Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Happy Habits for Every Couple, by Roger and Kathy Lipp

I've said it before, and I'll say it again.  I think a married couple can always benefit from input to improve their marriage.  Roger and Kathy Lipp have written a brief, practical, and entertaining guide for couples to use to encourage and enjoy one another.  Happy Habits for Every Couple: 21 Days to a Better Relationship gives daily exercises for couples to try.  The Lipp's don't guarantee a revolution in your marriage, but I don't see how their suggestions could hurt anything!

They don't write as counselors, therapists, or experts, but as a couple who has been through divorce, remarriage, raising teens, and the ins and outs of marriage.  They "gleaned and condensed the very best advices from every marriage books on [their] shelves into short, doable projects [they] could work on together."  The result is 3 weeks of daily projects that anybody can do.  Just like anything else, it may take some planning and effort to pull off, but will be worth it.

As stated in the introduction, "the essence of Happy Habits for Every Couple is about becoming a person of encouragement who serves the one you love."  That is what sets Happy Habits apart.  It's not about fixing a marriage, inducing guilt, or pointing out what goes wrong in a marriage.  It's all about building one another up for a few weeks, and building some habits that can be practiced continually.  It's fun, practical, doable, affirming, and marriage-building.  Give it a shot!

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

Monday, December 29, 2014

Clutter Free, by Kathy Lipp

Just in time for your new year's resolution to get your house in order, Kathy Lipp has a few suggestions for you.  Clutter Free: Quick and Easy Steps to Simplifying Your Space not only gives practical suggestions for cleaning out your closets and drawers but helps with an understanding of the acquisitiveness and impractical thinking that leads to our being swamped with stuff.

Lipp defines clutter as "anything that is in your house that hasn't earned the right to be there, or it has earned the right, but hasn't found its permanent home." More than just finding a place for everything, she emphasized contentment and simplicity.  "Instead of thinking, How do we earn more so we can buy a bigger house? your thoughts must turn to, How do we get rid of more so we can enjoy the house we're in?" Sound thinking, in my book.

As an example of her practical thinking, she mentions considering the purchase of a new egg slicer, which "is going to save me from the laborious task of slicing all those eggs."  It might save her six minutes a year, but what about the time spent earning money to buy it, time shopping for it, "the time I will spend hunting for it the three times a year I want to use it,"and "the time I spend moving it out of the way when I want to find another gadget and have to dig through all the other time-saving devices." Sometimes those labor-saving tools add complexity in other ways.

The main action item of Clutter Free is the Lipp's 2000 things challenge.  She and her family got rid of 2000 things in a year.  It sounds like a lot, but when you start thinking about toys the kids don't play with, clothes you never wear, egg slicers and other gadgets you never use, and countless things stored away in the attic or garage, 2000 begins to sound doable.

Clutter Free is practical, useful, and helpful.  The appendices provide some of her nuts and bolts methods which can help you get started.  Lipp challenges the reader "not simply to get rid of stuff, but to uncover and appreciate the treasures you already have . . . the people, the memories, the treasures that you love."  Now I think I'll go clean out my closet. . . then my attic . . . and the garage . . . and my sock drawer. . . .

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

Sunday, December 28, 2014

Finding Jesus, by Winston Rowntree

Do you love the Where's Waldo books?  Do you love Jesus?  Then you'll really love Winston Rowntree's Finding Jesus.  Just like Martin Hadford did for Waldo, Rowntree creates crowded scenes and places Jesus there among the masses.  He's at the grocery store, shopping mall, campground, concert, airport, really anywhere you would go.  Hey, that's a pretty good theological point!  As Rowntree says in the introduction, "if you look closely enough, somewhere in the blur of people J.C.'s waiting for you to spot him."

Rowntree's illustrations are full of funny details.  I prefer looking at the pictures for the little funny scenes and jokes, and just happening across Jesus.  If you just look for Jesus, you miss out on lots of the humor.  I was a little bothered by the number of people who look like Jesus.  At times, I wasn't sure whether I had found him or not.  Of course, that's part of the game, but I need a little more certainty in my life.

Rowntree, a cartoonist and columnist, is apparently "a non-religious person" doing "a harmless, lighthearted novelty book that barely involves Jesus."  I have no idea what his true religious background is.  I have no idea if he published this book to mock or honor Jesus.  I'm taking it at face value: In our crazy, chaotic lives, whether we are shopping, working, relaxing, or partying, Jesus is there among us.  He wants to know us, and although he may seem elusive at times, he truly does want to be found.  As Rowntree reminds us on the back cover, Jesus said, "Seek and ye shall find."

Thanks to Blogging for Books and Three Rivers Press for the complimentary review copy!

Friday, December 26, 2014

Macaque Attack, by Gareth Powell

Ack-Ack Macaque is back!  After the saving the world in Ack-Ack Macaque and Hive Monkey, Ack-Ack and his friends have to step up to save the world yet again.  The familiar characters and conflicts from the first two Ack-Ack novels are included, and Powell introduces some new faces and wrinkles to the story.

Macaque Attack opens with Ack-Ack and his companions returning to their London of origin, after traveling to various parallel universes.  They have freed many of Ack-Ack's counterparts, other uplifted monkeys and apes, but have also discovered that the villains against whom they have been fighting also have counterparts in other parallels, who have plans to invade again across dimensional borders.

Ack-Ack fans will enjoy the way Powell draws story threads from the first two books, while introducing new elements.  I have not read Powell's novel The Recollection but he brings in characters from that storyline as well.  That's the kind of thing you do when you create a world in which there are an infinite number of parallel universes.  Speaking of parallel universes, just when I (and everyone else in the book) thought I had figured this out, another twist is introduced, sort of Matrix-like.  Interesting. . . .

I'm not sure Macaque Attack is as good as the first two books in the series.  Ack-Ack reflects on his body aging and slowing down.  Paul, Victoria's husband who died but lives on electronically, is deteriorating as well.  In spite of Powell's trademark non-stop action, including lots of explosions, and Ack-Ack's new choice of weapon (a diamond-blade chainsaw works especially well against the cyborg army), I almost felt like this story was running out of steam while soldiering on.

Nevertheless, Powell leaves the ending wide open for a sequel, even referring to the Ack-Ack "trilogy/quartet" in the Ack-Acknowledgements (although he may be referring to the original Ack-Ack short story and the three novels).  If he does write another Ack-Ack novel, I will definitely pick it up.  Mars awaits!

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

Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Gray Mountain, by John Grisham

John Grisham has issues.  This is no surprise to Grisham fans; many of his novels make a statement about one issue or another.  His latest novel, Gray Mountain, takes on the coal industry, as well as addressing legal issues of the rural poor.  I did enjoy Gray Mountain, but the issues distracted from the story more than Grisham usually allows.

The story: After years of contracts and skyscrapers at a huge New York firm, the recession forces downsizing, and she takes an internship at a legal aid clinic in tiny Brady, Virginia.  She gets a quick course in black lung disease, strip mining, and the evil, unethical practices of big coal.  The story progresses in classic Grisham fashion, although the death of a key character caught me by surprise.  The ending winds up rather quickly, with most of the resolution left to assumptions.  Again, this isn't necessarily uncharacteristic of Grisham, but seemed to be more the case with Gray Mountain.  

I wonder about the coal industry.  Grisham paints them as pure, unadulterated evil.  They lay waste to pristine landscapes and treat miners like dispensable tools.  The only positive nod to the coal industry was a reference to a bumper sticker that read "Like electricity? Love coal!"  I do love electricity.  But is there any way to defend the coal industry?  Not according to Grisham.  It might have been more interesting had there been some characters sympathetic to coal.

The bottom line is that this is not the best of Grisham's novels, but mediocre Grisham is still pretty terrific.  Grisham fans will love it, and even if this is the first Grisham novel you read, I thnk you would be sufficiently impressed to want to pick up some of his other novels.

Monday, December 22, 2014

You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can't Make It Scuba Dive), by Robert Bruce Cormack

As much as I enjoyed the oddball characters and off-beat humor of Robert Bruce Cormack's novel You Can Lead a Horse to Water (But You Can't Make It Scuba Dive), I was disappointed that story never really emerged.  Cormack writes funny scenes, but he couldn't seem to pull together an actual plot.  There is an argument for character development; there is some of that, to be sure.  But I kept waiting and waiting for a point to come, and it never really did.

When Sam Bennett gets fired from the advertising agency where he has worked for thirty years, he's not sure where to go next.  When his daughter and son-in-law come for an extended stay, and he starts hanging out with a security guard from his former employer, they all get into assorted mischief and entrepreneurial pursuits.  House painting, web casting, catering, and children's books take up the group's time, fueled by copious amounts of pot brownies.

You Can Lead a Horse to Water isn't a bad book, it's not poorly written, it just never goes anywhere.  If that suits you, check it out.  If you are like me and seek a little more from novels you read, you will likely be disappointed.

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

Sunday, December 21, 2014

Zippy the Runner, by JiYu Kim, illustrated by JeongHyeon Seon

My son Zippy came home from school with a low grade in gymnastics.  Why?  They had a timed mile run, and he didn't make the target time.  He was discouraged, because he knows his asthma slows him down (not to mention his preference for playing video games over playing outside!) and he doesn't want to be the last kid to finish.

About that time, I happened to see JiYu Kim's new book, Zippy the Runner.  What a perfect way to inspire him!  Unfortunately, my Zippy wasn't too impressed with the book.  Granted, he's 13, so he thinks he's above such children's books!  But I was impressed.  JeongHyeon Seon's illustrations are cute and the story is sweet.  I like the fact that Zippy the zebra is always last, yet because he loves to run, he still competes and is willing to help other runners.

As a back-of-the-pack runner myself, I think it's important to acknowledge that even with lots of hard work and dedication, you might still lose every race.  But that doesn't have to get in the way of your love of running and racing.  My Zippy is doing better on his timed runs.  I just hope he'll come to love running as much as Zippy the zebra does, last place or not.

Friday, December 19, 2014

Free, by Alfred Mele

Like any philosopher worth his salt, Alfred Mele pursues questions that the rest of either don't spend any time thinking about, or stay up talking about in late-night bull sessions.  The question of free will is hotly debated in philosophical circles, but you may not be as aware that other fields have tackled the question as well.  Mele explores several scientific denials of free will in Free: Why Science Hasn't Disproved Free Will.

Mele "explains why the scientific experiments that are most often claimed to prove that there's no free will in fact leave the existence of free will wide open."  His  conclusion is modest.  He points out the flaws and weaknesses of each theory, but does not make claims of his own.  That seems a worthy goal, and he does it well.

Free is brief and readable, and serves as an interesting review of the neurological and psychological challenges to free will.  There are many facets of the debate over free will that aren't covered in Free, but Mele's focused arguments will provide some useful content for those late-night bull sessions.

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

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Stuff You Should Know about Stuff, by Tripp and Tyler

Tripp and Tyler are a couple of very funny guys.  If you've heard of them, it's probably because of their popular YouTube videos.  If you haven't heard of them, go watch their YouTube videos!  Here:  I guarantee they are more entertaining than this review!

For those of you who prefer the written word over video, or paper over pixels, they have published some of the wisdom and humor of their videos in a portable format that requires no external power source.  It's a book called Stuff You Should Know About Stuff: How to Properly Behave in Certain Situations.  Funny, random, and, at times, even informative, SYSKAS can mostly help you not be annoying to Tripp and Tyler.  As a bonus, you will become less annoying to just about everyone else, too.

You will relate to Tripp and Tyler's examples of behavior that needs correction and guidance, and you might even feel the sting (in a funny way) of their criticism.  However, they are not afraid to point the fingers back at themselves.  In the section regarding identifying insecure men, they write: "Did he publish a book that makes fun of various types of people?  This is the deepest form of insecurity.  There is no hope for these men."

On the contrary, there is hope for a couple of guys who can be hilariously funny without being crude, racist, or using foul language.  Now, back to the videos. . . .

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

Monday, December 15, 2014

Love Without Limits, by Nick Vujicic

I'm continually impressed with Nick Vujicic.  Read his books, watch his videos, and you'll see a man of faith with a passion for life and a contagious joy.  All of this is on display in his latest book, Love Without Limits: A Remarkable Story of True Love Conquering All, which he co-wrote with his wife, Kanae.  In his prior books, Vujicic has told some of the story of his courtship and marriage to Kanae, but here we get the full story.

Even with his contagious joy and his "ridiculously good life," Vujicic confesses that he struggled with loneliness and rejection.  What woman, he thought, would want to marry a man with no arms and legs?  For Kanae, his lack of limbs turned out not to be an issue.  They fell in love, and even though their early romance was delayed by a romantic comedy movie style mix-up, they married and now have a beautiful baby boy.

Readers will enjoy hearing Nick's stories.  He leads an interesting and entertaining life, and has no shortage of anecdotes.  Kanae makes her contribution as well, writing several extended sections giving her perspective.  Some might object that a couple who has been married only a couple of years, and whose child is barely a toddler, doesn't have much business writing a book about marriage and parenting.  It's a fair point, but the Vujicics approach the subject with humility and a recognition of their youth and inexperience.  Many of their prescriptive sections are focused on single people and newlyweds, such as tips on purity during dating, the proposal, wedding planning, and life with a new baby.  These sections are helpful and practical, and I felt like they did not try to speak outside of their own experience.

When I read Vujicic's books, one thing that stands out is how normal his life seems.  He does talk about living with a disability, and much of his ministry is to others with various disabilities, but mostly he talks about the same things everyone deals with in life.  His wisdom, youthful though it may be, about life, love, and marriage is worth hearing, no matter your age or no matter your disability.

Thanks to Blogging for Books and WaterBrook Press for the complimentary review copy!

Friday, December 12, 2014

Real Santa, by William Hazelgrove

George is having a bad day.  He gets fired, then, to make matters worse, he comes home to find that his 9-year-old daughter is having doubts about the existence of Santa Claus!  He still harbors bad memories of his own father's revelation about Santa, and is determined that his daughter will believe, even in only for one more Christmas.  In Real Santa, William Hazelgrove tells George's story.

George comes up with a fantastic plan, which gets more and more elaborate--and expensive--as time goes on.  Along the way, he angers his daughter's teacher, alienates his neighbor, risks ending his marriage, nearly bankrupts his family, but might just pull off being Santa for his daughter.  Not content simply to dress up in a Santa suit and make an appearance in his living room, he is determined to land a sleigh on the roof of his house, complete with nine reindeer, go down the chimney, put presents under the tree, then climb back up the chimney and fly away.

Hazelgrove has middle-aged, suburban male angst down pat.  As he did in Rocket Man, Hazelgrove captures the struggles of the guy who wants to be a great dad and husband, wants to excel in his career, wants to make a mark on the world, but who faces setback after setback.  Regardless of the consequences, George determinedly pursues his dream of proving to his daughter that Santa is real, and learns quite a bit about himself, and the real Santa, along the way.

Real Santa is a bit madcap.  George goes over-the-top crazy in pursuit of his project.  It was a bit unbelievable that a guy who just lost his job would spend tens of thousands of dollars to play real Santa.  Regardless, Hazelgrove makes it work.  The story is thoroughly entertaining, and has a nice family message.  (I should add, though, that the language is not family-friendly.)  Hazelgrove and George make many references to classic Christmas movies, and part of the story is a movie-within-a-movie, so it's no surprise that Hazelgrove has sold the movie rights to Real Santa.  This is a fun story, and will certainly be a Christmas favorite.  And the Kindle version is only 99 cents!  Check it out!

Thanks to Mr. Hazelgrove for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Fallen Leaves, by Will Durant

My parents didn't argue much when I was growing up, but I do seem to remember some contention on bookshelf space.  Dad, a voracious reader, had shelves full of books.  Mom, who loves a neat, aesthetically pleasing home, thinks bookshelves should look nice.  So they jockeyed for space, with nick-knacks and decorative items competing with Dad's library for shelf space.  On more than one occasion, I remember those conversations ending with Dad taking boxes of books to donate to the Corpus Christi Public Library.

A large percentage of that portion of the shelf space reserved for books was taken up by a multi-volume set which I never read, but I always felt smarter just looking at those books.  The set in question was Will and Ariel Durant's 11 volume The Story of Civilization.  This popular and widely published (if not widely read) history, covering ancient times up to the Napoleonic Era, earned the Durants a Pulitzer and a Presidential Medal of Freedom.

The Durants both died in the 1980s, but a Durant scholar uncovered a decades-old manuscript for a final book at which Will Durant had only hinted.  Fallen Leaves: Last Words on Life, Love, God, and War contains the reflections of a very smart and very opinionated writer who knows he's on his last lap in life.  Covering the stages of life, religion and morality, social issues, politics and war, art and education, the essays are at times rambling, often come across as a bit archaic, and are written, for the most part, in beautiful prose.

Like I said, I never read The Story of Civilization or any of his other works, but based on what I know about Durant, I think he let his hair down with Fallen Leaves, writing a much more personal book.  I had the feeling of sitting on the back porch with him while he, finally, told me what he really thought about these topics.  But unlike your stereotypical cranky old man, Durant has a vast knowledge of history, philosophy, and culture, along with the broad perspective that knowledge brings.

However, like cranky old men everywhere, he is set in his ways. He criticizes modern, abstract art ("empty vanity of an undisciplined mind"). He bemoans youthful ignorance (Life "gives us wisdom only when it has stolen youth."). He upholds traditional morality ("I still believe it advisable to discourage extramarital relations, just as it is useful to  inculcate honesty, though we know that there will be many lies.").  He has the amusingly endearing attitude of an old man who still enjoys the sight of a beautiful woman ("I think the architecture of woman is superb from whatever angle seen.")

I was most interested in Durant's views on morality and religion. Raised a Catholic and, for a short time, a seminary student, Durant has a good working knowledge of Christianity. But early on, he was led astray by Darwinism and other influences. He still admires Christ and his ethics, and calls for "a great union of creeds and sects preaching the ethics of Christ."  He makes a "persistent effort to behave like a Christian" but he "reluctantly abandoned belief in a personal and loving God."

So he finally turned toward a sort of utopian fantasy. At this point I began to wonder about this historian's grasp of human nature and human society. As a Christian, I am inclined to believe that without a personal, loving God, the ethics of Christ are unsustainable. It seems to me that the twentieth century taught us the hazards of separating morality from God.

Durant wasn't too concerned about religious views of eternal life and salvation. "I am quite content with mortality. I should be appalled at the thought of living forever, in whatever paradise."  I don't know about his soul, but he achieved some measure of immortality through his books, as shown by the several feet of shelf space my mother somewhat reluctantly yielded for him.

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

Monday, December 8, 2014

Running Blind, by Lee Child

Jack Reacher can't win a break.  He tries to mind his own business, wants to live an anonymous, solitary life.  But his Army past won't leave him alone.  In Running Blind, when he's ambushed an taken into custody for questioning, it quickly becomes clear that his captors don't really believe he is the perpetrator of a series of bizarre murders, but that they need his help solving the mystery of the deaths.  All of the victims are women who brought sexual harassment complaints during their times of service in the armed forces, and Reacher was the MP on the case.

Like a good mystery writer, Lee Child builds a case, only to tear it down and take the resolution in a direction that the reader never saw coming (but that you realize you should have suspected!).  Child's unexpected twist was certainly clever, but it was almost too clever, maybe a little groan-inducing.  But Reacher's path to figure it all out was impressive.

This was not my favorite Reacher book, due to the evidently improbable resolution, but I did enjoy it.  Child's books are a great commuting partner.  Child has Reacher wrap up the case, but, similar to an episodic television show, he leaves the ending wide open for the next episode.  I'll be tuning in for sure.

Sunday, December 7, 2014

A Christmas Horror Story, by Sebastian Gregory

Here's a great book for your Advent devotional reading--not!  In A Christmas Horror Story, Sebastian Gregory tells the story of Santa Claus's alter-ego, der Kinderfresser or Child Eater.  Rather than bringing a sack full of toys to children everywhere, the Child Eater grabs children and carries them off in his sack--so he can eat them!

The main characters are three siblings whose mother is stuck at a long shift at the hospital, then is unable to get home due to a snow storm.  With the three of them home alone, the power goes out, and the precocious little brother speculates that the sounds on the roof might be the Child Eater, which he read about in his Tome of Dark and Mysterious.  When the Child Eater grabs the two younger children, the intrepid big sister sets out to find them and defeat the Child Eater.  The story is a bit creepy, but more in the vein of a campfire ghost story than a real horror story.  Gregory includes some flashbacks to the Child Eater's victims in the past, tying the stories together with dreams that bode ill for the dreamers.  Altogether it's a bit disjointed, mildly amusing, and a little disturbing.

I would say if your children are OK with the Santa Claus legend, and [spoiler alert!] understand that there really isn't a jolly old elf who comes down the chimney to deliver those toys (which they actually saw last week on the shelf at Wal-Mart), then they are old enough to hear the story of the Child Eater without fear.  But if they open their gifts, only to find the boxes contain only coal, they'd better beware that it's not Santa coming down the chimney, but the Child Eater, and he's very, very hungry.

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

Friday, December 5, 2014

All I Really Want, by Quinn Caldwell

One thing I love about the Advent season is the opportunity to turn back to daily scripture reading, meditation, and prayer.  If your devotional life has fallen off a bit, Advent lends itself to daily anticipation of Christmas and redirecting your thoughts to "the reason for the season."  All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas accomplishes just that.

Quinn Caldwell, a United Church of Christ pastor in New York, has written this little book to encourage the reader to "create room--maybe just enough room--for God to show up."  His short pieces, one for each morning and evening of the Christmas season, are amusing and sometimes insightful and inspiring.  (By the way, I like the fact that the readings extend into January, completing the full 12 days of Chistmas.)

The tone is consistently light and breezy, easily accessible and broadly appealing theologically.  If there is an overall theme of the devotionals, it would include minimizing Christmas consumerism, enjoying the Christmas spirit, focusing on others, and being thankful to God for the gift of his son.  Caldwell strikes a nice balance between embracing the fun trappings of Christmas--recognizing "some Christmas things that have nothing to do with Jesus' birth, but in which I believe God is at work anyway" and encouraging Christmas decorations that "look like a party,"--and focusing on acts of service and devotion.

The devotional-ending prayers, only a sentence or two, are on target but sometimes I felt like they were a bit too trivial (though amusing):
"For evolution, thank you. . . . For not giving me a protruding brow ridge and shallow brain pan, thank you, thank you, thank you, thank you.  Amen."
"God, I know I get on your nerves sometimes.  But you get on mine, too.  Thanks for loving me anyway.  Amen."
"OK, God, I'm willing to go [to church on Christmas].  But I'm totally going to hide out in my room for a week after that, and you can't stop me. Amen."
While most of the content is unobjectionable and will appeal to Christians (and other Christmas celebrators of all kinds) across denominational lines, there were enough hints of a rather liberal perspective that I suspect many believers will be put off.  Environmentalism, social justice, pacifism, and gay rights (the author is homosexual) are not central to the book, but raise their heads enough to raise some hackles for a more theological conservative believer.

But rather than focus on the many points of contention I may have with the author, I was happy to appreciate his consistent focus on turning our hearts to Jesus this Christmas season.  He ends on a hopeful eschatological note.  We may not get everything we really want for Christmas (such healing, reconciliation, peace) but "Advent isn't just about fulfillment.  Advent is always about longing, and it's always about longing that's not going to be fulfilled for a long time.  Christmas didn't fix everything; it started fixing everything."  And that is why Christmas is merry.

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

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

The Genome, by Sergei Lukyanenko

The Genome, by Sergei Lukyanenko, is a very good sci-fi novel.  I'm tempted to call it great.  Lukyanenko, a Russian writer, creates an original, rich future history, featuring colonization of other planetary systems, contact with other species, and, most importantly for this novel, highly advanced human genetic engineering.  Plus he tells a great murder mystery.

Alex, our protagonist, has been released from a long stay in the hospital and just happens to see an ad seeking a pilot to serve as captain on a new spaceship.  He's a spesh, genetically bred to be a pilot, and jumps at the chance to sit in the captain's seat.  He gathers a crew and gets his first assignment from his mysterious, absentee boss: to take 2 "others" and their bodyguard on a tourist trip to several planets.  When one of the guests is found brutally murdered in the quarters, and every member of the small crew has a possible motive, things get interesting.  Oh, and by the way, the murder could lead to an all-out inter-galactic war.

Lukyenko builds the story carefully, in such a way that I enjoyed the atmosphere, the characters, and the universe he constructs, without really worrying about where the story was going.  I knew there was some inevitable conflict on the horizon, but did not expect what happened.  After the murder, a spesh named Sherlock Holmes (I know, it sounds a little silly, but it works) comes on board to investigate.  With large doses of homage to Arthur Conan Doyle, Lukyanenko turns the story into a classic murder mystery, complete with the gathering of all the suspects for the big reveal.

Lukyanenko brings together all the elements of a terrific murder mystery and sci-fi adventure in The Genome, while delving into the shaping of our personalities and our very identities.  Even in a world where not only physical characteristics but also emotional and psychological traits can be determined in the womb, Lukyanenko asks, Can an individual still be autonomous?  The Genome is a fun read and an interesting story.  I hope more of his work is translated into English.

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

Monday, December 1, 2014

The Art of Racing in the Rain, by Garth Stein

Sometimes a literary device is original enough and well-executed enough that it can overshadow a mediocre story.  A great example of this is Garth Stein's popular novel, The Art of Racing in the Rain.  The entire novel is told from the perspective of Enzo, a mutt whose owner Denny is a race car driver.  Enzo, who thinks he is, or will be, human (don't all dogs?), has plenty of clever insight into the strange behavior of his human companions.  Stein's canine point of view is very entertaining, and makes what would be a melodramatic, contrived story into a decent book.

Denny goes through lots of hardship, losing his wife, suffering insufferable in-laws, being falsely accused of a terrible crime, and struggling to get his racing career off the ground.  But just as a good driver isn't deterred by the hardship of rain on the track, neither is Denny beaten by his challenges in life.  The Art of Racing in the Rain is not a great story, but told with great execution.  I wouldn't necessarily recommend it, but for the curious reader it's worth picking up just for Stein's unique story-telling acumen.

Sunday, November 30, 2014

How Santa Met the ELFs, by Ben Dasaro

It's the first Sunday of Advent!  The most wonderful time of the year!  I'm not sure How Santa Met the ELFs will make it onto many Advent devotional reading lists, but it's a fun attempt at explaining how Santa met his helpers and how he got all those magical powers.

Ben Dasaro spins a fanciful tale of a kind and curious Laplander named Kris Kringle who investigates what he thinks must have been a meteor falling near his home.  Expecting to see a rock, similar to what he had found on occasions in the past, he found instead an egg-shaped craft, out of which stepped small humanoid beings: ELFs, extra-terrestrial life forms!

He helps out the ELFs, and they decide to stick around.  The snowy clime in Lapland suits them well, and they need some time (centuries) to charge up their ship.  So they befriend Kringle, and he benefits from their wondrous, other-worldly technological powers.  Of course, he doesn't use those powers for his own benefit, but to extend his toy-making and giving to children around the world.

Dasaro writes in a style that, surely intentionally, recalls 'Twas the Night Before Christmas
In the land of the Lapps where reindeer pull sleds
Since a child he'd been a thinker, always using his head.
He loved fixing things and making new toys.
He made them for girls. He made them for boys.
Maybe How Santa Met the ELFs isn't destined to be a Christmas favorite generations from now the way 'Twas the Night Before Christmas is, but it's a fun take on Santa.  And Santa's magic. . .  Well, Arthur C. Clarke's third law comes to mind: "Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic."  Maybe Santa's magic is really extra-terrestrial technology, straight from the ELFs!

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

Friday, November 28, 2014

God Wills It, by David O'Connell

Americans are quite familiar with their presidents using religious language in their public speech.  Whether closing an address with "God bless America," or talking about their faith, presidents don't hesitate to inject religious language and references into their speech.  In God Wills It: Presidents and the Political Use of Religion, David O'Connell examines several cases in which presidents have used religious speech.  He discusses the speech itself, along with whether or not it is effective.

O'Connell's case studies include Eisenhower's appeals for foreign aid and Reagan's opposition to the communists, Bush and Bush's (41 and 43) similar appeals in the good v. evil struggle against terror, Carter's religious defense of his energy policy, Kennedy and Johnson on civil rights, and Ford and Clinton on repentance and forgiveness.  Each chapter includes a bit of background on the religious faith of the presidents, an overview of the historical and political setting, substantial excerpts from presidential speeches, a review of opinion polls and editorial responses in major newspapers, and an evaluation of congress's responses.

O'Connell has what I view as a cynical attitude about presidential use of religious language.  He writes, "when a president uses religious language as a means of shaping the discussion about a particular policy, he is making a strategic choice.  He has calculated that this particular kind of claim can improve his odds of getting what he wants."  But based on all of his analysis, he concludes "that religious rhetoric does not seem to help a president much, if at all."  So religious rhetoric is disingenuous and pointless.

O'Connell's strength in the writing of God Wills It is the contextualization of the speeches he covers.  By focussing on one crisis or event, he provides a well-rounded picture of the historical setting.  This was especially helpful for those events that occurred before my living memory, and even for those I remember I appreciated the refresher.  For example, I don't remember Ford's pardon of Nixon.  He calls Ford's speech announcing the pardon "one of the most religious speeches in all of American presidential history."  Yet, to the point of his research, "it would be hard to find religious rhetoric that was more unsuccessful with the public than this."

The remainder of the study--the survey of public opinion polls and editorial responses--demonstrates a strong ability to quantify subjective data, and clearly illustrates the argument O'Connell makes.  But it makes rather dry reading.  God Wills It might be of interest to the average reader, but it will be of most interest to academics in the field of political science, church-state studies, and related fields.

[A couple of notes on the Kindle version: the charts are virtually unusable due to the formatting.  I don't know how to get around that problem.  I don't think I've ever seen charts in any Kindle book that were formatted properly.  Also, O'Connell uses lots of quotes, some very lengthy.  In a printed version, I'm sure they would be in block quotes, but, again, Kindle doesn't format block quotes well.  I could always tell from context when the quote stopped and O'Connell's writing began, but there were plenty of times that I had to go back and figure it out.  I wish Kindle could figure out how to handle block quotes.]

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

Wednesday, November 26, 2014

Middle School: The Inside Story, by Cynthia Tobias and Sue Acuña

Mark Twain had some advice for parents of middle schoolers: When they turn 13, put them in a barrel, close the lid, and feed them through a hole.  It may be tempting to do so, but the authors of Middle School: The Inside Story provide more practical guidance that will not bring you to the attention of CPS.

Cynthia Tobias and Sue Acuña have years of experience with middle schoolers as teachers, conference speakers, and authors.  Covering bodily changes, school issues, parenting and discipline, and social challenges of middle schoolers, Tobias and Acuña have a wealth of insight for parents entering or in the midst of life with young teens.  They interviewed lots of kids, hoping to gain a glimpse of the middle school mind.

Middle School: The Inside Story is practical and readable.  Much of what they write is common knowledge or common sense, but they organize and present it in a useful way.  Plus, I think any parent will find some nuggets here.  The comments from the kids whom the authors interviewed can be most revealing.  I think most parents of middle schoolers will agree with me: we need all the help we can get.  Tobias and Acuña's help is most welcome.

Thanks to Tyndale Blog Network for the complimentary review copy!

Monday, November 24, 2014

Stand Strong, by Nick Vujicic

If you know Nick Vujicic, you know the irony, humor, and self-confidence he exhibits in titling his latest book Stand Strong: You Can Overcome Bullying (and Other Stuff That Keeps You Down).  Vujicic has no legs, but he stands as strong as anyone.  He has no arms, but he is willing to lend a hand to whomever has a need.  In Stand Strong, Vujicic offers inspiration to all of us who face bullies and other forms of discouragement in our lives.

Vujicic, who was born with no arms and legs, was an easy target for bullies when he was growing up, and, as he tells the story in Stand Strong, has been a target as an adult as well.  He overcame and has become an inspiration speaker and author through his ministry Life Without Limbs.

Even though the primary audience for Stand Strong is teen readers, the advice he offers can serve people of all ages.  Be confident in who you are, and in the values you hold and live by.  Surround yourself with friends whose relationships will support you and defend you.  Develop a strong spiritual life.  And be on the lookout for others who are bullied, ready to come to their defense.

Vujicic's writing is practical, honest, and realistic.  He is not one to whine about all he's had to overcome, and wants to encourage readers to overcome their own difficulties.  You can't help but appreciate his occasional self-deprecating humor and be inspired by his relentlessly positive outlook.  Bullies are a reality in many (most?) teens' lives, but they don't have to be a defining reality.  Vujicic gives kids who are bullied practical steps to change their perspective and overcome bullying.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for the complimentary review copy!

Friday, November 21, 2014

Love and Mayhem, by John DeGarmo

John DeGarmo has established himself as an expert on foster care and adoption, yet he calls foster parenting the hardest thing he's ever done.  Any foster parent I've ever known or read about would whole-heartedly agree with DeGarmo's assessment.  In Love and Mayhem: One Big Family's Uplifting Story of Fostering and Adoption, DeGarmo tells stories from the front lines, as his family has fostered dozens of children through the years.

On one level, DeGarmo's experience might discourage potential foster parents from entering the fray.  Foster parenting can be full of heartbreak.  Some of the worst examples of humanity can be found in the environments from which foster children are removed.  DeGarmo does not gloss over the pain and ugliness of fostering.

Yet the love and healing that foster children can find in families like the DeGarmos is crucial and undeniable.  DeGarmo describes the rewards and satisfaction of fostering in spite of the pain.  Even in their little town in rural Georgia, the needs are great; the DeGarmos received more calls than they could handle for children in need.  Would that more families followed the DeGarmos's example and took up the mantle of fostering in cities across the country.

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

Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Superheroes Anonymous, by Lexie Dunne

Hostage Girl, a.k.a. Gail Godwin, came by her nickname the hard way.  Shortly after her move to Chicago, she became a favorite kidnap target by the local villains.  Believing that she is dating the superhero Blaze, they keep taking her hostage, baiting him to come and rescue her, which he does, reliably and successfully.  Until he doesn't.  And then things really start to get interesting for Gail.

Lexie Dunne tells Gail's story in her debut novel, Superheroes Anonymous.  Gail's latest captor holds her hostage for a couple of weeks, but Blaze never shows up.  She escapes and falls into the hands of the secret society of superheroes, where she discovers that the isotope with which her captor had injected her has actually given her super powers of her own!

Superheroes Anonymous is an origin story, set in a world familiar to fans of superhero movies and comics.  The tone is more like Sky High or The Incredibles than Batman.  While familiar, the story and setting are wholly original without feeling derivative or like fan fiction.  Told from Gail's perspective, the story has a more feminine tone than most superhero stories, but make no mistake: she's no ordinary "damsel in distress."  She's tough, a budding superhero with an attitude.

This is a fun read.  I enjoyed the characters and the plot.  It was a bit like the first episode of a TV series though, with lots of stage setting, not as much action.  Which leads to my complaint about the book.  Not to give a spoiler, but Dunne ends it in a cliffhanger!!  So many questions unanswered. . . .  So tune in next time, same Hostage Girl time, same Hostage Girl channel.  I will definitely be looking forward to the sequel!

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

Monday, November 17, 2014

Personal, by Lee Child

Jack Reacher, loner, ex-Army, brilliant detective, just wants to be left alone and live his life.  But he keeps getting called back into service.  This time, it's Personal.  Reacher's on the trail of one of the world's great snipers.  The catch is that a dozen years ago, Reacher put this sniper in prison, and he holds a major grudge against Reacher.

Reacher heads to France to investigate a failed assassination attempt, then to England to try to prevent an attempt at the G8 summit.  Getting mixed up with the Serbian gangs and the English mob, who are working together to protect the sniper, Reacher, characteristically, beats them all against long odds.  Of course Reacher gets his man, but, as Child's readers know, it's never easy and it's never in the way you expect.

Child's narrative style, clipped and driving, keeps the action strong and compelling.  Reacher's frequent stream-of-consciousness passages amused me, especially when he riffed on a theme: "Mass and velocity, just like baseball, just like everything." Or "It's a DNA thing.  Like rats."  He also plays out his fighting with all the calculations and analysis, measuring the angles, relative weights, weapons, and odds.  With some writers, this might get tiresome, but Child does it well.

Fans of Child's Jack Reacher novels will feel right at home with Personal.  It twists and turns, and reminds me that Reacher is tougher, stronger, and smarter than I am.  Very enjoyable.

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

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Lend a Hand: Poems About Giving, by John Frank, illustrated by London Ladd

Like most parents, I want my children to be kind, generous people who are not self-absorbed and who love to serve others.  That's not easy to teach.  I hope they pick up some of that by example (from my wife's example more than my own, to be sure).  For more examples to look to, parents will enjoy sharing the poems in Lend a Hand: Poems About Giving with their children.

Children don't have much to offer others in terms of money or material assistance, obviously.  But John Frank's poems give first-person narratives of children who give in many different ways.  Kids can get some great, simple ideas from these poems of how they can help others every day: give up a seat on the bus, share lunch with someone who doesn't have one, cut your hair and donate it for cancer victims, teach another kid how to hit a baseball, plant some trees in your neighborhood.

Frank's poems are short and simple, and Ladd's illustrations perfectly complement the poems.  I especially appreciated their choice to include children of a variety of races in the illustrations.  Lend a Hand will inspire children (and their parents!) to look around them for opportunities to serve and bless others.

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

Friday, November 14, 2014

Good Always Wins--Kids' Edition, by Ed Straus

If God is good, why does bad stuff happen?  The problem of evil has occupied philosophers and theologians for centuries, and remains a primary argument by atheists against the existence of God.  Ed Straus, who wrote Good Always Wins: Thru Tragedy, Thru Evil, Thru All Eternity has now written a book for kids on the subject: Good Always Wins--Kids' Edition: Through Bad Times, Through Sad Times, Through All Time.  (I'm not sure why he went from thru to through . . .)

Even very young kids may reflect on the problem of evil, even if they don't express it that way.  Clearly people get hurt or killed, there are natural disasters and accidents, there is pain and violence in the world.  Why doesn't God do something about it?  "We want to understand why God allows suffering.  We wish to know that he actually cares."  Straus's arguments may not satisfy everyone, but he does a nice job of placing suffering in perspective.

One way that good wins is our response in the face of suffering.  "When God allows others to suffer, He's also closely watching our hearts . . . we should pray for them, comfort them, and help them.  When we do that, good wins!"  And the reality is that much of the suffering in the world, from Adam on, is a result of our own individual and collective choices and actions.  Even then, "in His great love for us, He constantly turns evil situations into good ones.  He won't stop until good comes out of every bad situation."

Ultimately, good wins in eternity: "One day all our suffering will come to an end, and we will enjoy happiness and great joy in heaven forever." That is great promise and a great comfort.  Straus teaches and reminds us that God is in control, and that he has promised us ultimate victory over evil and suffering.  In the meantime, as God's representatives, we can accomplish much, letting Him use us to do good in the face of evil and suffering.

I would happily pass this book along to a child who has questions about the problem of evil.  I'm not sure how well Straus really addresses the theological problem, but as an encouragement for young believers, he hits the spot.

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

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

The Pity Party, by William Voegeli

The Democrats think they have the corner on compassion.  They'll tell you they're the party of the poor and marginalized, and that the mean and nasty Republicans only care about the rich.  In The Pity Party: A Mean-Spirited Diatribe Against Liberal Compassion, William Voegeli demonstrates that not only is this Democratic conceit is not only wrong but blatantly false and contradictory.

Politicians like to drag out the pitiful to bolster their policy goals, none more than liberal democrats.  Al Gore talking about his sister dying of lung cancer, Barack Obama stating that his mother suffered due to her insurance company not paying the bills, or citizens paraded about at a bill signing or State of the Union address, they appeal to the compassion of the nation.  Yet their stated desire to do good does not translate into good being done.  "Liberals' ideals make them more culpable, not less, for the fact that government programs set up to do good don't reliably accomplish good. . . . Liberals are content to treat gestures as the functional equivalent of deeds, and intentions as adequate substitutes for achievements."

Liberals are seemingly unconcerned about results.  "People who care about caring demand more government spending but eschew rigorous interrogations about the efficacy of past and present spending."  Voegeli discusses several areas in which government excels in giving out "stuff" without affecting the problems they set out to affect.  The result is that "caring compassionately about victims of suffering situations while accepting complacently government programs that discharge their core mission--alleviating that suffering--ineffectively and inefficiently."

The alternative is not greed and selfishness, but letting care begin with the family and community, and expand from there.  I was reminded of the Reformed concept of sphere sovereignty, in which different spheres of life each have their own functions and responsibilities.  Voegeli explores a practical response to the modern welfare state, the negative income tax.  Instead of maintaining our gigantic, expensive, bureaucratic system of social welfare, the negative income tax would give cash directly to citizens, based on their income level, for them to use for housing, health care, etc., on the open market.  It's an interesting proposal, if not completely compelling.  It would certainly be a major shift from the current thinking!

Voegeli can be rather wordy, and his arguments sometimes seemed rather circuitous.  But he provides a rich range of references, augments his points with writings both contemporary and historical, and address current policy debates.  He can also be rather entertaining, as in the extended discussion of the use of the word "bullish--." (He rather likes using that word, and applies it liberally to liberals.)  The basic point of The Pity Party, that liberal compassion is anything but, should be trumpeted by conservatives and libertarians.  Voegeli has provided the ammunition.  Now, aim and fire.

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

Monday, November 10, 2014

Sycamore Row, by John Grisham

Grisham has lots of stories to tell and he tells them well.  In Sycamore Row, he returns to the setting of his first novel, A Time to Kill, and features that novel's hero, the young lawyer Jake Brigance.  A few years have passed, and Jake becomes the lawyer for the estate of a man he never met.  One Sunday, Seth Hubbard, a local millionaire, hangs himself.  The next morning, Jake gets a letter in the mail from the late Mr. Hubbard, which includes his hand-written will.

What makes this interesting is that the will specifically excludes Hubbard's children and grandchildren, leaving virtually the entire estate, worth millions, to his black housekeeper.  Not many people in Ford County, black or white have money, so the prospect of a local woman becoming the richest black woman in the state generates a lot of buzz at the coffee shop.

Grisham ably navigates the racial and social implications of the will and the ensuing fight over its execution.  Some old history is dredged up, and Jake begins to think that the old man wasn't so crazy or reckless as everyone thought.  The sidebars, backstories, and local history color and flesh out the narrative.  Like many of Grisham's stories, the build up is slow, and the climax, though satisfying, is not explosive.  Less a roller coaster than a scenic train ride, Sycamore Row is nevertheless an enjoyable story.  Well done, Grisham.  Keep 'em coming!

Monday, November 3, 2014

Saving Sex, by Amy DeRogatis

It's always interesting to read an outsider's perspective on specific cultures, especially when you're an insider in that culture and you can recognize the outsider's distance.  I don't know Amy DeRogatis, and have no idea what sort of church she attends or if she is even a Christian.  She is a Harvard Divinity School graduate and a professor of religious studies at Michigan State.  In Saving Sex: Sexuality and Salvation in American Evangelicalism, she surveys a variety of evangelical books, web sites, and sermons to examine "the relationship between sexuality and salvation in American evangelicalism."  The book is a revision and expansion of two articles published in scholarly journals.

DeRogatis gathered a wide variety of evangelical publications on dating, marriage, and sex to do a sort of sociological analysis of evangelical beliefs and practices.  She found common themes that will be unsurprising to evangelicals, primarily "that heterosexual sex is holy and natural, is sanctioned by God, and should be practiced in marriage."  DeRogatis's tone of ostensible academic detachment often comes across as arrogant and mocking, especially in her descriptions of purity pledges and the abstinence movement.  Yes, some of it sounds silly, especially as she describes it, but what is her alternative?  Endorsing sexual activity among teens doesn't seem like a good option.

The mocking continues as she discusses manuals for married couples.  She sees them as simplistic, medically insufficient and naive, and too male-oriented.  Responding to the claims of the purity movement and the sex manuals, she facetiously asks, "If sex within a sanctified marriage is fabulous, why do evangelicals continue to buy books about sexual technique and practices?  Clearly, many born-again married Christians believe that they should be sexually satisfied, but they need instructions."

In spite of her apparent biases, DeRogatis does do a nice job of surveying the mainstream Christian literature. However, she spends an inordinate amount of time on a couple of fringes.  There are plenty of Christians who endorse and enjoy having large families, and discourage any means of preventing conception, but she tends to focus on those at the extreme end of the spectrum.  Even more troubling is the amount of space she gives to one book that discusses "sexually transmitted demons," actual spiritual beings who "travel through fluid such as blood and semen" and are passed through generations.  I can safely say that anyone who holds this view is in a tiny minority among evangelicals.

I'm not sure what DeRogatis was attempting to accomplish or demonstrate with this book.  It will offend many evangelicals who don't like to be portrayed as unenlightened or boorish.  It will affirm mainstream Christians and nonreligious people who think evangelicals are unenlightened and boorish.  What she doesn't accomplish is offering any alternative.  She doesn't recognize that evangelicals are very aware of their own sinfulness, the need to protect themselves and their children from the destructive effects of sin, and the hope that God offers for healing and restoration when sexual boundaries are crossed.  That is what evangelicals believe about saving sex: it's a gift from God that we, in our sinfulness, frequently misuse, but that God wants to restore and redeem in us.

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

Friday, October 31, 2014

Right for a Reason, by Miriam Weaver and Amy Jo Clark

Miriam Weaver and Amy Jo Clark, a.k.a. Daisy and Mock on their radio show, are a couple of midwestern moms who have decided that conservatism needs a makeover.  On their website, Facebook page, and radio show, these "chicks on the right" have made a name for themselves promoting conservatism with a feminine touch.  Now they have put their ideas into book form, in Right for a Reason: Life, Liberty, and a Crapload of Common Sense.

On one level, they're about what you'd expect from this title: they're funny, brash, outspoken, a bit irreverent, and probably a little bossy.  (They object to the campaign against the use of that word, so I thought I'd throw it in for them!  They write: "It damages us all when a campaign showcasing women of influence recommends banning a word simply because it hurts their feelings.")  I will not comment on their looks, as that might be construed as sexist (see the section in which they berate a Republican congressman who stated that a reporter was "beautiful," noting that he "couldn't manage to make points about policy and ideology without resorting to commenting on [her] appearance.")

Besides being entertaining and provocative, Weaver and Clark demonstrate a savvy understanding of conservative issues.  Covering gun control, politically correct speech, the free market, racism, feminism, American exceptionalism, and other areas of policy and culture, they argue that conservatives are right about these issues.  They are right to defend capitalism, to reject a culture of government handouts, to uphold the right to own guns, to reject speech codes, and to be pro-life.  None of these positions will surprise conservative readers, and Weaver and Clark present them in an engaging way.

One of their strengths in Right for a Reason is the acknowledgement that not all conservatives are the same.  "Just because we pull the Republican levers at the polling booth doesn't mean that we necessarily toe the party line on every single issue, nor does it mean all Republicans in general are in lockstep on every single issue."  They demonstrate their independence from the positions of many conservatives as they discuss the hot-button sexual issues of the day.  They have no objection to equal rights for gay couples and individuals.  They call on conservatives not to be concerned about who someone is sleeping with, and to focus on issues that really matter.  To gay people, they say, "That's great that you're gay, but no one cares.  Just be gay and stop making it the cornerstone of your entire existence already."

They are more in line with most conservatives on abortion, and are decidedly pro-life, but realistically accept the fact that overturning Roe v. Wade is not in the cards.  Abortion, especially late-term, is a horror.  They object to the use of abortion as birth control, and the risks to women's health that abortions pose.  However, unlike many conservatives, they have no objection to birth control pills and morning after pills.  Their position on birth control will alienate some conservatives, but it is well-reasoned and ultimately pro-life.

Weaver and Clark have a perspective and voice that is frequently lacking in conservative circles.  They are passionate, inclusive, reasonable, and persuasive.  When too often Republicans are on the defensive (which is most of the time, in this world of liberal-dominated media), the Chicks on the Right provide a positive, forward-thinking message, presenting conservative ideas in a way that is appealing and even cool.  More power to them!

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

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Kid Presidents, by David Stabler, illustrated by Doogie Horner

There has to be something remarkable about a person to be elected resident.  But as remarkable as some of our presidents have been, they all started out as little boys.  (Not to say there isn't some little girl out there who will someday be president!)  In Kid Presidents: True Tales of Childhood from America's Presidents, David Stabler has gathered stories from the early years of our presidents.  Sometimes inspiring, more often amusing, Stabler shows the human side of future residents of the White House.

The stories are definitely kid-friendly, aimed at the pre-teen or young teen set.  Doogie Horner's illustrations add just enough visual levity to make it interesting while not distracting from the text.  Stabler starts out by debunking the George Washington and the cherry tree myth, but many of the stories he goes on to tell sound like they are surely myths, too.  He provides an extensive reading list, so I'll assume his sources are sound.

I was mostly struck by the stories of the heroism, determination, and resourcefulness of many of the earlier presidents.  It's hard to imagine a kid being raised today in rural poverty or without a proper education becoming president.  But that's the hope Stabler offers.  I do like Stabler's cheery optimism.  "See these men who, as children, had huge obstacles to overcome?  You can do the same!"  Perhaps money, connections, and political deal-making played as big a role back then as now, and perhaps, even now, kids who start out without money and connections can work their way to the White House.

Stabler is decidedly non-partisan and gives a very positive portrayal of each president.  He avoids any reference to scandals and personal proclivities that mark some presidents' administrations.  However, I was amused by an anecdote he told about Bill Clinton.  In fourth grade, he was chosen to sing a duet with "the prettiest woman Billy had ever seen: his fourth-grade music teacher." As he sang, he "was actually courting the beautiful, sweet-smelling woman standing beside him. . . . From then on, he would be known as one of the most musical kids in his school."  But he was also known for his womanizing, which apparently started in the fourth grade!

Kid Presidents is a fun book that will be a delightful addition to a typical U.S. history curriculum.  Don't count on it contextualizing these stories much into the larger historical picture, but do count on it helping kids to see U.S. presidents as more than men in suits making important decisions as they lead the country, but as boys being boys and learning to become men.

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

Monday, October 27, 2014

Small Talk, by Amy Julia Becker

As Bill Cosby said in one of his album titles, "Those of you with or without children, you'll understand." Amy Julia Becker is not a stand-up comedian, but parents and non-parents alike will enjoy her tales of raising three very different and sometimes challenging children.  In her book Small Talk: Learning from My Children About What Matters Most, Becker tells sweet, amusing, and heart-warming stories about her children.  But more importantly, she uses her experiences as a springboard to reflections on spiritual truth.

Like many parents, Becker quickly learned that children can be a gift, a blessing, and, sometimes, a prophetic presence.  "For a long time, I though my children were a distraction from the work God was doing in my life and in the world around me.  I am starting to realize they are the work God is doing in my life."  Becker is at her best when reflecting on how to communicate spiritual truths to her children.  When she attempts to communicate theological ideas, simplifying and and clarifying for her preschoolers, she turns the questions to herself, clarifying for herself what she really believes and why.

I especially enjoyed Becker's writing about her daughter Penny, who has Down syndrome.  When doctors discussed Down syndrome with her, it was always a list of "everything defective, disabled, and broken about" Penny.  But over time, she "went from thinking about her as my disabled daughter to my daughter, [she] started to realize she was no more broken than anyone else. . . . Some of what I had assumed was evidence of brokenness--a lower IQ than a typical child, a longer time learning to walk--was simply evidence that she, too, is a human being dependent on others to grow and enjoy the world."

Small Talk has quite a bit more spiritual depth and thoughtfulness than you would normally expect from this sort of book.  Her reflections are not just for moms or parents, but for any Christian who struggles with how to relate to God and the work of Jesus in our lives.  (And isn't that all of us at one time or another?)

