Friday, March 31, 2017

Powder Burn, by Carl Hiaasen and Bill Montalbano

Before Carl Hiaasen started writing his south Florida comedy/crime novels, he and Bill Montalbano write a series of three unfunny crime novels, the first of which is Powder Burn.  Like all of Hiaasen's solo novels, Powder Burn is set in Florida and features the shady side of the Sunshine State.

When accomplished architect Chris Meadows unexpectedly runs into his ex-lover and her (his?) daughter, his world is rocked when, a few short minutes later, he watches helplessly as they are killed by an out-of-control driver on the losing end of a car chase.  As he runs to the scene, he sees a man get of the chase car and shoot the driver and passenger in the other car.  He then turns to shoot Meadows in the leg.

As he recovers, he vows revenge on the killer and the network that spawned him.  Quickly Meadows embeds himself in the drug dealing culture of Miami in the 1980s.  The Columbians and the Cubans are in a turf war, drugs are flowing from Columbia, and body counts are building.  Designing his plans for revenge as meticulously as he designs his buildings, Meadows schemes to bring down the men responsible for his friend's death.

Powder Burn is an interesting cultural artifact, as Hiaasen captures the reality of drugs and crime in Miami.  The drugs that flowed from Columbia, through the Cubans, into professional offices and luxury homes throughout south Florida.  Meadows embraces this culture a bit too heartily, obviously going after the murderous elements but enjoying the highs, sex, and money.  It's ugly, and, to me, shows the indivisible connection between supposedly victimless vices and the crime that surrounds it.

Fans of Hiaasen's later fiction might enjoy Powder Burn, but it lacks the fun, the colorful characters, and the absurdity that mark his fiction and make it so enjoyable. 

Thursday, March 30, 2017

The Ice-Cold Heart, by KS Augustin

The Takamo universe is vast and familiar to those who play this role-playing game.  To the unfamiliar, a new series of novels and short stories introduce and explore the history, politics, and geography (planetograpy? galactography?) of Takamo universe.  KS Augustin's The Ice-Cold Heart follows the career of Benaltep, a Naplian co-emporer.  In a series of vignettes that bounce between Benaltep as an old man writing his memoirs, and different stages of his career, Benaltep's story unfolds.  For the most part, his reflections surround his rivalry with his co-emperor, the arrogant and manipulative Bonate.

I did not particularly enjoy The Ice-Cold Heart.  The characters were cardboard cutouts of power hungry emperor-villains.  Benaltep and Bonate were distinguished only by their scheming.  Nothing about their character showed that they were qualified to rule more than a tiny village.  Their hand-wringing and back biting made me think of rival warlords of Indian tribes or something, not rulers capable of overseeing sophisticated, far-reaching, technologically advanced worlds.  Speaking of worlds, Augustin spent very little of the story actually developing these worlds.  It was just these two guys, talking and talking, and plotting against each other. 

The story does give some background on the political history of the empire and some of the major events.  I would anticipate that it would shed some light on the other Takamo stories, and hope that they start fitting together, building a cohesive history.  But as a stand-alone novel, my heart is cold toward The Ice-Cold Heart.

Thanks to Takamo Publishing for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Never Enough?, by Ron Blue

On the short list of Christian financial experts, Ron Blue is always going to be near the top.  With nearly a half century of experience as a financial advisor and a shelf full of books he's written, Blue is definitely the go-to guy for Christian financial planning.  In his new book, Never Enough?3 Keys to Financial Contentment, Blue, with coauthor Karen Guess, introduces simple principles to apply for financial sanity, stability, and commitment.

Blue tells plenty of stories and anecdotes to illustrate his points, but the principles he teaches are so simple that they can be summed up in a page or two.  Responding the the question of the title: what is enough?  Blue writes, "Scripture teaches that the answer to the 'how much is enough' question is what I have right now."  I hadn't thought about contentment quite like this before, but he's right.  No matter what my status is, the only right attitude is contentment.  That's a good word.

Whatever our financial condition, Blue has provided some principles to follow:
  1. Spend less than you earn because every sucess in your financial life depends on this habit.
  2. Avoid debt because debt always mortgages the future.
  3. Give generously because giving breaks the power of money.
  4. Plan for financial margin because the unexpected will come.
  5. Set long-term goals because there is always a trade-off between the short-term and the long-term.
If you are already doing all of these things, you probably don't need to read this book.  OK, even if you are doing these things,  you will benefit from Blue's insights.  If you are not doing these things, well, you are Blue's target audience.  He doesn't go into a ton of details procedural depth with these goals, but gives some guidelines to help you get there.

I liked his pie chart method to see where your money is going.  There are basically four places our money goes: live, give, owe, and grow.  One slice of the pie, usually the largest, goes to living expenses.  The next slice, which Blue encourages us to make bigger than it probably is, is give.  He believes in a lifestyle of giving to church, to other causes, to help out friends and family.  Third is owe, both debt and taxes.  Finally, grow, saving and investing for the short-term and long-term future.  I know most people need this slice to be larger.

The first step in growing slices of the pie that we want to be larger, like give and grow, is to work on making the live and owe slices smaller.  Blue helps with that, and gives examples of clients and others who have applied these principles.  This is actually the part of the book I didn't like.  One the one hand, it's inspiring to read about families who give sacrificially, and then receive abundantly later on.  Blue talks about giving to a ministry even though it meant giving up a summer vacation that year.  Well, "God in his grace provided not one but three all-inclusive vacations . . . We did not pay for a vacation for years after that experience."  The problem is making something like this normative, where we give expecting God to deliver like that.  It's dangerously close to the "health-and-wealth," vending machine type of gospel.  I believe God blessed the Blues, and he can bless my family, but I'm uncomfortable with a theology that teaches this as the norm.

There's no question in my mind that, whatever your view of God's provision for your life is, if you follow the basic principles in this book, you will be financially better off.  And trusting in God, being content in his provision for your life, is never a bad idea.  Never Enough? is a good kick-start for you to make sure your financial life is on track and focused on God.

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

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

The World's Greatest Collection of Dad Jokes, by Glenn Hascall

Dad jokes.  I have been accused of telling a few.  Now, thanks to The World's Greatest Collection of Dad Jokes: More Than 500 of the Punniest Jokes Dads Love to Tell I have plenty more ammunition.  The title tells it like it is.  This is a bunch of jokes, ranging from one-liners and riddles, to more extensive stories.  Some are classics.  All of these, I expect, have been passed down through a few generations of Dads, now lovingly preserved and organized into a dozen categories by Glenn Hascall. 

This collection is published by Barbour Publishing, a Christian publishing house, so you can be sure that the jokes are clean and, for the most part, inoffensive.  Just to be sure you know this is a Christian book, each chapter starts with a scripture.  I love the Bible, but the scriptures didn't add much to the book.

Hascall included some old favorites, like "repaint, and thin no more," "shave it," "the reception was great," and "no one can play it, and we really need more light."  If you don't recognize those punch lines, well, you'll have to read the book!

True to the publisher's roots, there are good number of church-related jokes, like church bulletin gaffes and funnies.  ("The class on prophecy has been cancelled due to unforeseen circumstances.")  I particularly enjoyed the "funny things kids say" jokes, too.  (The little boy at the tiger exhibit at the zoo: "Daddy, if the tigers escaped and ate you . . . how would I get home?")

I've tried some of these out on my teenage boys.  Reaction?  "Stop, Dad, just stop."  Mission accomplished!

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

Monday, March 27, 2017

Talking with God, by Adam Weber

Adam Weber is pastor of one of the fastest-growing churches in America, Embrace Church in, of all places, Sioux Falls, South Dakota.  His new book Talking With God: What to Say When You Don't Know How to Pray is for everyone who doesn't "have prayer figured out . . . who is curious about prayer . . . who wants to talk with God."  When Weber asked his friend, retired pastor Roger Fredrikson, how he would describe prayer, Fredrikson replied, "Talking with God."  And that, my friends, is all there is to it.

