Tuesday, February 28, 2012

God Gave Us Love, by Lisa Tawn Bergren

There are lots of kinds of love: the love Mama and Papa share, the love we have for Grampa, the love we have for pesky otters and pesky baby brothers and sisters, and, most of all the love God has for us, and we have for God.
In God Gave Us Love, Grampa and Little Cub talk about the different kinds of love.  Grampa explains different kinds of love to Little Cub, and reminds him that sometimes we have to choose to love.  And Grampa makes sure Little Cub knows about the God-size love that saves us.

As in God Gave Us Two, Lisa Tawn Bergren's story is beautifully illustrated by Laura J. Bryant with a snowy wonderland.  E (12) and Z (10) ran away when I started reading this "baby" book, but C (10) let Mom read it to her.  Despite my kids' tepid reactions, I'd say for the younger kids in your family, God Gave Us Love will be a winner.

Thanks to Waterbrook/Multnomah for the complimentary review copy!
See more at the publisher's web site.
Take a look at the author's web site.  She writes a lot of books!

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Last Christian, by David Gregory

David Gregory's The Last Christian was another pleasant surprise: a Christian novel that is not cheesy, not preachy, but well-written and explicitly Christian.  Gregory paints a convincing picture of the not-too-distant future, while weaving a suspenseful story of faith and the nature of humanity itself.

After a brief prologue in which we witness the replacement of a human brain with an electronic brain, we meet Abby, who, at 34 years old, has known no other life than living among a stone-age tribe in Papua New Guinea.  The daughter of American missionaries, Abby and her family chose to remain among their tribe even after the government declared the tribe off-limits, so they have been cut off from technology and culture for decades.  The United States in the late 21st century is a foreign culture to her.

The Grid (Gregory's name for the beefed up internet) is ubiquitous.  Many people have neural implants and communicate and enjoy entertainment in virtual reality.  Most foreign of all is the nearly complete absence of Christianity.  Churches have been abandoned or turned into schools or museums.  Criticism of other faiths is a jail-able offense.  But Abby has come to the U.S. with a mission: after her emergence from the jungle, she received an old video message from her grandparents, who told her of the rapid decline of Christianity in the United States, and that they had a dream that Abby would be the one to bring Christianity back to America.

Her task is not as simple as she thought it might be, especially when it turns out that her grandfather had helped develop the artificial brains, and that he was the recipient of the artificial brain in the prologue.  Abby's cousin is a congresswoman whose campaign for senate might be derailed by her association with her outspoken cousin, Abby the "religionist."  And the company behind the artificial brains happens to be behind a fiendish plot to get their brains into everyone.
The story is fun and thought provoking.  In some insightful passages, Gregory gives an interesting look into our possible future.  One example is his take on the so-called "Google effect."  (He, of course, doesn't use that phrase.  It's from a Science article published July of 2011 [here], which, of course, was after the publication of The Last Christian, demonstrating Gregory's foresight!)  Abby meets up with a college history professor, whose father happens to have been a friend of her grandfather.  He and Abby discuss the way the Grid has changed learning.  He tells Abby, college students "can access the information anytime they want in fact form and use it in formulating questions for tests."  "You mean formulating answers."  "No.  Formulating questions.  No one test for answers anymore.  No one is expected to retain much knowledge. . . . Facts are available on command.  The Grid can stream you to any answers you want.  The key to education is in formulating the right questions.  Asking questions that will bring you useful answers--that's what we're trying to teach our students."  You can see this today.  Ask someone a factual question, they pull out their iphone and google it.

More importantly for Christian readers is the demise of Christianity.  In Gregory's future, it takes only a couple of generations for the practice of Christianity to die out.  In a lecture in his American culture class, he outlines the causes.  I think they are worth reproducing here.

The five causes of "the decline and disappearance of Christianity in twenty-first century America."
  1. Scientific progress.  Evolutionary theory, especially.
  2. The culture war.  "The more strident that religionists became in their attempt to control government, the less others were attracted to Christianity."
  3. "The backlash against religion in general due to Islamic fundamentalism."
  4. A philosophical shift rejecting absolute truth and seeing all truth as social construction.
  5. "Lack of distinctiveness."  Behaviors of religious and nonreligious people became indistinguishable.  The megachurch movement "was the beginning of the end, a last gasp of the Christian religion. . . . They adopted a new marketing strategy, using their gatherings to appeal to outsiders with popular entertainment and practical life helps.  But . . . that didn't produce a lifestyle any more distinctive than before."
Look around you, Christian.  Do you see some or all of these 5 forces at work?  I do not despair of the future of Christianity, but it's not too hard to imagine these trends worsening and continuing to weaken the church and its witness in the world. 

