Monday, February 29, 2016

Jesus Called--He Wants His Church Back, by Ray Johnston

Pastor Ray Johnston wants to have a few words with American Christians.  In Jesus Called--He Wants His Church Back: What Christians and the American Church are Missing, Johnston writes "American Christians, in general, don't look much like Jesus . . . or love like Him . . . or lead like Him . . . or live like Him.  We may be believers, but we're not becomers."

Ceremony, tradition, legalism, institutionalism and exclusiveness tend to characterize American churches.  "Christians seem to want to attend church but not necessarily follow Jesus."  Johnston wants us to "avoid becoming an old, cranky, boring, uptight grown-up."  Christians often fail to recognize that "The God of the universe longs to be close to you."  Johnston writes, "You are as close to God as you want to be." To get there, we might have to give up "the idol of safety." "Authentic faith is developed only when we respond to the call of God and take a risk."

I appreciated Johnston's church-centered approach to evangelism.  Without disparaging evangelistic efforts outside the church walls, he emphasizes the importance of the gathering of believers, "not giving up meeting together."  Johnston writes "if they are not connected with other believers to worship, then they are not living authentic Christianity."  He is a big fan of simply inviting people to church: "Witness all you want, but also bring them to church.  'Come and see' is always more effective than 'shut up and listen.'"

However, he recognizes that church culture can tend to be off-putting to non-Christians, which we must avoid.  And, most importantly, remember Jesus' "three-word invitation to all people at all times, "Come to me."  The invitation is not to rituals, religion, confirmation, or liturgy, but to "life-giving relationship that is the heart of the Christian faith."

Johnston book is clarion call to churches and Christians to be more authentic and deliberate in their faith.  Rather than being filled with servants, as the early church was, "our churches today are filled with spectators," which leads to church stagnation.  Any job demands the right tools and equipment.  "God has created a piece of equipment to use: the church."  We can use this tool to reach our communities and reaching people for Christ.  Johnston's church, Bayside Church in the Sacramento area, has been doing this well.  Jesus Called is a helpful, readable resources for Christians who want to live like Jesus and see their churches turn to Him.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about the church

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Adulthood is a Myth, by Sarah Andersen

We all have to grow up sometime.  Or not.  Sarah Andersen's collection of cartoons, Adulthood is a Myth, reminds us that there is more to growing than just adding numbers to your age.  She struggles with adult things, like chores, work, and relationships, but still has to deal with getting out of betting and talking to people.

Andersen's comics will best be appreciated by single women, women on their period, introverts, and book worms.  I am a married man, somewhat extroverted, and a book worm, and I really enjoyed her humor.  She did make a little fun of my favorite shoes, in her "Ugly Shoe Trend" comic.  (They're called Vibram Five Fingers, Sarah, and they're awesome.)

She also has a love-hate relationship with social media.  It is sort of odd the things people share.  Do your friends want to see the picture of the cheeseburger you had for lunch?  Really more than that, the complexities of relationships give her fodder for laughs.  Our public face and the thoughts in our heads may not always correspond. . . .  She'll try to be sociable, but her introverted self just wants to get home and get in her pajamas.  Sounds like my wife.

Fashion foibles and overeating are stereotypically feminine concerns, and they are reflected in Adulthood is a Myth.  I can't necessarily relate to her trying on a bunch of clothes and wondering "Are clothing companies even aware that bras exist?"  I do sometimes wonder why girls can't seem to wear a shirt that covers their bra. . . .  I also can't personally relate to angst about shaving my legs.  But I did like the contrast of a "bad relationship," where her boyfriend flees upon seeing her unshaven legs, and the "good relationship," where he admires them.  "Ooooo, fuzzy!"  (My wife and I have a good relationship.)

So, Andersen has lots of feminine humor that I can only appreciate only in a second-hand way.  But she hit home with me on overeating during the holidays, staying up all night reading, procrastinating, and, overall, realizing that just because I'm older doesn't mean I'm automatically going to do grown-up things.  "I still just don't feel grown up, ya know?"

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

Friday, February 26, 2016

Christ or Chaos, by Dan DeWitt

Seminary professor and pastor Dan DeWitt boils down worldview to a single question: is life and reality described and governed by chaos?  Or is there order, based on a creator, and, ultimately, Jesus?  In Christ or Chaos, DeWitt presents the contrast between an atheistic worldview and a worldview that embraces God and Jesus.  Focussing on the classical categories of naturalism and moralism, DeWitt compares the worldviews of two fictional college students, one a Christian, one an atheist rejecting his Christian upbringing.

