Monday, December 30, 2013

A Man Disrupted, by Steve Rzasa and Vox Day

Fresh off the presses from the Hinterlands division at Marcher Lord Press is A Man Disrupted, the first offering from the team of Steve Rzasa and Vox Day.  Besides both having cool names, they are both accomplished sci-fi writers.  Rzasa's pair of novels The Word Reclaimed and The Word Unleashed are favorites, definitely on my "I'll read this again" list.  Day has written some strong fantasy works, including the epic A Throne of Bones.  In A Man Disrupted, I am not sure where one voice ended and the other began.  They make a great team.

Set several hundred years in the future, on the planet Rhysalan, A Man Disrupted starts off with a murder.  A prince has been disrupted (disintegrated) in a part of town princes typically avoid.  As an investigator for the military police, Graven Tower wouldn't normally respond on the scene, but when he catches wind that Detector Hildreth, the pretty blond policewoman whom he has a crush on, is on her way, he decides he might offer his assistance.  So begins a tale of court intrigue, big explosions, fast (and destructive) chase scenes, and an investigative team that won't be let themselves be stopped.

 The blurb on the back cover describes this as "action-packed Mil-SF mystery," which covers the book very well.  The action: non-stop.  Military: you learn every thing about Tower's arsenal short of the weapons manual.  SF: Rzasa and Day have created a complex future history, giving the astro-political and scientific background without overwhelming the reader with history or technology.  Mystery: all of the above is the backdrop against which they tell a compelling mystery story, a political assassination with implications for the stability of the planet (Rhysalan as well as others).

As I mentioned, A Man Disrupted is on the MLP's Hinterland books.  Readers of other Marcher Lord Press books will be aware the the Hinterlands division was created for their books that are a bit, shall we say, rougher around the edges than their main MLP works.  As they say on the web site,
 Hinterlands books may contain vulgarity, profanity, nudity, and/or sexual content, but never for gratuitous purposes. Hinterlands . . . allows us to examine mature themes in a realistic manner that some Christians will appreciate. We know that not everyone will want to read these books, so we have set them apart into the Hinterlands imprint. 
Readers of mainstream sci-fi, or really any secular fiction, or viewers of PG-13 or even PG movies will not be shocked by what they read here.  The few profanities that are used are used sparingly, in a way that makes them much more effective than the constant streams of expletives we might hear or read in modern literature or movies.

Finally, the spiritual theme of A Man Disrupted is thin but interesting nonetheless.  Tower has an augment named Baby, sort of like Apple's Siri, only it's in his head and always on.  She has a high level of self-awareness, and contemplates her own mortality (as well as Tower's).  Rzasa and Day don't develop this side of Baby much, but I have a feeling that in future books, Baby and Tower will delve into some deeper theological waters.

Friday, December 27, 2013

Unstoppable, by Nick Vujicic

Last year, in exchange for a copy of Nick Vujicic's book Unstoppable: The Incredible Power of Faith in Action, I posted an advance notice of the book, with some links to a video and an excerpt.  So I got the book, and it took me a while to get around to reading it.  No particular reason, I just didn't.  Now I have, and am once again insired and amazed by this young man.

Nick was born with no arms or legs, and ever since his teenage years has committed his life to inspiring others to live life fully and to follow Jesus.  For a decade he has travelled the globe as an evangelist and inspirational speaker.  In Unstoppable, we learn more about Nick and his story.  More than that, though, we get to meet many of the inspiring people he has met.

Given his unique body and his magnetic personality, Nick has drawn many people to him who have disabilities or who simply seek him out for inspiration.  In his travels and correspondence, he has collected many stories which are as inspiring as his.  I was as encouraged by some of the second-hand accounts he tells as by his own stories.

Nick's message would be powerful and important even if Nick had arms and legs.  But when he says he doesn't need limbs, because what he really needs is Jesus, there's some power there.  What a great message of dependence on God and of letting God use what we have.  Nick says there's no medical explanation for his lack of limbs.  But I believe with him that God created him as he is for a purpose, and Nick has lived his life as an example of someone who is fulfilling God's purposes for him.

(One note on the audiobook version: I am so glad to hear the book in Nick's voice, but given his extensive public speaking experience, I was surprised the audio book wasn't better.  Granted, reading on a recording is vastly different than speaking before a live audience, but much of the reading was rather uninspired.  The big exception was the section on his courtship of his wife!  There was a marked difference in the passion with which he read that part!)

Here's his nonprofit link:

Thanks to Waterbrook/Multnomah for the complimentary review copy!

Monday, December 23, 2013

Life Beyond Earth, by Dr Athena Coustenis and Dr Thérèse Encrenaz

So, is there life beyond Earth?  Not that we know of--yet.  Astrohysicists Dr. Athena Coustenis and Dr. Thérèse Encrenaz exlore the question in our solar system and beyond.  Avoiding stereotypical science-fiction precedent altogether, they begin with a thoroughly rational, systematic approach.  What are the necessary elements for the beginning of life?  What conditions are required to foster and sustain life?  What are the future prospects for human and alien life beyond Earth?

I grew up loving science, reading Discover and Omni magazines, but the highest level science courses I took were the required courses for college liberal arts majors.  The content of Life Beyond Earth is certainly accessible to the non-scientist, but it is very technical and dense.  Nevertheless, the ideas are fascinating and interesting.

If you were not already convinced that Earth is remarkable to the extent that so many factors came together to foster life, you will be.  Its "stability. . ., bulk composition, the existence of an atmosphere and a surface, as well as the proper chemical ingredients," or, put another way, "water, elements, energy and time," create an environment in which biological organisms can develop and live, which, so far, is unique in the known universe.  But the search will continue, and there are planets where some or all of these conditions may be met.

My favorite section was the discussion of human habitation of other planets or moons, and in space.  It always looks so easy on Star Trek.  But think about the rigors and hardships faced by Earth-bound pioneers as they settled on a new continent.  The difficulties of establishing a colony on another planet or on a space station would be exponentially higher.  As the authors gloomily note, "humankind still lacks the long-term viable environment where it can have a chance to survive the sad fate of our overpopulated planet in any foreseeable future."

If you can wade through the technical and complex scientific writing, you will be rewarded with a sobering but truly insightful counterpoint to your favorite science fiction stories.  I hold out hope that we will explore other solar systems, but it will take some enormous breakthroughs to make it possible.  And I would be very surprised if, in our infinite universe, there is not some form of life on another planet.  It's just a matter of time before we find it--or it finds us!

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

Thursday, December 19, 2013

Childless, by James Dobson and Kurt Bruner

On the heels of his near-future novel Fatherless, James Dobson and co-author Kurt Bruner continue the story in Childless.  Set just a few months after the events of Fatherless, Childless continues with the same themes as the first book, and follows some of its characters as they face the ethical challenges of this brave new world.

The "transition" industry (voluntary assisted suicide) continues to play a large role in the story.  A conscientious congressman is trying to take strides toward promoting his "bright spots"agenda, which has demonstrated that regions in the US where fertility is highest and the transition rates are lowest enjoy the strongest economies.  Yet many insist that transitions are necessary for the country's economic health.  Worse than that, a couple looking into fertility treatment discovers that unimplanted embryos are sold and used as ingredients in cosmetics, dietary supplements, and skin treatments.

The bioethical issues raised in Childless are real enough that they could be in tomorrow's headlines.  The suspense element, in which a lonely college student writes threatening letters to the judge who is deliberating on a case involving transition centers, develops nicely, with some unexpected turns.  And the theological and philosohical treatment of Manicheanism and Christian anthropology add a nice touch.

Childless is a novel with a clear message and a distinct point of view, but it does not come across as propogandistic or preachy.  It's an enjoyable read, first of all, but which leaves the reader with plenty to think about.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Happily Married, by Susan Page

Just when you think your marriage is humming along nicely, you hit a rough patch, for obvious or sometimes less obvious reasons.  Or, you feel pretty good about your marriage and you get to know another couple who really has it together.  Wherever you are on your marital journey, Susan Page has some words of wisdom.  Hopefully you have a few older couples or peers who have marriages to which you can look for examples.  If you don't, or even if you do, you will find some helpful models and ideas in Page's Happily Married: The 8 Essential Traits of Couples Who Thrive.

