Mask of Shadows: A Review

Mask of Shadows by Linsey Miller
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was the first book that I received with my Page 1 Subscription Box. I didn’t hate it enough to contact them to ask for a different book (which they do that), but I think I did something I shouldn’t have before reading the book. Something I don’t normally do for any book.

I read reviews on Goodreads. I didn’t read any particular star amounts, just the first few reviews on the page, and it definitely colored my reading of this book.

So, Sal is a gender-fluid thief who joins a masked competition for the position as one of the honored assassins to the Queen. This was not my first gender-fluid character in a fictional book – I remember Jericho in the Arc of the Scythe series by Neal Shusterman who was male in the sun and female in the shadow, but it was the first lead character who is. I think there’s a lot of creativity in a gender-fluid character, or there can be. Sal is male when he wears “male” clothes and she is female when she wears a dress. So you have to really pay attention to what he/she is wearing, so you could understand when a character slighted them.

Which isn’t my favorite part of books, the description of clothing, and there was a lot of that. It felt like every time a character entered a scene, we had to know every piece of clothing they were wearing, including the masks on their faces.

The other issue I had with this book was also mentioned in the reviews. There are a lot of characters in this book that seem to be throwaway characters. There are twenty-three competitors. Plus, in the midst of the competition, Sal talks about all of the backstory of the kingdom which I honestly couldn’t remember the names of the good and bad people in the war, which made remember them later when Sal references them really difficult. I literally used a notebook to list characters so I could understand what was going on.

I did find Sal’s past with shadows really interesting, and how it plays into the book. The plot really speeds up towards the end, but it feels more like it’s just for the set up for the next book. I don’t think I will get the next one right away, but just let that book simmer on the shelf, maybe pick it up at a later date to read again.

There is profanity in the book. Sexual content includes pretty chaste kissing, hugging, and holding. Lots of violence including but not limited to cutting off hands, weapon play, flaying, poison, and lots of death. There is, of course, LGBTQIA representation in the main characters.

Mulan: A Review

Mulan directed by Niki Caro
My rating: 3.5 of 5 stars

I don’t usually come out and say this at the beginning, but if you haven’t paid the extra 30 dollars to watch this movie yet, please wait until December when it comes to all Disney+ patrons.

I didn’t see the animated version of this movie, like I had with Beauty and the Beast and Cinderella – both live action movies I really enjoyed. But I knew that it wasn’t going to be a scene by scene remake of that movie, sticking closer to the actual mythology behind Mulan. So, I was excited to see them dig into Chinese culture and history, and they did, sort of.

The beauty of this film is impeccable. The cinematography, sweeping landscapes (at times, more on that later), and costumes are utterly gorgeous. Even some of the martial arts, especially a sword demonstration by Commander Tung, was absolutely spectacular.

The plot didn’t have a lot of depth to it. It really honed in on the fact that this world was very sexist. Women were not much more than marriage negotiations. Being in the army, being different in any way, was basically a death sentence to most women. But it wasn’t developed much beyond the surface level.

Mulan grows up in a family with no sons, and her father dotes on her, recognizes her gifts in Chi (didn’t really quite understand what chi meant in this movie – but it seemed to have something to do with magic, or at least natural athletic skill?). As she grows up into a woman, she is discouraged from exhibiting this Chi. When a decree goes out that one man from each family must fight in this war, Mulan manages to sneak out in order to save her ailing father from certain death.

In the training camp, she flourishes. But she must hide who she really is, which leads to a montage of fighting sequences and her evading group bath time. There was a lot of comments on how much she stank. There was also a conversation about what kind of girls they all like, and it was all pretty much the stereotype about what boys only think about (she has to be pretty, she has to cook well). The whole movie was filled with stereotypes.

About the sets. There were some beautiful, sweeping landscapes in this movie. And then it would switch to a market scene that looks borrowed from the first Descendants film (a made for tv movie by Disney). The effect was a little jarring and took me out of the action. For a movie that originally was set to be seen in theaters as a blockbuster, it felt at times a little low budget.