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

Friday, October 24, 2014

What I Wish My Mother Had Told Me About Marriage, by Greg and Julie Gorman

I've said it before, and I'll say it again: a married person can't read too many books about marriage.  I can't speak for husbands everywhere, but I know I need all the help I can get.  Greg and Julie Gorman offer some help in What I Wish My Mother Had Told Me About Marriage: Unlocking 10 Secrets to a Thriving Marriage.  By looking at their own marriage, at lots of scripture, and at solid wisdom about marriage relationships, the Gormans offer their take on improving and loving together.

The first "secret" (it's not really a secret) is "the key to experiencing a thriving marriage is our complete surrender to God."  This is the non-negotiable starting point for all the rest of what they say.  In marriage, as we surrender to God, we commit to serving one another: "Marriage requires us to exchange our selfish nature for Christ's servant-like nature."  That commitment is not easy, and takes a deliberate effort.  They write, "Just because two Christians marry does not mean they'll automatically have a Christian marriage."  Both partners must "cultivate and practice servanthood within your marriage relationship."  If you master that point, the rest of the book is unnecessary.  But it's still helpful.

Without "revealing" the other 9 "secrets" I thought I'd add some general thoughts about the book.

Some things I liked about WIWMMHTMAM:
-- The Gormans are honest and open about their own marriage and struggles they've had.  Julie discusses the abuse she suffered, they talk about their blended family, and they recount the knock-down, drag-out fights they had early on.
-- Each chapter includes "A Letter from the Father," which takes scripture and mashes it together in letter form pertaining to the theme of the chapter.  It's very effective in bringing scriptural thoughts to a first-person divine voice.  
-- The book is primarily written by Julie, but each chapter includes "Greg's Turn," in which Greg corrects all of the errors Julie makes.  Just kidding, of course.  He affirms Julie's piece and provides the male perspective.

What I didn't like as much about WIWMMHTMAM:
 -- "Secrets" is overused in book titles.  The 10 "secrets" promised in the subtitle aren't secrets, but age-old, time-tested truths.  This will surprise no one.  Nobody picks up a book like this thinking that they will find among the pages some previously hidden secret formula.  So why do publishers insist on putting this in so many book titles?
-- Many books with "secret" in the title are in the self-help/motivational genre.  Julie makes her living as a motivational/inspirational speaker.  Some of that tone carries over into the book, in both her style and in her selection of writers from which she quotes.  This is a taste issue as much as anything.  The more you sound like Tony Robbins, the more turned off I get.

Whether you've been married for decades or just starting out, you will glean some truth from and be challenged by WIWMMHTMAM.  The Gormans and the couples they discuss here have probably been through whatever you're going through and will help you remember that marriage is worth the effort to make it work and thrive.

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

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Just Mercy, by Bryan Stevenson

We live in a great country, founded on freedom and equality and justice for all.  I believe that, and I believe those principles form the core of our justice system.  But, as Bryan Stevenson demonstrates all too clearly in Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption our system, like every human system is far from perfect.  Not only is it not perfect, there are elements of evil lurking within it.

Stevenson, founder of the Equal Justice Initiative (EJI) has dedicated his legal career to defending "the poor, the disfavored, the accused, the incarcerated, and the condemned."  He became convinced that "the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice."  EJI defends innocent people who have been condemned to death, minors and disabled individuals who have received unjust sentences, and others who have been overlooked or mistreated by the courts.  His clients are largely poor and minority, because of "our system's disturbing indifference to inaccurate or unreliable verdicts, our comfort with bias, and our tolerance of unfair prosecutions and convictions." 

Stevenson tells many of his clients' stories in Just Mercy, but the one narrative that drives the book is Walter McMillian's conviction and death sentence for a murder he didn't commit.  The entire groundless accusation, botched investigation, and joke of a trial boggle the mind.  If ever there was someone who was put on death row for no reason, McMillian was.  Stevenson was finally able to get him freed after many years, but the damage to McMillian's business, family, and mental and physical health had been done.

I tend to have a positive view of law enforcement and the justice system.  I want to believe that cases like McMillian's are few and far between.  But to hear Stevenson tell the story, his case load is beyond what he and the EJI lawyers can handle; the prisons are full of people placed there by a corrupt, racist, biased system.  I wish he would spend a little time talking about people who are in prison for life because they deserve to be there.  I appreciate his sentiment that we should not "reduce people to their worst acts and permanently label them."  People can and do change, and the justice system should have a strong element of reform.  But if someone rapes and murders, terrorizes their neighborhood, and completely disregards human life, long prison sentences are in order.

As hard on crime as I want to be (as if my opinion makes any difference) I will still stand with Stevenson's objection to the death penalty.  Some may argue that if we wrongfully execute one innocent person for every hundred executions, the deterrent effect is worth that price.  But to me that price is too high.  (Not to mention the deterrent effect of the death penalty is questionable at best.)  Just Mercy will definitely get the reader thinking about our justice system, and make us a little less eager to believe in someone's guilt when we hear about their crimes in the news.  I am thankful for Stevenson and other lawyers like him who sound the trumpet for justice and mercy for the poor and marginalized. If I were a younger man, this book would inspire me to go to law school and follow in Stevenson's footsteps.

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

Monday, October 20, 2014

Rush of Heaven, by Ema McKinley

I believe in miracles, and believe that God still heals today.  But every now and then I'll hear a story that takes me from a theoretical belief to "Wow!  We worship a mighty God!"  Ema McKinley's story is one of those.  In Rush of Heaven: One Woman's Miraculous Encounter with Jesus, McKinley tells her story of her injury due to a freak accident at work, her two decades of debilitating pain, and her miraculous healing experience.

While crawling around among the rafters in the stock room at work, McKinley fell and hung upside-down, unconscious, for hours before someone found her and got her down.  As a result of her injuries, she developed reflex sympathetic dystrophy (RSD), which caused her immense constant pain and forced her to use a wheelchair and need constant medical care.  Then after nearly 20 years of suffering with RSD and a host of related medical issues, she fell off her wheelchair.  She was home alone and helpless.  After several hours, Jesus appeared to her, straightened her distorted joints, and helped her to her feet.  She walked for the first time in years.

A story like this is bound to raise questions from doubters.  McKinley, perhaps anticipating objections, provides copious medical reports from throughout her illness, along with doctors' evaluations after her healing.  There is no question that what happened to her was nothing short of an incredible, miraculous healing.

While the story of McKinley's encounter with Jesus and miraculous healing give her story a bigger audience, perhaps the real story is her trust in Jesus through all the pain.  Her faith and trust in Jesus and his word are, to me, miraculous.  She relied on scripture, her "tasty bread and butter."  "Chronic pain had . . . wound its way into every fabric of my being. . . . My pain definitely forces me to turn to God." "The pain was constant in inescapable.  It stalked me wherever I went.  Even the smallest things could set it off." Yet she constantly turned to the Bible and prayer for comfort.  It makes the little things that irritate me seem petty and insignificant.  What an inspiring spirit!

There were times when reading about McKinley's pain and suffering that the book seemed to slog on and on.  But she went through it for years and years!  When the healing finally comes, the reader gets sense of sharing with her in her joy, after she has shared her suffering.  She doesn't dwell on questions like, Why aren't other people healed of chronic illness?  Why couldn't Jesus have come along around year two or three rather than year eighteen?  What is the meaning of it all?  She simply found a way to rejoice in her suffering, and was fortunate enough Jesus chose to take away some of her suffering in this life.  Christians everywhere can learn from her example and find hope in the "rush of heaven" that we can look forward to, whether in this life or the next.

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