Monday, August 31, 2015

Solarversia: The Year-Long Game, by Toby Downton

A novel about a year-long video game?  I have to admit, I was skeptical at first.  Solarversia: The Year-Long Game is, indeed, about a year-long video game, which is played by a hundred million people vying for millions of dollars in prizes.  Toby Downton, who is actually developing a game similar to the one in the novel, launching in 2020, goes way beyond describing video game play in Solarversia.  It's gaming, social commentary, global politics, marketing, celebrity, romance, friendship, family, and one really evil and insane villain.

The heroine of Solarversia, Nova Negrahnu, manages to have a somewhat balanced life outside of her VR goggles, but her studies somehow manage to take second place.  When the game Solarversia is announced, she knows it's made for her.  She's a talented gamer, brilliant with the puzzles with which Solarversia challenges the players, and has time on her hands to play.  I don't think I'll be spoiling anything to let you know she stays in the game a good long time.

To complicate matters of the game, an evil scientist, whose expertise is artificial intelligence, has gathered a following of disciples who share his hope in a future AI being who will bring peace and prosperity to all the earth.  Of course, madmen like him can't accomplish their goals without violence.  When his group's violence touches the game, in VR and reality, including a bomb which kills Nova's best friend, the game changes and Nova begins to play for more than just a cash prize.  She wants revenge.

I am always delighted when a book is much better than I otherwise expected.  Solarversia is a fun read.  The technology is not entirely speculative; I can see everything Downton describes being in place by the time the game launches in 2020.  As cool as it sounds, I don't think I'd be a good candidate for the game.  1. I stink at video games.  2. I'm not that great at some of the types of puzzles and challenges described in Solarversia.  3. I have to hold a full-time job and take care of my family; I'm not sure I'd have time to commit to such a game!  On the other hand, if I could get to the final rounds. . . .

Pick up Solarversia for a preview of a game that promises to change the landscape of gaming.  Downton has a web site promoting the game:  I'll definitely be watching with interest when the game comes out.

Thanks to the author for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, August 30, 2015

The College Football Championship, by Matt Doeden

Ahhh, the most wonderful time of the year--college football season!  Starting this week, Saturdays will begin to be dominated by college football, with everyone's eyes, even from week one, on the question, Who will make the four spots in the college football playoff?  In The College Football Championship, Matt Doeden covers the history of the college football championship.  From the early polls, to the growing number of bowl games, to the BCS, to the playoff, which began with the 2014 season, the question of who is the best team in the land has never, really and truly, been satisfactorily answered.

Doeden tells the history of how the champion has been determined, and the many controversies over that determination.  He covers memorable championship games and memorable plays in championship games.  He describes some of the dynasties that have dominated the game.

My big disappointment with the book is that, due to Baylor's losing a game they should have won in West Virginia, plus a few other teams winning a game or two against the odds, Baylor did not get to play in the first college football playoff.  (Five major conferences, four places in the playoff.  Someone will always be disappointed.)  I would have liked the book much better if Baylor would have been on the cover instead of Ohio State!

That quibble aside, this is a great resource, gathering some highlights of college football history and whetting my appetite for football season.  With lots of pictures and short sections, his target audience is probably elementary and middle school audiences, but football fans of all ages can appreciate looking back at these championship highlights.

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

Friday, August 28, 2015

50 Children, by Stephen Pressman

Of the stories of heroism during one of humanity's darkest hours there seem to be no end.  The crimes of the Nazis against their fellow man were of a scale and brutality unmatched in modern times.  OK, a couple of regimes have tried to match them, but Nazis take the cake as personification of man's inhumanity to man.  Stephen Pressman tells the story of the previously little-known heroism of a small group of American Jews in 50 Children: One Ordinary American Couple's Extraordinary Rescue Mission into the Heart of Nazi Germany.  

Gilbert and Eleanor Kraus, a Jewish couple living in Philadelphia, became concerned about the plight of Jews living in Europe.  They cajoled, networked, pulled strings, stubbornly fought, begged and pleaded, eventually building a network of support in the US, specifically families to sponsor Jewish children, and in Europe to gather a group of 50 children and relocate them to a camp in Pennsylvania.  Using Mrs. Kraus's almost forgotten first-hand account, Pressman tells their dramatic story.

Several things stood out as I read.  First of all, the willingness of Austrians to participate in and endorse Hitler's rise to power.  Austria embraced him with open arms.  His policy to get rid of the Jews met very little resistance from non-Jews.  Jews had their businesses and homes taken away and/or destroyed.  Their synagogues were destroyed or at least desecrated.  The criminal activity of Kristallnacht was perpetrated by Germans and SS, of course, but ordinary Austrians pitched in or stood by.  Everyday Austrians fully bought into the vicious anti-Semitism.  This boggles the modern mind.

