Sunday, March 1, 2015

Rodeo Red, by Maripat Perkins, illustrated by Molly Idle

As the Deputy of my territory here in Texas, I do declare that Rodeo Red is the real deal, a bona fide top dog story book for the cowgirl in all of us!  Maripat Perkins's cowgirl prose and Molly Idle's soft-hued illustrations lassoed me in from the get-go.

It seems that Rodeo Red's territory is getting encroached upon by Slim, a small interloper, all with the approval of the Sherrif and Deputy . When this newcomer swipes Red's best hound dog Rusty, it's going to get ugly.

Thankfully, Red didn't fall of the turnip truck yesterday.  With some quick thinking and a bit of good luck, she reunites with Rusty and keeps Slim happy at the same time.

I loved this book.  It captures the dynamic of big sister and the new arrival, playing together and sharing  versus delineating one's own space, the acknowledgment that mom is "Sheriff" and dad is her "Deputy," all in Red's cowgirl language and from her little cowgirl perspective.  Cowgirls and cowboys of all ages will enjoy Rodeo Red.

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

Friday, February 27, 2015

Tookey's Turkeys, by Christopher Tookey

As much as I enjoyed reading Christopher Tookey's reviews of great movies in Tookey's Talkies, I had even more fun reading Tookey's Turkeys: The Most Annoying 144 Films of the Last 25 Years.  I like the fact that these are not the worst films, but the most annoying.  He concentrates on "movies that had the resources to be good, but spectacularly failed to be so," so he doesn't pick on independent films.  These are virtually all movies that had wide release.  They annoy him for their take on culture and values, especially those that "plumb the depths of ineptitude, depravity, and risibility."  Others "present a deliberately misleading view of history and current events, promote brutalism and yob culture, and attempt to cash in on a section of the public's taste for sexual exploitation and gratuitous violence."

There were many films in Tookey's Turkey's that I had not heard of.  After reading his reviews, I am grateful to have missed them.  In Tookey's Talkies, Tookey showed a tendency toward exuberant praise.  In Turkeys, his criticism is much more entertaining.  When he won the 2013 London Press Club award for Arts Reviewer of the Year, it must have been at least in part for the various and hilarious ways he can say how terrible a movie is.  All of these examples are from different movies, but you will notices some themes that emerge.

. . . mindless spectacle on an extremely grand scale. . .
. . . any intelligent viewer will leave the cinema slack-jawed with disbelief that we have been invited to take this hokum seriously . . .
. . . a terrible movie with barely concealed contempt for its audience . . .
. . . Mere words cannot convey the tedium.  Think of the dullest movie you have ever seen, and quadruple it. . . .
. . . a guilty pleasure if your idea of a guilty pleasure is undergoing a frontal lobotomy without anaesthetic . . .
. . . ponderous, preposterous poppycock . . .
. . . as slow, pretentious, nasty, and unwatchable as a movie can get. . . .
. . . one of the biggest wastes of time, money, and celluloid ever perpetuated in the name of mindless entertainment. . . .
. . . I'm bewildered, appalled, and angry that anyone allowed this puerile idiocy to become such an abominable waste of time and celluloid. . . .
. . . on a par with sitting down in a dark sewer and waiting to be eaten alive by rats. . . .
. . . five minutes of plot is crammed into a two-hour running time. . . .
. . . a rural British romcom that appears to have been painstakingly assembled by a committee of village idiots. . . .
. . . Every scene is lame, every line of dialogue banal, every performance shallow. . . .
. . . awe-inspiring in its awfulness. . . .
. . . puts the "Duh!" back in Cinderella. . . .
. . . puts the rot back into erotica. . . .
. . . If you're one of those old-fashioned souls who enjoy comprehensible plotting or character development, don't even think about going. . . .
. . . The plotting is so scatty that it appears to have been put together by people whose short-term memory has been surgically removed. . . .
. . . The whole script appears to have been assembled by an untalented, 11-year-old Martian. . . .

Some of Tookey's best bits are the rules or commandments.  He offers Adam Sandler's ten commandments for comedies, a list of "every disability ever spotted in an action pic," the "Ten Commandments of the Aquatic Thriller Genre," and "The 10 Commandments of British Cinema."

Besides bad plots, bad acting, and bad cinematography, Tookey is also annoyed by the coarsening of cultural standards in film.  He has particular ire for the declining standards of the British Board of Film Classification, which sets the film ratings in the UK.  He cites several examples of films that a few short years ago would not have been allowed.  Tookey is no Puritan; some of his favorite films include sex, violence, and profanity (He does acknowledge it, so the viewer does not go in uninformed.).  But when a family film contains innuendo, or when a film uses graphic violence "not to denote extreme, anti-social behavior, but to entertain, titillate, and show how 'cool' the film-makers are," or when they "wallow in sexual degradation, rape, and torture," Tookey does not approve.  He says the BBFC's "turn-a-blind-eye approach simply eggs on irresponsible or deranged film-makers . . . to more and more extreme and graphic displays of sexual violence."  This is not only a British problem.  Many of the films he reviews are American releases.

