Book Review: Between Heaven and the Real World

Between Heaven and the Real World
by Steven Curtis Chapman with Ken Abraham

My rating: 4.5 / 5
Genre: Memoir

Singer and songwriter Steven Curtis Chapman shares the story of his life so far—childhood, romancing his wife, the road to becoming a household name in Christian music, and the loss of his young daughter. Chapman does not hold back as he tells of doubt, uncertainty, even anger, but also of learning to trust God, to believe He’s working even when we can’t see it, and to let Him lead the way.

I went into this book knowing that there would be tears involved, considering the circumstances around his loss (I don’t know if spoilers are an issue for an autobiography, but I’ll still avoid it, just in case), and I’d imagine it would be even more difficult for those who have experienced a similar loss. The emotion is raw, unfiltered, and there’s no attempt to cover it up and say “God’s got this,” since that would be disingenuous to how they were feeling at the time. One thing Chapman points out in this book is that you can know and fully believe that God is good all the time, and that His plan and timing are perfect, but that won’t necessarily keep you from feeling completely devastated by a loss, especially when in the immediate moments, days, months, when you’re still in shock, reeling, trying to process and figure out how you even take another step forward. This book is certainly not a how-to on picking yourself back up after a devastating loss, trusting in God, and moving forward firmly in His plan, but more a picture of one family’s muddled, messy attempts at finding daylight in the utter darkness.

And of course, this was just one chapter of Chapman’s and his family’s lives (several chapters in the book, though). I appreciated reading about how his earlier life led him to be the man he is and write some of the songs he’s written. I was fascinated by some of the stories behind songs that are well known to me. I do wish some of the theology had been delved into a little more deeply, for example the foundational reason that a loving God allows bad things to happen, but in the end, he was sharing his life, not trying to preach a sermon. I was also often disappointed with the picture placement, because pictures would come too early and sort of “give away” something that was coming. It might have just been an issue with the Kindle version, but then some pictures came on time or a little later than the event was discussed, so who knows. (I fully enjoyed the pictures themselves, though.) Overall, it was a deep, at times dark, fascinating read, and think that fans of Steven Curtis Chapman’s music will enjoy it, as well as people interested in the behind the scenes of the Christian music industry.

Find out more about Between Heaven and the Real World and Steven Curtis Chapman

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Book Review: Gospel Reset

Gospel Reset
by Ken Ham

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Christian living

Ken Ham explains in this book that, “The gospel message hasn’t changed, but the way in which it needs to be presented in a secularized culture does need to change.” Since reading Already Gone a few months ago, I’ve started to wonder how our church can better present the truth of the Bible to the youth that attend. Last month, my husband and I went to the Ark Encounter and Creation Museum and came back with some books that my husband wanted to read, including this one, and after reading Gospel Reset, he’s started to have similar thoughts to those I’ve been having.

The book rehashes some of the information presented in Already Gone, but obviously not everyone who reads it will have read the other book (my own husband, for example). To me, the value of the book lies in the comparison of Peter and Paul preaching to Jews and Greeks (respectively) in different chapters of Acts to the culture of America past to America present. Though many of us today already recognize that the culture is a lot less open to hearing about the Gospel than it has been in the past, it’s helpful to have this comparison to the Bible and the early church.

I found most of the illustrations unnecessary (and sometimes confusing), but overall, the viewpoint presented and resources at the end can provide some helpful insight into a big problem facing Christians today.

Find out more about Gospel Reset and Ken Ham’s ministry at Answers in Genesis

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Book Review: Behind the Lights

Behind the Lights
by Helen Smallbone

My rating: 4 / 5
Genre: Memoir

Helen Smallbone is the mother of seven children who are all adults now, three of which are well-known in Christian music—Rebecca St. James and brothers Joel and Luke of for KING & COUNTRY. In this book, she shares the story of her family, from moving from Australia to the US where everyone pitched in to keep them all afloat, to working together to put on Rebecca St. James’s shows once she got into the music industry, and to how for KING & COUNTRY got started.

