Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Book Review: The 5 Love Languages for Men -- how to speak clearly to your wife and strengthen your marriage

The 5 Love Languages for Men, Gary Chapman
with Randy Southern, Northfield Publishing (2015)

I remember reading Gary Chapman's original book, The 5 Love Languages, almost two decades ago. That groundbreaking book introduced me to the languages of words of affirmation, quality time, gift giving, acts of service, and physical touch. Now, 20 years later and almost that many books in this series, Chapman has a new book aimed at men in marriage relationships. And it's powerful and well worth the read. The love languages have not changed, but this book focuses on strengthening your marriage by learning your wife's primary love language.

After an introductory chapter, the first half of the book elaborates each of these five languages.  Chapters 7 and 8 are a little weaker, but the book ends on a strong point with two important chapters: one on anger and the last one on apologizing.  I found these especially helpful, as they highlight two of my weaknesses.

The book itself is very short, weighing in at less than 190 pages. When combined with numerous cartoons, it becomes a very quick read. The cartoons themselves are more miss than hit, and could have been omitted (it almost felt like they were added as padding).

Two particularly useful features of the book focus on practical application. The end of the book contains a love language profile for each partner, containing 30 questions to each discover your primary and secondary love languages. And chapters 2 through 6 contain a two-page phrase book for each specific love language giving tips to us hard-headed men on how to speak that love language.  This becomes the phrase book to turn to.

My wife and I took the profile survey at the end. I was reaffirmed in my primary language of acts of service, but discovered that gift giving and words of affirmation are so low that they are almost foreign to me. My wife, on the other hand, speaks acts of service and words of affirmation bilingually. This means I understand and speak one of her languages, but struggle with words of affirmation. Thankfully, the phrase book in that chapter has given me some tips to try.

Chapman points out that we can all learn to speak other languages, just like we can learn a foreign language. But it will be hard work. Yet, if we want to make our marriages the best they can be, we should be willing to put in the effort. After all, we ourselves will reap the benefit with heightened communication and deeper intimacy. Who in a marriage wouldn't want that?

Disclosure (in accordance with the FTC’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising”): Many thanks to Propeller Consulting, LLC for providing a free copy of the book in exchange for this honest review and post. 

Sunday, February 8, 2015

Book Review: Just Mercy -- a compelling indictment of the America's death penalty law

Just Mercy, Bryan Stevenson, Spiegel and Grau (2014)

Just Mercy was featured by many of the Powell’s staff in their best of 2014 book lists. So I added it to my pile of books and moved it to the top. I’m glad I did. It’s a compelling, yet searing indictment of the American justice system.

I had never heard of Bryan Stevenson before. It turns out that he is the executive director of the Equal Justice Initiative in Montgomery, Alabama, and a professor of law at New York University Law School. During law school at Harvard, he spent time in the south working on death row cases and found his life vocation. I’ll let him explain:

“Well, I have a law project called the Equal Justice Initiative, and we’re trying to help people on death row. We’re trying to stop the death penalty, actually. We’re trying to do something about prison conditions and excessive punishment. We want to free people who’ve been wrongly convicted. We want to end unfair sentences in criminal cases and stop racial bias in criminal justice. We’re trying to help the poor and do something about indigent defense and the fact that people don’t get the legal help they need. We’re trying to help people who are mentally ill. We’re trying to stop them from putting children in adult jails and prisons. We’re trying to do something about poverty and the hopelessness that dominates poor communities.”

His book is a memoir of his journey over three decades, from his beginnings as a naive student through his successes and failures to his position as seasoned but wise executive director. Although many characters are introduced throughout, most remain the focus of a single chapter. Some weave a story throughout. But one remains central to the theme: Walter McMillian, a convicted murderer on death row. However, Walter was nowhere near the scene of the crime, as attested to by dozens of people including some policemen. Yet, the confession of a criminal coerced by the DA resulted in a bizarre, almost unbelievable story that convinced an illegal jury. McMilliam’s interactions with Stevenson may have made him the person he is.

Yet, the book is bigger than this. Weaving tales of 13 year-olds convicted and imprisoned for life without parole alongside poor white mothers who were convicted of killing their babies, despite them being stillborn, Stevenson’s narrative forces us to address the inequalities still in place today. Being born poor and black in some states predisposes them to suspicion. If arrested, such people have little hope of a fair trial.