As an experienced marriage counselor, Page has interviewed, counseled, and been in group sessions with hundreds of couples.  She has distilled 8 traits which she repeatedly sees in happy couples.  The reader without a lot of time can glean some ideas from simply reading the table of contents.  But Page fleshes out the traits with plenty of explanation and examples from actual couples.  The couples' narratives get a little long-winded, but they do provide illustration of the concepts.

I like her stated goal: she doesn't want to tell couples what to do, but how to be to have a happier marriage.  "In order to have a joyful marriage you have to change not your marriage but your mindset." Page's recommendations won't be surprising to most readers, but there may be some "aha!" moments, when she shines the light on simple changes you can make in your mindset to take steps toward a happier marriage.

More traditional readers will discern in Page a clear openness to same-sex relationships, unmarried live-in relationships, and extra-marital sex.  Given that Page's credentials include being the one-time "Director of Women's Programs at the University of California, Berkeley, where she helped found the nation's first university-based human sexuality program," it's no surprise that her views on many issues would not appeal to conservative Christian readers.  Happily Married can certainly be helpful and relevant to all couples, even if they don't share her ideological or theological framework, but some Christians will be offended by her perspective at times.

A word on the editions: As best I can tell, Happily Married is the same content as Now That I'm Married, Why Isn't Everything Perfect? (1994), and The 8 Essential Traits of Couples Who Thrive (1997).  Not that there's anything wrong with publishing the same content again; it happens all the time.  It's just something to be aware of.  Page has also published a book called How to Get Published and Make a Lot of Money.  I haven't read that one, but maybe one of her time-saving tips is to publish the same book again as many times as possible!  Oh, and appearances on Oprah apparently don't hurt book sales!

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

Friday, December 13, 2013

Mars, Inc., by Ben Bova

Reading Mars, Inc., I got the feeling that Ben Bova is a writer with a bold vision of the future, but whose boldest writing days are behind him.

First the good.  I love the idea of the book.  Art Thrasher, a tech entrepreneur who believes we should be sending crewed missions to Mars, determines that private efforts can accomplish what the "g-d government" (this particular noun is distasteful to Thrasher, and is always accompanied by the profane adjective) has neither the will, the funding, or the drive to accomplish.  I agree with him on that point.  SpaceX, Virgin Galactic, and other private, profit-driven companies will drive future space development as much as, if not more than, government has or will.

Bova creates a convincing argument that the biggest obstacle to taking strides in the space program is money.  Thrasher gathers a couple dozen billionaires who are willing to sink a portion of their billions into a project for which the promise of return on their investment is rather slim.  Further, Bova presents the science of Mars, Inc. in such a way that nothing in it seems to be a great leap beyond present technology.  (I am speaking as a non-scientist, of course.)

Now the criticism.  Mars, Inc. struck me as a very amateurish effort.  I've read self-published novels, and novels by first-time writers that were better written.  If I didn't know this was written by an award-winning, legendary sci-fi writer, I would have thought it was a no-name writer, published by a no-name press.  The financial, political, scientific, and personal hurdles Thrasher faces are poorly developed, superficially described, and simplistically resolved.  The characters are cardboard cutouts, and their relationships and interactions lack spark or depth.

So take the good with the bad.  Mars, Inc. is a quick, fun read, that left me wishing I had a few billion laying around that I could use to put together a Mars mission of my own.  But it's really not a very good book.

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

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Gloryland, by Shelton Johnson

Normally one standard to which I hold a novel is the question, Does this book tell a story?  If there's not a narrative thread, I'm turned off.  I know, that exposes me as a literary simpleton, but, hey, that's me. In this case, I will make an exception.  In Gloryland, Shelton Johnson follows the life of Elijah, a young man from South Carolina, who sets off on his own to make his way in the world.  Crossing the country on foot, he ends up in Nebraska, where he's recruited to the Army.  (By the way, I learned something: according to Johnson, black soldiers were called "buffalo soldiers" because the Indians said their hair was like the hair between a buffalos horns.)  He gets to see the world, fighting in the Philippines, and ends up back in the Presidio, from where he is sent to patrol Yosemite National Park.

Gloryland is perhaps best viewed as a series of sequential short stories, rather than as a proper novel.  The stories Johnson tells are wonderful and beautifully written.  Elijah's early experiences of racism in the South paint an ugly picture of life in the South.  He tells of his father's risking his life to attempt to vote, of his witnessing a horrific lynching in the woods, and of his moment of rebellion when he took a stroll on the whites-only sidewalk in town.  He wrestles with the dilemma of his putting on the uniform of the U.S. army to fight other dark-skinned people in the Philippines and in the Indian wars.

As he comes to take pride in himself and his heritage, Elijah reminds himself and others that while he is black, he is not a "nigger" and that he has never known a nigger.  It's a good reminder to blacks who use that term self-referentially today of the demeaning use of the word.

The best passages are those in which Elijah discovers himself while exploring and discovering Yosemite.  Johnson, who is a veteran Park Ranger at Yosemite National Park, shows his passionate love for this park.  There is no question that when Elijah says the park is close to heaven, Johnson is expressing his true feelings.

Gloryland is so full of beautiful, poetic writing that demands to be read again, deeply personal glimpses into the soul of a young black man coming of age in the late 19th century, and awesome descriptions of one of America's most beautiful places, that I can forgive Johnson for not having a clear plot with a decisive conclusion.  This is a wonderful book.  I recommend it whole-heartedly!

Monday, December 9, 2013

The Hanging Judge, by Michael Ponsor

It may be possible for a non-lawyer to write good legal fiction, but the great writers of legal fiction do all seem to be lawyers: Mark Gimenez, John Grisham, Scott Turow, et al.  Now Michael Ponsor joins the list, with a twist: the best fiction about judges is written by judges, of course!

Ponsor, who has served in the U.S. District Court in Massachusetts for nearly twenty years, presided over the first capital case in Massachusetts in half a century.  Out of that experience, he has written The Hanging Judge, a novel about a capital trial.  While many legal writers focus more on the crime or on suspense outside the courtroom, Ponsor's focus tends more toward procedure and argumentation leading up to the trial and in the courtroom itself.  He may be a first-time novelist, but he skillfully translates the plodding of the justice system into unfolding drama.

When a drive-by shooting takes the life not only of a reputed gang member, but also of a respected member of the community, prosecutors see a chance to finally get a death penalty case in Massachusetts.  With Judge David Norcross at the helm, the case unfolds with questions coming about the innocence of the accused, the veracity of the accusers, and the efficacy of the justice system.

Ponsor disclaims any agenda or identity with views of the death penalty in The Hanging Judge, but if he wanted to write a story demonstrating how easily someone might be convicted to death, based on circumstantial evidence or questionable witnesses, he has done it.  Is the death penalty ever warranted?  There are certainly crimes for which death is the only reasonable punishment.  But can we ever have a system in which innocent people are never put to death?  Is there ever a clear-cut case?  Does the state ever have the authority to take a life?

Besides telling a good story, Ponsor gives plenty of fodder of thinking about these questions.  I enjoyed The Hanging Judge and would welcome another novel from Judge Ponsor.

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

Friday, December 6, 2013

Prototype, by Jonathan Martin

Jonathan Martin has built a ministry around helping people know who they are in God.  As founding pastor of Renovatus, "a church for people under renovation," he tells great stories about lives changed through life in their community and in their growing knowledge of "what it means to be a beloved child of God."  His new book Prototype: What Happens When You Discover You're More Like Jesus Than You Think? tells the stories of Martin and the other "liars, dreamers, and misfits" at Renovatus.

