Monday, July 29, 2013

The Darwin Elevator, by Jason Hough

The Darwin Elevator, the new sci-fi novel by first-time author Jason Hough, is full of cool science, mysterious alien artifacts, intense action, and plenty of surprises.  In a near-future earth, an alien ship arrives in Earth orbit and extends a line anchored in Darwin, Australia, creating a space elevator.  Scientific and economic progress are given a brief boost, as we finally gain the ability to move resources into orbit inexpensively.  The good fortune is short-lived, however, as a few short years later another alien ship arrives, bringing with it a plague that renders all of Earth, except for a few square miles around Darwin, uninhabitable.  Humanity is divided between residents of Darwin and the Orbitals, the few who live in space stations along the elevator.

Skyler, one of a tiny percentage of humans immune to the plague, is captain of a scavenger ship.  He and his crew travel around the world gathering useful materials for use by Darwin's residents and the Orbitals, while they fight off the subhumans, people who have succumbed to the plague.  This precarious balance between the Orbitals and the Earth-bound humans, sustained by scavenging, desalinization of ocean water, and space-station-based agriculture, becomes more and more strained, to the point of armed conflict.  Skyler is caught in the middle.

Part of me acknowledges that The Darwin Elevator is not high-brow literature, and it may not even be satisfying to fans of pure, hard sci-fi.  But in my mind, Hough writes well and provides exactly what this sort of novel calls for: likable but flawed heroes you can root for (male and female), really bad bad guys, cool speculative science, engaging action, and aliens waiting offstage, hopefully to make an appearance in later volumes.

Speaking of later volumes, The Darwin Elevator is book one of three in the Dire Earth Sequence.  I like the fact that Hough is releasing the three books in rapid succession.  I, for one, am eager to start reading book two!

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

Friday, July 26, 2013

Gray Matters, by Brett McCracken

I have to admit, I am a pretty voracious consumer of culture.  I watch a lot of movies and read a lot of books, some good, some bad, some edifying, some not.  Christian approaches to the consumption of various media range from teetotalism to unrestrained embrace, and most guidance for Christians tends toward legalistic black and white evaluation.  Brett McCracken, author of Hipster Christianity, offers some guidance of a different sort in his new book Gray Matters.

McCracken's main target is younger Christians who come from the teetotalism end of the spectrum: no drinking, no secular music, no movies, or at least no R-rated movies.  He notes that Christians, especially 30 and under Christians, have become much more open to such cultural expressions.  Given that openness, McCracken wants to provide guidelines for "consuming culture well: discerningly, maturely, thoughtfully . . . a more mature consumption of culture, . . . to help us think about how a healthy consumption of culture honors God, enriches the Christian life, strengthens community, and advances the Christian mission."

Covering four major areas of consumption, food, movies, music, and alcohol, McCracken holds to some solid scriptural benchmarks.  First of all, "whether you eat or drink or whatever you do, do it all for the glory of God."  But, he continues, we should always be aware of the "weaker brother" so that we don't cause him to stumble, as well as paying attention to our own weaknesses, while acknowledging that what is permissible may not be beneficial.

I enjoyed his take on food and alcohol.  Think about what a kind and generous God we serve, who created such a variety of plants and animals, gave us the acuity to put them together in creative ways, and supplied us with the capacity to taste and enjoy them.  Scripture is full of admonitions to enjoy creation.  McCracken does warn against the temptation to, as we refine our tastes, succumb to pride, as we disdain common tastes in food and beverages.  However, he seems to lean towards a superiority complex himself in his discussion of alcohol, dismissing "Coors, Bud Light, Heineken, and Shock Top" as "swill" that people drink only because "it's a cold beverage and gives them a buzz."

At this point, I have to question his discussion of alcohol.  He talks about enjoying it as a blessing, enjoying the smell and taste, but then points out that "alcohol has never existed without the accompanying problem of drunkenness."  He argues that when we drink, we should no do so for the buzz, only for the taste and experience, "a richer experience of a well-made beverage."  So you're only drinking for the taste, not the buzz.  I don't know, this sounds like someone who reads Playboy for the articles, or maybe to appreciate some of God's beautiful feminine creations. . . .

On music and film, McCracken challenges especially those Christians who won't listen to secular music or who limit their movie viewing to only "Christian" movies or to movies without cursing, nudity, etc.  In music, great truth and experience of the divine can be experienced even if there are no lyrics, or if the lyrics don't point specifically to God or quote scripture.  Surely anyone who has been moved by a classical piece or a rousing drum solo will attest that music alone can point us to God.

