Monday, January 22, 2018

Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland

What would you do if you were a CIA analyst and you found out that your husband of ten years is a Russian spy?  That is the crazy way day started in Need to Know, by Karen Cleveland.  Cleveland, who worked as a CIA herself, puts herself in Vivian's shoes, a CIA analyst working on rooting out Russian sleeper cells in the U.S.  When she hacks into a suspected handler's computer and sees her husband's face staring back at her, her world is rocked.

Her all-American husband confirms the worst: that he's a plant from Russia, that he targeted her and married her to get an inroad to the CIA, and that they are trapped with no way out.  Torn between her sworn duty to protect the United States, and her motherly duty to do what is best for her and Matt's four children, she tries to make things right and stay out of jail.

Cleveland's narrative is brisk and captivating.  I was at the same time frustrated that Vivian couldn't just do the right thing, and empathetic with her struggle to decide what the right thing was.  Just as Vivian can't decide whether or not she can trust Matt, Cleveland keeps us guessing until the end.  I have no idea whether sleeper cells like Cleveland describes exist in the U.S.  But she makes me wonder where they might be. . . .  Need to Know is an entertaining, suspenseful novel that will keep you reading and guessing.  Hopefully Cleveland will be back with more.


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

Friday, January 19, 2018

Freedom's Stand, by Jeanette Windle

In modern Afghanistan, competing interests want to preserve Afghan independence, promote democracy and religious freedom, defend traditional gender roles, and promote the Islamic faith.  Jeanette Windle's novel Freedom's Stand personalizes these conflicting forces, giving hope for an Afghanistan in which the gospel of Christ can thrive and women can be free.

Freedom's Stand, sequel to Windle's 2014 book Veiled Freedom, continues the story of American aid worker Amy MalloryMallory's friend Jamil, who became a Christian in Veiled Freedom, has gained a reputation as a healer, traveling around the countryside offering medical care and teaching about Isa Masih, Jesus the healer.  When he draws more attention than the Islamic religious leaders like, Jamil is arrested on charges of apostasy.

Faced with certain death if he doesn't deny his newfound faith, Jamil refuses to embrace Islam's rejection of the divinity of Christ.  Mallory and her friend Steve Wilson, an American defense contractor, wrestle with trying to intervene on Jamil's behalf.

Windle tells a great story with lots of action, political intrigue, social commentary, and personal interaction.  The Afghan setting is believable (I say that as someone who has never been there), and the political setting is timely (again, as a casual American observer).  Most importantly, as Jamil, Mallory, and Wilson live out the implications of their Christian faith, they challenge American readers in their free and comfortable setting to think about their own commitment to Christ.

On a similar note, Windle's depiction of the status of women in Afghanistan leads me to wonder how American feminists can complain about their treatment in American culture as compared to traditional Muslim culture.  I know we are not perfect in the United States, obviously, but I can say with confidence that, political correctness aside, American culture is superior when it comes to the treatment of women.

Freedom's Stand is a page turner with a strong message of encouragement for Christians to stand up for their faith, and of the power of the gospel to change lives and to impact a culture.


Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Automating Inequality, by Virginia Eubanks

The amount of personal information floating around in the electronic world is staggering.  In Automating Inequality: How High-Tech Tools Profile, Police, and Punish the Poor, Virginia Eubanks argues that we have created an electronic poor house, with "automated decision-making systems [which] shatter the social safety net, criminalize the poor, intensify discrimination, and compromise our deepest national values."  Lest her readers think this only applies to the poor and not their own educated, middle-class selves, she adds, "systems first designed for the poor will eventually be used on everyone."

Eubanks, a political science professor, examines a few very specific systems used in agencies which serve the poor: an Indiana program which sorts data for welfare eligibility, a Los Angeles program which identifies homeless clients for housing programs and services, and a Pittsburgh program for child and family services.  Each has been touted as improving efficiency, reducing fraud, and reducing waste.

