Monday, June 29, 2015

The Mask, by Taylor Stevens

Taylor Stevens is back with another Vanessa Michael Munroe story, The Mask.  After fighting pirates in Djibouti, Munroe takes off for Japan, for a rendezvous with her old lover Miles Bradford.  He's working a corporate security job there, and she comes to hang out and recover.  Soon she asks Miles to put her to work, wanting to help him with his assignment at the biotech company where he's employed.  He demurs, until he's framed for murder.  Frustrated with his lack of communication before his arrest, Munroe finds a trail he left for her, enabling her to step into his old job, track down who framed Miles, and uncover layers of corruption, theft, and betrayal in the company.

The Mask is certainly a stand-alone novel.  The back story of Miles and Munroe, her inner demons, her upbringing and abusive "training," her language ability, and her knife fetish are all there and familiar to Stevens's readers, but they take a back seat to the plot.  Stevens very effectively piques interest in Munroe's past, enough that readers will want to revisit prior novels, without retelling her story or distracting the reader with lots of flashback scenes.

As usual, Stevens immerses the reader in Munroe's world.  I found her observations of Japanese corporate culture to be very interesting, as well as her descriptions of Japanese street life, home life, and domestic culture.  In terms of the story, the reader is kept as much in the dark as Munroe is.  Slowly Munroe pulls the pieces together, leaving us with a powerful, bloody, justice-serving climax.

This is one of Stevens's best efforts yet, due, in part, to the foundation she has built with the prior novels.  Munroe is well-developed and powerfully written.  I don't know where she will go from here, but I have a feeling I'll enjoy the ride.

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

Friday, June 26, 2015

The Road to Character, by David Brooks

Like the individuals profiled in The Road to Character, David Brooks's book is flawed, but not without its redeeming qualities.  Brooks wants to recover the "eulogy virtues," noting that the "resume virtues," while they tend to be more highly valued in modern culture, tend not to produce "deep satisfaction."  To this end, he profiles a wide variety of individuals.  It's a varied group; I wonder if there's ever been a book to feature St. Augustine, civil rights leader A. Philip Randolph, and Joe Namath?  As you might expect, if you've read Brooks's other books or New York Times editorials, he is a colorful story teller and brings the subjects to life.

The variety and quality of the individuals about whom Brooks writes is the first problem I have with The Road to Character.  As individual pieces, the biographical essays are okay, but they didn't adhere to one another the way I think Brooks wanted them to.  The result is a loosely assembled structure, not a finely honed argument.  Further, while his subjects demonstrated admirable character traits, too many of them had an overall character that I would not want to emulate (and some that I definitely would reject as an example).  That's part of his point, too.  As he says, "The good news of this book is that it is okay to be flawed, since everyone is." 

There are plenty of bright spots, worthy of reflection, in The Road to Character.  One of my favorites, since it reminded me of something my parents always told me, the third of four children, was "The more you love, the more you can love.  A person who has one child does not love that child less when the second and third child come along. . . . Love expands with use." 

So in spite of writing about some people I didn't end up liking, Brooks's overall project comes through.  Dignity, love, self-control, and, most of all, selflessness are character traits anyone can agree are worthy of pursuing, no matter your cultural or religious preferences.  By focusing on the eulogy virtues--kindess, bravery, honesty, faithfulness--we can build the kind of character that might be written about in a book about character.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Orc Warfare, by Chris Pramas

I have read The Lord of the Rings and The Hobbit.  I've seen the movies.  I thought I knew all I needed to know about orcs.  Chris Pramas revealed my ignorance in his book Orc Warfare.  Pramas acknowledges J.R.R. Tolkein, author of the aforementioned classics, as the one who "set the template of the orc in modern fantasy."  But since Tolkein, role-playing games, video games, fantasy novels, and movies, have expanded the view of the orc.

Pramas covers the different types of orcs, their characteristics, and their strategies and tactics.  He then relates the tales of some important orc battle victories.  As you might expect, he describes their lifestyles as nomadic, reliant on raiding (and occasionally trading with other orcs) for supplies.  They do have limited skills, like tanning hides, but have not developed metal working, due to their nomadic lifestyle.  They are meat eaters exclusively, so they must move around to hunt or raid settlements.