So The Last Christian manages to tell a great story while giving a prophetic warning about the future.  That's a rare combination.  Maybe it's not a great work of literature--it is written as popular fiction--and maybe it's not a great work of theology--again, it's a suspense/sci-fi novel--but it combines those two efforts successfully.  A recommended read.

Go to the publisher's web site here.
Go to the author's web site, which has a cool video preview of the book, here.
Finally, view the message Abby posted on the Grid here.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Breath of Angel, by Karyn Henley

Every now and then, I pick up a book out of my usual genre range.  I am a sci-fi fan, but never have been much into fantasy.  Karyn Henley's Breath of Angel, book one of her Angelaeon Circle, will appeal to readers of fantasy fiction, especially young female readers.  So as I read, I tried to place myself that target audience (Figuratively, of course.  I did not put on a dress or perm my hair).  From that perspective, Breath of Angel is a pretty good read.

Henley doesn't waste any time getting started with the action here.  In the first couple of pages, we meet Melaia, the heroine, as she fights of an attack from the chief villain.  After that, the story never really slows down.  Melaia is a priestess, and the attack thrusts her into a conflict that will determine the fate of the kingdom.  Melaia, a foundling raised by priestesses at the temple, has to grow into her role as she learns more about her origin and fate.

Henley's breakneck pacing certainly keeps the story moving, but does so at a price.  The kingdom, the characters, the history, all take a back seat to the action.  You pick some up in bits and pieces throughout, but I was left with little feel for the kingdom and its people.  Similarly, Henley doesn't spend a lot of time developing the characters or giving us insight in their personal history and motives.  In the context of the action and dialog, the setting and characterizations come through, but not in a very satisfying way.

Breath of Angel is the first of at least three books in the Angelaeon Circle.  It might be interesting to see how the story develops and how the history of the kingdom and its characters are fleshed out in later books.  Henley's young readers might latch on to the hints and glimpses of this world.  For my taste, though, I think I'll leave the Angelaeon to them.

Go to the publisher's site here.
Go to the author's site here.

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

The God Cookie, by Geoffrey Wood

What a refreshing entertaining novel!  The God Cookie is a delightful read, with a bit of inspiration thrown in.  When Parrish, a twenty-something coffee shop owner, decides to tell God he's "all in" for obeying him, he's not sure how to interpret his fortune cookie message: "Take the corner."  He decides the message is from God, goes to the corner bus stop, and has a series of encounters that bring him to a better understanding of God in his life.

I should say up front that besides the theme of hearing and obeying God, much of the plot is a pretty standard romantic comedy.  He and Audra meet cute, mix like oil and water, warm up to each other, he seems to get the girl, the girl pushes him away, he thinks she has another boyfriend, they have a falling out, and they get together in the end.  (I hope I'm not giving anything away by telling you that he gets the girl.)

The romantic subplot and the witty banter with the love interest and with his employees, old buddies of his who work at his shop mostly so they can hang out and drink coffee, help tie the book together, but the main thrust does remain.  When we commit to hearing God and obeying him, our lives are changed.  I love the way Wood puts a practical face on Parrish's obedience.  As a result of his commitment, he meets his neighbors and forms relationships with them.  Fortune cookie or not, one of the primary ways we can live in obedience to God is by simply looking at the people around us with his eyes, and seeking ways to meet needs, whether physical or relational.  What a great message.

I liked Wood's insight on hearing God.  Parrish reflects on his reaction when people question his hearing from God.  "'When God speaks to you, is it in an audible voice?' they'd inevitably ask. . . . "  He compares it to nonverbal responses, like a nod of the head indicating a response.  "Like that.  A speaking in the head.  The response to a gesture.  One you don't see, but has happened.  More than an intimation, less than audible.  But words appearing, surprising ones, answers to questions I wasn't asking, hadn't even thought of yet, but they fit perfectly.  And there's peace."

Later, when Audra, who isn't sure what to make of God and her new boyfriend's claim to hear from him, is trying to decide whether to pray, she thinks, "When everything all in a moment comes together, surprisingly perfect, it doesn't prove there's a loving God; but if there is, isn't it perfect when all in a moment, God proves how surprisingly he loves?"

The God Cookie isn't really an evangelistic novel; there's no explicit presentation of the gospel, and the characters are taking baby steps in faith and obedience.  But Christians and non-Christians alike will enjoy the story and can relate to the questions raised.  You might even be prompted to listen a little more closely to the voice of God every day!