Likewise, movies can, as a work of art and/or entertainment, communicate important messages, even without explicit Christian or biblical themes.  Of Christian films he laments that they sometimes suffer from "a prioritizing of content over artistry and an emphasis on message over excellent craft."  The Christian film guides that enumerate the number of cuss words and provide details of sexual content can be helpful, especially for parents who wish to limit their children's exposure to such content.  But those guides alone can't and don't point to what films may be edifying or not.

In spite of my mild criticisms, I found McCracken's approach to be spot-on.  He's not a checklist guy (like the movie guides) but I did find his "20 Questions for Christian Consumers" to be a most helpful and insightful summary.  In sum, Christians, he writes, must be "first, foremost, and passionately consumed by Christ" to be good consumers.  Only then can we eat, drink, watch, and listen "for the purposes of knowing and glorifying God."  

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

P.S.  On Monday I posted my review of Tim Chester's Good News to the Poor and mentioned that I had not heard of him before.  Lo and behold, McCracken quotes Chester favorably, especially in the food section.  I looked up Chester's blog, and it happens that his most recent post is about cultural consumption and creation.  He points out that while Christians often talk about engaging culture with a focus on consumption.  That's fine, he says, but we also need to be creating culture, as part of "a fulfillment of the cultural mandate."  I wish McCracken would have gotten into culture creation more.  He does in the food section the most, but little if any in the film and music sections.  I encourage you to take a look at Chester's post, not in opposition to McCracken, but as a brief supplement.

Wednesday, July 24, 2013

The Holy Grail of Hoops, by Josh Swade

After reading Hoop Genius, a children's book about James Naismith's invention of basketball, and then meeting Naismith's great grandson, I just had to pick up Josh Swade's new book, The Holy Grail of Hoops: One Fan's Quest to Buy the Original Rules of Basketball.  When Swade, who grew up watching Kansas basketball . . . OK, that's an understatement.  At Swade's house, Jayhawk basketball was like a religion.  "Our holy land was located in Lawrence, Kansas . . . and our temple . . . was Allen Fieldhouse."  He says that "had my old man displayed the same passion for Judaism that he displayed for Kansas basketball, I'm quite certain that today I would be a rabbi or cantor . . . ."  So given this religious fervor, when Swade heard that James Naismith's original rules of basketball were being auctioned off, he had an epiphany: there is no other place those rules should reside than at the University of Kansas.

Swade embarks on a journey, criss-crossing the country, meeting KU alumni, athletic supporters, former coaches and players, and members of the Naismith and Allen (Phog Allen, KU coach after Naismith) families.  Woven into his quest is the story of KU basketball, which is, after all, the story of basketball itself.  Naismith came up with the rules of basketball and thumbtacked them to the wall at the YMCA.  Out of those inauspicious beginnings, the game quickly became one of the most popular sports in the world.  Naismith himself got to see the game played in the Olympics.

He brought the game to KU (after being hired as--chaplain!), and his protege Phog Allen led in the expansion of the game at the collegiate level.  As Swade tells the story, virtually all of the greatness in the game of basketball, the great coaches, the great arenas, the great teams, can be traced back to Lawrence and the legacy of Naismith and Allen.  The rules are the founding document, without which "hundreds of millions of people wouldn't have enjoyed playing or watching basketball the way the have over the last twelve decades," as the auction house historical documents expert explains.  To Swade, just as the Declaration of Independence belongs at the National Archives in Washington, so do the rules belong in Lawrence.

Although The Holy Grail of Hoops is a paean to all things Jayhawk basketball (and I have to admit, just as I get sick of KU's dominance in the Big 12, I got a little tired of hearing about them here. . . .), any rabid sports fan will appreciate and enjoy the passion and dedication Swade shows for his team.  I could relate as he talks about struggling tough seasons and hard losses: "When things are going good in life, a tough loss is much easier to handle.  When things are going bad, a tough loss is gut wrenching.  Your entire world and all your supposed problems are magnified times a hundred.  Everything seems to be collapsing around you.  The world is a cold, harsh, unforgiving place during these times."  As a lifelong Baylor fan, I have felt like this plenty of times!

If you love basketball, if you love sports, you will love Swade's story (even if you don't love KU).  When I go to Kansas for the the Baylor/KU game in October, the rules will be on my must-see list, thanks to Swade.

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

And here they are. The rules:

Monday, July 22, 2013

Good News to the Poor, by Tim Chester

This book is my first introduction to U.K. pastor Tim Chester, and so far I'm pretty impressed. Chester, as pastor, church planter, and seminary professor, longs to see the church embrace social involvement and ministry to the poor with a focus on the gospel.  His book Good News to the Poor: Social Involvement and the Gospel (an updating of 2004's Good News to the Poor: The Gospel Through Social Involvement) gives a solid biblical, theological foundation for the responsibility of the church to address poverty and other social needs, while placing priority on the salvation of the lost.