Martin is a gifted, thoughtful writer, who clearly embraces the power of the carefully written word.  He grew up in a Pentecostal preacher's home, and certainly reflects a respect for the Pentecostal tradition, but his writing does not recall the extemporaneous, emotion-laden sermons of a stereo-typical camp meeting. Rather, it reflects a commitment to careful exposition and well-crafted passages.

The book's "hook," that Jesus is the prototype for us as we "become awake to God," doesn't grow into much of a theme, serving more as a background idea.  Even after reading the book, the subtitle strikes me as kind of odd.  Am I more like Jesus than I thought before?  I hate to quibble over a title, but it didn't seem to completely fit.  Nevertheless, I have little if any quibble with the content of Prototype.  Martin hits on key themes of following Jesus and living together in community.

The accompanying DVD has 6 sessions, each with a 10-12 minute video segment and discussion guide.  The artfully produced videos essentially provide an abridgment of a portion of the book, narrated by Martin, along with visuals to illustrate or demonstrate the topic.  Prototype is a decent read, with many thought-provoking and challenging passages, but a small-group discussion guided by the videos would be much more enriching than simply reading the book.

Check out Martin's church and personal web sites, and the book web site for sample chapters and videos:

Thanks to the Tyndale Blog Network for the complimentary review copy of the book and DVD!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

The Happy Couple, by Barton Goldsmith

Just about everyone can use a refresher course from time to time. Professionals have their continuing education courses, or attend conferences where they hear about trends and developments in their field. This is no different in marriage. A few lucky ones have perfect spouses. Some of us might be perfect spouses. For the rest of us, the ocassional reminder is a big help. 

In his new book, The Happy Couple: How to Make Happiness a Habit One Little Thing at a Time, popular psychologist and counselor Barton Goldsmith gives married couples plenty of reminders. Most of what Dr. Goldsmith discusses and recommends won't be very surprising to readers. In fact, my feeling was that the things he discussed are what most married people do naturally when they are first falling in love or are newly married. Now, I have known couples (like my parents) for whom these reminders are not necessary. But for me, they were good to hear.  

One key for Goldsmith is connectedness. The more connected you are to your spouse, the more secure you feel, and less likely to feel defensive when a conflict may arrive. Similarly, honesty should be a "way of life."  Goldsmith writes, "Knowing you can totally trust one another offers a type of freedom and comfort that really helps your relationship work in the best way possible."  

Another key is showing affection, which can "turn bad days into good ones and make your troubles seem much smaller."  Goldsmith says "we should all do our best to find, act upon, and treasure the moments when we can exchange affection with the person we love." Amen to that!

One nice thing about The Happy Couple is the arrangement in 25 short chapters. As he states in the introduction, Goldsmith intends the book to be a useful reference to which couples can refer for tips on specific areas.  Besides chapters on affection, honesty, and connection to which I refer above, he reminds us of the importance of gratitude, playfulness, nurturing, thoughtfulness, and other practices and attitudes, each of which merits its own chapter. 

While not groundbreaking or controversial. I found The Happy Couple to be a useful, challenging reminder to make my marriage and the happiness of my wife a higher priority, and to be more deliberate and intentional in our relationship.  I'm pretty sure I'm not alone in needing these reminders from time to time.

(By the way, lest you be misled by the naked legs on the cover, Goldsmith spends almost no time talking about sex in this book. His main points about sex are to remind us that connection, affection, communication, etc. are not and should not be primarily about sex.) 

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

Monday, December 2, 2013

Ender's Game, by Orson Scott Card

With the new movie coming out, and with my HS freshman reading Ender's Game for class, I decided to revisit Orson Scott Card's classic story.  I read the novel years ago, and more recently read the original short story in Future Games.  I was delighted to find this audio edition at the local library.

This is an unabridged recording of the novel, not a dramatization, but it's read in several different voices.  The use of assorted actors is very effective in capturing the different perspectives of the story.  It also includes an extended commentary by Card, which alone is worth checking out the CD for.  He makes the comment, apropos of the recording, that he believes his writing is best enjoyed when read aloud, whether on a CD like this, or one reader reading aloud to another.

I have not seen the movie yet, but am disappointed that it hasn't done better.  As Card mentions on this recording, a strong box office showing would give him freedom to get more of his books to the big screen.  Alas, I'm not sure it's been strong enough even to get a second Ender movie made.

If you've never read Ender's Game, start with this audiobook.  As Card himself says, this is the best way to experience his books.  If you have read it, you will especially enjoy the audiobook.  The actors bring the story to life.

Friday, November 29, 2013

The Ship of Death, by Billy G. Smith

Montana State University professor Billy G. Smith travelled the world and dug into far-flung archives chasing down the forgotten story of a failed colony on the western coast of Africa, a ship called Hankey, and the viral outbreak the Hankey carried from Africa to ports of call around the Atlantic.  The story of Hankey's yellow fever outbreak had been forgotten, but at the time, at the end of the 18th century, Hankey's reputation struck fear into sailors and residents of port communities on both sides of the Atlantic.  In Ship of Death: A Voyage That Changed the Atlantic World, Smith tells the story of the colony, the Hankey, and their time.

The British colonists who set out to establish a settlement on the island of Bolama had high ideals.  They wanted to demonstrate that they could thrive in Africa by hiring and cooperating with the native people of Africa rather than enslave them.  The problem is that they were ill-informed and ill-prepared.  Early on, while en route, problems arose with "the expedition leaders' belated realization that they knew neither the exact location of Bolama nor how to get there."

When they finally found Bolama, cultural misunderstandings, weather, predators (of the four-legged and two-legged variety), lack of materials and skills requisite for starting a new colony, and lots of bad luck combined to make life difficult, to say the least.  But more than all of that was the prevalence of yellow fever, which killed off colonists indiscriminately.

The colony finally folded, having been reduced from 275 people to a small handful, due to desertion and death.  The Hankey left Bolama with some of the survivors and some unexpected passengers: mosquitoes, living and laying eggs in the water kegs and animal troughs aboard ship.  As they stopped in ports on the west side of the Atlantic, "through terrible timing coupled with the worst of toxic luck, the Hankey created the first major pandemic of yellow fever in the Western Hemisphere."

In the West Indies, "fully one-half of the white population of Grenada died within six months of the arrival of the Hankey. . . . The onslaught of disease would not halt for the next dozen years." The disease killed off thousands of British troops in the West Indies, and aided the Haitian slave rebellion by killing off European troops.  As the Hankey fled to Philadelphia, starting an infection that would claim thousands, the epidemic there helped to "finalize the decision that made Washington rather than Philadelphia the political center of the country."  And in France, Napoleon decided that, due to his disease-weakened troop presence in the Caribbean, he would sell off the Louisiana Territory at a bargain-basement price to the United States.

Smith writes as an academic historian, yet he writes Ship of Death in a readable, engaging style.  As the narrative unfolds, Smith sheds light on the harsh realities of colonial life and life at sea, and deftly places the trials and tribulations of the Hankey and the Bolama colonists into the context of their time.  In the latter chapters, the tight strand of the story that he had been spinning for the first portion of the book begins to unwind, but I think that may be most reflective of the widening spread of the yellow fever, brought over from Africa by the Hankey and liberally spread through the new world in ever-expanding networks.

Ship of Death is interesting and readable, and highly relevant.  The challenges and dangers of globalization are even more of a reality today, in our time of constant international travel, than in the days of weeks-long crossings of the Atlantic.  The experiences of the Hankey and the destruction it left in its path serve as a reminder of the difference one small event, oversight, or action can make in changing the course of history.

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

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Fatherless, by James Dobson and Kurt Bruner

Since James Dobson retired as president of of Focus on the Family, he has taken on a new role: novelist.  With some help from coauthor Kurt Bruner, he tells a pretty good story in his new novel, Fatherless.  Set a generation in the future, Dobson envisions a society in which marriage is rare, children are genetically screened and selected, and the elderly and disabled are "transitioned" (killed by assisted suicide).