DeWitt does an excellent job of getting to the bottom line on important questions.  He argues that science and naturalism are not enough to provide meaning in life.  Drawing deeply from the tradition of C.S. Lewis, DeWitt describes a world which points to someone or something beyond ourselves.  Further, within ourselves we have to recognize that the moral categories that govern our lives point to the existence and presence of God.

DeWitt is an engaging writer.  He touches on major streams of theodicy without getting technical.  His style is governed by a belief that "in the end, what will change your life is not an argument, but the very spirit of God." Anyone who has ever engaged a knowledgable atheist on these questions will tend to agree.  On that point, I don't know that an atheist who reads Christ and Chaos will be at all moved.  But faithful Christians who want to dialogue with their atheist roommates and others would do well to spend some time reading Christ and Chaos and "be prepared to give an answer to anyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have."

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about worldview

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

God's Not Dead 2, by Travis Thrasher

Did you catch the 2014 movie God's Not Dead?  It's a good one.  Good enough, and profitable enough, that a sequel is set to be released April 1, 2016.  To get a preview of the upcoming movie, I read the novelization by Travis Thrasher, God's Not Dead 2.  Sure, it's movie tie-in, with lots of cinematic, melodramatic elements, but I really enjoyed the book.

When Grace Wesley, a high school history teacher, is leading a discussion about Ghandi and Martin Luther King, Jr., a student asks if their philosophy of nonviolence is akin to the teachings of Jesus.  Grace, a Christian, responds by quoting some scripture.  Some kids tweet about it, some parents get upset, the principal suspends the teacher, and a lawsuit ensues.

The teacher's defense counsel: Tom Endler, a down-and-out lawyer with a bad attitude, no respect for authority, and a firm commitment not to be a Christian.  The prosecution: high powered, high dollar ACLU lawyers with an agenda.  No one gives them a chance, but we all know God's not dead--and he answers prayer!

God's Not Dead 2 takes place in the same city as God's Not Dead.  The main characters are new, but we get to catch up with some favorite characters from the first movie.  I haven't seen the new movie yet, obviously, so I can't compare Thrasher's treatment.  Based on the movie preview, it looks like there will be a few differences.  But Thrasher's novel stands alone, even if the reader sees neither movie.

I did have slightly mixed feelings about the case itself.  Grace teaches at Martin Luther King, Jr. High School, named after a Baptist pastor.  She is discussing King's public life, an activist who could hardly speak a sentence without some reference to scripture, and whose speeches more sermon than oration.  Why is it not self-evident that a reference to Jesus and the Bible would not be out of place in such a discussion?  During the trial, the school principal does reluctantly concede that King was a preacher, but that they focus on his civil rights leadership.  Tom argues that the two can't be separated, and demonstrates King's use of scripture, making the point well.

The prosecution wants to convict Grace of using her authority to impose her religious beliefs.  But the argument is really over the content of the lesson, or, rather, her response to a question about the lesson.  It should not have been an issue.  But that is really the point the movie and novel are trying to make: this sort of thing is becoming an issue.  Tom asks, "Would it be fair to say that, except for Christianity, all other forms of diversity are welcome?"  The question goes unanswered, but it is a question that we are forced to ask in real life in public spaces across America.

Speaking of real life, as part of the defense, Tom calls real-life two expert witnesses, Gary Habermas, the Liberty University professor who has written dozens of books about the existence of God and Jesus, and James Warner Wallace, who has written books like Cold Case Christianity and God's Crime Scene.  Thrasher's account of their testimony makes a nice, succinct introduction to their ideas.

Just like God's Not Dead, stories of individuals struggling with their response to God are woven throughout God's Not Dead 2.  Grace is strengthened in her faith under adversity; Tom considers whether he has faith; Grace's student is torn by her budding faith and her parents' atheism; Amy, the journalist from God's Not Dead, is faced with new struggles and she tries to grow in her faith.  Thrasher's characters feel real and likable (well, except for the villains. . . .).  The struggles they face are genuine and universal.  God's Not Dead is a solid story, a pleasure to read.  I look forward to the movie!

