Thursday, August 31, 2017

Bear Country: The Baylor Story, by Ken Starr

Ken Starr had a distinguished political and legal career, but didn't become a household name until he served as special prosecutor in the Whitewater investigation, most remembered by Monica Lewinsky's blue dress.  After that unfortunate episode in American political history ended, he faded back into the relative obscurity of academia, eventually becoming president of Baylor University, my alma mater.  A rape scandal at Baylor and his subsequent firing as president vaulted Starr back into the headlines.  He tells the story of his time at Baylor and the events surrounding his firing in Bear Country: The Baylor Story.

A couple things really stood out in A Baylor Story.  First, Ken Starr loves Baylor.  It was evident to any observer during his tenure, whether he was running onto the field with the Baylor Line at football games, greeting students on campus, or speaking publicly in his role as president.  He loves Baylor's history, Baylor's mission, Baylor's students, Baylor's campus, Baylor's alumni, Baylor's hometown--seriously, everything about Baylor.  If any other evidence is needed, how about this: a guy who's lived in various places around the country, who has the means to live just about anywhere he wants, who has a high profile public presence, and whose last place of employment before Baylor was at Pepperdine, in the picturesque community of Malibu, California, has chosen to stay in Waco!  I love Waco, too, but I don't have the means and connections that he has.

The second thing I noticed is that, just like his public personality, Starr is ultra positive and encouraging.  He has great difficulty saying anything negative about anyone or anything.  Most of the time he's full of praise and superlatives.  This is certainly consistent with anything I've seen from him during his time at Baylor, but is especially commendable considering that his treatment was sometimes less than stellar and his dismissal from his role was abrupt and unexpected.  While he mentions a few people with whom he had disagreements, his attitude is consistently gracious and conciliatory.  I'm not sure my attitude, toward Baylor, the media, and other critics, would be as positive were I in his position.

About 3/4 of Bear Country is about Baylor itself.  He does a great job of capturing the personality of the school and campus life, especially commending Baylor's commitment to be a highly-ranked research university while retaining its commitment to the Christian faith.  But the occasion for the book, and the sections that will be of greater interest to readers outside of Baylor circles, is his recounting of the events surrounding the 2016 rape scandal that led to his firing.

One thing he's clear about: despite what many have reported, "at no time did Baylor University fail to have a high-level Title IX coordinator in place.  Never.  Not for one instant."  He objects to the idea that "Pat Neff Hall [where Baylor's top administrative offices are housed] was oblivious to student safety concerns."  He details Baylor's efforts to educate and protect students, even dating from before the "Dear Colleague" letter was issued.  I'm glad to read his descriptions and defense.  There were personal failures and inconsistent applications of policy, but those are human errors more than institutional errors.

Starr, football Coach Art Briles, and other officials who were fired in the wake of this scandal have been smeared forever by inaccurate, or, at the very least, incomplete reporting of the events in question.  If I were Starr, I'd probably be bitter and defensive.  In The Baylor Story, Starr is generous in his assessments of other people, gracious in his recounting of his time at Baylor, and matter-of-fact in his recollections.  I know some will object to his perspective and find fault with his version of events, but, in fairness, his perspective is important and should be considered in light of the agenda-driven and inflammatory reporting that has come out of Waco.

Wednesday, August 30, 2017

Strange Beauty, by Eliza Factor

No one plans to have a child with disabilities.  When Eliza Factor's son began missing developmental milestones and exhibiting atypical behaviors, it dawned on her that his childhood was not going to be like most kids.  In her book Strange Beauty: A Portrait of My Son, she chronicles the challenges and joys of life with Felix, her oldest child.  Felix, who lives with cerebral palsy, autism, and endures self-destructive fits of slapping and hitting himself, has been a puzzle for Factor and her family to unravel.

Other parents of children with disabilities will cry and laugh with Factor as she describes the slow realization that Felix has a disability, the mix of pain and pleasure she experienced when a label was finally placed on him, and the challenge of finding the right doctors, specialists, and therapists.  Navigating the health care system is tough enough, but when a child has a variety of disabilities, it can be especially tough.  She writes, "Even I, in New York, with a good insurance plan, extra money when our insurance plan refused to cooperate, and a flexible schedule, could not perform up to par."  I was reminded how thankful I am for my wife who, like Factor, has had to fill out countless forms (repeating the same information about medical history again and again), spent long hours on the phone with insurance companies and social service agencies attempting to get the right care and benefits, and keeping up with the various programs for which our children qualify. 

