

The problems with this are immediately apparent.  Good and godly behavior, need have no place in your life because grace is always there, and for free!  Cheap grace justifies sin, but does not justify the sinner.  That is, it forgives the sin but the sinner remains unsaved.  This is what a church does when it offers community without offering accountability, when it offers forgiveness of sins without any confession or penalty.*

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There have been a very few Christians over the years that when I learned they were believers, it just made sense.  Their life reflected their beliefs in their every action.  These people are the ones that believe grace comes at a cost.  They believe that truly following Jesus costs them everything.  They know that in order to be true followers of Christ they must seek him out at every turn, display God’s love in the core of their being, and always, always repent of sin and strive for a more godly way of living.  Bonhoeffer:  “Costly grace is the gospel which must be sought again and again, the gift which must be asked for, the door at which a man must knock.  Such grace is costly because it calls us to follow, and it is grace because it calls us to follow Jesus Christ.  It is costly because it cost a man [Jesus] his life, and it is grace because it gives a man [you!] the only true life.  It is costly because it condemns sin, and grace because it justifies the sinner.”

Bonhoeffer puts grace into perspective.  He shows that being a disciple of Jesus is not an easy task.  He lays out the foundation of grace at the very beginning of his book and then spends the whole book showing you what a Christian should look like.

This is a book I’ve read several times in my life and I will likely read it many more.  What you may not know about Bonhoeffer is that he was a Christian in Germany during WWII.  He was arrested by the Nazi’s (supposedly for plotting Hitler’s assassination, though proof is lacking).  He spent the rest of his life writing letters and books from prison.  He was an intellectual and a theologian.  His books can take several attempts at reading before the full weight of them is understood, or more accurately a single sentence from Bonhoeffer can take hours to fully digest.  Since I’m a big fan of books that make you think, I am also a big fan of Bonhoeffer.  He pushes your mind and your theology to new places and forces you grapple with the weighty truths you find there; you cannot read his books and come away unchanged.

For the Christian and non-Christian alike, I highly recommend The Cost of Discipleship.  It spells out Christianity in an in-depth and uniquely engaging way.

Overall, I give this book 4.5 stars.

Up next:  In the Labyrinth of Drakes by Marie Brennan

*Salvation does not come through good works, but our works do reflect the state of our hearts James 2.

Review: Voyage of the Basilisk

Voyage of the Basilisk is the third book in the Lady Trent Memoirs.  It’s a five part series of books about a female anthropologist who studies dragons in the Victorian Age.  If you’re looking for a story to read that has a female protagonist fighting for the fair treatment of women, I highly recommend this series.  There are a few parts that I find as mild let downs, but overall this series is great!  Marie Brennan brings her personal knowledge of anthropology, archaeology, and folklore to bear in creating this wonderful world.

Before I get to reviewing Voyage of the Basilisk, I’ll point out that last year I read the first two books in the series, and since that was before this blog, allow me to give you a brief run down.  The first book, A Natural History of Dragons focuses on the childhood and first real adventure of Lady Trent.  It shows her fight against sexism in the scientific and scholarly communities and it shows a woman who follows her passions, wherever they may lead.  The second book, Tropic Of Serpents, shows Lady Trent’s second adventure, wherein we learn just how bad she is at politics and some of the difficulties being a female adventure in a masculine world I’ve never before seen in a book, but is very true to real life.

There is one downside to the fact that this series is written as memoirs, and that is the very fact that memoirs are often written with allusions to things that happen in the future (at least from the perspective from where you are in the story).  And that happens a lot in these books.  Despite that, Steph and I still like the series enough to recommend the books, but we do warn that the first two books are a bit slow to develop, but the plots get stronger with each passing book and the adventures kick off much faster in the latter books.

Now on to the review.

Voyage of the Basilisk begins with the action taking place as early as chapter two.  Lady Tent goes on an exciting sea adventure to study all kinds of dragons across the world.  She faces challenges at nearly every turn and meets some fascinating characters.

This is easily my favorite book in the series, and I am struggling with what to say to get you excited about this book while also not revealing too much of the plot.  What I can say is this, Lady Trent navigates the great seas, visiting several nations to see their specific breeds of dragons.  Along the way she learns to swim, swims with many sea creatures, and meets my favorite character in the series!  (Which I say having read all five at this point, expect the last two reviews in the coming weeks.)  We also get to see her raising her son as a single mom with a career and learning life lessons.

