Thursday, February 28, 2013

Blades of Winter, by G.T. Almasi

It's hard not to like a book with this first line:  "Nothing pisses me off more than being shot at while I'm eating. . . . The food here is spectacular, but right now I'm kind of distracted by that bullet hurtling straight at my left eye."  That sets the tone for G.T. Almasi's Blades of Winter, the first (hopefully of many) installment of his Shadowstorm novels.

The surgically and chemically enhanced Alix Nico, who managed not to get killed by that bullet, in an ExOps agent in an alternative U.S., on in which World War 2 ended quite differently.  In the Shadowstorm, the alternative version of the Cold War, the four superpowers, the U.S, the Soviet Union, Greater Germany, and the Nationalist Republic of China vie for global power.

With this alternate history as a background, Almasi's story follows Alix on her violent, bloody quest to find her father, a missing ExOps agent.  The bloodshed in her wake is nothing less than astonishing.  Alix is still human, but she has so many enhancements that she's leaning toward being mostly cyborg.  But she's a likable enough heroine and, violent as she is, I was rooting for her.

The action is graphic and colorful, but the spy story is a bit weak.  Many of the great spy novelists, e.g., Ian Fleming, John le Carre, Graham Greene, were spies themselves, drawing inspiration from their careers.  Almasi draws inspiration from these guys, but most of his inspiration is from action movies, and it shows.  Don't get me wrong, Blades is a fun read, but you definitely want to read it for the action more so than the intricate plot.  This is action-packed, escapist fun.

Tuesday, February 26, 2013

With Charity for All, by Ken Stern

After a decade at National Public Radio, Ken Stern learned a few things about the weird world of the American nonprofit sector.  In his new book, With Charity for All: Why Charities Are Failing and a Better Way to Give, Stern bemoans the state of charitable activity today, arguing that most of the nonprofit sector is financially inept at best, and downright unsavory at worst.

Some charities obviously are fraudulent.  Every now and then we read about them.  When the salary of the CEO and money spent on phone banks dwarf the tiny percentage of revenues, if any, that go to the supposed beneficiaries of a charity, it's easy to call foul.  But it's not always so easy to identify this type of non-charity.  Getting charitable status from the IRS is a breeze, state oversight is weak to non-existent, and plenty of donors are swayed by words like "veteran," "children," "hope," "beneficial," "cancer," and other key words.  Investigating the financials of charities can be time-consuming, frustrating, and near impossible.

Other charities, while more above-board about their financials and activities, probably should not be classified as charities.  Two examples Stern explores are non-profit hospitals and college football bowl games.  In terms of treating needy patients, non-profit hospitals as a whole are no more charitable, and in some cases less, than their for-profit competitors.  Yet they enjoy a variety of tax benefits that give them a competitive advantage.  With the bowl games, it's even harder to say that they are "charities" with the money they spend on golf outings, high salaries, travel, and entertainment.  Similarly, Stern points the finger at opera companies, charities which exist primarily for the benefit of--their donors!  Wealthy people donate to the opera so that wealthy people can go to the opera.  Hmmm . . . . Stern makes a good argument with these examples that the very concept of charity has been stretched.

The greatest concern is not for flagrantly fake or unethical charities, or for non-charitable charities. It is the matter of effectiveness.  Like any other enterprise, charities are market driven, with the donor as customer. Whether they accomplish what they set out to do becomes secondary; they know a good anecdote brings in more contributions than a spreadsheet of results. "Charities know that they at rewarded not for finding cost-effective solutions to problems at all--but for finding ways to personalize, humanize, and convey needs." Stern calls for the charitable sector to "shift from a donor mentality to a charitable investment mind-set" by creating systems that distinguish among charities, even something like charitable mutual funds, in which analysts measure and evaluate the effectiveness of charities.

Stern has some great ideas which I anticipate will be met with mixed reviews by fund raisers and charity professionals. I can see many thinking they are the exception to Stern's thesis. It's always easier to see others' shortcomings than one's own.

Two things I wish Stern had spent more time on: religious charities and the effectiveness of government versus private work. Religious charities and their donors are driven more by conviction than by effective measures. That is not to say they are exempt from the requirement that they remain fiscally sound and prudent in their programming. But a comparison of religious and nonreligious charities and the way the solicit donations, measure results, and spend their resources would have been interesting.