One of their great challenges was finding the right educational setting for Felix.  After some truly horrible experiences, where the schools had no idea how to handle his dangerous fits, they found some schools that supported him well.  They worked with the Department of Education, which of course has bureaucratic challenges galore, but also with private schools, as they have the means to pay tuition if needed.  Yet finding the right fit was still a great challenge.  As the book ends, Factor determined that the schools Felix has attended aren't the best place for him, and home school isn't a good option, so she has found a residential school a few hours drive from home.  Given the tone of the rest of the book, I was surprised when she even started considering residential placement for Felix.  But as she describes the school where he ended up, it sounds like a place where he will thrive.

A large part of Factor's story is creating a space where Felix and other kids with disabilities can socialize and play in a setting that suits their unique needs.  She created a new organization with play rooms that feature large swings, ball pits, bean bag chairs, and other equipment on which kids with sensory integration issues, mobility issues, autism, and other disabilities and challenges can play, relax, and socialize.  In this setting, she has taken the challenges she has faced as a parent and directed her knowledge and energy to enrich other families.  I love the idea.  It's inspiring and encouraging.  (If you're interested, check out

Factor doesn't hold much back as she describes her life with Felix.  Parents who have children living with disabilities will be encouraged by her steadfastness and her determination to find what is best for Felix and to let her experiences spill over into other families' lives. 

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

Monday, August 28, 2017

Worth Dying For, by Lee Child

With the cliffhanger ending of 61 Hours, a rarity for Lee Child's Jack Reacher novels, I was eager to pick up the next book in the series, Worth Dying For.  Clearly Reacher survived the catastrophic explosion at the end of 61 Hours.  (Was there ever a doubt?)  As Worth Dying For unfolds, Reacher reveals what happened, solidifying what we already know: Reacher is equal parts super human and super lucky.

In Worth Dying For, Reacher has hitchhiked toward Virginia but doesn't get very far.  He ends up in another tiny town, this time in Nebraska, which, of course, is full of corruption, crime, and hidden secrets.  The town is so small it doesn't have police of its own.  The Duncan family, three brothers and one son, rule the town with an iron fist.  No one dares to offend them or their henchmen, a bunch of former Nebraska football players.  Of course it doesn't take Reacher long to see the Duncan's power.  On his first night in town, he drives the drunk town doctor to assist the younger Duncan's wife, who has a broken nose.  He then tracks down her husband, breaks his nose in revenge, and the war is on.

The Duncans are more than a local family who forces all the farmers in the area to do business with them or suffer the consequences.  They are part of an international smuggling scheme.  They have kept their highly profitable business a secret from the townspeople, but when a shipment is late, one of their customers gets impatient and sends his muscle to help.  Then a couple other criminal gangs in the pipeline come to town to assist.  Between their internecine fighting and Reacher's overpowering wit, brains, and muscle, all the bad guys end up dead.  (Sorry about the spoiler.  But if you ever read a Reacher book, you would probably have guessed that.)

The set up of Worth Dying For seems artificial and contrived.  It's hard to conceive that the conditions of this town and the power the Duncans hold over it could actually occur.  But once you hurdle that barrier, the story is quite enjoyable.  Reacher is in fine form as a one-man army and bringer of justice.  He's one bad dude who's fun to root for.

Sunday, August 27, 2017

Be Like Bill, by Eugeniu Croitoru and Debabrata Nath

Maybe you've seen Bill on the internet.  Bill is a stick figure, popular on Facebook.  He meme messages implore you to be like him.  He conveys simple messages: life lessons, etiquette, online rules, relationship advice.  His creators, Eugeniu Criotoru and Debabrata Nath, have gathered some of Bill's (and his friend Bella's) best bits for the appropriately titled book Be Like Bill.

Bill is smart, he is not a douche, he is not immature, he is respectful of others, he has manners, he is polite, he is friendly.  Bill isn't an attention seeker, a show-off, or a whining moron.  If all of us were like Bill, the world would be a better place.

Be Like Bill is good for some laughs.  You will probably read this and think of lots of people who are not like Bill.  But I have a feeling that as much as you think you are like Bill, you will have to admit that you are not always like Bill.  Read Be Like Bill and be more like Bill.

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

Saturday, August 26, 2017

Texas Monsters, by Anne Paradis, illustrated by Sanaa Legdani

When I saw my city's own Stockyards Station on the cover of Anne Paradis's Texas Monsters, I had to check it out.  As it happens, I have been to all the stops on her monster's tour of Texas!  Paradis takes kids on a cartoonish tour of familiar Texas locales.  Sanaa Legdani's illustrations include cute monsters hiding around each scene.  As the kids get a taste of Texas landmarks, they will enjoy finding the monsters in their hiding spots.  (No scary monsters here.  These are more like the cuddly monsters of Monsters, Inc.)

Texas Monsters is a fun, colorful seek-and-find book, perfect for Texans, lovers of Texas, and people who wish they lived in Texas.  (That covers everyone, right?)  Find the monsters and plan your next road trip!

