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Publisher: Zondervan

Author: Michael Snyder

A synopsis

In Michael Snyder’s new novel A Stand Up-Guy Oliver Miles works as a night security guard at the Harrington hotel where frequent reports of robberies and ghost encounters keep him and Mattie, the attractive and sneaky night auditor, guessing. But few dream of becoming a night security guard or an auditor for that matter. So Oliver spends his off hours pursuing his comedy career and Mattie writes songs when she isn’t crunching numbers. As time goes on, the cases go unsolved, security cameras are installed, and hunches turn into accusations. Oliver and Mattie’s relationship grows and each uncover hard truths about the others families that test their relationship. The question then becomes will the truth discovered about Oliver’s mother and Mattie’s father strengthen their relationship or break it?

My personal reading experience

I almost didn’t finish this book. But I did and I am glad that I did. I think I expected the story to be funnier than it was. But at the same time I think after finishing it I see it as a story about an aspiring comedian and not a comedy. Perhaps genre expectations, though sometimes helpful for both readers and writers navigating the ocean of books available to read, can be somewhat of a hindrance to seeing characters clearly. I find stories of aspiring anything really quite interesting. I’m an aspiring writer and also used to be a guitarist in a metal band not too long ago and so I can relate. The characters in A Stand Up-Guy had to make tough choices that must be made by any artist who wishes to develop an audience and also maintain healthy relationships with those they are already close to. The internet has exacerbated the tension between these two desires dramatically. This made the themes very timely. I found the story to be far more tragic at times than I expected but overall the story was a challenging, thought provoking and satisfying read.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through NetGalley.com. <http://www.netgalley.com> 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 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Published by Penguin Books

In 1881, fresh out of medical school at the University of Edinburgh, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle sat in his empty medical practice in Portsmouth and waited for new patients seeking his help. As few patients darkened his door Doyle had to find some way to bide the time. He began writing and publishing short stories and soon Sherlock Holmes was born. Holmes was inspired by Doyle’s teacher and mentor Joseph Bell who was known for his power of observational insight and deduction.

First published together in 1893, these stories chronicle the ever increasing fame and renown of Sherlock Holmes detective work throughout London and beyond as told through Holmes faithful friend Dr. Watson. It features stories like “The Silver Blaze,” “The Musgrave Ritual,” and my personal favorite “The Resident Patient.” Sherlock Holmes stories were by far Arthur Conan Doyle’s most beloved and popular of all of his writings, much to Doyle’s resentment. For him passion and success were not often words found in the same sentence. He felt most passionate about his writings on the subject of Spiritualism yet his writings on the subject did not fare well with audiences. He was knighted for his work in the Boer War and also wrote a book on it called  The War in South Africa. Though few associate him with anything other than Sherlock Holmes.

From a literary stand point there is no wonder that this would be the case. The stories are fit exercises in minimalism and have influenced many a writer. John Le Carre remarks on this in the introduction to The Annotated Sherlock Holmes. “Peek up Conan Doyle’s literary sleeves and you will at first be disappointed: no fine turns of phrase, no clever adjectives that leap off the page, no arresting psychological insights. Instead, what you are looking at is a kind of narrative perfection: a perfect interplay between dialogue and description, perfect characterization and perfect timing.”

As brief and plot focused as these stories might be when read individually the cumulative effect of reading The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes reveals a more well rounded Holmes. Doyle noted that often stories in magazines of his time were islands unto themselves. Calling them “disconnected stories” he suggested that “a single character running through a series, if it only engaged the attention of the reader, would bind that reader to that particular magazine.” This certainly proved true of Sherlock Holmes and “The Strand Magazine.” In his article “The Story of the Strand” Chris Willis notes that “the combination of Sherlock Holmes and the Strand had made Conan Doyle one of the most popular authors of the age. Fifty-six Holmes stories appeared in the magazine from 1891 to 1927, many of them illustrated by Sidney Paget’s now famous drawings.” Sprinkled throughout the cases a complex and intriguing sense of who Holmes character emerges. These traits are often overshadowed by his intellect and deductive powers when reading a single Sherlock Holmes short story. He is not just brilliant and logical but also bizarre, playful, lazy, compassionate and eccentric. Frederick Dorr Steele says of Holmes “Beginning as a self-disciplined thinking machine who rigidly excluded from his mind all information not pertinent to the case at hand, knowing or caring nothing for the arts, Holmes developed within a few years into veritable encyclopedia of such knowledge.”