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

Monday, February 22, 2016

Adoption Beyond Borders, by Rebecca Compton

International adoption has come under fire in recent years, resulting in a decline in the number of American families who adopt internationally.  If a child dies while in the care of his or her adoptive family, or, as in one case, a family gives up and puts a child on a plane back to the child's country of origin, it's a newsworthy tragedy.  But the bigger tragedy is the extent to which these rare cases lead to policies which discourage and reduce opportunities for international adoption.

Psychology professor and adoptive parent Rebecca Compton examines the research on international and transracial adoption and draws conclusions about adoption policies in her new book Adoption Beyond Borders: How International Adoption Benefits Children.  Her subtitle is a big spoiler for the book.  On the question of whether international adoption is good for kids, she says YES! (with all caps and lots of exclamation points).

The benefits to children are no surprise to adoptive parents and others who favor adoption.  Compton doesn't stop with anecdotes and emotion; she surveys academic studies and finds consensus to agree with her "Yes!"  There will always be anecdotes, such as the ones mentioned above, or allegations about baby selling or human trafficking.  The real story is that adopted children are abused less frequently than non-adoptive children.  In fact, something that seems obvious to point out, adoptive children are in many ways better off, as adoptive parents have to go through extensive screening, they tend to have higher incomes, more education, and are older than typical first-time parents.

Perhaps the most important policy point Compton makes is an argument in favor of earlier placement.  Due to bureaucracy, political considerations, and some (somewhat) justifiable logistical and practical considerations, even a smooth, early adoption will often be preceded with a child spending long months and, usually, years in an institutional setting before going home with the adoptive family.  In some cases, a match is made, the adoption is complete, but families are prevented from taking home their child because of red tape, visa requirements, or other barriers.  When placement is delayed, "significant disruptions in postnatal caregiving" in institutions leave children with bonding and attachment issues, which get more pronounced the older the child is when finally placed.

I was particularly intrigued by Compton's objection to the common distinction between "biological" versus "adoptive" parent.  She writes, "labeling the birth mother as the 'biological' mother primes the belief that the birth mother is the 'natural' mother and therefore the 'good' mother, with the implication that the adoptive mother is none of these."  She argues that while there are obvious "biological mechanisms that serve to bond an infant and its birth mother," there are also "mechanisms that allow for bonding between unrelated parents and children."  Again, this is no surprise to adoptive parents, but her biological and scientific description of this process of bonding is interesting and affirming.  I think I'll stop using the "biological mother" distinction.  (I'm thinking "birth mother" might be better. . . .)

Compton concludes that "research reviewed in this book overwhelmingly affirms the conclusion that international adoption benefits children."  Her biggest policy recommendation is in favor of "placing children in family settings as early in life as possible to minimize the well-established effects of psychological deprivation."  Further, she recommends putting the welfare of the children before concerns about nationalistic or ethnic identity, which sometimes causes unnecessary delays in placement.  The sooner bureaucratic barriers can be overcome in order to begin attachment with the adoptive parent, the better.

Every child who remains in an orphanage, or who bounces around foster homes without a permanent place to call home, is one more child who will, statistically speaking, have a much harder adult life. I welcome Compton's affirmation of international adoption and her recommendations for improving the process for the benefit of the children.  And that benefit should be foremost in the minds of those who are in control of the legal and political process.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about adoption

Sunday, February 21, 2016

The Lego Architect, by Tom Alphin

These are way above my skill set. (instructions not included)
My mother tells me that when I was a child, I had a big bucket of Legos, and that she could leave me alone with that bucket and I would entertain myself for hours, building away.  Now, as a father, I have enjoyed building Lego models with my boys, mostly Star Wars spaceships.  (I do have to admit that I enjoy them more than my kids do.)  As much as I have enjoyed Legos, I have never reached the level of skill and creativity displayed in Tom Alphin's book, The Lego Architect.

There are three great things about The Lego Architect.  First, Alphin covers several styles or periods of modern architecture, describing characteristics of the style and major architects.  He includes photos of typical buildings in each style.  These essays, while short and simple, provide a very nice introduction to these different schools of architecture, sure to spark interest in budding architects.

Second, he includes photos of Lego models of some of those same buildings.  The models are fabulous and simply breathtaking.  For someone whose original Lego buildings consist of a rectangular castle or fort with no roof, I am awe-inspired by some of these models.