These are the demographic changes and challenges that I rarely see addressed in fiction or science fiction.  The strongest and most important social and political point Dobson makes in the story is simple: a nation's greatest resource is its people.  Thus, children are an investment not only in the future of a family, but in the future of a nation.  Only a few conservatives in Fatherless realize and appreciate this fact, but the point is, of course, to draw attention to people today who don't acknowledge it.  American liberals, environmentalists, and Chinese bureaucrats believe that limiting the number of children will have social and economic benefits, yet the opposite turns out to be true.

As you might expect, Dobson shows a great deal of insider's perspective as he talks about political life, church life, and family life.  He puts it together into a readable, compelling story.  The end petered out a little bit, almost as if Dobson didn't know how quite to wind it up.  But I enjoyed it enough to look forward to reading the sequel, Childless.

Monday, November 25, 2013

Art Briles: Looking Up: My Journey from Tragedy to Triumph, by Nick Eatman

I have never met Art Briles, but I can't help but love the guy.  As any Baylor fan will tell you, Briles has returned Baylor to a place of respectability in college football, even beyond where the great Grant Teaff had taken Baylor in the 70s and 80s.  And Briles isn't finished yet; he just signed a 10 year contract extension that will keep him around for a few more seasons.

In Art Briles: Looking Up: My Journey from Tragedy to Triumph, Briles tells his story through sports writer Nick Eatman.  (I'm not comfortable with the double subtitle.  Too man colons.)  This is not a book by Art Briles with Nick Eatman; Eatman wrote it based on interviews with Briles and others, as well as Briles's narratives, dictated on tape.  Eatman does a great job of capturing Briles's voice while staying in the third person.

If you don't know Briles's story, or if you only know him as RG3's coach, take some time to learn about Briles.  Even if you're not a Baylor fan, you will be inspired and encouraged by his story.  The tragedy referred to in the (sub-)subtitle was during his college days.  Briles played football for the University of Houston.  When Houston had an away game in Dallas, his parents and aunt drove from their west Texas home in Rule to see him play.  Unfortunately, they never made it.  As Briles was coming off the field at the end of the game, his coach pulled him aside and gave him the bad news.

Briles's dad was also his football coach.  His parents' example as coach, educator, Christians, and loving parents provided a guiding light for him, and continues to do so.  He says a day doesn't go by in which he doesn't think about them, their legacy, and his desire to honor them in all aspects of his life.  He took that tragedy and made it into triumph.

Knowing that he's seen life at its worst, going through that suffering, he has taken on challenges that others might shy away from.  He went to Stephenville, a high school football program that hadn't been to the playoffs in years, and was constantly beaten down by the rivals in a nearby town.  Not only did he beat the rivals and make the playoffs, he led them to 4 state championships.  He went back to Houston as head coach, taking over a football program that was about to be eliminated from the school. There he took them to bowl games and coached future NFL players.  When he came to Baylor, the Bears had been cellar dwellers in the Big 12.  He took them to their first bowl game in ages, now 4 bowl games in a row, coached a Heisman trophy winner, has the Bears in the top ten in the country, and, until last weekend, in the conversation for the national championship game.

Anyone can appreciate the greatness of Briles's story.  Coaches especially should pick up Looking Up.  I enjoyed hearing about how Briles connects with and develops players.  He's not an in-your-face screaming coach, he's a positive, encouraging coach, dedicated to helping his players be the best they can be.  The connection with his family is impressive, as well.  His son and son-in-law are coaches on his staff, and his daughter works for the Dallas Cowboys.  By his accounting, they are very tight-knit.  Fathers could probably learn much from his example, which is truly impressive if you realize how many time demands are put on coaches, even at the high school level.

Unless you're a real football fan, or at least a fan of Texas high school football, you might get a little bogged down in the game-by-game, play-by-play descriptions of his time coaching high school.  There's plenty to like for the non-football fan and the non-Baylor fan, but those readers will enjoy Looking Up much more that other readers.  For Baylor fans, because of Briles, we can keep on looking up.  I have a feeling, as great as this season has been, the best is yet to come.

Friday, November 22, 2013

The Black List, by Brad Thor

Brad Thor opens his recent novel Black List with a rather prophetic quote from Senator Frank Church, D-Idaho, from an interview on Meet the Press in August of 1975:
[America's intelligence gathering] capability at any time could be turned around on the American people and no American would have any privacy left.  Such is the capability to monitor everything: telephone conversations, telegrams, it doesn't matter.  There would be no place to hide. 
If this government ever became a tyrant, if a dictator ever took charge of this country, the technological capacity that the intelligence community has given the government could enable it to impose total tyranny, and there would be no way to fight back. . . . I know the capacity is there to make tyranny total in America, and we must see to it that [the NSA] and all agencies that possess this technology operate with in the law and under proper supervision so that we never cross over that abyss.  That is the abyss from which there is no return."
Speaking of prophetic, not only was Church decades ahead of his time in predicting the expanse of the NSA's monitoring powers, Thor published The Black List well before the NSA worked its way into the headlines, drawing criticism for their over-zealous monitoring of American's lives.

In Black List, Thor's ex-government agent and all-around tough guy, Scot Harvath, and all of his compatriots at the Carlton group get placed on the Black List, a secret government hit list reserved for those who pose a danger to the US but who the US deals with outside the justice system.  Harvath manages to elude repeated attempts on his life, and is determined to figure out who wants to kill him and why.

As it turns out, a shadowy government contractor who handles surveillance for a wide range of government agencies is manipulating the list to their own ends.  They see the Carlton Group as the only realistic barrier to stop their onerous plans for taking over the Tri-State Area--er, I mean, the U.S.  Of course, Harvath is too sharp for even their best sharpshooters, and he and his pals quickly get to the people behind the people behind the hit teams.

Thor fans get what they love and look for in a Harvath book.  Lots of action, a driving plot, impossible odds and dead bad guys.  I've read a few other Harvath books, and Black List ranks as a good one.  But as fun as they are to read, and as much as you want to cheer for Harvath, there is a still a point at which you realize that things are maybe a little too easy for him.  But the story is so enjoyable, it's better just to shrug off the implausibility and enjoy the ride.

Thor does a nice job of presenting the dangers of the surveillance state and the consequences of its abuses.  However, I think he too easily dismisses the role of government officials versus private contractors.  He seems to put lay the abuses at the feet of private contractors gone out of control and a few bad actors in the government.  Maybe I'm too cynical, but I think the abuses we've seen revealed by Snowden show that the government itself is by its very nature a glutton for information about citizens and the power they can derive from that information.  As it becomes cheaper and cheaper to monitor and analyze every e-mail, text message, and phone call, government will continue to expand its power over our lives.  As Church warned, we may be approaching an abyss from which we cannot return.  Just try to stay off the Black List.

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

We Will Destroy Your Planet: An Alien's Guide to Conquering the Earth, by David McIntee and Miguel Coimbra

No one ever said that conquering or destroying another planet was easy, but it seems it's much harder than I thought.  Before any aliens jump into trying to take over the Earth, they would be wise to pick up a copy of David McIntee and Miguel Coimbra's handy book, We Will Destroy Your Planet: An Alien's Guide to Conquering the Earth.  I admit, I haven't given a lot of thought to what it would take to conquer Earth, but these guys bring up a ton of useful tips that I would never have considered.

Covering such topics as the initial invasion, combat on the planet itself, and controlling the population of humans (that is, if you choose not to annihilate them right away), the authors bring up helpful information for alien invaders to think about.  For instance, and you might have thought of this yourself, "the concealed position and potential availability of water on the far side of the Moon make it a sensible choice for a staging area or observation base, which can remain hidden from the Earth."  From that place of hiding you can plan your spaceborne assault, against which the Earth has no defense, lucky for you.  "The planet has no energy shielding, no starships, no minefield, and no detection or early warning grid for vessels entering the system," not to mention defense against "incursion from other spatial locations, alternative dimensions, or different eras."

