The Last King of the Jews

The Last King of the Jews coverThe Last King of the Jews
By Jean-Claude Lattès
Translated by William Rodarmor
Éditions Robert Laffont
14 January 2014

I know very little about Jewish history, so reading an entire book about Agrippa kind of out of the blue was certainly an experience. Most of what I do know centers around Jesus (because I was raised Christian) and World War II (in a “let’s never do that again” kind of way). I was worried that The Last King of the Jews would be reminiscent of Last King of Scotland, but thankfully, Agrippa was a “peace-loving, thoughtful, tolerant ruler” and therefore nothing at all like Idi Amin.

At the beginning of this biography, after a brief section which details the cast of characters (which I admit blurred together a bit for me), the author makes a number of notations. First, the story presented is a staged novel, complete with points of view, judgments, and the prejudices of the era. Second, and more importantly for me, there’s an appendix at the end that gives a very brief history of the Jews and Judea up to 43 BCE, definitely recommended reading for someone who knows as little Jewish history as I do.

In a case where I need to flip back and forth for end notes and appendices, as I did with The Last King of the Jews, I really prefer to have a hardcopy rather than the ebook version I was provided, if only for ease of use on my part, but that’s not a point against the biography itself, just the format. I don’t think that it’s being sold in print form (only as an ebook, as far as I’m aware), however, so take that into consideration when purchasing. To the publisher’s credit, the virtual copy I received was well-formatted, and I was able to move back and forth between sections with only basic difficulty.

After reading the survey of Jewish history, I still think that The Last King is at least an intermediary text rather than an introductory one. On every page, names I probably should’ve recognized (at least recognized in context) just flew by without sticking. I was able to get the feel for recurring characters, of course, but not in the sense that I could connect them to any actual historical personage outside the context of the story. (The one exception to this was that I was able to place Herod, the king who sent the three wise men to visit Jesus.)

It was like reading a historical novel, honestly, and if I hadn’t known it was actually a biography, I might’ve just taken the story as fiction. (See how much I don’t know about Jewish history? Sad, I know.) The Last King has so much information in it, however, that trying to absorb it all makes it a slow, albeit entertaining, read. I’ll have to return to Agrippa again in the future in order to take in more of the history, which was at times overwhelming the first read through.

DISCLAIMER: I received The Last King of the Jews free from Open Road Integrated Media for this review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Pr1me of Life

Pr1me of Life coverPr1me of Life
By P.D. Bekendam
Worthy Publishing
04 February 2014

Pr1me of Life was a pleasant surprise. I don’t know what I was expecting when I saw the cover—my sister mentioned it looked like a self-help book when she walked by me reading it one afternoon—but Ben, the main character; the residents of Heritage Gardens, where Ben works as a custodian; and the mishaps they overcome and growth they undertake all managed to keep me turning pages until the epilogue, where the story jumps ahead five years and acts as a denouement.

Ben has a secret: he’s a former cardiothoracic surgeon who couldn’t stop his brother from dying on the operating table in front of him. In panic and despair, he dropped everything and fled to the other side of the country, where he took up as the custodian of Heritage Garden, an old folks home where the residents are as loving, cantankerous, and human as anyone else. And that’s just the beginning of the story.

The entire cast of characters include Frank and Marvin, two men who’ve known each other from childhood and who constantly play pranks on one another; Jerry, a man with multiple doctoral degrees who Ben calls the Professor; Betty, an older woman not really old enough to be in a nursing home; Lex, a podiatrist who has a crush on Ben (and visa versa); and Hailey, Betty’s niece who visits the facility after her grandfather dies there and who gets caught in the storyline just as it begins to take off. Other characters make appearances: Jane, who has a thing for Frank; Junior, the manager who has a gambling problem; and Sam, the grandfather who dies and whose funeral brings together the members of what becomes a hodgepodge family of sorts.

Wracked with guilt over not being able to save his brother, Ben spends his mental energy avoiding the past and counting prime numbers: his steps, the arrangement of the books on his shelves, the stripes on his shirts, and more. After he and the residents learn that Junior has gambled away the funds to keep Heritage Gardens open for much longer and the property will default if they don’t do something, Ben discovers that he’s got the $23,000,000 prize-winning lottery ticket and could save the day… if only he can find it.

