Wednesday, September 2, 2015

The Prince Who Was Just Himself – Silke Schnee


© 2015 The Plough Publishing House, Walden, New York

Children’s books sometimes seem to be a dime a dozen. Often authors of children’s books rise up out of almost every corner of the market. Celebrities are the newest joiners into the competitive market of Children’s reading material—often gaining sales for their celebrity instead the quality of the book. So when I receive a book designed for children I look for several indicators that the book will be appropriate for and appealing to children, as well as enjoyable for parents to read to and with their children.

A big factor in children’s literature appeal is the accompanying artwork. In this selection, illustrator Heike Sistig uses vibrant colors, simple shapes, and touching scenery to convey the story being told by the author. If one must find a drawback or flaw with the illustrations it would be in the occasional overpowering backgrounds of the full-page illustrations. But they don’t distract from the pictorial re-telling of the story for the child-reader to associate with the tale.

Another major concern in children’s writing is the story itself. Is it appropriate for young minds? Does it appeal to the child’s senses? Are the sentences short and concise enough to engage the child in the story? Schnee does it all. This story—the story of a third prince born into a royal family (the new prince being noticeably different from the other people of the kingdom)—has lots of adventure and appeal. For an added bonus, the story is a lesson for everyone in the family as well as the kingdom. Without giving too much away, this book gives parents of all types of children an opportunity to talk about how one child can be different, but that can be okay. The author’s personal experience (making the tale almost autobiographical) brings the story to life. She surely was able to use the story to help her sons adjust to their new brother. And now the world (thanks in part to excellent translation by Erna Albertz) can do so as well.

If you, or someone you know has a child who is “a little different” you will want to make this delightful book a part of your library. Read it with your child. Let your child read it with you. Let the world know that your child can be happy “just being himself.” (5 reading glasses)

Benjamin Potter, September 2, 2015

[Disclaimer: I received this book for free for the purposes of this review.]

Friday, April 17, 2015

Memories, Musings, and Mischief – Jo Ann M. Cross


©2015  48HrBooks (www.48HrBooks.com)

When one is well into his fifties, it is often difficult to remember those long past days spent day-dreaming on the third row of Mrs. Cross’ Trigonometry and Analytical Geometry (Trig’n’Analyt) class—yes when he should be listening and learning all about tangents, sines, and cosines. The same must be true for Mrs. Cross when she retires. Who would ever expect the purveyor of all knowledge mathematical would be a great story-teller, too? But here you have it. Jo Ann Cross has penned in her retirement the book that all retirees plan to write. Her subject matter? Not math, but her stories—the stories she heard from parents and grandparents as she grew up in a rural east Texas community, the stories about her own experience, stories that span the funny to the tragic. And she does so quite successfully, too.

In an attempt to preserve some of the stories of her ancestry that have been passed down orally from generation to generation, and to offer a glimpse of community life from east Texas for a larger audience, Cross has developed what she calls “short stories” but is mostly a collection of memoir-type essays that bring all aspects of life into crisp focus.

The author’s talent is evident in superb moments of personification. Many of the stories hinging on her own experience rely heavily on her dry, but ever present sense of humor. The one story that deals with math and her father’s ability to teach the difficult concepts so that the smallest child can understand brought me back to that third row seat in Mrs. Cross’ Trig’n’Analyt class. I recall plainly the day when I kept asking “why” and “how” and Mrs. Cross smiled at the whole class and said, “Don’t try to understand it, just know that it works, and do it.” That advice saved my bacon in the only upper level math I would ever take.

Included in the smiles and jests are a couple of very touching stories. Of particular interest are “Pa-Pa’s Funeral” which deals more with race relations in early 20th century east Texas than the funeral itself, and “Samuel and Sarah” chronicling the author’s ancestral move from the deep South to deep east Texas in the mid-19th century. The latter of these two stories bearing a heavy L’Amour-esque flavor in relating the history of the move.

