Friday, July 31, 2015

7 Secrets to an Awesome Marriage, by Kim Kimberling

If there's one thing I want, it's an awesome marriage.  What married person doesn't?  Now Dr. Kim Kimberling reveals the secrets in 7 Secrets to an Awesome Marriage: Strengthen Your Most Intimate Relationship.  As much as it drives me crazy when authors (or their editors) when they use "secret" in their titles, Dr. Kimberling comes around; he clarifies that these 7 secrets are no big secrets.  They are steps any married couple can take to strengthen their marriage.

Secrets or steps, Dr. Kimberling's seven points are well-taken.  In sum: stop destructive patterns, put God first, listen to each other, learn to fight right, find balance in your schedules, practice sex as the "mingling of souls," and remember you're on the same team as you fight for your marriage.  Each step is worth reading and putting into practice.  

Although he puts it at number 2 of 7, I think he would agree that putting God first should be first in marriage.  God first, spouse second.  Prayer is central; studies have demonstrated that couples who pray together have very low divorce rates.  "Prayer, reading the Bible, worshipping, and serving together al work to align you and your spouse both relationally and spiritually."  These are "intimate and personal acts" which, almost inevitably strengthen a marriage.

Dr. Kimberling provides abundant examples from couples he has counseled as well as from his own marriage.  His principles are sound.  His next steps and suggestions are practical and doable.  Every marriage will have its struggles, one way or another.  Secrets or steps, Dr. Kimberling's seven points will get your marriage headed in the right direction.

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

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

In His Image, by James BeauSeigneur

A group of scientists obtains permission to examine the Shroud of Turin.  Several features lead the team to be convinced that it's an authentic burial shroud, but there is some question as to whether it could possibly be Jesus' image.  During his examination of samples taken from the shroud, one geneticist discovers some cells--living skin cells.  He speculates that they could be skin cells left by the buried person, after his resurrection.  He secretly uses the cells to clone the person, successfully cloning Jesus himself.

That cloning sets the stage for book one James BeauSeigneur's Christ Clone Trilogy, In His Image.  The clone, Christopher, is really a secondary character in the action of the book, but as world events swirl around him, it becomes clear that there's something special about this young man.  The Middle East is in turmoil, the Dome of the Rock has been destroyed and the Jewish people are rebuilding the temple.  Christopher has become a leader in the U.N. just as the U.N. has risen to a more prominent role in world affairs.

BeauSeigneur draws heavily on biblical prophecy (as you might expect).  Whether he does so in a way that is faithful to the message of scripture, well, who can say?  At times I wondered whether BeauSeigneur is writing as a Christian, or whether he's simply writing speculative fiction with biblical themes.  Christopher seems to embody the character of Christ in many ways, yet BeauSeigneur also draws on New Age elements as well.  (As a side note, while the language is fairly mild, I think his use of four-letter words would keep his books off the shelves of Christian bookstores.)  I will be interested to see how Christopher continues to develop throughout the trilogy.  Is he the reincarnation of Christ?  Or the Antichrist?  I guess I'll have to keep reading. . . .

Monday, July 27, 2015

Bombs Away: The Hot War, by Harry Turtledove

Harry Turtledove, "the Master of Alternate History" (according to Publisher's Weekly) writes prolifically about what might have been.  He holds a Ph.D. in history from UCLA, so his historiographical eye is keen.  In Bombs Away: The Hot War, Turtledove imagines a world in which the US, mired in a conflict with the Chinese and Koreans, hopes to end that war by dropping a few atomic bombs on some Chinese cities.

In avenging their fellow communists, the Russians respond by bombing a few European cities.  Since the NATO treaty states that an attack on US allies is viewed as an attack on the US, Americans drop some bombs on Russia, then Russians drop some bombs on US cities.  The Hot War gets very hot indeed.

Turtledove tells the story from a wide variety of perspectives, in Asia, the US, and Europe.  Characters include the president and his advisors, civilians dealing with the impact of losing their homes or living near the blast sites, and, especially, soldiers and pilots on the front lines.

The novel is best described as a series of vignettes.  His descriptions are evocative and personal.  The emphasis is not so much on the global picture of war, although the big picture comes together, but on how the war touches people around the world.  Those personal glimpses, however, don't congeal into a story as much as a simple timeline.

I got a kick out of one character who said, "There ought to be stories where some little thing happens differently and everything that comes afterwards gets changed from the way it really was. . . . It might be fun, make you think a little while you're reading," like if the Nazis won World War II.  In a bit of self-effacing humor, Turtledove has the character add, "Nobody's every gonna want to read about that, not in a million years."