But the initial invasion is only the beginning.  Humans are "aggressive and stubborn," and many will not tolerate the aliens.  They will attempt to "capture and reverse engineer your vehicles," which cannot be permitted.  On the other hand, aliens will need to adapt human vehicles for their own use, as alien vehicles will not naturally be ideal for Earth's varied terrain and atmosphere.  The aliens must consider fuel and materials needed, using what is available on Earth rather than bear the expense of transporting it across space.

McIntee and Coimbra have clearly read and watched a wide range of science fiction, some of which is explicitly referred to in the text.  Others are cleverly alluded to, allusions of which I am sure I missed many.  While I don't realistically see this guide falling into alien hands, as useful as it would be to them, I think it would be even more useful to writers of sci-fi.  They cover so many scenarios, in a matter-of-fact, factually based way, that a sci-fi writer would be well-advised to think through the scenarios and case studies laid out here.

There was a sense in which We Will Destroy Your Planet became too much of a good thing, a drawn out joke that took a terrifically clever idea and tried to keep it going for too long.  But more than that, I have a lot of respect for the depth to which these guys took the book.  It seriously can be a reference book for writers and fans of sci-fi, forcing us to think a little bit more deeply about what we read and see on the screen.  Of course, when we start telling our wives and girlfriends, "Now, see, that's not how it would really happen.  Didn't they think about this . . . .," they will look at us and say, "It's sci-fi, stupid.  This isn't real."  And we will nod, confident in the knowledge we have filed away.

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

Monday, November 18, 2013

Ack Ack Macaque, by Gareth Powell

Do you like an alternative future with giant dirigibles, a cigar-chomping monkey, and lots of shoot-em-up action?  Then Ack-Ack Macaque is right up your alley!  Gareth Powell introduces a United Kingdom that is slightly larger than the one we know.  Shortly after WW2, England and France decided they were better together and created an expanded kingdom.

Much of this history parallels ours, but several technological differences are evident.  Giant dirigibles travel the world, serving as a primary means of shipping, and existing as sovereign states.  Most significantly, the process of augmenting brain power is expanding, leading to the ability to give a monkey human-like intelligence, and to load a complete human personality into "gelware."

When the monkey, the crown prince, a dirigible captain, a journalist, and others team up to uncover and thwart a plot to usurp the throne (in a way), start a major world war, and reshape the human race, there is no shortage of adventure and action.  Powell writes with wit, an ear for action, and a snarky attitude.  The result is a thoroughly enjoyable adventure.

Friday, November 15, 2013

It's Never Too Late, by Dallas Clayton

"If today was the day that it all came crashing. . . ." what would you do?  That's what Dallas Clayton asks in his new picture book for grown-ups, It's Never Too Late.  Of course if the world were ending tomorrow, we wouldn't worry about the laundry and bills!  We would want to lie in the grass and hug the cat and call our friends.

With colorful, simple illustrations, Clayton's message is simple: life is about making the most of every moment, and taking time to give of ourselves to others.  Part of me embraces his perspective, but another part is troubled by this sort of message.  It too easily can morph into "The world might end tomorrow, so I don't have to take care of my responsibilities.  I don't have to do the laundry or pay the bills."

There is a balance to be struck here, but Clayton reminds us that "it's never too late, too late to begin, and today is the day the world might end."

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

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

The First Phone Call from Heaven, by Mitch Albom

What if you picked up the phone and you heard the voice of a loved one who had passed away?  When a few people in Coldwater, Michigan started getting phone calls from their dead family members, there were plenty of skeptics, but the ones who got the calls had no doubt that they were hearing their loved ones' voices, and when word got out, the whole world wanted to hear more.

Mitch Albom is best know for his powerful non-fiction, especially Tuesdays with Morrie.  In The First Phone Call from Heaven, he has some fun imagining the impact a phone call from heaven might have. As word spread, pilgrims overran Coldwater, hoping for their own line to heaven.  While few got their call, and some complained about the traffic and inconvenience, "there was also talk about heaven.  And faith.  And God.  There were more prayers said than in years past.  More requests for forgiveness.  The volunteers for soup kitchens far exceeded the need."

Albom plays the calls along, hinting through the doubts of the main character that they may not be genuine, but leaving the reader little reason to think that they aren't for real.  He balances the mystery with the reality of lives changed.  The hardened reporter for the local paper reflects on whether the calls are good for Coldwater: "Let's see.  People are behaving better, eh?  We haven't even had a shoplifting incident since all this started. . . . [E]very seat in church is full.  People praying like never before.  So what do you think. . . ? Is it good?" Yet his cynicism causes him to doubt.

With his rich characterizations of both the individual players and of small-town life, Albom tells the kind of story he's known for, full of wisdom, a strong dose of sentimentality, and a warm feeling of satisfaction with the end.  The theology of the book leans a bit toward universalism, although he's not explicit about that.  Ironically, theology isn't really the point of the book.  It's more like how our lives and choices affect others, what we hope for, and how faith can inform the choices we make.

The message isn't particularly powerful, the lessons aren't particularly deep, and the writing isn't particularly compelling or artful.  But Albom tells a nice story, sure to be enjoyed by many.

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

Monday, November 11, 2013

Lego Space, by Peter Reid and Tim Goddard

Fans of Legos will love this book, especially those who like to break away from the pre-packaged Lego selections.  Peter Reid and Tim Goddard have put together a sort of future history, chronicling man's forays into space exploration and colonization, starting from Sputnik ranging centuries into the future.  The future history lesson is illustrated with scenes built from Legos, and accompanied by instructions on how to build many (though certainly not all) of the ships and robots featured in the story.

The story isn't ground-breaking sci-fi, but it's fun to have a story to go along with the fabulous Lego creations.  Your Lego builders will be inspired to try out some of the projects in the book, and maybe add some ideas of their own.

(A word on the version viewed: On my black-and-white Kindle, I could not see the building instruction pages.  I was able to view using Adobe Digital Editions on my iMac.  I don't know how well the book could be viewed on a color Kindle or iPad.)

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

Monday, November 4, 2013

Explore Everything: Place-Hacking the City, by Bradley Garrett

Does everyone have a longing to go past those "restricted entry" signs, "authorized access only" barriers, the "no trespassing"signs?  Maybe not everyone, but it seems like there is a basic human desire to cross boundaries, to explore unknown and forbidden places, and to find untouched locations.  However, most of us, either out of respect for private property and the rule of law, or out of timidity and caution, stay safely within prescribed boundaries.

Bradley Garrett, a researcher at the Oxford University School of Geography and the Environment, spent several years hanging out with urban explorers, guys (mostly guys; there are a few female urban explorers), sneaking into closed down buildings, sewers, abandoned Tube stations, construction sites, skyscrapers, and other closed off and forbidden locations.  He tells the stories of their adventures, discoveries, and misadventures in Explore Everything: Place-Hakcing the City.

For Garrett and his UE buddies, urban exploration, or place-hacking, is not a juvenile thrill-seeking, but "taking back rights to the city from which we have been wrongfully restricted," protesting the "increased securitisation"of public places, about "going places you're not supposed to go, seeing places you're not supposed to see."  They see urban exploration as a "more tantalising option"than "the mall and the television screen," and a way to find alternatives to "state-mediated historical interpretation."

One the one hand, Garrett's tales of UE make me curious, not just about the places he visits, but about my own city as well.  What might I discover underground, or in some abandoned buildings, or in a construction site?  How difficult would it be to on top of Fort Worth's tallest buildings?  On the other hand, I believe that private property should be respected, that liability in the case of injury of death should be acknowledged, and that sometimes doors are locked and "No trespassing" signs are there for a very good reason.

Garrett does take pains to point out that urban explorers do not damage property, do not steal from or vandalize places they hack, and as a rule follow a "leave no trace" ethic similar to hikers.  The one thing they do take is a lot of pictures.  The pictures are awesome, mostly from the tops of buildings or underground.  They looked OK on my basic kindle, but I would encourage to get the physical book, view them on a color reader, or visit his web site ( where he posts pictures of his explorations.