Eubanks isn't much of a fan of any of these programs, or others like them.  A big, obvious problem is the possibility that "all that data is being held for other purposes entirely: to surveil and criminalize" the poor.  In some instances, law enforcement has accessed data from these systems to track people down and run sting operations.  In others, officials extrapolate data to anticipate issues and preemptively intervene in family's lives.  Eubanks calls this "poverty profiling."

For Eubanks, the root problem is that these systems don't address the root problems of poverty.  They reveal a historical pattern in which "during times of economic hardship, America's elite threw the poor under the bus."  It continues today, but now "they are handing the keys to alleviating poverty over to a robotic driver."  Her solution would be to dismantle the electronic data and surveillance systems and establish the universal basic income, which is simply a cash transfer program.  As socialistic as this sounds, her argument is certainly sound, and by reducing or eliminating welfare bureaucracies it could conceivably work.  Wouldn't you rather a few thousand of your federal government's dollars go to a needy family rather than a electronic data tracking system?

Eubanks offers terrific insight from her extensive observations in these three programs.  It's downright scary to see how much of our information is mined for use by government agencies.  The Pittsburgh program identifying potential future child abusers is particularly troubling.  Automating Inequality is an important read for people concerned about the future of government services for the poor as well as the future (and present!) of government surveillance of individual Americans.


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

Tuesday, January 16, 2018

The End of the World Running Club, by Adrian J. Walker

Life on earth has been decimated by a bombardment of meteors.  Where cities once stood are now craters.  Where civilization has survived, death, chaos, and lawlessness prevail.  This could be the start of any number of post-apocalyptic movies or novels.  So the challenge of writing in this genre is finding an original voice or twist.  Adrian J. Walker does just that in The End of the World Running Club.

Edgar Hill gets a few things right in the face of impending doom: he gathers a few supplies, gets bottled water, and helps his family to safety in the cellar of their home.  After a couple weeks of increasing misery, trapped in a tiny space with their small children, their own stench, and dwindling food and drink, they are rescued and relocated to an army base.  While he and a few other civilian survivors are out foraging for supplies, helicopters come and ferry Edgar's family and others from the base to another base.  Ed and his companions are left behind.

After waiting for a second flight which never comes, and fighting off other, more feral, survivors, Ed is left with little choice but to head to the coast in hopes of meeting the ships that will be taking survivors to points south.  Automotive travel quickly becomes impossible, so they turn to the means of transportation available to them: running.

However, in order to reach the boats for their Christmas Day departure, they will have to cover more than thirty miles a day!  With no other choice, they start running.  It's painful, especially at first, and they face challenges and perils along the way.  Hydration and caloric intake is tough, not to mention murderous thugs and autocratic warlords.

Ed has a history of failure and self-doubt that only motivates to move forward, find his family, and redeem himself.  Ed's advice, after the grueling journey, applies to recreation and competitive ultrarunners, people running for survival and family, and everyone who faces life's challenges: "You choose the right option.  Then you repeat that choice a hundred thousand times.  You don't run thirty miles; you run a single step many times over."



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

Monday, January 15, 2018

Sex in a Broken World, by Paul David Tripp

Paul David Tripp is passionate about remedying the sexual brokenness in our world.  Sex in a Broken World: How Christ Redeems What Sin Distorts calls Christians to break away from the sexual chaos of the world around us and reclaim it for what it is meant to be: a reflection of the glory of God.

If you have read other Christian books about sexual ethics and related topics, you may be surprised about what Sex in a Broken World is not.  It is not a review of sex in media and culture.  Tripp does not discuss internet filters and accountability groups.  He does not give "sex-ed for married couples."

For Tripp, sexual issues cannot be solved horizontally.  It's all about the vertical--where our hearts stand with God.  "Our problem with sex begins when we forget that God must be at the center of this part of our lives as he must be with any other."  When we succumb to the sexual insanity of the world, we are putting ourselves in God's place, rejecting his sovereignty in our lives.

Our "sex insanity" is not a result of culture, entertainment, or the internet; it "reveals the disloyalty and rebellion of our hearts."  The key is a heart submitted to God.  "Sexual purity begins in the heart with a love for God that overwhelms all the other loves that battle for the allegiance of the heart."

