Wednesday, February 25, 2015

‘They Call Me Dad’ (Book Review)

The Iron Curtain has fallen, but few “Westerners” are aware of the economic and social plight plaguing former-communist counties. The new governments of Romania and Moldova find themselves unable to feed, cloth, and care for thousands of orphans. When preacher Philip Cameron and his father decide to investigate, they are horrified by the children’s terrible living conditions: thin clothing, little food, and no heat in the freezing winters. Cameron immediately sets to work on raising money, supplies, and awareness, remodeling orphanages, and building group homes to keep girls in school and off the streets where sex traffickers lurk. As the ministry Stella’s Voice grows, many lives are saved both physically and spiritually.

It’s been over twenty years since Cameron first took that impromptu trip to Romania. Now he’s sharing his story in They Call Me Dad: How God Uses the Unlikely to Save the Discarded (HigherLife Publishing, 2014). Part informational and part memoir, this book shows how difficult it can be trying to minister in a foreign country, but it also shows how rewarding it was for Cameron personally. In addition, it reads more smoothly than your typical self-published work, so you don’t have to be apologetic when recommending it your family and friends.

It’s not all smiles though. You might say I love the mission and hate the book. Okay, “hate” is far too strong of a word. Let’s just say I was disappointed from the onset. While it’s undisputable that Cameron has achieved a lot in ministering to Eastern European orphans, he doesn’t exactly come across as caring in They Call Me Dad. To be honest, words like weak, condescending, irresponsible, and judgmental come to mind.

Reading the book, I saw a man who let his father guilt-trip him into neglecting his family and ministry to take an ill-timed trip to a country about which he knew nothing, to solve a problem about which he knew nothing. I saw money and in-kind donations wasted, stolen, and misdirected because Cameron wouldn’t stand still long enough to do careful research and planning. I saw how a man’s obsession – yes, obsession – with adopting a child he’d met once cause him to act before making the necessary legal arrangements and bully the mother into surrendering guardianship. I saw him criticize, rather than try to help, the poor starving residents of an underdeveloped country for contemplating aborting their pregnancies, living in filthy surroundings, eating spoiled food, stealing his money, and claiming supplies donated for others.

If the author’s intent was to show how God still used him in spite of his bad attitude towards the people and his blundering management…well, then maybe his writing needs some improvement. Again, I understand that Philip Cameron has done amazing things for the orphans of Romania and Moldova. More power to him for that. But I thought that the book was more self-congratulatory than anything. A mature approach, befitting his age and experience, would’ve been more self-critical.

Stella's Voice from Stella's Voice on Vimeo.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the author and/or publisher through the Speakeasy blogging book review network. 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.


Saturday, February 21, 2015

‘Know Your Bible for Kids’ (Book Review)

While it’s great to think that children can obtain much of their Bible knowledge purely by osmosis, we really need to admit that they can benefit from study helps and reference guides just as much as adults can. And to be honest, kids may successfully master the “Old Testament Books” song and the “New Testament Books” song, but a list of titles, removed from any valuable context, won’t help them understand what each book is really about. That becomes a major hurdle in their education. To tackle it, I recommend taking a look at Donna K. Maltese’s Know Your Bible for Kids (Barbour, 2013), illustrated by David Miles.

This little paperback for grade-school aged children is packed with information about each of the sixty-six books in the typical Protestant canon. The basic format includes an illustration; short discussions on authorship and date; a key word, a summary, and some key points; a key verse and explanation; and a “So, What?” section with a personal application. Traditional authors are mentioned, but the wording leaves things open for debate (without actually getting into one!).

Please note, the book is not perfect. There’s always room for improvement. I’ve found that children can make more sense of traditional book titles (e.g., The Gospel According to John, The Letter to the Church in Ephesus) rather than the abbreviated ones we’re accustomed to using (e.g., John, Ephesians). They need to know that books like the Song of Solomon and Revelation have commonly used alternative names (i.e., Song of Songs or Canticles, Apocalypse) that might be used in their own copies of the Bible. It also would’ve been helpful to have a few maps showing where Egypt, Israel, Persia, and the first century churches were located. I’ve found this invaluable when trying to explain to kindergarteners what “Ephesians” is. Once they see it on a map and understand the semantics (e.g., Americans and America, Mexicans and Mexico), they get "Ephesians" and "Ephesus" immediately.

