Wednesday, December 30, 2015

The Children's Home, by Charles Lambert

Charles Lambert's debut novel, The Children's Home, defies easy description.  I found it to be unsettling throughout, gripping in the first half, and unsatisfying toward the end.  I appreciated Lambert's crafting of the novel, the characterizations, the dialogue.  He sets a timeless, gothic tone, at once in a conceivable past and in a foreseeable future.

When a wealthy recluse takes in children who appear mysteriously at his estate, he takes their arrivals in stride.  Their presence begins as an interesting diversion that makes little difference to his lifestyle.  Ultimately, however, his life is forever changed because of them.  Morgan is wealthy, because of the business his grandfather built, and reclusive, because of a disfiguring incident that causes him to shut himself off from the prying eyes of the world.

In spite of his face, at which most people are appalled, the children accept him unconditionally.  When he asks the local doctor to come examine the children, the doctor accepts Morgan's appearance and the two men become fast friends.

Shortly the children begin directing Morgan's life, rather than the other way around, and things become more muddled.  Lambert hints at the devastation of war and a breakdown of society, about which Morgan remains ignorant due to his seclusion on his walled estate.  When Morgan, under the direction of the children, ventures to his family's factory, the odd state of things there boggles his mind (as well as mine).

The mystery of the children's origin, their strange behavior, and the discoveries they make in the secret part of Morgan's house all drive the story in unexpected directions.  The story's brooding development gives it more weight than it seems to deserve.  The activity at the factory seems to hold part of the key to the mystery of the children, but Lambert's description of the factory is so bizarre and elusive that I couldn't be sure what point he was making.

The Children's Home is certainly an enjoyable read, yet as the story builds it becomes more and more shaky.  As Lambert demonstrates, introducing a strange and mysterious events is much easier than providing a purposeful and meaningful direction for those events.

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

Monday, December 28, 2015

(Un)qualified, by Steven Furtick

I don't know Steven Furtick, but I guess John MacArthur does.  During an interview, when asked for a word association with Furtick's name, MacArthur simply replied "unqualified."  He did not elaborate.  Furtick, like MacArthur, has an M.Div. from a historic, respected seminary.  MacArthur does not have any higher earned degrees.  MacArthur is about 40 years older than Furtick, so clearly has quite a bit more experience as an author and teacher.  So why unqualified?  Unqualified for what?  I don't know much about the two pastors or their relationship, but MacArthur's comment seemed ungracious and unnecessarily unkind.

The cool thing is, MacArthur's comment seems to have bothered me more than it bothered Furtick.  In fact, Furtick took MacArthur's assessment as inspiration for his new book, (Un)qualified: How God Uses Broken People to Do Big Things.  Furtick writes that we define ourselves with statements of "I am ______."  It's that third word that makes the difference.  Jesus changed Simon, the fisherman, to Peter, the rock.  Unqualified to qualified.  In the same way, God wants to take our doubts about who we are and give us a new identity.  A new third word.

We might tend to focus on our sins and shortcomings, our unworthiness.  In Christ, we are made new, accepted by God.  We focus on our own sin, and fail to share the love and grace of God with the needy world around us.  Furtick writes, "It might be time to figure out who you really are and to value the real you as much as God does."

Furtick spends a lot of time talking about Jacob, who required a great deal of re-identification.  After deceiving his brother, marrying Rachel and Leah, and heading back toward his homeland, he meets a mysterious stranger with whom he wrestles all night.  It was, of course, God, perhaps a pre-incarnate Jesus.  At that time, he told Jacob he was going to change his name from Jacob, which means deceiver, to Israel, "triumphant with God."

Just like Jacob/Israel, once we accept God's unconditional love and forgiveness, we are free to love and serve.  "We don't need to spend one more day trying to prove ourselves, because we already have God's approval through Jesus's gift of righteousness."  Furtick has put in faith in God, in God's work in him, not in the word of an elder pastor, no matter how well-known and well-respected.

Furtick's writing is engaging, personal, and encouraging.  Pick up (Un)qualified and be encouraged.  Let God fill in the third word.

Thanks to Blogging for Books and the publisher for the complimentary review copy!

Sunday, December 27, 2015

Trump: The Good, The Bad, and the Quotable

Say what you will about Donald Trump, you simply can't deny that he has made this election cycle much more entertaining.  You never know what that guy's going to say.  The editors of Beyond Books have assembled a collection of Trump's quotes for our entertainment in Trump: the Good, the Bad, and the Quotable.  Some quotes date back decades, others are from recent candidate debates and news interviews.

The quotes aren't comprehensive, nor are they meant to be.  They capture a glimpse of Trump's views on women, on wealth, and, of course, on himself.  The editors even include some nice quotes about Trump from others, including some political opponents and psychiatrists.  The editors clearly are not fans, or at least they clearly don't have an agenda to make Trump look good.

Like many Americans, I'm in a dilemma about Trump.  As bombastic and offensive as he can be, if it comes down to a race between him and Hillary, I've got to vote for Trump.  He has issues, but putting that lying, incompetent woman in the White House would be a huge mistake.  Interestingly, he's been talking about the presidency for a while.  In a 1990 Playboy interview, Trump said, "I don't want to be president.  I'm 100 percent sure.  I'd change my mind only if I saw this country continue to go down the tubes."  Obama must have confirmed the "going down the tubes" status.  About Obama Trump said, in one of the presidential primary debates, "We have a president who doesn't have a clue.  I would say he's incompetent, but I don't want to do that because that's not nice."  (By the way, there were several quotes where he used that trick, "I won't say this . . . " But really he just said it.)

I have to admit, I'm entertained by Trump.  These quotes are great.  Trump speaks his mind, and is OK with self-effacing humor.  I get a kick out of his "I'm the smartest/best-looking/fittest/etc. bravado.  He knows it's part of his schtick.  Everyone else should realize that as well.  Think of Trump first as an entertainer, provocateur, and publicity hound.  Once you see that he's doing those things with his public speaking, you can start to dissect who he really is and what he's really saying.

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

Friday, December 25, 2015

Beating the College Debt Trap, by Alex Chediak

Merry Christmas!  The cover of Beating the College Debt Trap looks like a Christmas ornament. . . sort of.  It's not full of much Christmas cheer, though.  My oldest child is a high school junior, who has high hopes for college.  Elite colleges are at the top of his wish list, but he would settle for an expensive regional private university.  He says he's doesn't want to get "stuck" going to a regional public college.  He's my kid, so of course I believe he's in the top .0001% and will be desired by every college to which he applies.  In the best of all possible worlds, he'll be a National Merit scholar with several choices of top schools offering him full ride scholarships.

In the meantime, our family will have to plan and prepare for a lesser of all possible worlds: paying for college.  Alex Chediak provides clear, realistic guidance for students who don't want to graduate from college with a huge ball and chain of college debt following them.  The facts and figures he provides are sobering yet oh so helpful.  His main point: count the cost of taking that loan.  It's so easy to spend student loan money, both because of the nature of spending money that's not yours, and because of the enormous cost of higher education these days.  Students have to face reality.  Maybe that very expensive college that will leave you with huge debt isn't really worth it, after all.  Maybe that expensive apartment, the poor spending habits, the costly meal plan should be cut back so you're not paying for it for decades after graduation.

For a parent or student getting ready for college, these realities may be rather depressing.  College has become tremendously, unnecessarily expensive.  The unsustainable rising cost of college is an issue for another day, one that must be addressed.  But once you face the facts of the costs of getting a degree, Chediak's book is a helpful guide.  I received this as a free e-book, but I'll be buying a copy for my high school junior so we can start developing a plan, just in case that National Merit scholarship doesn't work out.

