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.