I would have liked for Pramas to provide some sources for his stories and data.  I'm not Tolkein expert, but much of this material seems to be outside the scope of Tolkein's Middle-Earth.  I wonder if he drew on specific novels or other materials, or if this is original material?  I suspect there is some of both.

Orc Warfare is a fun read that may not satisfy the purist, but Pramas provides enough information here to entertain and expand the reader's view of the orc.  Orc Warfare is not a picture book, but it is generously illustrated, adding to the value of the descriptions.

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

Monday, June 22, 2015

Dream Again, by Isaiah Austin

The recruitment of Isaiah Austin to Baylor was a milestone for the Bears: the highest-ever rated recruit for Baylor basketball.  As a top player out of high school, and a solid performer at Baylor, he was looking at being drafted in the first round of the NBA draft.  Then, days before he was to travel to New York for draft day, he got a positive diagnosis for Marfan syndrome.  He would never play competitive basketball again.

Austin writes of his love of basketball, or, better said, his life of basketball, in Dream Again: A Story of Faith, Courage, and the Tenacity to Overcome.  I was aware of his story in broad strokes, as a Baylor fan.  A friend at work whose son played with Isaiah in high school told me what a great kid he was.  He was of course a big story at Baylor, and won the hearts of Baylor fans with his play (and distinctive glasses).  We loved hearing him tell his story of learning to play while blind in one eye, and not letting the opposition know it! 

Dream Again is deeply personal.  He writes with a sense of opening up his heart and letting the reader into his private thoughts.  I especially enjoyed reading about his parents' faith.  Their faith in God and their faith in their son worked together to give Isaiah a solid foundation.  When he was losing his vision, and ultimately his sight in one eye, Isaiah's mother encouraged him.  "She told me that I had two choices with my vision impairment: I could quit basketball or I could work to overcome my limited vision. 'Isaiah,' she said, 'you only have two choices here: you can make this your excuse . . . or you can make it your story.'"

Make it his story he did.  ESPN did a feature on him, raising his exposure and giving him a platform to inspire many.  Then with the Marfan diagnosis, his mother's advice was even more relevant.  Now it wasn't about learning to play the game he loves differently, it was about learning to live without playing the game at all.  He has remained positive, and says he "learned that God's plan is always about helping people find ways to dream again."

Isaiah is young.  He's got a lot of life to live.  But his story is worth telling now.  I have been impressed with him watching him on the court and in the press.  I was impressed with his kindness when I ran into him with my kids at the mall (I was trying not to be obnoxious. . . . It must be tough being recognized to easily. . . .).  Baylor quarterback Robert Griffin, who wrote the book's forward, was impressed: "I tried to encourage him through that time [after the Marfan diagnosis], but in true Isaiah form, we found that he was too busy encouraging us.  Even with his lifelong dream crashing down around him, Isaiah was focused on others."  Austin's coauthor, seasoned writer Matt Litton, was impressed: "his heart is full of more joy, passion, and genuine faith than any young person I've ever met."  You'll be impressed.  Let Isaiah inspire you to dream again!

Read about Isaiah's foundation here:

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

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Elgin Park, by Michael Paul Smith

Michael Paul Smith is a master of models and time travel.  Using models, he travels through time to take pictures from another era.  The effect is truly amazing.  In his new book, Elgin Park: The 1/24th Scale Creation of a Fictitious Mid-20th Century American Town, Smith takes us behind the scenes of his remarkable photographs.

Using his collection of die-cast model cars as the centerpiece of his photographs, Smith sets up scenes that evoke the mid-20th century.  Using his hometown and current home in the Boston area as inspiration, Smith sometimes uses existing buildings, and sometimes builds detailed model buildings.  The trick is trying to decipher which are real and which are models!  He also peppers the scene with detailed miniatures.  Using jewelry parts, found objects, wood cut precisely with an x-acto knife, and other materials, he constructs objects and scenes that fool even a careful eye.

Smith's trademark process is to place the cars and other buildings or objects on a board, set up on a card table, with the rest of the scene in the background a block or so away.  The perspective trick is quite effective.  In Elgin Park, he shows several examples of the final product and the set up, revealing his secret methods.  Looking at the final product, it's hard to believe that it's in miniature.