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

Wednesday, December 23, 2015

Aftermath: Star Wars, by Chuck Wendig

With the release of Star Wars: The Force Awakens, not only has a new trilogy been launched, but, in a sense, a whole new Star Wars universe.  Star Wars fans may be familiar with the Expanded Universe, the novels, graphic novels, games, and other sources that developed the story after the fall of the second Death Star.  All of that has now been swept off the table.  Consider the new Star Wars material a separate timeline.

The first major novel, Chuck Wendig's Aftermath, is the first of an expected trilogy.  It sets up the new era, just after the destruction of the second Death Star.  The Empire did not just disappear when the Death Star blew up.  The rebels did not step in immediately with a new democratic governance over the galaxy.  Everything is in flux; no one is sure where loyalties will lie or who is in power.

Aftermath features a few characters we know and love from the movies.  Mostly, though, new characters are introduced.  The novel retains the tone of the movies, although it seemed to have more of a I-III feel than a IV-VI feel (which, most would agree, isn't necessarily a good thing).  It's a serviceable interlude, taking the reader from VI toward The Force Awakens.  The story seemed secondary to some of the background development.

I like the fact that Aftermath throws a bucket of cold water on the celebrations at the end of VI (extended edition).  The destruction of the Death Star was but a battle; the Empire won't be put down so easily.  I didn't love the book, but it certainly piqued my interest in The Force Awakens, which ultimately, is probably the main point.

Monday, December 21, 2015

The First Hostage, by Joel C. Rosenberg

If I want to know what's going on in the Middle East, Joel Rosenberg is the one to ask.  His depth of experience in policy and journalistic roles in the U.S., as well as his time studying, working, and living in Israel, give him a unique perspective as a writer.  His fiction and nonfiction works have proven to be prescient, if not downright prophetic.

Rosenberg's newest novel, the second featuring journalist J.B. Collins, opens with a devastating attack on a Middle East peace summit.  ISIS has infiltrated the highest levels of U.S. intelligence, as well as the ranks of the Jordanian army.  In the course of the attacks, many American and Middle Eastern officials are killed.  Collins assists in getting the king of Jordon to safety, and Air Force One gets away unscathed.  But the president of the United States is nowhere to be found.

Rosenberg has a great feel for relations among the Jordanians, Americans, and Israelis.  One thing that came through loud and clear to me: Rosenberg does not view Islam as the enemy, but ISIS.  Adhering to another religion does not make enemies; terrorist attacks do.  And he makes it very clear that ISIS is the worst sort of enemy.  Not only do they capture the president and threaten to behead him (unless, of course, all Americans convert to Islam), but the horrors of their deeds become clear as Collins gets to the heart of ISIS's operation.

Rosenberg's writing is believable and action-packed.  All Collins wants to do is cover important events for the New York Times.  He ends up not only at the center of events, but a heroic key player in all that happens.  He is called on to do many things that journalism school didn't prepare him for!  The First Hostage is a great read, Rosenberg's pacing and development are well-done, and Collins is an everyman-hero I can get behind.  Highly recommended.

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

Friday, December 18, 2015

Without Fail, by Lee Child

Once again, Jack Reacher is living as anonymously as possible, minding his own business, when one of his late brother's colleagues tracks him down.  Lee Child's Without Fail, the sixth Reacher novel, doesn't fail to develop Reacher's character and showcase his personality and skills.

Readers will recall that Jack's brother Joe was killed in Killing Floor, the first Reacher novel.  At the time, Joe was investigating a counterfeit ring.  Joe's secret service colleague (and ex-girlfriend) uses her resources to find Jack, seeking his assistance in the vice president-elect's protection.  Jack's investigative instincts assist in the investigation of a series of threats as they track down the would-be assassins.

The personal wrinkle in Without Fail is Reacher's romance with Joe's ex.  Does she want to be with him as Jack, or as a replacement for Joe?  And are Jack's feelings for her enough to make him want to settle down a bit?  Needless to say, Jack keeps his skill at remaining anonymous and rootless, even as he's at the center of a high-profile case.  And while he temporarily becomes burdened with a bit of luggage, by the end, everything is back to how he likes it: just the clothes on his back and whatever's in his pockets.

I haven't read a Reacher novel I didn't like, but I liked this one better than most.

Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Five Views on the Church and Politics, edited by Amy E. Black

Recent trends in the United States seem to point to a constantly lowering importance of religion in public life.  Yet religion persists as an important factor in elections and in policy making.  Grappling with the question of the interactions of faith and politics does not compare in importance to larger, eternal mission of the church, but political life is unquestionably an element of the temporal mission of the church.

In Five Views on the Church and Politics, Amy Black brings together five scholars who describe and discuss their own traditions' views.  Each of these contributes a chapter, to which the other four offer brief responses: Thomas Heilke (Anabaptist), Robert Benne (Lutheran), Bruce Fields (the Black church), James K.A. Smith (Reformed), and J. Brian Benestad (Roman Catholic).

As you might expect from this type of book, each chapter feels just a bit brief.  Each contributor covers the high points of his tradition, while providing extensive sources for those who want to dig in.  The responses highlight the differences among the traditions.  I was left with an impression of varied traditions that have distinctive ways of saying the same things.  Of course, there are differences among these five traditions, but there are many more similarities.

Five Views is a very useful volume for readers looking for a brief synopsis of these five traditions.  Black couches each in categories drawn from Neibuhr's Christ and Culture.  She points out that "these traditions overlap in many significant ways, have borrowed from each other's teachings over time, and continue to learn from one another and change from within."  Five Views did little to dispel my notion that while theological and scriptural traditions certainly inform denominational views on politics, the reverse is also frequently true.  Sometimes those who shape a denomination's position use theology and scripture to defend a political perspective.

At the very least, Five Views will be a useful book for seminary classes on Christian ethics.  But one hopes that lay people and clergy will use Five Views as a starting point for reflecting on their own traditions and the theology behind their own political views.

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

Monday, December 14, 2015

NeuroTribes, by Steve Silberman

Autism.  Sometimes it seems like no one really knows what that word means.  Even among medical professionals, that word has so much vagueness and leeway that it sometimes seems like it can include just about anyone with some sort of abnormal behavior.  In NeuroTribes: The Legacy of Autism and the Future of Neurodiversity, Steve Silberman may not answer all the questions about autism, but the questions are there and he provides plenty of fodder for discussion.

In terms of a percentage of content, the majority of NeuroTribes concentrates on the Legacy part of the subtitle.  Acknowledging that autism as a medical or psychological diagnosis is a relatively recent phenomenon, Silberman looks at historical figures and records, describing some individuals who, if they lived today, would most certainly be considered autistic.  History buffs will enjoy reading about Asperger, Kanner, and other pioneers who first developed the idea of autism as a unique diagnosis.

Sadly, for most of our history, many people we now see as autistic would have been thrown down a well, ostracized, left to die, or, for the lucky few, institutionalized.  Silberman recounts the history of abuse that autistic individuals have suffered (and more recently that we would like to admit).  Similarly, he traces the shift in the perception of autism, to "viewing it as a lifelong disability that deserves support, rather than as a disease of children that can be cured."  Some of the "treatments" that medical professionals used to try to "cure" children of autism are truly barbaric and unconscionable.  I know hindsight is 20/20, but it's hard to imagine what some of those folks were thinking. . . .