And there was a lot of the resolution that made no sense (don’t worry, I won’t spoil it). Minds are quickly changed even though all of these people are raised to believe one thing about women. The transformation in characters just didn’t make sense. Outside of Mulan, there seemed to be very little actual character development (like how one character would get from point a to point b). Everything was rushed to move the story along.

Maybe I’m not this movie’s demographic which could be the reason that the movie wasn’t the right fit for me. But for a studio that has access to the worlds of Marvel and Star Wars, I’m just a little disappointed in the story-building in this film. And I’m not even really comparing it to those franchises, but to similar films like the ones I mentioned above (Cinderella and Beauty and the Beast). There was more character depth and backstory in those movies that I felt was missing in this film. Still, with all its problems, I did find it beautiful and definitely a good film to watch on family movie night, just not with the extra 30 dollar price tag.

There is no profanity in this movie. It is Disney. Sexual content mainly consists of one moment where she is bathing in a lake and another male character joins her but nothing is revealed and the man walks away without knowing she is a girl. There is no kissing at all, and only a hint of a romantic interest, but not really. Violent content does include some fighting, but it is all sanitized. There is a moment when they walk through a field of dead soldiers, but it isn’t in the least gory, the men could all be asleep and it would look the same. One character does get shot with an arrow, but again, very sanitized death.

Generosity (2 Corinthians 9)

This year is hard. It’s affected pretty much every aspect of our lives. We have lost loved ones, our rhythms are completely interrupted, and social media feels like a powder keg on most days.

But one of the things that has kept me upright is acknowledging the blessings of God. I’m thankful for the health our family does have. I’m thankful for the roof over our heads and food on our table. I’m thankful for the many growth moments in my relationships. And I’m really grateful to get to be a mom to my kid, watching him adjust to a new normal and new experiences with excitement and curiosity.

In response to these blessings, we are called as Christians to express gratitude through generosity. I know that there are people who financially struggling in a lot of ways, but in the verse below, I feel like Paul is talking about more than just money.

You will be enriched in every way so that you can be generous on every occasion, and through us your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God. This service that you perform is not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.

2 Corinthains 9:11-12

“You will be enriched.” God is going to give you the things that you can share. Whether that is time, or skill, or even presence in someone’s life, God is providing the margins for you to give to others in different ways.

“Your generosity will result in thanksgiving to God.” Everything will point back to God, not to our own abilities or resources. This is paramount in our generosity. We give because it has been given to us.

“Not only supplying the needs of the Lord’s people but is also overflowing in many expressions of thanks to God.” The really cool thing is that even if what we have to give is small, God can do amazing things with it. He will multiply our generosity over and over again. We may never know the complete effect of our giving.

These verses have encouraged me this week to look for ways to be generous. Maybe it’s being generous with my time with my toddler – turning off the screens and playing games with him. Maybe it’s being generous with my love for reading by helping others find books they might enjoy. Maybe it’s being generous with my writing, by encouraging others with handwritten notes or texts or comments on their posts.

I am so grateful to God for all that He has done for me. I want to be a person who is generous to others so that my actions and words point back to God. Because that is what I want my life to be about.

All The Colors of Christmas: A Review

All The Colors of Christmas by Matthew Paul Turner
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

Since this year has been absolutely crazy, I think reviewing a Christmas book for children in September sounds not only normal, but very much needed. Matthew Paul Turner has again created a beautiful story about all the good things this holiday season brings, giving us something nostalgic and precious to look forward to as we enter into the Fall season.

The book starts with the traditional colors of red and green as they bring up memories of sled rides and decorations of garland. Then, he moves to white and gold, as in the snowfall or star toppers on Christmas trees. He rounds out the colors with brown, like the reindeer (and the skin of baby Jesus) and with the color of You, impressing that we are a vital part to the season, adding our personalities and laughter to the holiday as vibrant as the colors all around us.