Although I came to this book a supporter of the death penalty, backing up this belief with biblical justification (Gen. 9:6), Stevenson’s accounting of numerous convicted men and women languishing on death row who were later exonerated and declared innocent after the illegalities and improprieties in their trials were brought to light has made me reconsider. I must confess I am still working through this. As Stevenson says toward the end, “Walter made me understand why we have to reform a system of criminal justice that continues to treat people better if they are rich and guilty than if they are poor and innocent.”

Although judicial improvements have occurred and personal redemption realized, many indeed due to Stevenson’s efforts, he leaves us realizing that there is still a long way to go.

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Book Review: The Labyrinth Wall -- More Maze Runner than Hunger Games

The Labyrinth Wall (Obsidian Series Book 1), Emilyann Girdner, Luminous Words Press (2013)

Until I received an email from the author’s publicist, I had not heard of Emilyann Girdner or The Labyrinth Wall. But the offer of a free book piqued my interest. Reading the book description and several reader reviews heightened my curiosity and I felt compelled to enter this labyrinth.

The first chapter places the reader inside the labyrinth and introduces us to the protagonist, Araina, a teenage girl who’s only been alive two years. She’s a Mahk. This strange land has two types of people: the Creators, who live in the castle in apparent luxury, and led by the villainous Simul, and the Mahks, who live in the labyrinth. Their life is hard. Survival is the goal. Trust is absent. Hope is unknown.

One day Araina is defending her life in a fight with Darith, another Mahk, when they see a strange man emerge from the labyrinth wall. Determined to find out who this man is, especially since he seems to have the power to heal, these two form an unlikely alliance and embark on their quest.

Gardner fills the book with adventure after adventure, with a fast-pace that keeps the reader engaged. From Simul’s castle to the blood caves and onto the pit of snakes, the journey carries Araina into numerous dangers from magical attacks by the labyrinth itself to various creatures, such as saber toothed mutts and cannibals.

Despite the thrills of the quest, there are some problems with the book. Perhaps it is the pace of the plot, but the characters seem superficial. They could have been developed more. Without much history, the Mahks have little back story and we find out scant information about them. Even the villains remain distant, mysterious.

Then there is the suddenness of each episode. Darith disappears from the plot and is all but forgotten. Others emerge unexpectedly. And there seems too little credible connection at times.

Another problem centers on the loose ends and questions remaining at the end. There are so many questions that were popping into my head throughout. Who is Simul? Where did the Mahks come from? Why were they created? What is the labyrinth? Who is the mysterious stranger? Why were the Mahks created with different ages? With each new chapter it seemed new questions emerged. But very few got answered. I understand that this is book 1 of a series but I was hoping for more resolution.

There is little hope in the labyrinth, at least at the beginning. But the theme focuses on this concept, and as the story moves toward climax, we find hope emerge in a small band of characters. And their exposure rubs off on Araina, so that by the end of he book she has become more likable, someone I cared about.

In the book description, it says the book is “perfect for fans of adventure filled and imaginative favorites like The Maze Runner, The Hunger Games and the Hobbit”. Having read all the books in these three series (including Lord of the Rings), I entered the book with high expectations. I found it less like the Hunger Games or the Hobbit and much more like The Maze Runner. Simul is no President Snow, at least from what we see in this book. And Araina is no Katniss. The Hunger Games has better character development and a stronger plot. But being comparable with the Maze Runner is no mean feat. This one is worth a read if you’ve finished those other books. And I am hoping for more character development in book 2, and certainly want some answers to my questions.

*I was given an eCopy of this book, from the author, to read in exchange for an honest review.

Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Top 10 Books Read in 2014

I read a lot of books in 2014, some non-fiction, mostly fiction. There were some dogs. There was some pulp fiction that helped me escape from the stress of work. But there were some real winners. Below is my top 10 list, formed without any real criteria; just the books I liked the most and would therefore consider reading again at some point. I recommend all of these for your reading enjoyment.

10 Consumer Detox (Mark Powley, 2011) This book was recommended by a friend. Lowly, a British clergyman, details how consumerism runs counter to the teachings of Jesus. For those that have become consumed with today’s consumerist culture, this book offers advice on how to detox and escape.