This little collection will have appeal to a variety of audiences—friends and family of the author will certainly enjoy the book, Mrs. Cross’ former colleagues and students (yes, I am one) will find the peek into the real-ness of Jo Ann Cross very fun and refreshing, readers who like the historical and the hysterical will both be extremely entertained, and like me, people with roots in places like Brinker, Texas (mine would be Cason) will be transported to those thrilling days of yesteryear to relive their own amusing moments. Thanks for the trip down several memories’ lanes Mrs. Cross. And thanks also for being real during all those years you took your place at the front of a Mesquite High School classroom.

Well-written and entertaining, Jo Ann Cross’ “Collection of Short Stories” deserves every bit of the five reading glasses that this reviewer awards it.

—Benjamin Potter April 17, 2015

Friday, March 27, 2015

Easter Stories – Miriam LeBlanc, compiler


© 2015 The Plough Publishing House, Walden, New York

With Easter just around the corner, I welcomed the chance to read a collection of inspirational stories set in, on, or around Easter for review. Thanks to the publishers at Plough for providing one. You can visit them here: http://www.plough.com/en/ebooks/e/easter-stories.

This collection of stories, with a couple of poems thrown in for good measure, is designed to be inspiring for those who follow the Christ of Easter. The selections included here are often inspirational as promised. Specifically heartfelt is the legend of Russian martyr, Vasily Osipovich Rakhov (born ca. 1861) as creatively told in “The Case of Rachoff”, making this reader want to dig a little deeper into the life of this wanderer who lived a life dedicated to Jesus and Jesus alone.
 
Included are both old and new stories. Some of the classics include selections by Leo Tolstoy (“Two Old Men”), C.S. Lewis (“The Death of the Lizard” from The Great Divorce), and Anton Chekhov (“The Student”). These tales are inspiring if not actually familiar. Newer selections, such as “The King and Death” by Ger Koopman seem to be written specifically for this collection. This latter story was an excellent one with a bit of a slowdown for an ending.

I chose to read this book as part of my morning devotions as there are only about thirty selections (reading one entry per day). This worked well for me, but I found some of the selections to be longer than my 15-20 minute devotional time would allow. Other readers may prefer to read the anthology like any other that they would pick up, selecting only one or two selections a year at Easter time.

This book is filled with stories from distant lands like Germany and Russia, that center on the miraculous nature of the Easter season, and is worth your time to read. Included are brand new wood-cutting artworks by artist Lisa Toth which expertly introduce each story. I would recommend it for anyone who wants to add a new element to their Easter celebration. (four out of five reading glasses)

Benjamin Potter, March 27, 2015

[Disclaimer: I received this book for free for the purposes of this review.]


Monday, March 16, 2015

Rasmus and the Vagabond – Astrid Lindgren

© 2015 The Plough Publishing House, Walden, New York

Astrid Lindgren is the Swedish author whose Pippi Longstocking books (and films featuring the redheaded child of strength and ingenuity) have captured children’s hearts all over the world, first released this tale of an orphan wanting a home and his vagabond friend in Sweden in 1956.

Life in the Vaesterhaga Orphanage was a drudgery for nine-year-old Rasmus. Digging potatoes and pulling nettles was not the life he desired. Like many a nine-year-old boy, he wanted to play and climb trees, and enjoy life. The only fond memory he had related to the time he had an ear-ache and the directress of the orphanage (the stern, unyielding Miss Hawk) had held him comfortingly for but a moment.

When a rich grocer and his wife come to adopt a child, everything goes wrong for Rasmus from the moment he begins to clean up for the visit. It really didn’t matter. Parents wanted girls with curls, not boys with straight hair. And so Rasmus decided to run away.

On his first morning out of the orphanage, Rasmus met and befriended Oscar—a tramp extraordinaire, who played his accordion and sang for food or money as he traveled far and wide over God’s green earth. No longer lonely on his journey, Rasmus began to learn of life from his new friend, “Paradise Oscar, God’s best friend.” What follows is an adventurous journey filled with crime, intrigue, happiness and sadness as Oscar tries to help Rasmus find the perfect parents who would adopt him—a rich, handsome couple who want a boy with straight hair and not a girl with curls.

They meet with gangsters and sheriffs, with maids and rich ladies. And eventually Rasmus finds the perfect home—but you’ll have to read the book to find out about it.