Americans were not immune to the anti-Semitism.  Prominent voices resisted the immigration of Jews to the United States.  One ship of refugees was famously turned away, sent back to Europe where many of the passengers eventually were murdered in concentration camps.

Lest we look down our noses at our forebears, the situation that he Krauses faced has a couple of modern parallels.  I was interested to read the remarks of a U.S. senator who objected to welcoming Jewish children as refugees: "What is American citizenship worth if it allows American children to go hungry, unschooled and without proper medical attention while we import children from a foreign country?  Let the sympathies of the American people be with American children first."  It's not hard to imagine that a 21st century politician saying the exact same thing today, as we see children illegally entering the country on our southern border.  Children and their families are not being killed because of their religion in Mexico and Central America, but conditions are pretty brutal.  I don't think the case of Nazism is parallel to the case of the treatment of minorities in Mexico.  I have to admit that I'm torn, as many are, between wanting to help those in need and wanting to protect the sovereignty of the U.S.  I am much more sympathetic to giving people safe harbor from a brutal, murderous dictatorship like the Nazis that from conditions of poverty and corruption.

A much closer modern parallel is the plight of Christians living in areas that have been taken over by Islamic radicals.  In some parts of the world, Christians are being targeted for murder, just as the Nazis targeted the Jews.  In many cases, the brutality is worse than anything the Nazis came up with.  If there is ever a time when U.S. immigration policies should take a back seat to humanitarian concern, this is it.    We can be inspired by the Krauses to reach out to Christians who are being persecuted and murdered.

In an afterward to 50 Children, Paul Shapiro, director of the Center for Advanced Holocaust Studies, writes that "American isolationism and anti-Semitism made it impossible to craft public policies that might have been more compassionate toward refugees."  As a result, American Jews were overly cautious in their advocacy.  Further, he calls the American claim that "we did not know what Nazi Germany, her allies and collaborators, were doing" a myth.  True, the extent of the brutality of the Nazi regime was not fully realized until after the war, but there was plenty of press coverage of Kristallnacht and other episodes of Germany's treatment of Jews.  The Krauses did not have access to top secret reports; they read the newspaper.  Today the brutality of ISIS is no secret.  We can see videos of ISIS criminals murdering Christians.  Anyone with an internet connection can learn about ISIS's brutality.

The Jews say of the Holocaust, "Never again."  Let us follow the example of the Krauses, and declare that never again will the United States stand by while a whole people group is marked for extermination.  It happened in Rwanda.  It's happening now under ISIS.  Let us look the model set by the Krauses and others who saved Jews from the evil hand of Hitler.  Perhaps we can be a part of saving some from the evil hand of ISIS.

(By the way, this book is a tie-in to an HBO documentary.  Somehow I missed that little fact as I read.  I really want to see it now.

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

Wednesday, August 26, 2015

One Thousand Wells, by Jena Lee Nardella

From a very young age, Jena Lee Nardella displayed an unusual sensitivity toward and compassion for the poor.  As she grew older, she became more passionate about forming relationships with poor and marginalized people.  The plight of Africans suffering from the pandemic of AIDS caught her attention and she began to shape her college studies toward addressing that issue.  A providential meeting got Jena in touch with the rock band Jars of Clay.  They shared her passion, and the band's popularity provided a platform through which she could put her passion to work.  Together, they formed Blood:Water (, dedicated to providing fresh water in Africa, especially for those suffering from AIDS.

Jena tells her story and the story of Blood:Water in One Thousand Wells: How an Audacious Goal Taught Me to Love the World Instead of Save It.  Jena may have been just another idealistic teenager, who turns into an idealistic college kid, who turns into just another clock puncher when reality begins to conflict with idealism.  But she was more than idealistic, she was visionary.  And she wasn't content with meeting Jars of Clay; she doggedly pursued partnership with them and used their popularity, connections, and fan base to transform her vision into reality.

I was impressed with the wisdom, resourcefulness, and maturity she displayed during the founding of Blood:Water and the early years of the mission.  She's very honest about some mistakes she made, as well as about her romantic and personal journey.  One Thousand Wells is a great case study in dreaming big and putting feet to the gospel.

Even amidst the "audacious goal" of digging 1000 wells in Africa, Jena never seems to have lost sight of the one-by-one nature of their work.  She writes: "The faithful actions of loving one person at a time, working for justice one place at a time, providing water one village at a time--that is how we love the whole world."  Amen to that, and more power to Jena and Blood:Water as they continue their important work.

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

Monday, August 24, 2015

Eight Twenty Eight, by Ian and Larissa Murphy

You may have seen the viral video that circulated a while back about Ian and Larissa Murpy.  As college kids, Ian and Larissa met and fell in love.  While they were dating, not yet engaged but definitely thinking about marriage, Ian had a car accident that left him with a traumatic brain injury.  They stuck together and after a few years they got married.

This video tells part of their story:

They have written a book about their relationship and what they have learned about God.  Eight Twenty Eight, as most Christians will recognize, refers to Romans 8:28, which says that all things work together for the good of those who love God.  It's also the date they chose for their wedding.

Larissa, a longtime journaler, reveals her thoughts from the time they were dating, the time after the accident wondering if Ian would survive, and the years of rehab and contemplating their future together.  She's honest and vulnerable in her writing.  One can't help but be moved by their story and by Larissa's devotion during a time when many would not have considered continuing the relationship.

I couldn't help but wonder what I might have done in a similar situation.  If someone is married, and one spouse has an accident or becomes ill, I think sticking around is non-negotiable.  That's part of the wedding vows.  (Of course, that's ideal, not reality for every couple. . . .)  If a couple is engaged, there are implicit vows, but the relationship hasn't been sealed before God.  Ian and Larissa had been dating for only a few months when Ian had the accident.  Their relationship was still in that giddy college dating stage.  For her to decide to stick with Ian reveals a heart that had vowed to stick with him forever.

Given the freshness of their relationship and their young age, as I read I continually found myself wondering if there was a sense of projecting her ideals from the "newly in love"relationship onto their "forever no matter what" relationship.  Ian's injury seems to have frozen their relationship in her perception at the college romance stage.  Larissa's writing repeatedly has the tone of "I really want this to work out. . . . I'm going to make it work out. . . . I feel like it should work out. . . ."  It just seemed forced and artificial.  Being in the voice of a girl barely out of her teens, has a "Dear Diary" feel that I found hard to get past.

The bottom line is that I admire the Murphy's bond.  I hope and pray that Ian continues to improve and regain abilities.  I am confident that their relationship will continue to grow and to inspire others.  I just wish I had been content to stop with the video and not read the book.

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

Sunday, August 23, 2015

Star Trek/Planet of the Apes: The Primate Directive, by Scott Tipton and David Tipton

When I was a kid, two of my favorite shows (like many boys growing up in the 1970s) were Planet of the Apes and Star Trek.  What a blast to bring those two shows together in a comic!  Scott Tipton and David Tipton have done just that in Star Trek/Planet of the Apes: The Primate Directive.

Picking up the story shortly after the events of the first Planet of the Apes movie, Kirk and his crew follow some hostile Klingons through a dimensional portal.  The Klingons are looking to disrupt the Klingon social and political structure by arming one group to rise up against another.  Clearly the Klingons do not follow the prime directive.  Kirk and the Enterprise crew do, of course.  And, at the risk of spoiling it for you, I'll tell you the Klingons are driven away, order is restored on future Earth, and the prime directive is followed as best they can.

The Primate Directive is nostalgic and fresh at the same time.  Charlton Heston and William Shatner together--good times!  I don't think they ever worked together in real life.  I bet they would have had good chemistry, if they didn't kill each other.  The Primate Directive is pretty much like an episode of Star Trek.  The graphic novel format allows the story and science to develop a bit more than a TV episode would.  This would be fun to see on the screen, but I think J.J. Abrams is busy right now with another project. . . .

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

Friday, August 21, 2015

God's Crime Scene, by J. Warner Wallace

I grew up reading Josh McDowell's Evidence That Demand's a Verdict.  More recently, Lee Strobel has sold millions of his Case for . . . books.  Into that tradition of popular apologetics enters J. Warner Wallace.  From his perspective as an experienced detective, he has written God's Crime Scene: A Cold Case Detective Examines the Evidence for a Divinely Created Universe.

Wallace's style and approach is readable and enjoyable.  He introduces each chapter with details from different crime scenes he has investigated.  Using crime scene investigation as a metaphor, he introduces different classic theistic arguments to determine if evidence points to an actor "inside the room" or "outside the room."

Readers familiar with Christian apologetics will recognize traditional theistic arguments: origin of life, evidence of design, universal morality, the problem of evil, free will and others.  Wallace engages these arguments from a philosophical perspective, while providing his crime scene illustrations to keep it fresh and relatable for the non-philosophical reader.