Weber wants Christians to understand that, in spite of what you might hear during Sunday morning prayers, one need not learn a new vocabulary in order to pray.  Perhaps little kids are the best example: "When it comes to talking with God, what can we learn from kids? Pretty much everything. Keep it short, simple, and honest." (53)

Sometimes we feel inadequate, unprepared or unworthy to talk to God.  Weber writes, "Instead of being discouraged or feeling disqualified, start talking with God today. . . . He's not looking to scold you.  He's just so glad to talk with you.  He delights in you.  Whenever you start talking with God, he's glad to be with you, as any good father would be." (65)

Weber spends a good chunk of the book helping us to know "How to pray when. . . ."  With entertaining examples from his own life and church family, and with actual, simple model prayers, Weber writes about praying when:

  • You face storms.
  • You're discouraged.
  • You're stuck in the mud.
  • You're exhausted.
  • You need an anchor.
  • You want to be used by God.
  • You're trying to extend grace.
This last chapter on extending grace was particularly moving to me.  "Extending God's grace to someone when we've been hurt at the core is impossible on our own. . . . It's only possible as a result of praying. . . . Prayer empowers us to extend grace to the person who has hurt us more than anyone else on the planet."  Anyone who has been hurt and tried to forgive and be reconciled on his own will attest to the difficulty of this.  "When I read Paul's description of grace and his challenge to 'distribute' God's grace, all I can think of is an overwhelming amount of grace. . . . I picture us handing out mass quantities of grace to everyone.  I picture crates and crates stacked with bottles and bottles of grace, God's grace. . . . there's an endless supply. . . . We get to generously hand it out" to spouse, family, coworkers, strangers, enemies, through our words, actions, time and money, and forgiveness.  "Grace is an undeserved gift.  We have received it.  Now it's ours to give."  That is such a powerful image to me.  I want to prayerfully pack my backpack every morning with these bottles of excess grace and seek opportunities to empty them every day, keeping in mind that there's more where that supply came from.  But I can't do it on my own; I have to let God fill up my supplies.

For some readers, Talking With God will probably be annoying.  The prose is so conversational and informal that it was, at times, almost insulting.  I know, that sounds snobbish.  I'm just being real.  Plus, his end notes (he calls them "field notes") were a mix of scripture references and other secondary sources, as you would expect, along with autobiographical side bars, shout outs to his friends and favorite haunts, and other assorted silliness.  The notes are sort of fun, but sort of distracting.

Like any book on prayer, Talking With God is worthless unless it's put into practice.  To learn and grow in prayer, we have to pray.  Weber observed the fruit of his friend Roger's life.  "Perhaps this is why Roger's faith was so deep.  He learned about God from God.  Through years of conversations. . . .  The best way to know God is to spend time with him." (179)  Give Talking With God a bit of your time, and you have some framework and models to get you started.  Weber's model prayers probably aren't any that you'll want to pray verbatim, but they give a good idea of the conversational, personal prayer that should be a part of our walk with God.

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

Sunday, March 26, 2017

Where Will I Live? by Rosemary McCarney

Just as she did in The Way to School, Rosemary McCarney captures the experiences of children around the world in Where Will I Live?  McCarney, Canada's Ambassador and Permanent Representative to the U.N., spotlights countries around the world where refugees have been displaced due to war and conflict.  What a scary experience, especially for children.

McCarney's photographs capture both the uncertainty and fear of the children, and the joy and optimism that many share.  Even in the worst of circumstances, children still forge friendships with their peers and find time to play.  Most kids never have to endure the kinds of experiences the kids in Where Will I Live? go through.  For that vast majority of children (and adults) Where Will I Live? provides colorful examples to inspire us to be thankful for national and residential stability.  More importantly, McCarney inspires us to think about how we, individually and as a nation, might be able to help refugee families.

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

Saturday, March 25, 2017

The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Cat, by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris

I think cats are great.  I don't own a cat.  But then again, can anyone really own a cat?  Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris are full of advice and insight about cats.  Their book The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Cat may be just the thing to convince you that you need to get a cat.  Or that you should never even consider such a thing.

Cats and humans have a long history:
"Over thousands of years, we have developed a special relationship with the animals that share our homes.  Dogs have evolved to serve many sorts of human needs.  And humans have evolved to serve many sorts of cat food."

Cats are helpful to have around when you are reading:
"A cat waits until its owner has indicated which books and magazines might be interesting by opening them.  Then the cat sits on the book and reads through its bottom."

Also, "They may seem selfish and pampered, but cats can be very useful around the house.  If Zara did not have a cat, she would have to shred this duvet herself."

The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Cat has much of the same humor as other Fireside books, but this one takes a more bizarre, absurdist twist to the humor.  It's a combination of great cat-lover humor and stuff that's just a bit weird.

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

Friday, March 24, 2017

An American Conscience, by Jeremy L. Sabella

At one time in the not-so-distant past, Reinhold Niebuhr was a household name.  A pastor, professor, and prolific writer, Niebuhr was one of the most important and widely-read theologians of the twentieth century.  In conjunction with an upcoming documentary about Niebuhr, Jeremy Sabella's An American Conscience: The Reinhold Niebuhr Story presents a nice introduction to the man and his ideas.

Following in his preacher father's footsteps, Niebuhr attended Yale Divinity School, then served as pastor of a church in Detroit.  After more than a decade in the Motor City, where his church and his reputation as a preacher and writer grew, he was invited to join the faculty at Union Theological Seminary, where he spent most of his career.

Sabella tells Niebuhr's story in large part through Niebuhr's books.  His time in Detroit, the Great Depression, the turmoil in Europe, the United States's involvement in World War 2, the post war economic boom and religious revival, the onset of the Cold War, all framed and directed his writing.  Sabella gives more than a summary of each of Niebuhr's major works; he places them in the context of Niebuhr's life and of world events that direct Niebuhr's thought.  Sabella accomplishes what a good biography of an intellectual should: he whets my appetite to pull out some Niebuhr books and read them myself.

Niebuhr did not confine himself to the classroom or an ivory tower.  He constantly engaged politics and culture in his writing, speaking, and activism.  To Niebuhr, "faith and activism are not separate spheres: rather, faith spurs and deepens activism, and activism enables faith to touch down in everyday life." (46-47)  In his public stances, he was willing to be unpopular, but had the prescience and wisdom to be proven right.  For example, he favored American involvement in WW2 before Pearl Harbor, when many Americans favored isolationism.  Of course, after Pearl Harbor, the public overwhelmingly supported the war, and Niebuhr became a sort of war-time theologian.

One thing that has always bothered me about Niebuhr is his distinction between individual and social sins.  He argued that most people treat people in their immediate circle well, but the kindness and selflessness that may dictate your close relationships often don't translate to interactions between groups, leading to racism, bigotry, and violence.  I see the truth in that to an extent, but I don't go as far as Niebuhr, who, like many liberal theologians, was more concerned with social systems and justice then with individual salvation.  He would later criticize Billy Graham's "pietistic individualism."  The distinction is perhaps too simplistic, but part of the conservative/liberal divide in 20th century theology was a result of this individualistic versus social approach to justice and the gospel.

Much of An American Conscience is a teaser that tells just enough to make the reader want more.  The contrasts of Reinhold with his brother H. Richard.  His public disputes with another theological giant of the age, Karl Barth.  His ongoing influence no such luminaries as Martin Luther King, Jr., Jimmy Carter, and Billy Graham.  The lasting legacy of his publications.

I am trying to think of a 21st century figure that might match Niebuhr's stature.  I am certain we haven't seen any one yet, less than two decades in.  I hesitate to even mention any influential pastors or theologians; no one living, that I know of, compares to Niebuhr's writing, preaching, and activism.  It's only right that this book and documentary honor him and remind us of his legacy.