Even with Garrett's academic, philosophical descriptions of the activities and motives of urban explorers, I still saw a bunch of thrill-seeking young guys thumbing their noses at "the man." For all of their "working to create more democratic relationships to space in the context of an often dehumanizing global capitalist system," they come across as kids getting a kick out of going where they know they're not supposed to go.  But they do take great pictures, don't damage or destroy the places the visit, and, I have to admit, tempt me to do some sneaking around myself.

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

Friday, November 1, 2013

Die Trying, by Lee Child

Talk about being in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Jack Reacher just happens to be in Chicago and runs into an FBI agent just as she is snatched off the street by some mysterious bad guys.  She's the target of the kidnapping.  Besides being an FBI agent, she also happens to be the daughter of the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff of the Armed Forces.
Talk about being in the right place at the right time.  Jack Reacher is kidnapped along with an FBI agent, and as a result, infiltrates a radical militia group and saves the day, thwarting the plans of the insane militia leader.  If you know Jack Reacher, you know that he overcomes impossible odds, outwits the cleverest foes, shoots like the best marksmen, and manages to hook up with the most beautiful women.  So it won't surprise you that he does all that in more in Die Trying.

Even after reading only two Jack Reacher books and seeing the movie Jack Reacher, I am coming to see Lee Child's formula.  But just because something is formulaic doesn't mean it doesn't work.  Child puts together a somewhat implausible plot with Reacher's quite expertise and determination to create a page-turner.  The action is well-written, with lots of technical and strategic detail.  The Montana Militia theme seems sort of dated, even though this was just published in 1998.  Are those guys still around?  And does Child unfairly depict them as sociopathic megalomaniacs?  Well, it is fiction after all.

Pick up Die Trying, or any Reacher novel for that matter, for a fun-to-read, action packed tough guy novel.  A guaranteed testosterone boost.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

Saving Casper, by Jim Henderson and Matt Casper

A few years go, former pastor Jim Henderson recruited Matt Casper, a self-described atheist, to join him in visiting and reviewing churches.  The product of those visits, 2007's Jim and Casper Go to Church, offered some insightful and amusing reflections on church and why Christians do what they do.  Since the time of those visits and the publication of the book, Jim and Casper have been traveling to churches, colleges, and other venues, taking the "Christian and atheist" in dialogue show on the road.

Saving Casper: A Christian and an Atheist Talk about Why We Need to Change the Conversion Conversation captures some of those dialogues in book form, in a light-hearted but thoroughly challenging discussion of Christian approaches to evangelism.  The strongest theme of Saving Casper is the foundation of Jim and Matt's friendship.  Jim prays that Matt will become a Christian (spoiler: as of this publication, Matt is still an atheist).  Yet they continue to work together, continue to be friends, continue to love each other.

As they point out, too many times Christians' conversations and friendships with non-Christian people end if they reject the message of the gospel, making it seem that the goal is not friendship, but making a "sale."  When we view others as an objective in our quest to convert people, we don't value them as people, but merely look at them as potential trophies.  Jim reminds us to love people as people, not as targets.

As strong as this message is, many readers will be uncomfortable with a seeming willingness of Jim to leave theological questions unresolved.  Matt refers to himself as "currently" an atheist, which is refreshing, as he contrasts his position with the "fundamentalist atheism" or "anti-theism" that we have been hearing more about in recent atheist books and public statements.  But Jim leans toward embracing the "currently" label for himself.  Although I appreciate his intellectual humility--absolute certainty is a sure path to arrogance--I wish he would be a bit more certain about what defines Christian faith.

But that is really the point of the book.  It is not Jim's desire to simply tell Matt, or any other non-Christian, "This is what you must believe."  His desire, for himself and for the reader, is to enter into dialogue with others, listen to their stories and humbly tell your own.  Jesus did a lot of listening, loving, and serving.  Jim and Casper both endorse that sort of life.

Thanks to the Tyndale Blog Network for the complimentary review copy!

Monday, October 28, 2013

To Kill a Mockingbird, by Harper Lee

I don't know that I can say much to add to any conversation about To Kill a Mockingbird, surely one of the finest novels of the 20th century.  Harper Lee's courtroom drama has been an inspiration to some of my favorite writers of legal fiction, like Mark Gimenez and John Grisham.  But the bulk of the novel is life in small town America, race relations in the South, and learning about class and wealth and poverty, all through the eyes of a little girl.

This is perhaps a story that could only be told from the perspective of a child.  As Scout and her brother Jem grow up, watching their father stand as a voice of reason and justice in a world of unreasonable injustice, we are reminded of what we lose as the innocence of youth slowly wears away.  Atticus is what we should aim to be: fair, patience, selfless, and humble.

I was delighted that Elliot will be reading this for freshman English later this year.  I have enjoyed getting to know the story again.  Even as the racist attitudes of the South in the early 20th century seem more and more dated, we don't have to read the news or even listen to our neighbors very long to realize that Harper Lee's story is as important and powerful as ever.

Friday, October 25, 2013

Forever Friday

I'm not usually one to pick up a romance novel, but Timothy Lewis's Forever Friday was offered through Waterbrook/Multnomah's Blogging for Books program, so it had the magic word "free."  Plus, the author is a Texan and the novel is set in Texas, so that's a plus.  And, heck, I've been married 21 years, so it wouldn't hurt to read about a couple who keeps their love vibrant through decades of marriage.

When an agent is going through an estate preparing for a sale, he runs across an album filled with postcards, on each of which is a short love poem.  He realizes there's a card sent each week for over half a century.  His curiosity leads him to the couple's housekeeper's daughter and the unraveling of this life-long romance.

Gabe and Pearl meet randomly, and instantly fall in love.  They build a life filled with romance together, sharing in and overcoming adversity but mostly just growing old together, deeply in love.  Early in their marriage, Gabe commits to sending Pearl a postcard every Friday, and sure enough he does.  Adam, the estate agent, tells their story, intermingled with his own romance with the housekeeper's daughter.

Of course, the story is pretty sappy.  If you're a fan of Nicholas Sparks's stories, Forever Friday will be right up your alley.  But lest you think it's far-fetched to imagine someone sending his wife a love poem on a postcard every Friday for sixty years, Lewis says the inspiration for the idea came from his great-uncle, who did send Lewis's great-aunt a poem on a post card every year for sixty years!

Finally, this novel is published by a Christian press, but the Christian content is rather thin.  Other than allusions to prayer, off-hand mentions of church attendance, and recurring appearances by a possible angel, the story makes little mention of Gabe and Pearl's faith or how it inspires their lives and romance.  I don't say that as a criticism, just an observation for readers.

I have no plans to start sending my wife a postcard every week, but reading about Gabe and Pearl's romance did inspire me to focus more on her and think about romancing her.  Forever Friday is a sweet story for the romantic in you.

Thanks to Waterbrook Multnomah for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Amish Vampires in Space, by Kerry Nietz

Winning the prize for goofiest title of the year is Kerry Nietz!  Nietz has become a favorite of mine, with his imaginative, highly original sci-fi with a Christian message.  When Marcher Lord Press editor Jeff Gerke mocked up a fake book cover with a fictional author and the silly title Amish Vampires in Space, he meant it to be a joke, mocking the proliferation of Amish fiction among Christian publishers and of vampire fiction in secular presses.  However, Kerry's imagination took over and he actually came up with a story!  No joke about it, this is a great sci-fi novel.

Here are some thoughts, one word at a time.

An Amish colony on a terraformed world gets picked up by a trading vessel, who will relocate them to another planet, since their planet's sun is about to go nova.  It seems a bit counter-intuitive, but Nietz makes a good case that the people best suited for colonizing a new world are people like the Amish: self-sufficient, able to build a community without an infrastructure in place, committed to cooperative efforts in community building.  I thought of parallels to Westward expansion in the U.S.  Those pioneers had to know how to live off the land, how to build a house from scratch, how to farm and raise livestock, how to make their own clothes and furniture.  Similarly the Amish, in Nietz's future, can relocate to a recently terraformed planet and thrive, without the support of advanced technology.