Bombs Away does make me think about what the world might look like if, in those early years of the Cold War, it did turn hot.  I don't know how close the US and other countries have come to "pressing the button."  I'm sure there were plenty of close calls.  Bombs Away reminds us how lucky we are that a nuclear hot war has--so far--been avoided.

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

Sunday, July 26, 2015

Jars of Hope, by Jennifer Roy

I don't think I'll ever get tired of reading true stories of heroism during WW2, especially concerning resistance to the Nazi menace.  Jennifer Roy's Jars of Hope: How One Woman Helped Save 2,500 Children from the Holocaust adds a new title to inspire us.  Irena Sendler's father passed along a legacy to her.  He taught her that people's race, religion, or wealth don't matter, but whether they are good or bad.  He taught her, "When someone is drowning, give him your hand."

Irena became a social worker, and when she say the Nazis force the Jews into the ghetto, she smuggled medicine and food in to the needy Jews.  Soon she began smuggling babies and children out, hoping to save them from death in the concentration camps.  When parents asked for guarantees that their children would survive if they sent them with Irena, she replied, "I can only guarantee that if your child stays here, he will die."

Irena kept careful lists of the children, in hopes of reunited them with their parents.  She put the lists in jars, which she buried until after the war.  She was arrested, and lived for a time as a fugitive from the Nazi occupiers.

Meg Owenson's illustrations beautifully capture the dreary bleakness of occupied Poland, while spotlighting the hope that Irena brought to these children.  Irena is truly a hero who deserves to be remembered.  The strength and character she displayed inspire me not to ignore injustice and to risk my own comfort to meet the needs of others.

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

Thursday, July 16, 2015

Seveneves, by Neal Stephenson

I loved this book.  I'm always eager to read anything Neal Stepheson writes, and Seveneves did not disappoint me.  The book opens with: "The moon blew up without warning and for no apparent reason."  How's that for an image?  Soon, astronomers and mathematicians predict that while some of the moon parts will remain in lunar orbit, as the pieces collide and break apart, the surface of the earth will be subject to a hail of moon rocks that will render the surface of the earth uninhabitable for millennia.  All of the resources of the earth begin to focus on one thing: the survival of the human race.

A small crew has been working on the International Space Station, which becomes the focal point of man's space-ward expansion.  The first two-thirds or so of Seveneves focuses on the trials of this first generation of off-world humans as they attempt to establish a livable, sustainable community in space.

Some things I love about Seveneves: Many books, sci-fi and otherwise, have been written about the end (or decimation) of human life on earth.  Many put the cause in the hands of humans, either through nuclear war or environmental abuse leading to an unlivable ecosystem.  Others write of an alien invasion.  Stephenson chooses neither the man-made catastrophe or alien invasion scenario.  Neither does he dwell on the cause of the moon's explosion.  No definitive answer is ever found for the cause.  The point is not the cause, but the response.

While surely he took some liberties with the science involved, and projected technology forward a bit, Stephenson's characters primarily rely on today's technology, or a very believable next-step expression of today's technology.  At times, Seveneves read like a non-fiction account of actual events.  (I mean that in the best sense of non-fiction.)  He focuses on orbital mechanics, on space habitat design, and on what day-to-day life would look like on an expanded International Space Station.  It's all very believable and realistic.

The last third of Seveneves takes place 5000 years after the moon is destroyed.  In these chapters, Stephenson's imagination runs wild.  He still keeps a solid grounding in the realities of physics and orbital mechanics, but his future world-building is pretty "out there."  The descendants of the earth-born humans have mined asteroids and mastered large-scale building in space.  I would love to see some renderings of the structures he describes!  My imagination reached its limits. . . .  They also continued to develop bioengineering so that they have reseeded the cooling earth, making it habitable again.

While his science and world-building are fascinating, I should not neglect to mention that he does tell a great, sweeping epic throughout.  Seveneves is full of relatable characters who draw the reader into the reality of seeing their home planet destroyed and figuring out what life will be like going forward.  It's the kind of book I didn't want to put down (although at nearly 900 pages, it's not a book you'll likely finish in one sitting).  Seveneves is not a book to read, it's a book to savor and experience.  I must say, I was a bit sad when the experience was over.  Like many of Stephenson's books, Seveneves deserves more than one reading.

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

Monday, July 13, 2015

The Speechwriter, by Bartom Swaim

Sometimes real life is more entertaining than fiction.  You could be forgiven for thinking that Barton Swaim's The Speechwriter: A Brief Education in Politics must be a novel.  But it is, in fact, Swaim's account of his experiences as speechwriter for South Carolina governor Mark Sanford.  With a freshly minted Ph.D. from the University of Edinburgh, Swaim was looking for a place to put his education to work.  He read an op-ed by Sanford, and thought, "This guy needs a writer."

