Tag Archives: religion

Jailhouse Rock

Running the Books: The Adventures of an Accidental Prison Librarian by Avi Steinberg (Nan A. Talese/Doubleday; $24.95; 416 pages)

“…many of the prophets were either criminals, or prisoners, or had spent time among criminals.”

Avi Steinberg’s story will ring true for anyone who has ever worked inside of or visited a prison.   This is the account of a Harvard graduate, a once highly ambitious and religious person, who accepts a job among society’s outcasts.   Steinberg worked as a freelance writer before being hired as an afternoon shift librarian in Boston’s oldest prison.   He winds up, in Running the Books, telling some great stories of the inmates he was both attracted to and repelled by.   This, however, leads to one of the faults with this telling…  The author never seems to be sure whether the inmates he worked among were unlucky people who were not truly bad, or truly bad people who may have been fortunate to be incarcerated (a number of the inmates died of drug overdoses and violence after being released).

This is like one of those nonfiction narratives where someone with money decides to live without a job to see what it’s like among the working poor.   Here, an upper middle class highly educated young man goes to work in an alien culture and writes about it.   What seems to be lacking is the life’s lesson to be learned from it all.

This review was written by Joseph Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Goodbye Yellow Brick Road

Book of Nathan: A Novel by Curt Weeden and Richard Marek (Oceanview Publishing; $25.95; 264 pages)

“Dan Brown meets Janet Evanovich…”   Roxanne Black

Co-authors Curt Weeden and Richard Marek have teamed up to create a fascinating novel that is part mystery and part life lesson.   Their main character is Rick Bullock, formerly a successful Madison Avenue advertising man who turned agnostic soul saver when his beloved wife, Anne, died from a brain tumor.   Rick has refocused his life and manages a shelter for men in the inner city.   He knows his clients and when one of them named Zeus is accused of a high-profile murder, Rick makes it his task to prove the accusers wrong.

The first person narrative is an excellent vehicle for combining the disparate elements of the tale.   Rick’s thoughts and actions are consistent with a man of high moral principles.   Fortunately, the authors have resisted portraying him as a saintly type.   He is capable of trickery and a little arm twisting to obtain the resources needed to travel to Florida where Zeus is incarcerated.   Lacking funds for the journey, Rick calls in a favor from a buddy in his advertising past, Doug Kool, who is a fundraiser par excellence for a big nonprofit.

The team Rick takes to Florida is a rag-tag group.   Some of them are helpful for the mission (Doc Waters and Maurice) and one is a genuine bundle of precocious trouble (Twyla Tharp – no, not that one).   This reviewer was reminded of The Wizard of Oz and the pilgrimage that Dorothy made with her band of seekers.   Amazingly, the story line manages to stay reasonably tight and manageable regardless of the wide variety of characters.   Oh, did I mention that an extremely wealthy man also plays a part?   Indeed, the reader will discover more than the identity of the killer by the story’s end.  

The values and moral judgements presented are all too real and not off the scale of everyday issues we all face.   Kudos to Weeden and Marek for delivering their message in such an entertaining way.   Highly recommended.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was provided by the publisher.

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Come Win a Copy of Come Sunday

Thanks to Picador, we have a giveaway copy of the novel Come Sunday by Isla Morley.   This trade paperback book will be released on August 3, 2010 but you have a chance to win it now.   Here is a synopsis of the story:

Abbe is a restless young mother living on the outskirts of Honolulu with her husband, Greg, the pastor at a small church.   Their lives are suddenly riven by tragedy when their three-year-old daughter, Cleo, is struck and killed by a car.   As Greg turns to God and community for comfort, Abbe turns inward and reflects upon her own troubled past.   Isla Morley brilliantly weaves the story of Abbe’s grief with a gripping tale of her tempestuous childhood in apartheid South Africa  – and how Abbe’s father, a villainous drunk, held her family hostage for decades with his rage, until they finally began to plot their escape from him.   Come Sunday is a spellbinding drama about a woman breaking free of her grief and of her past, and what it takes to revive hope when all seems lost.