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

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Rhats!, by Kerry Nietz

Kerry Nietz's book Rhats! A Takamo Universe Novella is my first expedition into the Takamo Universe.  For the uninitiated, Takamo Universe was a play-by-mail game that has now evolved into a web-based multi-player adventure game.  I know nothing about such things.  But I do know that a couple of my favorite sci-fi authors are now writing stories based in the Takamo Universe.

In Rhats!, Nietz follows the adventures of Frohic, young muto, or rhat, from a sentient species which, to another race that mutos call Uman, look much like rodents.  Mutos are known for their scavenging skills; in fact, their entire economy is based on scavenging.  Frohic ends up, rather against his will, on a scavenging ship run by Umans.  His tale (no pun intended. . . mutos have tails of course) reminded me of some of Heinlein's young adult stories: the kid who goes into space for the first time, facing conflict, seeking out a mentor, coming of age and become a man (or a grown-up muto).

This is book 4 of the Takamo Universe.  I will be interested to read some of the others to see how the mutos and their world fit in among other stories and worlds.  Nietz is in his element, with the tech, the world-building, and even some hints of spiritual themes (that I hope he can expand upon in other stories).  Rhats! is an enjoyable stand-alone story, but hints at many more stories to come.

Thanks to Takamo publishing for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Wednesday, March 22, 2017

The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet, by Becky Chambers

Have you ever been on one of those scenic train rides where you take in some pretty scenery, maybe have a nice meal along the way, and enjoy the company of your fellow riders, but you just go in a loop and end up where you started?  It's a nice ride, but it doesn't really go anywhere.  That's how I felt about Becky Chambers's The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet.  This is a fun, colorful, imaginative sci-fi novel, but the plot doesn't go anywhere.  The good news is, even though it was going nowhere, I enjoyed the ride.

The crew of the Wayfarer, a tunneling ship that bores holes through the fabric of space, is made up of a rag-tag bunch of characters from many corners of the galaxy.  They are essentially a road-building crew, creating new routes for space travel.  They have been hired for a potentially dangerous but extremely lucrative job to build a new route connecting a small, angry planet to the friendlier parts of the galaxy.  Since there's no route yet, it's a long way there.

Along the way, they have a few adventures, getting boarded by pirates, caught in a swarm of gigantic cricket-like creatures, and navigating the politics of the Galactic Commons.  Much of the story involves descriptions and histories of the various species and the social dynamics between the species in the crew.  Chambers demonstrates the open-mindedness of the crew by pairing up the characters in various inter-species relationships, including a tech who is in love with the ship's AI. 

While the mission to the small, angry planet gives a semblance of direction to the book, the various events and character development don't form much a story arc.  It almost feels like an origin story or the pilot of a TV series, where we are introduced to the characters with the promise of new adventures each week.  Chambers mixes standard sci-fi elements with original ideas, alien stereotypes with her own creations, and stock characters with fresh faces, giving The Long Way to a Small, Angry Planet a familiar, yet refreshing, feel. 

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

Hazard, by Margaret Combs

Margaret Combs's life was drastically changed when her little brother Roddy was born.  This is true for most older siblings, but for Combs's family, the change was more pronounced.  Her brother was different.  Some labelled him retarded.  At least one doctor diagnosed cerebral palsy.  But few people knew the term by which his condition came to be known: autism.  In the 1950s and 1960s, when Combs was growing up, ignorance reigned.  She and her family got by as best they could, but struggled with fitting Roddy into their lives and community.  Combs tells her story in Hazard: A Sister's Flight from Family and a Broken Boy.

Because of the ignorance of the time, teachers and doctors didn't really know what to do with Roddy.  At one point, he went half a school year in a class for deaf students before Combs's mother figured it out.  Combs writes, "my brother was a small but clear dot on one extreme end of the autism spectrum, the opposite end of high-functioning so-called Asperger's.  None of us knew the: not my parents, not even Roddy's teachers at the Wallace School for the Handicapped."

Combs captures her mother's depression and helplessness.  Parents of disabled children, even with the knowledge and support systems that are available today, often feel isolated, judged, and rejected.  Even more so a generation or two ago, when awareness and compassion were future hopes, and stigma and exclusion dominated.  In Combs's case, her parents were from Appalachia, "where belief prevailed that the kind of people who bred retarded children were low and uneducated, whose bad behavior and foul natures led to illness and plague, who were careless and unscrupulous, whose children were ignorant and soiled."  On a visit to Combs's parents' hometown, they encountered a severely disabled teenager, accompanied by his family who appeared to fit the above description to a T.  Combs's mother "was a born-again, devoutly Christian, clean, educated woman and, still, she had birthed a retarded child, just like this behemoth of a woman with her piteous boy."

This faith struggle defines Combs's understanding, as well as her mother's.  The difference is that her mother seems to come to grips with it, while Margaret completely rejects it.  I had hoped to hear more of a theological reflection from Combs, but she never gets beyond her childish faith, where she "believed what my parents had taught me: Jesus held the tickets to everlasting life and now that I was baptized, I had one in my hand."  That's a pretty accurate description of many young Christians' experience in Baptist churches.  But that's not the end of the Christian life; faith must become one's own.  In a church that emphasizes discipleship and Christian growth, childhood faith blossoms into mature adult faith.  But for Combs, Christian faith never became her own, and she "jettisoned Baptist dogma and, along with it, the idea of souls dwelling anywhere after death."

It makes me sad to hear stories of people leaving their faith like she did.  Certainly her parents had their weakness and cultural shortcomings, but I couldn't help but wonder if their shared faith and consistent church involvement played a role in the stability of their marriage, which lasted at least until the writing of this book.  Combs, on the other hand, left her faith behind, and married and divorced two different men of another faith.  Perhaps if she had internalized the fact that Easter was more than "celebrating the tortured death of a prophet" and celebrated that fact that Jesus' resurrection gives hope for all of us, her adult life and marital happiness would have turned out better.  (I am not judging her, simply recognizing the fact that couples who are involved in church together have lower divorce rates than the general population.)

Given the ostensible purpose of the book, I was also a bit disappointed in the limited amount of insight into disability.  I was hoping for a memoir about growing up with a sibling who had a disability.  Hazard is a memoir about a woman growing up in the 1950s and 1960s, with occasional references to her brother who has an intellectual disability.  At several points I lost interest as Combs's "writer's" pen took over her "storyteller's" pen, resulting in some nicely written passages or whole chapters that did little to advance the overall point of the memoir.  But I guess that's what memoirs tend to do.

On having someone with a disability in the family, there were a few thought-provoking and challenging statements.  As she observes her brother in middle age, she writes, "The truth about disability is that it lasts.  And it doesn't get better; it grows worse and more complicated with age."  Many families who have a disabled family member can relate to her statement that "Growing up with a disabled boy in a time of ignorance had wracked my family, crippling our rhythms and feeding our sense of shame."

Combs doesn't offer a lot of solace for parents and siblings of people with disabilities.  She does offer a point of reference for people to relate to, but if readers are seeking inspiration, guidance, or hope, they should keep looking.

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

Monday, March 20, 2017

Revolution for Dummies, by Bassem Youssef

Bassem Youssef became a media sensation in the wake of the Arab Spring in Egypt.  He started a YouTube program which expanded into a weekly TV show that became one of the most successful television shows of any kind in the Arab world.  His brand of political satire, which was inspired by his hero, the American satirist Jon Stewart, ruffled feathers on every side of the social, religious, and political scene in Egypt.  He writes about his rise from surgeon to TV star to exile in Revolution for Dummies: Laughing Through the Arab Spring.