Based on her writing style, I think this book is a perfectly fine book to read even if you haven’t read the first two.  It might be a bit harder to follow all of her allusions, but she often describes the scenes she’s referring to, even though she’s already written about them previously.  Give this book a read!

Overall, I give this book 5 stars.

Up next:  The Cost of Discipleship by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

 

Review: The Tales of Beedle the Bard

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J.K. Rowling wrote three books to raise money for charities.  I’ve already reviewed Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, and some day I’ll get my hands on the last one, Quidditch Through the Ages.  For now though, allow me to review The Tales of Beedle the Bard.

In The Tales of Beedle the Bard, there are four short stories, faerie tales, that center around the wizarding world of Harry Potter.  If you’re a fan of Harry Potter, you’re likely already familiar with the last of those four short stories, The Tale of the Three Brothers.  This story is pulled straight out of the final book in the Harry Potter series.  If you haven’t read that far, you should save reading these faerie tales until after you have.  Or else you risk some spoilers.

The other three stories are unique and engaging.  They each teach morals (as so many faerie tales do) and they do it in a fun way.  You’ll recognize the name of at least one from having read the stories and imaging Ron’s perplexed face when he finds out that Hermoine and Harry have never heard of Rabbitty Babbitty.  But the other three I think will be fresh titles and stories for anyone reading this for the first time:  The Wizard and the Hopping Pot, The Fountain of Fair Fortune, and The Warlock’s Hairy Heart.  I found each of these stories to be simply delightful, and if I ever have the joy of raising children, I do believe these stories will be read to them as the drift softly to sleep.

I highly recommend this book.  It’s short and endearing.  I give it a strong 5 star recommendation.

Next up: The Voyage of the Basilisk by Marie Brennan

Review: The Limners: America’s Earliest Portrait Painters

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During the month of May I was having a hard time reading.  By the end of the month I hadn’t read a single book and was in danger of not meeting my objective of one book per month.  We went with my niece and her boyfriend to Seattle, where I snuck into the local library and found a small, interesting, little book to read quickly to meet my requirements.

I had no idea what I was getting into when I choose this book.  It’s a look at art in America as we began to build cities and grow as a nation.  Most people back then were illiterate, so sign makers had to make beautiful signs that showed what kind of business was inside.  Those same artists would also be used by the wealthy to do portraits of them and their family.  Often these portraits would display the profession of the person depicted.  But the artists back then did not aim for life like images.  Often their depictions came out disproportionate and lifeless.  It’s an interesting phase in our artistic history.  And if you’re into art it’s well worth your time to look into this era and how it has effected us today.

This book gave a nice overview of the topic and was fascinating to read.  Overall I give it 2 stars.

Next Up: The Tales of Beedle the Bard by J. K. Rowling

Review: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them

Newt Scamander’s best work.  Newt Scamander wrote a brilliant little textbook that covers many of the mythical beast you’ve heard of (several you haven’t) and (as the name implies) where you might be able to find them.  The addition I picked up came complete with impetuous student notes carelessly written in the margins.

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J.K. Rowling wrote this as a fund raising opportunity.  I’ll be honest it’s hard to read, who enjoys reading a textbook?  It’s a fun novelty item, but it strains the bounds of enjoyment and in some ways the bounds of credibility.  Rowling had Hermione write in the book too, which is something she would have never done.

Overall I give this book 2 stars.

Next Up: The Limners: America’s Earliest Portrait Painters by Leonard Everett Fisher

Review: World Sourdoughs from Antiquity

If Ken Forkish’s book Flour Water Salt Yeast made sourdough bread seem simple and scientific, Ed Wood’s World Sourdoughs from Antiquity made it seem mystical and magical.  It’s interesting as Ed Wood’s biography shows him to be a biologist, someone who should understand the science of how the yeast operates.