His perspective is so refreshing.  There are plenty of churches and Christian organizations that emphasize social involvement, but many neglect the gospel.  They embrace charity and development as a means to address human rights as an end in themselves, but this is a "godless" approach, "an attempt to develop an ethic without God."  Chester writes, "as valid as cultural and social involvement are in their own right, they cannot be seen in isolation from the task of reconciling people to God through the gospel."  Christians are stewards of "greatest gift we have to offer a needy world: the words of eternal life."  We must not be ashamed to make the declaration of the good news of the gospel and integral part of social ministry; the temporal needs of people should not distract us from their eternal needs.

Key to social involvement and sustainable development is the presence of the church in a community.  Unbelievers ought to experience the church as "a caring, inclusive community," where non-Christians can become a part of Christian community.  The presence of the church and the redemptive work of to the gospel ought to set Christian social involvement apart from secular efforts.  Social ministry ought never to be separated from the life of the church, and vice versa.  "It is not simply that evangelism and social involvement are to be done alongside each other. . . . Our proclamation has social consequences as we call people to love and repentance in all areas of life. . . . If we ignore the world we betray the word of God which sends us out to serve the world.  If we ignore the word of God we have nothing to bring the world."

Chester's book certainly challenges the conventions and priorities of rich, Western Christians (He points out that virtually every Christian in the U.S. or U.K. can be described as rich compared to the world as a whole).  His quotes American writers and activists like Ron Sider and Jim Wallis favorably, and Chester's perspective is certainly complementary to theirs.  But (at least in my reading of Sider and Wallis) Chester places a much higher priority that these two on evangelism and the proclamation of the gospel.  More than perhaps any writer I have read in the area of social ministry and the church, Chester strikes a great balance between the two by linking them together inextricably.  Well done.

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

Friday, July 19, 2013

Why Not Today, Matthew Cork

For most of us living in the U.S., it's easy to imagine that slavery ended with the Civil War, racism is waning, and equality is on the rise.  That's true in most of the West.  We don't have slaves plowing the fields, apartheid is in the history books, and our president has brown skin.  But in one of the world's most populous countries, a sizable minority still faces racism, slavery, and inequality, with the imprimatur of the culture, government, and religion.  Matthew Cork, pastor of a large church in Southern California, paid a visit to the Dalit people of India and became convicted and convinced that the American church can have a role in freeing them from systemic cultural discrimination and oppression.

In Cork's new book, Why Not Today: Trafficking, Slavery, the Global Church . . . and You, which he co-authored with Kenneth Kemp, Cork tells the story of his involvement with the Dalits, with Indian activist Dr. Joseph D'Souza, and his church's commitment to build 200 schools for Dalit children.  More generally, he recounts the history of the Dalit people and the burgeoning movement in India to bring equality and civil rights to this huge minority group.  To an American, post-Civil-Rights-era reader, the status and conditions of the Dalits, or untouchables, in India make any stories of racism in the U.S. pale in comparison.  The caste system, reflecting centuries of tradition and supported by the Hindu religion, is used to condone persistent poverty, slavery, the sale of children for labor and the sex trade, sexual slavery, and any other human rights abuses you can think of.

There is hope, as Dalits leave Hinduism and groups like Dr. D'Souza's are focusing on education to free Dalit children from the cultural shackles of their caste.  Cork's story will sweep you up in his passion for freedom for the Dalits, as he demonstrates the huge impact that one church can have.  Granted, his church is large and wealthy, but still, what a difference they have made in India!  And they will continue to raise awareness, as the church has produced a movie telling the story of a Dalit girl whose father sells her and the American man who tries to rescue her.  (Not Today, hopefully coming to a theater near you!)

Why Not Today is a great introduction to the Dalit people and their plight.  The narrative is a bit disjointed, as Cork's passion for telling the Dalit story and his church's story runs spills out onto the page, but I was willing to look past that and embrace his vision.  I can see why he was able to rally his church so effectively to the Dalit cause. Why Not Today will have you longing and hoping for the day when India's casteism is relegated to the dust bin of history and the Dalits have true cultural and economic freedom.

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

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Mars and Houston, by James Crowley

Here's a sweet story about the power of friendship.  Joey has a bad habit of climbing out onto the roof of his house.  As much as his mom forbids him to do so, he loves to crawl out there and dream about being an astronaut.  Not only does his mother not want him to get hurt, she discourages his obsession with becoming an astronaut.  Joey has autism, and his mother wants him to face the reality that he would be unsuitable for a career as an astronaut.