In a way, some of the more popular recent books about sexual addiction, purity, and faithfulness are easier.  Draw boundary lines, make a plan, start a group, add a filter, avert your eyes, make more rules.  And I'm not sure Tripp would disagree with those books completely.  But Tripp's point is larger and greater.  None of the strategies or plans for sexual purity will mean a thing if our hearts are not turned to God.

People affected by or trapped in sexual insanity must work on the vertical before the horizontal, putting our reliance on God first, acknowledging that his commands are "kind, wise, and good," and believing that "only the heart-satisfying riches of the grace of Jesus can protect and free you from the deceptive and dissatisfying 'riches' of this fallen world."  Sex in a Broken World is a strong and welcome call to return our hearts to God.


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

Sunday, January 14, 2018

Zen Pencils--Creative Struggle, by Gavin Aung Than

Cartoonist Gavin Aung Than has, since 2012, been posting cartoons based on various inspirational quotes and stories at zenpencils.com.  For his newest book, Zen Pencils--Creative Struggle: Illustrated Advice from Masters of Creativity, he selected quotes from some of his favorite authors, writers, musicians, and scientists and drew them in comic book form for our enjoyment and inspiration.

The featured subjects are eclectic, and the quotes are, indeed, inspiring: Leonardo da Vinci's Notebooks, Stephen King's Memoir, Akira Kurosawa's Autobiograpy, Nikola Tesla's My Inventions, Ernest Hemingway's Nobel acceptance speech, and others.  The quotes are well-selected.  Stephen King reminds us that "Life isn't a support system for art.  It's the other way around." Kurosawa encourages us to read actively, with pen in hand, collecting memorable quotes and thoughts in a notebook. 

Most of the cartoons set the subject in his or her natural setting, but in an unusual turn, Than applies the writings of the Indian mystic Jiddu Krishnamurti to a modern urban setting.  I don't particularly like Indian mysticism or rap music, but I loved the message that art should be created for the love of it, not merely with the aim of notoriety or material success.  "Our present education is rotten because it teaches us to love success and not what we are doing."

I thoroughly enjoyed Than's approach to this book, presenting the respective figure's words without editing, but with his own clever illustrated interpretation.  As one of his subjects, Brenè Brown, writes, "There's no such thing as creative people and non-creative people.  There are only people who use their creativity and people who don't."  Check out Creative Struggle and be inspired to unleash your creative side.


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

Friday, January 12, 2018

Spirit Runner, by Richard Ferguson

Ron Campbell, the central figure of Richard Ferguson's Spirit Runner, was just a boy when his whole family died in a car crash, but he was old enough to know that his father was a great Olympic marathoner.  Despite the fact that his legs were devastatingly injured in the wreck, and he face years of rehab before he will even be able to walk and run normally, he carries a determination that he will be a great runner like his father.

Ron's tragic life begins with the auto accident, but that is not the end of the tragedy.  He's placed in the care of his aunt and uncle, who mistreat him and are literally willing to kill for Ron's inheritance.  Thankfully his loving, kind grandparents intervene.  He also has a therapist who lives at the ranch with the family, and who has the skills and determination to get Ron back on his feet.  His favorite nurse from his hospital stay becomes a regular feature at the ranch, as do some kids from neighboring ranches who become his best friends.

In this environment of love and hatred, he faces obstacles, human and natural, which seem determined to ruin his rehabilitation and break his spirit: sabotage of his aquatic training trench, an attack from a rabid wolf, getting swept away in a flash flood, physical abuse from his aunt and uncle, cruelty from his cousin, harassment from bullies, and other struggles.  Somehow he perseveres and, miraculously, does not turn out to be an embittered, mean young man, but a strong, kind young man who turns out to be an even greater runner than his dad.

Some of the drama is over the top in Spirit Runner, but the overall message and the story of redemption from out of tragedy makes this an enjoyable read.  Although he faced hardship and had to deal with hateful relatives, he was fortunate to have such great, positive support.  When things seem darkest, look for the light and press on.


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