A letter and resume, a perfunctory interview, and before he knows it he's got a job at the state house.  Quickly he learned that his job was not to write great prose and insightful commentary, but to write Sanford's ideas in Sanford's voice, however poorly it might sound to Swaim's ears.  Eventually it got to the point that, at times, neither Swaim nor Sanford could remember who wrote what.

Sanford himself, in Swaim's description, is so much the stereotype of an egotistical, power-dealing, erratic politician that he seems like he could only be the product of an active imagination.  As you may recall, he got caught up in a minor scandal (misuse of funds designated for a National Governor's Association meeting) and a major scandal.  The major scandal came to light in the midst of Sanford's rise on the national radar, when he was being talked about as a potential V.P. candidate on the next presidential ticket.  Sanford was at the top of his game, and he took off to South America for a tryst with his mistress.  The national press got wind of his trip, and his prospects with the national party were through.

Swaim, the everyman guiding the reader through the world of modern politics, doesn't pull punches.  In spite of his cynicism, he holds a grudging admiration for Sanford and his political acumen.  His account is funny, but of course he has a great deal of source material, from his clown of a boss.  As a bit of history, Sanford's administration may not end up as much more than a footnote (or punchline).  Swaim's story may not be about a crucial epoch in American political history, but as an archetypal account of political life, The Speechwriter is an entertaining, enlightening read.

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

Sunday, July 12, 2015

Design a Skyscraper, by Hilary Koll and Steve Mills

My son said he would like to be an architect and build skyscrapers, so when I saw Hilary Koll and Steve Mills's book Design a Skyscraper: You Do the Math, I thought it would be perfect!  Well, he's about 5-10 years too old for this book.  But for the target audience, early elementary, it would definitely fit the bill.

Design a Skyscraper is hybrid: a math book, and a book about building skyscrapers.  Koll and Mills introduce facts about skyscrapers, then present a series of math problems related to skyscrapers.  For example, readers learn about calculating the amount of fencing for a building site, the height of a staircase given the rise height and number of stairs, or how long it would take to clean the windows on a glass skyscraper.

I like the real-world application of math concepts, and the engaging way they introduce the world of skyscrapers.  My son may never build a skyscraper, but Design a Skyscraper is bound to inspire some kids to build one.  And even if they don't, they will have worked on some important math skills.

(One note: don't bother with the Kindle edition. . . The illustrations and layout didn't work out too well on Kindle.)

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

Friday, July 10, 2015

Armada, by Ernest Cline

Ernest Cline made a big splash with his first novel, Ready Player One, which Spielberg is bringing to film.  Cline returns with the same spirit--and a just-as-cinematic-worthy story--in Armada.  Zack Lightman is just trying to survive his senior year in high school.  He's a top-rated player on the popular game Armada, which consumes much of his time outside of school and his part-time job at the video game store.  When not playing Armada, he enjoys the treasure trove left by his father, who died when Zack was a baby.  The boxes of his father's old things contain music, movies, and, especially, video games he enjoyed.

At the bottom of one of those boxes of nerd culture artifacts, Zack discovered a journal, in which his father speculates that there is some connection between the video game industry, sci-fi movies, the government, and the military.  When a spaceship that looks exactly like a ship on the Armada video game picks Zack up in front of his high school, he learns that his father's seemingly paranoid ravings were right on the money.

Those popular video games were not just video games.  They were training simulations, preparing humans to fight the coming alien invasion.  As one of the top gamers, Zack is a key recruit for the Earth Defense Alliance.  He joins in the fight against an invasion that has been building for years, a desperate fight for the future of the human race.

Like Ready Player One, Armada draws on the world of video games and movies, especially sci-fi, and 80s pop culture.  There were plenty of times when I paused my reading to Google a phrase or quote that I didn't recognize.  Safe to say Cline is more immersed in nerd pop culture than I am.  (There's also a character who quotes Shakespeare.  I had to Google those lines, too.)

Armada feels brief and breezy.  The story moves along at break-neck speed.  Of course it does: Zack's going to school one day, and with hours he's fighting an alien attack at a secret military base.  Armada draws explicitly from Ender's Game, Iron Eagle, The Last Starfighter, and other stories and movies.  It does not, however, feel like Cline is recycling material.  He writes with an original voice, capturing the teenage mind and nerd culture (I hope that phrase does not sound demeaning.  I think Cline would be OK with it; he wrote the screenplay for a movie called Fanboys which epitomizes nerd culture. . . .)

