Friday, July 29, 2011

save the upper middle class americans!

I love this. It perfectly shows the utter ridiculousness in the panic surrounding Netflix's price hike. (In case you're wondering, I'm still planning to cancel the dvd portion of my service come September 1. And no, I don't need a sponsor to give me $6 so I can keep the dvds.)

Monday, July 25, 2011

what do ratings mean?

This afternoon, someone commented on my Amazon review of Stealing Jake wondering why I gave the book four stars. He (or she?) said that I seemed to really enjoy the book, so why not give it five stars?

That caused me to think. When I assign a star rating to a product, what exactly does that mean? According to Amazon, the stars have the following meanings: 1--I hate it. 2--I don't like it. 3--It's OK. 4--I like it. 5--I love it. Those are basically the meanings I'd assigned to the stars without ever knowing what Amazon's standard was, so that's good! For me, the hardest ratings to assign are 4 and 5 stars. If I dislike something, I'll probably give it 2 stars (I've actually never used 1 star on a product I've reviewed ... although in retrospect, there are a few books I could have given 1 star to!). If I'm ambivalent toward something, it gets 3 stars. But how do I decide between 4 and 5 stars? It usually comes down to emotion. If I've emotionally connected with a book or movie, it'll likely receive 5 stars. If I enjoyed it but didn't love it, it will probably get 4 stars. (This theory doesn't work all the time though--I gave my Gain detergent 5 stars, and I certainly didn't emotionally connect with it!)

After pondering my ratings and the rationale behind them, I decided to see what the norm for my reviews is. I looked back at all 79 of my Amazon reviews, and I learned something about myself--I've become a pickier (or perhaps more discerning?) reviewer. If I were to assign a star rating to my first ten Amazon reviews today,  four of the ten would get at least one fewer star. (Field of Blood, I'm looking at you!) I also tallied up the number of reviews I have for each star. The number of positive reviews didn't surprise me, as I usually only pick products to review that I think I'll enjoy--why would I torture myself with a book that I know won't interest me?--but what surprised me was how close my 4 and 5 star reviews were. 5--29; 4--28; 3--15; 4--7. I'm sure that if Amazon had a 4.5 star rating, I would have far fewer 5 stars.

I'm grateful for the commenter who caused me to think through my ratings. And while I stand by my 4-star rating for Stealing Jake, I know I'll put more thought into my ratings in the future.

If you're a reviewer, what is your thought process behind your ratings?

"mugabe and the white african" preview #2

I know I just blogged about this yesterday, but today Litfuse asked me to post the following. I figure it can't hurt anything to remind you about it twice!

One family’s stand for Justice – catch the story on PBS 7/26!

I'll be blogging about the book Mugabe and the White African later this month, but I wanted to let you know that Point of View will air the documentary Mugabe and the White African on Tuesday, July 26th.

The film tells the story of Mike Campbell and his family of three generations of Zimbabwean farmers as they attempt to keep their farm under Mugabe's "land reform." Watch the trailer for the documentary below and visit the PBS Point of View website for your local listing.

The book Mugabe and the White African (Lion Books, distributed by Kregel Publications, July 15, 2011, ISBN: 978-0-7459-5546-9, $14.95) written by Mike Campbell's son-in-law Ben Freeth provides more detail regarding the family's struggles and court battles.The book chronicles the deeply moving and life-threatening struggle of a Christian family from Zimbabwe to protect their legally owned farmland, to protect the lives and livelihoods of all those working on the farm, and to live to see justice.

Freeth lays bare a beautiful but lawless land fouled by fear. A 'Clockwork Orange' state where racism, greed, and violence are ultimately humbled by almost unimaginable courage. Richly described, bravely chronicled, and utterly compelling. 
-Mike Thomson, Radio Foreign Affairs Correspondent, BBC

Ben Freeth has an extraordinary story to tell. Like that of many white farmers, his family's land was "reclaimed" for redistribution by Mugabe's government. But Ben's family fought back. Appealing to international law, they instigated a suit against Mugabe's government in the SADC, the Southern African equivalent of NATO. The case was deferred time and again while Mugabe's men pulled strings. But after Freeth and his parents-in-law were abducted and beaten within inches of death in 2008, the SADC deemed any further delay to be an obstruction of justice. The case was heard, and was successful on all counts.