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

Friday, August 25, 2017

Adopted, by Kelley Nikondeha

Kelley Nikondeha, an adoptee and an adoptive mother, tells her story of adoption and offers reflections on adoption in the aptly named Adopted:The Sacrament of Belonging in a Fractured World.  Adoption is not only a lifestyle choice for families and individuals, but is reflective of our relationship with God and the body of Christ.  In the biblical message, "we belong by believing, not by biology."  Paul writes of our adoption as sons and daughters, which Nikondeha ties to the Greco-Roman view of adoption, through which the elite would "secure succession, legacy, and inheritance."

Nikondeha explores a theological view of adoption, interwoven with her own family's experiences and, more broadly, adoption as the rescue of orphans and growth of a family.  Adoption speaks to the larger body, as a testimony of inclusion.  "Adoption isn't only for or about orphans.  Adoption is about enacting shalom for all of us."  The question to ask in adoption is "How might we best contribute to God's shalom initiative?  We have in common the biblical imperative to increase the well-being not only of our families, but of our communities."

Adopted has moments of inspiration and insight, although it felt at times like a stream of consciousness.  Rather than read it straight through, it might be better enjoyed, at least by me, in little chunks.  I just didn't enjoy her style.  Though she wandered far astray from what most of us normally think about when we think about adoption, she inspired me to think more broadly about my own family's adoption experience and to expand my view of family.  Like Nikondeha and her family, who have experienced chronic illness, loss, and redemption, my family, "so full of redemption, yearns for more.  We live between the now and the not yet of resurrection."  Adopted will give you something to think about and pray about.

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

Wednesday, August 23, 2017

61 Hours, by Lee Child

Jack Reacher fans will be familiar with the set-up of Lee Child's 61 Hours.  Having hitched a ride on a bus tour with a group of senior citizens heading to Mount Rushmore, Reacher helps out when the bus slides off the road after hitting a patch of ice.  Reacher, along with the bus load of tourists, is stranded in a strange little South Dakotah town for a few days.  Of course, he arrives in a moment of crisis, and the town is embroiled in a major criminal enterprise.

Jack can't leave well enough alone.  The local cops quickly learn of his background as an Army investigator, and he pitches in with investigations and protective detail for a local woman who is a witness in a drug trial.  Although at first it seems simple, with a biker gang coming in and dealing meth.  But it turns out to be much larger than that, involving a Mexican drug lord and his Russian customers, a long-forgotten Air Force facility, and some corrupt locals who are under the gun.

Reacher, no surprise, gets to the bottom of it.  His kill number is actually pretty low in 61 Hours.  He only kills two, but, like all his kills, both of them totally deserved it.  One surprising element is that Child doesn't end 61 Hours with Reacher riding the bus into the sunset.  This is the only Reacher book I remember with a cliff hanger ending. . . .  As if I wasn't already eager to pick up the next book in the series.  These books are addicting.

Tuesday, August 22, 2017

Violated, by Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach

As a Baylor alumnus, life-long Baylor football fan, and now a Baylor parent, the last couple of years have been really tough to stomach.  The firings, the scandals, the abhorrent behavior by football players and other students, the responses of coaches and university officials to reports of rape and other crimes, and the bumbling PR treatment the university has put together has been painful and disheartening.  If you follow Baylor news closely, little in Paula Lavigne and Mark Schlabach's new book Violated: Exposing Rape at Baylor University Amid College Football's Sexual Assault Crisis will be new to you.  If you have not followed the news and fan message boards and rumor mills about Baylor closely, consider yourself lucky, but if you want a comprehensive treatment of the scandal, Violated is a good place to start.

Lavigne and Schlabach, ESPN reporters, have been at the forefront of the national media's coverage of Baylor.  They were instrumental in bringing broader attention to the scandal and churning out stories about it.  I felt like they had a vendetta against Baylor and was prepared to hate Violated.  I am forced to admit, however, that while they definitely have an agenda, their treatment is, for the most part, even-handed.  Many of the facts are indisputable.  There were predators on campus, including some on the football team.  Many women did not feel comfortable working with campus judicial affairs because of what they perceived as a judgmental culture.  Coaches, judicial affairs employees, counselors, and other university employees responded inadequately and, in some cases, offensively, to reports of rape.

Lavigne and Schlabach, as well as other journalists, exposed deep cultural and administrative problems that had persisted for a long time.  Thankfully, the light has been a disinfectant and things have been cleaned up and are in the process of being reassessed and restructured.  Interim president Dr. Garland may have been a little over exuberant when he claimed that Baylor would now be "the safest place on the planet," but I have not doubt that Baylor is becoming "a model for the rest of the country, of how to address these issues," as he said.