The novel is written in first person present perspective, with the exception of Ben’s flashbacks to his abandoned life, which are in first person past tense. I don’t usually like the present tense in novels, but the author of Pr1me of Life managed to write in such a way that wasn’t at all distracting. The story is also a romance, kind of, which I also don’t usually like, but the difficulties Ben must surmount really make the romance an important side story, but a side story nonetheless. I identified with Ben’s obsessive-compulsive behavior (I have OCD myself) and his troubles with extreme avoidance.

Though it’s published by a Christian press and one of the themes of the novel is “believing and trusting in someone greater than oneself”, I didn’t feel beat over the head with God stuff, not even during the epilogue, where it was the most obvious. The message wasn’t heavy-handed, and it made sense in the context of the story, which is really what it’s all about for me. I have to say, this is one of the better pieces of Christian fiction I’ve ever read. Kudos to Bekendam for his storytelling skills. I would be happy to recommend this novel to anyone who enjoys realistic fiction, Christian or otherwise.

DISCLAIMER: I received Pr1me of Life free from Worthy Publishing for this review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Luminary

Luminary coverLuminary
By Krista McGee
Thomas Nelson Publishers
21 January 2014

Luminary is the second of three post-apocalyptic novels centering around Thalli and her quest from anomaly… to luminary… to revolutionary. (Here’s my review of the first book, Anomaly, from last August.) The third book in the trilogy comes out in July this year and, as you may have guessed, is titled Revolutionary.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. I really, really wanted to like Luminary—I enjoy reading stories with dystopian futures wherein the characters struggle and overcome—but it just felt like to too much obvious God stuff for me. I like rooting for the underdog, and the society set up in this trilogy makes Christianity an underdog belief system, but that’s difficult for me to swallow because it’s not an underdog belief system now.

The first book covers Thalli’s discovery of “the Designer” and her struggle to control her emotions in order to save her own life in an underground city where emotions and sickness—even something as mild as a head cold—are banned because the leaders deemed them dangerous to society. After all, emotions and sicknesses can lead to war, pandemics, and death. The Designer is introduced, but it’s not until the end of the book, when she takes a leap of faith, that it’s gets heavy on the Christian extended metaphor.

Well, in Luminary, the characters have already been introduced to the Designer and have learned to pray (“It means he’s talking to the Designer” one character says to another when she asks what ‘praying’ is). All of the main characters from the first book—Thalli, Berk, Rhen, and the old man John—have escaped the confines of their former underground home to the surface above. Thalli’s first love, blooming with Berk in Anomaly, is effectively shut down by Berk and Rhen’s close relationship as the group makes their collective way in a world completely new to them. (Well, the world’s not new to John, but he hasn’t seen it in a while, either, and he spends most of his time praying and thanking the Designer for all that happens to them, the good and the bad.)

But wait! Thalli and the group come upon a city named New Hope, and then they get mixed up in the New Hope’s war with another city, Athens, and its king. The king is, of course, evil and murderous, but his son Alex and daughter Helen try to help Thalli anyway. Thalli’s brand new faith in the Designer is sorely tested, but she, at least, survives the novel. Unfortunately, not all the characters are so lucky.

As there are two (or more) sides to every story, and we learned the Scientists’ side in the first novel, in Luminary we learn “what really happened all those years ago” and Thalli must reassess everything she’s ever been taught.

It’s not bad writing, and it’s not a poor storyline; it just has too much “God is obviously the only way” stuff for my liking. The dichotomy that’s written into the novel doesn’t sit well with me, and it doesn’t really strike me as authentic: it’s as though the author is simultaneously saying “it’s complicated” and “not everything is as complicated as it may at first seem” and doesn’t do justice to either statement. Reading Luminary feels to me like the author had an archetype and tried to make the story fit into her agenda, rather than writing the story freely and then looking for the lessons that could be emphasized upon further editing.

DISCLAIMER: I received Luminary free from Thomas Nelson Publishers for this review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

wIsr 00: why I stopped reading

I receive far too many advanced reading copies to give each book I receive a proper read and thoughtful review. I actually have to look for reasons not to continue reading because my time is valuable and I can’t afford to waste it.