But the story doesn't end there. In 2009 the family farm was burned to the ground. The fight for justice in Zimbabwe is far from over--this book is for anyone who wants to see into the heart of one of today's hardest places and how human dignity flourishes even in the most adverse circumstances.

Read an Excerpt (PDF)

Read the Press Release

Sunday, July 24, 2011

"stealing jake" by pam hillman

Livy O'Brien and her mentor, Mrs. Brooks, run an orphanage in a small town outside Chicago. When sheriff's deputy Jake Russell begins to suspect street children from Chicago are responsible for the rash of burglaries in town, he finds himself at odds with Livy, who would do anything to protect the children. Luke, one of the street children, came to Chestnut to search for his brother, who was sold to a sweatshop owner. In order for Livy to prove the children innocent, Jake to catch the thief, and Luke to find his brother, the three will have to learn to trust each other.

I very much enjoyed Stealing Jake, Pam Hillman's debut novel. The character development is fantastic, and by the end of the book, I felt like I actually knew the characters. I especially enjoyed Luke's character. He began only caring about finding his brother, but as the story progressed, he evolved into a protector/father figure for many of the street children, and his story quickly became my favorite of all the plot lines.

Stealing Jake is one of Tyndale's new e-book only titles, making it affordable (it's currently free on Amazon!) and convenient. I highly recommend it!

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from Tyndale House Publishers as part of the Digital First program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

"mugabe and the white african" preview

Next month, I'll be reviewing Ben Freeth's book, Mugabe and the White African. I haven't read the book yet, but I'm very interested to, especially after seeing this trailer for the PBS Point of View documentary of the same name that will air next week:

Watch the full episode. See more POV.

The documentary will air Tuesday night (check your local listings) and will then be available online beginning on Wednesday.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

"a short life well lived" by tom sullivan

Though blind, Brian has lived an idyllic life. He's a respected prosecutor in the DA's office; he is married to a beautiful woman; his children adore him. Suddenly, Brian's world is shattered when his 11-year-old son, Tommy, is diagnosed with cancer. A nominal Catholic (at best), Brian struggles to understand how a God who is supposed to be loving could allow his boy to become so ill. He soon meets Rev. Clayton McRae, the chaplain at Tommy's hospital. Through friendship and understanding, Clayton helps Brian come to grips with Tommy's illness and helps him understand the faith that everyone around him seems to embrace.

As I read this book, I found my opinion switching frequently. Parts of it were wonderful: The plot was heart wrenching. (Anyone who has seen a loved one go through a horrible illness will identify.) The writing was engaging, and the glimpse into the life of a blind man was informative and entertaining. And I teared up multiple times as Tommy's illness progressed--the story is quite realistic.

The problems, though, perhaps outweigh the positives. Sullivan wants to weave faith into the novel, which is a noble goal. In fact, much of the story centers around Brian's faith ... or lack thereof. The problem, as I see it, is what that faith looks like. As I read, the question I kept asking myself was, "What is the gospel according to this book?" The answer, as best as I could grasp it, is this: God loves you. If you follow God, you'll go to heaven. But what does it mean to follow God? That's unclear. The cross is never mentioned, and Jesus and sin are just given a few sentences in passing. I also found it troubling that the one time sin is mentioned, it's when Brian is asking Rev. McRae about prayer. McRae says that confession is an essential part of prayer, and Brian quickly asks what sins Tommy could have committed in his short life. I thought this would finally be the point where the gospel came out. But no. Instead, McRae brushes over it and says that they're talking about Brian, not Tommy.

I had one other major issue with the book, but this wasn't theological. While most of the book was well written and engaging, the parts where the doctors were explaining Tommy's diagnosis and treatment plan were, well, boring. I skimmed them.

As a novel, I really enjoyed this book. As a Christian novel, I had problems with it. It does a great job of showing God's love and sovereignty, and I think it could help people deal with grief and the "whys" of life. But I think it's also misleading, as--even though it sounds nice--salvation doesn't come from simply believing there is a God and He loves us.

About the Author

Tom Sullivan, known to many as an actor, singer, entertainer, author, and producer, lives and works by "Sullivan's Rules". Born prematurely in 1947, Tom was given too much oxygen while in an incubator. Though it saved his life, it cost him his eyesight. The "inconvenience" of being blind has never kept Tom Sullivan from competing in a world where he realized that to be equal, for him, meant that he must be better.