Here are some of the critical comments about this work:

“A heart-wrenching tale of unthinkable loss and hard-won healing.   This is a novel to savor.”   Sara Gruen, author of Water for Elephants

“A phenomenal debut…”   San Diego Union-Tribune

“A compelling tale of survival, reinvention, and hope, in the end, Come Sunday is…  about personal redemption and resurrection…  Vivid and poignant.”   The Boston Globe

“An intense and ambitious first novel, and an exquisitely detailed exploration of the mother-daughter bond.”   Los Angeles Magazine

“Firmly establishing her in the pantheon of such insightful authors as Chris Bohjalian, Sue Miller, and Anita Shreve, Morley’s…  read-in-one-sitting tale of loss and renewal will haunt readers.”   Booklist

To enter our contest, just post a comment here or send an e-mail with your name and e-mail address to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   For a second entry, just post another message here or send a second e-mail with the words, “This is my second entry.”   Easy, huh?

The winner’s name will be drawn by Munchy the cat, our contest administrator, and the winner will be contacted by e-mail.   This person will be asked to supply a residential (street) mailing address in the U. S. – not a P.O. box or business address – so that Picador can ship the book directly to him/her.  

You have until Tuesday, August 10, 2010 at Midnight PST to submit your entry/entries.   Good luck and good reading!

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It is Written

Last Writes: A Forensic Handwriting Mystery by Sheila Lowe (Obsidian Mystery)

Forensic handwriting experts and religious cults are not exactly a natural combination.   In this mystery novel, the expert is Claudia Rose and the religious cult is the Temple of the Brighter Light.   Claudia’s childhood friend Kelly seeks her assistance in determining whether the father of her exquisite toddler niece, Kylie, has kidnapped his daughter.   A warning note was left for the toddler’s mom who happens to be Kelly’s estranged half-sister.   These are folks who have had their share of family squabbles and trouble over the years.   Claudia must decide what is fact and what is smokescreen.

Author Sheila Lowe just happens to be an expert in handwriting analysis; therefore, the thriller is loaded with fascinating information one assumes to be accurate.   The reader can’t help sneaking peaks at the writing of friends and family wondering if there are clues to deeper meaning in their scribbles.   The psychological implications that accompany an analysis are used to explain the strange and confusing behavior of the folks who populate this tale.

This novel is filled with enough scary ideas and erratic actions to make it a page-turner.   Lowe’s mastery at describing subtle character aspects brings doubt and confusion to the reader who is tracking Claudia Rose’s progress in solving the mystery of Kylie’s disappearance.   To make matters worse, the threat of a religious sacrifice on the toddler’s third birthday puts a painful edge on the heart-wrenching tale.

Last Writes is more than a thriller, it is a morality tale designed for readers who are not afraid to look into the dark side of religious communal living.   Recommended to those who are up for the challenge.

This review was written by Ruta Arellano.   A review copy was received from the publisher.

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Almost Everything

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe by Jenny Hollowell (Henry Holt and Company; June 2010)

“We got what we needed.”

This novel tells the story of one Birdie Baker, a young woman from a small eastern town and a deeply religious upbringing.   She marries young – a huge mistake – and decides to escape the life that others have planned for her.   So she “(comes) to Los Angeles, running from something.”

Birdie has a fantasy, that in the big western city recovered from the desert she will find everything lovely, effortless, safe.   She dreams of becoming an actress, being discovered, walking on red carpets and having young girls envy her.   But L.A. can be a tough town for those without money and fame.   Years pass as Birdie exists as a stand-in for a famous actress and a sometime body double.

Important men, men with power in the movie trade, find Birdie attractive but even they can see that she’s aging fast.   Now time has passed and “she was thirty, almost everything, almost nothing.”

Similar stories have been told in other novels about Hollywood, and this reader worried that the story was running out of gas before the halfway point.   Birdie seems less than totally interesting and often unlikable, and she spends too much time with older men.   Fortunately, Birdie eventually meets Lewis – a young male actor who believes in the same things that Birdie once did.

First-time author Hollowell comes up with some great lines detailing how Birdie sees Lewis as a younger version of herself; a fellow traveler haunted by his past but filled with hopes and optimism:  “How young he was, afraid of forgetting the tragedies that made him.   He did not yet know that he will never forget, that he will want to forget but will not be able to.”   With the character of Lewis, Hollowell finds a sweet spot.   Birdie will, of course, become romantically involved with Lewis but even she understands that this will end up like a brother and sister relationship.