Nietz further reflects on the Amish people's resistance to technology as a matter of their faith.  They shun technology, yet advanced communication and space travel save their colony, which otherwise was doomed.  Nietz did a nice job of capturing the tension the Amish face when confronted with technology, contact with "Englishers" (non-Amish), and the use of violence.

I don't want to give away any of the story, but these are not your vampires of Bram Stoker and Bela Lugosi (or, I suspect Twilight, although I've never seen those movies or read those books).  Although Nietz's vampires may have common characteristics to other vampires of fiction and film, the origins are different, and perhaps more insidious and disturbing than other vampire stories.

In Space:
Nietz tells a good story about the vampires and the Amish people, but I particularly liked the background against which he tells it.  Other than the first scenes, based in the Amish colony, all the action of the story takes place on an interplanetary cargo ship.  Nietz doesn't dwell on the history, culture, and technology of this particular future, but he reveals enough that the reader begins to feel that this future is tangible and plausible.

The Christian message of AViS is not as explicit as in Nietz's DarkTrench saga, but the faith of the Amish, as well as some of the crew members, plays an important role in the story.  A major theme is faith and works.  The Amish in Nietz's story place their hope of salvation in their works, their adherence to the Ordnung, the rules of community.  Some of them begin to question that, risking a break with their community in hopes of a deeper truth.

Any sci-fi fan will enjoy AViS.  It has the feel of those sci-fi movies which feature a claustrophobic spaceship, lurking aliens, and a crew distant from any source of help.  Fans of vampire fiction will, I believe, feel at home with Nietz's take on vampires.  Fans of Amish fiction would probably be put off by the sci-fi/horror element, but who knows. . . .  Go ahead, laugh at the title, Kerry won't mind.  But after you judge the book by its cover, give the story a chance.  You won't be disappointed.

Monday, October 21, 2013

Maddaddam, by Margaret Atwood

In Oryx and Crake, we meet Jimmy (aka The Snowman), his friends the Crakers, and Oryx and Crake themselves.  In The Year of the Flood, we meet God's Gardeners and learn more about the waterless flood, a world-wide epidemic that wipes out nearly the entire human race.  In Maddaddam, Margaret Atwood completes her Maddaddam trilogy by bringing together the Crakers, the surviving God's Gardners, and the Maddaddamites, telling the story of their efforts to survive and preserve the human race, as radically different as it might turn out to be.

As the so-called waterless flood recedes, so to speak, these few survivors, whose lives have intersected extensively, come together to form a new community of sorts.  The humans, some of whom worked for Crake, unknowingly assisting as he planned the release of the global virus, mix and mingle with the children of Crake.  The Crakers, genetically engineered to be the next step in human evolution, and whose lives had been lived completely in an isolated biosphere, have had no contact with technology and human culture.  As they learn and adapt to human ways, the humans see that the survival of human life may depend on the thriving of the Crakers.

As with the first two books in this trilogy, the science is interesting, but frequently not very convincing, based more on fancy than science.  And the action of the story takes a back seat to the development of the characters and interactions of the groups.  The flashbacks, especially those of Zeb, whose brother Adam One founded God's Gardeners, shed more light on events before the waterless flood.

Readers of the first two books in this trilogy will likely be thrilled with Maddaddam.  I would recommend that you read Oryx and Crake and The Year of the Flood before you pick up Maddaddam.
The series as a whole is intriguing, somewhat though-provoking, and memorable.

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

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

Never Go Back, by Lee Child

I didn't know anything about Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels until I saw Jack Reacher, the recent movie starring Tom Cruise as Reacher.  The movie, based on the novel One Shot, captivated me and put me in search of Child's novels.  His latest, Never Go Back, lived up to the movie version of Reacher (although, of course, you would have to say the movie Reacher lived up the Reacher of the novels).  He's smart, aloof, marches to his own drumbeat, and has a knack for figuring out what is eluding others.

In Never Go Back, Reacher, an ex-MP who lives as an anonymous drifter, travels across the country back to the MP station where he had been commanding officer.  There he finds himself mired in a mess, having to defend himself from old, questionable charges, and helping the current CO out of her similar mess.  True to Reacher, he has to prove that everyone else is wrong, and in doing so, knocks a bunch of heads together, breaks a bunch of laws, and ticks a bunch of people off.

Never God Back is all about the chase.  Military authorities, shadowy maybe-military dudes, meth-producing hicks, and others are trying to track him down, beat him up, or put him in jail.  He, of course, outsmarts them all.  The problem is, his reason for going back to the MP post, and the reason all these people have framed him and are chasing him down, is first of all unclear and unconvincing.  In the end the revelation and resolution were yawn-inducing.  Oh, that's what they're trying to cover up; big deal, I thought.

It seems odd to say, but the telling of the story makes up for much of the start and finish.  I thoroughly enjoyed the reading experience, even though I was disappointed in some of the substance.  I will probably pick up more of Child's Reacher novels, to listen to on my commute if nothing else, and I certainly would look forward to more Reacher movies.

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

Monday, October 14, 2013

Identical, by Scott Turow

Scott Turow has carved out a niche in legal fiction.  As a practicing lawyer who has several novels that have been made into movies, he has a great feel for translating legal concepts and arguments into an interesting story.  In Identical, one brother confesses to murdering his girlfriend, while his twin brother establishes his legal and political career.  As the story begins, with the first brother's release from prison after his 25 year sentence, it becomes clear that there is more to the story.

When the lawyer brother ends up facing the murdered girl's brother in a political campaign, the old case takes center stage again, and the rest of the story slowly comes out.  Much of the development of the novel reads like an episode of CSI or some other TV crime drama.  Turow may be found guilty of abusing the readers' credulity.  A couple of allusions are made to Shakespeare's use of confusion between twins in his plays.  Those plays always frustrated me for their silliness.  There is an element of that silliness in Identical, too.

Silliness aside, Turow moves the story along nicely, with occasional flashbacks to the scene of the crime, told from different characters' perspectives.  The truth comes out, eventually, in a not terribly surprising conclusion.  Ultimately, the family drama, long-held secrets, and the twin-swapping detracted from the strength of the legal and investigational strength of the story.

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

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

The Year of the Flood, by Margaret Atwood

In The Year of the Flood, Margaret Atwood returns the world she developed in Oryx and Crake.  This isn't really a sequel, but a parallel story that dovetails with the earlier novel.  This story revolves around members of the "God's Gardeners," a religious group that blends eco-consciousness with a variation on Biblical Christianity.  (It's much more of the former; it would not be considered Christian by most Christian denominations of today.)  As they separate themselves from the world at large, God's Gardeners anticipate a "waterless flood" that will decimate the human race.  Readers of Oryx and Crake will, of course, recognize that this decimation is coming, not as a judgment from God, but as an expression of Crake's hubris.

We do get glimpses of the Snowman and the children of Crake, who played a large role in the first novel.  As Atwood develops this future history, she comments insightfully on cultural and scientific developments in our world.  Her view of the future of the human race is pretty bleak, but realistic enough to give pause.

Readers who appreciated Oryx and Crake will especially enjoy The Year of the Flood and will be eager to revisit this alternate future in her newest book, Maddaddam.  Enjoy!

(By the way, these books are currently ranked 825, 1124, and 369 at Amazon.  That's pretty impressive.)

Monday, October 7, 2013

Doomed, by Chuck Palahniuk

Last year I read Chuck Palahniuk's Damned, didn't enjoy it much, so of course I jumped at the chance to read the sequel, Doomed.  Unsurprisingly, I didn't like Doomed any more than Damned.  In case you missed it, Damned was the story of a precocious teenager's trip to hell.  In Doomed, her ghost returns to the land of the living.  We learn more about her life, her death, and the nefarious deals her rich and famous parents made with the devil in order to become rich and famous.