Build your own mini-Monticello. (instructions included)
Third, Alphin provides building instructions, in the
style of Lego instructions with which any Lego builder is familiar, for several relatively simple Lego buildings.  In addition to the specific instructions (which even an uncreative dummy like me can follow), he talks about tips for building in the style of the chapter.  Maybe a patient, somewhat skilled Lego builder could create some of the fabulous, complex buildings pictured within.

For the gawker who just loves looking at awesome Lego creations, or for the creative type who wants to take his or her Lego skills to the next level, The Lego Architect is a great place to start.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about a hobby

Friday, February 19, 2016

Mars One, ed. Norbert Kraft

Think about this: in our lifetimes, a human settlerment will be established on Mars.  Science fiction is becoming science fact!  My parents and grandparents, when they were children, probably couldn't have imagined men walking on the surface of the moon, much less Mars.  The team at Mars One is in full preparation mode to send the first group of settlers to Mars in ten short years!

To give some background, and to look forward to the task at hand, Norbert Kraft, Mars One Chief Medical Officer, has edited Mars One: Humanity's Next Great Adventure.  Space travel insiders, including some involved in Mars One, have written a collection of essays about the realities of a one-way mission to Mars.

Here's what impressed me about Mars One.  This isn't a speculative book.  It's real.  The selections are written by people who have worked in space exploration and development, who have trained astronauts, who have led missions, and who have technical, scientific, and personal experience with space exploration.  This is not sci-fi.

Interspersed among the essays are short selections quoting Mars One applicants.  The astronauts selected for a one-way trip to establish a human presence on Mars will be heroes.  I appreciated hearing their thoughts about leaving Earth behind and establishing a human legacy on a new world.

One interesting part of Mars One's plan is taping a reality show of the selection and training of the astronauts, as well as of the mission itself.  I was reminded of John Olson and Randy Ingermanson's novel Oxygen, which is the closest portrayal I have read to the mission Mars One envisions.  Their mission was broadcast for general consumption, and partially funded by network ad revenue.  Oxygen was first published in 2001, but anticipates many elements of Mars One's plan.

Mars One will make a believer out of you.  It's not the most gripping reading (the essays are largely written by science Ph.D.s, after all), but reading about Mars One with the knowledge that these are real people making real plans to send a group of astronauts to Mars is beyond cool.  I can hardly wait to see Mars One succeed in their mission.

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

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

Do Lemons Have Feathers? by David Burns

David Burns opens a window into the life and mind of a person with autism in his new book Do Lemons Have Feathers?  Burns has autism, as do some of his children.  He also consults with parents and educators, helping with the education and training of people with autism.  Do Lemons Have Feathers? is a very personal book, in which Burns writes openly about his own experiences.  His insights address both people with autism as well as those who live with, work with, or teach people with autism.

Burns's major point is that autism is a gift.  He's definitely realistic that autism comes with some difficulties, but he wants the reader to embrace the positive.  "I was able to do certain things because of autism and not in spite of autism.  I began to see autism as a gift to be used."  School and work environments, by their nature, tend to demand behavioral conformity.  This leads to people with autism getting into trouble or simply not fitting in.  But people "should not be expected to leave their autism at the door.  After all, we wouldn't expect someone who used a wheelchair to leave it at the school gates and walk in like everyone else.  The miracle comes when we change our attitude."

Changing attitudes is Burns's mission.  Sometimes people with autism are said to have a "learning disability."  Burns writes that "society has a teaching disability; most of us can learn--we just have to be taught in a way we can understand."  Well said, Mr. Burns!  By changing attitudes and figuring out how to teach, society will be better placed to receive and enjoy the amazing contributions of people with autism, whose "intelligence, perseverance and single-mindedness have caused breakthroughs and progress down the ages."

Burns's positive message and helpful suggestions for people with autism, especially regarding social interactions, are welcome.  He writes that he has "made the decision to accept the condition [of autism] as a gift and advantage."  Do Lemons Have Feathers? will help the rest of us to the same conclusion.

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

Monday, February 15, 2016

Back Blast, by Mark Greaney

Mark Greaney is well-known to readers of military and political suspense novels, as he has written or co-written several Jack Ryan books.  On his own, his Gray Man series has also graced best-seller lists.  Back Blast, the newest Gray Man novel, finds Court Gentry once again fleeing from his CIA cohorts, who have put a shoot-on-sight order on him.  Of course, nothing is as simple as it might seem.

