Thursday, April 23, 2015

‘Beyond Belief’ (Book Review)

Scientology has always been a bit of a mystery religion to me; that is, a mystery because, to be frank, I know very little about it. Having never actually read any of L. Ron Hubbard’s books (or those of his critics, for that matter) or personally known a self-identified Scientologist, it’s been pretty easy to ignore, despite having actually driven past the church on Sunset Blvd. a number of times. Sure, everyone around me seemed to have an opinion: It’s a dangerous cult. Dianetics is a lot of psychobabble. Et cetera. But what adherents actually believe and practice were never made clear to me.

Jenna Miscavige Hill’s “tell-all” memoir Beyond Belief: My Secret Life Inside Scientology and My Harrowing Escape (HarperCollins, 2013) has changed some of that. Niece of the current Scientology leader Dave Miscavige and co-founder of, Hill talks about what life was like for her with both parents in the elite Sea Org and being raised by the system. Even though she was prevented what most of us would call a “normal” childhood, Hill remained committed to Scientology for years, rising up its ranks. Eventually, she had enough: Enough of the E-Meters and auditing sessions designed to root out subversive behavior. Enough of the favoritism and inconsistencies. Enough of authorities keeping her from being with those she loved. In the end, Hill left Scientology kicking and screaming…literally, if I read correctly.

While Beyond Belief was certainly an eye-opener into the hidden world of Scientology, I closed the book with mixed feelings. It really was poorly written. Like many other memoirs, the story is weighted down by the author trying to account for absolutely everything, as if it were a courtroom testimony rather than a general retelling of the most important events. There were a number of obvious typos and needless repetitions. The book wasn’t terrible; just sloppy and disorganized. I don’t fault Hill. She isn’t a writer by profession, and any problems can be easily blamed on her inadequate Scientology schooling. However, I do fault Lisa Pulitzer (the “with” co-author) and the editing staff at HarperCollins who all should’ve known better. Hill had an important story to tell, but I really wonder if this book will really help her cause.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

‘Max and Bear’ (Book Review)

Many a child has initially neglected a particular toy, doll, or book only to make it a prized favorite later on. Max is no different. He wants to play with “Sophie the Giraffe” or glow-in-the-dark Turtle, but never Bear. Bear is disappointed but waits patiently for his time to come. Then one day Max gets sick, and only Bear can comfort him. Bear finally gets the love and attention he’s always wanted.

This is the story behind Max and Bear (Archway, 2014), inspired by author Pam Saxelby’s grandson and his own toy. While I liked the overall plot, I feel that the book could’ve used a few more drafts. Rather than engaging a toddler, it’s more likely to try his patience.

The story seems to move at a snail’s pace, and there were needless characters such as the gift-giving friend and the pet dogs. Cluttering the narrative were “wordy” sentences and a number of details irrelevant to anyone outside of the author’s family. I also think that talking about Max being put to bed between him eating too much avocado and him getting sick just breaks up the flow of the story. Don’t be surprised if your child completely misses the cause-and-effect connection.

As for the accompanying illustrations, Stephen Adams has made them nice and large. However, there’s too much repetition, and the object of interest is often not prominent enough for a toddler to spot immediately. The story doesn’t need to be interrupted by a game of “Where’s Sophie the Giraffe?”

In the end, Max and Bear doesn’t deliver. The paper pages are impractical for a target audience that tears up board books. And the content is unlikely to hold most children’s attention for long. While I trust that Saxelby didn’t intend to write a book that’s merely a nostalgic momento for Max’s parents and grandparents, that’s what I’m afraid it turned out to be.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.

Wednesday, March 25, 2015

‘Little Baby Buttercup’ (Book Review)

This has got to be one of the cutest toddler books I’ve ever read. Little Baby Buttercup (Nancy Paulsen Books, 2015) is a “Mommy and Me” story about daily activities and growing up. Readers will join Buttercup, as she eats, plays with blocks, “helps” her mother in the garden, and explores the outside world of nature and busy people around her.

Author Linda Ashman tells the story using bouncy rhymes that are simple and fun, propelling the story forward. The vocabulary presents a few opportunities for your child to be exposed to new words, like “traveler” and “journey,” and learn to pay attention to sounds, not just actions. While the story follows a bunch of mini-adventures, there is still a sense of dramatic structure. There’s a definite build-up, followed by a point of conflict – rain! – and a calming resolution. Not always what’s expected from a toddler book. Impressive writing, indeed.

Bringing to life Buttercup’s world is illustrator You Byun. She uses sort of an East-meets-West style of drawing and feminine-looking watercolor painting to create pictures that look “vintage” without being “outdated” and “Asian-inspired” without causing the reader to feel like she’s looking at manga. The illustrations are bright and large, sure to capture and maintain a young child’s attention. They are also relevant to the story, driving home the ideas and sounds that Ashman presents.

I think Little Baby Buttercup is all around adorable. There is a diverse multicultural crowd of kids at the playground and people moving about the town. I wouldn’t say it’s geographically ambiguous, because there’s an obvious east-coast town feel. However, California babies can easily identify with squirrels, coffee shops, and getting caught in the rain.

Before you rush out and buy this book, note that, while Little Baby Buttercup is clearly targeted at toddlers, it boasts a jacketed hardcover and paper pages. You might want to hold off on it, or at least store it in a safe place, until you’re sure your child knows that books are not to be torn and eaten. Properly cared for, this book could be read and loved well into the early grade years.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book as a First Reads giveaway winner on There was no obligation to write a review.