Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Stranger No More, by Annahita Parsan

Annahita Parsan has suffered much more than her share, yet now offers hope to all kinds of people.  In Stranger No More: A Muslim Refugee's Story of Harrowing Escape, Miraculous Rescue, and the Quiet Call of Jesus, she tells her story of suffering and oppression and, ultimately, her physical and spiritual salvation.  I was horrified as I read of her experiences in Iran, at the hands of her abusive husband, and her flight to safety. 

Parsan lived in Iran at the time of the Iranian revolution.  After her first husband was killed in an automobile accident she felt pressure to marry again.  She met a man with whom she thought she had rapport and understanding, but on their wedding night the beating and raping began.  This man was absolutely crazy, violently beating her, berating her, and treating her as less than human.  Yet her concern not to bring shame to her family kept her in this toxic marriage.

Many enlightened Westerners resist any hint of cultural superiority.  Yet as I read about Parsan's experiences in Iran, where women are devalued, where husbands beat their wives with impunity, where teachers beat their students into submission, I became convinced that any culture with these characteristics is inherently inferior.  I know there are kind people in cultures like that, and in the United States abuse occurs, but the open acceptance and expectation of such treatment in Parsan's Iran was appalling.  She noticed the difference upon her arrival in Denmark.  "I noticed that people in Denmark were so different from people in Iran or Turkey.  There was not visible anger in them, no hate raging just beneath the surface. . . . Things were gentle, warm, and easy."

When her husband became a target for the revolutionaries--he was in favor of restoring the power of the Shah--Parsan had to flee with him.  Smugglers helped them across the snowy mountains into Turkey.  Without adequate food or clothing, the fact that they survived without starving or freezing to death is remarkable.  When they finally arrived in Turkey, officials there thought they were spies.  Their family languished in unspeakably terrible conditions in prison, repeatedly questioned and abused by their captors.

Eventually they were released and allowed entry into Denmark.  The Danes assisted them tremendously, but Parsan's husband continued to abuse her.  Once in Denmark, Parsan began the process of separating from him, eventually divorcing.  During this time, door-to-door evangelists gave her a Bible in Farsi.  She didn't read it much at first, but began praying for God's help.  For a time, she and her children found refuge in a convent.  As the nuns ministered to her, she came to appreciate their faith and the rhythm of their worship.  Eventually she fully embraced God's salvation and became a pastor.

While most of Parsan's suffering resulted from her husband's insane violence, the values of Islam played a part in her experiences.  The flight to the West and her embrace of the Christian faith showed her another way.  Her suffering equipped her to bring succor to others who suffer.  Her salvation after her life as a Muslim equipped her to share the gospel with other Muslims and refugees.  Her story tells a shocking reality, but also offers hope for people suffering in terrible cultures and abusive marriages around the world, and a reminder to us who live in comfort and safety not to neglect the suffering in our world.

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

Life Everlasting, by Robert Whitlow

In Life Support, Whitlow begins the story of Rena, who pushed her husband off a cliff, and Alex, the lawyer who is defending her.  The story continues right where Life Support left off in Life Everlasting.  These really should be viewed as one book.  Whitlow spends too much time in the early pages of Life Everlasting retelling the story of Life Support.  Publishing this as one novel would have avoided some of the repetitive story telling.

Life Everlasting felt faster and more intense than Life Support.  The tension and conflict from the first book has built to the action of the second.  Rena, terrified that her husband will awaken and tell his side of the story, has to play the loving wife while secretly wishing him dead.  Alex has to sort through the lies that Rena continually tells, struggling with whether she can ethically defend her.  Rena's in-laws, whose lucrative businesses turn out not to be totally legal, have to figure out how to keep Rena happy, quiet, and out of the way.

More importantly, Alex's new-found faith continues to grow, and her relationship with the music minister blossoms.  For a male author, Whitlow seems to go out of his way to appeal to female readers.  Alex is the strong lead, who falls for the manly minister, who not only works with his hands but is also an accomplished concert pianist.  (Way to make the rest of us guys feel inadequate!)  I am a middle-aged regular guy but I certainly enjoyed Life Support and Life Everlasting, even with the feminine-leaning story line.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Ian Fleming

Like most kids of my generation, I have seen the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang many times.  I recently took my family to see a stage production of it at a local church (it was fabulous!) and got to thinking that I have never read Ian Fleming's novel, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car on which the movie was based.  Actually, as I learned upon reading the book, the movie is very loosely based on the novel.

Caractacus Pott and his lovely children, Jeremy and Jemimah, are clearly the same characters we know from the movie.  However, Fleming, who I wouldn't have thought would be a big family man, includes Mrs. Pott, rather than the lovely Truly Scrumptious.  (First of all, I was a little disappointed that Truly Scrumptious was not a Fleming creation.  That is a perfect name for a Bond girl.  Second, in the novel, it's "Skrumshus," but in the movie it's "Scrumptious."   I wonder why.)  Together they use the proceeds from selling the whistle candy to Lord Skrumshus to buy the broken down racing car that comes to be known as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  On their first outing, on the way to the sea shore, the Pott family gets stuck in traffic.  Mr. Pott notices a blinking light on the control panel, follows the directions, and off they go, flying over the city, out to a sandbar in the English channel to enjoy a picnic.

When the tide comes in, another flashing light directs Pott to a different lever, which transforms the car into a hovercraft.  So far, the story seems much like the movie, but after this point, the divergence is almost complete.  Rather than Vulgaria, the spies, the hidden children, and the child catcher, the Potts find a cave where a criminal gang has stored their arsenal.  After the Potts blow it up, the criminals kidnap the Potts children to use them as bait in a heist.  Chitty knows what's going on, though, and saves the day.

I hesitate to compare the book and the movie.  The stories are so drastically different that you really have to view them as two separate works.  The book has merits of its own, though.  It's a perfect bedtime story, with cliffhangers that will leave young listeners eager to resume the story the next day.  It's a lovable car and a delightful story that deserves to be a classic all on its own, classic movie or not.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Valerian: The Complete Collection, Volume 1, by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières

Because I loved The Fifth Element, I had to check out Luc Besson's latest movie, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  And because I thought Valerian was awesome, I had to check out the comics on which it was based.  The comics, which date back to the 1960s and 1970s, have been collected in book form.  Valerian: The Complete Collection, Volume 1 contains the first four Valerian comics: Bad Dreams (1967), a two-part story The City of Shifting Waters and Earth in Flames (1970), and The Empire of a Thousand Planets (1971).

First of all, if you're not familiar with Valerian and you're a fan of sci-fi, you will want to get to know these comics.  Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières were groundbreaking in their day, and very influential in the world of sci-fi.  Even a casual reading of these comics will reveal influences on the Star Wars movies.

Given the historic significance of these stories, they are well worth preserving and reading.  The visuals are rich, the stories are complex and entertaining (more so than many sci-fi movies and TV shows today), and the broad range of characters, species, and technologies reveal imaginations that were well ahead of their time.

The genre has its limitations.  These are comics, after all.  The action is static, and sometimes there are too many words in a frame.  But, as is pointed out in the introductory material, comics have the advantage of allowing the reading to dwell on a particular frame, revisit a page, and absorb the story at his own pace.  If you're a fan of comics at all, especially sci-fi comics, you definitely will want to check this out.

(By the way, a word about the movie.  The movie was fabulous.  I loved it.  But don't read this comic expecting to see anything like the story in the movie.  Other than the main characters the world(s) in which they live, the movie contained very little content from these stories.)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Life Support, by Robert Whitlow

Robert Whitlow has become a go-to author for me with his reliably entertaining legal fiction.  Life Support did not disappoint with the elements that make Whitlow's books page turners: likable but complex characters, dramatic legal cases, detailed legal proceedings that drive the story without bogging it down, and a strong faith element.

In Life Support a young couple goes on a hike in a remote area.  The wife, Rena, who struggles with issues from her childhood, pushes her husband over a cliff.  Thinking he was dead, Rena calls the police to report his "accidental" fall.  To her horror, he survives, but is in a coma.  She finds a confidant and defender in Alexia Lindale, a lawyer for her husband's family.  Alexia is forced to choose between the firm and Rena.  She sides with Rena in a battle over maintaining her husband's life support, and becomes entangled in the whole family business.

Rena proves to be a difficult client who, Alex learns, tends to lie--a lot.  Whitlow sets Alex up as a smart, effective lawyer.  Her specialty is divorce, particularly uncovering husbands' lies as they try to cover up their activities and assets.  So she's predisposed to believe Rena, who pulls the wool over Alex's eyes, showing Alex not to be as smart as we may have thought.

As with his other novels, Whitlow allows the characters' Christian faith to be an element in the story without cheapening either the story or the gospel.  Alex meets a local music minister and, through his influence, finds faith.  Together they experience the healing power of prayer.  Not to give any spoilers, but before you read Life Support you should recognize that it's part 1 of 2.  It ends with a major cliffhanger. I enjoyed it and, of course, immediately picked up part 2, Life Everlasting.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Artemis, by Andy Weir

Andy Weir struck publishing gold with The Martian, which he published himself online before it became a best-seller and a motion picture.  So can he do it again, with Artemis?  Yes and no.  Artemis followed a more traditional publishing track, and tells a more conventional sci-fi story.  Yet it retains much of the character and attention to science details that made The Martian such a hit.

Artemis is the moon's city, now populated by a couple thousand people, supporting fledgling industries, and hosting tourists from Earth.  It's very much a frontier town, and Jazz Bashara is one of the first generation of people to grow up on the moon.  She works as a porter but supplements her income with some smuggling.  When a local billionaire recruits her for a bit of sabotage, she gets gets pulled into a scheme that has far-reaching effects on the future of Artemis.

Weir has a great talent for providing enough scientific and technical detail for the not-so-distant future story to be believable, but in a way that doesn't detract from the story.  In Artemis, the story is pretty wild, with Jazz nearly shutting down a major lunar industry and nearly killing every human on the moon.  It's a fast-paced tale told by an emerging master story teller.

Will Artemis surpass the success of The Martian?  Perhaps not.  But it's certainly an enjoyable follow up.  Readers who like their sci-fi full of hard science, believable story lines, and absent made-up magic or alien tech will love Artemis and should have Andy Weir near the top of any list of best current sci-fi authors.

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Best Kind of People, by Zoe Whittal

Zoe Whittal tackles a timely and controversial subject in The Best Kind of People.  When prep school teacher George Woodbury is arrested, accused of sexual misconduct with some of his students, the community, not to mention George's family, is shocked.  On many levels, he is a pillar of the community.  His ancestors built the town.  Despite his inherited wealth, he has poured his life into teaching at the local school.  He is repeatedly chosen as teacher of the year.  A decade before, he personally confronted a shooter at the school, saving countless lives.  Everything about him showed him to be a model citizen, a model teacher, a model husband, and a model father.

The Best Kind of People focuses on George's family, primarily his daughter, who is a senior at George's school.  She and her mother, a nurse at the local hospital, suffer the indignity of being in the family of the accused.  While George is in jail awaiting trial, they are harassed and shunned by just about everyone.  A small group sides with them, the "men's rights" folks, whom the Woodburys regard as right-wing nuts. 

Whittal's focus is the impact the accusations have on the Woodburys.  We hear next to nothing about the accusations.  George, of course, denies any wrongdoing, stating that he's being framed.  Why would someone frame him?  To what end?  Who knows.  This is actually a frustrating part of the book.  At some point, I would like to have heard more about the accusations, what prompted the students to bring the accusations to light, and the basis for George's protestations. 

Whittal addresses this objection, in a way.  George's daughter moves in with her boyfriend, whose mother's live-in boyfriend is a novelist.  He decides to write a "based-on-a-true-story" novel about the Woodbury case.  His editor presses him to include more details:
We can't have a book where the monster is actually a sweet old guy everyone defends.  There needs to be more conflict. . . . He's too empathetic so far, and it's too confusing.  This is a novel, but we need some black-and-white facts here.
At the risk of seeming shallow, I felt the same way.  Whittal leaves the question of veracity open, never giving details about what actually happened on the school trip.  In fact, in the end she leaves open the possibility that the victims were pressured to retract their testimony.  Granted, Whittal's focus is on the family and the impact of the accusations.  But the lack of focus on the case itself frustrated me.

The Best Kind of People is an uncomfortable book.  Whittal's depictions of teen sex (between George's daughter and her boyfriend), a homosexual relationship between a teacher and a teen, a relationship between a dad and a teenage babysitter, and other problematic scenarios add to the cringe factor.  Whittal nails some of the realities of the turmoil these accusations cause, but overall the development and resolution of the story left me unsatisfied.

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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

101 Movies to Watch Before You Die, by Ricardo Cavolo

There are plenty of books and lists of great movies out there, but Ricardo Cavolo's 101 Movies to Watch Before You Die is unique and particularly enjoyable.  Cavolo is not a professional movie critic or film maker.  He's a guy who loves movies.  101 Movies is a sort of diary of movies he loves.  "The only thing you'll find here is me genuinely loving every single one of these movies.  This is a love story told in 101 installments."

And love these movies he does.  Each review consists of one page of text and one page of his movie poster style cartoonish illustration of the movie.  The illustrations are rather odd.  He uses bright, stark coloration, reminiscent of Mexican folk art.  And, strangely, all the people have multiple pairs of eyes.  This is apparently characteristic of all of Cavolo's work, but it's weird and not explained. 

Cavolo writes less about the particular merits of the film itself than about how the film affected him.  Sometimes it seems like hyperbole, e.g.: “Watching Pulp Fiction in the cinema has to be one of the greatest moments of my life. . . . Without a doubt it’s one of the most important movies of my life.”  But mostly he just talks about how much he loves the movie or how he saw it at just the right moment of his life.

Some of the films are consensus greatest movies that show up on list after list of greatest movies.  Some are more obscure.  Many are mainstream, very popular movies.  The author was born in the second half of the 20th century, so the titles lean heavily toward the late 20th century to the present.  I must be close in age and personality to Cavolo; his tastes ring true with my own.  He does like mafia movies much more than I do, and he loves a few movies that I hated. 

And that's what's fun about this book.  Above all else, it's fun to read about another movie lover's love of movies.  I was reminded of movies I love, and reminded why I love them.  Cavolo also inspired me to revisit some movies I've seen before and to check out some movies I've never seen.

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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Random Illustrated Facts, by Mike Lowery

Mike Lowery has spent the last couple of decades collecting random facts and illustrating them.  Now you can see his random illustrated facts in his book Random Illustrated Facts: A Collection of Curious, Weird, and Totally Not Boring Things to Know.  His illustrations are fun and engaging, and, if you're like me, his facts will have you going to Google and Wikipedia to find out if they're really facts.  (I didn't check all of them, but the ones I did were spot on!)

Some of these facts may be downright disturbing to you, like the fact that "cell phones have up to 18 times more germs than public toilet handles."  Or "the shiny coating on jelly beans is made from stick goo secreted by bugs."

Lowery also covers lots of world records, obscure words, and facts from the worlds of science, the animal kingdom, and history.  The book lives up to the randomness of the title.  Open it to any page and you'll learn something new.

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

Mean Dads for a Better America, by Tom Shillue

Tom Shillue is a funny guy who seems to have his head screwed on straight.  In Mean Dads for a Better America: The Generous Rewards of an Old-Fashioned Childhood, Shillue nostalgically recalls his strict and traditional upbringing and concludes that it was just what he needed, and maybe just what all our kids need! 

A child of the 1970s, Shillue recalls that, despite the stereotypes of that decade, more families resembled what we think of as 1950s values.  He writes, "like 99 percent of the country at that time, [his hometown] was a lot closer to Mayberry, with dads that looked like Andy Griffith and kids that looked like Opie."

Most of the book is stories about his childhood.  Shillue has spent a good part of his career doing stand-up comedy, which explains why some of the chapters resemble a stand-up routine.  But beyond the humor Shillue recalls his parents and his childhood with such fondness that you begin to love his folks and envy his home life.  His dad was, in a way, a hard man who struck fear in kids in the neighborhood, not to mention Shillue and his brother, but Shillue writes that he "understand[s] that [he] had a great and fortunate childhood."  He "was not the victim of strict parenting, but a beneficiary of it."

As the son of very traditional parents myself, and just a few years younger than Shillue, I could relate to much of his story.  His family is traditional Irish Catholic; my family is traditional Texas Baptist.  But the experience, parenting style, and, especially, the moral foundation, is similar.  I can agree with Shillue that "my life is better for the great American values that I was fortunate enough to be raised with."  He concludes that "these values can be seen by many as out of step with the times, corny, unrealistic, and unpopular.  But guess what?  They work." Amen to that.

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

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault, by James Alan Gardner

"In a world with magic and superpowers, reality gets hard to pin down." Ain't that the truth.  In the alternative earth the is the setting for James Alan Gardner's All Those Explosions Were Someone Else's Fault, the world of magic and vampires coexists with the world of superheroes.  They are the Light and the Dark, the Sparks and the Darklings.  Magical powers are there for the buying, so the wealthy and powerful have all become Darklings.  But a few people with superpowers provide a bit of balance in this crazy world.

When four friends get caught up in an explosion at their university lab, they obtain superpowers and quickly get called on to use them to fight Darklings and villains.  The four friends take on superhero personas and gradually become accustomed to their new skills, learning to work together as they fight and hunt down the bad guys.

All Those Explosions is aptly named, as the young ladies frequently tend to be around big explosions.  Gardner does actually develop the characters a bit, and he does string together a somewhat feasible plot, but mostly the book is about superheroes figuring out how to use their powers, using their powers to fight bad guys, and dealing with the explosive results.  True to the comic books that inspired Gardner, he writes about lots of fighting and explosions.

The mix of Light and Dark, and the Sparks' occasional use of magic, sets All Those Explosions apart from other superhero stories, as does telling the story from the perspective of the college girls.  It has a definite feminine/YA feel to it.  Gardner keeps it light, injecting the story with plenty of humor.  It's a fun read, like a comic book without pictures, but not a book that leaves me itching to pick up the sequel.

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Trial, by Robert Whitlow

With each of Robert Whitlow's books I read, I grow increasingly impressed.  His 2006 book The Trial deals with small-town power, trust fund corruption, and a drive for conviction, no matter what the facts show.  Mac MacClain gets stuck with defending a young man accused of killing his friend, an heiress whose family wields considerable power in their little town.  In a way, it's open-and-shut, guilty as charged, but more and more details put a question in Mac's legal mind.

Suffering from his own loss of his wife and two sons a few years before, dealing with another family's loss amplifies his struggles with desperate feelings.  Thankfully, an expert witness on the case catches his eye and offers friendship that points him toward salvation. 

Whitlow has written a strong legal thriller, with bad guys lurking in the background, their existence only hinted at throughout much of the book.  He offers just enough misdirection to lead the reader to suspect one character, but upon the revelation of the true villain, it all comes together nicely.

But what sets Whitlow apart from other writers of legal fiction is the way he weaves the characters' faith into the story.  Some of the characters are people for whom their Christian faith and church life are more than tangential, but are central to the way they live and work.  Whitlow doesn't throw the gospel in the readers' faces, but writes realistically about how average people engage their faith in daily life, and how their faith in Jesus helps them respond to crisis. 

The Trial has all the elements of enjoyable legal fiction, with the added bonus of believably presentating of the character's faith without distracting from the plot.  Pick it up.

Sunday, November 5, 2017

Everyone Toots, by Joe Rhatigan, illustrated by Alejandro O'Kif

Everyone toots.  It's true.  Joe Rhatigan writes about it, with illustrations by Alejandro O'Kif, in Everyone Toots.  With silly pictures and silly rhymes to match, they remind us that no one is exempt.  Mom and Dad, Grandma and Grandpa, musicians and dancers, teachers and baseball players, even kings and queens toot.

O'Kif's cute drawings dramatize the impact of toots, which will surely delight young readers.  Thankfully we don't have explosive green clouds coming from our backsides when we toot.  Actually, it might be more fun if we did. . . .  It can be embarrassing, but Rhatigan reminds us, "Don't worry about a toot or two--because it happens to everyone!"

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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

How to Be Perfectly Unhappy, by The Oatmeal

I didn't know I was going to be so challenged by a silly little cartoon book.  Actually, silly isn't a good word to describe Matthew Inman's (a.k.a. The Oatmeal) How to Be Perfectly Unhappy.  Inman offers an alternative view to the common perspective on happiness.  Like most parents, I want my kids to be happy.  I want to be happy.  But what do we really mean by "happy"?

Inman says he is not happy, but that doesn't mean his in unhappy.  His life isn't necessarily "rich with smiles and fun and laughter."  He says "I'm not 'happy' because our definition of happy isn't very good."  The word fails to recognize and capture the full range of human emotion.

He recognizes that he's different from many people in society.  But he says "I'm busy.  I'm interested.  I'm fascinated."  When he's running an ultramarathon or working long, hard hours, he's not happy, and may even be suffering.  But he does these things "because I find them meaningful.  I find them compelling. . . . I want to be tormented and challenged and interested."

I tend to be a happy person.  Inman forces me to acknowledge that many people interact with the world in very different ways, and achieve satisfaction, meaning, and fascination in a variety of ways and moods.  How to Be Perfectly Unhappy features the simple, eye-catching style of Inman's art familiar to his fans, but doesn't have the characteristic humor that his other books have.   This is a thought-provoking book that will stick with you.

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

Directive 51, by John Barnes

A decentralized, seemingly uncoordinated attack of nanoswarms is shutting down modern life across the globe.  A nanovirus that eats away plastics and electronic components cripples transportation, communication, and conveniences everyone has taken for granted for generations, sending civilization back to a pre-industrial existence.  As the nanoswarms spread, directed attacks against government have demolished all political and economic institutions.  In the wake of these disasters, groups with competing claims of leadership feud. 

If you have watched the TV series Revolution, this all sounds quite familiar.  But this is actually a description of John Barnes's novel Directive 51, the publication of which, in 2010, predates the TV show by several years, making me wonder if the TV writers drew some inspiration from Barnes.  I think the comparison is apt, as Directive 51 develops slowly, covering individual, unrelated characters over wide geographical expanses.  The plot is pretty flat and episodic, like a TV show, too.

Barnes's strength of description and detail keep the story interesting, even if much of it seems to be a set up for pretty standard post-apocalyptic fiction.  Directive 51 is the first book in a trilogy.  While I didn't love this book, I liked it enough that I'll be picking up the next one.  Just like a decent TV, Barnes left me with enough questions and curiosity about the fate of the characters and the nation that I'm willing to tune in again.

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Not a Crime to Be Poor, by Peter Edelman

Peter Edelman's Not a Crime to Be Poor: The Criminalization of Poverty in America is a sobering call to action.  Edleman, who I knew of as the guy who resigned from the Clinton administration in protest over the 1996 welfare reforms, has served in other roles in government and currently teaches at Georgetown's law school.

Edelman is on the left, clearly.  But Not a Crime to Be Poor is a book that should have broad bi-partisan appeal.  Contrary to popular opinion, many on the right care about the poor, too, and will agree with much of the case Edelman makes.  I have only been tangentially aware of some of the issues he addresses.  Our legal system will often issue insignificant citations for minor violations, then, if someone can't pay, throw them in jail.  It's a ridiculous and tragic cycle.  Child support is one of the worst examples.  If a father falls behind on child support, he can be imprisoned, where he has an even more difficult time paying.  Then, with a prison record, he will struggle to find a job, and, again, can't pay what they owe.  On top of all that, many prisoners accrue charges for the privilege of staying in prison!  Millions of prisoners "owe a total of $50 billion in accumulated fines, costs, fees, charges for room and board in jails and prisons, and other impositions."

If someone is arrested for even a petty crime, but can't afford to pay bail, he or she might be put in prison awaiting trial.  In many jails, the majority of prisoners have not been convicted of anything, and many more "are there for nonviolent traffic and other low-level offenses." Not only do these stays in prison negatively impact the lives of those who can't afford bail, but it costs billions to keep all of them in jail.  "Rich people make bail; poor people don't.  Regardless of actual guilt or innocence, poor people are criminalized for their inability to buy their way out of jail."

There are clear problems with the criminalization of poverty, and Edelman's work is important as it sheds light on the issue.  His solutions are practical and should be heeded by policy makers without regard to partisanship.  I was disappointed, but not surprised, by the bitter partisanship that detracts from Edelman's message.  He makes much of the fact that, in many cases, minorities are more deeply affected by some of these policies.  But I think he takes too quick a step from effect to intent.  He attributes racist motives to policies that impact African Americans, a presumptuous and ungracious leap that hinders bipartisan exchange.

Even worse are incendiary statements like, "Walter Scott of North Charleston, South Carolina, died because he could not pay his child support." No, he died because an overzealous policeman shot Scott as Scott was running away.  He was running because he knew he owed child support, but, no, he was not shot because he owed child support.  Edelman's partisanship shows itself in his contempt for the Trump administration.  Of Ben Carson he writes, "We have a man running the Department of Housing and Urban Development . . . who knows absolutely nothing about the importance of the agency he heads."  He says voters in 2016 "allowed our country to fall into the hands of people who stand only for their own interests and emphatically oppose the justice--economic and racial--for which so many of us have struggled for so long."  Rather than advocate for change in Washington, Edelman chooses to embrace the media's unfair caricature of the Trump administration.  With this tone, he comes across less as a serious, compassionate agent of change than as a screeching, partisan whiner who loves to tout data and describe the problem but is not interested in actually implementing change.

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

Monday, October 30, 2017

Hidden in Plain Sight, by Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco

Criminologist Dr. Kimberly Mehlman-Orozco, who teaches at George Mason University, wants to shed some light on the often overlooked problem of modern-day slavery.  In Hidden in Plain Sight: America's Slaves of the New Milennium Dr. Mehlman-Orozco reveals the sometimes surprising extent to which slavery, in one form or another, exists in the United States.  She writes that "slavery is not a thing of the past and . . . there are more slaves today than at any other time in human history."

The first thing that comes to many people's mind when the subject of slavery or human trafficking comes up is sex slavery.  In fact, about half of Hidden in Plain Sight deals with various forms of sex trafficking.  One of the problems with examining sex trafficking is the fact that in many places prostitution is legal, and even in places where it's illegal, some sex workers choose the trade voluntarily.  Not only consumers but also law enforcement sometimes have distinguishing between  trafficked and voluntary sex workers.

But in many cases, it's very clear.  Women from impoverished circumstances, addicts, and, obviously, children, are in no position to consent to sex, yet they are subject to the sex industry in the U.S. and around the world.  Dr. Mehlman-Orozco evaluates the testimony of sex workers, accounts by consumers, and other sources such as law enforcement and traffickers to give an in-depth sense of the extent of the industry and the prevalence of trafficking.  Her accounts are heart-breaking.  The frank testimonials of the consumers are shocking.  The problem is widespread.  While I appreciated the details she goes into, at times I felt like she could have been more discreet.  Someone who is looking for illicit sex has, in a sense, a how-to guide here, including web sites to go to for seeking out sexual encounters.

Besides sex slavery, a wide variety of more conventional industries sometimes use trafficked labor.  Domestic servants, door-to-door sales teams, nail salon employees, cocoa harvesters and other agricultural workers, and others are sometimes held under the thumb of their employers.  The workers may have come from other countries or from a rough home life, having heard promises of education, money, citizenship, and other enticements.  Once the employers have control of the trafficked individuals, they restrict their movement, confiscate passports, control their access to money, and charge them for living expenses and transportation, using these means to keep them enslaved.

Hidden in Plain Sight is sobering, even shocking at times.  Most of all, though, Dr. Mehlman-Orozco demonstrates the pervasiveness of human trafficking.  In the sex trade, even the legal trade bolsters illegal sex trafficking.  And in other parts of the economy, "the use of slave labor has grown to such magnitude that consuming products of human trafficking is almost unavoidable."  Every time we eat chocolate, get dressed, or get our nails done, we may be supporting human trafficking.  Hidden in Plain Sight is an important source for awareness, as well as a resource for professionals and activists who want to help.

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

Sunday, October 29, 2017

Fowl Language: The Struggle Is Real, by Brian Gordon

Brian Gordon is an experienced parent and say he is ready to "spread a little bit of wisdom I've gained through trial and error.  Mostly error."  Among his words of advice, he writes, "try the cathartic act of bitching about your children by drawing them as ducks."  That's exactly what he does in his Fowl Language Comics.  In his latest collection Fowl Language: The Struggle Is Real every parent will find the familiar experiences of parenthood.

Most of the comics are laugh-out-loud, read-to-your-spouse funny.  I saw my kids and my wife is many of Gordon's comics.  One caveat: many of the panels contain pretty bad language.  Rated R.  It's funny, but you don't want your kids to read it.  But that's what makes it funny.  He'll use the bad language and then scold his kids for the same: "'Poophead?!' Hey! We do not use that kind of language in this house!"

Pick up Fowl Language: The Struggle Is Real, or check out his comics on his web site.  If you're a parent, or if you have parents, you will crack up when you read these.

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

Saturday, October 28, 2017

This Is Texas, Y'all, by Misha Blaise

Like Misha Blaise, I wasn't born in Texas but I got here as fast as I could.  (I was 2.)  Blaise has become enamored enough with her adopted home state to write a children's book about Texas.  This Is Texas, Y'all: The Lone Star State from A to Z features some of the great things about Texas for every letter of the alphabet.

Any Texan will enjoy seeing their favorite things and places colorfully illustrated in This Is Texas, Y'all.  The Alamo, Dr Pepper, Big Tex, Hamilton Pool, Enchanted Rock, Selena, the Texas Two-Step.  I would also venture to say that any Texan will learn something about the Lone Star State.  I learned (or maybe I re-learned) that the first permanent civilian settlers in Texas, in what is now San Antonio, were from the Canary Islands.  I learned that the oldest skeleton found in the Western Hemisphere is Midland Minnie, discovered near Midland in 1953.  I learned about the "Queens of Cattle" who managed huge herds in South Texas long before the King Ranch was established.

At times it seems like Blaise bent over a little backwards to be inclusive.  Sure, some Texans celebrate Eid al-Fitr, and of course there are Buddhists and Hindus in Texas, but are these distinctive or historically and culturally significant?  Those groups are part of Texas as a modern metropolitan state, but they are not part of what made Texas Texas.  Juneteenth and Dia de los Muertos do, on the other hand, have distinctive Texan expression and significance.  Besides the Spanish, the Germans and Czechs were among the first settlers.  Clearly Texas is a multi-ethnic mishmash.

Blaise's illustrations are simple, colorful, and fun.  Texans who love their state will love This Is Texas, Y'all.  Non-Texans need to pick it up and get a clue as to why Texas is the greatest state in the union!

(Just one last question: Why is Lyle Lovett's song lyric in the K section?)

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

Friday, October 27, 2017

Far from the Tree, by Andrew Solomon

For many parents, their children are just like them, only smaller and younger.  But some kids fall "far from the tree," with differences from their parents that add challenge to the life of the parent.  In Far from the Tree: Parents, Children, and the Search for Identity, psychiatrist Andrew Solomon looks a wide variety of children who are far from the tree of their parents and offers insight for all parents.

A key distinction Solomon draws is between horizontal and vertical identity.  "Often . . . someone has an inherent or acquired trait that is foreign to his or her parents and must therefore acquire identity from a peer group.  This is a horizontal identity. . . . Many parents experience their child's horizontal identity as an affront.  A child's marked difference from the rest of the family demands knowledge, competence, and actions that a typical mother and father are unqualified to supply, at least initially. . . . Horizontal [identities] are often treated as flaws."

A large part of Far from the Tree discusses these horizontal conditions we typically view as disabilities, with chapters on deafness, dwarfism, Down syndrome, autism, schizophrenia, and multiple disabilities.  A chapter on prodigies seems a little out of place after those chapters, but, as he argues, parents of prodigies have similar challenges to parents of children with physical or psychological disabilities.  The next three chapters, on children conceived in rape, children who become criminals, and transgender children, seemed especially out of place in a book about children with disabilities, but they are nevertheless insightful.

Solomon writes that this book is about anecdotes, not statistics, and anecdotes he does provide.  Each chapter could be developed into a book, and sometimes felt like a book on its own, each in the range of 50-70 pages.  He interviewed a wide array of families for each chapter, and gives some background and introduction to the condition reviewed in each chapter.  The reader thus does not gain an encyclopedic knowledge about the disability, but does gain sympathy and understanding for each type of disability or difference. 

Many of the stories are very moving, and I appreciated the opportunity for such personal insight into these families' lives.  Solomon alludes to the common, often unspoken, interactions between parents of children with difference disabilities.  As they pass on the street, or perhaps in the lobby of the children's hospital or doctor's office, they think, "I could not handle that," each thankful that their own children do not have the other child's disability.  This is a truism for parents of children with a disability: you can never feel sorry for yourself because you will inevitably cross paths with another child who seems much worse off than your own.

Solomon does a wonderful job of capturing the feelings and experiences of these families.  A couple of these stood out to me (nearly making me bawl) as I could so relate.  One mom expresses what many parents feel.  When her severely disabled son died, she said, "Let me bury here the rage I feel to have been twice robbed: once of the child I wanted, and once of the son I loved."  Of her other child, similarly disabled, her husband said, "It absolutely blows my mind, the impact that a blind, retarded, nonverbal, nonambulatory person has had on people.  He has a way of opening and touching people that we can't come near."  (Anyone who knows my daughter will appreciate why I love that quote!)  Like most parents of children with disabilities, they would never have asked for their child's condition.  But would they trade their child in for a healthy one?  Not a chance.

I especially liked another parent's challenge for me.  "'You remember It Takes a Village?' John said.  'I'm trying to build a village, so there will always be second and third layers of people who are familiar with Alix.'"  This father bought a nearby house for his daughter's caretaker to live in.  I want to do the same for my daughter, surrounding her with friends, caretakers, family, educators, who know her and provide a community for her.  No matter the disability, this is a key.

Far from the Tree will give parents of children with disabilities and other differences the opportunity to see the worlds of other families.  You might identify with one or two particular chapters, and feel affirmed in your own experiences.  Even better, as you read about other families' struggles and joys, you will see the similarities with your own experiences.  I'm glad I read this book.

Wednesday, October 25, 2017

Republican Like Me, by Ken Stern

As contentious and divisive as the 2016 presidential election was, and as heated as even casual conversations about President Trump can be (for or against), you might begin to wonder if Republicans and Democrats can ever get along.  Ken Stern, a dyed-in-the-wool liberal (He was CEO of NPR--surely you don't get much more solidly liberal than that!), spent the year getting to know Republicans from around the country and--guess what?--found that they aren't as bad as CNN and the NY Times led him to believe!

The main thing to note about Ken Stern's book Republican Like Me: How I Left the Liberal Bubble and Learned to Love the Right is that it's fun to read.  Stern comes across as a likeable guy who enjoys other people and enjoys life.  Whether he's hunting pigs in south Texas, worshiping with a bunch of enthusiastic college students, exploring a coal town in Appalachia, or checking out a homeless outreach in New York, he writes with good humor and contagious enthusiasm.

In Republican Like Me, Stern demonstrates that by opening one's mind and having actual conversations with people from the other end of the political spectrum, one might find that one's political and ideological opposites might have some decent ideas.  Stern was pleasantly surprised by the activism and commitment to community he found among evangelicals.  He came to see the human costs of environmental policies.  He found that addressing poverty is not as simple as political dichotomies seem to imply.

Stern exemplifies not letting our assumptions destroy our relationships, and taking time to listen to opinions that we might not agree with.  He writes, "If this year has taught me anything, it is that not of us has a monopoly on the right ideas and none of us has a superior claim on values, commitment to our communities, and the desire to make our nation a better place."  As Stern says, we need to get over "our astonishing intolerance of the views of others, the certainty that our tribe is right and the other side is wrong."  Whether you lean left or right, that is a great reminder.

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

Monday, October 23, 2017

The Underground Railroad, by Colson Whitehead

I enjoy books about the days of slavery.  The heart-wrenching stories of slaves under the whip are difficult to read, but make great fiction.  Colson Whitehead adds to this genre with his Pulitzer-prize-winning 2016 novel The Underground Railroad.  He tells the story of Cora, a young slave who escapes from a plantation, enjoys a breath of freedom and is captured again, but ends up at a farm colony of free and escaped slaves.

I kept getting a sense that this story has been told before.  No question that it has.  My memory and the breadth of my reading is limited, but I couldn't help but see the borrowing from Harriet Jacobs's Incidents in the Life of a Slave Girl, where Jacobs spent years hiding in an attic.  I have a feeling there is a lot more borrowing from slaves' accounts of their own experience.  Tribute?  Cribbing?  Fictionalizing history?  This is what writers of fiction do, of course, I was just surprised at the similarities.

Whitehead's book has a feature that sets it apart from other slave accounts and slavery fiction.  In The Underground Railroad, the Underground Railroad is an actual railroad that runs underground.  On rails.  In tunnels.  I didn't feel like this twist added to the story itself.  Other than the fact that Cora got on a train to go from place to place, rather than secretly traveling in a more conventional manner, the story was no different.  The underground trains added nothing.

I expected Whitehead to add something new and insightful to the body of work of slave fiction.  He did: the Underground Railroad is an actual train!  But that's it.  No point, no purpose, just novelty for the sake of novelty.  Without that, The Underground Railroad is a decent if unoriginal novel about the evils and tragedies of slavery in the American south.  The superfluous addition of the train diminishes the book.

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

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Comics for a Strange World, by Reza Farazmand

Reza Farazmand, creator of Poorly Drawn Lines, is back with another collection of comics.  His comics strips for adults are full of attitude, snark, absurdity, and laughs.  With simple drawings and sparse text, Farazmand packs a lot of humor and truth in his comics.

Check out this book, or check out his comics online.  Laughs guaranteed.

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

Saturday, October 21, 2017

Modern Masters, by Steve Huyton

If you enjoy modern residential architecture, you will love Steve Huyton's book Modern Masters: Contemporary Architecture from Around the World.  I love these houses.  They rate over the top on the "cool" factor, are very photogenic, and stretch the perception of what a home should look like.

Focusing on a handful of design firms from around the world, Huyton gives a paragraph or so of description before the displays of interior and exterior shots.  The predominant theme, as you might expect, is boxy and angular, concrete and glass.  Some of the houses are really fabulous looking. 

But this book leaves so many questions unanswered.

1. How much do these dwellings cost?  Well, if you have to ask, you can't afford it.  He doesn't discuss price at all, but I'm confident that the price per square foot is well above any house of traditional design.

2. Where do you put your stuff?  With all the open floor plans and floor-to-ceiling windows that take up whole walls, where are the closets?  I'm sure they are somewhere.  But you can't tell from these pictures.

3. Speaking of floor-to-ceiling windows, many of them have no evident window coverings.  How can anyone get some privacy in one of these houses?  What if you want to sleep in a little?

3.a.  And what about the utility bills? Ugh.

3.b.  And what about keeping those windows clean?  Double ugh.

4. Many of these houses have flat roofs.  Are they tar and gravel like my old elementary school or the local strip mall, which has to have that stinky mess reapplied frequently? 

Clearly, these are not houses for people who are concerned about their utility bills or the cost of upkeep and maintenance.  In some ways, the rich are just like you and me.  (They have to have a place to hang their clothes, even if it's not in these pictures.)  But in many ways, they are different.  After all, I'm certain that next time I buy or build a house, this won't be said about me: "The client requested a contemporary dwelling that would also showcase his car." 

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

Friday, October 20, 2017

When Grit Isn't Enough, by Linda F. Nathan

Dr. Linda Nathan, founding headmaster of the Boston Arts Academy high school, has seen her students, many of whom are minorities from poor households, come through her excellent high school with great dreams for college and career.  She would tell her incoming students that "all of you will continue on to either college or a career."  In When Grit Isn't Enough: A High School Principal Examines How Poverty and Inequality Thwart the College-for-All Promise she tells her students' stories and expresses her frustrations with the presumptions and failures of the American system of higher education.

In spite of the movement toward increasing college accessibility and additional college funding, college remains out of grasp for many poorer American students.  She writes that "elite colleges and flagship colleges enroll more students from the top 1 percent of the income bracket than the bottom half of the income distribution."  Even when enrollment opens up to poor students and scholarships are offered, they often don't have the additional financial assistance, family knowledge and support, or freedom of lifestyle to complete a degree.  The book is full of tough, sad anecdotes of promising students who were not able to finish college for these reasons.

One of the attitudes that many educators hold toward student success, especially among minorities and poor students, is that student success depends on grit.  It's true that grit is a necessary ingredient for student success.  But Nathan argues that "the grit approach . . . has taken on an importance for out of proportion to the many other traits that may be just as critical for student development and success."  She says that "the benefits of grit and lockstep learning may have been overinterpreted, and traits such as curiosity and creativity given short shrift." 

The implication of emphasizing grit is that if a student does not succeed, it's because he or she didn't display enough grit.  But, as Nathan points out, "if we ignore race, poverty, and social class we continue to create false promises for too many young people."  There are "political or social or socioeconomic systems that work against students."

While demographics often work for against a student's success, obviously, I'm reluctant to embrace Nathan's criticisms of grit, of highly disciplined and structured schools, and demanding course work.  These elements may not be sufficient to guarantee success, but I would argue that they are necessary.  I appreciate Nathan's emphasis on alternatives to college.  She provides examples of vocational high school programs in which students not only gain valuable skills but also have opportunities to work in actual jobs and internships which can not only make them employable but can direct them to college tracks where they can cultivate their passions and skills.

Nathan has some great insight into preparing kids for their post-high-school lives, whether that means college or something else.  College for all sounds great, but "we have not, as a nation, committed to the career part in the mantra 'college and career for all.'"  Without diminishing the value of college, Nathan calls for more attention to be paid to alternatives.  The future of our students, particularly those who come from poor households, depends on it.

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

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Stories of Your Life and Others, by Ted Chiang

Like many readers, my first exposure to Ted Chiang was through the movie The Arrival, which is based on "Story of Your Life."  This short story, along with seven others, are found in Chiang's Stories of Your Life and Others.  As is the case with almost any collection of short stories, this collection is uneven.  I got the feeling that some of them were experimental pieces where he took a germ of an idea and tried to build a story around it but it never really sprouted into a complete work of fiction.  A few are strong stand-along pieces.

"Story of Your Life" was a bit of a let down after I saw the movie.  I know, I know, movies and stories are separate works and exist independently.  I saw the movie first, was disappointed, then read the story, and was even more disappointed.  Alas.  "Tower of Babylon" was a treat, as it sort of told the story of the biblical Tower of Babel.  "Understand" was an interesting attempt to explore the implications of artificially inducing tremendous mental powers on an individual.  "Liking What You See: A Documentary" is written as a series of interview responses about calliagnosia, a neurological treatment that blocks neural pathways by which we judge people's ugliness or beauty.  I enjoyed both the story-telling technique and the thoughtful reflection of this piece.

Stories of Your Life and Others shows Chiang as a writer whose big ideas are not easily contained in a mere story.  Readers who enjoy a good story will ultimately be disappointed in Chiang's writing, but readers who don't care so much about minor details like plot and character development will delight in Chiang's ideas.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Trap Line, by Carl Hiaasen and Bill Montalbano

In Carl Hiaasen's early days of writing fiction, he partnered with Bill Montalbano to write three gritty crime novels.  The second, Trap Line, exposes the underbelly of life in Key West, where fishermen and drug runners take to the seas to make a living.  When Breeze Albury refuses to help some smugglers, they get their revenge by cutting his trap lines, ruining his business.  Trying to make up his losses, he ends up in league with local criminals, who lead him into a different sort of trap.  Running from the corrupt local law enforcement and hiding out from the criminal gangs, he plots his devious revenge.

Trap Line is a shadow of the more entertaining series of books he writes later on.  As in most of Hiaasen's books, everyday folks get mixed up with bumbling criminals, but Trap Line lacks most of the humor and absurdity of his later fiction.  Ultimately that means this is quite a bit less enjoyable.  There are no heroes here, only varying degrees of badness getting revenge on badness.

All that said, Hiaasen's colorful characterizations and sense of Florida culture, along with the interconnected plot lines, set him apart from typical crime writers.  Hiaasen fans might want to pick up Trap Line for some historical perspective on his work, but it will make them long for Skink and the fun of Hiaasen's later fiction.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Capital Gaines, by Chip Gaines

Chip Gaines and his lovely wife and partner Joanna have won the hearts of America with their hit TV show Fixer Upper.  Before they became an HGTV sensation, they dabbled in a variety of businesses.  Chip's new book, Capital Gaines: Smart Things I Learned Doing Stupid Stuff tells the story of his business successes (as well as a few failures) and spreads some of the wisdom of his ways.

If you've seen Fixer Upper, you've seen the teamwork between Chip and Joanna.  This is a theme throughout the book.  Even while they were dating, Joanna had his back and was there to help him out of a jam (or two or three).  He writes, "Jo and I have always believed that it is us against the world. . . . We know that in all the world there is this one singular human who will be on our team every time."  As they made business decisions and took huge risks, it was always a collaborative effort.  Of course, as he told an employee, "People are always asking us who's in charge, and the answer is, when Jo is gone, I'm the boss."

Another theme is taking risks and working hard.  Chip's career has been marked by big risks and lots of hard work.  He assures us that "if you do the hard work and never quit--and pick yourself up when things go sideways--good things will be waiting on the other side."  Speaking of having a winning mentality, he compares life and business to a tennis match.  You will lose some games and win others, but "with a winner mentality, there's a positive waiting for you no matter the outcome."  In the end, "winning and losing isn't an event; it's a mind-set."

Capital Gaines is full of inspiration for aspiring entrepreneurs, especially if they are already admirers of the Gaineses.  While Fixer Upper took the Gaines's businesses to new heights, I have no doubt that they would have continued to be successful even without the exposure the show brought.  Chip and Joanna make a great team, a true partnership in life and business.  Capital Gaines captures the fun-loving, hard-working, slightly crazy Chip that we see on the TV show, while also passing along some memorable nuggets of wisdom for business and life.

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

Monday, October 16, 2017

Revival, edited by John Avant, Malcolm McDow, and Alvin Reid

During my last semester on campus at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminar in Fort Worth, I attended a chapel service in which students lined up at the microphones confessing sin.  I thought it was rather strange, hearing these fellow students airing their dirty laundry in public, but that service deeply impacted many students and faculty.  I left campus shortly after, happy to leave the contentious atmosphere that had come to dominate with the firing of the president the year before, and never got the full story of this brief but intense time of revival.

Out of curiosity I picked up the 1996 book Revival! The Story of the Current Awakening in Brownwood, Ft. Worth, Wheaton, and Beyond.  Edited by John Avant, Southwestern professor Malcolm McDow, and Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Alvin Reid, Revival! is primarily a compilation of journal entries and recollections of several people who were at the center of this revival movement. 

John Avant was pastor at Coggin Avenue Baptist Church in Brownwood, Texas, when a revival broke out, marked by confession, salvations, and intense worship and prayer.  Soon students from Howard Payne University in Brownwood began traveling to Southwestern Seminary, Wheaton, and dozens and dozens of other college and seminary campuses testifying about what God was doing in Texas.  In most cases, similar revivals broke out on those campuses and spread to other churches and schools as students carried the news onward.

Revival! gathers together Avant's journals, journals of some of the key students, and messages they gave at other schools.  As you might expect, there is a lot of crossover and repetition as the story is told from different perspectives.  Also included are reflective chapters from Southwestern professors Roy Fish and Dan Crawford, who offer insights on cultivating and maintaining revival.  Finally, Henry Blackaby, whose study Experiencing God provided the kindling for revival fire, contributes a closing chapter.

Movements like this are so unpredictable and spontaneous, but, as Avant and the authors point out, there are conditions that can lead to a revival movement.  I was encouraged by their stories and convicted of my need to walk more closely with God and confess my sin.  I still think the public confession of sin as described here and as I witnessed in chapel is questionable, yet it was the trigger for some life-changing experiences.  I would be curious to hear from some of these students two decades later, reflecting on the long-term impact this powerful but brief revival movement had on their lives.

Sunday, October 15, 2017

Superman and the Miserable, Rotten, No Fun, Really Bad Day, by Dave Croatto, illustrated by Tom Richmond

Remember Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day?  The folks at Mad Magizine do, and have created a clever parody: Superman and the Miserable, Rotten, No Fun, Really Bad Day.  Superman is having a rough time.  Kids on the bus were comparing superheroes, and despite Superman's input, they still thought Batman or the Flash might be cooler.  Then when he had to leave to save the city from Doomsday, he left his lunch on the bus.  He was late to work, and got stuck covering the flower show instead of the president's visit.  And at the Justice League headquarters he had monitor duty while Batman and Wonder Woman were honored by the city.

Even if you don't know Alexander, you will get a kick out of poor Superman's misadventures.  Dave Croatto's writing, with illustrations by Tom Richmond, captures Superman's misery.  Even superheroes don't always have things go their way.  As his Ma reminds him, "some days are like that," even in the Fortress of Solitude.

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

Saturday, October 14, 2017

The Comic Book Story of Video Games, by Jonathan Hennessey and Jack Mcgowan

For most of us, particularly those born in the 1960s or later, video games have always been, and likely still are, a part of our lives.  I remember days spent at the arcade, the thrill of getting our very own Atari 2600, and the countless hours spent on successive generations of games through the years.  Jonathan Hennessey and Jack McGowan have lived that history as well, and now tell it in their The Comic Book Story of Video Games.

With classic comic book art and a deep sense of history and context, Hennessey and McGowan take us back to the earliest days of the computer.  Of course the history of computers is intricately entwined with the history of video games.  The bulk of the book focuses on the earlier days of computing and video games, highlighting some of the individual pioneers.  It continues all the way through current home systems and mobile phone games.
Don't let the comic book format fool you.  This is serious history.  I enjoyed the historical tidbits, quotes from the key players, and the nods to games themselves.  Not only do they give the data for the release of important games and systems, future games make cameo appearances, as if they are waiting in the wings for the technology to allow for their creation.
The Comic Book Story of Video Games has an engaging narrative, informative content, and terrific art.  If this is a subject that interests you at all, you will enjoy this book.

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

Friday, October 13, 2017

Kompromat, by Stanley Johnson

The first rule of political satire is that it should be funny.  (See Christopher Buckley for an example.)  Stanley Johnson's Kompromat purports to be political satire, but, other than a comic scene that sets the main events of the story in motion, it's not very funny.  Set in the months leading up to the 2016 U.S. presidential election, Kompromat covers the surprising passage of Brexit and the just as surprising election of a flamboyant billionaire to the White House.

The major players are so thinly disguised that it makes me wonder why he even bothers disguising them.  President Trump, Hillary Clinton, Putin, and others appear just about like real life.  I don't know enough about the players in the Brexit campaign to know how closely they resemble their real-life counterparts, but I suspect they are pretty close.  Others characters are fictionalized, of course.

Here's the one thing that makes Kompromat mildly funny.  On a trip to see a rare tiger near the border of Russia and Chine, Putin, a.k.a. Popov, "accidentally" shoots candidate Donald Trump, a.k.a. Ron Craig, in the rear with a tranquilizer dart.  This leads to speculation, real and imagined, about a subcutaneous listening device.  Throughout the book, the CIA, the Russians, and the Chinese all end up with a live feed from devices planted on Craig's body.

So Johnson is providing a context for Russian collusion in the U.S. election as well as Brexit.  It's an anti-Trump fantasy.  Clinton gets a little ribbing, too, as it's clear the FBI let her off the hook after reviewing her e-mail handing.  Mostly, though, Johnson imagines a world in which Putin is pulling strings and having his way with other countries' internal politics.

Kompromat is a less a satire than an alternative political history.  It's not very funny, but has some elements of the absurd.  It dragged, especially in the middle.  Maybe part of the problem is that the actual events of 2016 were so full of unprecedented absurdity that any attempt to make it even more absurd falls flat.

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

Thursday, October 12, 2017

The Sacrifice, by Robert Whitlow

Robert Whitlow writes some entertaining legal fiction with a spiritual twist.  In The Sacrifice, Whitlow's second book, Scott Ellis, a young attorney in a small southern town, gets hired to defend a 16-year-old white skinhead accused of shooting at some black Christians during a baptismal service.  No one was killed, but an eye-witness places him at the scene and he faces years in prison.

Ellis, under the guidance of his mentor at the firm, struggles to find the truth and provide the best defense for his client, who, of course, maintains his innocence.  Meanwhile, Ellis volunteers for the mock trial team at the local high school and reconnects with his high school sweetheart who (conveniently) is in the middle of a divorce.

Whitlow writes a good legal thriller, but The Sacrifice has two elements not seen in secular legal fiction.  Ellis meets some pastors and visits some church services and is challenged to take his nominal childhood faith to a deeper level.  In addition, through the Hmong janitor at the high school, we see the spiritual warfare that is going on at the school.  Some of the plot elements are a little heavy-handed and contrived, as you expect from the genre, but Whitlow makes it work.

I enjoy a book like this, that can be enjoyed on one level as an entertaining read, with suspense, timely social messages, and a bit of romance.  But on a deeper level, Whitlow challenges me both to pursue a deeper spiritual life and to be aware of the spiritual things going on around me, unseen.