One of the things I liked about this book was that way it was so conversational, like she’s telling her story in person. And she’s not afraid to talk about the mistakes made by her or anyone else in her family. I appreciate the way she ties every lesson learned into God and the Bible. Though very little of her incredible life is very relatable to me, I was still quite immersed in the book and was carried along with the ups and downs.

I’ve seen hints of at least Joel & Luke’s involvement in Rebecca St. James’s concerts, but the overall story of the entire family working at their oldest sister’s concerts and growing into their roles was the most interesting to me. It gives a lot of insight into what I’ve said since pretty much the first time I saw fK&C in concert—they put on some of the best live shows I’ve ever been to. And now I can see how their talent as performers had early roots. I’m really glad I read this book, and think that fans of Rebecca St. James and/or for KING & COUNTRY will enjoy it, as well as people interested in the behind the scenes of the Christian music industry (though I was fairly disappointed by some of what I read about that).

Thank you to Netgalley and K-LOVE Books for providing me a copy of this book to review.

Find out more about Behind the Lights and for KING & COUNTRY
Publication date: April 12, 2022

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Book Review: Journal 29

Journal 29
created by Dimitris Chassapakis

My rating: 2.5 / 5
Genre: Puzzle book

I was given this book as a Christmas gift by the owners of the escape room company I used to work for. They thought it would be right up my alley, and my husband and I were excited to go through it, thinking it would be like an escape room in a book. It was not, but to be fair, I don’t see anywhere that the book is actually stated to be like an escape room. However, even leaving that aside, there were some issues that made the book less enjoyable than it could have been.

The book starts with the beginning of a story, the same paragraph that is shown in the synopsis. But that story literally never came up again, never came to fruition, was simply forgotten about. There was no reason to include it, though I guess it gave a little starting point for the aesthetic and theming contained throughout the book. And I did like the look of the pages overall; a lot of things that seemed like pointless artwork even ended up being not so pointless by the end. I liked the way not every page was a self-contained puzzle.

The puzzles themselves, though, left a lot to be desired. There were some interesting ones that were fun to solve, some that took a little noodling and led to a thrilling “aha!” moment. However, far too many of them were just huge leaps in logic that you can only get if you happen to think like the puzzle creator. Or get help (more on that later). Many required outside knowledge, a lot of things we had to look up online, and sometimes we didn’t even know what to look up. And there were no official hints. It wouldn’t have been difficult to include at least some starter hints, help to get started, on the website where answers were entered, but instead, we had to find a forum online where other players were giving their own suggestions and hints.

I think, overall, the book needed further testing. As someone who has built a few escape rooms in the past and now builds another type of puzzle game for a living, I know that every puzzle I make needs to be tested and reviewed. I need to hear if it’s way too hard, too confusing, too big of a logic leap, or has mistakes (and yes, there was at least one puzzle in this book that had a mistake that made it harder to solve). And while I don’t want to imply that the rest of the world needs to cater to Americans, if we’d at least known from the start the creator wasn’t from the US, it might have helped us think a little differently for some of the puzzles (if you do decide to go through this book, just know that commas are used where we would put a decimal point in a number; that’s just the simpler one to explain). Again, it would have been simple to have a brief explanation of things like that on the web page for that puzzle.

I think the book was an interesting concept, and if you enjoy straight puzzles, you might want to check it out. If you’re looking for something more like an escape room, I’d suggest one of the many tabletop escape games instead.

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Book Review: Already Gone

Already Gone
by Ken Ham & Britt Beemer with Todd Hillard

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Christian living

The results of a survey of 1000 20-somethings who attended conservative Christian churches regularly growing up, but have since left the church, are here presented in a way that shed light on the traditions and teachings that are not working like we think they are. With a call to action for parents, Christian educators, youth pastors, and pastors, this book is an important read for anyone who has a heart for seeing young people continue to grow in their faith once they have more say over whether to attend church or not.