I like the tenor of this children’s book because it reads like a children’s book ought to. It is filled with lessons on honesty and honor, happiness and struggle, with some fun along the way. This book will please readers of all ages and will leave the reader with a satisfied feeling that life can be good and right. I give Rasmus and the Vagabond five out of five reading glasses.

Benjamin Potter, March 16, 2015

[Disclaimer: I received this book for free for the purposes of this review.]

Monday, December 29, 2014

Discipleship – J. Heinrich Arnold



© 2011 The Plough Publishing House, Walden, New York


Living through the middle of the 20th century (1913-1982) J. Heinrich Arnold discovered a deep and lasting faith that guided his every step. In this volume we have a collection of his writings (drawn together by his children and friends) that bears reading by every follower of Christ.

This leader of a Christian community (without formal theological education) walked deeper in the word than most of the men and women considered great heroes of t
he faith today.

First of all, I must admit that the book is not an easy read for several reasons. Arnold‘s writings are collected piece by piece making the book more a collection of sayings that a “read-through-me” volume. In this respect the book does not have flow. On the other hand this makes Discipleship: Living for Christ in the Daily Grind a perfect reference volume. The writings are collected under general to specific headings. Want to read about “Faith”? Look under the heading. “Communion”? It’s there too.
The other main reason for the difficulty in navigating this book is the depth at which Arnold hits the reader’s spirit. This is not a book to pick up if you want no-challenge, feel-good fluff. It is however, the perfect read for the Christian wanting to be more like Christ (which is after all, the ultimate goal of becoming a Christian in the first place).

Arnold tackles man in his sin nature and his salvation. He writes readily about the nature and community of the church. I would give this book 4 out of 5 reading glasses and join greats like Mother Teresa and Elisabeth Elliot in recommending the book to any Christian.
 
—Benjamin Potter, December 29, 2014

[Disclaimer: I received this book for free for the purposes of this review.]

Tuesday, December 16, 2014

30 A.D. – Ted Dekker

A.D. 30: A Novel©2014 Center Street, New York

Ted Dekker is one of the more popular writers in a new generation. I personally have jumped on his bandwagon for several of his thrillers (such as Thr3e, and Showdown), was impressed with a couple of hisChristmas tales, but haven’t enjoyed some of his writing nearly as much. That’s okay, because sometimes we get so caught up in an author that we are blind to the things that they write that aren’t so good (I have blind spots for JohnGrisham and Bill Crider). In this new book, Dekker stretches his Christian beliefs to the highest of heights and attempts a story set in the days of the New Testament and resting heavily on the shoulders of the saints who penned the sacred books.

Dekker weaves for us the tale of an outcast Bedouin princess (Maviah) who finds herself on a task to earn back her father’s honor and avenge her son’s murder. Aided by two of her father’s trusted servants—a large black mercenary (Saba) and a Jew descended from the wise men who followed a star, she sets out on her quest. The mission leads her from the oasis stronghold, now overrun by her father’s enemies, into the land of Palestine. Here she meets with King Herod, as well as with Miriam (Mary), Peter, and even Yeshua (Jesus). In the midst of her travels and struggles she finds her heart changed and her view of her mission re-structured.

The historical setting and Biblical background of the story give the reader pause because of the attention to detail and the desire for accuracy. Dekker did such a superb job of weaving this story that I can hardly wait for 33 A.D. (the promised follow-up story). I give this book an easy five reading glasses. Even those who are skeptical of the truth of the Scriptural record will find this story intriguing, inviting, and interesting.

—Benjamin Potter, December 16, 2014

Tuesday, October 28, 2014

Their Name Is Today – Johann Christoph Arnold

© 2014 The Plough Publishing House, Walden, New York

Children are the vast, untouched treasure of the world. And it seems as though our American Society is bent on crushing that treasure. We need a breath of fresh air that brings childhood back to our children. This is the call of writer, counselor, pastor Christoph Arnold in his new book, Their Name Is Today: Reclaiming Childhood in a Hostile World.

As with any book, I cannot say that I agree with every word of what Arnold writes, but he does bring to light some important research and thinking concerning the direction that childhood and education is viewed in America today.