The events and factions of the Arab Spring are mostly mysterious to Americans, so Youssef's narrative and explanations are welcome.  He acknowledges his own inadequacies, and refers the reader to boring scholarly books for a more historically accurate account.  He writes, "Let me give you some advice: if you think you are ever going to truly understand what is happening in the Middle East . . . stop!"  Still, as he tells his perspective, a clearer picture of this period in Egyptian history comes into view.

Since Youssef came to fame as a political satirist, I expected this book to be funny.  He gets in a couple of good one-liners, like "This is how you know you are in an Arab country: you are either stuck in a revolution or in traffic."  But other than a couple of zingers, it wasn't funny.  Not at all.  I'm guessing his show was much funnier.

My overall impression of Youssef is that he is arrogant and unlikable.  He built his reputation on being a contrarian, calling out Egypt's changing constellation of leadership for their hypocrisy.  He does that, but the problem is that everyone who disagrees with him is an a--hole.  He claims to be Muslim, but I never heard a good statement of what that means to him.  To him, every Muslim leader in Egypt is hypocritical and power driven.  No matter who is in power, he opposes their every word.  That seems like an unprincipled, untenable way to live.

He lets his criticism spill over into American politics as well.  Trying to emulate his hero Jon Stewart, he tries to trump Stewart's anti-Trumpism.  But it comes off as artificial and overblown.  His attempts to equate Trump with Egyptian regimes that run over peacefully demonstrating civilians with tanks don't fly.  His comparisons of Fox News to the the Egyptian broadcasters who work hand-in-hand (or maybe hand-in-glove) with the government similarly fall flat.  If he wants to see examples of government and the news media working together, perhaps he should have paid more attention to the Obama administration and Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign.

Youssef, perhaps inadvertently, gives support to Trump's position on Islam.  He writes about that crazy YouTube movie that someone made about Mohammed.  (He buys Secretary of State Clinton's line that the attack on the Benghazi embassy was a reaction to the video.)  Muslims throughout the Arab world rioted, issued death threats, etc.  Youssef writes, "Isn't it a wonder that when people accuse Islam and its Prophet of being violent and extreme, the first reaction out of Muslims is violence and extremism?"  On Trump's immigration policies, Youssef says, "When Muslims worry about Trump becoming president and how he will deal with Muslims, they are just worried they will be treated the same way they treat non-Muslims in their countries.  Like sh--."

I would like to have read some reflections on political Islam from someone who is both a faithful Muslim and who is in favor of religious freedom and diversity.  I am in no position to judge Youssef, of course.  I have never met him.  But I feel like someone who so flagrantly displays his opposition to Muslim practices and theology is probably not a good representative of the faith.  E.g.: A sheik "proffered that freedom devoid of religious control would inevitably lead to sexual freedom and orgies happening in the streets (which sounds like heaven on earth to me)."

Instead we get a guy who wants to kiss up to liberal Americans by parroting anti-Trump, anti-Fox news one liners, who equates the political and religious cesspool that his country has turned into with the American political and religious atmosphere.  Sure, there are parallels.  He says that "radical Christians and radical Muslims are not that different," while failing to acknowledge the yawning chasm that exists between radical religionists in the U.S. and in the Arab world.  Again, I don't see Christian clergy crushing protestors in the streets of New York.

Youssef faced opposition and personal peril to himself and his family due to his outspoken political statements.  He gained a large following in Egypt, where there was no tradition to vocal opposition to the government.  For that, the recognition he has received for being an influential voice in his home country is warranted.  But as he tries to continue his caustic brand of commentary across the Atlantic the result is more screeching than substantial.

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

Sunday, March 19, 2017

Come Be Wild With Me, by Kristen Maxwell, illustrated by Kevin Sabino

I spend way too much of my life indoors, and appreciate any call to get outside more.  In Kristen Maxwell's Come Be Wild With Me, she issues a call of the wild.  "Do this.  Do that.  Plug in.  Plug out.  That's not what life is all about!  Instead, let's get away, even if, just for a day."  Go deep into the woods, live off the land, commune with nature, commune with the animals.  In general, I love the message.

Kevin Sabino's illustrations add a unique look to the book.  They are a sort of gray scale watercolor with highlights in neon colors.  They look cool, but they are so far from the colors of nature that they look really unnatural.  (OK, some of them look like wildflowers, but the whole look is not natural looking.)

The main reason I don't particularly like this book is the fact that it is completely unrealistic.  Don't pack, and trade your clothes for leaves?  Don't worry about food, just eat berries and drink from a stream?  Dance with the animals?  Soar with the butterflies?  I love the call to get away from modern amenities and unwind in nature, but Maxwell and Sabino's vision is more silly and idealistic than practical and doable.

So, go be wild, but unlike what Maxwell offers, you should be prepared.  Be sure you bring water or a means of water purification.  Bring some food, and if you're going to eat wild berries be sure you have a knowledgeable guide or a good reference so you don't eat berries that will make you sick.  Be kind and respectful to the animals, but, for the most part, don't expect them to be your buddies (especially large mammals).  Remember the sun will be your blanket and the breeze will be your A/C, but be prepared for temperate extremes; I don't want you to get hypothermia.  And if you're going to shed your clothes, wear sunscreen.

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

Saturday, March 18, 2017

The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Meeting, by Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris

These Fireside guys crack me up.  Jason Hazeley and Joel Morris's latest stroke of hilarity is The Fireside Grown-Up Guide to the Meeting.  If you have ever worked in an office, or ever been to a meeting, you will laugh out loud at their understated humor.  The Fireside books all follow the same model, a few short sentences on each page, accompanied by illustrations that look like they are from the 1950s.  It's a style reminiscent of an elementary reader from that era, teaching grown-ups about the world around them "by breaking down the complexity of grown-up life into easy-to-digest nuggets of information, and pairing them with colorful illustrations even a child could understand."

Some selections:
"Meetings are important because they give everyone a chance to talk about work.  Which is easier than doing it."
"Adam's life is being consumed, piece by tiny piece, while he pretends to care about faucets."  (Instead of faucets, insert your line of work.)
"Most of people at this meeting have nothing to say, but they say something anyway."
"Mr. Beverley is reading out a sixty-page document entitled 'The Paperless Office.'  Yesterday Mr. Beverley e-mailed the document to everyone and told them to read it before the meeting, which they all did.  Just in case, he hands everyone a printed copy."
"These important people are discussing workplace diversity."  (Pictured: a group of middle-aged, white males sitting around a table.)
This Fireside guide is a terrific parody of office foibles, meeting quirks, and the modern white-collar lifestyle.  It's pretty hilarious.  Check it out--and take it to your next meeting.

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

Friday, March 17, 2017

A Colony in a Nation, by Chris Hayes

In a 1968 speech, Richard Nixon said that "Black Americans . . . do not want more government programs which perpetuate dependency.  They don't want to be a colony in a nation."  In his new book, A Colony in a Nation, author and MSNBC commentator Chris Hayes builds on that theme, specifically with respect to law enforcement.  He makes the argument that "American criminal justice isn't one system with massive racial disparities but two distinct regimes."

Hayes writes extensively about his coverage of Ferguson, Missouri, in the aftermath of Michael Brown's death, as well as his experiences growing up in New York.  As subsequent investigations found, Ferguson police had a long history of racial disparity and of milking the poorer, minority citizens of the city through spurious traffic stops and incidental fines, as well as treating black people in humiliating ways.  Sadly, this is the case in cities all over the country; it took the killing of a young man to bring it to light in Ferguson.  Hopefully other municipalities and police departments are reevaluating their policies and practices in light of the investigation in Ferguson.

I agree with Hayes that policing in many areas of the country is in dire need of reform.  But he draws the colonial parallels well past the point of ridiculous.  He compares the drug-dealing culture in our cities to colonists smuggling goods past British tax grabbers.  "Smuggling in the colonies was not so different from drug dealing in economically depressed neighborhoods and regions today. . . . Dealers, like smugglers, become institutions--the way, say, New Englanders viewed John Hancock in the years leading to the revolution."  So the dealer overseeing a network of crack dealers in downtown Philly is the same as John Hancock?  Got it.  (I do have some sympathy with Eric Garner's case.  Selling legal goods [cigarettes] illegally [individually] should not be an offense, much less a capital offense.)

OK, so Hayes has equated drug dealers with the tariff scofflaws who built our nation, thus justifying their illegal activities and perhaps recognizing them as forerunners of a coming--legitimate--revolution.  How about demonstrating that white, privileged, college kids are just as felonious, but are treated better than their inner-city, poor, minority counterparts?  Hayes, a graduate of Brown University, thinks it's just fine for Ivy Leaguers and other college kids to flaunt their lawlessness.  "Elite four-year schools are understood by almost everyone involved in them--parents, students, faculty, administrators--as places where young adults act out, experiment, and violate rules in all kinds of ways.  And that's more or less okay, or even more than okay; sometimes it's encouraged."  Not by me.  I know, I felt like a puritanical stick in the mud reading this portion of the book, and I'm sure I sound like one.

The larger  point that he makes--that campus disciplinary systems provide a parallel system of justice that insulates college kids from the consequences of their actions--is valid and important.  But his response is basically, "That's great, because kids can learn about all the wonderful vices of the world and be protected from inconvenient consequences like criminal records."  (That's not a quote of Hayes, but my interpretation of his response.)  He tells a story about sitting around smoking pot in the dorm, and when a campus cop came by, he just commented on their choice of music and said goodnight.  If a similar group of black kids was smoking pot in, say, someone's basement, and a cop came in, there probably would have been arrests or citations or something.  Hayes uses this discrepancy to excuse college students' behavior and call for similar leniency among the population at large.  I believe the conversation needs to be about enforcing laws among college kids.  If college police paid more attention to student criminality and substance abuse, perhaps colleges wouldn't have so many alcohol-related deaths and intra-student rapes.   Maybe he'll change his tune when his kids are about to go off to college.

Hayes is certainly right to argue that discrepancies in the enforcement and prosecution of crime, where they exist, need to be rectified.  Our prison system is testimony to the glaring fact that blacks are more likely to be jailed than whites.  An argument that higher imprisonment rates among blacks is solely explained by the fact that blacks commit more crimes than whites simply does not hold up.  As compelling and colorful as the colonial argument is, I don't believe it holds up to the level that Hayes wants it to.  There are too many black Americans who are thriving outside of what Hayes calls the Colony to argue that "our entire project for decades has been to keep [black people] there."  

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

Thursday, March 16, 2017

Double Whammy, by Carl Hiaasen

Carl Hiaasen is the comic genius of the Florida mystery novel.  He has a way of making the bizarre underbelly of Florida culture hilarious and lovable.  Double Whammy is Hiaasen's first book to feature Skink, a character who appears in many of his novels.  Skink meets up with R.J. Decker, a former news photographer turned private investigator (of sorts) who has been hired to look into cheating in major bass fishing tournaments. 

Of course, as is the case with all of Hiaasen's novels, nothing is as simple as it seems.  Decker gets sucked into this world, finding himself the subject of an investigation instead of the other way around.  Skink is his muse, his guide, his roadside chef.  Decker pines for his ex-wife, but gets distracted by the siren song of his client's sister.  Decker and Skink may not get their man, but their man gets what's coming.

For some authors, the plot twists and turns and delayed revelations that Hiaasen attempts would weigh down the story.  Hiaasen finds a way to make the unwieldy and absurd work.  Lest you think only fishing fans will enjoy this book trust me: you don't have know and love fishing.  Hiaasen makes fun of fishing competitions and TV shows, but in an affectionate way.  He also makes fun of greedy televangelists, but not very affectionately.  The familiar target that seems to work its way into every Hiaasen book: Florida land developers.  Skink is Hiaasen's alter-ego, living off the land (and water) of Florida, bemoaning every shovelful of dirt, dredged up lake, and built up coast line suffered in the Sunshine State.

I have to admit, I did not enjoy Double Whammy as much as I have enjoyed some of Hiaasen's later novels.  But since it introduces Skink, Hiaasen fans won't want to pass it up.  Skink is one of the strangest, most memorable characters I have run across in fiction.  Now, if I were to run across him in real life, I'm not sure what I'd do. . . . May he live long in the works of Carl Hiaasen.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

This Changes Everything, by Jaquelle Crowe

This Changes Everything: How the Gospel Transforms the Teen Years was written for teens by a teen.  Jaquelle Crowe was 18 when she wrote this practical, challenging book.  Ms. Crowe doesn't want her peers to merely blend in with culture, failing to live out their Christian faith.  Being a Christian, she writes, "should transform everything about how you live--how you talk and dress and think and engage with culture and who you hang out with and what you post on social media and read and find funny and watch."

Crowe covers what it means to be a Christian, the importance of being a part of a church, dealing with sin, pursuing spiritual disciplines, growing in Christ, how we spend our time, and relating to other people.  For a teen, she demonstrates wisdom well beyond her years.  She is an exceptionally well-read and mature Christian.  Her target audience is teens, but any Christian can read this and get some challenging reminders of what it means to live as a Christian.

As a parent of teens who have been in church all their lives, I appreciated Crowe's insights.  She has a deep appreciation for the discipline and example that her parents have provided all her life.  Young Christians should not be satisfied with coasting along, being dragged to church by their parents, and stopping their Christian growth with a Sunday school profession of faith.  Crowe provides a model and template for young Christians to follow, and demonstrates attitudes, actions, and behaviors that parents can promote and encourage in their Christian teens.  

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

Tuesday, March 14, 2017

Wrath, by T.R. Ragan

T.R. Ragan's Faith McMann trilogy takes on the horrible, pervasive, and usually well-hidden crime of sex trafficking.  Better said, Ragan's Faith McMann takes on sex traffickers--hard.  In Furious, Faith's husband is murdered and her children are snatched.  She hunts down some of the traffickers but does not recover her children.  In Outrage, she continues the pursuit, takes down some bad guys, and gets her son back.  In Wrath, she continues the hunt, gains some new allies, and seeks to get her daughter back and shut down this awful trade once and for all.

In this series, and especially in Wrath, the bad guys are really, really bad.  Ragan leaves no doubt in the readers' minds that perpetrators of human trafficking are the worst sort of human.  The gray(ish) area is the customers.  The johns and the politicians and community leaders who grease the wheels and fund and enable the system may not be cold-blooded killers and kidnappers, but their participation, whether paying for sex or turning a blind eye, is every bit as bad.

In Wrath, Faith's army of support grows from her family and friends from anger-management class to include a network of warriors fighting human trafficking.  They are willing to take risks and even put their lives on the line to defend the innocent and rescue the victims.  If Ragan's fictional account is based on reality, and I suspect it is, more power to these teams.  They are out there, observing, watching, reporting, and taking a bite out of the horrible criminal trade.

If you haven't read Furious and Outrage I would recommend you do so before reading Wrath.  This is a trilogy that might best be viewed as one long three-part novel.  But that's really what a trilogy is, right?  Faith's commitment to her children, her family's commitment to her and her children, the faithfulness of her friends, and the passion of the anti-trafficking crusaders all inspire and drew me in to feel personally involved in Faith's plight.  Wrath isn't exactly a tear-jerker, but there are some emotional moments, close calls, and losses.  It's a thriller with a feminine touch, and a great finish to an engaging trilogy.

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

Monday, March 13, 2017

Without Warning, by Joel Rosenberg

When terrorists attack, it may not be without warning.  In Joel C. Rosenberg's latest novel, Without Warning, a terrorist attack in the U.S. wreaks more destruction and is more widespread than 9/11.  As New York Times reporter learns, though, this attack was not completely without warning.  He uncovers a reluctance by the president and the U.S. government to hunt down Abu Kahlif, the global leader of ISIS.  The administration's unwillingness to go after him left the U.S. vulnerable to attack, and the reluctance to hunt him down mean J.B. will have to take matters into his own hands.

This is Rosenberg's third novel featuring J.B. Collins, a foreign correspondent who covers the Middle East, and who has seen more combat action than most military veterans.  As the story opens, Rosenberg is meeting with the president just before the state of the union address, unsuccessfully convincing him to take threats about ISIS more seriously.  On this theme, Rosenberg makes several unsubtle jabs at the recently replaced U.S. president.

If it weren't such a serious matter, Rosenberg's jabs at Obama would be almost comical.  Like Obama, President Taylor calls the terrorist group ISIL instead of the more commonly used ISIS.  He avoids linking their religion to their actions.  Taylor says, "The Islamic State is neither Islamic nor a state."  (This is pretty close to a direct quote from both Obama and Hillary Clinton.)  Collins's response: "Such nonsense made my blood boil.  How could the president defeat an enemy he refused to define."  Even after the attacks, President Taylor was slow to assign blame.  "For Taylor to pretend that ISIS wasn't involved in these attacks--or that the fighters working for ISIS, or ISIL, or whatever he wanted to call it, weren't Muslims and weren't driven by their interpretation of Islamic theology--was just asinine."

Further poking at the Democrats, they find that some of the attackers are Syrian refugees.  "Each entered the U.S. in the past year as part of the president's program to welcome and absorb fifty thousand refugees fleeing ISIS."  And in a jab at Obama and Kerry, an Egyptian general says, "and still your president thinks ISIS is less of an existential threat than climate change.  How can he dare say such a thing?"

But jabs at the Obama administration are not the focus on the book.  Collins's connection to Abu Kahlif makes him and his family a target.  Despite his status as a journalist and his disagreement with the administration's policies, Collins sets out to hunt down the ISIS leader on his own.  Collins has plenty of connections throughout the Middle East and manages to build a team and collect intelligence leads as he hops from country to country.

Rosenberg's criticism of U.S. policy takes a back seat to Collins's quest to find Abu Kahlif.  Contrary to what you might think, Rosenberg is not anti-Islam.  To the contrary, he paints a picture of Muslims, Israelis, and Kurds joining forces to take down ISIS.  While ISIS can't be separated from their Islamic theology, Islamic theology can be separated from ISIS's radical interpretations.  Any policy that does not recognize the importance of partnering with Muslims in the Middle East will likely fall short of eliminating the terrorist threat of ISIS.

Without Warning has some overblown action and melodrama, but hey, it's a novel, right?  The major, coordinated attack on the U.S. is not entirely unbelievable.  The willingness for U.S. officials to downplay or overlook the threats from immigration and terrorist cells is all too real.  Rosenberg's time in the Middle East has given him insights into threats coming from Islam.  His novels may not be prophetic (let's hope not) but the perspective he writes from is worth paying attention to.

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

Sunday, March 12, 2017

SMOSH, by Michael McDermott et al.

I'm the first to admit I am not the target audience for SMOSH.  However, I like super hero stories, I like comics, I like snarky humor, and I have three teenagers.  I just couldn't get into SMOSH.

The Super Virgin Squad, nerdy teens who hang out in the V-cave, have some adventures.  They fight the crosstown rivals.  They struggle with teen angst.  They bond in friendship.

I didn't like SMOSH.  It's probably just me.  Maybe you'll like it more than I did.

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

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Art of Atari, by Tim Lapetino

Children of the '80s, you're going to love this book!  If you're like me, middle-aged, with fond memories of playing video games on the classic Atari 2600 console, you are going to love perusing Tim Lapetino's beautiful coffee-table book Art of Atari.  This book is a nostalgia trip that took me back to some long, lazy days in front of the TV playing video games. 

This large, colorful volume includes sections on the history of Atari, console games, industrial design, and some of the little-known and never-released concepts Atari produced.  But the meat of the book, about 3/4 of the content, is the art work of the many Atari games.  As Ernest Cline points out in the Foreward, "Even though the crude graphics of the games themselves were never quite as colorful or realistic as the illustrations depicted, that artwork had an almost magical way of elevating your gameplay experience, by helping your imagination bridge the gap between the crude pixelated shapes dancing across your TV screen and the fantastic images they could conjure in your mind's eye."

To say the actual games did not measure up to the fanciful box cover art is an understatement.  I looked through the book with my 15-year-old son, who has grown up with Wii and PS3.  He was roaring with laughter at the screen images of the games.  And it's true; the graphics were truly horrid.  Art of Atari is a great reminder that even a game with terrible graphics and a simple one-button joystick can be loads of fun.

But the real focus of Art of Atari is the art and the artists.  Lapetino presents page after page of box cover art, accompanying art, concept art, promotional art, and preliminary designs, interspersed with profiles and quotes from the artists.  Reading about their work and anecdotes about the industry is fun and insightful.  It would have been interested to see more examples of the in-game art.  Granted, the crude illustrations may best be forgotten; perhaps Lapetino was right only to include a small screen shot of each game.

Even the most ardent Atari fan will see games and other products in Art of Atari that he or she has never seen or has long forgotten about.  Any Atari fan will be longing to dig out the old 2600 and play some games after spending some time with this book.  I enjoyed seeing all this art and history compiled in one place.

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

Friday, March 10, 2017

Fault Line, by Billy Hallowell

There is no question that Christian influence in Western culture is waning.  Journalist and culture watcher Billy Hallowell writes about the decline and the marginalization of Christian voices in Fault Line: How a Seismic Shift in Culture is Threatening Free Speech and Shaping the Next Generation.  Hallowell starts with a review of the data showing that the millennial generation is moving away from religion, specifically faith in Jesus.  Then he discusses major areas of culture: TV and movies, popular music, higher education, and the news media, chronicling the shifting values that move our culture farther and farther from Christian norms.

Very little of what Hallowell writes will be a surprise to anyone who is aware of the culture we live in.  Some of the best insights were in the first section, regarding the decline of religious belief among the younger generations.  He quotes Barna Group researcher David Kinnaman, who said, "there is a 'new moral code' . . . the 'morality of self-fulfillment'" which "has all but replaced Christianity as the culture's moral norm."  Moral standards are reduced to what's right for you, not what's right according to an objective standard.

Without objective standards, people eagerly consume whatever lowest-common-denominator offerings the mass media serves up.  Cultural norms influence cultural expressions and vice versa, in a spiraling race to the bottom.  And if we believe entertainment doesn't influence behavior, we're fooling ourselves.  "Young people who watched the greatest amount of sexual content were two times more likely to have sex in the next year."  Conversely, "reducing the amount of sexual talk and behavior on television, or the amount of time that adolescents are exposed to them, could appreciably delay the onset of sexual activity."  Hallowell doesn't call for censorship.  Rather, he points out that in the not-so-distant past, "society was once so repulsed by negative content that Hollywood was forced to change its ways--and chose to do so accordingly."  In contrast, Hollywood, in general, now chooses to push the limits of sex and violence more and more every year.

Higher education is a whole separate problem.  It is "often a breeding ground for exclusively progressive ideals and values that are masqueraded, paraded, and marketed to young minds as definitive, unadulterated truth."  Hallowell makes it clear that he is not against liberals teaching in colleges.  But, first of all, he does find it problematic that liberals outnumber conservatives among faculty something like ten to one.  More importantly, he gives examples of a tendency to exclude conservative viewpoints in the classroom.  The college experience should be about being exposed to a variety of perspectives and learning to evaluate and differentiate points of view, but, as Hallowell describes, it's too often liberal indoctrination.

Finally, Hallowell describes the liberal biases in the news media.  Like higher education, newsrooms are weighted heavily on the liberal side.  Further, few journalists are practicing Christians, thus have a limited perspective on news about religion.  Hallowell provides plenty of evidence and examples, but really all the evidence you need is to tune into the nightly news or pick up the New York Times.

Far from being a right-wing screed, Hallowell calls for balance and freedom of speech.  The problem with liberal voices in entertainment, academia, and the media is not that they are liberal, it's that they often drown out and actively inhibit and exclude conservative voices.  He writes, "if Christians and conservatives don't become professors, reporters, cameramen, producers, actors, and studio heads, then having substantial influence in the realms of entertainment, media, and higher education is a virtual impossibility."  There are barriers in place, to be sure, but Christians must not back down from making their voices heard.  Following Josh McDowell, Hallowell writes that Christians must be informed, be rational and sound in our positions, live out our faith with integrity, and listen and interact with others.  Cultural fault lines are clear to all of us; perhaps Christians can deepen our participation in culture and bring people together.

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

Thursday, March 9, 2017

Tea with Hezbollah, by Ted Dekker and Carl Medearis

In Tea with Hezbollah: Sitting at the Enemies' Table, Our Journey Through the Middle East, novelist Ted Dekker and writer Carl Medearis write of their encounters with a variety of individuals whom most Americans would consider enemies of the United States and of Christianity.  The book consists of three interwoven parts: their travelogue, transcripts of their interviews, and a fictional story about an American woman who travels to Lebanon to find her biological father.

The travelogue is the best part of the book.  Dekker is the newbie, with no experience traveling in the Middle East.  Medearis has lived much of his life in the Middle East, and is an expert on Arab-American and Muslim-Christian relations.  As they maneuver through border crossings, travel delays, armed confrontations, and cab rides from hell, it's fun to read their adventures and their contrasting reactions to each experience.

I was indifferent about the story of the American woman.  Dekker's an experienced story teller, but the way he tells this story, interspersed among the other parts of the book, trying to make it sound like a real woman's experience, keeps it on that unsteady threshold between fiction and non-fiction, never teetering all the way into a solid, readable story.

What should be the most substantial and important part of the book, the interviews with leaders of Hezbollah and Hammas, Osama bin Laden's brothers, and Muslim clergymen, turns out to be unenlightening.  Dekker says he wants the interviews to reveal their personal side, like a People magazine profile.  He does that, to an extent, drawing out answers to questions like "When is the last time you cried?" or "What hobbies do you have?"

Dekker and Medearis want to follow Jesus' teaching that we should love our enemies, and that if we don't know our enemies, we can't love them.  I want the same, but I struggle with my Western, American, Christian perception.   Even acknowledging that, I had a hard time reading some of the outright lies and distortions that Dekker and Medearis's interview subjects said.  The authors did not challenge them or engage in debate.  I think the book would have been much more valuable had it engaged some of the real controversies between Muslims and Christians.

But that's not the point of the book, and not Dekker and Medearis's goal.  Based on their interviews, I gather that Muslims, even those who provide intellectual, spiritual, and material ammunition for deadly attacks, enjoy movies, play with their grandchildren, and laugh at funny jokes.  I could have surmised that without traveling to the Middle East.  Also, based on the overall tone of the book, Christians, Jews, and Muslims are all equally responsible for violence in the Middle East.  I'm not a Middle East expert, but I have a feeling some of those Christians who have been beheaded on video would object.  No group is perfect, but it sure seems like the perpetrators of violence tend, more often than not, to be Muslims.  But what do I know, I get my information from the Zionist-controlled media.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

The Coming Apostasy, by Mark Hitchcock and Jeff Kinley

Apostasy.  It's a strong word.  Mark Hitchcock and Jeff Kinley take it very seriously.  In The Coming Apostasy: Exposing the Sabotage of Christianity from Within, they take on apostasy in the contemporary church.

Hitchcock and Kinely quote John Calvin's definition of apostasy as "a treacherous departure from God, not on the part of one person or a few individuals, but such as would spread far among a wide circle of people."  So apostasy is not just theological error, but the wide spread of theological error.  And that, they right, is a big problem today, when we witness a "sabotage aimed at the authority and sufficiency of the Bible and targeting the exclusivity of Jesus as the only way to God."

The make an effective case that many who today profess Christianity "drift in an age of unprecedented pseudo-Christian thought."  They "profess faith but rebel or fall away from it."  One's feelings become more important than biblical revelation.  The gospel becomes watered down.  "There is much talk about relationship but little talk about repentence. . . . celebration without sacrifice . . . . high value placed on friendship but not much emphasis on lordship."  (Of course, in the next chapter, they write, "salvation is all about a relationship with Jesus Christ.")

The hard thing about apostasy is identifying and confronting it with grace.  They give a few concrete examples, but mostly from fringe evangelical writers (e.g., Rob Bell, Rachel Held Evans).  They speak broadly against megachurch pastors and liberal denominations.  Their most convincing arguments deal with moral apostasy.  In a chapter dedicated to the current debate over homosexuality, they draw a bright line in favor of the historic understanding that the Bible and the teachings of Jesus leave no room for approval of homosexual behavior.  In fact, approval is arguably greater than the sin itself.  So does this one issue make a church apostate?  Does any one issues make a church apostate?

Hitchcock and Kinley call the church to remain true to biblical faith.  Yes, and amen!  But I have been on the wrong end of apostate witch hunts, when my seminary became bitterly divided.  The more conservative faction came after the perceived liberal professors teaching in the seminary, sending students into classes as spies and poring over every word written or spoken by the professors.  In my opinion, none of them was even close to apostate.  I hate to see a desire for faithful upholding of the Bible to devolve into finger pointing and narrowing of the circle of faith.

Yes, we have to continually examine our hearts and study the scripture, remaining faithful to God and his word.  But there is room for disagreement in the church.  The landscape is littered with churches and denominations that are convinced that everyone not in their little circle is apostate and only their congregation or denomination truly understands and practices the Bible's teaching.

The Coming Apostasy paints a bigger picture, and rightly warns that widespread apostasy is a sign of the end times.  But they don't convincingly draw that line.  How much error is tolerable?  What are the non-negotiables that move you from mild disagreement to apostate?  Can anyone answer that question and draw that line?  It almost feels like an "I know it when I see it" argument.  In the meantime, love the Lord with all your heart, soul, and strength.  Maranatha.

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

Tuesday, March 7, 2017

What Slaveholders Think, by Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick

Austin Choi-Fitzpatrick's new book has the wrong title.  Rather than What Slaveholders Think: How Contemporary Perpetrators Rationalize What They Do, he should have called it something like The Decline of Bonded Labor in India's Changing Society.  The main focus of the book is the practice of bonded labor in India.  A long-held practice, it is in decline and has been severely curtailed through legal means and societal pressure.  Choi-Fitzpatrick has interviewed many farmers and laborers to get a sense of this shift in attitudes.

On that count, What Slaveholders Think is an interesting study.  It's amusing and pathetic to hear the landowners' nostalgia for the way things used to be.  They speak of their laborers as family and of their paternalistic concern for their laborers.  But things are changing.  One farmer complains, "When people used to listen to us, life was good.  We were running our lives very well.  But now, since they're not listening to us, even we hesitate to call them for work, and they hesitate to come to us for work."  I was reminded of nostalgia in the American south for the old days on the plantation.

The reality of bonded labor is probably darker than what Choi-Fitzpatrick portrays, reliant as he is on the farmers' perspectives.  But workers now are so secure in their rights that if a farmer yells at them, they might go to the authorities to complain about their treatment, to the farmers' chagrin.  I don't have a lot of sympathy for the farmers, who perpetuate a system which holds the laborers in perpetual debt.  But it is true that they are victims, too, in a way.  Like other parts of the world, large-scale corporate farms are taking over.  Small farmers can't afford the large equipment required, and are increasingly unable to use the cheap manual labor they had in their indentured servants.

When I think of slavery, I think of chattel slavery in the United States, in which people were bought and sold or kidnapped and forced to work.  Or I think of modern day sex trafficking, in which people are kidnapped or otherwise unwillingly forced into sex work.  As Choi-Fitzpatrick writes, though, these represent only a slice of modern-day slavery.  He states that "around half of the world's slaves are held in debt bondage in India, Pakistan, and Bangladesh."  That's "ten to twenty million people living in bonded labor."  Although there have been great strides, both due to activism and the realities of agricultural markets, in reducing debt slavery, "bonded labor is not considered to be a problem by Indian society at large."

Choi-Fitzpatrick does a service to shed light on bonded labor in South Asia.  As he learns, the farmers and others who use bonded labor are human, not the face of evil.  Yet the perpetuation of the unjust system allows evil to keep a foothold.  As India becomes more modernized and urbanized, those who work as bonded laborers will continue to seek a way out, but a cultural shift will have to occur to truly end the practice.

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

Monday, March 6, 2017

How the Hell Did This Happen?, by P.J. O'Rourke

No political writer living is as funny or as insightful as P.J. O'Rourke.  With great anticipation I picked up his reflections on the recent presidential election, How the Hell Did This Happen?: The Election of 2016, in which he asks the question all of us asked throughout the debacle of an election season.  As expected, he is hilarious, and he has some serious moments of insight.  But given the amount of ridiculous material he had to work with, I don't feel like he capitalized sufficiently on the opportunities for skewering Trump and Clinton.

The Democrats presented the electorate with Hillary Clinton.  This fits the trend started with the election of Obama.  "The Democrats are determined to elect 'the first ______ American president.'  African-American, Woman, Native American, Latino, Gay.  They've checked off No. 1 and are determined to do down the list in order of historical victimhood."  The GOP just wanted someone who could win.  They were "in no damn mood for competent, experienced politicians with broad popular appeal" like Kasich or O'Malley.  And even though Trump, in many ways, didn't fit in the GOP, he proved "you can't get kicked out of an American political party no matter what you say or do."

Where O'Rourke really shines is boiling down political philosophies.  For example, his summary of America's "two vague political tendencies."  "One tendency is to favor a larger, more powerful government to make things better.  The other tendency is to favor a smaller, more limited government to make things less worse."  On Trump and Clinton specifically, neither will lower taxes: "Elect Hillary, and we'll get obvious higher taxes--on our incomes, investments, and businesses.  Elect Trump, and we'll get hidden higher taxes--in the form of worthless U.S. dollars being printed to fund the deficit and debt."  In both cases, the "exact answer to the question of how much money would be required to fulfill campaign promises is that there isn't that much money in the world."  Truth.

One platform issue that divides the parties and the candidates is the approach to poverty.  "Democratic politicians care so much about poverty that--far from warring on it--they have become a kind of conservationist group, devoted to preserving it forever.  Democrats are the Sierra Club of Poverty."  That's a classic O'Rourke line!  In a more specific policy proposal of sorts, O'Rourke writes, "Giving poor people money is a simple and straightforward way to eliminate poverty.  But the government is spending 46 percent more money to eliminate poverty than it would cost to eliminate poverty by giving poor people money."  Makes you wonder. . . .

O'Rourke makes clear throughout How the Hell Did This Happen? that he thought little of both candidates (and their primary contenders didn't do much better!).  He finally gave his endorsement to Hillary, albeit reluctantly.  O'Rourke sees Hillary like The Grinch, a la Dr. Seuss: "You're a smug one, Hillary, . . . you're cuddly as a cactus, . . . you're a limousine liberal, Hillary, your heart's an empty hole, . . . I endorse you with a thirty-nine-and-a-half foot pole!"

How the Hell Did This Happen? is an equal-opportunity offender.  O'Rourke doesn't really have much nice to say about any of the candidates.  However, he either overlooks some of the worst offenses and accusations of the campaign, or treats them very lightly.  It's almost like he felt that he knew he would alienate partisans on both sides, but didn't want to do so irrevocably and drastically.  This is a fun read and valuable keepsake of memories of Election 2016.

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

Sunday, March 5, 2017

I Like, I Don't Like, by Anna Baccelliere, illustrated by Ale + Ale

I Like, I Don't Like is one of the more sobering children's books I've ever seen.  Author Anna Baccellierre contrasts Western kids' preferences with the reality of child labor around the world.  You like to eat rice?  He doesn't like working in the rice paddy.  You like trying on your mom's many shoes?  She doesn't like working at a shoe shine stand.  You like listening to music?  He doesn't like having to play music for tips to support his family.  And the starkest contrast of all: You like playing.  He asks, "What is playing?"

I really love Ale + Ale's collage-like illustrations.  (This is the artistic team of Alessandro Lecis and Alessandra Panzeri.)  They find the perfect balance between the playfulness of some kids and the life of labor of others.

It's never too early for Western kids to get some perspective on their place in the world.  In the U.S., a kid is considered poor if his mom buys his clothes at the second-hand store.  (I know, that's a gross over-simplification, but still. . . .)  If your child has a roof over his head, goes to school every day, and only works so he can have a little cash for video games or to go out with friends, he needs to know that some kids have to work to support their families.  I Like, I Don't Like is a great start to introduce young children to the concept of child labor and the privilege of growing up in relative wealth.

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

Saturday, March 4, 2017

When God Made You, by Matthew Paul Turner, illustrated by David Catrow

Matthew Paul Turner has written some light-hearted but theologically sound and culturally engaging books for adults.  His newest book teaches an important lesson, that you were made exactly the way God meant for you to be made!  When God Made You follows an African-American girl through her day, as she explores her neighborhood and lets her imagination take flight.  David Catrow's illustrations become more vividly colorful and wildly imaginative as the book progresses, perfectly paired with Turner's whimsical verse.
The back cover says this is for kids 3-8.  That sounds about right.  It's a good bed time or story time book which will bear repeated readings.  The pictures are detailed and complex enough that curious eyes will find something new every time they read it.

Like any good kids book, the message of When God Made You resonates with all of us, not just the ostensible target audience.  I am unique.  I am loved.  I carry the imago dei.  I am a vessel to bring God's love to others.  The message is simple, powerful, universal, and never to be forgotten.

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

Friday, March 3, 2017

Outrage, by T.R. Ragan

In Furious, T.R. Ragan introduced us to Faith McMann.  A school teacher and housewife, Faith is transformed when home invaders kill her husband and kidnap her children.  She becomes a wrathful, dogged pursuer of justice and hunter of the people who stole her children.  Furious ended with her freeing some captive abductees and taking a chunk out of a major human trafficking operation, but without her finding her daughter.  The story continues in book 2 of the Faith McMann trilogy, Outrage.

Her exploits in Furious attracted a lot of attention by both the media and the crime bosses.  Now she and the rest of her extended family are targets.  Less determined souls would shut down the hunt and appease the offenders, but Faith won't quit until she finds her son and daughter.  In Outrage her family is strained, but even at the cost of their own lives, they are willing to help her continue.  Her friends from the anger management class are similarly committed.  Faith even comes close to being swept up in the awful stream of sex trafficking herself.  The dedication of Faith's family and friends to work together and risk everything for the sake of Faith's children is inspiring.  The bad guys better watch out when Faith and her crew are on the case!

Knowing that this was book 2 of a trilogy, I was not disappointed by the lack of resolution, as I was when I finished book 1.  To the contrary, Outrage builds the story and builds the anticipation for what (I hope!) will be a satisfying finish in Wrath.  Fair warning, the subject matter is gritty and disturbing.  Ragan practices restraint in her descriptions of the world of sex trafficking, but the reality is nevertheless hard to read.  I found myself rooting for Faith and eager to grab book 3.