Tookey's reviews are entertaining and informative.  I found that I agreed with him on almost every film that I had seen, and will studiously avoid the Turkeys I have not seen.  I'll be book-marking his web site (movie-film-review dot com) as the go-to source for a reliable take on movies.

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

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Tookey's Talkies, by Christopher Tookey

Christopher Tookey loves movies.  This may seem like a tautology when talking about a movie critic, but more than many critics, his reviews reveal a sense of someone who loves the feeling of sitting in a darkened theater, expectant, ready to be delighted by what is about to unfold on the screen.  His delight comes through in his reviews of some of his favorite films in Tookey's Talkies: 144 Great Films from the Last 25 Years.

I was most drawn to Tookey's reviews by his mainstream approach.  Among his 144 great films he includes primarily mainstream films, US and UK releases, plus a few foreign that had wide release in the US (and presumably in the UK).  So there's no snobbery here.  While he does enjoy and admire great photography and other technical aspects, it struck me that his concern lies primarily with the ability of a movie to tell a story and move the viewer.  I like his approach a lot.

Tookey, a British reviewer, seems right at home with American movies.  Unlike many critics, he thinks it's OK to celebrate family, patriotism, business, and community.  Some great movies will challenge us and make us uncomfortable, and Tookey features some of them, but he also likes a movie that is life-affirming, escapist, just plain fun, and leaves the viewer feeling good.

Some of 144 great films are what you would expect, critically acclaimed films that won universal praise, e.g. The English Patient, Jerry Maguire, Les Miserables, Pulp Fiction.  Many were popular but not necessarily praised by critics.  He includes most of Pixar's movies, Babe, sci-fi blockbusters like Men in Black, Star Wars, and the Lord of the Rings (all 3).  I was surprised to see Dodgeball and The Hangover on his list.  I haven't seen these but had written them off as gross-out comedy garbage.  Maybe I'll add them to my list.

Speaking of lists, if you haven't seen the movies he reviews in Tookies Talkies, you'll want them on your list of movies to see.  He writes engagingly, even adoringly, of these movies he loves.  He does have a tendency toward superlatives.  Virtually every review has an "-est" or equivalent: finest, all-time, most, best, great, most entertaining, most beautiful, best action adventure, most enjoyable, etc.  But the great thing is, he means it.  His love of these movies is infectious.

For more of his movie reviews:

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

Monday, February 23, 2015

Runaway Radical, by Amy Hollingsworth and Jonathan Hollingsworth

Jonathan Hollingsworth lived full of passion and a desire to do more, to live radically in obedience to Jesus.  He and his mother chronicle his adventure of faith in Runaway Radical: A Young Man's Reckless Journey to Save the World, in which he reveals a dark side of service on the Dark Continent.  After a life-changing trip to Honduras, where Jonathan met with deep poverty and a deeper helplessness, he came home to his comfortable, middle-class American existence with a renewed determination to change the world.

For Jonathan, changing the world began with asceticism, giving away material possessions, living simply (under his parents' roof), and making plans for a life of service among the poor.  He found a place to serve in Cameroon, raised money and made plans in record time, and settled in with a pastor in an active ministry.  Within days, Jonathan's hopes of having an impact in Africa were dashed.  The pastor with whom he worked was controlling and manipulative.  His movements and interactions with non-Christian Cameroonians, as well as with other missionaries and local Christians not affiliated with his host church, were limited.  Many promises made to Jonathan during the planning of his stay in Africa were broken.  Against the wishes of the pastor, he only served four months of his one-year commitment.

Once he returned home, the manipulation continued.  Jonathan had serious concerns about the African ministry, the use of funds there, the leaders' treatment of church members and others, and the falsehoods about the ministry presented to their American partners.  Jonathan's American pastor  threatened to defame Jonathan if he chose to go public with his concerns.  All of this amounted to Jonathan's feeling distant from church, and, ultimately, from God.

Jonathan's story is a cautionary tale about the dangers of the new radicalism, which fosters a new kind of legalism.  He writes, "The legalism I rejected proclaimed, Look how good I am because of what I don't do.  The legalism I accepted proclaimed, Look how good I am because of what I do."  Either legalism puts the self in the center, and attempts to put self in control.  Many young Christians have become disillusioned because they can't meet the demands of the new radicalism.  They are "challenged to impact and serve the world in radical way, but we never learned how to be an average person living an average life."

I was sickened by the way trusted leaders in Jonathan's life stole his passion and quenched his desire to serve.  Instead of teaching him to share grace, they taught him that he wasn't submissive enough--to them.  Instead of fostering a passion to follow Christ, they taught him that serving God means following manipulative, controlling church leaders.  It was a failure of discipleship, a failure to teach, a failure to lead, and Jonathan was a victim of their failure.

Jonathan's story is certainly heart breaking.  He does a service by shedding light on the dangers of legalism in every form.  More specifically, he offers a warning to others who are making sacrifices in order to serve in Africa.  He has plenty of stories of Westerners who were deceived, abused, or cheated by African ministry partners.  Unfortunately, the tone of his book is very negative about missions altogether.  I know he would acknowledge that there are worthy missionaries and ministries, but it's easy to see that he is suspicious especially of his peers who are radically serving, assuming they are living under a legalistic drive to prove themselves to God by doing good.