It’s a cozy book. It’s a book about beauty. And the pictures are gorgeous. The illustrator is Gillian Gamble who did the last book called, When God Made the World.

Overall, the book is sweet. I read it to my kiddo the day we got it, and he asked for me to read it again immediately, which makes it a winner in our house. We will definitely open it again closer to Christmas. It will also be a nice reinforcement of colors for our toddler which is another plus. This would be a great book to give at Christmas time, especially for new parents of little ones.

The rhyming sequence is different, which threw me off a bit when I first read it outloud. Generally, this author has written in couplets, but this time it was aabba stanzas. It changed the pacing of the book. This was just an observation, not a critique, because the writing still brings you to a beautiful place, even if the pace is slightly different.

I recommend any of this author’s books. Each one is a gorgeous journey of hope and beauty and inclusion into God’s story. This particular one would make a great Christmas gift to anyone, but especially the parents of little ones.

Behind the Curve: A Review

Behind the Curve directed by Daniel J. Clark
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fascinating film, but not really because of the flat earth movement. It felt like it was more of a look at conspiracy theories and how people can get really involved in the communities surrounding these conspiracies. And how difficult it can be to change your mind once you have committed.

The documentary opens on a man named Mark Sargent who is apparently pretty popular within the movement. He talks about flat earth’s validity simply based on the number of views his videos have or the number of members they have in their society. The science seems to be lacking or at least circumstantial, but it is believed by a lot of people.

The documentary then interviews people within the science community, mostly from CalTech who don’t’ believe in flat earth theory, but are fascinated with the people who do. It also has interviews with psychiatrists to discuss how someone could get involved with something like conspiracy theories, and there is where it really gets interesting.

When they look at a lot of the flat-earth community, they find that the majority of them want to be special, to be heard, and to belong to a larger society. They find all of these things by believing flat earth theory. But it’s more than just flat earth. It’s anti-vax, deep state, secret societies that are ruling the world. In one way or another, all the big conspiracies out there have found a tie to the world being flat.

The film itself was engaging. You come to really care about the people who lead, who disagree, who make art surrounding this belief system. The conference was the most interesting. There was a guy named Matt who was at odds with Mark and claimed the the whole conference was a big conspiracy from Hollywood. I mean, why not? According to most of the membership of the flat-earth movement, everything is a conspiracy.

It’s a fascinating watch. I’m so glad that one of my friends recommended it to me. It helped me to understand other people’s beliefs and the motivations behind people’s beliefs, especially when it comes to conspiracy. And 2020 has been full of them. Highly recommend!

There is profanity in the film but it’s not significant. This was one of the milder documentaries that I have watched this year. No sexual content or really any violent content at all.

Forgiveness

There is this popular saying, for lack of a better phrase, among the Christian community that God calls us to Love God and Love Others. It’s based on a conversation that Jesus had with Pharisees and teachers of the law over what was the most important of God’s commandments and he responds,

 Jesus replied: “‘Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment.  And the second is like it: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

Matthew 22:37-39

The “Love your neighbor as yourself” actually comes from a verse in Leviticus.

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against anyone among your people, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord.

Leviticus 19:18

In this verse, loving your neighbor has to do with forgiveness. We extend grace to others because we also extend grace to ourselves. Now, I know on a very personal level that I don’t always extend grace to myself, which is a whole other conversation. But one of the ways we show ourselves love is by extending grace to ourselves. In the same way, that is how we love others.

Forgiveness is hard. I don’t think it’s natural for humans because we are limited in how we see others and how we see situations, whether in the past, present, or future. There are hurts I have received that I can’t possibly see how they could be redeemed, how that person could grow or change.

Not saying that consequences should be ignored or avoided. God uses natural and legal consequences to helps people grow closer to him. In the story of the Prodigal Son, the son still ended up in a pig sty before coming home. Boundaries are still a thing, but forgiveness allows the heart to be freed up from the focus of retribution in order to refocus on the love of God.

But I believe that God is the reason I can forgive others. Not just because he calls me to forgive, but because forgiveness is giving my hurt to God. Only he has the ability to move within the relationship or situation to redeem it in the best way it can be done. He knows how to forgive better than we ever will.

And God’s forgiveness is pretty vast. In Psalms it is described as this.

as far as the east is from the west,
    so far has he removed our transgressions from us.

Psalm 103:12

This is what he calls us to do in Colossians 3.

Bear with each other and forgive any complaint you may have against one another. Forgive as the Lord forgave you.

Colossians 3:13

To forgive in the same way God forgives us.

To remove the transgressions from us, not suppress them, but not let that pain and hurt dwell in our hearts where God’s love should reside. Allowing God to work in the nooks and crannies to release us from our anger and our bitterness.

Ultimately, we do not have the capacity to love or forgive the way God does. Not on our own. Not without the strength and direction of the Spirit. Just like everything else, I don’t have to forgive alone. Forgiveness gives the control of your hurt to the safe hands of God. Only he knows the true path to redemption and healing.

The Jane Austen Society: A Review

The Jane Austen Society by Natalie Jenner
My rating: 4.5 of 5 stars

It should be obvious by the title, but if you are a Jane Austen fan, this book is definitely for you. There are so many references to all of the books that Austen wrote, plus the characters in this novel also have a very Austenian feel to them. And the story is set in a real town that is known as one of the places Jane Austen wrote her final books.

Set mostly in the years after WWII, the residents of Chauton, England are familiar with the notoriety of the local estate, inherited by Jane Austen’s brother. But the estate has dwindled over the years, unable to keep up with estate taxes, and the final heir has no heirs of her own. Within this small village, there is a group of people who love Austen’s books and come together in an attempt to save artifacts from the estate connected to this beloved author. They become the Jane Austen Society.

The writing is immersive without being too descriptive. Every time I picked up this book, I was transported to this town, though the main plot of this book didn’t feel dated within the period. The problems each of the characters were facing are still relatable. I even was surprised at the decisions some characters made, almost to a point of frustration. I wouldn’t have made the same choices, so it was fascinating to see the outcomes. True to a Jane Austen novel, things do work out in the end even if you don’t see it completely until the last page of the book.

Two trigger warnings, however, and I have to slightly spoil the beginning plot to reveal them. First the spoilery one, there is a detailed pregnancy loss early in the book and the aftermath grief described. I practically threw my book across the couch when it happened, as I wasn’t prepared for it (and I read this close to the anniversary of one of my own losses), hence the warning. Second, there is a sexual assault (both of these happen to different characters) that happens in the first half of the book as well. It is a little detailed, enough that made me feel a little uncomfortable, so warning there, too.

Towards the end of the book, there is a good bit of legal jargon in regards to the estate. I had to reread it a few times to follow what the issues were and how they were being resolved, but it was quite fascinating. Overall, the book is wonderful and I would reread it again, most definitely. Also, all of the conversations the characters have over their favorite Austen books have me wanting to pick up that author and reread some of her work again.

There is profanity in the book. Sexual content includes the above mentioned assault, as well as some light kissing, and a sex scene which is not detailed or steamy. No graphic violent content (other than the pregnancy loss), but there is some death mentioned from the war. There is also LGBTQIA representation in the main characters.

Bob Lazar: Area 51 and Flying Saucers: A Review

Bob Lazar: Area 51 and Flying Saucers directed by  Jeremy Kenyon Lockyer Corbell
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

“Beliefs are mercurial things”

So begins the narration by Mickey Rourke about a strange conspiracy from the late 1980s. A man named Bob Lazar comes forward on a news broadcast to talk about his time working for some secretive organization in the government. It has all the trappings of UFO conspiracy, and just enough of it is true that it all might be true.