Over the years he's made a number of guest-starring appearances in shows such as Designing Women, Highway to Heaven, Fame, M.A.S.H., Mork & Mindy, and WKRP in Cincinnati. To create the characters and fulfill the role of a blind man on prime time, he also helped write and develop many of these stories. he gained popularity on daytime TV as a regular on Search For Tomorrow and was awarded the 1984 Governors Committee Award for his role. Tome has also been nominated twice for Emmy Awards. As a special correspondent for ABC's Good Morning America, Tom has become a regular morning fixture in millions of American homes. his touching and insightful reports give many that "you can do it" bit of inspiration to start their day. Whether it was snow skiing with his son in Colorado, or interviewing the legendary Jack Nicklaus over a few holes of golf, his reporting is memorable. He is now writing and producing for television and film. He is a bestselling author of fiction, non-fiction, and children's books.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free for review from Glass Road Public Relations. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

celebrating my 30th

What should I do for my 30th birthday?

That's a question I've been contemplating for a while now ... and the day is rapidly approaching! Well, I now know what I'll be doing--first, I'll spend the day in staff in-service (not my first choice!), and then I'll head to Omaha for Women of Faith!

I'm very excited to attend Women of Faith this year--and I'm grateful to BookSneeze for hooking me up with tickets. The last Women of Faith conference I attended was in 1998 when I was still in high school. I went with my mom and a few ladies from our church, and this time I'm going with my mom again! I just reread my journal entry from right after the 1998 conference, and at the time, I said it was one of the greatest weekends ever. I'm really looking forward to another Women of Faith experience! I'll be blogging about it again after the weekend, so stay tuned! If you want to get your own tickets, you can click on the badge at the top right of the page. I'd love to see you there!

Monday, July 18, 2011

"forsaken kingdom: city of prophecy" by peter dudek

A while ago, I started following a blog written by my college roommate Jodi's husband, Peter. Peter writes Christian fantasy, and he offered to send me a copy of his book, Forsaken Kingdom: City of Prophecy, to review. I accepted—with some trepidation. What if the book was horrible? Would my friendship with Peter's wife suffer if I panned his book? (No, I didn't really expect either of those outcomes, but they did weigh on my mind.)

Fortunately, the book wasn't horrible—far from it, in fact! So it is with great pleasure that I can give City of Prophecy a favorable review.

In a nutshell, City of Prophecy sets up a battle between good and evil in the land of Arvalast. The story centers around the people of Woodend, one of Arvalast's cities. Tarin, a shy teen, has the power to see evil (in the form of shadows), and another boy, Sarky, becomes physically ill whenever evil approaches. When Gildareth, a herald of the King, arrives in Woodend, he tells Tarin and Sarky about the epic battle that is quickly approaching as the number of King followers dwindles. AND ... I don't really know what else to tell you! City of Prophecy is difficult to explain without giving away too many details--and trust me, these are details you'll want to discover on your own!

City of Prophecy had elements that reminded me of The Lord of the Rings trilogy, Ted Dekker's Circle series, Harry Potter, and Chuck Black's The Knights of Arrethtrae series. Basically, this means City of Prophecy fits well within the fantasy genre.

On top of a fascinating story that kept me guessing, Dudek's strength lies in his descriptions. Some authors go completely overboard in describing their characters and settings; others don't explain enough, and the reader has difficulty comprehending the author's world. Also, when the story features elements not present in our world, "seeing" them as a reader can be especially difficult. Dudek was able to take the picture in his mind and translate it into words in a way that I could quite easily grasp. I could see what Tarin saw; I could feel what Sarky felt.

City of Prophecy's biggest flaw is that Dudek introduces so many characters in such a short amount of time that I had difficulty remembering who was who. This was compounded by the fact that most characters had "odd" names that didn't easily stick in my mind. A character list that briefly explained the characters and showed how they were related to one another would have been invaluable!

If you read it, you should be aware that it's planned as a trilogy, so don't expect things to wrap up neatly. In fact, it ends at a place where you really want to know what's going to happen next! And now here's the bad news: Dudek self published Forsaken Kingdom: City of Prophecy (through his own Carnation City Press), and he's trying to find a traditional publisher for book two rather than publishing it himself. So it sounds like I may be left hanging for quite a while.