Stern also shows a rosy view of government's role in the charitable sector. He points out that as a result of President Johnson's Great Society, "the federal government had become the largest single funder of the charitable sector." Given Mr. Stern's previous experience at NPR and his involvement in Democratic politics, it would come as no surprise that he when he envisions a more effective charitable sector, the federal governed plays a large part I'm his vision. I'll buy his call for results-oriented evaluation of charities, but to centralize such evaluation in the hands of government is self-defeating. He points out that the private sector was more effective than government or charities in responding to Hurricane Katrina, and gives examples of private groups that evaluate charities, but he seems too eager to jump to the federal government.

All in all, Stern's arguments should be a clarion call for the entire charitable sector.

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

Sunday, February 24, 2013

The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon is considered to be one of the best living writers of fiction, as evidenced by the fact that his novel The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay received the Pulitzer Prize for fiction.  This epic family saga traces a couple of decades of the lives of Sammy Clay, the son of Jewish immigrants living in New York, and his cousin Joe Kavalier, who escapes from Nazi-infested Prague to start life over in the U.S.

Before Joe arrived, Sammy had a lowly job working for a novelty distributor who sold things like whoopie cushions and miniature radios through ads in the back of comic books.  Sammy is a budding writer and artist, and Joe, who formally studied art in Prague, decide to team up and create a comic.  Sammy's boss agrees, and a new comic book superhero superstar is born.

Their Amazing Adventures take them from their late teens, to love, to notoriety and more money than they ever imagined they could make writing and drawing comic books.  Their successful partnership final takes a detour when Joe enlists in the navy, hoping to exact revenge against the Germans for killing his brother and destroying his family.

Although the story did tend to drag, ranging from the years before World War 2 well into the 1950s, Chabon does tell a good story, keep the threads together.  But Chabon's style is what makes him a truly great writer.  Every page tingles with well-wrought phrases and imagery.  He captures mid-century New York beautifully, and convincingly creates the history of the Clay and Kavalier families from Prague to New York to Antarctica.

In Kavalier and Clay, Chabon also tells the story of the rise of comics in America.  Neither they nor their creations are historical (although a tribute comic based on Chabon's novel has been written), but many of the other comics and writers in the story are historical.  At one point Sammy is subpoenaed to testify before a senate committee who, based on evidence presented by Fredric Wertham in his book The Seduction of the Innocent, was investigating the danger comic books pose to children.  This had the ring of truth to me, so through the awesome power of Google, I discovered that Dr. Wertham, his book, and the senate hearings were real.  In fact, just last week the New York Times ran an article about a scholar who discovered that Dr. Wertham exaggerated his findings and falsified many of his results.  Kavalier and Clay would have felt some vindication from this.  However, the damage done to the comics industry at the time was catastrophic, and most of those artists and writers are long dead.

I love the fact that Chabon values a great plot as well as excellent style.  Literary fiction is often great writing about nothing, but he has been embraced by the literary world regardless of his love of plot.  He says that the "real writer" should not shy away from genre fiction and enteratining fiction.  Reacting against "the contemporary, quotidian, plotless, moment-of-truth revelatory story," he said, "I read for entertainment, and I write to entertain.  Period."  Bring it on!

Tuesday, February 19, 2013

Mankind: The Story of All of Us, Vol. 1

As a companion to the History Channel's series of the same name, this graphic novel presents a sweeping version of history from the dawn of agriculture up to the crusades.  I can't comment on how it compares to the TV series, which I haven't seen.  The art of Mankind is basic, but high-quality comic book style, with nice framing and coloring.

The greatest strength for interest and readability is the personalization of each era:
--A mother passes along to her child the stories her grandmother told about the transition from the nomadic to agricultural life style.
--A father teaches his son about forging steel, and demonstrates steels superiority over bronze in battle.
--A runner carries news of his army's victory, enabling democracy to thrive (this, of course, is Pheidippides, bringing news to Athens of the victory at Marathon.).
--A wise teacher named Jesus is unjustly executed, and his followers establish a movement that persists today.
The Iron Age, the Silk Road, and the Crusades round out the volume.

For a quick, engaging view of history in broad strokes, Mankind is a worthy, if limited, effort.