What makes The Memoirs of Sherlock Holmes distinct from the other collections in terms of plot is the introduction of the villainous mastermind Dr. Moriarty. Moriarty appears to be Holmes intellectual match. But where Holmes uses his mind to see justice served Moriarty runs a syndicate of thieves throughout London. He chases Holmes to the edge of Reichenbach Falls in the dramatic conclusion of the memoirs “The Final Problem.”

Guy Ritchie’s sequel to the 2009 Sherlock Holmes is in theatre’s December 16th and is inspired by this collection of stories. The sequel will again feature Robert Downey Jr., Jude Law and Rachel McAdams from the last film. Joining the cast are Stephen Fry as Holmes brother Mycroft, Noomi Rapace from the Stieg Larson trilogy and Jared Harris from Mad Men.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through NetGalley.com. <http://www.netgalley.com> 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 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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The Best American Mystery Stories of 2011
Edited by Harlan Coben
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The word mystery and perhaps all genre names, while at times helpful guideposts on the literary landscape, are loaded words. This collection of recent American mystery short stories explores the ambiguities of the mystery genre as it has each year since 1997. The collection contains stories of detectives, arsonists, spies, kidnappers, and assassins which span enough time to reflect the America that was as well as the America that is.

One thing these stories have in common is their brevity and potency. The collection’s editor Harlan Coben says in the introduction “The best short stories, like those high octane lovers, never fully leave you. They burn, linger, haunt. Some sneak up on you in a subtle way. Others are like a punch in the gut-sudden, spontaneous. They knock the wind out of you.”

Harlan Coben is no stranger to the mystery story having written 20 crime novels himself. In this short story collection there is a subtle thematic thread that ties these stories together. Harlan Coben plays the curator of this dark gallery of narratives, placing stories in balanced relation to one another. The more comical or emotionally calculated stories help balance out the visceral and gritty tales in the collection. And as the genre is explored with each successive tale so are the motley human emotions of fear, bitterness, resentment, and anger. Of course the act of murder is explored as well. Does assisted suicide become murder ? If so, when? These sorts of involved and fascinating questions are the turbulent undercurrent of The Best American Mystery Stories from 2011.

The stories are full of broken, angry, hurt people sketched with human complexity such that nobility at times shines forth from the seemingly darkest of hearts and at others the true darkness of characters’ souls will make you shudder. I found some of the content in the stories too titillating, vulgar or horrifying at times to be sure, but I also gained a greater appreciation for the intricate mystery of the human heart as well.

Some of the standout stories in the collection for me were:

Who Stole My Monkey? by David Corbett and Luis Alberto Urrea
The Hitter by Chris F. Holm
Baby Killer by Richard Lange

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through NetGalley.com. <http://www.netgalley.com> 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 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Larry Brooks, author of six psychological thriller novels, has in “Story Engineering” collected the commonalities that exist in all stories whether they are a movie or a book and presented them as 6 core competencies: Concept, Character, Theme, Story Structure, and Scene. He’s convinced that many popular authors and writing books don’t own up to a certain accepted story structure that appears in the majority of novels across genres. Instead, they project a mystical and mysterious image of the writing process. This book sets out to demystify the writing process a little and put in practical terms what every good story needs.

Larry Brooks acknowledges that story planning and outlining aren’t the way everyone writes. Some will choose different more organic methods, but he claims that in all cases an understanding of story structure is needed.