It's Palahniuk, so of course Doomed is full of clever bits.  But as a whole, the story drags on.  I was turning the pages as fast as I could, not because I was so eager to read what would happen next, but because I was eager to get to the end of the tiresome book.  Palahniuk's die-hard fans will probably want to read Doomed, but most will find the humor lacking and the narrative tiresome.

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

Friday, October 4, 2013

Oryx and Crake, by Margaret Atwood

Margaret Atwood's Oryx and Crake is a strange book.  Fans of science fiction, as traditionally understood, may not enjoy this very much.  The tone is more literary than genre, the story is told in a roundabout way with lots of flashbacks, and the action, well, there's not much action.  In fact, not much really happens.

We meet Snowman, who, we learn in flashbacks, was known as Jimmy before a global pandemic killed off, as far as Jimmy knows, every other human on the planet.  He's not alone, though.  He has become the God-like leader of the children of Crake, genetically created humans who lived in an isolated, sealed dome, thus were not affected by the pandemic.

The strongest past of the Oryx and Crake is the development of biotechnology depicted in the flashbacks.  The biological experimentation, the competition between corporations, the separation of the classes, and the means by which the pandemic spreads, are all very believable--and rather scary!  Some of the scientific and cultural developments get sort of fanciful, providing a bit of lighter-hearted relief.

I would say most sci-fi readers might have a difficult time getting into Oryx and Crake.  But Atwood is an interesting writer, and once you get a feel for her pace and style, it's an enjoyable read.

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

God Bless America, by Karen Stollznow

It goes without saying that the United States is a theologically diverse nation.  One result of the religious freedom we enjoy is the freedom to believe whatever wacky thing we want.  And some Americans believe some pretty wacky stuff.  Karen Stollznow, an Australian transplant to the U.S., has spent some time doing anthropological research on several examples of the wacky religions of our great nation.  Her book God Bless America: Strange and Unusual Religious Beliefs and Practices in the United States recounts her findings.

The groups she covers are, for the most part, tiny minority groups that are easy for most mainstream Americans to dismiss.  Few would disagree with her conclusion that polygamist, fundamentalist Mormons who force young teens to marry older men are despicable, or that there's something a little off with practitioners of voodoo, Scientologists, or New Agers.  She is particularly bothered by charlatanism, when said practitioners perpetuate a set of beliefs in order to make money off the true believers.

Her greatest ire is reserved for the groups or subgroups that harm others.  "Several of these religious groups are closed societies, allowing corruption to flourish.  Religious freedom becomes an excuse to commit crimes under guise of God. . . . [M]any religious beliefs and practices endanger the physical and psychological health of their followers."  Some of the groups she describes have abundant examples of such harm.

Each chapter gives a brief history or background of a particular religious group, raises some objections to their beliefs and/or practices, especially dwelling on harm inflicted or fraud perpetrated, and, in most cases, she describes her own experiences as a guest and observer at their religious services.  Her presentation is, for the most part, even-handed and objective, but it becomes clear that she is writing as a nonbeliever.  I don't think she ever comes out and says it, but I feel fairly certain she would self-identify as an atheist.

As an evangelical Christian who has attended Charismatic churches for over 20 years, I was struck by her negative portrayal of the Charismatic/Pentecostal movement.  It's not that what she writes is inaccurate or false.  My problem was the unbalanced focus on some unsavory elements in the movement.  Most Charismatics would share her disdain for fake faith healers and over-the-top prosperity gospel preachers (although these guys have way too many followers).  I would invite her to spend some time at some of the churches I have attended, where genuine prophetic words have been spoken to great effect, where people have been certifiably healed of various medical conditions, and where lives have been miraculously changed through an encounter with the Holy Spirit.  Stollznow's experiences and conclusions should serve as a stark reminder to all Christians of the need to present a consistent, biblical witness, and to see signs and wonders not as a sideshow or focus of our faith, but as loving expressions of the Holy Spirit's work in our lives.

Given that I had a more personal perspective on her chapter on Charismatics, it led me to reflect more deeply on the other chapters.  I wonder how much of her focus on the unsavory elements of the groups covered is deserved.  Very few Mormons are fundamentalist, polygamist pedophiles.  Very few Amish are reclusive, controlling, incestuous fiends.  Very few exorcists are insane, abusive murderers.  The bottom line is that whatever the belief system, some people are bad.  That applies to any group of people, whether a minority religion, a particular profession, fans of a particular football team, or whatever.  So even as Stollznow presents a thoughtful discussion of religious beliefs and practices, including her own first-hand experiences, it's possible that she was swayed by possibly atypical, anomalous negative examples.  (By the way, one group she defends a little is Satanists, whom she says have been unfairly persecuted by false claims of Satanic ritual abuse: "Satanists certainly have their faults, but they have been unfairly stigmatized and victimized for crimes they didn't commit.")

Despite a possible tendency to focus too much on the negative, the minority of minority religionists, Stollznow's book is a good-natured, naturally irreverent tour of some interesting byways of our religious landscape.  As a Christian, my prayer for her is that she will see this truth: belief in God and in the saving work of Jesus Christ is not intellectually irreconcilable with the natural order and the witness of history.  Further, the Christian life does not necessarily lead to wacky, irrational beliefs and practices.   More power to you, Dr. Stollznow, as you seek truth, and may you know that the giver of all truth is seeking you, too.

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

Monday, September 30, 2013

Football Revolution, by Bart Wright

Spend a Saturday afternoon watching college football, then spend some time watching games from the 1960s and 1970s on YouTube.  It doesn't take long to see the differences.  In the old games, linemen shoulder-to-shoulder at the line of scrimmage, lots of running, maybe an occasional pass.  Today, the linemen are often spaced apart from each other, multiple wide receivers will line up from sideline to sideline, and while a good running back is appreciated, the passing game is king.  Veteran sports journalist Bart Wright chronicles this transformation of the game in his new book Football Revolution: The Rise of the Spread Offense and How It Transformed College Football.

Drawing on lots of personal interviews and contemporary first-hand accounts, Wright recounts the coaching trees, team personnel changes, and key seasons and games that had a part in the gradual dominance of the spread offense.  As he writes, "The game has changed so much is barely comparable to college football of the 1960s, 1970s, and for most of the nation's teams, on into the 1980s." Teams that were slow to make this shift frequently ended up at a serious, unexpected disadvantage.  As a Baylor fan, I was particularly interested that he identifies Baylor's loss to San Jose State in 1980.

The 1980 Baylor Bears were perhaps the best Baylor team ever to take the field.  Walter Abercrombie was busy setting all of Baylor's rushing records, and linebacker Mike Singletary was putting the hurt on the oppositions' offensive efforts.  The Bears were 7-0, ranked 10th in the nation, and picked to beat visiting San Jose State by 20 1/2.  SJSU's head coach Jack Elway (John's father) and offensive coordinator Dennis Erickson were pioneers of the spread offense, which effectively took Singletary, who was used to defending the wishbone and option offenses in the Southwest Conference, out of the game.

Years later Singletary reflected, "I guess it's kind of cool to think back on it as the first time people realized what the spread could do.  I didn't think it was very cool at the time; it was just so weird. . . . It was just to different to play against that kind of football." Baylor coach Grant Teaff called their spread offense "extremely tough to stop." Elway called that Baylor win "the greatest win in my 28 years of coaching."

There had been passing in college football for years before Jack Neumeier, a high school football coach in Southern California, had an epiphany at a high school basketball game.  He began to think of spacing and timing in the passing game, beginning to think about football as basketball on grass.  His star quarterback was John Elway, whose father Jack took the spread to the college game.

Wright weaves this story together with lots of college football history, interesting personal stories about the coaches and programs, and brings the game right up to this season.  Naturally, the threads get pretty tangled at times, but Wright does a nice job of drawing along the narrative.  What is the spread offense, and why did it come to dominate the college game (and make some serious inroads in the NFL)?  Wright sets the story straight.  An interesting read for the football fan.

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