As you know if you've followed this blog very long, I read a lot. And through the years, I've read a lot of really terrible books—cheesy, clichéd romances are a dime a dozen (and I tend to find them ...). What Peter Dudek has written in his first Forsaken Kingdom book is better than many books I've read, and I hope a traditional publisher will give him a chance--soon, preferably, so I can find out what happens to Tarin and company!

Check out Peter's website here, and you can read a sample of City of Prophecy (or purchase the whole book) here.

Update 3-17-12: As of right now, the Kindle edition is only $2.99! Get it here!  

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a copy of this book free for review from the author. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

calming down about netflix

In the summer of 2007, I joined Netflix. Over the past four years, I've been an extremely satisfied customer. I've even blogged (rather dorkily) about my love for Netflix. At first, I loved all the dvd options suddenly available to me. I joined at the beginning of instant streaming, and at first, I could stream eight hours a month. Soon, Netflix removed the time limitations on many plans, and I could get as many dvds per month as I wanted (one at a time) and watch as much instantly as I wanted. Back then, Netflix's streaming library was pretty terrible, but in the last couple years, the streaming options have gotten much better. I'm at the point now where I watch much more instantly than I do on dvd. (This is how I watched Prison Break, Jericho, Parks & Recreation, Monarch of the Glen, Veronica Mars, and Dollhouse--shows that I absolutely loved but would never have tried if not for streaming.)

This afternoon, I heard about Netflix's new price structure. Now, dvd plans and streaming plans are separate, and to get what I currently have--one dvd at a time and unlimited streaming--I'll have to pay almost $16 per month. That's a hike of about 60%.

My first reaction was outrage--how dare they! I soon saw I wasn't alone. Netflix users tweeted their feelings in droves, and "Dear Netflix" was a trending topic. The blog post announcing the changes had 5000 comments the last time I checked, and nearly all the comments I read were negative.

Then, I stopped to think about it. Perhaps this isn't the smartest move on Netflix's part. Perhaps customers will leave in droves. Perhaps Netflix will rethink this and come up with some sort of "bundle." Perhaps Netflix will be just fine. But Netflix is providing a service that I can choose to have or not have. No one is forcing me to pay $16 per month. If I want to get dvds and streaming, then I'll pay the money. If $16 per month for Netflix is too much for me (and it is), then I have a decision to make. Netflix is a luxury, but at $8 per month (the cost of either dvd or streaming), I can afford it. So I just have to decide which plan I want to keep--dvds or streaming. I'm leaning toward streaming right now, but I have until Sept. 1 (the day the new price structure goes into place for current customers) to decide. In the meantime, I'll keep my eye on what's happening, but I'll also keep my sanity!

Monday, July 11, 2011

my day with ryan reynolds

No, I didn’t actually spend a day with Ryan Reynolds. (Insert my cousin screaming, “I love Ryan Reynolds!” in the background here.) But I did dream about spending a day with him—I mean an actual dream, not a “Wouldn’t it be nice if Ryan Reynolds fell in love with me?” fantasy.

While I used to have crazy dreams all the time (like the time someone was trying to turn me into a statue by forcing me to eat crunchy Cheetos or the time there was a bucking bronco competition in our college cafeteria), I normally don’t have them any more … or at least I don’t remember them!

Here are the factors that I believe led to this dream (which I’ll soon get around to sharing with you):

  • A conversation about X-Men Origins: Wolverine (specifically concerning Deadpool) at dinner.
  • A less than ideal hotel room, which made me insanely uncomfortable as I attempted to go to sleep. (Seriously, never ever stay at the Travelodge in Davenport, Iowa. It was, without a doubt, the worst hotel I’ve ever stayed at.)
  • Spinach. (I don’t know if spinach is known to cause weird dreams, but I ate a large amount of it in my yummy Panera lemon chicken orzo soup a couple hours before bed … and I never eat any green stuff! So let me blame it on the spinach, okay?)

So, here goes …

I went to the mall (already this dream is quite abnormal, as I usually try to avoid the mall), where I ran into Anna, an acquaintance. She looked about eight months pregnant, and after we watched a man try to sell a very large pin art toy (so large you could do an impression of your entire body), she said she needed to get off her feet and wondered if I’d like to get a pedicure with her. We went into a nearby nail salon, but they didn’t have two open chairs, so she got her toes done while I sat on an ottoman by her feet. I glanced down the row of chairs and saw Tonya, one of my coworkers. I waved at her, but as soon as I did, I realized it wasn’t really Tonya. I was embarrassed to have been waving at a stranger, but she didn’t even notice me. The guy in the chair next to her did, though, and he waved back. He was wearing a very obviously fake blonde moustache, but I knew who he was immediately, and without thinking, I blurted out, “That’s Ryan Reynolds!” He tried to hide by pretending to look around for “himself,” but then his moustache slid down his face so it was covering his mouth at an angle, and other people started recognizing him.