Given their mission--exposing rape at Baylor--it was unsurprising that Lavigne and Schlabach leaned hard toward believing every word any victim said and casting doubts on anyone associated with Baylor.  When there are two sides to any testimony or recollection of an event or conversation, the benefit of the doubt goes to the accuser.  The other side might be mentioned, but parenthetically or as an after thought.  In my limited knowledge of the events, I know that in many cases it's not as cut-and-dried as they imply.

I like the fact that they include in the subtitle "Amid College Football's Sexual Assault Crisis."  While the bulk of the book is focused on Baylor, they briefly place Baylor in the larger picture.  They write, "In fairness, Baylor wasn't alone when it came to college football's sexual assault crisis."  But then, sort of contradicting themselves, they assert that "the depth of its problems and sheer number of cases--and victims--set it apart from other schools" while also claiming that "if there were indeed seventeen incidents over five years, then Baylor's numbers are actually close to other college athletic programs recently studied."  I know "it happens everywhere" is a weak defense, and I don't want to diminish what was clearly a series of terrible events at Baylor.  But I still believe that if other schools were put under the microscope the way Baylor has been over the last couple of years, many of them would look as bad or worse.

What I hated most about the book, as an alumnus and now especially as a parent, was the characterization of student life.  Sure, there are parties, and kids drink and have sex.  To read their account, you might think that every weekend in Waco, there are house parties where people engage in gang bangs, and that every frat party has frat boys dropping drugs in girls' drinks so they can have sex with them.  Interviewees have testified that such things happen, but I object to the impression given that these activities are widespread.  I hope readers will recognize the limited scope of the book, and realize that much of Baylor's culture, even among student athletes, is wholesome, Christ-centered, and life-giving.

As much as I hated reading Violated, and as sick as these allegations against my alma mater make me, I have to acknowledge that Lavigne and Schlabach have done a service by bringing light to these events.  They pull no punches and spare few details.  I felt like I needed to take a hot shower after reading some of their accounts.  I think Baylor has taken great strides in student safety and engendering a culture of respect, and I continue to pray that Baylor will exemplify the ideals upon which it was founded for the sake of my son and other students, now and in the future.

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

Monday, August 21, 2017

Single, Gay, Christian, by Gregory Coles

Gregory Coles's voice is one I have not heard enough of in the conversation about sexuality and Christian faith.  Gregory, a gay, celibate follower of Jesus, tells the story of his faith and sexual identity in Single, Gay, Christian: A Personal Journey of Faith and Sexual Identity.  As he grappled with his young faith and his emerging knowledge that he was attracted to men and not women, he found "two kinds of gay Christians: the ones who revised the traditional interpretation of the Bible's stance on homosexual behavior in order to pursue committed same-sex relationships, and the ones who repented after years of promiscuity and became straight. . . . Neither category included me."  He says he was "unconvinced by revisionary theology on homosexuality, [yet] unable to conjure even the slightest heterosexual desire."

Ruling out the acceptance of homosexuality and the possibility of attraction to women left Gregory with a single option: celibacy.  In no way does he make his choice sound easy.  Anyone, gay or straight, can tell you that it can be a tough choice.  What I love about Gregory's perspective is that he has made the choice in light of his deep love for Jesus.  He doesn't lament the fact that he's choosing never to experience sexual intimacy, but he rejoices in the intimacy he has with Jesus.  While Gregory is not a pastor or priest, I am sure my friends who are priests would say the same thing.  Gregory challenges me to evaluate my priorities and my own willingness to alter my lifestyle in order to fall more in love with Jesus and follow him more closely, even to the point of self-denial and suffering.

I appreciated the honesty and openness with which Gregory shared his story.  I have to admit, parts of it made me uncomfortable.  He gives me a lot of hope, though, for my friends who have struggled with homosexuality.  The choice isn't between being gay or Christian; the choice is between following Jesus or not.  Even after reading this, I have a hard time seeing the value of identifying as gay if one is celibate.  If anyone, whether a priest or a confirmed bachelor or celibate gay man, is committed to a life of celibacy, does gay or straight still matter?  Clearly, to Gregory, it is part of his identity, and I respect his choice in declaring it.  As a result, he is equipped to reach a population that I, as a married, straight male might not reach.  He concludes that he is "a guy who's gay and loves Jesus and isn't ashamed to admit either of those things."  Thank you, Gregory, for your boldness and your call to follow Jesus, no matter the cost.

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

Sunday, August 20, 2017

The Biggest Story ABC, by Kevin DeYoung, illustrated by Don Clark

I love this!  The Biggest Story ABC is more than a colorfully illustrated, biblically-themed ABC book.  Pastor Kevin DeYoung tells the story of the Bible in twenty-six short selections, with illustrations by Don Clark.  Starting with Adam and ending in the new world of Zion, DeYoung covers the creation, the history of Israel, the incarnation, and the resurrection.