He alleges that he was hired to work in a place called S4 north of Las Vegas, Nevada. Up to this point, he had been working on jet engines. When he arrived at this covert operation, he says he worked to reverse engineer technology that he had never seen before, tech that he believed were from aliens. He divulged this information anonymously at first, but later revealed it as himself.

His background is complicated. He alleges that he went to MIT and CalTech, but they have no record of him. He also says he woeked for the Los Alamos National Laboratory, but they have no record of him, either. Yet, they do have him listed as a contact in the Lab’s directory during his alleged time working there. He has gotten in trouble with the law and been raided a few times, which is all used as evidence to substantiate all of his claims. If they were untrue, why would he be targeted so much?

The film was a bit chaotic. The music was ominous, and there were these flashes of random images – some including aliens, but others that didn’t seem connected. The flashes left me a little motion sick, which made it hard to focus on the information on the film, but maybe that’s what they wanted.

Overall, I don’t have a strong need to know whether or not there are aliens that have visited our planet. It was interesting in how information can be bent when processed to fit into our own confirmation bias. If we choose to believe him, then everything will match up. If we don’t, then we see the flaws in his argument. I felt it more fascinating to watch the filmmaker trying to make sense of everything going on. It was an okay film, but I could have done without the flashing images and ominous music, instead letting the information speak for itself.

There is profanity in the film. No sexual content or really any violent content unless you count the images of distorted aliens or skulls.

Clouds

There’s this quote, “Behind the clouds is the sun still shining.” I’ve heard it used in the church to explain where God is during a tragedy. That he’s still shining, present, even though all we see are the dark clouds around us. But I want to challenge that.

What if God isn’t just the sun shining behind the clouds? What if God is in the clouds themselves?

I’m not saying that God creates tragedy in our lives, but he definitely works in those tragedies for our good. When my daughters each passed away, God was preparing communities, relationships, and even my own heart to enter into that tragedy. He worked in those moments, days, and weeks to show his power and presence in my life. He never left my side.

In a recent devotional, it showed how God’s presence in clouds is depicted in both the Old and New Testament. In Exodus, the Israelites were led by a cloud when they left Egypt, and once the tabernacle was built, the cloud remained.

So the cloud of the Lord was over the tabernacle by day, and fire was in the cloud by night, in the sight of all the Israelites during all their travels.

Exodus 40:38

In the New Testament, Peter, James and John, along with Jesus, go up the Mount to witness the Transfiguration, and God makes himself known again from a cloud.

Then a cloud appeared and covered them, and a voice came from the cloud: “This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!”

Mark 9:7

Clouds, like tragedy, can be uncertain. Anyone who has driven through thick fog can attest to that. We don’t know exactly when things will become clearer, but knowing that God is within that uncertainty, working in ways too great for me to understand, can bring me a sense of peace and hope. One day, the clouds will part, the fog will lift, and we will see everything as clear as a bright sunny day.

Space Struck: A Review

Space Struck by Paige Lewis
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This is a recent Life’s Library pick that is a collection of poems. I have a small library of poetry, but it’s not the first place I look to for new things to read. That’s why I like this book club. It really has broaden the genres on my shelves.

This particular collection has some incredible lines. The entire book is worth it just for the line “I’m the vice president of panic and the president is missing.” Some of the poems went over my head or left me a little lost. And then another line would hit me hard like, “I move through life like I’m trying to avoid a stranger’s vacation photo,” or “I think about how hard it is for me to believe in the first Adam because if Adam had the power to name everything, everything would be named Adam.”

It’s full of clever observations, Biblical references, and changes perspectives from poem to poem (which was one of the reasons I could feel lost at times). But the whole book is a trip and one that leaves you thinking long after it is put back on the shelf.

It does have profanity, so be aware of that. The sexual or violent content is not explicit but there is some symbolism and innuendo in the text.