His bottom line: that philosophers have been unable to come to a consensus on an "inside the room" explanation for the evidence.  The best explanation, he argues, calls for "an 'external' suspect" who is "non-spatial, a-temporal, non-material, and uncaused. . . . also powerful enough to create everything we see in the universe, and purposeful enough to produce a universe fine-tuned for life."  Further, the only being that fits all of those descriptors is, of course, God.

Wallace's arguments are cogent and well-reasoned.  How effective are they?  I don't know.  I am a Christian, fully convinced of all Wallace argues.  Yet I found my mind wandering.  I don't know how well equipped I would be after reading this.  I also don't know how convincing Wallace's arguments would be even to an open-minded agnostic.  However, given the right reader, or the right conversation partner, Wallace's book can be a great resource for defending the reasonableness, perhaps even the inevitability, of theism.

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

Wednesday, August 19, 2015

The Sky is Falling, the Church is Dying, by Ted A. Campbell

Ever since Dean Kelley wrote Why Conservative Churches are Growing in 1972, the death of the mainline denominations has been predicted as imminent.  Not so fast, says Ted Campbell, a church historian at Southern Methodist University.  In The Sky is Falling, the Church is Dying, Campbell writes that the reports of the death of the traditional Protestant denominations has been greatly exaggerated.

The main subjects of Campbell's book are what are sometimes called the mainline denominations: United Methodists (the denomination in which Campbell has served as pastor and professor), Presbyterian Church (USA), Episcopal Church in the USA, United Church of Christ, and others.  Looking at attendance trends, he shows that although membership rolls have declined, attendance has actually been strong.  "In the 1940s and '50s and '60s the names of inactive members were on the rolls of the churches, and the 'nones' today are not on the rolls of churches.  The practical difference it's making in church life is about zero."

A common criticism of the mainline churches is their liberalism.  Campbell argues that although the are typically progressive on issues such as gay marriage, the still "espouse very traditional theological views and attitudes toward Christian worship."  And while some in these denominations may hold liberal theological views, "Historic Protestant churches, as churches, have remained rather consistent in affirming historic Christian teachings."  I'm no church historian nor am I a United Methodist insider.  But anecdotally and in my experience, some of these churches seem to be hotbeds of universalism and other forms of theological liberalism.  I hope for the sake of these churches and for the Kingdom that Campbell is right and the encounters I've had with un-Christian teaching in the pulpits of mainline churches are a minority.

Campbell's tone is light and his outlook is very optimistic.  I appreciated his confidence, not just in the resilience of human institutions of the church, but in the sovereignty of God and the variety of expressions of Christian faith.  I still harbor some fear that maybe the sky is falling, though.  Even if mainstream Christians aren't universalists, modern tolerance tends to become universalism-lite.  Cultural sensitivity becomes a reluctance to evangelize.  It's undeniable that European Christians are having fewer children and are not actively evangelizing, while Muslim immigrants are settling in Europe and having lots of children.  Demographic trends point to a dying church in Europe.  Give the American church a few more decades, and I fear we will be in the same boat.

In the meantime, Campbell and his fellow mainline congregants will carry on.  In my evangelical church, we will carry on.  All of us will hold out hope for heaven, and look for a day when we all worship together at the throne of God, not caring about one denomination or another.

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

Monday, August 17, 2015

Where You Go is Not Who You'll Be, by Frank Bruni

It goes without saying, or at least it should go without saying, that you can be fulfilled, successful, and happy no matter where you go to college, or, for that matter, whether you go to college.  In Where You Go is Not Who You'll Be: An Antidote to the College Admissions Mania, Frank Bruni wants to convince the reader that in spite of the "college admissions mania," not getting into an elite school isn't the end of all hope.

With computer-based admissions applications, the increasing brand-awareness in our culture, and the sense (valid or not) of increasing divisions between rich and poor and a shrinking middle class, admissions to elite colleges has become more and more competitive.  High school students are driven to despair if they are denied admission to the elite school of their choice.  They miss out on opportunities available at regional colleges and large public universities because of a narrow focus on elite schools.  They allow their own self-perception to be determined by an admissions committee.

Bruni provides example after example of successful people who do no have an Ivy League diploma.  He discusses small colleges, as well as schools within large universities, where students are thriving.  And he provides general principals to guide aspiring students in their college choices.

As one student, who found success at a small college and then in her career, put it, "Everything in life--everything--is what you put into it.  It's not just Harvard, Stanford, or Yale that gets you a foot in the door.  There are so many options for how you can live your life and make a career for yourself."  Bruni wants students to recognize that truth.  A successful hedge fund executive who graduated from Texas A&M agreed that academic pedigree does not equal success: "If you are extremely smart but you're only partially engaged, you will be outperformed, and you should be, by people who are sufficiently smart but fully engaged."

Bruni's book is a breath of fresh air and a reminder that there are hundreds of excellent colleges and universities in the United States, and that a fit for the student is much more important than the prestige of the school.  However, as he points out, potential employers and professional schools often look to graduates of elite schools as having been pre-screened, in a sense, as exceptional.  This perception is hard to deny and there's not much that will change it.  Want to get into a great medical school?  Will the medical school look more favorably on a top student from Kansas State or on a top student from Harvard?  Will a recruiter for a major consulting firm prefer a graduate of Central Florida or Columbia?  Fair or not, prestigious degrees can open doors.

Bruni is right, but his title may be too strong.  Many college graduates would say "Where you go is definitely part of who you'll be."  I have encouraged my son, a junior in high school who wants to go to Columbia, to consider two things: The kind of people he wants to be around, and the kind of values he wants to establish in his life.  Stereotypical or not, many students at elite schools are themselves products of elite prep schools and come from wealthy families.  Those universities often don't reflect a cross-section of class and culture the way a state school or regional college typically does.  Also, the elitism that marks many elite students has an impact on students and culture at those schools.  (E.g., the students at an Ivy League school chanting "safety school" at a football game against their less-elite opponent.)

I would have liked to see Bruni examine the values and worldview of elite schools as well.  Higher education is full of liberalism across the board, but it seems that the Ivies are at the forefront of politically and socially liberal ideas.  Students who are politically, socially, or religiously more conservative will not find a balanced presentation at elite colleges.  If a Christian student, for example, wants to engage his faith in his academic field, professors at an elite college will probably not encourage him to do so.

University life in the U.S. is sick in many ways.  The frantic scramble for spots at the top universities doesn't help the madness.  I hope my son gets into Columbia, if that is truly where he wants to study.  I just hope he keeps a good head on his shoulders and recognizes the wide array of possibilities for a bright, motivated college-bound student.  I also hope he recognizes that going to a smaller Christian college, a state school, or a regional liberal arts college, isn't a death knell for his life.  You don't have to live very long to know admirable, highly successful adults who went to colleges you have never heard of, and to meet graduates of Ivy League schools who are pretty darn average.

Does it matter where you go to college.  Frankly, yes.  But as Bruni concludes, "Where we go to college will have infinitely less bearing on our fulfillment in life than so much else: the wisdom with which we choose our romantic partners; our interactions with the communities that we inhabit; our generosity toward the families that we inherit and the familiar that we make.  We know that no college can compete with getting any one of these things right, let alone getting several or all of them right."  That's just a hard thing for a 17 year old to remember when he's filling out college applications.

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

Sunday, August 16, 2015

Toby and the Ice Giants, by Joe Lillington

Toby was a young bison who lived during the last ice age.  One day, he decided to venture out on his own to meet some of the other animals.  Joe Lillington tells Toby's story in Toby and the Ice Giants.  Some of the animals Toby meets will be very familiar to kids who have seen the Ice Age movies: the wooly mammoth, the megatherium (sloth), the glyptodon, and the smilodon, a.k.a. sabre-toothed tiger.  He also meets someone familiar to us modern readers: a human.

Toby enjoys meeting all of these giants, but finally decides that he's better off staying with his family, "at least until I'm a bit bigger."  Lillington tells us a little about each of the animals Toby meets, including their size, weight, diet, habitat, and other facts about them.  Kids of all ages will enjoy the illustrations and the informative sidebars.  Too bad some of these giants didn't stick around after the end of the ice age.

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

Friday, August 14, 2015

Killing Auntie, by Andrzej Bursa, translated by Wiesiek Powaga

In a college Philosophy and Literature class, which focused on 20th century existentialism, I got hooked on Camus, Sartre, and Kafka.  So when I saw Polish author Andrzej Bursa's novel Killing Auntie compared to Sartre and Kafka, as well as to Dostoevsky and Joseph Heller, I thought I'd check it out.  Let's just say that one way to be disappointed in a book is to begin reading it with exalted expectations.

Killing Auntie begins with Jurek confessing to a priest that he has killed his aunt.  He thoughtlessly, purposelessly, spontaneously decides to beat her over the head with a hammer.  The rest of the book deals with the aftermath: scheming to cover up the crime, to prevent his other aunt and grandmother from discovering his deed, dealing with a new romance, and, mostly, disposing of the corpse.

The tone of the story and the attitude that Jurek conveys is reminiscent of a character from Kafka or Camus.  The phrase "the banality of evil" comes to mind.  Jurek has no real ethical moorings from which to reflect on his act.  The confession doesn't seem to be meaningful, except to highlight the titillation of the priest experiences upon hearing about a real crime in his confessional.  Jurek does realize that others will view his act as repulsive, thus his reluctance to tell his girlfriend about it and his attempts to his the corpse from his aunt and grandmother.

I think Bursa was attempting to pen a reflection on the evil in all our lives.  He makes in explicit in his defense to his girlfriend: "I wouldn't blame you [if you are offended by my confession], just like I wouldn't blame anyone for anything, and not because I don't . . . have the right, but because I'm not convinced there is such a right.  I think ... simply ... that we are all guilty."  Ah, the existential bliss of amorality.  We are all guilty, therefore none of us is guilty.

The philosophical message comes through to a certain degree.  I just wish he could have wrapped up the story more effectively.  The last couple of chapters were quite a disappointment.  So, bottom line, in terms of style and substance, Killing Auntie might be compared to The Stranger or some of Kafka's work, but it falls short of the literary and philosophical standard set by those works.

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

Wednesday, August 12, 2015

Collision Low Crossers, by Nick Dawidoff

Based on Nicholas Dawidoff's reporting, I think American football is, paradoxically, as difficult to understand as it is easy to enjoy watching.  In Collision Low Crossers: Inside the Turbulent World of NFL Football, Dawidoff writes about a year he spent deeply embedded in the New York Jets organization.  From before the draft until after the final game of the season, he practiced with them, travelled with them, ate with them, interviewed their players and coaches, stood on the sidelines and sat in the coaches' box with them, and even called a play in a game.

The Jets gave Dawidoff full access to the team and their facilities.  I'm not sure anyone who is not an actual player, coach, trainer, owner, or team employee could have ever had so a close-up look at a football season.  One of the major themes of Collision Low Crossers is the complexity of the game.  The hours spent reviewing and analyzing film, breaking down plays, creating new plays, and creating the related spreadsheets and predictive programs makes the whole thing sound mind-boggling.  There's a lot more to calling a football game than run or pass and whether to go for it on fourth down.

With that complexity, the demands on the coaching staff and their support team are tremendous.  Putting in countless hours, coaches, especially after an unsuccessful season "lost their sleep, they lost their pleasures, the lost their homes, . . . and they lost their marriages."  The rewards are great when they win, but really every season there's only one winner, and all the rest are losers.  And in a new season, all bets are off.

For New York Jets fans Collision Low Crossers is required reading.  Dawidoff spent the 2011 season with the Jets.  Fans will enjoy all the back stories, and, even though the season was a disappointment, it was great reading as it all played out.  Football fans in general, even if not fans of the Jets, will still enjoy the insights and stories.  Much of what Dawidoff observed is certainly common across the NFL.  If a reader is not a football fan, well, you probably won't want to pick this up.

Dawidoff's writing delves deeply into the hearts of the characters, the heart of the organization, and the heart of the game.  Coaches and players were transparent with him on many occasions.  They accepted him as one of their own, giving him a true insider's perspective.  I may not understand the game any more than before, but I do enjoy watching it, even more so after reading Collision Low Crossers.

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

Monday, August 10, 2015

Fuzzy Mud, by Louis Sachar

When some kids wander into the woods and get into some unusual-looking mud, they don't know that they are on the forefront of a bioengineered biological disaster.  In Fuzzy Mud, Louis Sachar explores the dangers of messing with nature.  A lab-created organism has the potential to revolutionize energy production, offering an answer to the world's fuel shortage.  With their rapid reproduction, mutations inevitably occur, sickening people who come into contact with the resulting "fuzzy mud" with a fatal rash.

As he did with Holes, Sachar captures the culture and attitudes of teens and preteens beautifully.  As the characters make their choices, good and bad, Sachar opens a window to their minds.  He doesn't settle for simple, type-cast kids, but thoughtful, believable young people.  This isn't a funny book, and deals with rather serious subject matter, but it was fun to read.  His target audience is older elementary school kids and teens, but even a middle-aged guy likes me can enjoy Sachar's delightful writing.

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

Sunday, August 9, 2015

Launch a Rocket into Space, by Hilary Koll and Steve Mills

Former math teachers Hilary Koll and Steve Mills have a talent for bringing real world applications into lessons on math fundamentals.  In Launch a Rocket into Space, they introduce interesting basic facts about space travel and rocket science, while showing how even simple math concepts are important in complex problems.