He references “The Da Vinci Code” heavily throughout the book. I had a pretty high cringe factor at this. I felt tension, which I often do, between my evangelical religious beliefs and the value I also place on how well a story is told. In my opinion “The Da Vinci Code” is a bad story that is told in a really engaging and compelling manner.  Thankfully “Story Engineering” is not pointing out anything other than that; the engaging and compelling manner in which Dan Brown structured “The Da Vinci Code.”

I found the emphasis on planning in “Story Engineering” to be refreshing after spending much of my writing time wandering from one blank page to the next hoping to discover the next thing to write in my story as I wrote it. “Pantsing” your way through writing a story as Larry calls it hasn’t worked out too well for me up to the present and this is because I didn’t know the key scenes every story needs and where to put them in relation to one another.

This book doesn’t put on airs. It will be easily understandable to anyone, even if they, like me, don’t have any creative writing education to work from. Those with an English degree or an MFA might have a hard time taking pointers from mass market paperback authors and prime time television shows, but I found it to be quite helpful for learning about story structure. One criticism I do have of the book is its exclusion of some of the classics. There is no reference to the works of Jane Austen, Dostoyevsky, and Tolkien. There are quite a number of film adaptations of their novels which clearly show that whatever way these authors go about writing their stories it seems to be both successful captivating the imaginations of their readers as well as the attention of their film and television audiences.

If you are looking for an understanding, sympathetic and motivational voice to get your pen moving and help you overcome the writers’ block, you will be disappointed by “Story Engineering.” For that I recommend “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. But if you want to find out what essential events need to be in your next story and where they go in relation to one another then “Story Engineering” is a good choice.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers 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 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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In Then sings my soul Robert J. Morgan reveals the stories behind 150 hymns that have echoed in the sanctuaries and hearts of believers throughout the years. The book is best viewed as a devotional or a reference book as there is no real attempt to string the stories together in a linear structure. Instead, the Morgan packs the stories of tribulation, salvation, and redemption that produced hymns like “Great is thy faithfulness” “Be thou my vision” and “It is well with my soul” into short single page narratives with the accompanying sheet music and lyrics printed alongside them.

The collection of hymns are broken up into five sections: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Patriotic and other favorites. Whilereading I found many hymns I knew and loved as well as others I was not familiar with. I was surprised, however, by what was missing from the collection as I read. The Star Spangled Banner is included among the section of patriotic hymns but it is the only anthem present in Then sings my soul.

This is what made the book not quite as well rounded as it could be. By including the United States National anthem in this collection of hymns and excluding all other anthems, the author fails to reach an international audience with Then sings my soul presents Amercan readers with a idealistic patriotic pride in the United States. What is a New Zealander to think of the fact that according to this book “The Star Spangled Banner” is a hymn worthy to be sung in church services but the New Zeland national anthem is excluded?

I use New Zealand as an example because its anthem is, like The Star Spangled Banner, lyrically reverant to God. Including the New Zealand national anthem I feel would have kept Then sings my soul from propetuating the idea that the United States is superior to other nations in the eyes of God. This is unfortunate and ignores the complex history of the United States which contains some accomplishments, heroics and travisties. America is a desireable nation to live in and I am blessed in inumerable ways by living here, and thankful to the men and women who serve in the military to protect the freedoms I enjoy, but I can’t deny that the U.S. is not without it’s own issues and that there are other nations who fear God.

I would like to see an introductory section in the book on hymnology as well to orient readers. Throughout my reading I kept wondering “What exactly is the criteria for a hymn?” I am writing this review at the age of 28 and reading many of these stories was a sort of time travel or history lesson for me because of my age.I am willing to say that I have plenty to learn from generations of believers who came before me but the collection silently implies that with the exception of the author Robert Morgan’s hymn “Jesus Christ is Born Today” written in 2005, a christian hymn worth exploring the story that birthed it hasn’t sucessfully been written since 1971. With such a picky selection of current day hymns for this collection I would have liked to see an accompanying definition for what a hymn is.

