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!