Though this book, and the survey it’s based on, is over 10 years old, I can’t imagine the results and impact are any less relevant today. In fact, I can say from my own personal life that the danger of a child growing up and not finding church relevant (and possibly, by extension, God) is still very real. With admonitions like not leaving it up to the church/Sunday school/youth group to teach your kids the fundamental truths of the Bible, this book should be an eye opener for many parents of children and teens. And I have to agree that while one’s individual salvation may not be dependent on whether or not they believe in a literal six days of creation, amongst other ways the the world is trying to undermine the Bible, the impact that an individual’s belief can have on young Christians (meaning young in age or simply new to the faith) can be devastating. Put simply: if you can’t trust the first chapters of Genesis, what makes you think you can trust the gospels? Is it really more believable that a man could be born to a virgin and then rise from the dead than that a supernatural being could create the world in 6 days?

I know that I was one who was really confused about things in this area when I was younger. I don’t remember it leading me to question whether God was real or the Bible was infallible, but I also think I learned the facts about Genesis early enough that I didn’t have the chance to question these things, and I thank God for that. In fact, it was Answers in Genesis that led me to the understanding that the existence of dinosaurs does fit with the Bible (that was the first eye opener for me, as I remember having this vague uncertainty about how what I learned in school about dinosaurs made any sense if Adam and Even in the garden of Eden was also true). But therein lies the issue the book addresses—my family attended church regularly when I was young; why did I not learn about this there?

Though I do wish I’d read it years ago, this book comes at a good time for me, as I’m poised to take over the VBS program at my church in a year or two, along with my husband. Though it’s only a week-long program once a year, we’ll definitely be taking this book and its admonitions to heart. And on that note, if you’re thinking about reading this book, understand that it makes the assumption that the reader believes the Bible 100%, including on matters like creation in 6 literal days, a young earth, the global flood, and…well, find out more about what the authors of this book believe at this link. If you do not believe the Bible is true, or to be taken literally, on all of these points, this may not be the book for you. Sadly, as Ham puts it, it has now become acceptable “to use man’s ideas to re-interpret the Bible, rather than to use the Bible to judge man’s ideas.” To put it bluntly, somewhere along the line, we decided that we knew more than the author of the Bible (God), Who was there when everything was made.

My only issue with the book is that it can be repetitive. I almost rated it 4 stars for that reason, but I think doing so would undermine the truth presented within. If you are interested in reading this book, you don’t have to purchase it, as you can find the entire contents online at this link (it can be purchased there, too, but scroll down the page to find each chapter linked).

Find out more about Already Gone and Ken Ham’s ministry at Answers in Genesis

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Book Review: Things We Couldn’t Say

Things We Couldn’t Say
by Diet Eman with James Schaap

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Memoir

Diet Eman, along with her fiance Hein Siestma, watched as the Nazi’s occupied their country, started imposing rules and restrictions, and then began to persecute the Jewish people living there. What started as quiet, minor resistance turned into a movement, with Hein and his brother leading their own group. Both Diet and Hein were arrested and spent time in prison, and then concentration camps. Fifty years later, Diet tells her story in Things We Couldn’t Say.

This is the third book I’ve read now that centers on Dutch resisters during WWII and the Holocaust. I was fascinated to hear about the citizens’ reactions to the occupation and the royal family fleeing in advance of the invasion, followed eventually by the realization that the royal family’s decision hadn’t necessarily been as cowardly as first thought. Diet also talks about why it was so natural for people in her country to resist, as she explains how stubborn the Dutch tend to be, easily forming splinter churches if there’s a difference of opinion.

In 2015, upon receiving the Faith and Freedom Award from the Acton Institute, Diet Eman said, “…you think it’s something special. But when your country is taken—and Hitler had said he would respect our neutrality, and then he marches in and he starts killing all of the Jews—and we had so very many Jewish people in our country. So, you would have done the same there, when you had friends who were Jewish and they were in danger.” However, from this book, it’s clear that not everyone would do the same thing. Even as Diet tried to find people who would help her early in her work, she was disappointed in her Christian friends who valued their own safety over that of others.

Diet was in the same prison, and then later, the same concentration camp, as Corrie & Betsie ten Boom, and though she didn’t meet them at the time, her observances of these fellow Dutchwomen of faith only strengthen my admiration of the ten Boom family (their story can be found in The Hiding Place). It’s inspiring to read how Diet’s faith grew during the toughest times and how she continued with her resistance work even after suffering very difficult things. I highly recommend this book to anyone interested in true WWII resistance or Holocaust accounts, especially those from a Christian worldview.