Wood makes it seem like exact ratios have little to no effect on final bread product.  He says that the quality of the water doesn’t matter much.  This is problematic for me for several reasons.  Firstly, pure water allows for a better flavor in making root beer from scratch.  It is often what is recommended for all kinds of home brewing.  Secondly, we’ve tried to use tap water to make sourdough bread before and we had problem with the efficacy of the yeast.  It was far less effective.  We theorize that this has to due with the chemicals we put in our water in the US to keep it safe for drinking.  Continuing his nonscientific approaches, he also advocates for measuring by volume rather than weight.

Ed Wood tells some great stories about how he has saved various strains of yeast from different parts of the world and made bread with them.  These stories are entertaining and engaging.  Definitely worth reading if you have interest in this hobby.  However, if you wish to use the recipes, I’d say be prepared to do some work perfecting them.  I will give the caveat that we did lose our levain before I was able to try any of these recipes.

Overall I give this book 3 stars.

Next Up: Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them by Newt Scamander

Review: Flour Water Salt Yeast

For somewhere near eight years of my life I battled stomach pains so intense that I would curl up in a ball for a day or two waiting for it to go away.  I tried and failed to chart what was causing it.  When I married my wife, at the time a chef, I asked her to help me figure it out.  It seemed obvious it was food related but it was so sporadic when it would hit.

We tried a great variety of different diets to pin point what was happening.  We tried removing lactose, gluten, and various other things, and while some of them seemed to alleviate some of the other symptoms of my stomach issues, none of them took away the sharp pains.  One of the last resorts we went to was trying probiotics to see if that would do anything, and amazingly it did!  Probiotics reduced the amount of time I laid in pain and if I was able to sense it coming I could take a pill and eliminate the pain before it started.  But it required constant vigilance to retain a normal feeling stomach.

I wasn’t quite satisfied with it as I believe we can fix many of our bodies health issues by proper dieting and I’d rather work at doing that than taking a mystery pill to fix it.  Probiotics are a concentrated form of bacteria designed to bring your stomach back into balance.  Yogurt is known to be one of the best sources of natural probiotics, but it didn’t serve me well.  And so for a year or two we continued this delicate balance, with no idea what might fix this dieting issue.

Around this time last year, we were watching The Great British Baking Show and I saw a baker bring out a tub of some gooey substance that he claimed he kept in his closet.  Steph and I had a conversation about what it was (sourdough starter) and I got super excited about the idea of making bread with home grown yeast.  Steph began doing some research on it and found a blog where a mom talked about all of her children having stomach issues and starting her own bread using sourdough starter (levain) fixed all of their issues.  With even more excitement we began our own levain.  It instantly healed my stomach but after a month of baking bread we forgot about feeding our levain and returned to our normal dieting regime.

Six months or so later we decided to restart our bread making (both for need of my stomach and also for the delicious results of these efforts).  As part of restarting our levain, we decided to buy a book and work with it to get things going much better.  Steph did some research and found Flour Water Salt Yeast by Ken Forkish and so began some amazing food experiments.

Book Review – Flour Water Salt Yeast

Ken Forkish writes much about the history of bread, the benefits and drawbacks of various flours, yeasts, and why you only need four ingredients to make a delicious bread.  With exclusion to one recipe in his book, all of his bread recipes are constructed from only flour, water, salt, and yeast.  (That one recipe is bacon bread, because what isn’t improved with a dead pig?  Really, nothing.)

If you want to try making bread with or without levain this book will tell you how to do it and gives you recipes to practice with and suggestions for how you can tweak them into something of your very own.

Ken talks at length about how the best flavored breads come, not from commercial yeast, but from a levain you grow yourself.  His method of growing one is very different than what we tried when we did our little bit of internet research the first time, and I think it has a lot to do with how scientific he gets with his approach.  Throughout the book he includes very engaging stories of his successes and failures in the baking world.  Having made a good number of the recipes I can also say that his theory that all you need is these four ingredients to create an abundance of delicious flavors is very well proven.

This books makes me feel like a bread expert, like I can figure out any issue with the bread.  On a knowledge level that might even be true, I have solved several issues, but on a practical level I have trouble working the dough.  I simple can’t say enough good things about this book.  If you want to know how to bake bread, get this book… it’ll make it seem like baking is as simple as eating cake.

Overall, I give this book five stars.

Next Up: World Sourdoughs from Antiquity by Ed Wood