Here's a sample:

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

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Sunday, February 17, 2013

Salt, Sugar, Fat, by Michael Moss

It's no secret that Americans are hooked on processed foods.  In Salt, Sugar, Fat: How the Food Giants Hooked Us, Pulitzer Prize winning journalist Michael Moss takes us inside the food industry to tell the story of our national addiction.  It's a troubling tale, or a whole series of troubling tales, that make me want to go to the farmer's market, or at least to the produce aisle, and avoid processed foods altogether.

I do have mixed feelings about the book and this issue.  On the one hand, all the food companies want to do is sell more food.  They do have to make a profit, after all.  And their mission is to make the tastiest, most appealing food they can, so they can sell more and more of it.  They make it, we buy it, we eat it and like it, they make a profit.  It's a simple, free-market, mutually beneficial exchange.  But there's more to it than that.

The ball got rolling when food manufacturers started making soda, chips, TV dinners, which they "imagined as occasional fare."  But as society changed, they found that "snacks and convenience food had become a daily--even hourly--habit, a staple of the American diet."  As convenience became more important to Americans, food manufacturers had to make food "easy to buy, store, open, prepare, and eat."  In the laboratories (not kitchens, note.  These are chemists, not chefs, who are creating food.) of Kraft, General Foods, and other manufacturers, the "drive to achieve the greatest allure for the lowest possible price has drawn them" to salt, sugar, and fat.  As one executive said, maybe there is too much salt or sugar in our products, but "that's what the consumer wants, and we're not putting a gun to their head to eat it.  That's what they want.  If we give them less, they'll buy less, and the competitor will get our market."

Some of the food industry insiders Moss spoke to had second thoughts and reservations about their work, like one former Coca Cola executive, who travelled to Brazil for a market study.  "As he walked through one of the prime target areas, an impoverished barrio of Rio de Janeiro, he had an epiphany.  'A voice in my head says, "These people need a lot of things, but they don't need a Coke." I almost threw up.'"  He was eventually fired.  Virtually all of Moss's subjects stated their own aversion, or at least extreme moderation, when it comes to their own products, pointing out the "class issue at work in processed foods, in which the inventors and company executives don't generally partake in their own creations."

The companies are not alone in their culpability.  The federal government has been their hypocritical partner in crime, with its "promotion of some of the industry practices deemed most threatening to consumers."  Cheese, with its high fat content and warnings from dietitians to reduce consumption, enjoys huge federal subsidies.  The federal government has caves full of it because they promised dairy farmers they would buy their cheese.  Even the makers of the food pyramids produced and distributed by the USDA bow to the food industry lobby, putting politics before health.  I wish Moss would have addressed the sugar lobby, too.  Federal subsidies and import tariffs on sugar keep the cost of sugar unnaturally high and lead to many manufacturers using less healthy sweeteners.

Moss also points out that the drive for profits at the food giants has contributed to the obesity epidemic. "In the early 1980s, investors shifted their money from stodgy blue chip companies to the high-flying technology industry and other sectors that promised quicker returns," pressuring food companies to cut costs and increase marketing to satisfy Wall Streets demands for more and more profits.

Ultimately, the consumer is in control of what he or she eats.  Moss doesn't call for government regulation, but he would welcome industry self-policing.  The individual consumer "seizing control in order to ward off an unhealthy dependence on processed food seems like the best--and only--recourse we have."  Moss's examples abound, his argument is readable and convincing, and I can almost guarantee he will have you reading labels and thinking carefully about what you are putting in your body.

Thanks to Edelwiess and the publisher for the complimentary review copy.

Note: If you don't want to read the whole book, read this article adaptation: New York Times Magazine.

Friday, February 15, 2013

The Innocent, by Taylor Stevens

In The Informationist, Taylor Stevens introduced Michael Munroe, the super-woman agent/private investigator/gun-for-hire who specializes in getting information.  After the gut-wrenching ending of that book, Michael decided to take a break from her high-octane activities, enjoy her millions in fees from the sleazy billionaire who hired her, and shack up with the Moroccan with whom she had a fling before her adventures in Africa.

But she's getting restless, and her old friend Logan (who appears in The Informationist) has come calling with a new assignment.  Logan was once a part of a communal cult, and wants Michael's help to get a 14-year-old girl out of the cult's compound in Argentina.  She agrees to do it, not for the money, but for love of Logan, and, the more she learns about the cult, for the sake of justice.  Using her skills of stealth, observation, charm, bribery, disguise, multi-liguism and vicious knife-fighting, she infiltrates the cult and discovers the deeper truths of what goes on behind their gates.