Even using the ABC structure, the story doesn't feel contrived at all.  For example, "God gave them Judges, but the Israelites didn't listen.  God gave them Kings, but they kept on rebelling.  God gave them the Law, but they disobeyed.  They needed a Messiah to make things right.  (OK, I guess the law [with the illustration of stone tablets, presumably the Ten Commandments] should have come before the Kings, but it still works.)

Can there be too many ways to tell the story of the gospel?  Can a child hear too many stories about God's work among his people?  Maybe.  But DeYoung and Clark's book is a welcome addition to anyone's collection of story books.  What a great springboard to deeper spiritual understanding.

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

Saturday, August 19, 2017

Refugees and Migrants, by Ceri Roberts, illustrated by Hanane Kai

It's important for children to gain a good understanding of the world around them.  Ceri Roberts's Refugees and Migrants (Children in Our World), with illustrations by Hanane Kai, introduces children to the concept of families being forced to leave their homes by war, natural disaster, famine, or other circumstances.  Being a children's book, those circumstances are not described in much detail.  But Roberts adequately describes the pain and difficulty of leaving home with few possessions or money and trying to make one's way in a new place.

This book would be especially valuable for children who have neighbors or classmates arriving from elsewhere.  In my part of the world, we had a large influx of domestic refugees fleeing New Orleans after Katrina.  My children have also had classmates from a variety of countries in Asia and Africa, not to mention from Mexico and points south.  Refugees and Migrants will help children like mine, who have lived in the same house for virtually all of their lives, have some sympathy and understanding for their newly arrived classmates.

Roberts doesn't get political.  Immigration is a human phenomenon before it is political.  And she doesn't address the terrorism Europe, and the U.S. have experienced, directly or indirectly as a result of immigration.  Children who read this book are too young to learn about rape and other crimes that have risen in some immigrant communities.  They will learn about those things eventually.  For now, make new friends, learn about other cultures, and be kind to others no matter where they are from or how they got here.

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

Friday, August 18, 2017

The Cross and Its Obsolescence, by Timothy John Tracy

As I read Timothy John Tracy's The Cross and Its Obsolescence, one word kept coming to mind: blasphemy.  That's not a word we use a lot, and it's not a word to be used lightly.  But I think it's inevitable.  Tracy, a lawyer, is well-read and certainly very bright.  (As he reminds us frequently by his constant use of rather obscure words, and, since we are not as smart as he is and might need some help with the vocabulary, he provides a glossary at the end.  Such intellectual arrogance.)  He's one of those people who thinks so highly of his own thoughts that he doesn't have a problem sweeping away twenty centuries of Christian thought and declaring that his way of thinking about God is superior.

It's not the rejection of church tradition and established Christian theology that bothered me most.  It's his conception of God.  He has constructed a God not from the witness of scripture but from what he thinks God's character should be.  The Cross and Its Obsolescence is written as an extended prayer to Tracy's idea of God, in which he rejects substitutionary atonement and speaks of the unreasonableness of one of the central tenets of the Christian faith.  The gospel, the message of Jesus death on the cross, is not good news, but "disgusting news, a miserable message about a miserable God who cannot forgive and abide with the created without the blood of the spotless."

Christians who disagree with Tracy are not only unreasonable, they perpetuate "toxic intorsions," pervert the character of God, are "idolaters of the Bible, worshippers of the cross of Christ," "sowers of rotten seed," hold to "unconscionable doctrines," and on and on.  You get the idea.  I picture Tracy in the courtroom, trying to wow the jury by using colorful descriptions, trying to impress them with his large vocabulary, and describing his opponent in such a way that he would make the jury feel like they would be idiots to rule against Tracy's client.

Tracy says he followed fundamentalist Christian faith for many years, and that he has "no desire to renounce Christianity."  Clearly he sees himself as a force for reform, speaking prophetically against the "morally bankrupt" theologies perpetuated by the church.  However, he basically speaks from his own authority, having dismissed the authority of scripture.  The one positive thing I'll say about The Cross and Its Obsolescence is that if the Christian reader can get past the arrogance of the author and his constant excessive verbosity, he or she will be driven to reflect more deeply on biblical Christianity and on the glory and redemption of the cross.

Tracy presents a caricature of Christian theology against which to argue his point, and offers little scriptural defense of his own position.  I kept thinking about what Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians: "Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, that he was buried, that he was raised on the third day. . . . And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is futile."  My hope is in Christ and his death and resurrection.  I also hope no one else will read The Cross and Its Obsolescence.  It's not worth your time.

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

Thursday, August 17, 2017

ABCs of the Christian Life, by G.K. Chesterton

G.K. Chesterton is one of those authors I always thought I should read but never really have.  So I was delighted when I saw this collection of Chesterton's writing in ABCs of the Christian Life: The Ultimate Anthology of the Prince of Paradox.  As promising as the title was, I didn't love it, and didn't fall in love with Chesterton's writing.