As for the artwork, I have to admit that I was a little disappointed. Children are so much influenced by what they see. (I still imagine Bible characters looking like pictures from storybooks!) Rather than being in a more contemporary style, the overall look resembles too much of what I remember from back in the ‘80s. Nice, but dated. Some of the books (1 & 2 Chronicles, some minor prophets, and the two shorter Johannine epistles) lack illustrations, which I think minimizes the importance of these works. Also, the pictures didn’t always depict the best known stories from each book. For example, Exodus showed Moses with the Ten Commandments instead of the Crossing of the Red Sea. Worse still, the Gospel of Matthew has an illustration of an event only recorded in Luke. This is one area that could’ve used some serious help.

As a caution, I should mention two other issues. First, the dates are rather confusing. When the book is written tends to be convoluted with when the events in the book took place. Rather than B.C./A.D. (or B.C.E./C.E.), dates are given in “years ago.” I don’t really have a problem with that method, but I don’t find that format conducive to kids’ understanding. It even confuses us adults.

Second, be aware that, even though Know Your Bible for Kids is pretty short (127 pages), there’s still interpretation going on. For example, Esther’s king is Xerxes, Job is dated very early, the Song is about Solomon’s wedding, and Revelation is a peak into our future. The comments on Genesis, however, are open enough to be inclusive of a variety of creation theories.

While a few parents and teachers will have a problem with the content, I think most will be happy with Know Your Bible for Kids. I certainly appreciated it. There’s enough information to give the reader a good overview but also a little something to stimulate curiosity about the Bible’s contents. Banish forever the boring list of titles and give each of the kids in your Sunday School class a copy of Know Your Bible for Kids. I think the short-term and long-term benefits are worth it.

Thursday, February 19, 2015

‘Where Does It Hurt?’ (Book Review)

It’s pretty much common knowledge that America’s health care has needed help for a long time, and that the new “ObamaCare” has serious problems of its own. A lot of opinions have been tossed around, but not too many solutions. That’s where Jonathan Bush comes in. As cofounder and CEO of athenahealth, a medical billing and health care management company, he has a lot of faith in the ability of entrepreneurs to find innovative solutions to our health care problems. With a less regulated, more competitive, and technology-friendly health care “system,” we could be on our way to greater efficiency, lower costs, and more satisfied customers…er, patients. To prove his point, Bush provides a number of recommendations of his own in Where Does It Hurt? An Entrepreneur's Guide to Fixing Health Care (Portfolio/Penguin, 2014) written with Stephen Baker.

There are some “free-market” proposals, which could be expected. There are some personal antidotes, most which I found either boring or irrelevant. And Bush constantly name-drops while simultaneously trying to disassociate himself from the politics of his presidential relations. But what you want to know about is the meat of this book: essentially a brain-storming session, taken down in dictation and published. Not really impressive. Some of Bush’s ideas need to have more details fleshed out before we can reasonably ask if they’re worth implementing. Others strike me as inherently unwise. With all of the relatively-recent scandal and crises associated with Fannie Mae, how anyone can seriously suggest forming the same thing for insurance start-ups without addressing any of the easily foreseeable problems it would face? And the suggestion that quickly-trained Army medics are qualified to take over much of the domain of fully-trained physicians seemed to address health care cost at the expense of health care quality. To be honest, it sounded like veteran Army medic Bush may be a bit sore about having his medical school dreams cut short when he didn’t have what it takes to pass organic chemistry.

While I wasn’t impressed with the authors’ ideas, that’s not to dismiss the entire book. Where Does It Hurt? is a guide for entrepreneurs, not a step-by-step instruction manual. Bush’s enthusiasm is contagious, and the success stories he tells are inspiring. I expect wheels to start turning in the minds of creative young readers, who might come up with some viable solutions. Bush really had any himself, I suppose he would be trying to start those businesses rather than “giving it away” by writing a popular book.

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

Tuesday, February 10, 2015

‘Arizona Dream: A True Story of a Real-Life Ocean's Eleven’ (Book Review)

It’s the early 2000s. Think of the epitome of low class USA: domestic violence, street fights, petty crime, ethnic and racial bigotry, foul language, alcohol and drug abuse, low-wage jobs, flashy cars, and women appraised by their bra size. But there’s also ambition. Despite his surroundings, twenty-something-year-old Bosnian refugee Adnan Ališić is making a success of his new life in Glendale, Arizona. As a used car dealer, he provides much needed jobs and inexpensive means of transportation to other working class immigrants. But success means lots of free time and spending money, and Ališić soon becomes a regular at the Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community’s Casino Arizona in the Scottsdale area. Soon his business is in shambles, and he’s gambling money that isn’t his. In a true addict’s fashion, Ališić blames the casino. Since winning back “his money” has proven impossible, he starts plotting to steal it.