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Saturday, February 11, 2012

Eragon, by Christopher Paolini

As part of my effort to keep up with Elliot's reading, I decided to pick up Eragon (on CD, of course) to see what all the fuss is about.  First things first: Paolini wrote Eragon when he was 15.  It's a pretty impressive work--for a 15 year old.  He's just published book 4 of the series; I hope, for his sake, his writing has gotten better.  But even not considering the age of the writer, Eragon is more like good fan fiction than an original work.
In terms of plot, the parallels to Star Wars are so numerous that it became downright ridiculous.  The setting is Tolkien-esque, with elves, dwarves, and men, but the plot is all Star Wars.  Did he realize this when he was writing?  Is it coincidence, plagiarism, or tribute?  I don't know.  I'm not a big fantasy reader (other than Tolkien) but my suspicion as I read, confirmed by other reviews, was that many of the other story elements here are derivative from other fantasy writers.

None of this is to say that Eragon is a bad book.  It's not bad, it's just a weak imitation of much better books. 

Thursday, February 9, 2012

99 Ways to Stretch Your Home Budget, by Cheri Gillard

If you have ever read a book or magazine article about budgeting or personal finance, you have probably run across most ideas in Cheri Gillard's little book.  In fact, if you stop and spend 20 minutes right now brainstorming with your spouse or a couple of friends, you could probably come up with many of the ideas here.

That said, Gillard's 99 Ways to Stretch Your Home Budget puts together some practical ideas in one place to spur the reader to live a bit more frugally.  Some of the ideas are so obvious they hardly seem worth writing down: drop cable TV, eat out less often, check out books and movies from the library.  Others seem a little silly: make your own baby wipes, shower at the health club as much as possible (why not just save money by dropping the club membership?), flush the toilet infrequently, give up tanning beds (just kidding, that's a good idea) and quit smoking (on smoking and tanning beds, why pay for cancer when you can get it for free?).

So maybe she's not the most original writer in the world, but if you're looking for a few new ideas to save money, or need to be reminded about some you already know, take a gander at Gillard's little book.  You can at least find a way to save a couple of bucks for the price of the book!

Rate my review of this book here:

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

First Contact: Or, It's Later Than You Think, by Evan Mandery

I was drawn to this novel because of the blurb on the cover, comparing it to works of Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams.  I like Vonnegut OK, but I think Douglas Adams is one of the greatest writers EVER!  So of course I had to check out someone following in Adams's footsteps.  I've read Douglas Adams, and Mandery is no Douglas Adams.  Now that we've gotten that clarification out of the way, I'll say that I did enjoy Mandery's book.

More than Vonnegut and Adams, Mandery reminded me of Christopher Buckley's brand of political satire.  In First Contact, aliens make contact with Earth, announcing their arrival on YouTube.  The story revolves around an aide to the president and his relationship with the Rigelian ambassador.  Their superiors, especially a bumbling, exercise-obsessed, hyper-religious U.S. President (Mandery's clear lampooning of George W. Bush was a little too mean to be funny. . . . But still kind of funny.), end up in a series of misunderstandings and ultimately a nuclear show-down (the American President's fault, of course). 

First Contact is an entertaining trifle, but little more.  Mandery is a funny writer, but his attempts to channel Adams fall short.  Like Adams, Mandery uses lots of asides and digressions, Hitchhiker's Guide style, but somehow doesn't keep it all together like Adams did.  If you ever liked Douglas Adams, Monty Python, or science fiction with a rowdy sense of humor, pick up First Contact for a laugh.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Man Alive, Patrick Morley

I had not read anything by Patrick Morley before, although his book The Man in the Mirror has sold millions of copies and has served as the inspiration for men's groups and discipleship ministries around the world.  Morley has a great reputation in men's ministry, and certainly knows what he's talking about.

Knowing Morley's reputation, his newest book, Man Alive: Transforming Your 7 Primal Needs into a Powerful Spiritual Life, was a bit of a let-down to me.  Based on his decades of discipling men, he pinpoints some of men's greatest needs: to feel God's personal care, to get out of destructive behaviors, to make a difference, etc.  But his answers fell short.  The only chapter that really made me think and apply to where I am was a chapter where he gave some practical things to do to show your wife and kids you love them.  He has some good ideas there.

The value of Man Alive lies in its potential as a discussion starter, which is the explicit design of the book.  Each chapter has some real-life examples and some talking points centered on one of the 7 primal needs from the subtitle.  He includes some questions for discussion at the end of each chapter.  So don't pick up Man Alive if you're looking for some theological substance; place this one is the "small group materials" section with the discussion-starters books.

But don't take my word for it.  Read the first chapter here or buy it here.

I received this book for free from WaterBrook Multnomah Publishing Group for this review. Thanks, WaterBrook!
Rate my review of Man Alive here: