Sunday, July 31, 2016

It's Time to Take a Nap, by Harriet Zierfert, illustrated by Barroux

In their sequel (or perhaps it's a prequel) to It's Time to Go to Sleep, Harriet Zierfert takes a little boy across the countryside and back into the city, wishing a good morning to the cows and pigs, the grass and trees, the bus and the plane, and (in a deja vu moment) to the cars and the garbage truck.

It's Time to Take a Nap has the same style of colorful, child-friendly illustrations by Barroux as It's Time to Go to Sleep.  The little boy covers a lot of ground, pulling his wagon saying good morning to everyone, so by the time he's done, it's definitely "time . . . TO TAKE A NAP! (Why the all-caps?)  These two books together are fun, quick bedtime readings for nap or nighttime.

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

Saturday, July 30, 2016

Donny Trumpet Goes to the Election, by Nazan Saatci

It's election season! Bring on the satire! But please, make it funny!  Nazan Saatci tries her hand at political humor in a children's book, and has a few funny lines, but her anti-Trump storyline falls flat. It's neither very funny nor insightful.

Several of the other candidates make appearances in bird form, including Bernie and Hillary some of the Republican primary candidates.  The Hillary bird, "All the accusations, she had denied."  She said, "Whatever I do, it is personal, not a crime."  Saatci could have added some lines about Hillary "feathering her nest" with her political power and access, but that would have gone against Saatci's political preferences.

Donny Trumpet Goes to the Election: The Story of a Yuge Yellow Bird is a crudely drawn, not very funny attempt at some political humor.  It might be a good bird cage liner.

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

Friday, July 29, 2016

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

Is Charles Dickens one of the greatest novelists in the English language?  That is probably not even debatable.  Is Great Expectations one of his great novels?  I wouldn't think so.  This is the story of Pip, an orphan "raised by hand" by his older sister.  He is learning the blacksmith trade from his brother-in-law, but receives the means to be a gentleman from a mysterious, anonymous benefactor.  He thinks his patron is a reclusive elderly lady in town, and that she is grooming him to marry her adopted daughter, the beautiful but distant Estella.

Of course things are not as they seem.  Pip enjoys his new riches a bit too much, ends up deep in debt, and then learns the true identity of his benefactor.  It's not who he thought, and he's plunged into moral dilemmas he had never imagined.  Dickens has some moral lessons here, some of them admirable.  But one lesson seems to be that you're better off sticking with your lot in life. . . . In the stratified culture of 19th century England, movement between classes was limited.  Great Expectations colorfully illustrates the class system of the era and the dangers of living outside your class.

Dickens writes great characters, but in this case I wasn't that enamored with the story.  It seemed wordy and overlong.  It seems like I've heard that Dickens published his stories serially in magazines, paid by the word, which would explain a lot.  In spite of my ambivalence about his style, I did enjoy Pip and his life and times.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by or about Charles Dickens

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Machinations, by Haley Stone

The machines have taken over, and they have decided that humans must be eliminated.  Such is the world of Haley Stone's debut novel, Machinations.  The machines have, for the most part, accomplished their goal of eliminating all humans, but a few holdouts resist and fight back.  Rhona Long has arisen as a leader among humans.  When she dies in battle, it seems the machines have taken out the resistance leader.  But she made arrangements to return--in the form of a clone of herself.  Rhona battles those who doubt her ability to lead, her former lover who struggles to accept her as Rhona, and her own doubts and struggles to remember her former life.

By focusing on Rhona's experiences and perspective, Stone gives a limited view of the Machinations and the current state of humanity.  Through Rhona, we learn the extent of destruction as well as the hope for a human future.  She revisits familiar sci-fi themes; the concept of robots taking over the world is not unknown to readers of sci-fi or viewers of sci-fi movies and TV shows.  Stone pays homage to the stories that have influenced her with frequent cultural references.  But while some of the themes and archetypes may be familiar, Stone's story is fresh and original and her writing is solid.  I'm already looking forward to reading the sequel!

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

Monday, July 25, 2016

Getting to Know the Church Fathers, by Bryan Litfin

For many evangelicals today, church history looks something like this: the Bible . . . the Reformation . . . my denomination's founding . . . my church's founding.  Or it might be more like this: the Bible . . . something something something . . . my church's founding (within the last couple of decades).  In my experience, lots of churches express a desire to have a biblical church or first-century church but have little regard for two millennia of history between then and now.  (To be clear, I am writing as a conservative evangelical in the U.S., and acknowledge my own limited experience.)

Bryan Litfin definitely writes from a quintessential American Evangelical perspective.  His father, Duane Litfin, taught at Dallas Theological Seminary and was a long-time president of Wheaton College.  Bryan Litfin went to DTS and now teaches at Moody Bible Institute.  Even with that pedigree, Litfin holds the early church, including the Church Fathers of the first several centuries of church history, in high regard.  In Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction, Litfin invites his fellow evangelicals to appreciate the importance of these early shapers of the faith we share.

For Getting to Know, Litfin selects his "top ten list" of early Christians whose writing, leadership, and theology shaped the church.  His list includes obvious choices like Origen, Augustine, and Justin Martyr, but also includes a "church mother," Perpetua of Carthage, and  Patrick of Ireland, who (I don't think) is not typically counted among the church fathers.

Litfin's selections include biographical information, a discussion of each church father's writings and theological importance, and their impact on the formation of the church, as well as a selection from their own writings.  Unsurprisingly, each of them come across as evangelical.  More than a reflection of Litfin's theological perspective, Litfin reveals the genuine, passionate faith these early leaders of the church shared.  To our detriment, evangelicals "are being robbed of their ancient heritage precisely because they have equated the word 'catholic' with being 'Roman Catholic.'"  Litfin shows that "all the centuries of Christian history are our [every Christian's] rightful possession."

While not comprehensive, and while written from a decidedly evangelical perspective, Litton's book is a great resource.  He reminds us of the vibrant faith of the early church, and the importance of these fathers and others in preserving the right teachings of Jesus and pointing the church in the right direction for the benefit of future generations of Christians.  Our 21st century faith was built on the founding centuries of Christians.  "We are small figures inevitably carried forward by the weight of the holy catholic church, whose sails are filled by the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit."

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

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Bat Dad, by Blake Wilson

Do you have a computer with an internet connection?  Google "Bat Dad."  Watch the videos.  You'll laugh, maybe until you cry, especially if you have kids.  Blake Wilson bought a Batman mask and started making videos around the house.  Most of them have him in the corner, selfie style, with his wife or kids in the background.  He provides hilarious commentary in his fake Batman voice.  Wilson is a funny guy, and his wife and kids are perfect foils.  I especially like the ones in which he surprises his wife (JEN!!) or when he catches the kids "in the act."

Now, if you don't have an internet connection, check out Wilson's book, Bat Dad: A Parody.  In this book, he takes stills from his online video, adds a line of text (which may or may not be the same as what is in the actual video), and calls it good.  I don't have a problem with his putting his Bat Dad idea in book form.  Books have a permanence and accessibility that a web site does not.  But so much is lost in translation to the printed page. . . .  I would compare it to those movie books that have stills from the movie and truncated dialogue, giving a general idea of the movie but are only about 1/100th as enjoyable as the movie itself.

Bottom line: I'm a big fan of Bat Dad, the man, the website, the superhero dad.  I'm not such a big fan of Bat Dad, the book.

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

Friday, July 22, 2016

This is What I Want, by Craig Lancaster

In This is What I Want, Craig Lancaster departs from his usual setting of Billings, Montana, to the far western edge of the state.  The little town of Grandview is going through some changes and growing pains, as the Bakken shale oil boom brings high-paying jobs--and the young, rough, transient oil workers with cash in their pockets--to the area.  Those changes, along with changes in the lives of Grandview's citizens, come to a head on the weekend of Jamboree, the town's annual festival.

This is What I Want centers on Sam Kelvig and his family during Jamboree weekend.  Sam is head of Jamboree.  His son Samuel reluctantly comes home from California, where he has come out of the closet and is using a different first name.  His wife Patricia supports her family but struggles with her infatuation with Grandview's famous hometown author, home for his annual Jamboree appearance.  Sam's brother, angry over what he sees as a slight by Sam, is going off the rails.  And holding them all together is Sam's long-suffering mother.

Lancaster juggles these and many more characters, crisscrossing their stories into one eventful weekend.  A lot happens in little Grandview over the few days of the story, really too much to seem real.  But hey, it's fiction.  I especially liked the new sheriff in town.  As an outsider who, by virtue of her position, has quick access to Grandview insiders, her perspective sheds light on some of the unspoken mores and cultural relationships of the little town.  The powerful, long-serving, yet somewhat despicable mayor never gets what's coming to him; maybe his type never will.

This is What I Want is a slice of life of Grandview, with no big central plot, but a bunch of sub-plots woven together.  When the weekend is over, many characters' lives have changed, particularly in the Kelvig family.  Lancaster writes with a strong sense of place and creates memorable characters.  I'll probably never get to Grandview, or whatever little Montana town that could be a model for it, but Lancaster makes the town real and relate-able.  He captures the problems they face with the decline of small towns and the rise of the oil boom (however temporary it may be).   Pick up This is What I Want and enjoy a memorable Jamboree weekend in Grandview.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Hard Way, by Lee Child

Lee Child's Jack Reacher books are addicting.  My latest fix: The Hard Way.  If you've read any Reacher books, you know that sometimes he just ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Or the right place and time.  Somehow he manages to get hooked up with bad folks, but in the interest of doing the right thing.  In The Hard Way, he somewhat randomly comes to be employed by a wealthy military contractor in an effort to recover his wife and stepdaughter, who apparently have been kidnapped.

Of course, the contractor turns out to be a really bad dude.  Reacher is, of course, smarter and wilier than the bad dude and his henchmen.  He also meets up with the bad dude's sister-in-law from his first marriage, which ended with, of course, the mysterious disappearance of his wife.  This all turns out to be a bit convoluted, but Reacher, as always, has good luck and good timing on his side.  This is a rare Reacher book where I figured out what was going on, i.e. the true kidnapper, long before Jack did.  That's OK, it was still fun to wait on Jack to catch up to me.

Reacher has become a favorite character for me (and millions of others, of course!).  The Hard Way is a fun, violent read for Reacher fans.  The bad guys get their due, Reacher gets the girl, if only for a while.  As usual, he has no luggage or anything to tie him down, and disappears in the end.  I wouldn't want to be him, but I like him and his unconventional ethics.  Thumbs up for The Hard Way.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fallout, by Harry Turtledove

In Bombs Away, Book 1 of Harry Turtledove's The Hot War series, gives the Korean War a tragic twist with the introduction of nuclear weapons.  The Cold War turned quickly hot, as the Communists and the U.S start bombing the heck out of each other.  The mutual bombing continues in Fallout: The Hot War.

Just as he did in Bombs Away, Turtledove gives readers of Fallout a wide scope, focusing on  common people and on leaders of both sides.  The attacks continue, the ground war in Europe continues, people's lives continue as they live and love and try to figure out how to move on.  Turtledove's realism and detail in the character's lives is impressive and convincing.

One thing about Fallout that I didn't like as well as Bombs Away was that the more time passed, the further the timeline diverged from reality, the less interested I became.  Bombs Away really worked because it took a point of divergence from actual history.  Fallout continues the story along that new timeline, with many of the same characters.  Their stories are interesting, to a point, but the overall narrative was lacking.

These books together show the futility of nuclear war, and anticipate even worse conflicts.  As President Truman contemplates retaliation after the Russians nuke several U.S. cities, Turtledove writes, "Where did it end?  Did it, could it, end anywhere except with both sides too battered and devastated to throw any more haymakers, as if two weary pugs in the ring knocked each other over at the same time?"

The stories in Fallout offer some home, as the characters rebuild their lives after nuclear attacks.  But the hope is dimmed by the superpowers insistence on answering blow for blow.  Fallout ends as Bombs Away did, with an open-ended anticipation of what might happen next.  If Turtledove continues The Hot War series, each volume is bound to be even more bleak than this one.  Thank God it's only fiction--for now.

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

Monday, July 18, 2016

Fight the Rooster!, by Nick Cole

I really loved Nick Cole's Control Alt Revolt.  So I was delighted to receive an electronic review copy of Cole's new book, Fight the Rooster.  Unfortunately, I was not quite as delighted with this book.

The story is simple, in a way.  A famous, successful director is tired of his career, and feels like the only way out is to be pushed out.  So he sets out to make a terrible, indefensibly expensive dog of a movie so that the studio heads will get rid of him and he'll never be offered a job in Hollywood ever again.  Then he can retire in obscurity in Alaska.  In the process, Cole parts the curtain on the crazy, ridiculous, sometimes hilarious world of the movies.  It will leave you wondering how a movie ever gets made.

Cole fleshes out a wide array of Hollywood types: the A-list actors on the declining arc of their careers, the cinematographer whose pretension led him to leave the industry (but who would like another shot), the drug-addled hanger on, the naif who comes to LA to get her big break, and on and on.  One of my favorites was the therapist who took on whatever addictions his patients were trying to get rid of.  Needless to say, his life was a mess.  Weaving their stories into the larger story is part of the fun, but the story itself bogged down.

Cole's assessment of the Great Director's film actually applies nicely to Fight the Rooster: "It's true the narrative isn't coherent.  The scenes, individually brilliant, are too loose.  Too disconnected."  The book is more coherent than the movie, but it remains true that Cole's sometimes brilliant, always entertaining character sketches are much better than the sum of the parts.

I have a feeling readers who would most enjoy Fight the Rooster would be those with some insider's knowledge of Hollywood and movie making.  Personally, as much as I enjoy Cole's writing, the book itself was just OK.

Thanks to Mr. Cole for the complimentary electronic review copy! (You did say you wanted an honest review. . . .)

Sunday, July 17, 2016

Children and the Tundra, by Dr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey

Children and the Tundra is a weird little book.  And I mean that in the  most affectionate way.  I loved it.  Dr. and Mr. Doris Haggis-on-Whey have combined their practical wisdom and discoveries about two important topics, children and the tundra, into one very important book.

I was reminded of some Monty Python books I used to have.  Or maybe I still have them somewhere.  Children and the Tundra is full of silliness.  And, refreshingly, it doesn't try to redeem itself with some purpose or deeper meaning.  It's just silly.  And the silly-named authors, Dr. and Mr. Haggis-on-Whey, are made up by the actual, slightly-less-silly named brothers Dave and Toph Eggers.  ("Eggers" must be a made-up name, too, right?)

The bits about children are more interesting than the bits about tundra.  I especially liked this bit, even though it is really about neither children nor tundra:
How to tell the mountains from the sky.  Go up to both of them.  Mountains can be touched but when you're standing on them they disappear.  Skies can't ever be touched, no matter how close you get.  And sometimes they disappear when you're in bed or when the window is closed.  The differences between mountains and sky can be hard to remember but most of it is about touching.
For those who are seeking advice on a way to contain those children they might have in the home:
Why did they let the child into their home in the first place?  If they can keep raccoons and other woodland creatures at bay, why not children? . . . But if you do find yourself with a child at home, and you want to eat and read the paper in the morning undisturbed, then you need some kind of container.
On the overall purpose of the book:
What can be done about children and their attributes? Including: their annoying laughs, their chirpy way of talking, their frequent outbursts of inexplicable emotion, their loathsome clothes, their need to break things, their need for shelter and constant care for upwards of 18 years. . . . These are some of the questions that have plagued humankind for the many hundreds of years that we have been burdened with the phenomenon of children.
In the end, perhaps the authors reveal the relationship between the two topics at hand:
Now you know the truth about the world's coldest regions: the heart of children.  You have also learned how and what lives in the tundra and why no one ever bothers to speak of it.  Now you can find a sturdy box, empty all this information inside it, and give it to Steve.
Have fun with this.  Expect to laugh out loud.  Don't bother trying to explain what you're laughing at to the person sitting next to you.  They just have to read it themselves.

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

Saturday, July 16, 2016

It's Time to Go to Sleep, by Harriet Zierfert, illustrated by Barroux

Traveling on his scooter from the city, back to his country house, a little boy says goodnight to anyone and anything who will listen.  The cars and trucks, the birds and bees, the cows and chickens, the hills and sun, all get good night wishes in Harriet Zierfert's It's Time to Go to Sleep.

Little ones will enjoy the colorful pictures by Barroux.  They will agree that "By the time we're done with saying good night, it's time . . . TO GO TO SLEEP!  (Although I'm not sure why she used all caps at the end. . . . Usually you don't shout "Go to sleep!")

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

Friday, July 15, 2016

Edward Unspooled, by Craig Lancaster

Readers have embraced the quirky Edward Stanton in Craig Lancaster's 600 Hours of Edward and Edward Adrift.  Much to their delight, Lancaster has continued Edward's story in Edward Unspooled.  While Edward Unspooled stands alone as a novel, if you haven't read the first two, you really should.  Edward is an adult living with Asperger's syndrome and OCD, both of which play a large part in his personality and in the stories.  Through these three books, Edward's personality and habits develop.  As his relationships change and as events happen, the manifestations of these disabilities soften and change.  Lancaster shows Edward as a hopeful figure, one for whom circumstances and predispositions do not permanently limit him.

Edward Unspooled is written as sort of journal Edward keeps for his gestating child.  He wants this baby to come into the world prepared, and to know something of his parents' lives.  Alternatively, Edward's wife Sheila responds to his entries, usually (amusingly) to correct or clarify Edward's recollections.  Lancaster's story-telling technique here works great.

Edward is very self-aware.  He writes, "I'll say right now that I hope your list of irritants is not nearly as long as mine.  Life will go better for you the less you're bothered by people and their dumb habits."  He no longer writes letters of complaint every night like he used to, but sometimes has letters he could write.

On happiness: "I wonder if I worry too much about whether I'm happy or sad anyway.  It seems like both of those things show and and leave on their own schedule.  Maybe I should just worry about whether I'm doing the appropriate thing or making the appropriate choice."  That's not bad advice.

During a rough spot he's having with Sheila, he writes: "What I wanted was some sort of reset button for married living, so your mother and I could go back to a time when we weren't treating each other poorly and saying mean words.  But how do you do that?"  I'd say many of us wish for the same button!

Edward Unspooled is full of familial challenges for Edward, from his controlling mother, his pregnant wife, and his newly discovered brother.  Through it all, he may not always make the right choices, but we can appreciate the aplomb with which he handles what life throws at him, and we can be entertained by his attitude and personality.  I don't know whether Lancaster has plans for another Edward story, but I'm certain his fans will be looking for one!

Thanks to Mr. Lancaster for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Thursday, July 14, 2016

Hiding in the Light, by Rifqa Bary

Rifqa Bary had her more-than-fifteen-minutes of fame a few years ago when she ran away from home.  When her Muslim parents found out that she had become a Christian, she says they threatened to kill her.  She even says her mother told her that the local mosque called and said they would "take care of her" if her father did not.  Fearing that she was going to be victim of an "honor killing" she fled to Florida from her Ohio home.

Her custody case became a cause celebre among Christians, and an embarrassment for Muslims.  Rifqa tells her story in Hiding in the Light, a heartbreaking yet challenging tale of one teen's determination not to forsake her savior.  American Christians typically don't have to hide their Bible from their parents, living in fear that her father will discover it, yet treasuring it above all other possessions.  American Christians typically aren't threatened by their parents with death if they continue to practice Christianity.  American Christians typically don't have to carefully plan to be baptized in secret.  Rifqa's experiences pointed me to a deeper appreciation for my family, freedom, and salvation in Jesus.

This poor sister in Christ has suffered and experienced more in her short life than most Western Christians ever will.  Her steadfastness in the face of persecution from her family and others should be an inspiration to all of us.  Her experience may not be typical of American Muslims who convert to Christianity, but I have know Muslims from other countries who have been similarly rejected by their families of birth (thankfully not to the death, but the "dead to me" variety).  Let's pray for Rifqa and other persecuted Christians that their witness will be strong and draw other Muslims into the loving arms of Jesus.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by an author less than 30

Wednesday, July 13, 2016

The More of Less, by Joshua Becker

As soon as I started reading Joshua Becker's The More of Less: Finding the Life You Want Under Everything You Own, I had an urge to go to my closet and bag stuff up to get rid of!  That's his goal--but only part of his goal.  Becker has made a name for himself in the world of minimalism with his blog,  The basic message of his blog and The More of Less is to get rid of stuff (and stop accumulating more stuff), but the emphasis isn't simply on minimalism or an uncluttered life.  Becker wants you to get rid of stuff so you will be more free, with more time, money, space, energy, and mental space to pursue things that really matter and serve others.

Becker is practical and doesn't strike me as an extremist.  I don't get the impression that he wants to live off the grid in a treehouse, or reduce his belongings to a single backpack (although he tells a few stories of extreme minimalists).  He's a guy with a house and a family.  There was no point in The More of Less at which I thought, "I could never do that."

In fact, on several points, I did think, "Yeah, I already do that." But there are many more areas in which I could and should walk away from my American consumerist tendencies and embrace a more minimalist attitude and lifestyle.  It's not easy, but Becker certainly makes minimalism, or at least moving incrementally toward minimalism, seem doable, desirable, and worth every bit of effort.

Thanks to Blogging for Books for the complimentary review copy!

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

The End of White Christian America, by Robert P. Jones

Demographer of religion Robert P. Jones has bad news for White Christian America (WCA).  Few will be surprised at his news, that the heyday of WCA's influential role in United States society and politics is over.  The End of White Christian America is Jones's retrospective and obituary.  Jones quotes E.J. Dionne, who said "white Protestantism served as 'the civic and moral glue that held American public life together' for most of the United States' history." 

I'll be up front about this: I am a White Christian American.  So I have a vested interest in the state of WCA.  Further, as Dionne points out, all Americans, regardless of race, immigration status, national origin, or religious preference have benefited from the moral and cultural milieu which has made the United States the beacon of hope to the rest of the world.  Economics may be the primary reason people want to immigrate to the U.S., but it's much more than that.  And WCA has played a leading role in creating this atmosphere.

Jones traces the decline of WCA by examining ecclesiastical and political trends.  For most of our history, Protestants have dominated the landscape, both spiritually and by the physical presence marked by steeples on the skylines of our cities and churches adjacent to the town squares.  Noting the histories of the United Methodist building in Washington, D.C., the Interchurch Center in New York City, and the Crystal Cathedral in Orange County, California, Jones shows the waxing and waning of movements in WCA.  Hopes for a "Christian Century" and the power of the "Moral Majority" dwindled with each generation.  Now we are arriving at a time when WCA no longer has a demographic advantage, either in terms of church attendance or political majority.

As a demographer, Jones has various ways to demonstrate this reality.  A couple of notes:

  • Today, young adults (ages 18-29) are less than half as likely to be white Christians as seniors (age 65 and older).
  • By the 2024 presidential election, even if the GOP nominee could secure every single white Christian vote, these votes would land 3 points short of a national majority.

Christians might cynically mourn the loss of political power in the country.  Conservative religious voters will no longer be the sought after swing vote, as they were in the 1980s and 1990s.  More important than that, though, is the very real loss of a Christian presence in culture.  Many hospitals, universities, and major charitable institution and movements were founded directly or indirectly out of Christian motives.  What happens to the ongoing influence of these institutions as their Christian foundations are slowly chipped away.  (Hint: we already see it in universities that were founded as Christian schools.  They not only neglect but completely reject their Christian moorings.

Most importantly for Christians, though, especially those Christians considered more evangelical, is the impact on the Kingdom of God.  Churches are never perfect.  Jones points out one big area of WCA blindness: racism.  But one thing churches always are is the body of Christ.  Christians, through the church, represent Jesus in this life, on this earth, and are called to bring the message of his saving grace to the world.  Christians can do that, no matter whether they are in a political majority or not, but Christians should be very concerned about the lack of growth in the church in recent years.  Christians are not teaching their children to continue to life committed to Jesus into adulthood, and are not bringing their friends and neighbors into the Christian fold.  The consequence are eternal and far more significant than who we back for any given election.

Jones doesn't have a lot of good news for WCA.  But American Christians will be challenged to remember that their first commitment is to Jesus, not to politics, parties, or institutions.  Christians better face the new reality and focus on the gospel and not on party platforms.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book about church history

Monday, July 11, 2016

Onward, by Russell Moore

Russell Moore, the president of the Southern Baptist Convention's Ethics and Religious Liberty Commission, will probably surprise some Southern Baptist readers of his book Onward: Engaging the Culture without Losing the Gospel.  Sure, he's theologically conservative. But many of the positions he takes on social and political issues will endear him to the evangelical left and many democrats.

That last sentence is a terrible oversimplification.  I think one of the messages of Onward is that we cannot reduce everything to left and right, red or blue, liberal or conservative, Republican or Democrat.  In fact, he warns that "when the 'Christian' position on everything just happens to line up, exactly, with the favored candidate or political party, how can we not expect cynicism from those who naturally start to suspect that 'God' simply means 'our team.'  When everything is prophetic, nothing is."

Christians ought to be a prophetic voice.  Noting that Christianity doesn't set the moral tone for the nation to the extent that it used to, Moore actually celebrates this.  As cultural outsiders, "our call is to an engaged alienation, a Christianity that preserves the distinctiveness of our gospel while not retreating from our callings as neighbors, and friends, and citizens."  The goal is not to be relevant, but to revel in our difference and speak truth in the world.

The biggest Christian distinction--if I'm not overstating Moore's perspective--is the Christian embrace of the value of every human life as the imago dei.  I was reminded of Ron Sider's book in the 1980s, Completely Pro-Life.  Now Moore and Sider may have their differences, but I think Moore would embrace that phrase.  Moore writes, "Abortion, torture, euthanasia, unjust war, racial injustice, the harassment of immigrants, these things aren't simply 'mean' (although they are that too).  They are part of an ongoing guerilla insurgency against the image of God himself, as summed up in Jesus of Nazareth."

No matter who you are, you'll probably find some point of disagreement with Moore.  But he will challenge your thinking as a Christian in public life in a good way, reminding us not simply to follow a party platform, but to embrace the saving, transforming grace of Jesus, and to embody an enduring belief that every person is made in the image of God.

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

2016 Reading Challenge: A book you have started but never finished

Sunday, July 10, 2016

Lost Property, by Andy Poyiadgi

When a mailman named Gerald gets a call from a local lost property office to remover a letter opener belonging to him, he had no idea what was in store.  And I had no idea what was in store when I read Andy Poyiadgi's beautiful story, Lost Property.  When Gerald arrives at the lost property office, he notes that the ship in the window is just like one he had as a child.  After he's escorted to the downstairs storage room, he comes to the realization that everything in this place used to be his!

I love the fact that Poyiadgi doesn't offer any explanation for this odd turn of events.  He just uses it as a springboard for Gerald to think about what might have been, to recover his dreams, and to rekindle some of what he thought was lost forever in the past.  Lost Property is a very simple tale, beautifully illustrated with Poyiadgi's lovely, muted, almost dreamlike painting.  But the story and pictures drew me into nostalgia, thinking about dreams I have lost, and wondering where my lost property office might be.

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

Saturday, July 9, 2016

How to Speak Emoji, by Fred Benenson

The first thing you need to know about Fred Benenson is that he is also the author of Emoji Dick.  The first emoji-only book in the Library of Congress, Emoji Dick retells Herman Melville's classic Moby Dick in emojis.  If that sounds like fun to you, you will enjoy Benenson's How to Speak Emoji.

Personally, I'm not all that entertained by the use of emojis.  I'm sure that's because I am a middle-aged fuddy-duddy.  A quick peek at my teenage sons' text messages would tell me that it's probably a generational thing.  They love them.  However, they don't use them as creatively and articulately as Benenson does.  The book is chock full of common phrases and sayings that one can use immediately.  It will also serve as inspiration for emoji-lovers to expand their repertoire.

Here are few selections:

Benenson's emoji phrases are certainly clever.  For most of them, I was happy that he had a translation handy.  I guess that's part of the fun; send these emojis to your friends, and see if they can figure out exactly what you're trying to say.

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

Friday, July 8, 2016

The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter, by Craig Lancaster

In Craig Lancaster's fourth novel, The Fallow Season of Hugo Hunter, he explores new ground in familiar territory.  Hugo Hunter, a famous boxer who bumped up against greatness without ever really getting there, is in the waning days of his career.  Mark Westerly, a sports writer for the Billings paper, has followed Hugo's career since Hugo was a teenager.  The Fallow Season reflects on both of these men's careers and the friendship that evolved over the 20 years they've known one another.

Born and raised in Billings, Montana, Hugo was local hero after he came home with a silver medal from the Olympics.  Reviews of the fight, in which the judge disqualified him, clearly show that he should not have been DQed, and should have won the gold.  This sort of bad luck, exacerbated by his own self-destructiveness, follow him in his boxing career.  He potentially could have been a world champion, but. . . .

The Fallow Season covers those buts.  Lancaster's readers will not be surprised to hear that he deftly builds his complex characters, weaves their stories together, and draws the reader into their worlds.  Lancaster writes (forgive my terrible paraphrase from memory) that in fiction everything happens for a reason, while in real life, everything just happens.  In the arc of the story of Hugo Hunter, there is a feeling of everything just happening.  Hugo and Mark's lives are not particularly admirable, but their friendship and personalities make their story worth reading. 

(Fans of Lancaster's Edward books will be pleased to know that Edward makes a significant appearance in The Fallow Season.  In the interest of not being a spoiler, I will leave it at that!)

Thursday, July 7, 2016

The Auctioneer, by Simon de Pury

Simon de Pury has for decades been an insider in the high-flying world of fine art.  Among other things, he has worked for Sotheby's, started his own auction house, and was personal curator to the billionaire and nobleman Heini Thyssen.  Along the way, de Pury became a world's leading expert in fine art and a sought-after auctioneer.

In The Auctioneer: Adventures in the Art Trade, he ostensibly pulls back the curtain on the insiders' world of fine art.  In reality, de Pury tells the story of his life and career, which happens to be in art, while telling name-dropping stories about his many encounters with the world's elite classes.  De Pury was hanging out with the jet setters before people really had jets.  He has spent his career rubbing shoulders with industrialists and entreprenuers, heirs and heiresses, titled nobility, politicians, and others who have millions of dollars to throw around.

As he tells his stories, I was sickened by the "lifestyles of the rich and famous."  These aren't the one percent that the Occupy movement gets upset about.  These are the 1% of the 1% of the 1% of the world who spend seven or even eight figures on a single work of art.  They also have appalling morals and habits, and seemingly endless funds to finance their debauchery and profligacy.  I don't know if de Pury meant to cast these elite in a repulsive light.  I rather got the impression that he celebrates them and considers himself as one of them.

What I really would have liked to have read about is the question of art as a luxury good.  De Pury's clients and friends plop down ungodly amounts of money for art.  But he doesn't reflect on value.  While he talks about pieces whose beauty captures him, beauty often does not have a relationship to price.  He doesn't mind if they "ratchet up rates" since his customers are "a price-insensitive elite that would pay anything if they wanted the beauty we were selling."  And when they do drive up prices, it becomes a cycle: "Money brings recognition, and what artist doesn't want to be recognized?  That is the calculus of taste."

I conclude from his experiences that the value of a work of art is not determined by its intrinsic beauty or in the talent, skill, and workmanship that went into its creation, but simply by the price a promoter like de Pury is able to get out of the pockets of his "price-insensitive" clients.  While much of his career has been spent on recognizable masters, he proudly touts his role in promoting the careers of modern artists like Urs Fischer and Jeff Koons, who is most famous for his animal carcasses suspended in formaldehyde.  Google those two names, look at some of their work and ask yourself if they belong in the same pantheon as some of the great artists of past centuries.  Then ask yourself if you would pay a million bucks (if you had it) for one of their "works of art."

I know, I sound like an uneducated Philistine with buorgeois morality and unrefined taste.  But de Pury prides himself in bringing fine art to the masses, as demonstrated by his participation in a short-lived art reality show and some of his charity work.  (I can't imagine why that show wasn't a big hit. . . .)  If he really wants to make a contribution to the world of art, he needs to convince people like me that the prices paid for art are justifiable and not simply an expression of ego and power by oligarchs and heiresses, and that the value of a piece of art lies in more than the prices paid.

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

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

The Tomb, by F. Paul Wilson

Years ago, I read F. Paul Wilson's LaNague Federation series, plus one or two of his medical thrillers.  For no good reason, I avoided his Repairman Jack books, which make up a large part of Wilson's work.  I finally decided to check out Repairman Jack in the first book featuring him, The Tomb.

Jack is a nobody, just like he likes it.  No SSN, no bank account, no taxes, no strings, he pays cash for everything and only takes cash for payment.  Payment for what?  He's a "fixer."  Sometimes referred to as a "security consultant."  Or a thug.  But he's one of the good guys.  In The Tomb, an Indian diplomat recruits him to recover an heirloom necklace that a mugger stole from his grandmother.

As Jack gets more involved with the Indian family, including an affair with the diplomat's sister, he uncovers links to his ex-girlfriend's family, he learns about the magical qualities of the necklace, and discovers a brood of inhuman creatures prowling the streets of New York for sacrificial victims.  The connections, and the evil behind it all, surprises him, and of course leads to lots and lots of violence.

Repairman Jack reminded me, somewhat, of another favorite fictional Jack, Lee Child's Jack Reacher.  A key difference in The Tomb, and, as best I can tell, the whole Repairman Jack series, is that Repairman Jack is constantly finding his way into these supernatural encounters.  (Come to think of it, this is why I have avoided Repairman Jack novels.  I'm not really a fan of supernatural horror fiction.) 

Repairman Jack is resourceful, effective, and good at what he does.  I will certainly come back to this series to see what else Repairman Jack gets into, but if every story involves some sort of supernatural creature, I might be turned off.  As a character, though, I really enjoyed Repairman Jack, and as a writer, Wilson tells a great story!

2016 Reading Challenge: A book with magic

Tuesday, July 5, 2016

Seek and Hide, by Amanda Stevens

Is it difficult to imagine a future U.S. in which Christianity is outlawed completely?  If your imagination fails you, lend an ear to Amanda Stevens.  Seek and Hide is the first of four books in her Haven Seekers series.  In this all-to-believable future, Christianity has been deemed a dangerous worldview.  Pro-lifers took things one clinic bombing too far, and the powers-that-be decided Christianity would be outlawed.

In Seek and Hide, we meet Marcus, a recovering alcoholic and recent convert who makes it his personal mission to save as many Christians from arrest, imprisonment, and perhaps worse.  Through some personal sleuthing he warns some Christians that the Constabulary has a warrant for them.  But it gets much more personal when he picks up Aubrey, who is actively fleeing the Con cops.

Stevens definitely writes with a feminine tone.  Marcus is cast as the handsome, muscular strong-but-silent type.  Aubrey is attracted to him, but Marcus has eyes for Lee, who won't let Marcus get close because of her history of pain.  Don't get me wrong, Seek and Hide is not a romance novel, but the relationships of these three make up a good deal of the story.

Of course, the main thrust of the story is Aubrey's flight from the Con cops, her efforts, with Marcus and Lee's help, to get her baby back from the Con cop's custody, and Marcus's ongoing personal mission to save as many Christians as he can.

The scary thing about Seek and Hide is how believable it is.  For the most part, life goes on in the U.S. of A.  There are even government-approved quasi-religious groups and versions of a Bible, thoroughly edited and expurgated, of course.  But get caught meeting in a Christian worship service, or possessing a real Bible, and things get nasty.  One only has to thing of Soviet Russia or Nazi Germany to see how quickly a sick, anti-Christian perspective can take over a country.  It can't happen here, of course. . . . Or can it?

Monday, July 4, 2016

Believing Jesus, by Lisa Harper

As I thought about my review of Lisa Harper's Believing Jesus: Are You Willing to Risk Everything? A Journey Through the Book of Acts, I considered saying something about how I didn't like her "informal teaching style and the tendency to weave pop culture into biblical narrative or to refer to the Apostle Peter as 'Pete,'" but apparently she has heard that before!  I wouldn't go so far as to call her a "narcissistic windbag," and I certainly would not make comments about her being "too chubby to be an effective video-based Bible teacher!"  People are mean; I try not to be.

All that said, I hope Ms. Harper won't be offended by my simply stating that I did not particularly enjoy Believing Jesus.  And yes, I'll admit that it's a question of preference and style.  I did not find her theology objectionable; it was her style that put me off.  I can see why she's a popular speaker for women's conferences.  She's funny and entertaining while being insightful and biblical.  Harper takes the book of Acts as her framework for a light and breezy tour of the early church.  Along the way we hear stories of family, her adoption of a Haitian orphan, and her own experiences as a Christian.  (I did love hearing about her adoption experience, it just seemed not to fit all that well with the overall book.)

She identifies the main theme of the book of Acts: "the inestimable treasure of Jesus Christ and the exorbitant price His ancient followers were willing to pay because of their relationship with him."  As we follow their example, we have to grapple with the difference between belief in Jesus and believing him.  "Believing Jesus means you're willing to risk everything you are and everything you have based on everything He taught and everything He did.  It means learning to love Him more than you love your own life."