He's supposed to be a great writer, and I'm sure he is, but I was thinking this book was like taking the crown jewels, taking all the precious stones from their settings, arranging them by size, and calling the new arrangement "the ultimate display of the crown jewels."  The editors have pulled selections from a variety of Chesterton's work and arranged them in A to Z fashion.  (Asceticism, Bethlehem, Catholicism, Charles Dickens, etc.)  The result is twenty-six unsatisfying chapters, arranged arbitrarily.  Sure, there are some gems there, of varying brilliance, but apart from the settings of the craftsman, they lose their luster.

I don't like Chesterton less than I did before reading ABCs of the Christian Life.  But as an introduction and homage to Chesterton's brilliance and insight, I was rather disappointed in it.

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

Wednesday, August 16, 2017

Gone Tomorrow, by Lee Child

Jack Reacher always seems to be in the wrong place at the wrong time, but then he's the man for the job.  In Gone Tomorrow, Reacher witnesses a woman commit suicide on the subway in the middle of the night, and his curiosity about her won't let him leave it alone.  He starts off as a key witness, as he was speaking with her just before she shot herself.  But then he ends up investigating, and gets caught in the middle of a conspiracy of Pentagon secrets, the campaign of an up-and-coming senator, crazy Afghani terrorists, and police investigators trying to put the puzzle pieces together.

Puzzles are what Reacher is good at.  He puts himself inside the heads of others around him, anticipating moves and using logic to figure things out.  Gone Tomorrow is a solid Reacher story, where he uses knowledge from his military service and street smarts from the streets of New York to dig into some answers.  Of course, he leaves quite a body count.  The bad guys might have thought a crew of twenty would be sufficient, but they didn't count on meeting Jack Reacher.

Like all the Reacher novels, Gone Tomorrow works without the reader having read any prior novels.  He starts as a drifter, ends as a drifter, with nothing but the clothes he's wearing, his passport, his ATM card, and his folding toothbrush.  What more does he need?

Monday, August 14, 2017

Rescued from ISIS, by Dimitri Bontinck

Here's a heart-breaking story of teenage rebellion and a father's love.  Dimitri Bontinck writes in Rescued from ISIS: The Gripping True Story of How a Father Saved His Son about his relentless efforts to bring his son home from Syria.  Without a lot of preamble, Bontinck's teenage son became a Muslim, embraced the tenets and lifestyle, and was recruited to join ISIS to fight in Syria.

Bontinck recounts the changes in his son's attitudes, personality, and demeanor.  Yet he retained a belief in his son's goodness and held out hope that he could bring him home, withdrawing him from the toxic environment of radical Islam.  It took several trips.  He suffered capture and torture and risked his life by his presence and persistence.  He did get his son home, and became known as the guy who could bring home kids who have fled with ISIS.

As I read Rescued from ISIS, I felt like it was a cautionary tale.  On the level of parenthood, as Bontinck discovered, you have to be prepared for just about anything.  As I write, my wife is gathering the last of my son's things for his dorm; he's off to college tomorrow.  The reality is, kids grow up and start making their own decisions and choosing their own paths.  I don't see my son choosing Islam and fighting in Syria, but neither did Bontinck.  I appreciated his constant love for and dedication to his son, even when he rebelled against and rejected everything his family stood for.

On a broader scale, Rescued from ISIS is a cautionary tale for the West.  The Bontincks live in Belgium, which has turned into a recruiting ground for ISIS.  Cities across Europe, and, indeed, around the world, are experiencing the same thing.  Teens are given an idealistic vision of Islam and ISIS and recruited to fight in the Middle East and, potentially, in their own countries.  I would like to believe my Texas town is exempt from such a movement, but then I see the Islamic center down the street, the students at my kids' schools wearing hijabs, the families at the grocery store in full Middle Eastern garb.  I realize we live in a melting pot, and I realize that the odds are overwhelming that these are peaceful families, good neighbors, and faithful American citizens.  But it only takes a sliver of a population to be a radicalizing force.  One small group can touch those vulnerable lives and disrupt families and communities.  As Bontinck discovered, it's naive to ignore the connection between a growing Muslim presence in a community and the presence of ISIS recruiters.

Rescued from ISIS is exciting to read, but painful at the same time, as the author's son and other young people are damaged and taken from their families.  Not all of them make it back.  Rescued from ISIS is a challenge to parents to be aware of the religious and social foundation you provide in your home, and to Western culture to hold true to the democratic and religious foundations that have made us great.  God forbid we lose a generation to Muslim extremism.