Fans of Ready Player One, sci-fi movie lovers, and gamers will love Armada.  But the appeal is certainly broader than that.  Zack is the underdog, the unlikely hero, the every-teen who rises to the challenge and saves the day.  Read it.  Don't wait for the (hopefully inevitable) movie. 

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

Wednesday, July 8, 2015

College Quicker, by Kate Stephens

With rising tuition costs and college debt spiraling out of control (the next financial bubble?), it just makes sense to find ways to finish college in less time and with less money.  In her new, helpful how-to book, Kate Stephens gives some tools and tips for high school and college students who want the most out of college but want to save some money and finish faster.  College Quicker: 24 Practical Ways to Save Money and Get Your Degree Faster is not for everyone.  If your college student has a guaranteed full scholarship to college, or if your family can afford to simply write a check for all college expenses, then you might not feel the need College Quicker.

For the vast majority of us, though, Stephens's ideas are welcome and, as promised, quite practical.  Some are very familiar: AP exams, credit by examination, IB exams, dual credit courses.  These ways to earn college credits while still in high school seem like the simplest, most effective way to get a leg up on college.  It's really not that hard, especially for a driven student, to graduate from high school with a year or more of credit under his belt.

Some of my favorite ideas involve getting credit from colleges other than the one in which you are currently enrolled.  For summer sessions, study abroad programs, service programs, on-line classes, etc., it may be possible to earn credits which will transfer to the college from which you will be earning your degree.  In some cases the tuition savings will be significant.  One specific example described a study abroad program that included travel, lodging, entertainment, all meals, and credit hours, and ended up costing barely more than the tuition for those same credit hours if earned on campus.  That sort of program would be worth looking up!

To make it very practical, Stephens illustrates the potential savings, comparing the savings to what a student might pay in loans (and interest), or, if the savings were put into a retirement account, what they gains would be, given growth over time.  Breaking down the numbers like this puts a relatively small cost difference into perspective!

There are certainly pitfalls.  For each of these ideas, Stephens encourages readers to do their research.  Students need to be aware of what credits will transfer, and what will apply to their chosen major, before they jump in.  Some courses will count for credit, others might simply satisfy a prerequisite with no credit given.  Some courses won't transfer at all.

As my oldest son is entering his junior year in high school, the crunch will be coming soon for us.  I would love to see him get a full-ride scholarship to the school of his dreams.  In the meantime, we'll be working on some of these, making plans for options to keep him (and me!) out of a lifetime of debt while achieving his academic goals.  Thanks to Ms. Stephens for this handy, helpful resource.

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

Monday, July 6, 2015

Exposure, by Chauntelle Tibbals

Dr. Chauntelle Tibbals, a sociologist with a PhD from the University of Texas, sees herself as a "sociologist at large. . . a public scholar out exploring the world--an embedded public sociologist."  For a large part of her career, she has been embedded "in stigmatized yet legal industries operating in the United States."  In other words, she has made the focus of her academic sociological studies the world of adult entertainment--porn.

There aren't too many people in the world who would (openly) defend and accept porn in culture.  But the numbers are there--it's widely consumed and has irrevocably established itself in popular entertainment.  So it seems only right that academics would study it and evaluate different aspects of its influence and trends, whether positive or negative.  Dr. Tibbals, one of the very few who has chosen to do so, has been shunned in the academic community.  Between conservatives who believe porn to be anti-family values, and liberals who believe it to be anti-women, there's little room for someone who defends and celebrates it from an academic, feminist perspective.

Tibbals leaves no doubt that she is a friend and defender of the industry.  Based on her telling, she has many friends in the industry, hangs out with producers and performers, and believes porn to be entertaining, liberating, and uplifting.  She writes about films being "empowering" to women performers, who sometimes "clearly, obviously, totally" enjoy their work.  Speaking of one film in particular, "the dudes appear to be super happy.  The women are into it, as well.  It's uplifting."

She doesn't have a lot of patience for critics of the industry.  She had heard about a major annual porn expo, and, upon attending, found that "everything I'd ever heard about [the expo] seemed to be either a gross embellishment or an out-and-out fabrication."  That has been her experience in studying the industry.  There's no shortage of critics of porn, but they tend to ignore performers, producers, and consumers who are happy about their role in the production and consumption of porn.