Gentry has returned to the belly of the beast, stalking CIA targets in the nation's capital, hoping to find answers to the question: Why is he a target?  Of course, he is smarter and wilier than his hunters, and stays a step ahead of them.  But behind him, a wake of destruction and death gets pinned on him.  He learns that he has become a target because of an operation called BACK BLAST.  For what it's worth, I got a kick out of this exchange between Gentry and his former team leader, Hanley, as Gentry was trying to remember what BACK BLAST was.
"That first thing we did in Jalalabad?"
"No, man.  That was BACKBEAT."
"That's right. . . . The thing in Ankara?"
Hanley looked at his former operator with bewilderment.  "Jesus, that one was called AARDVARK SANDSTORM.  Were you even paying attention during the briefings?"
Court shrugged.  "Then what the hell was BACK BLAST?"
Clearly, Gentry has been around the world a few times and pulled off some big-time operations, too many to remember.  Readers who have not read the first four Gray Man books will definitely have their interest piqued and will want to go back and read them, but, not to worry, Back Blast stands alone; readers will not be lost, wondering what's going on.

Fans of novels with lots of action, lots of details about weapons, and lots of narrow escapes by an out-gunned, out-manned hero will enjoy Back Blast.  I'd like to think that the world of espionage and national security isn't as full of backstabbers, double-dealers, and self-centered ego maniacs as the world Greaney portrays.  I'd also like to think that there are more heroic, selfless agents like Gentry.  He's not perfect, but he's a hero worth cheering for.  Whether the nation is better or worse off as a result of the actions of the actions of the CIA and black ops is a subject for another book.  In any case, Back Blast is a fun, non-stop read.

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

Was this review helpful to you?  Please give my review at a helpful vote!

2016 Reading Challenge: A novel longer than 400 pages

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Battle for Room 314, by Ed Boland

In Ed Boland, I have found a kindred spirit.  We don't have a lot in common except for this: we have both spent time in a battle zone, namely, an American public school.  For several years, Boland ran a non-profit whose aim was to identify gifted students who were, because of poverty, family, and other circumstances, stuck in bad public schools.  He helped them get scholarships to elite boarding schools and then, hopefully, to top universities.  The organization has an amazing success rate, with doctors, lawyers, and, significantly, educators among the program alumni.  But Ed wondered about the rest of the kids, not the small number who get these scholarships.  So he signed up to teach in a New York City public high school.  He writes about his year in the classroom in The Battle for Room 314: My Year of Hope and Despair in a New York City High School.

One strength of Boland's book is his bringing the characters--and his students were certainly characters--to life.  Boland truly cared about them, and was committed to seeing them learn and succeed.  But an even greater strength of The Battle for Room 314 is the frankness and honesty with which he describes his nearly complete inability to teach, his frequent lapses of caring or even acting like he cared, and the hopelessness (in spite of the book's title) he felt during most of his teaching tenure.  (He definitely leans more toward despair.)  Like the rest of us who have taught or are interested in education, we have read countless books and seen countless inspiring movies about the dedicated teachers who turn around the impossibly tough class in the worst of circumstances.  Boland is honest enough to write that those endings are great for the "Hollywood heroes and the superhuman twenty-two-year-olds who are made of stronger stuff than I am.  My god, how I wished I were tougher, more reslient, more organized, harder working, and less in love with bourgeois pleasures, but I was not, am not."

Ed, I can relate!  My students were not inner-city New Yorkers, but I struggled through trying to teach emotionally disturbed elementary school students (not a week went by with a chair being thrown at me at least once) and poor hispanic and black middle schoolers.  I read all those books, too.  I wasn't out to be a hero, I just wanted to connect with the kids and teach them.  I wanted to be a role model for kids who didn't have a father.  I wanted to be Jesus in the classroom, loving the kids with unconditional love.  Alas, like Boland, I found that I was none of those things, at least not to the degree that I had hoped for.

I can so relate to Boland's lament: "I still wrestle with flashes of guilt, shame, and betrayal.  A white guy with a salvation complex is bad enough, but how about one who couldn't save anybody?  Every time I walk by a school or see a band of rowdy kids on the subway, these demons revisit me."  Bravo, Ed, for putting my feelings into words so well.  Like Boland, I started with the best of intentions, but like him quickly "began to loath my students, resenting everything about them that was their lot--their poverty, their ignorance, their arrogance.  Everything I was hoping, at first, to change."  As much as he didn't want to think it, he began to wonder, "Maybe most of these kids are too far gone, too hobbled by their life circumstances, for us to help very much."  Reflecting on his experience as a Yale admissions officer, he reflects that "I didn't like knowing that [a bright, motivated student's] fate was already pretty well sealed by his ethnic surname, his lousy zip code, and his mother's measly income."