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

Sunday, August 13, 2017

Most People, by Michael Leannah, illustrated by Jennifer Morris

It doesn't take long to determine that there are bad people in the world.  Michael Leannah wants us to remember that, contrary to what we see on the evening news, "Most people are very good people."  In Most People, illustrated by Jennifer Morris, Leannah takes a tour of the city, where we see people helping people, being kind, and smiling.  He points out that "Everyone looks nicer when they smile and laugh."

Even though people sometimes do bad things, they can change.  "There is a seed of goodness inside them, waiting to sprout."  Most people like babies, animals, and music.  Most people would rather smile than frown.  It's worth pointing out to children (and adults) this basic truth.  I like thinking about people in the best sense.  Even with the reality that we see, all too often, it's worth establishing a mindset that looks for the best in people, while being the best we can be as well.

Most People has a wonderful message with cute pictures.  It will make you smile and inspire you to be nice, too.

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

Friday, August 11, 2017

The Relic Master, by Christopher Buckley

No living author writes better political satire than Christopher Buckley.  If you haven't read his satirical novels Thank You For Smoking, Supreme Courtship, or really any of his other books, do yourself a favor and do so.  In the meantime, politics has become so ridiculous that any attempt to write a satirical political novel today will be a waste of time, as politics has become so much stranger than fiction.  So Buckley's most recent novel, published in late 2015, takes us back to the time of the Reformation.

The Relic Master follows Dismas, who purchases relics for his wealthy clientele.  If you want the bones of saints, straw from Jesus' manger, or pieces of the true cross, he's your man.  When it comes to the shroud in which Jesus was buried, that's a complicated request.  Risking his career and reputation, he teams up with the painter Albrecht Durer to forge a shroud.  When it's exposed as a fraud, his client sends him to steal the real shroud.

What follows is a madcap European Renaissance adventure, touching on the political and religious movements of the day.  Is it a problem that people are buying and selling cardinal seats?  What are these clerics going to do about this priest Luther?  Is he right that the practice of indulgences is getting out of hand?  The story is entertaining and historically enlightening.  Buckley takes plenty of liberties, but he clearly did some research to place the story in context and gets the setting just right.

I didn't enjoy The Relic Master as much as I have enjoyed many of his novels set in modern times.  But it is charming and sometimes hilarious.  (I should point out that if you have strong feelings about the authenticity of the Shroud of Turin, you might find Buckley's take rather offensive if not blasphemous).  If anyone can write a novel that will capture the absolute nuttiness of American politics today, it will be Buckley.  In the meantime, enjoy this little trip to the 16th century.

Wednesday, August 9, 2017

Dangerous, by Milo Yiannopoulis

If you know anything about Milo Yiannopoulis, you may know him as the flamboyant gay conservative who causes riots when he comes to town to speak.  Or you may have heard about his resignation from Breitbart news after his awkwardly phrased seeming endorsement of pedophilia.  As a result of that interview, he lost his book deal with Simon and Schuster.  Not to be denied, Milo self published Dangerous and his public profile has not diminished.

Say what you will about Milo, people are longing to for perspective like his: generally conservative views combined with irreverent humor and wit.  With his characteristic argumentativeness he names each chapter cleverly, "Why (insert left-wing group here) Hates Me."  He talks about gays, Black Lives Matter, feminists, Muslims, the alt-right, and others.  Milo's views aren't necessarily distinctive from other conservatives.  His distinctiveness comes from his politically incorrect attitudes, his willingness to speak the truth offensively, his amusing arrogance about his looks and fashi and his unusual demographic mix.  The fact that he is British, flamboyantly gay, Catholic, and ethnically Jewish causes some head-scratching among his critics.  He's been called a Neo-Nazi homophobe, which of course is ridiculous.  Actually, much of the criticism is ridiculous.

My problem with Milo and his book is that he revels in the obscene and profane.  His college tour was the "Dangerous Faggot" tour.  He uses lots of R-rated language.  Almost every chapter has one or more cringe-worthy references to his sexual preferences and promiscuity.  He loves pushing the limits--actually, well past the limits.  In all of this context, I really did enjoy his commentary.  He's a gifted communicator, and his arguments are well-reasoned and documented.  I appreciate the reach he has with the younger generation and wish him the best.  But, at the risk of sounding like the old-fashioned fuddy-duddy, I wish he'd clean up his act.

Tuesday, August 8, 2017

A Disruptive Generosity, by Mac Pier

To see highly successful (i.e., super wealthy) Christians apply their wealth to well thought out and effective causes on behalf of the gospel is inspiring.  As a decidedly non-wealthy individual, I am grateful for and have benefited from projects funded by people who have the ability to write checks with 5, 6, or even 7 digits.  Mac Pier, CEO of the New York City Leadership Center, has had many occasions to be on the receiving end of such checks, and tells some of those stories in A Disruptive Generosity: Stories of Transforming Cities Through Strategic Giving.

