Red Notice (review)

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red-notice-9781476755748_hrRed Notice: A True Story of High Finance, Murder, and One Man’s Fight for Justice by Bill Browder

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

With a special talent for sniffing out stock that would make money for his clients, Bill Browder and his company Hermitage Capital did very well beginning in the mid-1990s from their headquarters in Moscow. Then came November 13, 2005.

That day on his return to Moscow from London, Bill was detained at the airport and kept overnight with no food, water, or explanation. The next morning rough officers escorted him to the departure lounge and put him onto a flight back to London.

It was the beginning of an ordeal that lasted for years and put him in the bad books of Putin himself. Though Browder had begun fighting the dishonest Russian oligarchs while still working in Moscow, the backlash he experienced then was nothing compared to what happened next.

A raid of his Moscow office (after he was kicked out of Russia) and the office of his lawyer resulted in his companies resurfacing registered to new owners. They went after him for tax evasion of millions. However, a tax audit proved he had over-paid his taxes. This set him and his Russian lawyer Sergei Manitsky on the track of a crime ring of corrupt police officers, bankers, and petty criminals. Unfortunately, the chase ended in murder.

This book opened my eyes to the rotten center of Russian business. I’m sure that criminals like computer hackers are considered the lightweights of white collar criminals in a land where the decay starts at the top.

An interesting sidebar to the book: one of Browder’s contacts in Moscow and to whom he told his initial story of corruption was Chrystia Freeland. She was Moscow Bureau Chief of The Financial Times when she interviewed him (1998-ish). She is now a Liberal MP and has recently been appointed Canada’s Foreign Minister. She is also persona non grata in Russia.

The YouTube video linked below was made by Browder in 2010 to help expose the complicated web of criminal activity. It adds background and clarity to the story of this fascinating and disturbing book: Russian Untouchables – Episode 1

 

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The Price of Freedom (review)

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The Price Of Freedom (A Story Of Courage And Faith, In The Face Of Danger.)The Price Of Freedom by Simon Ivascu

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Every young man between the ages of eighteen and twenty knew from early childhood that they would be required to go into the army to give one year of their lives in military service. … it was the young men with strong Christian beliefs who faced the worst danger in army life. Many gave up their faith in order to make it through their term of service.

Those who clung to their beliefs, like Simon’s brother Stefan, were regularly ridiculed, mistreated and beaten, sometimes fatally. Stefan had landed in the army hospital after one of his beatings. While still recovering from his injuries he had chosen to escape from Romania. He’d paid the dangerous price of freedom, risking prison and death, rather than return to his duties in the army” – The Price of Freedom, p. 16,17.

The Price of Freedom begins with 18-year-old Simon, Stefan’s younger brother, having recently received a conscription notice himself, running away from home in order to avoid the same fate as his brother. We follow him as he jogs, walks, hides, watches, waits, sneaks, crawls, even crosses a river on the underside of a bridge. In this way he makes his way through Romania, Hungary, and Austria, finally reuniting with Stefan in Italy five weeks after he sets out.

A short time later Simon’s younger acquaintance Wesley Pop also sneaks away to Italy to avoid conscription. The young men meet in Italy and renew their friendship.

But life in the free world is not at all what they expect. Because they are both in Italy illegally it’s nearly impossible for them to find work, landlords don’t want to rent to them, and the attitude of the Italian people is cold and suspicious. Eventually both receive notices that they must leave the country within 15 days or face jail and deportation. Desperate to leave but not back home, they consider all means of escape and end up in a shipping container. A story that is harsh to this point, now becomes deadly.

The events are told alternately from Simon’s and Wesley’s points of view. Co-writer Bev Ellen Clarke’s use of creative non-fiction techniques makes the book read like a gripping adventure. I found it both hard to put down and hard to read because its descriptive style had me right there in that dark, airless container on those bundles of ceramic tile with Simon and Wesley, facing lack of oxygen, heat, thirst, sea-sickness, and starvation while heading to who knows where?

However, the inclusion of wonderful coincidences and amazing answers to prayer transform this book from a story about the resilience, tenacity and courage of the human spirit (which it is) to more—a story about prayer, faith in God, and miracles.

Obviously the young men survived. Simon and his brother currently live in Kelowna B.C. and are part of the singing group Freedom Singers (I enjoyed their singing this summer at the Gospel Music Celebration in Red Deer, Alberta).