In terms of scope, “why I stopped reading” (or wIsr) is similar to One Paragraph. (You can learn more about One Paragraph here.) The primary difference between them is that the books in wIsr will focus on—as you may have already guessed—why I stopped reading. One Paragraph is for things I have finished but don’t have time to give a proper, full-length interview.

So here’s how it’s going to work. I’ll include the title with an appropriate link (if any) and then explain how many pages I read, why I put the book down, and how many pages in total to give an idea of how far I got before getting fed up. I may also include the book’s genre, how it came into my possession, and in what format I received it. In some cases, I may include what I’ll be doing with my copy (ie: giving it away, donating it, or deleting it forever, etc.) and to whom, if anyone, I would deign to recommend it.

I will always try to pinpoint why I didn’t finish the book in question, but these are some common reasons I might stop:
—poor writing (sentence structure, paragraphs, etc.)
—poor spelling, grammar, punctuation, etc.
—poor plot or no plot
—gender essentialism or sexism
—setting/characters not internally consistent
—offensive material (which I’ll generally specify)
—I’m lost/it’s confusing
—it’s boring

As with One Paragraph, I’ll post these in batches of five with the date I stopped reading each book listed next to the book’s title.

As a writer and editor myself, my standards for what makes a book “good” or “great” are extremely high; for instance, I usually rate on Amazon.com books I’ve read either two or three stars. Rarely will I give four stars, and when I do, I would probably recommend that book to anyone. I almost never give five stars. (To be fair to myself, though, I almost never give one star ratings, either, because I can almost always find some merit in at least the effort, if not the execution.)

Because I have such high standards—I swear my education has ruined me for any “beach reading”—I often pick up a novel, memoir, collection of poetry, or the like with high hopes and low expectations. Just because I can’t or won’t finish a book doesn’t make it bad or even poorly written, it just makes it a book that doesn’t excel the way I hoped it would. I never pick up any book expecting not to like it; I don’t have time for that bullshit.

I am critical of everything I read because I want poets and authors to excel in their field. Writing is an art, and my criticism should be seen as constructive, not derogatory.

Death of the Body: Hunt + Giveaway

Death of the Body cover Death of the Body
By Rick Chiantaretto
Orenda Press
11 December 2013

BOOK DESCRIPTION
I grew up in a world of magic. By the time I was ten I understood nature, talked to the trees, and listened to the wind. When the kingdom of men conquered my town, I was murdered by one of my own—the betrayer of my kind. But I didn’t stay dead. I woke to find myself in a strange new world called Los Angeles. The only keys to the life I remembered were my father’s ring, my unique abilities, and the onslaught of demons that seemed hell-bent on finding me. Now I must learn who I really am, protect my friends, get the girl, and find my way back to my beloved hometown of Orenda.

FROM THE PUBLICIST
Let’s go on a hunt! Each blog participating in this tour (see below for links) has shared a Teaser image. Mixed into ten of them are numbers that have been emphasized. So start visiting!

Click the Mother Tree bracelet image
for more information about the giveaway!

Save the blog’s Names and the #s you find until the last day of the tour! Then send an email to michelle@ markmywordsbookpublicity.com with the subject line: “The Hunt List” with the blogs names listed in order #1-10! If you get the order correct you will be entered to win! Careful, not all the images contain the information you need.

***These entry points will ONLY be counted if we receive an email with your list by midnight on February 3rd—if you list the blogs in the correct order you will receive an extra 10 entries!***

TOUR SCHEDULE
1/27: Sapphyria’s Book Reviews, Mom With A Kindle, Wicca Witch 4 Book Blog
1/28: A Book Addict’s Bookshelves, Worlds of Words, Margay Leah Justice, Novel Grounds, Reading Room
1/29: Here is Some of What I Read, The Passionate Bookworms, Book Hog
1/30: Verna Loves Books, Rose’s Book Blog, Mythical Books, Snarky Bloggers, Duncan Heights
1/31: Addicted to Books, Fabulous and Fun, Never Judge a Book By It’s Movie, Coffee & Art & Books

Death of the Body teaser

Perfect Ending

Perfect Ending cover Perfect Ending:
Why Your Eternal Future Matters Today

By Robert Jeffress
Worthy Publishing
21 January 2014

“When will Jesus Christ return? When is the Second Coming?” Those are the big questions for many Christians. As someone who does not identify as Christian (or Christ-follower, or any variation thereof), Bible prophecy isn’t on me list of important things to keep track of. I have a hard enough time believing that Jesus lived, enacted miracles, and was who he said he was when he was alive. Most days, I don’t even bother thinking about something many preachers and (arguably false) prophets have failed to correctly predict. Not that prediction is a science or necessarily anything more than wishful thinking, but there are many things we can do today (heart transplants, using the internet, plastic cards taken as currency) that would’ve been witchcraft in the past, so who am I to say that predictions of the future will never be correct? It’s just that they haven’t been so far.

