Friday, February 28, 2014

The Fallen Body, by Stone Patrick

Taylour Dixxon loves her small-town law practice.  She followed in her father's footsteps, serving as Marlinsville, Texas's only lawyer, but sometimes she dreams of bigger things, bigger law firms, bigger towns.  When Sarah Cockrell Baines moves to town, Taylour not only gains a friend, but gets a chance to work a case with big-city ties and big-city crimes.  Sarah's husband has been murdered, shot and thrown from his high-rise balcony, and Sarah is the prime suspect.

In The Fallen Body, Stone Patrick's debut novel, Patrick keeps the reader guessing and keeps Taylour on her toes.  Even though she had just met Sarah, Taylour agreed to defend her.  Little did she know she was entering a world of Russian mafia, hired killers, and big money at stake.  When she starts to notice a mysterious stranger around town, and when it seems that someone is sending her threatening messages, she knows this case is much more interesting than Sarah was initially letting on.

The Fallen Body is a terrific first novel.  Patrick gives a strong sense of place in his portrayal of the Texas setting, adds a touch of romance with the Texas Ranger who helps out on the case, and develops believable characters and dialogue.  I look forward to Volume 2 of the Taylour Dixxon series!

You can order The Fallen Body with this link to Smashwords: 

And here is Stone Patrick's author blog:

Thanks to the author for the complimentary electronic review copy, provided in exchange for an unbiased review.

Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Hammer of Angels, by G. T. Almasi

Alix Nico is back!  The super-charged, enhanced teenage super agent we met in G.T.Almasi's Blades of Winter is back for more high octane butt kicking.  In case you missed the first installment, you'll have to reorient your historical perspective.  In this world, WW2 turned out a bit differently, with Nazi Germany controlling most of Europe, and still setting its sights on larger plans.  But Nico and her pals stand in the way.

Nico is an enhanced human, with enough chemical, mechanical, and electronic enhancements to make her a formidable weapon.  As in Blades of Winter, Nico leaves quite a trail of destruction wherever she goes.  In hopes of thwarting the Nazi's human cloning program, and finding out the truth about her father's death, she pulls no punches.

Almasi writes with non-stop action, a sarcastic, big-shot attitude, and a preference for violently exploding bad guys.  Who am I to argue with kicking some Nazi butt?  Like I said about Blades of WinterHammer of Angels is an action movie in print.  Good stuff!

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

Monday, February 24, 2014

Runner, by Patrick Lee

The first thing I would say about Patrick Lee's new novel is that if you are a fan of the ex-special-forces-loner-good-guy-against-impossible-odds genre, you will enjoy Runner thoroughly.  That's especially true if you are particularly willing to suspend disbelief.  I hope that doesn't sound like a criticism; I only mean it as explanation.  I am a fan of entertaining, suspense-filled, non-stop action novels, like those featuring Jack Reacher, Mitch Rapp, and now Sam Dryden.

A good chunk of Dryden's military career is off-the-record.  He'd like his post-military life to be off-the-record as well.  But living a solitary life, quietly mourning the loss of his wife and daughter, is not in the cards for him.  When he's out for a run late one night, a young lady in distress crosses his path, and suddenly he's drawing on all of his experience and resources to save this sweet girl from a bunch of government baddies.

Even with satellites and helicopters and every other modern surveillance tool at their disposal, the government creeps have trouble tracking down Sam and his charge.  When they finally do, Sam manages to stay one step ahead.  As he learns, this girl was part of a secret program developing mind reading and even mind-control technology.

There are plenty of twists and turns, and some sci-fi elements mixed in.  I was initially put off by the seemingly ludicrous start.  So Dryden just happens to go running at night, and just happens to run into the girl, and just happens to be perfectly suited to help her escape her captors.  While I enjoyed the chase, I kept thinking back to that coincidental start and wondering why Lee thought he could get away with it.  To his credit, he connected it all in the end.  It wasn't so coincidental after all.  (Although I still don't know why a careful person like Dryden would drop his wallet, or why he'd be carrying his wallet while running in the first place.  He should get a RoadID.)

This is fast, fun, escapist fiction that you don't want to put down once you start.

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

Friday, February 21, 2014

Messenger, by Jeni Stepanek

Perhaps you remember Mattie Stepanek.  He was in the news quite a bit 10-15 years ago, a cute little blond boy with glasses, dying of an incurable disease, yet making the most of every moment.  He provided inspiration for many as his indomitable spirit and electric personality drew people to him.  He considered himself a messenger of peace and love, and his mother tells the story of his message in Messenger: The Legacy of Mattie J.T. Stepanek and Heartsongs.

In spite of his suffering from a rare disorder that caused him to be sicker and sicker throughout his life, dependent on oxygen tanks to live and a wheelchair to get around, Mattie's positive outlook and never-ending inner strength inspired celebrities like Oprah, Larry King, Maya Angelou, Sean Astin, Jimmy Carter, and others who became his friends and mentors.  He wrote several books of poetry which made the best-seller lists, and gave inspirational speeches around the country.  He accomplished more and had a greater impact in his short years (he died before his 14th birthday) than most of us would dream of doing in a lifetime.

Besides his remarkable spirit, his mother's remarkable commitment as a mother stands out, as well.  She suffers from a similar condition, and in fact buried three other children who died as a result of the same condition.  The two of them, scraping by financially (She was in graduate school, and she and her husband had divorced.  She says little about him; I couldn't help but wonder what happened and why he, apparently, provided not a dime of support.) and both of them with high-maintenance medical issues, must have been quite the pair.

This is a sweet story of a great kid and his terrific mom.  But here's where I have to enter some criticism.  First, the story got kind of dull.  In her introduction, she talks about the volumes she could write about Mattie.  Of course she can; she's his mom and is crazy about him.  Would that every parent felt that way about their kids.  But the story just drags at times.  Second, his message of peace and love never seemed to me to be very impressive.  He impressed Jimmy Carter and other world leaders with his message, so there must have been something here.  It just didn't come through for me in the book.  (Of course, I'm not sure anyone every accused Carter of being a genius. . . . .)

I was troubled by his theology, too.  The Stepanek's are faithful Catholics, but I think his priest should have had some talks with him: "Being a good person, [Mattie] said, was what mattered most. . . . The way he saw it, God doesn't fault you for [not embracing religion] when you die if you've lived a life of goodness."  Just the sort of weak spirituality people like Oprah love.

Finally, I have not read his books of poetry, but if the poetry Dr. Stepanek includes in Messenger is indicative of his work, I'm not very impressed.  Surely well above average for a kid his age, but NYT best-seller list good?  It's seems that it's good because of the person behind it, not because of any intrinsic literary value.

Those criticisms aside, there's plenty in Messenger and in Mattie's life to inspire even a curmudgeon like me.  His is a life worth remembering.

Wednesday, February 19, 2014

The Martian, by Andy Weir

Andy Weir's new novel, The Martian, is one of the best science fiction novels I have read in a long time.  Pick up any sci-fi novel today, and there is a great chance that it will involve some combination of the following: space aliens, alien technology or technology far advanced beyond what is feasible today, some sort of space travel enabling convenient travel between planets either through faster-than-light velocities or some portal or black hole or something, and a speculative future utopia or dystopia.  I don't have a problem with any of these staples of sci-fi.  But one of the reasons The Martian is so refreshing is that it includes none of these elements!

The novel opens with Mark Watney recovering from an accident on the surface of Mars.  The rest of his crew, thinking he had been killed, left him there and headed back to Earth.  He then had to figure out a way to survive until the next Mars mission, some years in the future, would come back for him.  Watney ingeniously uses the resources available to him to grow potatoes, create water, and survive.  His communications were knocked out in the storm that prompted the rest of the crew to abandon the mission, but observers on Earth saw evidence on satellite photos that he had survived and were able to begin working with him.