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Book Review: Lead Me

Lead Me
by Matt Hammitt

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Christian living, memoir

Former Sanctus Real lead singer Matt Hammitt talks about the difficulties he faced for many years trying to balance life on the road with life at home. With a wife and eventually 4 kids, he wanted to be the husband and father they needed while also following God’s calling on his life and providing for his family. In this book, he lays bare the doubts, anxieties, even depression he went through while his wife was at home simply wanting him to lead the family the way he was meant to.

This book really hit home to me in so many ways. My husband and I are at a good point in our 21-year marriage right now, but it hasn’t always been so, and I know it won’t always be so. When Sanctus Real’s song “Lead Me” came out, it spoke to me every time I heard it, and I used the lyrics to explain to my husband where I felt our relationship was lacking at the time. I’m sure the song spoke to countless others as well, just as I’m sure this book will speak to many hearts. Hammitt’s insights into what it means to be present in a marriage, even if you can’t be physically present (though that certainly helps) come from a place of experience, all of which he shares in this book. That his marriage survived some of what he describes is a testament to what can happen if two people refuse to take the easy way out and instead determine to do life together, even when it gets rough (really rough, from the sound of it).

I also found some insight into an issue my extended family is dealing with right now, and highlighted some quotes that apply to that situation. Though we all have our own stories that we’re writing as we go through life, we can certainly learn from each other along the way, even if circumstances don’t match up perfectly. And though I can’t fully connect with what Hammitt and his wife went through during and after the birth of their first son, my heart broke to read about the pain and uncertainty they went through.

My favorite thing about the book is that he points back to the Bible with every uncertainty he has, with every lesson he learns. It’s all right there for us to discover, and Hammitt lays some of it out in a way that could be beneficial to so many people who are struggling with their own families, marriages, or other relationships, whether their issue is trying to balance work and home or a plethora of other possible things that can cause a divide. Also, fans of Matt Hammitt and/or Sanctus Real might appreciate this peek into his life and why he left the band in 2015. I highly recommend this book to anyone who has interest for any reason. (Plus, any book that mentions Psalty the Singing Songbook, not once but twice, is a winner in my book!)

Thank you to Netgalley and WaterBrook & Multnomah for providing me a copy of this book to review.

Find out more about Lead Me and the band Sanctus Real

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Book Review: Return to the Hiding Place

Return to the Hiding Place
by Hans Poley

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Memoir

During the time of Nazi persecution, a Christian Dutch family called the ten Booms welcome into their home various people who were hiding from the Nazis, both Jewish and not. 18-year-old Hans Poley was the first guest, hiding to avoid being sent to Germany to do hard labor in replacement of Germans who’d been sent to fight. Here he tells the story of his time at the ten Booms’ house and his own arrest that took him to a prison, then a concentration camp.

Having read The Hiding Place earlier this year, it was really interesting to see the Beje and the ten Boom family from the perspective of one of their “guests.” Not only does Hans Poley echo Corrie ten Boom’s assertions about the incredible faith of her father and sister, he shows Corrie herself as more open and giving than she portrayed herself in some areas. For example, when her room was chosen as the location for the secret room in her book, she tried to protest it. According to Poley, however, she “readily agreed.” I think we’d all be surprised to find out how others view us, compared to how we view ourselves, and in this case, Corrie ten Boom may have been a little hard on herself. Another small thing I noticed that didn’t match up between the books is that both authors claim to be the one who gave Eusi, one of the most prominent long-term Jewish guests, his fake name, and I wonder if this, and any other possible discrepancy, is simply due to faulty memories.

Yet again I was struck by how incredibly selfless this family was, giving up their own comfort and safety to help so many others. And Casper ten Boom, Corrie’s father, is even more inspirational to me after reading this. He repeatedly expressed a desire to help the Jewish people as if it weren’t even a choice to make. If you’ve read The Hiding Place, you should consider reading this too. Overall, though, I recommend it to anyone interested in true Holocaust accounts, especially those from a Christian worldview.