9 Moving Day (Jonathan Stone, 2014) A con man has created the perfect scam: show up to move the belongings of senior citizens one day early and drive away with a lifetime’s worth of stuff. But when he pulls this con on Stanley Peke, a Nazi concentration camp survivor, he has thrown down the gauntlet. Pete will not let some punk walk off with his belongings. This thriller pits two men against each other in what has become about more than just money. For Peke, this is about absolving the ghosts from his brutal past.

8 The Auschwitz Escape (Joel C. Rosenberg, 2014) Rosenberg’s latest novel is based on a true story. Jacob Weisz is a German Jew, who faces the terrible nightmare of the Nazi regime of World War 2. Captured and sent to Auschwitz, he determines to escape.

7 Unbroken (Laura Hillenbrand, 2010) By now, everyone must have heard of Hillenbrand’s book, as Angelina Jolie has turned it into a major motion picture. This is the story of Louis Zemperini. A defiant and delinquent teenager, he became a legendary runner, before the Second World War brings him to an Army Air Forces bomber. Crashing into the Pacific, he survives over 40 days afloat before being rescued by the Japanese. The real story is his survival in the brutal prison camps in Japan, where the days of torture test his endurance to the limits if he is to remain unbroken.

6. Man’s Search for Meaning (Viktor Frankl, 1946, 2006) Like Zemperini, Frankl was a survivor. As a psychiatrist in Austria before World War 2, he had the opportunity to emigrate to America but chose to stay with his family. But he lost them in the Nazi death camps. Sent to four different concentration camps, including Auschwitz, the first half of the book tells the story of life in these camps while second half outlines Frankl’s pilosp[hoy of logo therapy and how man searches for meaning even in the midst of suffering.

5. Caught (Harlan Coben, 2010) Cohen’s thriller centers on a 17 year girl old gone missing along with a female reporter whose mission is to bring down sexual predators. The catch is she may have got it wrong with her last target, and she can no longer trust her previously reliable instincts. Bringing the focus on internet safety and the ease of destroying reputations on the internet, this thriller surfaces some challenging and relevant questions.

4. The Last Alibi (David Ellis, 2013) I do like legal thrillers. I came across defense attorney Jason Kolarich in this fourth installment. When a client comes into Kolarich’s office telling him that he believe he will become a suspect in two murders, Kolarich thinks this strange. But when more murders take place, Kolarich finds himself being framed and he goes from being defense attorney to defendant. This book twists and turns to the very end.

3. Blink (Malcolm Gladwell, 2007) I discovered Gladwell this year and this was one of the first books of his I read. In Blink he addresses how we make instant decisions. Bringing various stories to illustrate his points, he looks at why some people are brilliant decision makes while others aren’t, why following instinct brings success to some and failure to others, and why we can’t explain the best decisions. This is the book about “thin-slicing” — filtering down to the few factors that matter when making a decision.

2. Bright Empires Series (Stephen Lawhead, 2010-2014) When I read the first book in this sci-fi/fantasy series, The Skin Map, I was intrigued. A man has found the way to navigate the multiverse, moving from one place and time in one universe to another, and he has tattooed markers to help him remember on his skin. The second book, The Bone House, was a bit of a let-down the first time, as it has too many characters and plot lines which are left hanging. But, then I waited till all 5 books were done and went back to the start to read them all in sequence. And that is the way to attack this feast. By the time you get through books 3 and 4 (The Spirit Well and The Shadow Lamp), book 5 (The Fatal Tree) brings it all together for a satisfying conclusion as the band of intrepid questers seek to save the universe from the end of everything.

1. I am Pilgrim (Terry Hayes, 2014) Terry Hayes debut thriller is an epic and book-of-the-year nominee on goodreads. It starts with a shocking murder and moves from mystery to spy thriller. When the murder uses techniques written in the definitive book on forensic criminal investigation, it becomes clear that the author might help. But he is a pseudonym for a man who doesn’t exist: Pilgrim. Pilgrim, a spy for US intelligence, has retired, but is forced back into the game. What starts as a murder becomes a race-against-time to save America from oblivion. This is Bourne taken to the next level.