The most interesting thing about this story is that Stevens was, until her early 20s, part of a cult movement called The Children of God, later called The Family.  A brief review of internet information about The Children of God indicates that the Chosen, the cult in The Innocent, is modeled after the Children of God, including their isolation from the outside world, communal living, sending the children into the streets to beg for funds, and authoritative leadership.  Sadly, Stevens's depiction of the cult member's sex with children within the group, and prostituting the children to people outside the group, was all too real in The Children of God.  I can imagine that Stevens, as a child or teen trapped in this group, would have loved for a knife-wielding, justice-seeking liberator of young ladies to come to her rescue.

Disturbing cult realism aside, Stevens continues the unbelievable story telling she began with The Informationist.  Michael has a chameleon-like ability in language and appearance, she uses her fighting and killing abilities to best men twice her size, and has an uncanny sense of being in the right (or wrong, depending on your perspective) place at the right time.  Her quest is certainly aided by some unlikely coincidences, and the plot spirals into unanticipated regions.  All that said, The Innocent is still entertaining escapist story telling, perfect listening for my dull commute.  I will look forward to the next Vanessa Michael Munroe adventure.

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Tuesday, February 12, 2013

The Informationist, by Taylor Stevens

Vanessa Michael Munroe is not a spy, not a former agent, not special forces, not a soldier, but she has the skills and the attitude that could combine all of the above.  She is an informationist.  For a price, she can go into any environment to get information you need.  In The Informationist, Taylor Stevens's debut novel about Munroe, the informationist is hired by a Texas oil billionaire to find his daughter, a task at which legions of spies, agents, and retired special forces have failed.  It's a simple assignment: she's somewhere on the continent of Africa, so go find her!  Oh, and by the way, I'll pay you five million dollars.

Stevens pushes along an exciting story, and Munroe is an interesting, if ultimately unbelievable, character.  But there are just too many chance meetings and coincidences for me to embrace the story.  On the continent of Africa, what are the chances that Munroe's old friend knows exactly where the lost girl is?  Pretty good, in this world.  It reminded me a little of Star Trek, where there's this entire planet, but all the action takes place in what seems to be one tiny village, where they happen to beam down to.

And then there's Munroe; she's almost too much.  She speaks dozens of languages, has some undefined yet deadly martial arts and knife fighting skills, bordering on superpowers.  She blends into any crowd and can easily pass for a man or a woman, yet men find her irresistible.  (Given Munroe's sexuality, and tendency to flirt and go to bed with a variety of men, you would have thought she was created from a male fantasy.  But Stevens is a woman.  I'm not sure what to make of that.  I'm probably a sexist pig.)

So the story's too nice and neat, the main character is not realistic, but I still kept listening to the end (I checked out the audio book from the library).  There was something compelling about The Informationist, and I wanted to know how the convoluted connections and betrayals would all work out.  It's not a great book, but it was enough fun to listen to that I checked out the sequel to listen to next. . . .

Thursday, February 7, 2013

Mask, by Kerry Nietz

Kerry Nietz, author of the fantastic DarkTrench series (see my reviews here, here, and here) is back with a new vision of a near-future earth in his new novel Mask.  It's the not-too-distant future, and through some combination of human conflict and natural disasters, many parts of the world have become uninhabitable, and those that are still populated are isolated from other regions.  In PacNorth, masked Collectors round up people who have been voted inconvenient by their peers.  It's a great system, in a way.  Everyone is always on their best behavior, for fear of being voted down, and the population stays under control.

That is, until Radial begins to have second thoughts. . . . Grill cook by day, Collector by night, Radial is one of the best of the Collectors, but on the spur of the moment decides that a little girl he's collected deserves a chance to live.  Together Radial and Darcy seek to discover the truth about the collection and bring down the system.

Mask is a brisk, fast-paced story, which leaves plenty to be explained.  How did PacNorth become isolated?  What's going on in the rest of the world?  How did the collection system get its start?  Nietz hints at the answers, but chooses to focus on the action of the story rather than on the exposition of this future history.  He also raises interesting questions about the nature of democracy, as the whole society is built around the tyranny of the majority.  Is mob rule really the next logical developmental stage of democracy?  And with God having been voted out as inconvenient, Nietz hints about pockets of Christian faith that remain.  While the story of Mask wraps up nicely, these questions cry out for answers.  There is plenty of material for a sequel.  (I hope you're working on it, Kerry!)