The realism of The Martian is striking.  The folks at NASA or elsewhere who are making plans to send crews to Mars should read Weir's novel and take notes.  Just about everything that could go wrong did go wrong for Watney, yet his careful preparations and wise use of available materials enabled him to survive.  There are plenty of great sci-fi novels with speculative science and imaginative descriptions of alien worlds and races, along with romance and adventure.  The Martian is a reminder that sci-fi is sometimes a story that is right around the corner.  This fiction could be fact.  This story could become real life, with our children playing the leading role.

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

Monday, February 17, 2014

Discovering the City of Sodom, By Steven Collins and Latayne C. Scott

Few stories in the Bible fire the imagination more that the story of the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah.  In Genesis 19, we read that "the Lord rained down burning sulfur on Sodom and Gomorrah," destroying "all those living in the cities--and also the vegetation in the land," and that all that was left was the next morning was "dense smoke rising from the land, like smoke from a furnace."  In their new book, Discovering the City of Sodom: The Fascinating, True Account of the Discovery of the Old Testament's Most Infamous City, Drs. Steven Collins and Latayne C. Scott tell the story of Dr. Collins's research into the location of Sodom.

The location of the city of Sodom, as well as whether the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah did, in fact, exist, or were simply legendary, have long been points of contention among biblical scholars and archeologists.  Dr. Stephen Collins, of Trinity Southwest University, is a Christian and an archeologist. Maintaining a high view of scripture as well as a commitment to the scientific method in the field of archeology, he insists that "you've got to let the text and the ground talk to each other."

Starting with the clear biblical geographical descriptions of the location of Sodom, and looking at the remains of ancient cities in the area of the Dead Sea, Collins and his team have compiled a convincing body of evidence that the location of the city of Sodom is not under the Dead Sea, or in the southern end of the Dead Sea, but in the kikkar, the fertile, disc-shaped region at the north end of the Dead Sea.

I appreciated the balance Collins brings to his work, placing a high priority on the testimony of scripture as having distinct historical value, as well as his careful historical placement of the cities' destruction based on dating methods at the site itself.  Collins is a great story teller as well, not only laying out his case for this placement, but describing how he came to his conclusions and the story of his crucial discoveries and revelations.  He also paints a full picture of Sodom and its importance in the region's economy and history, including the role it played in biblical history even after its destruction.

I know by the nature of archeology, like any area of research, that there will be many detractors offering alternate theories to Dr. Collins's about the location of Sodom.  But the evidence that he has compiled make a convincing case, presented in a compelling, readable book.

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

Friday, February 14, 2014

Coaltown Jesus, by Ronald Koertge

In Coaltown Jesus, Ronald Koertge imagines Jesus paying a personal visit to Coaltown, Illinois. When 14 year old Walker prays for God to help his mother, who is still grieving over the death of Walker's older brother, he doesn't expect Jesus himself to show up in his bedroom.  But there he stands, next to Walker's bed, and Walker takes it all in stride.  Over the next several days, Jesus spends time with Walker, getting to know him and offering wit and wisdom for the young man.

Koertge's vision of Jesus may jolt some of his readers.  Walker's a mouthy, sometimes cynical American teenager, and this Jesus relates to him on that level.  So we get some strange Jesus humor, like when they pass a display of nails at the hardware store.  "Jesus stared at his hands. 'I mean nails are a miracle and God is in them, but they still give me the shivers.'"

Off-beat as his Jesus may be, Koertge does have some good insights.  My favorite has to do with prayer.  After listening to an elderly widow in Walker's mother's nursing home reminisce, Jesus comments on how much he loves listening to people's stories.  "But what do I get? 'Send me a pony.'" Walker asks whether it's OK for kids to want a pony.  "Little kids I don't mind," Jesus replies. "every kid wants a pony. Stop with the begging, okay? Adore me for a change. Or give thanks. I like gratitude. Or ask for guidance. But on, no. It's always the pony."

Coaltown Jesus is a fun, quick read.  Followers of Jesus might be uncomfortable with some of Koertge's characterization of Jesus, but I do love that he presents Jesus as a having a sense of humor and who we can all relate to.

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

Wednesday, February 12, 2014

Defending the Free Market, by Robert Sirico

Whenever the Left needs a clergyman to provide a religious defense of leftist ideas, they never have to look far.  Leftist pastors and priests will line up around the block to spout their liberal ideas cloaked in religious garb.  But when seeking a thoughtful, Christian defense of the free market, the list is pretty short, and at the top of that very short list is Rev. Robert Sirico, president of the Acton Institute.

At long last, alumni of Acton's programs, fans of Father Sirico's appearances on talk shows and congressional hearings, and those lucky enough to have heard him speak publicly around the world, have a compendium of many of his personal stories and economic and political ideas in print.  As one who was deeply impacted by Acton's programs as a seminarian, who worked for Acton for four years, and who continues to follow their work closely, I was delighted to read Father Sirico's book, Defending the Free Market: The Moral Case for a Free Economy.

Many of the stories and illustrations in Defending the Free Market were so familiar to me that I could almost hear Father Sirico's voice as I read.  His insights into economic issues are as compelling as ever, even more so given his extensive sourcing and illustrations.  I have heard Father Sirico said he is a polemicist, not a scholar.  That may be true, and the brief chapters herein are not scholarly articles.  But as he covers a variety of important topics, including health care, charity, equality, and capitalism, he provides plenty of fodder for those looking to start a debate or do further scholarly research.

Even more than a reflection of his pointed analysis, Defending the Free Market showcases Father Sirico's giftedness as a communicator.  I challenge even the most hardened socialist to give Father Sirico an honest reading; his mind may not be changed, but at least he will understand and appreciate Father Sirico's reasoning.

Above all, Father Sirico is a pastor.  Economics is, after all, about people.  Economic systems can be measured by the good they do for people.  Economic freedom is not about wealth for its own sake, but we must point to the "undeniable fact that a free economy is the way to prosperity."  Preach on, Father Sirico!  And thanks for finally putting all of these ideas in one terrific volume.

Monday, February 10, 2014

Quesadillas, by Juan Pablo Villalobos

In a tiny rural town of Mexico, Orestes, Oreo for short, loves his quesadillas, but knows that every meal is a struggle, trying to get his fair share before his 6 siblings jump ahead of him.  In Quesadillas, Oreo tells his story, and the story of his family, as they struggle to survive in the PRI-dominated political climate, as the dairy farms around them become more industrialized (and an industry captain moves in next door, and as Oreo's siblings run off or are abducted by aliens.

Juan Pablo Villalobos writes Quesadillas so much in the style of a memoir that I have to wonder how much of this is fiction, and how much is based on his own experiences.  Yet there's enough absurdity to convince me that surely much is made up.  And yet. . . . as Oreo says, "Wasnt' everyone always saying we were a surrealist country?"

Quesadillas is a fun read, with a caustic view of late-twentieth-century Mexico.  Villalobos, who, incidentally, now lives in Brazil, clearly has some problems with Mexico, a "lousy country" which was "eternally organized around fraud." Oreo wants his father, a high school civics teacher who constantly grumbles about the government, "to survive and carry on living in this country--that was his punishment."

The political themes are strong, but do not overshadow Oreo's coming of age story.  He becomes friends with the new wealthy neighbor.  When he sees how the neighbors live, he sees his family's poverty in context: "The worst thing wasn't being poor; the worst thing was having no idea of the things you can do when you have money."  Oreo tracks the fortunes of his family, and of his mother's perception of economic trends, by the quantity of cheese in the quesadillas.  When things got really bad, his mother cooked up "poor man's quesadillas, in which the presence of cheese was literary: you opened one up and instead of adding melted cheese my mother had written the word 'cheese' on the surface of the tortilla."  He finally does get away from home and spends some time in the city, but came back "because the class struggle had worn me out and I wanted to eat quesadillas for free."

Oreo's adventures delight and entertain, while giving a window into rural Mexican life and culture.  If only my Spanish was good enough to read and enjoy Villalobos in the original.