This true story did more for me than just than illustrate God’s care for His children and entertain. It also opened my eyes to the plight of refugees giving me worthwhile insights for these refugee-filled times. Highly recommended.

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Passport Through Darkness (review)

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Passport through Darkness: A True Story of Danger and Second ChancesPassport through Darkness: A True Story of Danger and Second Chances by Kimberly L. Smith

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Kimberly L. Smith and her husband Milton are introduced to the horrors of human trafficking almost by chance, when their missionary activity in Spain leads them to an orphanage in Portugal. There they come face to face with Uncle Buster, a man who is bringing in children from Africa, filming their abuse, and posting images on the internet. Passport Through Darkness: A True Story of Danger and Second Chances is Smith’s first person account of this event and what happened next.

On exploring trafficking in more depth, Milton and Kimberly discover that the real hotbeds for this activity are Eastern Europe and Africa. Over time they establish Make Way Partners to help raise funds for anti-trafficking work. Then, through a chain of events, Kimberly finds herself in Sudan—a place PJ (Voice of the Martyrs’ Eastern Europe and North Africa Regional Director) identified as “… the worst place on the planet for this evil” (Kindle Location 517).

The bulk of Smith’s story happens in Sudan. She falls in love with the people, especially the orphans, returns numerous times, and ends up building an orphanage in the heart of Sudan’s most dangerous and forsaken region. The sights and events she describes are often raw and heartbreaking. Her ministry is inspiring and off-the-charts of possible, as God steps in again and again to open doors, protect, and make dreams come true.

But all is not sweetness and light. The sub-plot of this memoir involves Kimberly and Milton’s relationship. When his diabetes doesn’t allow him to be part of the Sudan trips, the couple spends long stretches of time apart. Kimberly, not wanting to burden her ill husband more, keeps many details of her Sudan experience secret from him. Their own relationship comes under threat.

The book is vividly written, both in its descriptions of life in Sudan and the life of the heart. I found it a fast, sometimes horrifying though definitely relevant read (It seems anti-human trafficking initiatives are popping up all over. In the last several months, I’ve encountered two new-to-me ministries that also focus on it.)

I recommend this book to people who love kids, those interested in human trafficking, readers with a heart for missions, or anyone who enjoys a well-written memoir. I’m not the alone in recommending it. Passport Through Darkness is also endorsed by such Christian literary luminaries as Philip Yancy, Randy Alcorn, and Ken Gire.

I’ll leave you with one of my favorite quotes from the book:

“On some level, praying ‘Thy Kingdom come, Thy will be done’ haunted us, though. Gradually we began to understand that God didn’t give us that prayer so much to comfort us as to mold and transform our hearts and lives.

“The more we prayed ‘Thy Kingdom come …’ the more it convicted us that God chose to use mankind—His incarnational presence in this world—to usher His Kingdom in, one fractured attempt at a time.

“But who of us wants to give up our notion of what we think our lives should look like so that we are available for Him to use?” – Kindle Location 501.

Passport Through Darkness is part of my own Kindle collection.

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Walking From East to West (review)

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Walking from East to West: God in the ShadowsWalking from East to West: God in the Shadows by Ravi Zacharias

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

From the first time I heard Ravi Zacharias speak in our Saskatoon church (sometime in the late 1970s or early ’80s) I have been fascinated by his message and manner. His memoir, Walking from East to West: God in the Shadows, shines a light on where he came from and how he became the popular evangelist, Christian apologist and humanitarian that he is today.

In chronological order he tells the story of his unhappy childhood in India, his conversion, his move (with his family) to Canada, and his blossoming into family life and ministry.

The God in the Shadows angle is Zacharias recognizing and pointing out how God has been present in his life (though often unseen and unrecognized till much later). In fact he sees evidences of this being the case even before his existence in his great-great-grandmother’s conversion to Christianity. This is powerfully brought home to him when he finds her grave site and sees that the verse on her marker is the very one that God used to call him back to life after his suicide attempt. Throughout the book he points out many other marvelous “coincidences” that bring him to the conclusion that God has been interested in and involved in his life all along the way.

He comes across as a humble, grateful man who is still amazed at what God has done in and through him—a Chennai Indian lad who, until his conversion, was a sports-loving, directionless school goof-off.

The writing style is not as intellectually taxing as some of his more philosophical books and though the odd time a professorial word or two slips in, mostly Walking… is an easy-to-read story.