Overall I feel about this book how I feel about the subject of history. It’s incomplete but interesting and worth reading. Despite my quibbles, I recommend Then Sings My Soul. I also recommend the following:

-The story behind the song “Open the eyes of my heart”
-The New Zealand national anthem.

This post is based on a review copy.

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Heaven is for real

By Todd Burpo and Lynn Vincent

Thomas Nelson Publishers

Todd Burpo is a pastor and his wife Sonja a school teacher.  They slowly get little glimpses into what heaven is like from the most unlikely of places; their four year old son. Heaven is for real is the real life story of four year old Colton Burpo’s visit to heaven during an emergency apendectomy. Colton’s experiences shake up their dull notions of heaven and bring the Burpo family together as well as their church community.

I found the book to be engaging. It was not difficult to get pulled into the story. I found the story to be amazing yet believable. This is due to the fact that Colton gained information about his family history and about God the average four year old would not have, even a pastors son. He seemed clearly affected in a deep way by his time in heaven. Plus the information came out slowly, more from the curiosity of Colton’s parents than any sort of desire in Colton for attention. Perhaps it is that the most willing vessel for God to work with is sometimes that of a child.

The book challenged my shallow notions of heaven. I read this book on the heels of reading the book of Colossians which left me feeling the importance of having an eternal perspective about things. To be honest , prior to reading Heaven is for real when I thought about heaven all that came to mind was a sort of endless church service in the sky. It wasn’t nearly like the relational and dynamic experience Colton had.

Colton presents heaven as a highly relational place where the dead in Christ await to meet or reunite with loved one’s on earth. It is also a place too amazing to put into words, but filled with bright amazing colors.

I felt the earlier portion of the book was a little hard to grasp as the events happened so rapidly. This wonderful experience Colton had was in the midst of intense physical and emotional pain for all of the Burpo’s. God thankfully gave them the grace to endure the surgeries and possibility of loosing their son as it so looked at moments to the natural eye. Oh but what God actually had planned!

The book really hit a groove structurally for me as the reader when it focused on the dialoug between Colton and his parents/family about Heaven over the next months and years after his experience. It was in here that I felt drawn into the story and it kept my attention till the end.

Being that Colton’s father was a pastor, the dialoug was filled with his pastoral scripture rich mindset wrestling with the amazing things his son would tell him. This helped root the story in what the Bible says about Heaven. Todd didn’t seem overly eager to believe his son’s story but he had a fatherly concern and interest to enter into a dialoug with him and keep an open mind. I would recommend this book to others. It has a non-religious, simple, playful feel which will appeal to people that feel a little intimidated by things like “theology” and all that. Yet it also is written by a pastor, so the material is not diulted but handled in a way that keeps Christ at the center of the story. I look forward to meeting Jesus in person in heaven and talking with my grandfather and former roommate again who have both passed on, as well as others who have or will have passed on before me.

This post is based on a review copy.

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Book Review: Out Live Your Life

“Out live Your Life” is a book about transcending expectations, stereotypes and labels and making an impact in other peoples lives. Jesus’ legacy lives on in our lives by his death, resurrection and also the way He lived and loved while He walked the earth. Max Lucado looks at ways the early church presented in the book of Acts followed in Christ’s example and how other willing friends of God have “out lived” their life.

“Out live Your Life” is an interesting read. Each chapter is filled with interesting stories of missionaries putting petty denominational differences aside to help those in need, and persecuted christians writing books with a bar of soap on his prison cell walls just to name a few. The book definitely challenged my perceptions of what is possible and inspired me.

One of the things reading “Out live Your Life” did was remind me just how myopic the “American Dream” can be if Jesus isn’t in the center of that dream. There are people elsewhere in the world who have dreams and needs as well. God’s heart is for everyone and not just America.

I recommend Out live Your Life. It is a timely collection of examples of just what God can do when people think of others and not just themselves. I admire Max Lucado’s decision to put 100% of his author royalties for “Out Live Your Life” into the hands of World Vision and other ministries of faith-based compassion.

This post is based on a review copy.

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