Two major issues Silberman discussed were, I thought, left without a satisfactory resolution.  First, the question of a relationship of autism and vaccines.  In my limited reading, it seems as if the medical community has pretty well debunked the notion that vaccines, specifically the preservatives in particular vaccines, cause autism.  Silberman clearly rejects that notion as well.  However, he offers enough anecdotal evidence of the connection that it seems there are still some legitimate concerns.  I am not a psychologist, psychiatrist, or neurologist, just a casual reader, but I have some sympathy with those parents who report drastic changes in their children immediately after receiving a vaccine.  Their experiences cannot be rejected out of hand.

The second issue that I wondered about is the enormous growth in diagnoses of autism.  As awareness grew, and especially as autism was described in the DSM (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, the Bible of the psychiatric profession), it raised the question as to whether there were more cases of autism, or simply that they now had a name and psychiatrists were putting the name to work.  Some studies showed that the DSM "trigger[ed] a significant rise in diagnoses."  They found that "awareness of autism among professionals was dramatically increasing at the same time that the boundaries of the condition were expanded.  The new numbers reflected the estimates realigning themselves with the reality of the spectrum."

So is there some evolutionary change leading more and more individuals to have autism?  Are factors in the environment or toxins in vaccines or other man-made factors leading to more occurrences of autism?  Are there really more people with autism, or is autism simply being more widely recognized?  These questions don't have easy answers.  They might not have hard answers.  Silberman doesn't have the answers.  But they are interesting questions to contemplate.

Whatever the case, autistic individuals are becoming better and better at navigating the wider world.  Starting with ham radio, then with the advent of computer bulletin boards and now with the various ways the internet allows people to network and create virtual community, autistic people are more connected and empowered than ever.  Technology has been a huge boost for their opportunities for employment and learning.  In fact, they themselves have developed much of that technology!

Silberman features people like Temple Grandin, perhaps the most famous autistic person to date, to demonstrate that the possibilities for autistic people to have productive lives, impacting their chosen fields and the world, are limitless.  Parents of children with autism and adults with autism still have battles to fight, and public perception is still sometimes an obstacle.  NeuroTribes gives reason for hope.  Those of use who might be considered "neurotypical" must recognize the growing neurodiversity around us and appreciate the contributions those who are not neurotypical make to society.

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

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Holding Tight--Letting Go, by Benjamin Garber

About the time I got married, my mother gave me a little needlepoint picture to hang on my wall which read, "All a parent can give a child is roots and wings."  I thought of that as I read Benjamin Garber's Holding Tight--Letting Go: Raising Healthy Kids in Anxious Times.  Garber, a psychologist and, more importantly, a father, looks at attachment and child development with an eye to the question, When is it time to let go?

It's a balance.  "Holding on too long can be as harmful as letting go too soon."  The parent provides the anchor.  As the child grows the anchor line grows longer.  As the line grows, Garber suggests that "transitional objects" can help remind the child of the anchor itself.  Something small he can carry in his pocket, wear on his wrist, or hold can give reassurance.  Too much contact (phone calls during the school day, Skyping while he's away at camp, etc.) can lead to dependence that delays readiness for eventual separation.

There are plenty of reasons--cyberstalking, terrorism, disease, to name a few--for keeping a child at home and the anchor line short.  Garber reminds parents that "They must fall down . . . and they'll need you there, once again, to hold them tight."

Garber's writing is fueled by his experience as a psychologist, but it's readable and conversational enough that it doesn't have the feel of an academic journal article.  He may actually have gone a bit too far, sacrificing some structure and practical application for a more free-flowing, story-telling style.  I think most parents want to hold tight too long.  Garber reminds us that as long as we give our children a reliable anchor, we can let that anchor line go and we'll find they circle back to hold tight in a way that's healthy for both parent and child.

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

Monday, December 7, 2015

People to Be Loved, by Preston Sprinkle

Here's what I don't like about Preston Sprinkle's book People to Be Loved: Why Homosexuality is Not Just an Issue: the fact that it had to be written.  That's what I don't like about his major point: that it has to be made.  Sprinkle takes on one of the most pressing issues in church life today, homosexuality.  He argues that "If the church is ever going to solve this issue, it needs to stop seeing it as an 'issue.' Homosexuality is not an issue to be solved; it's about people who need to love and be loved."

Christians have gotten worked up about legalizing gay marriage.  Some talk about a homosexual agenda.  They boycott Disneyworld on gay day.  It has gotten to the point that some outside the church identify an anti-gay stance as the chief characteristic of the church.

Sprinkle plays a little coy about his stance on the "issue" but he is assuredly within traditional Christian teaching.  He's uncomfortable with the way we talk about homosexuality within and without the church.  Is it the act?  The inclination?  Attraction?  It's too simplistic to try to categorize people as "gay" or "homosexual" without caveats and explanations.  He reinforces his major point, that a person can't be reduced to an issue, and that relationships should come first.

I think he's right, that we should work toward a day when Christians will be "known more for their radical, otherworldly love for gay people than their stance against gay sex."  We should follow the example of Jesus.  He "doesn't lead with the law.  He leads with love--love without footnotes."

Sprinkle's treatment is solidly biblical and deeply pastoral.  People to Be Loved shouldn't have been necessary.  But it is.  Any Christian who knows gay people in his or her community or church--and that covers just about all of us--would be well-served to spend some time reading and reflecting on Sprinkle's book.

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

Sunday, December 6, 2015

Django/Zorro, by Quentin Tarantino

If you've seen the movie Django Unchained and liked it, you'll love Django's continuing adventure as he meets up with Zorro in Django/Zorro.  Quentin Tarantino teamed up with the writers and illustrators at Dynamite Entertainment to create a series of comics, compiled here in graphic novel form.  Django has left the South and headed west, where he meets Diego de la Vega, a.k.a. Zorro, on the way to confront a bad dude in Arizona.

Zorro's interested in the fraud perpetrated by the self-appointed Archduke of Arizona, and Django comes along for the ride.  Djanog soon discovers the Archduke isn't much different from the slave owners he knew back in the South and begins to foment a bit of rebellion.

I loved the way Tarantino and his collaborators emphasize the differences between Django and Zorro (class, choice of weapons, readiness to kill) while using their contrasting styles to work together.  Fans will love the additional material included in this edition: cover art, commentaries from Tarantino and collaborator Matt Wagner, as well as the original script from the first comic.  I doubt there are plans to make this into a movie, but Django/Zorro stands on its own as a worthy sequel to Django Unchained.

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

Friday, December 4, 2015

Drama Dolls, by Jason Tanamor

There are some books about which I think, "This book is not for me, but it's probably for somebody."  Jason Tanamor's Drama Dolls was definitely not for me.  I suppose it could be for somebody.  The basic premise: a widower copes with his grief by dressing up like a cheerleader (skirt, makeup, pom-poms, etc.) and burglarizing houses.  And by the way, he brings along his life-size doll, dressed up in his late wife's clothes.

Sorry if I'm giving away important plot points.  I just didn't appreciate the story, the development, or the characters.  Lena's in love with Jeffrey, but why?  I never saw much to love in him, just someone to be pitied.  Pity-love, I guess.  Wouldn't be the first time.  And the "punch line" pay off I saw coming a mile away.

It's not that Tanamor is a bad writer.  He's not.  (Well, except for his annoying habit of writing sentences like this: "Short blond hair, feathered, it was cut down and parted on the side.  The boy, he was clean shaven."  That antecedent, pronoun construction, it got old.  That style, it's cumbersome and overused.)  It's just. . . . He wrote a pretty bad story.  If I were his literary agent, I think I would try to get him to channel his skill and energies into something different.  So perhaps what I have written makes you think, "Well, this reviewer didn't like Drama Dolls, but maybe I will."  More power to ya.  Based on the five-star reviews on, I'm in a clear minority.

Thanks to the author for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, December 2, 2015

Soul Mates, by W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger

It's no secret that marriage has declined in the U.S.  It's also generally accepted that marriage lends stability and social improvement.  Given these general ideas, sociologists W. Bradford Wilcox and Nicholas Wolfinger investigated the impact of religion on marriage among African-Americans and Latinos.  They write about their conclusions in Soul Mates: Religion, Sex, Love, and Marriage among African Americans and Latinos.

Drawing on a wide variety of polling data, as well as personal interviews, Wilcox and Wolfinger concluded that "religion is a force for good in African American and Latino family life." However, they are careful to point out that "although religion benefits many Latino and African American families, it is neither a panacea nor a one-size-fits-all solution."

They provide lots of charts and figures to bolster their claims, but the interviews more effectively personalize the statistics they cite.  We hear not only the stories of couples whose lives were turned around because of their religious involvement, but others whose lives do not conform to typical religious norms.  All told, those who become involved in religious activity are less likely to be involved in the street subculture ("Del mundo" as Latinos say), which includes, infidelity, drugs and alcohol abuse, and crime and imprisonment.

Some of their findings surprised me.  Even though the impact and influence of religion is clear and demonstrable, it is not as significant as I would have thought.  For example, those who are involved in religious activities are less likely to divorce, have children outside of marriage, and be incarcerated, but not by as big a margin as you might expect.  I was also surprised that the impact tends to be be smaller for blacks than whites.  There are, of course, cultural and societal structures that cause that to be the case.  Wilcox and Wolfinger's research, unfortunately, provides a bit of validation to stereotypes about minorities, specifically surrounding participation in "street culture."

The bottom line is the religion definitely tends to be a good thing for couples.  Broadly speaking, they found that "people who attend church regularly are less likely to report being unhappy."  There's a good reason to go to church!  More specifically, they have a word of advice for couples: they identify "two of the mechanisms through which religious participation improves relationship quality: religious friends and shared prayer.  Latino and black couples who attend church together enjoy significantly happier relationships, in large part because they socialize with friends who share their faith and especially because they pray with one another."  So let's go to church, honey, and later we'll pray together!

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

Monday, November 30, 2015

J, by Howard Jacobson

I was looking forward to liking Howard Jacobson's J.  From the back cover, I'm told that Jacobson is a Man Booker Prize winner, and a Sunday Times review is quoted, saying J "invites comparison with George Orwell's 1984 and Aldous Huxley's Brave New World."  Wow!  Those two books were formative influences to me, so I just knew J would be a hit.

Well, J does invite comparison to those venerable novels, as in "Compared to the classic dystopian novels Brave New World and 1984, J doesn't hold a candle."  Jacobson's writing is unnecessarily obtuse and frustratingly evasive.  Many passages are lengthy, pointless dialogues which reminded me of those stage plays where nothing really happens but boy, do they ever talk a lot!

There's a love story in J.  SOMETHING HAPPENED IF IT HAPPENED.  What HAPPENED?  Some kind of genocide, even more successful than Hitler's.  I should probably read this again to get the whole social commentary.  But I don't want to.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for the complimentary review copy!

Sunday, November 29, 2015

Alternative Movie Posters II, by Matthew Chojnacki

There is a sub genre of art that many of us see on a regular basis, but might not notice: movie poster art.  I personally never thought of it as a separate genre, but here it is, in Alternative Movie Posters II, Matthew Chojnacki's sequel to Alternative Movie Posters.  Chojnacki has collected, as you might expect, alternative movie posters, and presents them here, along with a bit of commentary from the artists.  The occasions for the posters vary: DVD releases, film festivals, anniversary releases of the movies, or just the artist's whim.  All of them share a love of the movie depicted.

They also share a sort of retro feel.  This wasn't true of every poster, but the overall sense of the book is retro, perhaps reflecting the artists' nostalgia for the films.  Not that all films featured are old.  They range from old to new, mainstream to obscure, American and international, kids' movies to rated R.  Many, like the two posters for A Christmas Story, are very busy, including characters and scenes from the whole movie.  Others, like the descending letters of "gravity" on the poster for Gravity give only the barest hint of the movie.  There are even some that do not name the movie at all, merely showing a character or the hint of a scene.

One thing to keep in mind is that these posters are all (as best as I can tell) after the fact, not intended to promote a movie.  These are tributes to the movies, more than anything.  The images serve as reminders to those who have seen them.  The headless horse on the The Godfather poster, the nesting-doll-like Bill Murray heads on the Groundhog Day poster, the shredded paper on the Argo poster all give hints about the movies, but reveal little about the actual content of the movie.

Some of the posters do fit a more traditional movie poster mold, with the name of the movie, key actors, and perhaps even a catch phrase.  These are the ones that feel the most retro.  In these cases, the art is so good that one wonders why this, or something like it, isn't used for the actual, original poster.  The artists included in Alternative Movie Posters II should have their phones ringing off the wall with calls from studios wanting their art.

Movie lovers will love these clever, cool, funny, inventive, and sometimes lovely posters, and will wonder why these are "alternative" and not the real thing.

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

Friday, November 27, 2015

A Fairy Extraordinary Christmas Story, by A.J. York

Here's a cute Christmas story to get you ready for the Christmas season!  A.J. York's A Fairy Extraordinary Christmas Story focusses on Tallulah, a Christmas tree topper.  After her first Christmas, she is stored in the attic with the other holiday decorations.  When the attic hatch closes, the decorations come to life and build a strong community, encouraging each as the seasons and holidays come and go.

After a few years, some toys arrive in the attic.  The decorations realize this means the kids have grown up.  When the Christmas decorations aren't taken downstairs, all the toys and decorations band together to bring the family together.  It's a sweet, charming story, perfect for younger readers.  Shades of Toy Story, The Velveteen Rabbit, and other children's favorites show up.  A Fairy Extraordinary Christmas will delight and make you smile.

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

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

Daily Devotions for Die-Hard Fans: Baylor Bears, by Ed McMinn

Ed McMinn may not be a Baylor Bear, but Baylor fans will appreciate this Georgia grad's book of devotions.  Daily Devotions for Die-Hard Fans: Baylor Bears includes several months' worth of devotional readings featuring stories about Baylor games, athletes, and coaches.  McMinn, a retired pastor, culled through Art Briles's books, Alan Lefever's History of Baylor Sports, a wide range of newspaper accounts, and other sources to find stories from which the reader can draw inspiration.

McMinn found plenty of stories in recent Baylor memory, but draws on historical stories as well.  Many of the stories will be very familiar to Baylor fans; others will be new to readers.  McMinn starts each two-page devotional with a recommended scripture reading, with an excerpt from the passage.  Then he tells a story from Baylor sports (not limited to football) and applies the story to Christian life, leaving the reader with something to think about as he or she starts the day.

Anyone can enjoy these stories and draw inspiration from them, but Baylor fans will appreciate them most.  For non-Baylor fans, McMinn has written dozens of devotional books focussed on other schools.  

Thanks to Mom and Dad for the gift of this book!

Monday, November 23, 2015

Concussion, by Jeanne Marie Laskas

I love watching football.  I go to all the Baylor games I can, and catch games on TV that I can't attend.  When Baylor's not playing, there are plenty of college games I'll watch.  I love the long pass plays, the plays where the runner breaks free, the scrambles and miracle catches.  But I also love the tough hits, the flattening of the quarterback, the open-field tackles.  However, as the players get bigger and the game gets faster, these big hits take a toll, more and more.

Dr. Bennett Omalu, a Nigerian doctor, came to the U.S. to pursue the American dream and wound up in the middle of a controversy that shook up the sport of football.  Using first-hand accounts, as well as lengthy passages in Omalu's own voice, Jeanne Marie Laskas tells Omalu's story in Concussion.  Dr. Omalu had never heard of "Iron Mike" Webster before his body arrived in the coroner's office where he worked.  Omalu began studying his brain and the brains of other football players, discovering in the process a brain disorder he labelled chronic traumatic encephalopathy.

Needless to say, his findings were not popular with the NFL, whose hired researchers were busy debunking the idea that football leads to brain damage.  Omalu stubbornly continued his research and ultimately changed the landscape of football.  Despite the efforts to improve helmet technology, the movement of the brain inside the skull can't be prevented in a collision.  As the brain is jostled on play after play, damage accumulates and may not manifest itself until years later.

As long as the teams line up every weekend, I and millions of fans will be cheering them on.  Fans, the NFL, college coaches, and coaches and players all the way down to the peewee leagues need to evaluate the way they coach, the way they play, and the extent to which they value the individual player.  I don't see American's giving up on their favorite spectator sport, but the pattern of damage that Omalu exposed cries out for change in the game.

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

Sunday, November 22, 2015

Take It as a Compliment, by Maria Stoian

Maria Stoian's Take It As a Compliment is, potentially, a very important book.  Hardly a week goes by that we don't hear about some sexual harassment or rape case, often on a college campus.  Whether people are reporting it and talking about it more, or if society has become more flagrant and open about sexual impropriety I don't know.  Stoian has gathered stories from readers of her blog about their experiences as victims of sexual assault or harassment and illustrated them in this book.

One on level, reading these experiences shocks me.  Are there really men who treat women like that? My life has been sheltered.  These women tell stories of being humiliatingly harassed by strangers in public, both verbally and with groping and slaps.  Do some men really think it's OK to put their hands inside a girl's skirt on the subway?  Other stories are about abusive relationships, or encounters with friends and acquaintances who force them to do things they don't want to do.  (Most of the stories are about men mistreating women, but one or two are about women abusing men . . . )

As shocking as the stories are, I found myself questioning the victims as well.  Men are groping you on a crowded subway?  Why not yell at them to stop?  Do you have that little faith in humanity that you believe no one would have a sympathetic ear?  And those abusive relationships--I know they can be complex, but why are women compelled to stick around when a man is beating her or forcing her to do things she doesn't want to do sexually?  And when a boy threatens that if you don't perform a sexual act, he will spread rumors about you, do you really think he won't spread rumors anyway when you do?

This comment by a girl who tells the story of waking in a stranger's bed after getting drunk was particularly telling to me: "Of all the times I've ended up in regrettable sexual situations, the one that will follow me the longest will be the one I remember the least . . ."  All the times??  Is she a slow learner, or what?  After one regrettable sexual situation, wouldn't you learn to stay out of the circumstances and settings that get you into those situations?  Apparently not.  Girls, here's a free tip: don't get so drunk you pass out when you're at a party.  I'm not saying it's OK for a man to touch you when you're passed out, I'm just saying it happens a lot, and you can prevent it.

I know I probably sound like a male chauvinist.  Someone might want to label me a predator, or at least a potential predator.  I'm not.  Guys, treat women with decency.  Treat them like you'd want your mom or sister to be treated.  Be respectful.  No means no.  Don't act like the guys in this book.

I hope readers of Stoian's book will take these stories as she intends them to be taken, as a warning of what might happen, an encouragement not to let these things happen to you, and as a comfort to victims of sexual abuse or harassment that they are not alone.  She ends with an admonition to listen to and support survivors of sexual abuse and harassment, to watch for signs of it happening or potentially happening, and to intervene to protect others before they become victims.  I can get behind that message, for sure!

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

Friday, November 20, 2015

Losing Our Religion, by Christel J. Manning

The fastest-growing religious group in the U.S. is--no religion!  The "Nones" as they have come to be called are growing like crazy.  As a None herself, Christel Manning wondered about a little-discussed part of the lives of Nones, parenting.  In Losing Our Religion: How Unaffiliated Parents are Raising Their Children, Manning asks, How are the Nones passing along their (non)religious views to their children, and what does this mean for the next generation?

Manning points out that the Nones are a diverse and scattered group.  The fact it, they're not a group at all, of course.  This makes coming to conclusions about the Nones difficult, and, unfortunately, leaves Manning's book without a very coherent flow.  She puts forth a good effort, though.  Manning conducted interviews with a wide variety of Nones and drew from a number of sociological studies.  The problem is that Nones defy categorization.  Some are religious believers who don't participate in organized worship.  Others are decidedly non-religious, explicitly atheist or agnostic, and pursue alternative philosophies or world views.  Many simply don't care about religion or non-religion.  Questions of God or theology don't factor into their day-to-day lives.

One strength of Losing Our Religion is the personal interviews.  Manning interviewed a variety of None families, included religious, non-religious, and indifferent families.  Hearing them talk about inculcating values, balancing family traditions with independent thinking, and educational and ethical considerations added richness to what could have been a dry, impersonal treatise.  I was surprised by how little time was spent talking about truth and salvation.  Much of the conversation about religion centered around rituals, milestones like bar mitzvahs, family holiday traditions, and cultural trappings tied to religion.  As an evangelical Christian, rituals and traditions are far less important to me than a relationship with Jesus.  Although Manning did interview some Nones who were former evangelicals, the interviews seemed to skew toward Catholic and Jewish families, for whom religion is more closely tied to culture.

Losing Our Religion made me sad.  As a Christian, I am saddened by the church's failures.  Whether hurt by headline-grabbing scandals, or simply having been let down by weak theology and teaching, when someone leaves church behind, I see a bit of the body of Christ being cut away.  The growing number of Nones makes me sad, too, for the future of our country.  Manning emphasizes that Nones as a rule tend to hold high ethical and moral codes (some more explicitly than others), but I am pessimistic as to what the lack of a moral, traditional, institutional authority will lead to in future generations of Nones.  Nones will find Losing Our Religion interesting, but it should really be a clarion call for pastors and church leaders.   There is a mission field in every city in every state: the Nones and their children.

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

Wednesday, November 18, 2015

A Year of Living Prayerfully, by Jared Brock

Jared Brock, a twenty-something author and beard enthusiast, took a year to go on a "prayer pilgrimage, for all those who, for whatever reason, can't go on on for themselves."  He sets out on a year-long, globe-trotting adventure, exploring prayer and pray-ers all over the world.  With good humor and a bit of spiritual insight, he chronicles his year in A Year of Living Prayerfully: How a Curious Traveler Met the Pope, Walked on Coals, Danced with Rabbis, and Revived His Prayer Life.

Brock's book is first of all an entertaining travelogue, second, a personal, spiritual memoir, and third, a book on prayer.  If a reader were to pick up A Year of Living Prayerfully with the expectation of deep, detailed, systematic teaching on prayer, he would be sorely disappointed.  Brock writes in such a way that among his funny stories of travel and the interesting people he meets, he sprinkles in things he has learned about prayer, making the lessons learned much more effective and memorable.

As the subtitle says, Brock did meet the Pope, who asked Brock to pray for him.  (If Brock was a fan of Pope Francis before meeting him, he was a die-hard super fan afterwards.)  He didn't get to meet Billy Graham, even after stalking him at his secluded home. . . .  Much the worse for Reverend Graham.  Brock has a skill for meeting folks and finding places.  Well, skill and a fair amount of luck.  Readers will envy the adventures and opportunities he writes about.

Well, what about prayer?  I was most impressed by the fact that after galavanting around the world, he discovered that one of the most important spiritual movements in the last few centuries had its origins, in part, in his own Canadian town.  It made me wonder about the natural impulse to seek the distant and exotic for inspiration, when what we are seeking might be right in our neighborhood.  I can read about prayer warriors from centuries past, but I can probably meet awesome prayer warriors in my own church.  I can visit the site of a famous revival on another continent, but there is probably much to learn about the history of the church in my own town.

One method of prayer Brock picked up along the way is holding someone in the light.  As a Quaker lady described it to Brock, "To hold someone in the light is to picture that person in the light of God's grace. . . . We try not to say anything or add our agenda.  Just by holding people in the light, God can do whatever He needs to do in their lives."  To me that sounds like a beautifully perfect, God-centered means of praying for someone.

I also liked his description of prayer as "hanging out with Dad." Brock laments that most Christians view God in prayer as "a needs-and-wants fulfillment service."  By contrast, he describes a teenager who comes home from school "and flops down on the couch in his dad's study."  He doesn't talk about his day or ask for anything, he "just wants to sit there--to be in his dad's presence."  Sometimes sitting silently in the presence of God is the best kind of prayer.

I don't think I'll be able to take a year off to explore the world and see what I can learn about prayer.  But I enjoyed vicariously living Brock's year of living prayerfully through his book.  He meets some remarkable people, and picked up plenty of practical wisdom about prayer to pass along to us.  No matter what kind of prayer life you currently have, it will be enriched by sharing Brock's experiences.

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

Monday, November 16, 2015

All Dressed in White, by Mary Higgins Clark and Alafair Burke

Mary Higgins Clark, best-selling author of dozens of mystery novels, has recently teamed up with Alafair Burke for a new series, the Under Suspicion novels.  In the second title, All Dressed in White, the titular TV show, Under Suspicion, features the cold case of the Runaway Bride.  Five years ago a wealthy bride-to-be disappeared from the resort where her elaborate destination wedding was to take place in mere hours.  No body ever turned up, but the mother of the bride had never given up searching for her. The groom, on the other hand, married the missing bride's best friend two short years later.

The reality TV show gathers the family and wedding party together at the same resort, revisiting the scene, asking hard questions, and seeking answers that investigators never were able to find.  Clark and Burke cleverly build the story through the show's interviews with the friends and family, and with carefully placed conversations and interactions.  Like any good mystery, they spread the suspicion around liberally, but carefully conceal the identity of the real culprit to the very end.  (If I read more mystery novels, or maybe if I were just more clever and/or devious, I probably would have figured it out earlier.)

I like the way Clark and Burke tell the story.  They include very little action for most of the book.  The story is told through the interviews and investigation.  Building toward the climax, the action climbs exponentially.  I thought of those indoor bike races, where it looks like the races are cruising along easily for most of the race, all keeping a similar pace, until the last little bit where they furiously race to the finish.  All Dressed in White is an entertaining, suspenseful read.  I enjoyed the Under Suspicion characters and would definitely look forward to meeting them again next time Clark and Burke decided to put their minds together.

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

Sunday, November 15, 2015

Jesus is Born, by Sophie Piper, illustrated by Anne Yvonne Gilbert

Can there ever be enough Christmas books?  New ones are always welcome, especially when they are as beautifully written and illustrated as Jesus is Born.  Sophie Piper has retold the Christmas story, in its most classic, nativity scene, Christmas pageant glory.  Anne Yvonne Gilbert's illustrations provide the perfect accompaniment, recalling Sunday school lessons and flannel boards from childhood.

Piper's text loosely paraphrases the Bible story, while remaining faithful to the text and original intent.  She captures the heart of the story and reflects the message of Mary and Joseph's faithfulness and the hope our Savior brings.

Jesus is Born is not original, but I mean that in the best way.  Piper and Gilbert capture the spirit of Christmas and point readers young and old to God's best gift, his son Jesus.

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

Friday, November 13, 2015

The Living God and the Fullness of Life, by Jürgen Moltmann

God is alive.  Life in his is full.  Jürgen Moltmann is deep.

Moltmann's new book, The Living God and the Fulness of Life, straddles an awkward space between academic theology and devotional literature.  During my reading, at times my Christian spirit was moved and inspired, at times my academic, philosophical mind was challenged.  Sometimes both at once.

Long a fixture at the University of Tübingen, where he taught systematic theology from 1963 to 1994 (I think I had a couple of professors who studied under him, so I guess I've been indirectly influenced by Moltmann), Moltmann writes from a Reformed, evangelical perspective, but I have a hard time pinning him down within that tradition.

I'm no theological scholar, and certainly have not extensively studied Moltmann's full body of work, but I like the way he seems to challenge core theological positions without wandering into the woods of heterodoxy.  For example, he challenges the idea of God's unchangeable, immovable nature.  "It is impossible to consider God as being unchangeable and immovable without declaring God to be dead.  But the living God is free to move and change."  God can also suffer: "The living God cannot be a God unable to suffer, because God is not a God without relationships."  This idea of God in relationship, in community, is central to Moltmann's understanding of the trinity.  After some of his early writings, Moltmann was criticized as a non-trinitarian.  His discussion of the trinity in The Living God is worth studying, and, I think keeps him well-placed in orthodox, trinitarian theology.

I must admit that I sometimes felt out of my league when reading The Living God, but I think that's a good thing.  It's been too many years since I've read serious theology, too many years of reading popular pastors' sermon series turned into inspirational but light-weight books.  My mind and my spirit need to be challenged by theologians like Moltmann.  I'll close with an apt summary of Motlmann's theme.  "The experience of God will become the experience of being loved and affirmed from all eternity.  That is the fullness of life."  Amen to that, brother Motlmann.

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

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

The Fifth Man, by John Olson and Randall Ingermanson

In Oxygen, a crew of four American astronauts overcome peril and hardship to become the first to walk on Mars.  In John Olson and Randall Ingermanson's sequel, The Fifth Man, the crew faces the complexities of life on Mars, made more difficult by sickness, one crew member's madness, and another inexplicable presence.

As they did in Oxygen, Olson and Ingermanson craft a scientifically and logistically plausible sci-fi novel, with more drama and romance than you'll find in most sci-fi stories.  Take that as I stated it: it can be good or bad, depending on your taste.  In my opinion, they overdo the melodrama and romance.  The characters come off as emotionally immature; I wondered what they heck they were doing on a Mars mission.  On the other hand, I've never met an astronaut; perhaps Olson and Ingermanson's characterizations were spot on.  Astronauts are, after all, mere mortals, just like me.  They can be just as subject to romantic feelings, paranoid delusions, and fits of rage or panic as anyone else.

More than the melodrama, I enjoyed the portrayal of the mission.  Olson and Ingermanson do not downplay or overlook the perils of working on Mars.  They write in such a way that I could be convinced that if a Mars mission left today, it might look like their Aries mission.  I'm sure they take liberties--it's fiction, after all--but for a non-professional like me, The Fifth Man is an effective portrayal of what the first Mars mission might look like.  As to the fifth man himself, well, not to give anything away, but they do find life on Mars.  However, it's nothing like a fifth man.  While the mystery of the fifth man is a part of the story, I didn't really picture it as the central part.

The Fifth Man is an enjoyable sci-fi novel, published by a Christian publisher.  Other than a few explorations of faith by the characters and a possible implied theme, there's not much here to call it Christian.  I don't mean that as a criticism at all; it's refreshing to read characters who actually have faith, and who, when in trouble don't use God's name in vain but actually pray for God's help!  I just mention this for Christian readers as well as unbelieving readers: this is not a stereotypical "Billy Graham film" type of novel with a big conversion scene at the end.  It's a legitimate, entertaining sci-fi novel in which some of the characters are Christians.