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Book Review: As You Wish

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride
by Cary Elwes & Joe Layden
Read by the author

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Memoir

Twenty-five years after the release of The Princess Bride, a movie that was not much of a success in its time but later became a cult classic, Cary Elwes, who played the iconic Westley in the movie, writes about his time working on the set. With additions by many of Elwes’s co-stars, along with the director, the producer, and the screenplay writer (who also wrote the book the movie is based on), Elwes gives us a peek at the making of a movie in general, and this family favorite in particular.

As soon as I knew this book existed, I knew I’d be reading it, and I knew I’d enjoy it. I’ve seen the movie several times, but even more importantly, it is my husband’s all-time favorite movie. So I suggested we both listen to the audiobook, which is narrated by Elwes himself, an actor we have both really liked for a long time, which is exactly what we did. And we both loved it! We also loved that the bits added by other people who worked on the movie were mostly read by those people as well. I think the fact that they were willing to take the time to first write, and then narrate their own thoughts on the making of this movie illustrates exactly what Elwes says throughout the book, that this cast and crew became a lot like a family. Others who read this book seem to be looking for the seedy underbelly, assuming that Elwes left out anything negative in his rush to extol the virtues of his co-workers. And I can’t say that’s not the case, of course, but perhaps the reason this memoir is so friendly and upbeat is because that’s how it really was. It’s not like poor Wallace Shawn was brow-beaten into saying his time working on the movie was all sunshine and rainbows (he had some issues, but I won’t say more than that).

I loved hearing some of the accounts of things that happened throughout the months working on this film, and even in the time after. Some of them were described by multiple people, which added a nice depth to them. I had re-watched the movie in anticipation of reading this book, but still felt compelled to look up certain scenes to see something Elwes described, whether a specific way he moved during the scene due to an injury or a line that was improvised. For fans of The Princess Bride, this book may make you see the movie in a whole new light and, hopefully, a good one. If you’ve never seen the movie, I recommend it.

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Book Review: Schindler’s List

Schindler’s List
by Thomas Keneally

My rating: 5 / 5
Genre: Nonfiction historical novel

Most people have at least heard of this book, or the movie that was made from it, about the war profiteer turned savior of over a thousand Jews during WWII. I watched the movie in high school and then tried to read the book, but gave up due to how long and dry it was. That’s probably the biggest mark against the book for most people–it’s slow and plodding for at least the first several chapters. And throughout the entire book, the narrative is bogged down by so many names of locations and people, all of which are foreign to at least some of us (mostly Polish names, some German) and difficult to pronounce. However, I’m not sure Keneally should have done it differently, and if that is the only downside to the whole book, I would say there’s a lot of reason to push through it and keep going. It does pick up a little after some of the early chapters, and in the end, I’m really glad I read it.

One thing that’s always struck me about Schindler, and did even more so while reading this, is that he’s not necessarily the type of person you would picture as a “savior.” He was gruff, prone to fits of anger, and frankly had absolutely no respect for women at all. And yet, when he saw injustice and brutality happening, he was spurred into action. And while his motives for helping are examined multiple times in the book, it’s clear that it’s not just a matter of profit that he fights to keep his workers, considering the lengths he goes to at times to not just keep them but also to keep the SS from brutalizing them in his factory.

Though Schindler’s actions are the focal point, the book also takes an up-close look at some of the people eventually saved by him. The book reads like a series of vignettes about Schindler himself and various of the different Schindlerjuden (Schindler Jews). Keneally states that he did his best to include only facts, while filling in conversation here and there, but because he couldn’t possibly have every single detail, the story at times reads more like looking down on a scene, rather than being right there in it while it happens, as we’ve come to expect from novels. He makes it clear, though, when he couldn’t corroborate a story, that it might be more legend than fact, and even this only happens a few times. Overall, the book is a fascinating, heartbreaking, and clear picture of one man who was completely unextraordinary most of his life, yet did an incredibly extraordinary thing during a dark and terrifying time in human history. Whether you’ve seen the movie or not, I recommend reading this book to pretty much everyone who’s remotely interested in the subject matter, even if it does take you some time to get through it. It’s worth it.

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