To Joey's delight, Ben moves in across the street, with whom he strikes an unlikely friendship.  Ben, academically well ahead of other kids in his grade, and Joey find a common bond, in that they are both bullied and find themselves on the fringes of their class.  At first Ben is a bit annoyed by Joey, whose social skills are typical of boys with autism, but they do become good friends, and Joey's passion for space inspires Ben.

Joey's mother is overprotective, but not enough to keep Joey out of trouble.  Ben gets the blame for a tragic accident, and later Ben moves away.  In the end, the power of their bond of friendship saves the day.  Mars and Houston is a simple but sweet book, nicely written with a great message about stepping outside your comfort zone (for), faithful friendship (definitely for), bullying (against), and pursuing your dreams (for).  It's just the thing for an older elementary or middle school reader, and would be a great After School Special type of movie.

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

Monday, July 15, 2013

Great Pacific Volume 1: Trashed!, by Joe Harris, illustrated by Martin Morazzo

Chas Worthington is the heir to a powerful Texas oil fortune.  Although he fits the bill as the young, spoiled playboy, he has ambitions beyond simply continuing the family's energy company.  He has his eyes on the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, which he claims and renames New Texas.  In the meantime, he has sabotaged the family business and ticked off a bunch of people.  Then he discovers that the island is well-known to some Pacific Islanders, as well as a band of pirates and a giant squid.

Great Pacific, nicely illustrated by Martin Morazzo, has just enough reality to make Joe Harris's story really engaging.  I love the libertarian/environmentalist mashup that informs Chas's actions.  He's representative of a generation that is sick of intrusive government, corporate welfare, and environmental neglect, and he's uniquely positioned to do something about all three.

Nation building on a floating garbage heap: I know, it's far-fetched, maybe even a little silly, but I enjoyed Great Pacific Volume 1 and will be eager to read Volume 2.

Interestingly enough, the idea of creating living space out of the floating garbage heap has been explored in real life.  Check out this web site:  Maybe Harris's story isn't so far-fetched after all. . . .

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

Friday, July 12, 2013

Wonder, by R. J. Palacio

 A couple years ago, I read Sharon Draper's Out of My Mind, a novel told from the perspective of an 11-year-old girl living with cerebral palsy.  In the same vein, R. J. Palacio's book Wonder tells the story of August, a 5th grader with a cranio-facial condition.  He has been homeschooled all his life, and now is entering 5th grade at a prep school in his neighborhood.  Wonder takes us through his fifth grade year, telling his story through first-person narratives of August, his sister, and some of their friends and classmates.

I don't know anyone with a condition like August's.  If I have ever met or seen someone with it, I don't remember.  But I'm sure I would be one who might take a double take, or try to sneak a look.  August  is on the receiving end of those looks and stares every day of his life.  Worse, he gets bullied and mocked in his new school.  It's bad enough being the new kid.  It's bad enough being a kid, period, when so many kids are mean.  But August endures the worst of it.

The story of Wonder shows that awful side of kids, but, more importantly, Palacio paints a picture of how it ought to be.  August has a loving, supportive family (I've read of children with such conditions whose parents give them up for adoption shortly after birth).  At his new school he quickly makes friends with kids who are willing to see past his appearance.  He's a smart, gifted child.  I'm sure August's experiences are much better than those of many people with facial anomalies, and some might criticize Wonder as being too idealistic, but I think Palacio wants to model more than report.

August reflects on how other people see him: "It's like people you see sometimes, and you can't imagine what it would be like to be that person, whether it's somebody in a wheelchair or somebody who can't talk. . . . I know that I'm that person to other people. . . ."  Wonder reminds us, as the middle school director reminds his charges, "always to try to be a little kinder than is necessary," especially when we see "those people," whoever they are for us.

Wednesday, July 10, 2013

Too Hurt to Stay, by Casey Watson

Casey Watson and her husband are specialist foster carers in Great Britain, meaning that they get the most difficult to handle, hard to place children in the foster system.  Sounds like fun, doesn't it?  In Too Hurt to Stay, Watson tells the story of Spencer, an 8-year-old boy who, reportedly, came on his own to the social services office, seeking care.  Other caregivers warned the Watsons about Spencer's behavior, but he seemed so cute and sweet, they were reluctant to believe the reports.

At first Spencer did seem sweet and polite, but it didn't take long for his behaviors to show.  He began a pattern of serial theft from the Watsons, neighbors, and local businesses, bullying kids and animals, running away, and destructive vandalism.  I'm sure the Watsons are wonderful people, and their patience with Spencer may qualify them for sainthood.  But I cringed at their continual habit of shrugging off his behaviors, covering over the consequences, and too quickly reestablishing his freedoms so he could return to his offensive ways.