In this little book, I was reminded of the innocence of children. An innocence that is often overlooked, misunderstood, and even squashed in an attempt to make our children to become “little adults.” Some of the tragedies of our modern approach to education (in the name of trying to “be competitive on the world stage”) that the author notes are starting our children in rigid classroom settings at too early an age, overuse of screen presence in the lives of these little ones, and expectations that even some adults cannot live up to.

In the midst of a world where government agencies are invading the education space trying to correct what’s wrong with the next generation, we are losing the next generation. Setting standards that are impossible to reach only breeds discouragement. Is it okay to let our children fail? Of course it is—if the failure is in genuine effort. It is not however, safe nor appropriate to set goals that our children cannot even begin to reach. Children are not “little adults” they are children, so let them be . . . children.

Arnold suggests that it is appropriate, and even preferable, to allow children a few more years to play, so that they are actually for classroom activity when the time comes. Perhaps we would see more classroom success without coddling, if we let children be children for a year or two longer. I personally believe that three years of age is excessively too young for a child to be immersed into a classroom setting. Besides, the more of this pushing we place on our schools, the less likely our good teachers are to be good teachers. The newer trends thrust upon educators by politicians (who are not really educators, nor do they understand educators) forces them into cycle after cycle of paper pushing rather than educating.

In this new book calls for a move to letting children be children, to delay the leash known as “screen time” as long as possible (let the children play outdoors, exploring, rather than with the newest techno-gizmo), and to love them with the love of a teacher or parent. Our goal is to have healthy children, not neurotic rat-race participants.

This is a book that would make a perfect Christmas gift for a favorite teacher who is feeling overwhelmed in today’s marketplace.

I highly recommend this book for parents, teachers, or anyone who is concerned about children and give it five out of five reading glasses.

—Benjamin Potter, October 28, 2014

[Disclaimer: I received this book for free for the purposes of this review.]


Wednesday, September 17, 2014

The Book Thief – Markus Zusak

© 2005, Pan McMillan, Australia (US version © 2006, Knopf, NY)

I first started noticing this one on bookstore shelves about five or six years ago. The Book Thief. What a great title for a book-lover like myself. I wanted to read it. Then I heard that it was getting an award or two. That made me want to read it more. Then they made it into a movie—now I have to read it before viewing the movie. Well, now, I’ve read it and haven’t decided whether to rent the movie or not (you can let me know what to decide in the comments section). While I was waiting for the book to make it to me on library request, we found a nice trade paperback copy at the local school Scholastic Book Fair. As I bought it the librarian indicated that another parent had said it was “one of the best books ever.” Now, I’m hooked.

I must tell you, dear reader, it took me about three months with stops and starts to get through the book. It isn’t a page-turner as such, and it isn’t for the light of heart. American publishers chose to market it under a YA labeling (Knopf Books for Young Readers was the first to release it), and I’m not sure that I’d place it in the Juvenile section. There is some really dark imagery in the book, the subject matter is really heavy, and from time to time the language is not appropriate for younger readers. That said, I would let my soon to be thirteen-year-old read it if she so chose with the proviso that she and I make some discussion out of it.

It wasn’t until after I started reading the book that I realized that it dealt with the Holocaust. That’s not necessarily a problem, I just hadn’t done my usual fly-leaf, book back scanning, and so I had to put on my Anne Frank/Hiding Place glasses to get into the book. The story, narrated by none other than Death himself, follows the life of Liesel Meminger—a young German girl who loses her family and is thrust into the home of Hans and Rosa Hubermann as a foster daughter. It is with a compelling eye and a heavy heart that you dive into the society of Nazi Germany on the poor side of a Munich suburb and feel all of the tragedy that befalls people who are just trying to survive. And then the air raids start.

Readers are not spared the death, the politics, the cruelty, or the heroism that could be witnessed in the streets of Germany during a horrible time in world history. We see the maltreatment of the Jews—just for being Jewish; the harsh punishment for people—just for being humane; and the travesty for boys—just for being boys. From the story side, this book is good, but not great.

From the literary side, this book is a masterpiece. I cannot say that it is the best book I have ever read, but the weaving of the language to build the right word pictures is nothing less than stellar. I would recommend this one over Frank’s Diary to study the Holocaust if the purpose was to see the event from a literary side (from a historical viewpoint, stick with Anne Frank).