Birdie is at first confused about life in L.A. and about why she is not getting what she wants and needs.   She goes on to become a woman who literally comes to believe that having a life – at least the life she wants – is impossible.   And yet she knows she has certain powers.   While producers and directors may not chase after her (pretty girls in Hollywood being a nickel a dozen), a lot of average men do want to be with her.   Why?   Well, because Birdie “did not talk about the future or ask them to be in it…  She did not seem to want them so they pursued her to discover the reason.”

The second half of the novel is strong as Hollowell discovers a way to give Birdie most of what she wants out of life, if not all of what she once dreamed.   And the conclusion – the final words – of Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe cannot be improved upon.   “This is how everything should end:  with the forgotten remembered, the wounded healed, and the sinners forgiven.”

This is a nice debut for Jenny Hollowell.   This reviewer hopes that her sophomore effort is built around a more engaging (and intelligent) protagonist, and that she finds a unique story line.   She’s a self-professed fan of Bob Dylan (“He is so good at summing things up…”) and perhaps she will find some inspiration there.

Recommended.

Take Away:   This story is not very original and it is not close to perfect, but there’s enough here to make it an engaging and satisfying read.

A review copy was provided by the publisher.  

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An Audiobook giveaway

Thanks to Hachette Audio and Hachette Book Group, we have 3 (three) audiobooks to give away.   We’re giving away the unabridged 5-CD audiobook version of The Language God Talks: On Science and Religion by the noted author Herman Wouk.   This boxed set has a value of $26.98.

Here are some summaries of and comments on The Language God Talks.

The first half of Wouk’s third book on religion (after This Is My God and The Will to Live On) is as engaging as his mega-selling historical novels.   It’s about his encounters with famous scientists, foremost among them physicist Richard Feynman, who suggested Wouk learn the “language God talks” – calculus.   He uses a little paleoanthropology and World War II research to bridge from science to religion but then bogs down.   He finishes well, though, with an imaginary dialogue with Feynman that winningly binds him and the physicist as Jews and affirms the continuing viability of questioning God.   Hard not to like.  

Ray Olson, Booklist

At age 94, Wouk embarks on an autobiographical journey through his monumental writings, people he has met in his life, world events and books he has read to weave a testament of faith.   This book will interest any person of faith who has followed Wouk’s storied career and read his fiction.

Publishers Weekly

Masterful…  After several readings, I keep finding new treasures in this entertaining book.

Maarten Schmidt, Professor of Astronomy, Emeritus, California Institute of Technology

Extraordinary.   Wouk’s recounting of conversations with Richard Feynman is not to be missed.

Stanley B. Pusiner, Nobel Laureate, UCSF

In a crowded book market filled with self-serving and redundant theories about humankind’s place in the grand scheme, it is rare to encounter an original, honest, charming voice.   Such is the case with Wouk’s latest work…  Wouk’s humility, humor and insight make the book a joy to read and a wonder to contemplate…  Authentic, accessible prose mixed with real insight.

Kirkus Reviews

You can enter this book giveaway by posting a comment here or sending an e-mail message with the heading The Language God Talks to Josephsreviews@gmail.com .   This will count as a first entry.   In order to submit a second entry, tell us why you think you’d like to win and listen to this unabridged audiobook.  

You must live in either the United States or Canada and have a residential mailing address (audiobooks will not be shipped to P.O. boxes).   The deadline for submitting your entry or entries is Friday, June 18, 2010 at midnight PST.   If  your name is drawn by Munchy the cat, you will be sent an e-mail that you will need to respond to within 96 hours.   (If you do not respond within that time frame another winner will be drawn.)

This is it for the “complex” contest rules.   Good luck and good listening!

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Everything Lovely

Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe: A Novel by first-time author Jenny Hollowell will be released by Henry Holt and Company,Inc. on June 8, 2010.   Here is a preview look including a synopsis of the novel, blurbs from other authors and an excerpt from its opening pages.

Synopsis

A young woman caught at the turning point between success and failure hopes fame and fortune will finally let her leave her old life – and her old self – behind.   Birdie Baker has always dreamed of becoming someone else.   At twenty-two, she sets off to do just that.   Walking out on her pastor husband and deeply evangelical parents, she leaves behind her small-town, part-time life and gets on a bus to Los Angeles.