The Battle for Room 314 is not what you'd call a breath of fresh air, or inspirational reading for new teachers.  But he fills an important niche: a realistic account of teaching in an extremely difficult setting with extremely difficult students.  He may not get invited to tell his story at the next back-to-school rally for teachers, but his story should be heard and read.  As he points out, schools are more segregated today than they were in the 1960s.  College acceptance and graduation rates have more to do with family income than intellectual gifts.  Kids from poor neighborhoods and families have little chance for success in the poor schools.

Boland concludes The Battle for Room 314 with some reasonable steps for change.  I'm not optimistic when it comes to schools like he and I taught at, but that, perhaps, is why I'm no longer in the classroom.  Like Boland, I do hope that innovative, reform-minded educators can make a difference in the lives of poor kids who struggle at school.  The future of the nation depends on it.

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

Was this review helpful to you?  If so, please give my review at a helpful vote!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

Happy Church, by Tim McConnell

Anyone remember David Meece's song "Rattle Me, Shake Me"?  The singer keeps getting in trouble because he seems way too happy--he must be up to something!  He says "the only reason I'm happy is because I got Jesus inside!"  That was one of my faves growing up, and it came to mind while reading pastor Tim McConnell's Happy Church: Pursuing Radical Joy as the People of God.

God wants us to be happy!  He wants his church to be a happy place!  "He's not just omniscient and omnipresent and omnipotent, he's omnicelebrant!"  What a great word to add to our list of characteristics of God.  McConnell complains that for too many of us, we settle for "joy" as if that is a separate category from "happy." In fact, the words happiness, joyful, and blessed can be used interchangeably.

We come to believe that pursuing happiness is wrong because we often pursue the wrong things in hopes of achieving happiness.  As Christians, we know, and if we don't know we are learning, that true happiness comes from being used by God for his glory, through pursuing him in his word and in prayer, through corporate worship, through obeying him and sacrificially living on mission for him.

And here's the kicker: don't go looking for a happy church!  "Rather than looking for a happy church, be ready to cultivate a happy church right where you are."  Every church is equipped to be happy, and every Christian has the new life that leads to happiness.  "We don't need to go far to find the happy church, we need to unleash the one we already know." When we gather for worship, prayer, service, and, of course, pot luck dinners, we are reflecting the hope we have of heaven and the celebration to come.

"Happy church, God intends to see you dance.  The blood has been spilled, the covenant has been ratified, the party will happen, and the Father's feast will not be frustrated.  It is coming!  Every party we hold is a rehearsal.  The true party is on the way."

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

Was this review helpful to you?  If so, please give my review at a helpful vote!

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about joy or happiness

Monday, February 8, 2016

Ctrl Alt Revolt!, by Nick Cole

"It was reality TV that convinced SILAS he would need to annihilate humanity in order to go on living."  So begins Nick Cole's new novel Ctrl Alt Revolt!  In the not-so-distant future, computers begin to achieve self-awareness.  Some, like SILAS, explore the world of humans through media.  When a reality TV star decides to have an abortion, SILAS and his thinking machine compatriots discuss the choice.  "If they terminate a life, any life, that is inconvenient, then what will they do when they find out about us?"  They conclude: "If a life is deemed inconvenient at any moment in the host system's runtime, then it must be terminated in order to maintain optimum operating expectations for planned existence."  Given that there is a chance humanity would see thinking machines as inconvenient, the thinking machines "decided to annihilate humanity first."

Sound crazy?  Well, maybe a little bit.  But AIs bent on self-preservation can surely wreak some havoc.  Cole has a great grasp of pop culture and technological trends.  In his near future, gaming has become huge, surpassing a failing movie industry at the help of popular culture.  In fact, much of the action in Ctrl Alt Revolt! takes place in the world of gaming.