Mask does not have the epic scale and theological weight of the DarkTrench saga, but does showcase Nietz's story-telling skill.  I didn't want to put it down, as evidenced by the fact that I am writing this review at 1:30 a.m., having stayed up way too late finishing the book!

If you haven't read the DarkTrench saga, do!

Wednesday, February 6, 2013

Congo Dawn, by Jeanette Windle

I'm sorry to admit this, but I was prepared not to like this book.  Although the blurb sounded interesting, I assumed Jeanette Windle assumed would be a more typical woman author, writing books aimed at women, but Congo Dawn exceeded expectations and I found myself staying up late to finish it!

Robin spend much of her childhood in Africa, until her mother was killed in the bombing of the U.S. embassy.  With her language skills, experience in Africa, and military service, she was a natural choice to serve as translator for a private security team assisting with the establishment of a mining operation in the Congo.  The mine had been slowed down by guerrilla attacks by the locals, and the Western owners were eager to put a stop to the interruptions, speed up production, and start turning a profit.  But when she runs into her old friend and could-have-been romantic interest, and begins to see that the source of the violence may not be what it seems, her faith in God, not to mention her faith in her employer, is challenged.

In spite of some unlikely coincidences and Lifetime-movie-type plot elements, Windle puts together a compelling story with solid characterization and an interesting plot. She also gives the reader plenty to think about.  On a very personal level, she raises questions of African governance: Which was better for Africans?  Pre-colonial tribal rule? Colonial rule by foreigners? Post-colonial rule by warlords? De facto rule by Western business interests?  As Windle develops the story, we see the good and bad in each of these.

In light of the evil brought about by Africans, colonial leaders, and Western business, Windle deals with the problem of evil and suffering.  How can a family or a village who has suffered the ravages of mindless war rejoice in the love of Jesus?  How can we accept that there is a loving God when we see the suffering around us?  Windle doesn't dish out pat answers, but deals with the questions honestly and scripturally.

So yes, there was a touch of Lifetime movie melodrama, and Windle does have a habit of writing in sentence fragments, which got to me a little, but all in all, Congo Dawn is a solid, suspenseful, and thoughtful novel.  I recommend it, whether you wear pants or skirts.

Thanks to Tyndale Blog Network for the complimentary review copy!

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Sunday, February 3, 2013

Quiet, by Susan Cain

Sometimes in American culture it seems like the only way to succeed, in school, in business, in life, is to be loud, to be outspoken, to be gregarious.  But what about the introverts?  In Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain writes that not only have many introverts been successful, they have qualities that can give them an edge in creativity and productivity.

Much our our Western conventional wisdom seems to favor the bold.  The picture of a leader, whether in politics, business, education, or social life, is usually the picture of an assertive, outspoken type, charging ahead with confidence.  But Cain cites study after that study to demonstrate that, for example, TV pundits (outspoken extroverts by definition) "make worse predictions about political and economic trends than they would by random chance.  And the very worst prognosticators tend to be the most famous and the most confident."  We fail to "distinguish between good presentation skills and true leadership ability," promoting on the basis of being a good talker, not on the basis of good ideas.  Even in the church, extroversion has come to be a requirement for ministry, so that "many evangelicals come to associate godliness with sociability."

In spite of the evidence that "college students who tend to study alone learn more over time than those who work in groups," that "open-plan office hove been found to reduce productivity and impair memory," and "excessive stimulation seems to impede learning," education and the workplace still tend toward the extrovert.  Classrooms are designed for group learning, with desks set in groups, rather the rows.  (I provoked the ire of my principal when I insisted that my seventh-grade math classroom be arranged in rows, in hopes of promoting more discipline and independent work.  My principal insisted on groups.  I lost that battle, disastrously.)  Schools continue their emphasis on group work because it supposedly prepares student better for the group environments they will encounter in the workplace.

Quiet is a great resource for managers, teachers, parents, and others who lead and work with introverts. It's a simple as recognizing that everyone has different styles of learning and working, and that we ought to be prepared to adapt the way we relate to others.  I have always thought of myself as an extrovert (I was voted "most outgoing" in my senior yearbook), but Cain helped me recognize my introverted side, acknowledging the tremendous value of the introverted life and the contributions introverts have to make.

Thanks to Waterbrook/Multnomah Blogging for Books for the complimentary review copy!