As a sequel to Oxygen, The Fifth Man could stand alone, but is better read after reading Oxygen.  Both are fast-paced, fun to read, and leave me wondering, Why didn't they make this a trilogy?  Surely there are more stories to tell from this crew.

Monday, November 9, 2015

Transforming Homosexuality, by Denny Burk

An amazing revolution in society and the church has taken place over that last few decades.  Homosexuality, including homosexual marriage, has been normalized and accepted to a degree no one could have anticipated a generation ago.  The church, as a whole, has been slower to accept homosexuality as acceptable behavior than secular society, but condemnation of homosexuality as sin is becoming rarer.

Denny Burk takes Christian talk about homosexuality beyond behavioral and ethical questions.  In Transforming Homosexuality: What the Bible Says about Sexual Orientation and Change, Burk argues that Christian teaching on homosexuality is too focused on behavior, and not focused enough on orientation.  That homosexual behavior is sinful is a given for Burk.  He points out that many churches that still agree that homosexual acts are sinful will grant that homosexual orientation is not, in itself, sinful, and that many who identify as gay choose to live celibate lives but are still homosexual.

Burk takes what I thought was a common, widely accepted view of temptation--that being tempted is not a sin, it's acting on the temptation that is a sin--and turns it around.  He aims to "establish from Scripture that desires for a sinful act are sinful precisely because the desired act is sinful."  He "carefully define[s] same-sex attraction and show[s] from the Bible why it is sinful." I agree with him that the goal of the Christian life is holiness, and that we all have a sin nature.  I'll even buy his assertion that homosexuality is outside of God's design, celibate or not.  But he seems to go way to far in naming temptation or desire itself as sin.

On the plus side, Burk's concern is for those who are tempted by homosexuality.  Churches have approached homosexuality as an ethical question, not as much as a pastoral question.  All Christians are called to pursue purity and holiness.  All sins require repentance.  And all of us can change: "The same power that Jesus had to be restore to life is the same power that Christians have for moral change." What a great reminder.  It's a powerful truth in an otherwise unnecessarily broad understanding of sin.

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

Sunday, November 8, 2015

Santa, Is It Really You? by Marilyn Harkrider, illustrated by Hannah Newsome

Here's one Christmas tradition you may have wondered about.  Most of us sat on Santa's knee at some point, telling him our Christmas wishes.  But how did the practice of people dressed like Santa, greeting children at the mall or in department stores, come about?  Marilyn Harkrider has an idea, and she writes all about it in Santa, Is It Really You?

Years ago, Santa realized that he had become distant from his target audience.  All his time was taken up with his Christmas duties that he never had an opportunity to actually spend time with the children.  So he made it a practice, every Christmas Eve, to wake a child or two and visit.

He craved more time with the children, so at the suggestion of a helpful child, he started showing up at a department store, talking to the children there.  That kept him too busy and away from his duties at the North Pole, so, at the suggestion of that same helpful child, he recruited substitute Santas, who would appear on his behalf and relay the messages from the children to the North Pole.  To this day, those recruits work on his behalf.  But you never know when he might make an appearance himself. . . .

Santa, Is It Really You? is a perfect story for those kids who are on the brink, trying to decide whether or not Santa is real.  Harkrider has the answer to their questions about all the Santas they see during the Christmas season.  Hannah Newsome's illustrations have a simple, classic look, sure to appeal to young readers and listeners.  Harkrider's text is a bit wordy, which may put it out of reach for the toddler audience, but older preschoolers and younger elementary school children will delight in realizing the mystery of the multiple Santas around town at Christmas time.

Thanks to the publisher for the complimentary review copy!

Friday, November 6, 2015

Angel in Aisle 3, by Kevin West

If you're choosing a mentor, what sort of characteristics would you look for?  How about someone professionally accomplished, a leader in his or her church and community, with a great marriage and terrific kids?  Or how about someone who's all but homeless, poorly groomed, jobless, divorced, has little contact with his children, and doesn't smell good?  Most of us would choose the former over the latter.

Kevin West probably would have chosen the same way, but when Don walked into his grocery store, everything changed.  West had recently resigned from his position as a bank executive.  He had participated in some illegal loan practices and was anticipating legal action against him, perhaps even prosecution and jail time.  In the meantime, he spent his days running a small grocery store he had bought as an investment.

Don became a regular fixture at the store, and to Kevin's surprise, he looked forward to Don's visits.  Not only did they become friends, Don became a spiritual mentor and life coach for Kevin.  He had abundant wisdom as well as knowledge of the Bible, which he shared freely with Kevin and others.

Kevin West tells the story of his relationship with Don in Angel in Aisle 3: The True Story of a Mysterious Vagrant, a Convicted Bank Executive, and the Unlikely Friendship that Saved Both Their Lives.  The subtitle says it all.  These two men, whose lives up to the point of their meeting were so different, found common ground in their need for God and for each other's friendship.  The writing's not the greatest.  The recreated dialogue and flat story-telling style left a bit to be desired, but the genuineness of the story trumps any literary shortcomings.

Angel in Aisle 3 is a neat story of friendship.  More importantly, it is a potent reminder to look past appearances and take time to get to know people.  West might have looked at Don's unkempt appearance and closed himself off from a relationship with Don.  Who in my life, in my city, could be a friend and mentor, but who is invisible to me now, or who I might avoid if our paths crossed?  I pray the Lord will open my eyes, as he did for West and Don, to see the friends and mentors he has for me.

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

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

It's Great Being a Dad, by Jay Payleitner, Brock Griffin, and Carey Casey

It's great being a dad.  That sums up the new book from the National Center for Fathering (, It's Great Being a Dad.  Carey Casey, Jay Payleitner, and Brock Griffin have put together a collection of their essays on fatherhood to help us fathers be more effective in our role.  Covering a wide array of subjects, It's Great Being a Dad has something for every dad to improve as a father and to enjoy his children more.

The good: In their work with NCF, these three writers have gathered anecdotes and academic studies to illustrate their points and encourage fathers at every stage of life.  In 93 short chapters, they have plenty of wisdom to share.  Some of the high points and recurring themes: be intentional, make your kids a priority, pray for your kids, take time for them, be committed.  The chapters can be read in any order, and take just a couple of minutes to read.

The bad: With the bullet-point nature of the 93 chapters of the book, there's not much flow to it.  I suspect these chapters were written as e-mail or newsletter updates, for which they would be perfect.  Gathered into book form, they read like, well, a random collection of e-mail or newsletter updates.  I realize that sounds like a petty criticism, but I read the book cover-to-cover, which is the wrong way to read this book. . . .

In terms of the actual content, I fully endorse the authors' message.  Their advice and encouragement is spot-on.  Each father who reads It's Great Being a Dad will find at least a few essays that hit home.  Almost all of them will ring true with any dad.  I appreciate the NCF and this book, because even though it's great being a dad, it's not always easy being a dad.  It's Great Being a Dad is full of great reminders for me as I try to be the best dad I can be.

Thanks to NetGalley for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, November 1, 2015

God's Servant Job: A Poem with a Promise, by Douglas Bond

Poor Job.
The story of Job is not one of my favorite books of the Bible.  It raises questions about Satan's role in our lives and God's complicity with which I am not completely comfortable.  The overall message is awesome, but the set up is troubling.  Nevertheless, it's there, in the Bible, and I acknowledge God's sovereignty in including it in the canon of scripture.  Thus I, and my children, need to read it and seek what God has to say for us in it.

Douglas Bond has taken the book of Job and retold it in a poem, with illustrations by Todd Shaffer.  God's Servant Job: A Poem with a Promise faithfully retells the story of Job in kid-friendly verse and cartoonish illustrations.  (I hope that doesn't sound critical.  Shaffer is an animator, and the illustrations look like they're from a cartoon to me.  So I mean that in a good, observational way.)  The pictures reflect biblical-era dress and lifestyle, but in an interesting twist, Satan is more of a modern, steam-punk type character.

Bond's emphasis, and the emphasis that we should take from reading the book of Job itself, is that Job was faithful in the midst of his awful circumstances ("I'll bless you Lord, though, come what may.") and that God is sovereign ("If I guide all without your aid,/ And by My power all things have made,/ Why then my will do you degrade/ And whine that you are underpaid?")

There are spots at which the meter and rhyme are a bit too forced, but this is not uncommon in poems for children such as this.  The sum total is successful, though, in faithfully presenting the story of Job for young ears and eyes.  I need to get over my reluctance to embrace Job.  Bond and Shaffer present the troubling book in the best manner possible.  Perhaps their readers will not share my ambivalence!

Steam-punk Satan

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

Friday, October 30, 2015

My Wife Wants You to Know I'm Happily Married, by Joey Franklin

BYU English professor Joey Franklin wants you to know he's happily married.  Actually, he wants you to know a lot about him, as he tells his stories in My Wife Wants You to Know I'm Happily Married, his new collection of essays.  Like most of his students, who "know they've lived relatively ordinary lives," Franklin's life has been pretty ordinary.  Yet he is "happy excavating" his life "to share a bit of rough-polished humanity with someone else," namely, you and me.  These explorations in what he calls creative nonfiction convey his experiences in such a way that the reader might reflect more deeply on his own ordinary life.

Franklin covers a wide range of his experiences as a son, student, missionary, college instructor, father, husband, airline passenger, dancer, new homeowner, and as one losing his hair prematurely.  I particularly enjoyed his reflections on his name, Joey, as an essential part of his identity.  Franklin's primary source material is, of course, his own memory, but he also draws from a wide array of literary and, on occasion, even scientific and academic sources, taking his personal stories to a much higher and more universal level.

In the titular essay, which is really what prompted me to pick up the book, Franklin celebrates the ordinariness of marriage.  He says his wife "threatened to make me a shirt that read, 'My wife wants you to know that I am happily married.'"  He came to believe that this was not so much to ward off admirers, but to "remind me, the wearer, of a particular version of our story, . . . a series of well-spun yarns that remind us why we're together, that help us reaffirm we've made the right choice--that the person we wake up to each morning is really the person we want to wake up to."  Franklin wants to "remember moments of beauty when the truth is anything but."  That, married friends, is well worth remembering.

Franklin's essays are just deep enough not to be trivial, just light-hearted enough not to be heavy, and readable enough not to be dull.  Highly recommended!

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

Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Oxygen, by John B. Olson and Randy Ingermanson

How about a mission to Mars?  According to John B. Olson and Randy Ingermanson, it should have already happened.  When they first published Oxygen, which they describe as a science fiction romantic suspense space adventure, getting a manned mission to Mars off the ground in a decade seemed reasonable.  It probably is still reasonable, if NASA or someone else can come up with the money and will to make it happen.

In Oxygen NASA does make it happen, with a little help from TV ad money.  Imaging the ratings for a Mars landing on the Fourth of July!  So two men and two women take off for the red planet, aiming to land on Mars on July 4, 2014.  After a rough launch, they encounter a number of mechanical and logistical problems, including an explosion that takes out most of their solar power.

They are faced with a number of questions.  Was it a bomb?  Who planted it?  The list of suspects is very short, including the four astronauts and a couple of crew members back on earth.  The crew of four must decide whether they will depend on each other or continue the journey constantly suspecting and second-guessing their crew mates and ground crew.  To make matters worse, due to the loss of power, they are going to run out of oxygen before they get to Mars. . . .

Oxygen is a Christian novel published by a Christian publisher, but the story and the science set the tone.  It is more properly described as a sci-fi novel in which one of the main characters is a Christian.  The main character, Valkerie, a Christian who struggles with her faith, chooses to put her life in God's hands and trust him to carry them through.  Olson and Ingermanson report her faith journey in a way that will sound familiar to Christians who find themselves in crisis situations of the more pedestrian earthly variety.

One complaint I have is that Valkerie, who holds an M.D. and a Ph.D., acts a bit emotional and flaky.  She's a brilliant scientist, hand-picked for the first manned mission to Mars, yet she sometimes seems to be more suited for a Nicholas Sparks novel.  There is a romance storyline in Oxygen that sometimes seemed out of place.  That said, Olson and Ingermanson humanize the astronauts in a way that reminds us that even though the men and women in the space program are much smarter and more physically fit that the rest of us (by a long shot), they are still humans, with emotions, families, and dreams and wishes.

Oxygen is an edge-of-your-seat near-future sci-fi adventure.  The theme of astronauts facing crises is not new; the authors refer to the Apollo 13 mission extensively.  I was also reminded of the recent novel The Martian which a solo astronaut on Mars is forced to adapt and adjust his mission to survive.  Oxygen is definitely worth reading for fans of realistic, near-future sci-fi.

Monday, October 26, 2015

Strong and Kind, by Korie Robertson

I'm not sure how many books have been published by and about the Robertson family, the stars of the popular reality TV show Duck Dynasty.  A quick search at shows at least several dozen.  They have cornered the market, it seems, on duck calls through their Duck Commander company, and are working on taking a big chunk of the market of celebrity biography/cookbook/self-help/inspirational books, too.

Korie Robertson, with help from her husband Willie and her mother, Chrys Howard (side note: Mrs. Howard, a former teacher and publishing executive, co-authored a couple of books with Willie's mom.) has published a parenting book.  Strong and Kind: and Other Important Character Traits Your Child Needs to Succeed focusses on building character in your children.  Rather than focussing on some of the traditional topics of parenting books, Korie writes that after 20 years of parenting her 5 kids, she believes "the most important thing for parents to decide . . . is what values are important to your family and how you will go about instilling those values in your children."

Korie and Willie have chosen to focus on two: strength and kindness.  (I couldn't help thinking of Cinderella's mother's dying admonition to her daughter: "Have courage and be kind.")  They challenge their readers to select these or any other pair of virtues to teach their children.  Different parent and child personalities will lend some values to be more fitting than others.  Besides strength and kindness they discuss self-control, honesty, compassion, patience, joy, loyalty, and humility.  They write that this list is not exhaustive, and that there is much overlap among some of these, but that by choosing to emphasize two, many of the others naturally develop.

The best way to instill these values is to let your children see you living them out.  "Leading by example is the number one way to teach children any behavior you want them to have."  And it has to be deliberate and intentional.  "If we want our kids to behave a certain way, then we have to make that decision and do the things necessary to make that happen."  The role of the parent is to set the tone, and to make the home a place where these values are modeled, lived, and encouraged.

I have yet to see an episode of Duck Dynasty (I know, I know, I should).  This is the fifth book I've read by Robertson family members, and I must say that based on what I've read, I am been impressed with this extended family, the values they embrace and the way they live and display their values.  They're not perfect, nor do they claim to be.  They have recognized that due to the popularity of their TV show, they have a unique position from which they can write about their lives and inspire many.

Korie and Willie may not have degrees in child psychology, but they have plenty to share from their family's wisdom and experience.  Willie sums up their parenting philosophy like this: "Our goal is to be in heaven with our children and for them to live on earth as strong and kind people."  That's as good a summary of parenting goals as I've read.  If you share those goals, Strong and Kind is good inspiration to get you there.

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