Watson's writing is entertaining and heartfelt.  I couldn't help but admire her and be taken in, to a certain extent, by her endearment to Spencer.  For a memoir of one family's experiences with a very difficult kid, Too Hurt to Stay is a decent read.  But I was disappointed that she didn't offer more insight into the foster care system and the root causes of Spencer's awful behaviors.

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

Monday, July 8, 2013

Unconditional, by Eva Marie Everson

Earlier this year, my friend Brent McCorkle wrote and directed Unconditional.  If you haven't seen it, you should.  It's a beautifully filmed, well-acted, inspiring tear jerker.  Eva Marie Everson's novelization of the screenplay captures the spirit and essence of the film.

Sam Crawford, a children's book author, is still grieving her husband's murder three years after the fact and decides to take her own life.  Her suicide is interrupted when she comes to the aid of a little girl who was the victim of a hit and run.  Through the little girl and the girl's brother, she runs into her childhood friend Joe Bradford.  As they rekindle their friendship, and as Sam sees Joe give his life away for the children in his neighborhood, Sam is inspired to go on living, resume her writing, and live for others.

Sam learns the lesson that even though the skies are cloudy, the sun is still there shining, and when we walk on the clouds we can enjoy the sun.  In the same way, clouds will come in life, but that doesn't mean God has forgotten us or ignores us.  We can change our perspective and reset our vision to him, above the clouds.  A secondary, but related message is that when we live our life for others, our own problems and pains tend to pale.  I am sure I am not the only one who needs to be reminded not to focus on myself!

Unconditional, both the movie and the book, has a great message which inspires the reader/viewer without being preachy and without the easy answers of so many Christian movies.  I am intrigued by Joe Bradford, the real-life inspiration for Unconditional.  I'd like to know how much of the story is based on true events.  I loved the movie and would recommend it to anyone.  The book does a nice job of fleshing out the great story of the movie.  Pick it up.

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

Friday, July 5, 2013

Run or Die, by Kilian Jornet

If you follow ultrarunning at all, you're familiar with Kilian Jornet.  He's only 25, but he has already won the Ultra Trail du Mont Blanc 3 times, won Western States, and set the record for the ascent/descent of Mt. Kilimanjaro.  He's a phenomenal runner and an inspiration to those who see him run.

Unfortunately, the inspiration has a hard time coming through in his new book, Run or Die.  Reading Run or Die is certainly an interesting experience, essentially a stream-of-consciousness race report on some of Kilian's big runs: his trans-Pyrennes run, UTMB, WS (his first race there, when he came in third), and his Mt. Kilimanjaro run.  We read the blow-by-blow of the runs, as well as his reflections on life and running.

For me, Run or Die misses the most important element of a running book: inspiring me to get up and run.  Rather than feeling like, "Wow! That's a lot of running! I want to go run now!" I felt like "Hmm. That guy runs a lot. I don't think I can run like that. What's for dinner?"  I realize this is more a reflection on me than on Kilian, but I have read plenty of running memoirs that inspire me to lace them up and head out the door.

Kilian will be fun to watch as his career continues.  It seems like he has what it takes to dominate the sport of trail running for many years to come.  I will be interested to read his next book, maybe 5-10 years down the road, when, I think, he'll have more to share.

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

Wednesday, July 3, 2013

Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales, by Randy Singer

In his latest legal thriller, Randy Singer tells the story of Landon Reed, a disgraced college football star who served time in prison for his role in fixing games.  Fresh out of prison, he completes law school and joins a seasoned criminal defense attorney's practice.  He quickly becomes enmeshed in a complex money laundering case, and then lawyers in his firm start getting killed.  The question is, will he be next?

Singer's tone and pace are steady and compelling, keeping the reader turning the pages while he slowly reveals the story.  The lawyers start dying about halfway through, when the urgency picks up without slowing down until the end and the surprising denouement.  The plot has some hard-to-believe elements, specifically the villain, his rise to power, and the tangled web of revenge he weaves.  But the main characters are believable and likeable.  Landon deals with real struggles of redemption and integrity, family and career. 

Singer writes as a Christian, and Landon's jailhouse conversion provides a theme for the novel, but the faith factor does not loom large.  The result is an accessible novel for secular readers, without the sex and foul language that mark so many mainstream novels these days, but with a positive message.  Although many reviewers will compare Singer to a certain mega-selling writer of legal thrillers, that's unfair to Singer; his work stands on its own. 

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