As I usually do when I read inspiring biographies and memoirs, I marked passages for future retrieval. Here are some bits I highlighted from Walking From East to West:

“God has an appointment with each of us, and it is critical that every man and woman know this. He will stop our steps when it is not our time, and He will lead us when it is” – p. 168 (Kindle Edition).

“… if you have not learned to pay the smaller prices of following Christ in your daily life, you will not be prepared to pay the ultimate price in God’s calling” – p. 199.

“Yes, logic is linear, but its implications are radial” – p. 205.

“Through all of the visitations of life—successes or failures—it is not how well you are known or not known. It is not how big your organization is or isn’t. It is not even how many sermons one has preached or books one has written or millions of dollars one has accumulated. It is how well do you know Jesus?” – p. 224.

I would recommend this book to all who have been impacted by and continue to enjoy and be challenged by the speaking and writing of Ravi Zacharias.

Walking from East to West is part of my own Kindle collection.

Ravi Zacharias’s book and speaking resources (like podcasts and recordings of his regular and weekly radio broadcasts) are available at his ministry (RZM) site.

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Love Triangles (review)

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Love Triangles, Discovering Jesus the Jew in Today's IsraelLove Triangles, Discovering Jesus the Jew in Today’s Israel by Bobbie Ann Cole
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

In her memoir / travelogue Love Triangles, Bobbie Ann Cole writes about her love affair with Israel. When she and husband Butch move there, it is to fill a six-month time period till their rented property will again be available to them. However, after only three months they begin thinking of applying for permanent residency, called making Aliyah* when you’re Jewish (as Bobbie is).

There is one problem. Bobbie and Butch are Christians. The interpretation of the Jewish immigration policy in the last years has kept many Jews who believe Jesus is their Messiah from gaining permanent residency. This has Bobbie constantly on edge, worried that she’ll jeopardize her chances of immigrating. And so she guards what she says, avoids establishing intimate friendships with the locals, and even changes who she associates with.

Much of the book is descriptions of biblically familiar Israeli sites. In vivid and picturesque language Cole describes what she hears, sees, smells and touches. She also recalls what happened in the Bible places like Nazareth, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, Jerusalem and more. Repeatedly she mentions that in Israel she feels closer to Jesus than anywhere else in the world:

What I loved, but as someone relatively young in faith had never known before, was following Jesus all around the Land. That was a powerful incentive.

In our three months there, we had met Him in the Negev Desert, in Jerusalem’s Old City, and on the shores of the Sea of Galilee. … We had discovered that even though the country was constantly on high military alert, there was what Butch referred to as ‘that safe, spiritual feeling,’ a serenity rooted in faith, a trust that God ‘has it.’” KL 129.

I found this book informational and inspiring in several ways. First, it opened my eyes to the way Jews who believe in Jesus are singled out as ineligible to become Israeli citizens. Second, Cole’s descriptions of modern Israel juxtaposed against her sometimes whimsical and imaginative retelling of what happened there in Bible stories made me want to visit Israel more than ever. And finally, through Cole’s story I have gained a new appreciation for Israel’s story and the love of the people for the land both in the past and present.

You’re probably wondering if Bobbie and Butch made Aliyah. Were they successful in immigrating? You’ll have to read the book to find out.

*‘Aliyah’ literally means ‘going up,’ a term originally used to describe how Jews from all over the ancient world would go up to the temple at the very top of Mount Zion in Jerusalem for Jewish pilgrimage festivals” – KL 768.

I received the Kindle edition of Love Triangles as a gift from the author for the purpose of writing a review.

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Openness Unhindered – review

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Openness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with ChristOpenness Unhindered: Further Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert on Sexual Identity and Union with Christ by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I first came across Openness Unhindered’s author Rosaria Butterfield on a video where she told her story of coming to Christ out of a lesbian lifestyle. I loved the fact that my favorite book, the Bible, was instrumental in her conversion. Openness Unhindered testifies to how she has continued to engage with it at a deep and thoughtful level.

In the book, the second one she has authored about her faith since she left her old life around 1999, she alludes briefly to her conversion story. Then she goes on to talk about how she has wrestled with her past and come to a place of equilibrium as a home school mother and pastor’s wife. Passages like the following tug at the heart:

“I am and always will be Rahab—a woman with a past. So, what does a person like me do with such a past? I have not forgotten. Body memories know my name. Details intrude into my world unpredictably, like when I am kneading the communion bread or homsechooling my children. I take each ancient token to the cross, for prayer, for more repentance, for thanksgiving that God is always right about matters of sin and repentance” – Kindle Location (KL) 631.