You might have read about it in the news: On July 21, 2006, Ališić and three accomplices robbed $700,000 from an armored vehicle. Their escape plan botched up, and all four were caught and tried. Ališić was eventually sent to a federal prison in Lompoc, California (think Santa Barbara) where he currently is still serving out his seventeen-year sentence.

That might have been the end of it, as far as the general American public is concerned, but someone in the media had made a connection to Ocean’s Eleven. Whether that became the spark of inspiration or an idea for a marketing ploy, I don’t know. But Ališić soon got started on a tell-all memoir, released as Arizona Dream: A True Story of a Real-Life “Ocean's Eleven” (Dog Ear Publications, 2014).

The book is actually three stories in one: The Arizona years are mixed up with flashbacks to the Bosnian War (1992-1995) when Ališić’s family was desperately trying to make ends meet in the war-torn former Yogoslavia and when teen Ališić endured some stomach-churning torture at the hands of Bosnian Serbs, who were trying to eliminate the Muslim Bosniak population. Then the ending is drawn out with tales of Ališić’s prison experiences.

While it sports 400+ pages, this biography does manage to keep a quick pace. Ališić jumps right into the action. Yet excitement doesn’t guarantee the most pleasant read. Ališić is an ESL speaker and an amateurish writer in the unflattering sense of the term. Arizona Dream is plagued with cluttering adjectives, awkward sentence structure, and some poor word choice. The back and forth between times and places weren’t written in the expert manner of more accomplished writers. It was just plain confusing. This was worsened by the fact that Ališić is extremely vague about names and dates. I had to Google the heist to get a better idea of what actually happened. And the author also seems to think that most Americans know far more about Bosnia than we actually do. After all, some of us were kids back then too! Even his wrap up of the post-heist legal proceedings left me with more questions than answers. It was as if he was purposely trying to leave out some of the most relevant information to his story.

But all this might be forgivable if there was a protagonist with whom I as a reader could empathize. And that is where the Arizona Dream really failed. Sure, I can warm up a little to war veteran Danny Ocean (Frank Sinatra) and cuckolded husband Danny Ocean (George Clooney), even though they were plotting to rob their respective casinos. But I just couldn’t get passed Adnan Ališić violent nature and over-blown sense of entitlement. The ending suggests that he has since changed for the better, and I hope that’s true. But for purposes of his own “Ocean’s Eleven” experience, all I could think was that he got what he deserved.

Disclaimer: I received a free copy of this book from Bostick Communications. There was no obligation to write a favorable review.

Thursday, February 5, 2015

‘Sleeping Cinderella and Other Princess Mix-ups’ (Book Review)

Life as a fairy tale princess isn’t necessarily all it’s cracked up to be. But is the grass truly greener on the other side? Snow White, Rapunzel, Cinderella, and Sleeping Beauty are about to find out in a new “prince and the pauper”-ish storybook Sleeping Cinderella and Other Princess Mix-ups (Orchard Books/Scholastic, 2015).

When each beloved heroine becomes fed up with her lot in life, she welcomes an opportunity to have someone else take her place. Yet walking in another girl’s shoes comes with its own difficulties. Each “princess” eventually learns to appreciate what she has and be courageous enough to make changes in her own life.

Sleeping Cinderella is a great “read-aloud” book that would make a wonderful gift or addition to your school or public library. It is a large hardback, filled with lots of pictures to capture a child’s imagination. The “princess” names are even singled out in an elegant-looking cursive while the main text is left in a more practical font for a child to attempt to read.

While rhymes in general have a tendency to get tedious after a while, I think they do serve as an aid to beginner readers. Author Stephanie Clarkson weaves together some cute ones that give an old-time sensibility to this modern twist. This complements illustrator Brigette Barrager’s age-appropriate artwork, which also has an updated flavor. In addition, the “princess” looks are also familiar without screaming “Disney copycat.” The overall product appeals to the target age group of 4-8-years old (Pre-Kindergarten to 3rd Grade), but it’s organized so that even a 3-year-old would be able to keep track of who is who in this fairy tale “swap.”

Sleeping Cinderella certainly isn’t a book for the traditionalist when it comes to fairy tales. And some children who have problems with anxiety might get frustrated by the resulting disorder. But overall, I think most readers will appreciate this humorous and unusual take on these familiar stories. And rather than get caught up in daydreams about a magical life with Prince Charming, girls might be encouraged to “think outside the box.” A happy ending doesn’t have to follow a stereotype. It is what you make of it.

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