If you can get past her casual, sometimes silly style, that powerful message is what comes through in Believing Jesus.  This would be perfect for your women's Bible study or discussion group or for personal study.  Casual style or not, Harper writes with conviction and truth that will challenge her readers.

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

Sunday, July 3, 2016

Trump: The Complete Collection, by Harvey Kurtzman

Trump is offensive, sometimes hilarious, irreverent, definitely not politically correct, and has limited popular appeal.  No, actually I'm not talking about Donald Trump!  I'm talking aboutTrump, the humor magazine that had a very short two-issue lifespan.  It was the mid-1950s, and Harvey Kurtzman had successfully transformed Mad magazine from a comic to more of a mainstream magazine.  Looking to delve into humor with a more sophisticated, grown-up appeal, he partnered with Hugh Hefner to create Trump.  Alas, as Hefner said, "I gave Harvey Kurtzman an unlimited budget . . . and he exceeded it."  After two issues, Trump was no more.

Gone but not forgotten, Dark Horse Comics has published Trump: The Complete Collection, which preserves the entire two issues, includes a bit of history, and has tons of sketches, mock-ups, and annotations illuminating the original.  Real fans and nostalgia buffs will eat this stuff up.  Casual readers will just focus on the actual magazine portion.

Much of the humor is reminiscent of Mad magazine: spoofs on popular movies, fake ads, random cartoons.  One significant difference is the extended stories and satirical essays; Mad readers wouldn't have had the patience for these.  While the writing is funny and decent, the best part is the art.  On many pages, there is so much detail that it's easy to miss the humor in the background.

I'm not aware of any other magazine like Trump.  Humor magazines seem to be focused on younger audiences, like Mad or its imitator Cracked, or tend toward R-rated humor, like National Lampoon.  (I should point out that even though Playboy publisher Hefner backed Trump, the content was PG at worst, more reflective of the sensibilities of the 1950s than of the direction Hefner was taking publishing with his other magazine.)  I don't know if a humor magazine like Trump would make it today.  At least we have these two issues to show us what might have been.

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

Saturday, July 2, 2016

One Without the Other, by Shelley Moore

Canadian educator Shelley Moore has consulted with schools, school district, and community groups in the U.S. and Canada about her passion and specialty: inclusion.  She has gathered some of her wisdom and experience in a new book, One Without the Other: Stories of Unity Through Diversity and Inclusion.  Her goal: to make inclusion a natural part of all education.  Whereas attempts to "homogenize and standardize our classrooms and learners" may have marked education in the past, homogeneity "is no longer our vision of education (thank goodness)."

She writes that "inclusion means everyone--but actually everyone, even our students who ned the most support in our classrooms, schools, and communities."  Realizing the realities of needed support, she says, "The goal is not inclusion 100 percent of the time, but that 100 percent of the time we are striving to be more inclusive."

In her extended discussion of "what is inclusion," I appreciated the fact that she started out with presuming competence.  For example, some might have assumed that her student with Down syndrome was not paying attention while she was showing him addition flash cards.  He seemed detached, flipping through pages of a dictionary.  Finally, she noticed that he was turning to the page number of the correct answer!  20 + 40, he turned to page 60!  Presuming competence means that from the start, teachers engage students as if they understand and hear it all, because they almost always are hearing, understanding, and learning more than we might have thought.  She goes on, "unless I presume competence in all people, I am the one who is disabled."

Teachers who are unfamiliar with inclusion ought to pick up Moore's book.  There are probably more technical and comprehensive studies of inclusion, but Moore's experienced bird's eye view will serve as introduction and inspiration to teachers and administrators.

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

Friday, July 1, 2016

Frayed, by Kerry Nietz

Has it really been nearly 5 years since I first read Kerry Nietz's A Star Curiously Singing?  Yes, but the story has stuck with me, as has whole DarkTrench trilogy.  Now Nietz has returned to the world of Sandfly and HardCandy in Frayed.  Nietz writes great future tech, tells a great story, and creates great characters.  Debuggers Sandfly and HardCandy have cameos in Frayed, but the story revolves around a new character, a debugger named ThreadBare. 

Like his cohorts, Thread is the property of the Imam.  He is human, but has been enhanced so that he is able to stream with machines and specializes in fixing and debugging them.  As a debugger, he is inhibited by "stops" that give him painful reminders if his thoughts or actions wander away from total obedience to his master or Sharia law.

After years of contentedly fixing machines in his garage, he is relocated to serve at the palace of the Imam's son.  The prince is a powerful, sadistic master who considers the moral laws of the religion of A (whose name is never spelled out in Frayed) to be optional for royalty.  The prince puts Thread in morally tenuous situations, where his implant's obligation to obey comes into conflict with some deeper sense of right and wrong.  To further complicate matters, one of the prince's concubines reaches out in friendship to Thread, stirring other forbidden feelings.

With Thread's moral conundrums, Frayed begins to hint at spiritual themes.  As readers of the DarkTrench trilogy will recall, in this world Christianity has been totally eradicated, with Islam now ruling the world.  The religious-political background frames Thread's struggles nicely without heavy-handed back story, and the hints of political conflict and war set up the struggles on a larger, society-wide scale.  Frayed is book 1 of the "DarkTrench Shadow Series."  I am already looking forward to the continuation of this new series and anticipate its dovetailing with the Sandfly's adventures in the DarkTrench trilogy.