Before he left for Africa, Jonathan read many books by and about "passionate do-gooders" who serve in Africa.  He's right about one thing: these stories inevitably focus on successful, life-changing events and ministries.  So I affirm his efforts in telling his story in Runaway Radical.  Christians, and especially missionaries in training, need to know the realities of failure, of conflict, of the fallenness of people in church leadership on every continent.  I wish Jonathan's story had more balance, but I suppose he brings a balance to every other missionary story in print.

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

Sunday, February 22, 2015

Head Lice, by Elise Gravel

So I guess if there have to be head lice in the world, we might as get a laugh out of them.  Elise Gravel portrays the head louse as a cute and friendly creature in Head Lice, another addition to her Disgusting Creature series.  I found it to be very informative, and can definitely see its usefulness in teaching young children about head lice.  Readers will learn that head lice feed on human blood, live in and lay eggs in human hair, but can only travel from head to head by contact, or by catching a ride on a shared hat or clothes.
The head louse.
The epitome of cute and friendly.
Like the other Disgusting Creatures books, Head Lice would benefit from some photographs or more realistic drawings of head lice, at least as an appendix.  I would also like to have seen more advice for dealing with lice.  "Next time you see a head louse . . . RUN AWAY!" is a bit lacking.

Gravel's Head Lice is funny, the illustrations are eye-catching, and kids will actually learn something!  Every teacher will want this to be a part of his or her class reading time, head lice outbreak or not.

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

Friday, February 20, 2015

The Gift God Wants, by Lenae Litzinger

Lenae Litzinger had lived much of her life seeking to please God and others through her own efforts.  Gradually she began to relinquish control and enter into more intimacy with God.  As illustrated in the cover photograph of her book The Gift God Wants: Finding Joy and Peace in a Life of Surrender, she visualized taking all her "hopes, dreams, talents, all my fears, sins and failures . . . everything that I am, and placing them in a humble, rugged box with a little bow and presenting my 'gift' to the Savior."  The book records her experiences as she learns to give that gift to Jesus.

What Mrs. Litzinger lacks in theological depth and biblical insight she makes up for with her honest and personal reflections on what God has taught her.  The Gift God Wants is a very personal narrative.  It reminded me of sitting in a church small group with a thoughtful, reflective person who bares her soul as we meet.  The twenty-six short chapters, each followed with several scripture passages, are just right for daily devotional reading.

The Gift God Wants will appeal especially to young women who enjoy narrative, journal-like devotional reading.  But even a middle-age dude like me can enjoy and be inspired by her writing!

Thanks to Lenae Litzinger for the complimentary review copy!

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

Politically Incorrect Jesus, by Joe Battaglia

Joe Battaglia, a veteran of media and culture, has a few things to say about culture and the culture wars.  As he writes in The Politically Incorrect Jesus: Living Boldly in a Culture of Unbelief, he doesn't have a lot of patience with political correctness, which he defines as "the 'chic' moral ideology of the day advocated and fleshed out in the public square by self-appointed gatekeepers of public opinion to the point where that definition becomes 'fashionable.'"  In 24 short chapters, Battaglia challenges Christians to be salt and light (and fertilizer) in a culture that demands conformity, a version of tolerance, and a rejection of biblical Christian standards.

Lest you lump Battaglia in with "culture warriors" as maligned and caricatured in the media, he makes it clear that he does not "believe the government could actually become the savior of the American society."  He never wants to "raise the flag higher than the cross."  Culture warriors need to "leave Jesus out of it," so that their political agenda doesn't distract from Jesus' mission.

Nevertheless, cultural and theologically conservative Christians will find common ground with Battaglia.  He bemoans the coarseness of the media, which celebrates voyeurism and has removed a sense of shame.  He questions "tolerance" that refuses to acknowledge the obvious.  For example, after 9-11, law enforcement been criticized for paying more attention to the American Islamic community.  But he asks, based on what we know about who has committed acts of terrorism, "Where else are you going to look first?"

Huge problems arise when PC culture would "have everyone believe that moral absolutes do not exist . . . which is absurd. . . . Not only does it promulgate intellectual dishonesty, it asks us to disregard the internal moral compass built into each of us by the Creator."  In spite of our efforts, "we cannot answer the great questions of life by looking inside ourselves.  We cannot find within us that which can only be found outside of us."  The result is violence, societal unrest, broken families, social isolation, and on and on.

Battaglia wants Christians to be known for what they stand for, not what they stand against.  He offers plenty of food for though in The Politically Incorrect Jesus.  Although not heavy on prescriptive norms, he instead leaves the reader with a framework for thinking about engaging culture.  "Living boldly" as a believer begins with recognizing the ways in which culture today tends unnecessarily to silence voices of faith.  As Christ-followers, "Jesus expects [Christians] to actually believe everything He said and be His representative here on earth."  Yes, that is often a non-PC way to live.  But Jesus set the standard for bucking the PC culture of his day.  In following him, Christians should do the same.

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