This book is not for everyone, but it deserves accolades and it gets four out of five reading glasses from me.

—Benjamin Potter, September 17, 2014

Tuesday, September 9, 2014

Half in Love with Artful Death – Bill Crider

© 2014 St. Martin’s Minotaur, New York

Everybody’s a critic. This is because everyone has their own opinion, and some are more inclined to share their opinions than are others (just read this on-line review journal). There’s really nothing wrong with having, or stating, an opinion about, let’s say art, until the critic turns up dead.

That’s just what happened to Burt Collins (local complainer about everything in Blacklin County Texas) when he makes his opinions noted about the art exhibit in town and the artists it has attracted.

The latest episode in the long-running Sheriff Dan Rhodes mystery series is another rip-roaring good time. With the help of his faithful force of deputies, his long-time friend and thorn in the side C.P. “Seepy” Benton, and an array of colorful characters (including an orange-haired artist), Rhodes is able not only to solve the mystery, but also a string of convenience-store robberies, some escaped donkeys, and the mystery of the naked woman at the roadside rest area. He even shuts down a local meth lab a la his fictional counterpart Sage Barton in an excitingly dangerous shoot out.

I can’t recommend this series enough. But I can especially tip my ten-gallon Stetson to the newest story in the life of Dan Rhodes. It includes art, music, and some interesting poetry along the way. I give Bill Crider another set of five reading glasses for his latest story.

—Benjamin Potter, September 9, 2014

Friday, August 22, 2014

An Unlikely Story – Bob R. Agee


© 2014 Create Space Publishing (internet)


I first made the acquaintance of Dr. Bob R. Agee when he and I both transferred into Oklahoma Baptist University. I was returning from a year at Howard Payne to complete my undergraduate degree in Religious Studies. He had just been called as president of the university moving from a position at Union. I liked him immediately. He was enthusiastic, affable, and both academically and spiritually sound. He did not know me from the man in the moon, but he treated me (as he did all of the students) with the utmost of dignity and respect.

A couple of years later, when I graduated, I still expected that he didn’t know more than that I was one of the crowd graduating with a baccalaureate degree. He surprised me, deepening my respect for this leader. As he shook my hand and handed me my diploma he did not say, “Congratulations, Mr. Potter” or even “Benjamin.” Nor did he jump to everyone’s favorite diminutive “Ben”; but he said, “Congratulations, Benjie!” Wow, he knew me—even though we’d only spoken or nodded in passing during those years at the school. What I really liked (and still do) about Dr. Agee was his simple statement through actions that “you are somebody important”, and it was his habit of making that message known to all of his students.

And his recently published memoirs offer an understanding of why he is that man, and why he served as an excellent pastor, then educator, then administrator. An Unlikely Story opens the window on Agee’s life to the point of writing and (as good memoirs should) really gives the reader a taste of what made the man that became the author. Through the pages, one can see how the humble beginnings as a sharecropper’s son shaped and molded a man who knew the advantage of hard work and had the grace to accept an opportune challenge.

Those who have had the acquaintance of Agee over the years will enjoy reading about his rise through academia, his relational style that started with family and spread to church and college and community. I know that I found it a real blessing to get to know better this man who has held my respect over the decades. Especially inspiring are the pages in which he tells of his on-again, off-again battle with hairy cell leukemia, which attacked early and has re-visited in some of the later years.

Particularly interesting to me was his reflection on “Reflections” (see page 124) quoting a couple of elderly friends who were facing the declining years with gusto. It put me in mind of a dear friend who continued to play piano for her church well into her 90s (even until only about a year before her passing). This retired school teacher told me on more than one occasion that following a bout with heart trouble, “I decided that I’m gonna die living.” I think that this attitude sums up the goal of Dr. Agee, and I say keep on fighting.

I recommend this book for anyone who likes to be inspired by inspiring life stories, but especially for former church members of Dr. Agee’s congregations from his early adulthood, and also for members of Union University and Oklahoma Baptist University families. His memories will bring to mind your own memories. This is a quick and enjoyable read at only about 150 pages. It flies by. Order a copy to day with my five reading glass endorsement.

—Benjamin Potter, August 22, 2014

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