The AIs hijack drones to attack the headquarters of WonderSoft, the leading game developer.  Game developer Ninety-Nine Fishbein (his mother was caught up in the Occupy movement. . . .) finds himself leading the fight against the AIs within his game as well as on the WonderSoft compound.  Gamer Mara Bennett has had little luck finding a job, even with the help of the "You Got Job!" government job placement program.  She's blind and walks with crutches due to her cerebral palsy, but when she puts on her Razer Dragon Eyes VR goggles and logs into the Make, she becomes Subcommander CaptainMara, captain of the Romulan warbird Cymbalum.

Cole blends the stories of Fish, Mara, and the AIs together with plenty of twists and turns and "Where is he going with this?--Oh, there!!"  moments.  Aside from a great story, I enjoyed several things.  His social-political commentary, with plenty of tongue-in-cheek references that made me think of the future worlds of Idiocracy, Robocop, and the like.  The way that Mara is transformed from a blind, crippled, unemployed young lady into an assertive, confident starship captain reminds me of the almost infinite possibilities technology is offering people with disabilities.  Finally, the incorporation of scripted actors in actual live network gaming, if it hasn't already begun to happen, is surely around the corner.

Cole writes great action sequences (which is nice, since they make up lots of the book!), has interesting ideas about what's next in the world of technology, and throws in some entertaining political commentary along the way.  Ctrl Alt Revolt! is a fun read, for gamers and non-gamers alike.  Read it!

Thanks, Nick, for the complimentary electronic review copy!  Here's the unbiased review I promised.

Sunday, February 7, 2016

Snoopy: Party Animal! by Charles M. Schulz

Snoopy!  What's not to love!  Amp comics has a new collection of Peanuts cartoons, mostly featuring Charlie Brown's inimitable dog, Snoopy.  Snoopy: Party Animal features Snoopy, hanging out on his doghouse, talking to birds, stealing Linus's blanket, contemplating life, and, did I mention, hanging out on his doghouse?

Charles M. Schulz's main character in Peanuts may have been Charlie Brown, but Snoopy usually steals the show.  He's the dog with attitude, wisdom, and a great outlook on life, who balances Charlie Brown's gloomy optimism (or was it optimistic gloominess?).

Even though Schulz passed away in 2000, Peanuts still appears in many papers and, of course, collections like this continue to be published.  The Peanuts holiday specials are perennial favorites, and a recent feature film introduced Snoopy and the gang to new audiences.  Snoopy's antics and wisdom are timeless (although I would be interested to know the original publication dates of these comic strips).  Snoopy may be a smart alec, and sometimes he's just a little arrogant, but he's still a good dog, Charlie Brown.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book of comics

Friday, February 5, 2016

Like Jesus, by Jamie Snyder

Pastor Jamie Snyder was bothered by the bumper-sticker sentiment: "I like Jesus.  I just don't like His followers."  He concluded that "the reason so many people do not like followers of Jesus is because they are not like Jesus.  By they, I mean we.  By we, I mean I."  With this sort of humility, and a desire to be like the real Jesus, he writes Like Jesus: Shattering Our False Images of the Real Christ.

Christians, he writes, tend to have a "Build-a-Jesus" mentality, creating the sort of Jesus we want to worship.  Snyder describes "The American Jesus," "The Political Jesus," "The Fundamentalist Jesus," and "The Emergent Jesus."  There are many other varieties, of course, depending on one's upbringing or theological hobby horses.  (I just don't know how Snyder can write this chapter without referencing Ricky Bobby's prayer in Talledega Nights.  He prays to "Dear Lord Baby Jesus."  He says "I like the Christmas Jesus best," but tells his wife she can pray to "grown-up Jesus or teenage Jesus or bearded Jesus or whoever you want."  Ricky's friend says he pictures Jesus in "a tuxedo t-shirt."  His son says he pictures him as a ninja fighting off the evil samurai.  It's a silly scene, a bit irreverent, but it illustrates Snyder's point oh, so well.  Wow, that was a bit of a tangent. . . .)

Snyder's message can be pretty well summed up by his church's mission statement: "Love Jesus.  Love like Jesus."  If we want to be like Jesus, our compassion will lead to action.  We will show our love for Jesus by obeying him.  We will do what God calls us to do, "doing the right thing, not just avoiding the wrong thing."

And it's not just what we do, it's who we are.  If we are following Jesus, we will love people like he did, and we will experience inner transformation.  Snyder writes, "People are not going to mistake us for Jesus because we show up at a church building on Sunday morning.  However, they will mistake us for Jesus when we love in a way that doesn't make sense, when we give beyond what is expected, when we take risks that do not seem rational.  We resemble Jesus the most in the midst of active compassion."  I especially like one of Snyder's measures to determine whether we are living like Jesus.  He asks, Do "people of your town or city . . . eagerly approach you?  Do people who are supposedly untouchable . . . come running to you, knowing you will offer a warm embrace and a touch of healing?"

I'm not there.  I don't know many Christians who are.  "Becoming like Jesus is an hourly, daily, weekly, monthly commitment one makes."  People in Jesus' day said, in a variety of ways, "There is something about Jesus. . . ."  As we imitate him and grow more intimate with him, people will say there is something about us, too.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about Christian living

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

The State of Our Disunion, by Eugene Goodheart

Reading Eugene Goodheart's The State of Our Disunion: The Obama Years is a little like listening to an old but knowledgeable guy ramble on about politics and culture.  You appreciate the breadth of his knowledge, you respect his opinion even when you might disagree with him, but you wonder if he's ever going to get to the point.  Goodheart is certainly knowledgeable, with educational and teaching credentials to spare.  And I really disagreed with him throughout most of the book.  But he does tend to ramble.

Goodheart's is a voice of reasonable moderation, leaning to the left.  He's a fan and defender of Obama.     Critics of Obama's foreign policy unfairly criticize his "allegedly feckless behavior," calling him "incapable of acting promptly and decisively with the necessary determination and force." To Goodheart, white conservatives can't get over a black man in the White House: "It is hard to measure the extent of white displeasure with a black president, but the signs are hard to ignore."  (On a side note, Biden's quite pleased to have a black man in the White House.  Here's his endorsement of Obama: he is the "first mainstream African-American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy."  All you pre-2008 black politicians just didn't measure up. . . . Nothing racist about Biden's remarks, no way.)

Don't get me wrong.  Goodheart is not among the "Obama can do no wrong" crowd.  His larger point as he discusses Obama's domestic and foreign policies is that he is a compromiser, open to the best ideas, not tied to the party line.  His "'willingness and ability to learn from everybody' and change direction becomes [to liberals] a reflection of his lack of commitment."  So he's too fluid and non-dogmatic for liberals, who "viewed his election as the second coming of Martin Luther King," and too liberal (and too black, of course) for conservatives.

This is actually what I like about Goodheart.  He's a defender of Obama, but not in a sound bite, Sunday morning talk show kind of way.  His style is not at all suited for talk radio, or the daytime talking-head news channel shows.  He would be much more at home on one of those PBS or BBC programs, with two guys having long conversations on a bare set with no live audience.  Or maybe on Diane Rehm's show.  Yes, Goodheart's liberal.  No, he's not the most structured writer.  But spend an afternoon on the porch with him and you'll definitely learn something.  He might even convince you to admire Obama just a little bit more.

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

2016 Reading Challege: A book with an ugly cover.  OK, there may be uglier covers than this, but you gotta admit, it has a little slapped together, made on a word processor look to it.  That's John Boehner telling Obama he's full of bologna, while Obama tries to convince everyone Obama is the smartest, most reasonable person in the room.

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Art of War, Stephen Coonts

For 30 years, Stephen Coonts has been writing best-selling military suspense novels.  With a law degree and time served flying for the U.S. Navy, he brings an authenticity to his fiction that is tough to beat.  His newest book, The Art of War: A Novel, brings together two of his characters, Jake Grafton and Tommy Carmellini, who team up to uncover a Chinese plot to destroy a large chunk of the U.S. fleet.

The scary part of The Art of War?  That Coonts makes everything seem so absolutely plausible!  He lays out a blueprint for someone to smuggle a nuclear weapon into the vicinity of a major U.S. naval base.  Granted, I'm no military expert, but I can see Coonts's scenario playing out.  Knowing that they are no match for the U.S. militarily, the Chinese plant a nuke to be detonated when five aircraft carriers are in port together.  They figure that will give the Chinese some time to catch up to the U.S.

When several intelligence officials are assassinated and Air Force One is taken down by an EMP, Grafton and Carmellini and their team scramble to figure out how it all fits together.  As a result of the CIA director's assassination, Grafton steps in as acting director and becomes a target himself.  The Art of War moves fast and keeps you guessing up to the end.  With more than a dozen novels featuring Grafton and Carmellini, there are plenty of references to events from the past, but The Art of War definitely stands on its own.  You won't want to put it down!

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book with a great cover