Honestly, I think people think too much about Bible prophecy, the Book of Revelation, and “why your eternal future matters today”—which is exactly the opposite of what the author of Perfect Ending argues in his easy-to-read, 236-page book, complete with Bible verses on every page and study questions for each chapter. Jeffress goes from explaining the similarities and differences between “the Tribulation” and “the Rapture” and “Premillenialism” and so on to mentioning what’s temporary (God turning his back on Israel, for one thing) to talking about what’s permanent (heaven and hell are final destinations and there’s no backing out after death). I’m making it sound much more complicated than he does, but it trying to absorb and retain all the information in Perfect Ending, I just kept thinking to myself, “I see now why so many Mormons could think such ridiculous things about heaven, heaven on Earth, and the afterlife.”

The Book of Revelation, where the most prophecy regarding the “end times” is in the Bible, was written by a traumatized exile hiding on an island who somehow thought that writing down his delusions and hallucinations would be a good thing. Seriously, step back for a minute and think about it. It’s just… the whole thing’s incredible.

To whom would I recommend this book? It was actually well-thought out and covers a lot of the strangeness that many people don’t understand about Christian fanatics who get stuck in an “You’re going to hell if you don’t repent right now!” end times loop in their lives. I wasn’t expecting much from Perfect Ending, but it actually helped me better understand the Second Coming idea and all that surrounds it. I was going to donate this book after reading it, but it’s seems pretty useful as a reference, so I’ll probably keep it around. I didn’t agree with the theology, but I live with and deal with people who do agree with it, and I think understanding their beliefs about the future and the end of the world will help me work with them more compassionately.

DISCLAIMER: I received Perfect Ending free from Worthy Publishing for this review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Eyes Wide Open

Eyes Wide Open cover Eyes Wide Open
By Ted Dekker
Worthy Publishing
21 January 2014

I’ve read one other of Ted Dekker’s novels, and unfortunately Eyes Wide Open is similar… at least it’s similar in the sense that the storyline is at the same time predictable and surprising. It’s true that this novel threw in some unexpected twists and turns, but ultimately I was disappointed.

It began interestingly enough: Christy, the protagonist, gets stuck—literally—in a grave of her own making, however accidental the circumstances may have been. But the tension and suspense implied on the back cover is resolved within the first three of four chapters: though she got herself stuck in a virtual coffin, Christy also manages to get herself out.

Strange things kept happening: she goes from her almost-coffin to a locked psych ward, and then her friend Austin also stumbles into the psych ward while he’s trying to find Christy after she left him a frantic partial voicemail message. And yet, it was so unfulfilling: the other patients were two-dimensional, the therapists and staff were presented as misguided at best and downright evil at at worst, and their techniques were not at all therapeutic. Maybe that was the point since Christy is saved by “the Outlaw” and eventually manages to escape (and help Austin escape) the dangerous ward and its wardens.

Honestly, though? I am so, so done with psych hospitals/units/wards being a backdrop for drama. Psychology and psychiatry are good for many people; psychiatric hospital(s) as a representations of all the world’s evils, as Dekker implies in Eyes Wide Open, hardly inspires confidence in the medical professionals in the mental health field. Can I have a novel that has a psych ward in it that actually helps people instead of making them crazier? Just once? What a revolutionary idea that must be!

While I admit this novel was a page-turner, it was mostly a page-turner for me because I kept hoping it would defy convention and expectations. In that respect, it never surprised me at all. The end seemed rushed and sort of thrown together like the author had a deadline: the Outlaw tells Christy about the past she cannot remember, and what he tells her is basically out of left field. No foreshadowing, no explanation or even “Oh, that makes sense”-type of realization. Eh. I was less-than-impressed.

DISCLAIMER: I received Eyes Wide Open free from Worthy Publishing for this review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.