But speaking of ignoring. . . . Tibbals comes down hard as an apologist for porn.  Academics who study an industry should take an objective, analytical approach.  If she really wanted to write a sociological study of the world of pornography, shouldn't she have at least mentioned the role of international sex trafficking? (never mentioned)  The pervasive use of drugs? (briefly mentioned, glossed over)  The abuse of the women performers?  (mentioned in the famous case of Linda Lovelace, but she claims the abuse was not because of porn, it was because of her terrible husband)  The occurrence of STDs?  (briefly mentioned, only in passing)  The links between rape and use of porn? (not mentioned)  The consequences of addiction to porn? (not covered at all) The role of porn in destroying marriages? (not covered)  The impact of porn on sexualizing culture and transforming the way sex is viewed in media? (nope)  The effect of children's exposure to porn on their perceptions of sexuality and sexual behavior? (not mentioned)   The bottom line is that there are major, legitimate concerns about the proliferation of pornography.  In my opinion, a sociologist, whether tied to a university or a 'sociologist at large,' has a responsibility to her chosen field and her readership not to ignore these obvious problems with the adult entertainment industry.

Critics of porn should be careful not to resort to "gross embellishment" or "out-and-out fabrication" when discussing porn.  Tibbals shines a positive light on the industry that makes such critics look like unreliable reactionaries.  But in Exposure, Tibbals goes the other direction, falling far short of her task as a sociologist.  Until she's willing to take a good, hard look at the dark side of porn, the negative effects it can have on individual performers, consumers, and society at large, her study is at best incomplete, at worst, irresponsibly deceptive.

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

Friday, July 3, 2015

Supervillains Anonymous, by Lexi Dunne

Lexi Dunne cruelly ended her first novel, Superheroes Anonymous, with a cliffhanger worthy of the old Batman TV shows.  I forgive her though.  She delivered a worthy sequel (or part 2) in Supervillains Anonymous.  Hostage Girl, having been framed for her friend and trainer Angelica's death, finds herself sentenced to the notorious Detmer prison for supervillains.  It turns out not to be so bad--fine dining, masseuses on call, outstanding workout facilities--except that her roommate is the sadistic supervillain Rita Davenport.

Hostage Girl unwillingly enters Rita's training program, then unwittingly gets sprung from prison by Rita, and is caught up in a whirlwind of double-dealing superheroes and supervillains.  She is still discovering and developing her own powers, cultivating a romance with her superhero boyfriend, and trying to decide who's really on her side.

Dunne writes some great action and fighting scenes.  Of course they're not believable; we're talking about people with superhuman powers, after all.  She keeps the surprises coming as Hostage Girl and her friends get to the bottom of the supervillains' plot to take down the superheroes and establish themselves as the dominant super-people.  That's a pretty bad nutshell description of the plot, actually.  Dunne does a better job of pulling it off, but the plot does tend to get drowned out a little by the action sequences.

I do look forward to Dunne's next book.  (We know she has one in mind by the way she ends this one. It's not quite as bad a cliffhanger, but it's still hanging there. . . .)  One thing I'd like to see more of is interaction with the "real world."  There are a couple of references in Supervillains Anonymous to the superheroes actually doing things superheroes do, but mostly they are saving each other rather than civilians, giving the impression of an insular community of supers who don't have much purpose in the larger world.  Nevertheless, it's a fun read, a nice followup to Superheroes Anonymous.

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

Wednesday, July 1, 2015

Adoption, by Russell Moore

My family loves adoption.  My church loves adoption.  One of my three children is adopted, and as I look around our church, I see children adopted domestically, through private agencies and state foster care, adopted as babies and adopted as older children, adopted from Africa and Europe.  Any my church isn't very big!  I love that it's a part of our church's culture.

Russell Moore wants that to be the case for every church, and I'm with him.  In Adoption: What Joseph of Nazareth Can Teach Us about This Countercultural Choice, he writes, "Imagine if Christian churches were known as the places where unwanted babies become beloved children."  Amen, brother.  Joseph is our model.  His teenage fiance had become pregnant from someone else.  He modeled the love God has for us as Jesus grew up.

I applaud Moore's commitment to adoption and his extensive writing promoting it.  He emphasizes the spiritual importance of adoption.  It "isn't charity.  It isn't part of a political program. . . . It's spiritual warfare."  Adoption not only makes a difference in the life of a child, it makes a difference in the spiritual realm as well.  I hope many more churches take up the mantle of adoption, not only to meet the needs of the many children without a family, but to demonstrate to the world that there is enough love in the kingdom of God for every child, and that no child is worthless or unwanted.

(One note about the book: This is actually a chapter taken from his earlier book Adopted for Life.  I presume the idea is that in this booklet form, Moore can get the message to more people and more people would be likely to read it.  I received it as an advance electronic review copy [for which I'm grateful].  If I were buying it, I think I would spend the extra couple of bucks to get Adopted for Life.)

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