Quotes

“Everything Lovely, Effortless, Safe introduces a strong new voice, poised and sharp, beautifully suited to both the satiric task of dismantling Hollywood, and the empathetic one of rendering a young actress’s grinding struggle for stardom.”   – Jennifer Egan

“There’s some Joan Didion here, some Lorrie Moore, some Nathanael West, but really, it’s all Jenny Hollowell, a new name to remember.”   – Christopher Tilghman

“Jenny Hollowell’s writing is gorgeous and edgy, lyrical and in-your-face.”   – Sheri Reynolds

Excerpt

Prologue

Ask Birdie how she got here and she’ll pretend she doesn’t remember.   “Honestly,” she’ll say, “it all blends together.”   She doesn’t want to talk about the past.   It’s only cocktail talk, but still everyone wants a story.   That’s Los Angeles for you.   Everything’s a pitch.   Sell the beginning and give the end a twist.

The truth is rarely filmic.   Lies are better.   Once she’d told a director she was sleeping with, or who, more accurately was sleeping with her:  My whole family is dead.   We were in a car accident together.   My mother, father, and sister were killed and I am the only survivor.   What did he say?   “What an amazing story,” which meant that he was sorry but also that it would make a great movie.

Semantics, anyway.   There was never any car accident but still she has lost them all.

Ask Birdie how she got here and she will smile and laugh and look down into her glass.   Two things she’s good at:  drinking and keeping secrets.   In the melting cubes she sees the past…

At her agent’s insistence her bio contains the basics:  1979, Powhatan, Virginia.   Even that doesn’t matter.   Redmond changed it to 1983.   “Whoever said thirty is the new twenty-two wasn’t trying to get you work.”   Proof positive: no one really wants the truth…

Going West and the Rest, 2001.   In Powhatan, she leaves a letter that says:

To Judah and My Parents,

I don’t know if you will be surprised to find this note.   I am not surprised to be writing it, though I know it will hurt you and I hate to do that.   But you have to know I have no other choice.   I have been a liar and a hypocrite.   I have tried to be a Believer, but I am not.   Every day, I am full of doubt.   I would rather be honest about my feelings in this life than lie to preserve an eternal hope I am unsure of.   Let’s hope God understands my decision.   I’m sorry.

Love, Birdie.

PS – Don’t try to find me.   I’m safe, but I’m going somewhere far away.

The bus ride to Los Angeles takes two days, seventeen hours, and five minutes.   For the first day, she imagines that Judah is following her, that when the bus stops at a rest area he will be standing there stormy-faced, waiting to take her back.   But by the morning of the second day, as serpentine mountain roads begin to flatten and give way to low flat stretches of highway, her escape begins to feel real.   Nothing is familiar – the scenery, her fellow passengers, the gravity and speed of the bus as it rockets westward past towns, sprawling lights, empty desert, road signs.   Her face reflected back at her in the thick safety glass of the bus window appears ghostly and doubled.   She glances back and forth between both sets of eyes and watches the reflections react – her fractured face bobs and shifts across the glass.      

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The World in Six Songs

The world in six (lg.)Music has played a decisive role in the evolution of the human brain and in the creation of civilization, and psychology has also played a prominent role.   Grasping these concepts could be challenging, but not with the best type of teacher – one who’s quite cool and connected to the subject – a role that author and McGill University professor Daniel J. Levitin fits to a T.   His career path included music production (resulting in his receiving several gold records) and music performances before he settled into academia.   Levitin earlier authored This is Your Brain On Music.   The World in Six Songs is his second book, an enlightening and entertaining work in which he combines his meaningful life experiences with music to illustrate each of the six songs (friendship, joy, comfort, religion, knowledge and love).     

The songs he has selected as examples represent a wide array of musical genres.   Also quite interesting are the included discussions between Levitin and singer/songwriters/performers that he counts as friends/co-workers within the music industry – most notably Joni Mitchell and Sting.   These elements have the combined effect of giving the reader a front-row seat in a well-orchestated learning session.  

Be prepared to pay close attention while consuming this book.   The payoff you will receive for this is certainly worth the extra bit of added effort.

Plume, $16.00, 358 pages

Reprinted courtesy of Sacramento Book Review.

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