Suddenly, Ryan, a crowd of girls, my sister Val, and I were in this giant old gymnasium where some old professor was giving a history lecture—but no one was listening because all the girls wanted their pictures taken with Ryan. Finally, I worked up the nerve to ask for a picture, and I handed my camera to some girl, but she couldn’t figure out how to work my simple point-and-shoot camera. She took a bunch of horrible pictures, and then I spotted Ryan Stauffer, one of my college classmates. (I guess this was just a “Ryan” kind of dream!) I asked him to take the picture of me, Ryan Reynolds, and Val, and while he was getting the camera ready, I suddenly told everyone to go to Kickstarter and support Ryan Stauffer’s movie, Murder! A Love Story. I was quite pleased when Ryan Reynolds said it sounded cool and he’d definitely look it up. Then his manager made him leave, and I shared my caramel corn (huh?) with Mr. P (the shop teacher from my high school) and his wife. Then Val and I had to hurry to catch our boat (again, huh?), but what I really wanted to do was look at the pictures. I never got a chance before I woke up.

So why did I remember it? Because when I woke up at 5:45 a.m., I thought, “If I don’t write this down, I’m going to forget it.” And then I got out of bed, grabbed a notebook, and started writing. In the dark. But almost everything is legible!

(FYI--Ryan Stauffer really is making a movie. While the Kickstarter funding project failed, you can still check out info on Murder! A Love Story at its website and on Ryan's site. It's going to be filmed in my old dorm!)

Sunday, July 3, 2011

"the art of romance" by kaye dacus

A couple weeks ago, Peter at wrote about meeting Christian romance writer Kaye Dacus. I'd never heard of her before, so I clicked on over to her website, where I found this quote:
My heart is, as it has been for more than twenty years, focused on writing light-hearted romances. But not just any romances. I like writing characters who represent a growing segment of the population that seems to be increasingly left out in Christian circles: women in their late-twenties, thirties, and early-forties (and even older) who have never been married and who want to be loved and accepted for who they are, not pigeon-holed into a category, labeled, or, as happens most often, shoved to the side and ignored/forgotten about by their churches, coworkers, or even friends and family. I’m writing to the women who, like me, expected to be married before they turned twenty-five (-six, -seven, -eight . . .), but who may find themselves now in their mid- to late-thirties or forties and have never even had a date or meaningful relationship.
As soon as I read that, I knew I needed to give her books a chance. The older I get, the less inclined I am to read romances that feature girls in their late teens to early twenties. That's just not where I am anymore, and I want to read about women who may be a little like me--because, strange though it may sound given this is fiction, their love stories give me hope that my own will come someday.

Quite by accident, I found Dacus's The Art of Romance available for review on NetGalley. Without hesitation, I sent a review request. Four days later, I've read the entire book ... and this is while I've been moving!

Caylor is an English professor who helps care for her grandmother while writing Christian romance novels on the side. Dylan moves in with his grandparents after a scandal involving the chair of his department causes him to lose his position as an instructor at a prestigious art school. As both are single, their grandmothers scheme to get them together, but each is harboring a secret that could drive the other away. (And that's all you're gonna get from me--if you want to know about their secrets, you'll just have to get the book for yourself!)

I really enjoyed The Art of Romance! While it was in some ways your predictable boy-meets-girl romance, the plot took several twists and turns I wasn't expecting. I also appreciated that both main characters had a past. Dylan especially had a lot of issues to work through, and he really grew as a character throughout the book. No, this book won't change the world, but it certainly was a lot of fun to read--and isn't that what we want during the summer? I will definitely be checking out more books by Kaye Dacus!

This is the second book in The Matchmakers series (though it functions as a stand alone title, as well): The Art of Romance and Love Remains (book one) are available now, and Turnabout's Fair Play will release in November.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a galley of this book free for review from Barbour Publishing through NetGalley. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission's 16 CFR, Part 255: "Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising."