Monday, April 27, 2015

Path of the Assassin, by Brad Thor

After saving the president, who had been kidnapped by the Lions of Lucerne, Brad Thor's hero Scot Harvath has a little free time.  Before he reports back to the White House for Secret Service duty, he does a bit of freelance terrorist hunting in The Path of the Assassin.  From the streets of Macau, to an airplane hijacking in Cairo, Harvath keeps crossing paths with an assassin with mysterious eyes.  And somehow the assassin is tied to a terrorist group that seems to be made up of Israelis seeking revenge for Muslim acts of terrorism.

But nothing is as simple as it seems, and sometimes Harvath is the only one who sees through it all.  Path of the Assassin solidifies Harvath's role as terrorist hunter extraordinaire.  He teams up with a beautiful, brilliant PR executive, who showed her mettle by fighting back against the hijackers in Cairo.  She and Harvath team up with the CIA to hunt the assassin with the memorable eyes, but of course the CIA cuts them off, and they have to continue on their own.

Path of the Assassin has everything you'd expect in Thor's Scot Harvath novels, and moves Harvath's story along.  But it seemed to be a step down from The Lions of Lucerne.  It's just too much, a little too easy for Harvath.  Also, as I mentioned in my review of The Lions of Lucerne, the abridged audio version is too abridged.  I'm done with Thor's abridgements.  But I do like Harvath; I'm not done with him.  Next up: State of the Union.

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Bristly Hair and I Don't Care! by Nadia Budde

"It isn't fair, I have to say, that I was born with hair this way."

So begins Nadia Budde's book Bristly Hair and I Don't Care! How many people have thought this very same thought?  Countless millions, I would guess, based on the proliferation of hair-care products. Straighteners, curlers, colors, clippers, extensions, the list goes on and on.  In Budde's book, it's not just hair.  Everyone wishes his or her appearance were a little different.  Neck, too thick.  Legs, too long (or short).  Eyes, wrong color.  Everything, wrong shape, size or color.  "Parts they don't like, they want to be better. . . ."

Budde's message is perfect for kids who are coming into awareness of their own image, an age that seems to come earlier and earlier.  Society's ideals of beauty change continually, but one thing remains the same: the ideal is unrealistic for the vast majority of us who will never fit the prescribed mold.  Uncle Nook brings his tidbit of wisdom to the group, reminding them, and us, that "Each of you is quite a sight, but the way you are is the way that's right!"

Budde's goofy drawings and clever rhymes are a pleasure to look at and read, and will delight young readers at story time.  I wonder if she might write a second book emphasizing the importance of good grooming and taking care of your body.  After all, certain elements of our appearance are completely in our own control.  But that's another topic for another day. . . .

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, April 24, 2015

The ABLES, by Jeremy Scott

Special ed kids, unite!  Who says disabled kids can't be superheroes, too?  Jeremy Scott's first novel, The Ables, puts a twist on the standard superhero story by featuring disabled kids with superpowers.  Phillip Sallinger gets the surprise of his life when his father tells him that his family all possess superpowers, and that the reason they moved from New York City to their new home is that the town is full of people with superpowers (and their "support staff").  His new school is a school for kids with superpowers.

The catch is that Phillip is blind.  On his first day, he is directed to the special ed room.  His classmates are other blind kids, a kid in a wheelchair, a kid with Down syndrome, and other kids with disabilities.  But they all possess superpowers as well.  Phillip and his friends team up to try to prove that kids with disabilities can be heroes, too.

I love the message of inclusion in The Ables.  Phillip doesn't consider himself disabled: "I could not believe that I was in a special education classroom. . . . I was blind, not disabled.  There's a difference!"  He leads his friends in an effort to have their group from the special ed classroom admitted to a school-wide competition.  He convinces his friends that "We can do anything these other kids can do."  His friend Sterling argues before the school board that "there is only one reason that we are not allowed to participate, and it's the fact that we're disabled. . . . Discrimination on the sole basis of a disability is not only illegal, it's illogical, immoral, and unfair!"

The story follows some familiar story lines: discovering and developing their new powers, the mysterious villain who terrorizes the town, the heroes' having to choose the side of good or evil, the family dynamics of people with superpowers, the tension between people with and without superpowers.  There are shades of Sky High, The Incredibles, Percy Jackson, and probably plenty of other stories here, but The Ables is plenty fresh and original.

Superheroes come in all shapes and sizes and abilities.  The Ables especially reminds us not to write off those who don't initially seem to have much to contribute.  That disabled person in your life has a hero inside.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Jack of Spades, by Joyce Carol Oates

The work of prolific, award-winning novelist Joyce Carol Oates spans a wide spectrum of controversial topics.  Her new novel, Jack of Spades: A Tale of Suspense takes a lighter approach than some of her other work.  Andrew J. Rush, a successful, best-selling mystery novelist, has a secret.  He has been called "the gentleman's Stephen King" but, unbeknownst to his fans or even to his family, he writes noirish pulp fiction under the pseudonym Jack of Spades.

When a local crank takes Rush to court for supposedly stealing her work and publishing it as his own, Rush's Jack of Spades alter-ego leads him down a path of obsession and uncharacteristic behavior.  Oates gives some insight into the life of a writer, the things that inspire and bother him, and the way his fame and success puts pressure on him.  I can't help but wonder how much of Rush's story is autobiographical, as Oates herself has published under a couple of pseudonyms.  Are the pseudonymous works a reflection of the writer's true character, a whimsical side entertainment, or an important complement to his well-known books?

Oates builds the tension of Jack of Spades as Rush lets his obsession with his literary accuser take over his thoughts.  She includes some humorous nods to Stephen King and other mystery/horror writers, and ends up turning the story into a plot with a resolution worthy of Edgar Allan Poe.  It's a bit dark.  OK, plenty dark, but in a dark comedy sort of way.  I think King and Poe would approve.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, April 20, 2015

Blind Spots, by Collin Hansen

Thimgs are rarely as simple as three clean categories, but Collin Hansen has identified three types of Christians who reflect three characteristics of Jesus: courageous, compassionate, and commissioned.  In Blind Spots: Becoming a Courageous, Compassionate, and Commissioned Church, Hansen points out ways in which one kind of Christian can have blinds spots, causing them to miss things that other kinds of Christians see.

Many Christians share Hansen's experience: "Because I'd understood my experience as normative for everyone, I couldn't see how God blessed other Christians with different stories and strengths."  Courageous Christians are sometimes "single-issue Christians," with a passionate interest in a particular social cause.  They become dangerous when they become "only-issue Christians."  They might become intolerant, demanding that "you fall in line behind their agenda."  Their courage in the face of evil and sin is admirable and Christlike, until they forget that "courage is not measured by how many people you can offend."

Compassionate Christians want to give, but may emphasize giving at the expense of the gospel itself.  They have to recognize that our "compassion won't always be appreciated or even received by a world that rejects the source of our compassion."  No matter how much we give, do, or love, many still "reject us and the gospel Jesus preached."  The third characteristic, commissioned, sets evangelicals apart: "Belief that the Great Commission still applies to us today separates evangelicals from churches that have sued for peace with our pluralistic age."  But even commissioned churches have a tendency to be homogenous, even elitist.

Each of the three kinds of Christians or churches easily develops blind spots to their own weaknesses as well as to the strengths of the other groups.  Hansen calls for us to look to one another's strengths and seek unity in Christ.  As we abide in Christ, he will develop our character to reflect his own.  We can recall his lengthy prayer, as he was awaiting his arrest in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying for unity in the church.  Our goal should be "the kind of biblical fulness that . . . expects opposition from the world and seeks unity among believers for the sake of the world."

I think most Christians will see themselves in the three categories Hansen describes.  We need someone like Hansen to point out our blind spots from time to time, and prayerfully seek a more balanced Christian walk.  As we become more Christlike, we can become courageous, compassionate, and commissioned Christians and churches.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

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Sunday, April 19, 2015

The Kind-Hearted Monster, by Max Velhuijs

A fire-breathing dragon shows up at a village halfway to nowhere and the villagers--befriend it?  Of course, if it's The Kind-Hearted Monster!  Max Velhuijs's monster doesn't want to be attacked, and doesn't want to be a soldier, and he certainly doesn't want to sit in a cage while people stare at him.  But he finds a way to fit in and be appreciated in this little village.

Velhuijs tells two stories in The Kind-Hearted Monster.  The first introduces the monster to the village. In the second, word of the kind-hearted monster reaches a band of thieves, who decided to steal him and sell him.  Not to be too much of a spoiler, but you should know that it doesn't work out too well for the thieves.
The pictures are cute and colorful.  The text is simple but clever.  The cover says, "Two classic stories."   Time will tell if this book becomes a classic, but it has a classic storybook flavor that will appeal to kids and the grown-ups who read books to them.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Friday, April 17, 2015

Natural Born Heroes, by Christopher McDougall

Christopher McDougall's last book, Born to Run, had a huge impact on the running world.  Barefoot runners and Vibram Five Fingers existed before Born to Run, but he almost single-handedly sparked an explosion of interest in barefoot running that permanently marked running and the running shoe industry.  So expectations were high for Natural Born Heroes.

The vast majority of Natural Born Heroes tells the story of the Cretan resistance during the German occupation of that Greek island during WW2.  Cretan pride, a bit of outside help from the British, and the unique culture and geographic features of Crete shaped the outcome of the war.  According to some German military officials, the amount of manpower and resources the Germans had to put into controlling Crete played a significant role in their losing momentum and eventually the war.

The swashbuckling adventure story of the Cretan resistance, especially the events surrounding their capture of a German general, make for a great read.  I would love to see this story on film!  Surely there's a fantastic movie in there, with the colorful characters, close calls, and, of course, seeing the evil Nazis foiled by the "simple" townspeople and shepherds.

Woven through this story, McDougall tells another story, about the Cretan's diet and legendary endurance, dating back to the age of Greek myths.  He extols their diet and lifestyle, drawing in pankatrion, parkour, the Mediterranean diet, foraging, low-carbs, slow burns, natural movement, and other ideas.  All of that seemed like a tease.  He offers a few practical steps and specific food recommendations, enough to make me want to learn more.  But it was almost not enough to justify the presence of the health/exercise element of the book.  I felt like this would be a better book if it was just the story of the resistance.

McDougall tells great stories.  Even though the jumping from WW2, to his own exploration of Crete, to exercise, martial arts, and food made me think he might have ADD, I did enjoy it.  I don't know that he will revolutionize anything with Natural Born Heroes, but he did pique my interest in some of the methods and diet that he discussed.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!