The target audience (younger elementary school grades) won't be overwhelmed with physics and calculus (this book ain't rocket science--I just had to say that!), but will apply age-appropriate math skills in the context of rocket science.

Launch a Rocket into Space is more than just a creative way to put math skills in context; I believe it can be a tool to whet a child's appetite for higher math, and to help him or her see an answer to that age-old question of math students everywhere: "When am I ever going to use this?!?"

(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, August 7, 2015

Counterfeit Christianity, by Roger Olson

In our age of tolerance, some people, including Christians "are simply allergic to anything they perceive as intolerance; tolerance, especially of ideas, is almost a fetish or idol for modern, Western people."  So writes Roger Olson, who, in Counterfeit Christianity: The Persistence of Errors in the Church, demonstrates that heresy is not only a part of church history but is alive and well today.

Dr. Olson, professor of theology and ethics at Baylor University's Truett Seminary, bridges historical theology and theological controversies from throughout church history with theologically questionable beliefs and practices in the modern church.  He focusses on what he calls "ecumenical heresies--beliefs contrary to mere, common, orthodox Christianity," as opposed to denominational heresies, "beliefs that contradict distinctive doctrines of particular denominations of Christians."

Olson's definition of "heretic" is rather specific.  A heretic is one who "is a member of a faith community and teaches against its orthodoxy, and knows the doctrine he or she is teaching conflicts with the faith community's orthodoxy."  While we may not meet too many actual heretics in the course of our church life, there are plenty of opportunities for heretical ideas to seep into the thinking of individual Christians and religious groups.

Turning the clock back to the earliest centuries of the church, Olson describes Gnosticism, Pelagianism, Montanism, Nestorianism, and other heresies whose names will mean nothing to someone who has not studied church history.  As strange as the names may be, though, the beliefs that got some of those teachers excommunicated or burned at the stake may be on the fringes of your Christian thinking.  For example, the other-worldly, flesh-rejecting spirit of Gnosticism may manifest in a tendency to a dualistic rejection of the body and a desire to "fly away," "like a bird from prison bars has flown" or for "the things of earth" to "grow strangely dim" as the songs say.  Or, like the Marcionists, who rejected the Old Testament, we might focus on specific passages or books of the Bible while conveniently ignoring those that are outside of our theological preferences.

The most important and relevant chapters are the final two, in which Olson describes tendencies of modern folk religion, which he calls Moralistic Therapeutic Deism and the Gospel of Health and Wealth.  In the former, we find those who believe in a present God who does not interfere with human affairs, and in good works as the measure of salvation.  In the latter group, we find televangelists who "name it and claim it" and for whom it's a given that all who have faith with be healthy and wealthy.  (As one card asked, So why aren't their churches full of octogenarian millionaires?)

Each chapter of Counterfeit Christianity ends with a series of questions that make great discussion starters, or would be very challenging essay questions on a seminary exam.  (Hear that, Truett Seminarians?  Get a heads up on the exams in Dr. Olson's course on cults and heresies!)  The question I'm left with is, Where does one draw the line at heresy?  Sometimes the line is clear: yes, the Old Testament is part of the canon, yes, Jesus is the way to salvation.  But Olson drops some names as examples who I'm not sure should be called heretics.  Olson disagrees with John Piper's view of "divine determinism" (a view of the "absolute sovereignty of God" that attributes even a disaster like 9/11 to God's will).  I wasn't clear if Olson was calling Piper a heretic, or simply pointing out a theological disagreement.  Not to be a modern, hyper-tolerant Westerner, but I can see Piper's view fitting in to orthodox Christianity.  (Darn, now Dr. Olson's going to give me a failing grade.)

Similarly, Olson walks a line between affirming prayer for the sick, and a focus on faith healing that crosses into heresy.  It's almost an "I know it when I see it" type of position.  At my church, we pray for healing (and regularly see healing that can only be attributed to miraculous intervention), but we also have members in wheelchairs.  Olson gives examples of churches that claim God will heal anyone and anything if they have enough faith, including a chapel speaker who callously declared, "You can't be a witness for Jesus from a wheelchair!"  One extreme would be never to pray for healing; the other would be to demand healing from God and attribute a failure to be healed to lack of faith or unconfessed sin.  But where on that spectrum "heresy" enters in, I'm not sure.

I'm also not sure that Olson would have a problem with my not being sure.  The goal of Counterfeit Christianity is not to name names and call out heretics, although there is some of that (much clearer examples than Piper or people who pray for healing).  Olson really wants the reader to be aware of creeping heresy around him or her, especially in popular religion, and be prepared to hold tight to orthodox Christianity.  Further, he wants to encourage clarity of thinking about theological ideas.  Some of what might be considered heresy might be corrected by addressing mere confusion over terms and categories.  Olson writes for the layperson and pastor alike, providing a resource that can equip the saints and give a beacon of truth.

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

Wednesday, August 5, 2015

Football Faith, by Rob Maaddi

Remember the school book fairs?  I loved those.  Among other popular books, they always featured biographies of athletes, with lots of pictures, and some easy-reading text for kids.  Rob Maaddi's Football Faith: 52 NFL Stars Reflect on Their Faith is a more grown-up version of those books.  Maaddi features 52 football players (including a couple of coaches), mostly from among the active ranks of the NFL, who write about their faith.

Each player selected a favorite Bible verse and discusses what that verse means to them in a few paragraphs.  That is followed by the player's career stats and couple of paragraphs about the player's background, awards, and other interesting facts.  And of course we're treated to pictures of the players in action.

Some of the players' reflections are insightful and interesting.  Contrary to the usual perception of the NFL pro athlete, humility was a common theme in many of the essays.  Many of the players show a genuine sense of gratitude for the opportunity to play the game at the highest level.  Some are life-long Christians, some have become Christians more recently.

Some of the players are the ones you would expect to see in a book like this, like Tim Tebow, Tony Dungy, and Mike Singletary, all of whom have published books about their faith.  (I was disappointed that RG3 didn't make the cut!)  Others were more of a surprise to me, like Micheal Vick, who became a Christian while in prison, and Michael Irvin, who became a Christian after he was in the NFL due, in part, to the witness of his friend Deion Sanders (also featured here).

Football Faith is perfect for NFL fans looking for role models who are open about their faith in a sports culture that sometimes seems to foster and celebrate material excess, oversized egos, and immoral debauchery.  None of these players or coaches are perfect human beings, but each has something to share that is worth hearing.  I will be cheering for these bold believers when I watch them play every Sunday!

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

Monday, August 3, 2015

Praying the Bible, by Donald Whitney

Donald Whitney, professor at the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary, must have heard more than his share of watered-down, repetitive prayers.  More than that, he has heard many Christians--pastors, seminarians, and laypeople alike--complain that they don't know what to pray, they get bored, they run out of things to pray about after a few minutes, or they just "say the same old things about the same old things."

Whitney expounds on his teaching about prayer in his short but powerful book, Praying the Bible.  The premise is simple: "To pray the Bible, you simply go through the passage line by line, talking to God about whatever comes to mind as you read the text."  He recommends using the Psalms regularly, but states that any scripture can be a "diving board" for prayer.  To clarify, "this isn't reading something into the text; it's merely using the language of the text to speak to God about what has come into your mind."

I love the heart of Praying the Bible, encouraging both the use of scripture and the use of God's language in our prayers, giving God's words back to him.  Whitney makes a clear distinction between studying scripture and praying scripture.  The two can blend, of course, but they are different.  Praying the scriptures may have its limits, as there may be specific things to pray for that aren't naturally drawn in a scripture prayer time.  I think of prayers for healing, corporate prayers for an event, petitions for something very specific.  He does address these kinds of prayers.  By using scripture, he says, "Instead of the generic 'Please bless this' and 'Be with them' prayers, people pray things the Bible commands about particular people and situations."

Praying the Bible is best suited for personal, devotional prayer.  He describes using it in small group prayer, but I think that would be more limited.  Most of all, his suggestions can be a great model for reviving a flagging prayer life.

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

Sunday, August 2, 2015

For the Right to Learn, by Rebeca Langston-George, illustrated by Janna Bock

Sometimes bravery is simply insisting that what is right, is right.  Rebecca Langston-George, with the help of Janna Brock's illustrations, tells a modern tale of bravery in For the Right to Learn: Malala Yousafzai's Story.  When the Taliban took over the Swat Valley region of Pakistan, they insisted that girls should not be allowed to attend school.  Malala Yousafzai, whose father was a teacher passionate about education for boys and girls, was not about to give up her right to learn.  She turned her opposition to the Taliban's restrictions into a blog and came to  be known around the world for her outspoken advocacy.

As her fame grew, so did the Taliban's desire to shut her up.  But she fearlessly continued.  Soon they tracked her down and shot her.  Miraculously, she survived.  She ended up becoming the youngest ever recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize.  Langston-George tells Malala's story well.  It deserves to be heard by young people all over the world.

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