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

Friday, February 7, 2014

Transformed: A New Way of Being Christian, by Caesar Kalinowski

First of all, I have to say I think Caesar Kalinowski mis-titled this book.  I know, sometimes publishers slap a title on that the author didn't intend.  I expected Transformed: A New Way of Being Christian to address the common Christian experience of being saved but still being stuck "struggling with many of the same sins, attitudes, and relational muck" we experienced before we were saved.  Indeed, Kalinowski brings this very dilemma up in the first few pages of the the book.  But his answer to being truly transformed is not really what I expected.  Transformed is not without its strengths, though, and will challenge Christians of all stripes to examine their lifestyles and church life.

The gist of the Kalinowski's book is that we need to see Christian community not as a weekly gathering of a couple of hours of singing and teaching in which we interact little with those around us, but a lifestyle of community, full of intentional relationships and interactions with our Christian brothers and sisters, and well as with "not yet believers." I have long been troubled by those who say we should be "missionaries where we are" without a good explanation of what that means.  Kalinowski's model is the best exposition of that idea that I've read.  By living our lives incarnationally as missionaries in our neighborhoods, being "completely oriented and prioritized around Jesus' kingdom," we can be "filled and phenomenally powered by the Holy Spirit" to be the presence of the gospel in the community.

Kalinowski makes some great points about sharing our lives with others, sharing meals, serving, giving, blessing, and mostly hanging out with our neighbors.  From the sounds of it, he and others in their Soma communities in Tacoma, Washington, do a lot of hanging out, building fellowship with one another, and sharing life with others as a means of being the presence of Christ in the community.  As we have been blessed, we should bless others, not being barrels to store God's blessings, but "conduits of his grace and generosity."

Anyone who tires of church busy-ness, centered on a church building separate from your home, will feel a sense of longing for the community Kalinowski describes.  For a few precious years in my life, when I was involved in Mission Waco, I experienced a taste of the closeness of community and shared life which he describes in Transformed.  But what I've found is that that experience is unique and very difficult to replicate.  Transformed is chock full of Kalinowski's real-life experiences and examples from their shared life in Tacoma, but despite his reassurances, I remain skeptical that his model can be transplanted or replicated very easily.  (Not that he says it's easy; each chapter has a section near the end with the heading, "But Sometimes It's Hard . . .," anticipating the readers' objections.)

Some key ingredients of Soma (and of the community I experienced at Mission Waco) are: lots of young, energetic, single or married but childless people, especially those with lots of time on their hands, i.e., a good number of people who don't have highly structured work schedules (students, waiters/bartenders, part-time workers, small business owners who set their own schedules, and, of course, those whose employment is the ministry itself), people living in close physical proximity to one another, financial support from outside the community/ministry, and prior theological and spiritual development outside of what teaching the community provides.

None of what I write is meant to reject or disparage Kalinowski's model.  But I do think he too glibly rejects that which the traditional Sunday-morning-oriented church life has to offer.  His Soma community has a Sunday gathering most Sundays, but he seems to take pains to distinguish it from "church." Kalinowski himself had been a pastor at a large church, so it's not as if he's unaware of what goes on there.  But, like many passionate crusaders, he could be throwing out the proverbial baby here.  That said, there is no question that all Christians, no matter what their Sunday morning experience may look like, can take some cues from Transformed, and be deliberately incarnational in their neighborhoods.

Kalinowski passes very quickly over one other item: the tension that sometimes arises in close-knit communities such as Soma (and, again, such as Mission Waco).  He writes: "Regularly someone will be misunderstood or take the words, actions, or attitudes of another in the wrong way.  People have left our community over misconceptions and twisted words that never got dealt with."  In a regular church, some might be offended and simply stop attending, their absence barely noticed.  In a close community,  such offenses and subsequent absences (or shunnings) are much more noticeable and painful.  This is part of being human and living with other humans, but could have used more treatment in the book.