She stresses the importance of her new identity in Christ and of repentance. Even the title of the chapter on repentance testifies to how foundational it is to her: “Repentance: The Threshold to God and the Answer to Shame, Temptation and Sin.”

In chapters titled “Sexual Orientation—Freud’s Nineteenth Century Mistake” and “Self-representation—What Does it Mean to be Gay?” she unpacks the history of the gay rights movement and explains how “gay” has become a term of identity. In fact, she argues, gay doesn’t even belong, as an adjective, together with Christian. She says:

Gay is a word that carries stigma because of God’s moral prohibitions against homosexuality. … Because the Bible is clear on the point that homosexual practice is a sin, and because gay is a synonym for the implied desire for or practice of homosexuality, the stigma of this term is an act of God’s love, because God uses it to convict his children of their brokenness” –KL 2111.

Another powerful chapter is the one on Christian community. Here Butterfield describes how their family’s hospitality toward neighbors and church members became a closely woven safety net for all involved.

This was a great read! Though I did find the theological chapters a bit of a slog (Butterfield was a university professor in her former life and in plumbing these challenging topics comes across somewhat professorial), for the most part I enjoyed the book and learned a lot. Here are some of my favorite quotes:

“When we are owned by God, we are ruined for the world. And this marring of us for the world is one of the birthmarks of conversion” – KL 595.

“Temptation comes in many forms, but it is always personal, uncannily tailor-made for our individual moral weakness, and it takes aim at God’s character, seeking to ransack our faith” – KL 1343.

“Desires for things God has forbidden are a reflection of how sin has distorted me, not how God has made me” – Sam Allbery quoted on KL 2320.

I highly recommend this book for anyone who is trying to understand where homosexual practice fits within the Christian life and the church. Openness Unhindered is a part of my own Kindle collection.

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Unafraid (review)

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Unafraid: Trusting God in an Unsafe WorldUnafraid: Trusting God in an Unsafe World by Susie Davis

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Already a fearful child, the sight of an eighth grade classmate—a neighbor boy—gunning down a favorite teacher in May of 1978 proved to be too much for Susie Davis. As a result, she developed irrational routines like hiding in her closet when she was home alone and later in life checking the whole house for intruders before taking her children inside. For years she functioned this way, covering her coping mechanisms well.

She did eventually break down and that led to a season of God peeling the layers off the fears that held her in their power. With the help of her husband, friends, and especially God she was able to break fear’s chains. Unafraid is the story of her journey from fear to wholeness and her message of hope to other fearful people.

Davis’s writing voice is friendly and encouraging, though she does sometimes lapse into lecture mode. She uses a lot of sentence fragments which I found distracting as they drew my attention away from content and to the writing itself.

The book does contain sound advice about how to counter fear. However, two flies in the ointment spoiled my enjoyment of this memoir.

In a chapter where she likens the trauma of a bad event to Good Friday and recovery from it to Easter Sunday, she calls the time between these things Saturday, writing these words:

“Saturday is the ‘What the holy heck just happened?’ kind of feeling” – Kindle Location 854.

After seeing the word “holy” used often in this book in reference to God, I found its use here as a minced oath puzzling and disappointing. It cast a shadow over the whole book for me.

In another chapter describing her “dark night of the soul” she waits to get one of God’s “love notes” to her—perceived communication from Him through circumstances or His voice coming through her thoughts. However, not once in that section does she mention the possibility of hearing from Him by reading the Bible—the place most Christians would go first to get a message from God.

These quibbles aside, there is also lots of wisdom and good advice for the fearful in this book, wisdom like:

“So many of the giants I face are in my head. Fear whispers unspeakable things and I flinch. … This is when it’s time for me to take captive, cast down, and throw those thoughts in prison. And I do that by worshiping Jesus. Just as the wise men worshiped Jesus, I lay prostrate fore God and not before my fears” – KL 1504.

and

“… I must daily walk away from fear. And the only way I can hope to do that is to think of fear the same way my Father things of fear. As an idol in my life” – KL 1726.

The book concludes with a set of Discussion Questions and a Study Guide, making it useful for book clubs as well as group and personal study.

I received Unafraid as a gift from the publisher for the purpose of writing a review.

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