Even though Smith does not include any people in his shots, every picture tells a story.  In captions, he sets the scene, personalizing each picture.  Elgin Park also includes his lively dialogues with fans who comment on his internet postings.  I love how old-school Smith is.  He does not photoshop his pictures. He makes all the miniatures by hand.  He relies on around-the-house lighting and natural lighting.  He claims not to know much about photography, using the camera's automatic settings ("I literally point and shoot.")  But his wonderful eye and eye-catching details make the shots remarkable and memorable.

Since he takes many of his pictures around his neighborhood, his neighbors have become accustomed to see him.  "I am now seen as the quirky old guy who photographs toys. . . ."  More that just taking pictures of toys, Smith takes the viewer back to an admittedly idealized past, preserving and recalling a slice of life in America.  The pictures are great, and the descriptions of his methods are fascinating.  Elgin Park is a fun, interesting book.

Learn more about Smith at his site:

Lots of photos on Flickr:

The publisher's web site:

His first book (photos without the behind-the-scenes and other additional material):

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

Friday, June 19, 2015

The Good, the Bad, and the Grace of God, by Jep and Jessica Robertson

If you're a fan of Duck Dynasty, then you know Jep, the youngest Robertson son, and his wife Jessica. In The Good, the Bad, and the Grace of God, Jep and Jessica bare their hearts and souls, showing a depth and complexity in their relationship that may not come through on the popular TV show.  Both of them had struggles of different kinds before--and after--they got together.  By telling their stories, they give encouragement to people who have struggled (and I think that includes all of us!).

Jess and Jep tell their stories separately, alternating between overlapping chapters.  They never met until they were out of high school, but when they did, it was love at first sight.  Jep went home and told his roommate that he had just met his future wife!  They were both in need of stability and healing.  Jessica had recently divorced her husband of less than a year.  Jep was coming out of a brief period of drug abuse and rebellion.  Eventually they found each other and, as they write, "a girl from town met a boy from the woods.  And you know what?  They lived happily ever after."

Like the whole Robertson clan, Jep and Jessica are, unsurprisingly, down to earth and honest.  They have learned to deal honestly with each other and figured out how to move on in their mistakes and weaknesses.  They will admit that while they haven't always dealt with their issues the right way in the moment, they have come around to rely on their commitment to each other, and, most importantly, their shared commitment to God.  "We finally put God at the center of our marriage, and He not only restored our love for each other, but he made that love deeper and stronger than ever."  Good words for any married couple, no matter what stage of life they are in!

One thing to note about The Good, the Bad, and the Grace of God.  Don't expect too much.  They do write openly and honestly about their struggles, and they do provide encouragement for couples.  However, you won't find here great wisdom, nor will you find exceptional stories or character.  I don't say that to slight them, but the fact is the only reason their story is worth telling is that they are on a popular TV show.  And that's OK.  It's just a reminder of the power of TV.

I know and have met couples who stories are much more dramatic, compelling, and inspiring, but who are unknown people in the pews or the neighborhood.  Their stories will never get in print.  I'm happy for Jep and Jessica that they are in a position to share inspiration with others, but I am reminded to look around my circles and see the good, the bad, and the grace of God in the lives of others I bump into every day.

Fans of Duck Dynasty will definitely want to read The Good, the Bad, and the Grace of God.  If you don't know the family through the show, you will definitely get to know them through the book.

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

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

The President's Shadow, by Brad Meltzer

Brad Meltzer has a love of arcane historical information and events.  The President's Shadow, book three of his "The Culper Ring Series," picks up with archivist Beecher White looking for answers about his father's mysterious military career.  Part of the answer seems to be gripped in the hand of a severed arm, dug up by the First Lady in her garden, only steps from the Oval Office. . . .

Meltzer somehow makes the bizarre and improbable sound sort of believable.  His vision of Washington, the presidency, and the Secret Service is filled with secrets, schemes, obsessions, insanity, stealth, and double-dealing.  I know some of that goes on in the highest levels of power, whether in the U.S. government or elsewhere.  But in Meltzers's world it all takes on an air of cartoonish silliness couched in earnest actors and perilous actions.

Lest you think I'm completely slamming The President's Shadow, if you've read the first two Culper Ring books, you won't be a bit surprised by my assessment.  Fans of the first two will enjoy The President's Shadow.  If you haven't read them, you may feel lost from time to time.  From the discovery of the arm in the first pages, through the marginally believable climactic scene on Devil's Island, the reader just has to suspend disbelief and enjoy the ride.

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