The bottom line, in my view, is that the model proposed in Transformed can be transformational, and can certainly serve as a model for Christian community.  Reading his account made me long for a deeper experience of community with my fellow Christians, and convicted me to live more incarnationally.  If we truly lived as missionaries where we are in the manner that Kalinowski describes, many would be drawn to Jesus simply by the fact our our living more like him.  However, I get the feeling that Kalinowski views the Soma model as normative for church life.  It may be a "new way of being Christian" (although it's really not new), but it is not the only way.

If you're interested, visit and for more resources on the Soma model.

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

If this review was helpful to you, please give my review at a helpful vote!

Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Poison Town, by Creston Mapes

I love it when I randomly select a novel by an author I've never heard of, and am pleasantly surprised by an enjoyable read!  Creston Mapes has published several novels, the latest of which, Poison Town, brings back Jack Crittendon, a newspaper reporter in a close-knit Ohio town.  I haven't read Fear Has a Name, in which Crettendon was introduced, but I'll have to check it out.

In Poison Town, Jack's mechanic and his family bring a disturbing trend to his attention: a local manufacturer has been spewing harmful chemicals into the environment.  This family, the shop owner and his two sons, claim that the plant is responsible for their mother's death, the father's sickness, and the deaths of other locals.  Not only that, but employees who have tried to bring the company to task have mysteriously disappeared.

Of course Jack has to investigate, but he hits up against resistance from the newspaper editor, finds himself threatened by the company, and the body count begins to rise.  Mapes writes a pretty good thriller, as he slowly puts pieces together and the increases the action of the story exponentially toward the end.  My biggest complaint is that the "big business is evil" theme was too over-the-top.  I know some businesses act unethically, and there are surely environmental abuses to be addressed around the world.  But when a publicly traded corporation starts poisoning old men in their hospital beds, hanging employees from bridges, burning down houses, running people off the road, etc., etc., it just seemed like too much.  Yes, it's fiction, but this part of the story seemed too unrealistic.

One of the thing things I liked best about Poison Town was the development of the characters.  Not only are they well-drawn, likable, and realistic, Mapes presents them as real Christians living real lives. Poison Town is a Christian novel, but it's not a message novel.  It's a novel written by a Christian, containing Christian characters.  Plot is not sacrificed for preachiness.  As we get to know the characters, we see how they live their lives, and their Christian faith is a part of their lifestyles, relationships, and decision making.  I found this to be refreshing and encouraging.

Mapes writes a good "beach read" for fans of suspenseful fiction.  Poison Town is worth a look, and Mapes is an author I'll likely come back to.

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

Monday, February 3, 2014

Great Pacific Volume 2: Nation Building, by Joe Harris and Martin Morazzo

In Great Pacific Volume 1: Trashed, we met Chas Worthington, son of an oil billionaire, who sets out to establish a new nation on a garbage heap in the Pacific Ocean.  Great Pacific Volume 2: Nation Building, the story picks up months later, with a bustling community of settlers, making a new life and forming a new community in New Texas.  Volume 2 is a worthy continuation of the story, but it loses some of the originality and power of the first volume.

We have this community, with homes and business, but Harris and Morazzo left me with too many questions.  Where did the people come from?  What about the materials, infrastructure, utilities, and civic services?  That all seems to be present, but under what sort of organization?  There must be an active trade with the mainland, but what is that like?  What about transportation to and from?  Some of the answers are hinted at in the story and illustrations, but when your story is all about building a new community, I'd like to have seen more development.

The larger story concerns Chas's quest to build up New Texas and to gain acceptance and recognition as a nation among nations.  He talks of the law of the sea, but doesn't go into much depth exploring that.  He flirts with an alliance with a brutal African regime, risking a loss in status by associating with the hated nation.  He has his own scientists working on a project, apparently attempting to anchor New Texas to the sea floor.  And there's a mysterious Captain Nemo-like villain, who came from who knows where, working to thwart Chas's plans.

This is all part of an ongoing story, and I know Harris and Morazzo will tie up some of these loose ends in future installments, but I was left scratching my head and wondering where this is all going.  Chas seemed to start out in Volume 1 with purpose and direction.  In Volume 2, his purpose and direction were all over the place.  The same could be said of the story.