My somewhat cynical title for this review, or maybe alternative subtitle of the book, is "Mac Pier and His Rich Friends."  Pier has been involved in some cool, high-profile ministries and events around the world, like the Lausanne conferences, Movement Day, and, of course, the Leadership Center he heads.  He runs in the kinds of circles where he can ask for--and receive--million dollar gifts for a project.

A Disruptive Generosity disappointed me on the level of spiritual reflection on wealth.  Pier writes, "God is allowing marketplace leaders to be successful and then point them toward a larger kingdom opportunity."  Some of the generous people he profiles became wealthy, then had a profound conversion and subsequently directed their hearts toward God and his purposes.  Others were committed Christians who built successful companies, then once they "made it big," decided to start a lifestyle of giving.  And some were faithful givers from the start, expanding their giving as their wealth grew.

But how do they model giving for the average Christian?  Is there a connection between faithfulness and wealth?  Does giving produce grace or does grace produce the capacity to give?  Maybe these questions are outside the scope of Pier's book.  While I enjoyed reading about these givers and the impact they have had and continue to have around the world, my response tended to be, "Well, I could do some cool stuff with my money, too, if I had any!  If I'm a billionaire, I can throw a million here and a million there, no problem."  A better response, but one that A Disruptive Generosity did not elicit in me, would have been, "Wow, even though my means are modest, I should be more deliberate and sacrificial in my own giving." 

Pier can't control my response to his book, of course, so I'm sure it's not fair of me to dwell on my own response.  The greater picture he is a look at a variety of "gospel patrons," people who, with their wealth, can make a major impact on the spread of the gospel.  Pier writes, "God uses the professional success of marketplace leaders to give them a strategic and globally influential platform."  I certainly can't relate to the level of giving on which Pier's subjects operate, but I do appreciate getting a glimpse into that world. 

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

Monday, August 7, 2017

Girl on a Wire, by Libby Phelps

Libby Phelps grew up among one of the worst distortions of Christianity in existence.  The granddaughter of Fred Phelps, founder of Westboro Baptist Church, Libby was born and bred into a religious culture that is much more cult than legitimate expression of the Christian faith.  We know them for their offensive protests and their favorite catchphrase, "God hates fags."  To Libby, WBC is Gramps and Gran and a bunch of aunts and uncles and cousins.  They all live in adjacent houses and, even though they went to public schools and worked in secular workplaces, they live apart from the world. 

Girl on a Wire: Walking the Line Between Faith and Freedom in the Westboro Baptist Church is Libby's memoir of growing up in the church and leaving it.  Libby made it through high school, college, and graduate school as a member is good standing, participating in the pickets and helping with the needs of the church and the extended family (one and the same).  Her controlling, judgmental aunt finally pushed her over the edge, and she surreptitiously moved out, breaking ties with her family and pretty much the only life she had ever known.

While Girl on a Wire tells the story of WBC, to a certain extent, it is really Libby's story.  Her feelings, her experiences, her perspective.  No doubt her book is a valuable document for anyone wanting to compile a history of WBC, but I found it be unsatisfying in terms of the history, theology, and politics of the WBC cult.  If you already hate them, Libby won't make you love them more.  She does reveal their human side.  Fred Phelps may be a vitriolic, blasphemous cult founder to the rest of the world, but to Libby he's Gramps.  Libby's dad, Fred Phelps, Jr., may be an incorrigible cult member following in his father's footsteps, but to Libby he's a dad who tried to love his family and raise them well in spite of the toxic environment of the cult.

I'm sad that Libby does not seem to be able to separate the cult in which she was raised from the truth, joy, and transforming power of genuine orthodox Christianity.  I never got the sense that she engaged with Christians who could show her what real Christianity is.  She jumped in with a leftist group who counter-protests WBC.  I'm sure they're good people, but they are decidedly not a Christian group. 

Girl on a Wire is somewhat interesting, somewhat frustrating, and a little bit insightful.  If you're curious about a behind-the-scenes look at WBC, or cult life in general, pick it up.  Just keep in mind that it's the perspective of an immature girl and it's not full of sociological or theological insights.

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

Sunday, August 6, 2017

Daytime Nighttime, by Diane Lang, illustrated by Andrea Gabriel

Animals are always up to something.  Daytime Nighttime: All Through the Year shows animals in their habitats, day, night, and every month of the year.  Diane Lang's rhyming text and Andrea Gabriel's lovely watercolor illustrations describe animal activities day and night in every month of the year.

Mammals, reptiles, amphibians, insects, and birds all get some love in Daytime Nighttime.  Their activities tend toward the gentle side, resting, playing, or eating plants.  Of stalking and hunting prey, there is only a hint. . . . We don't want kids to be scared of the animals too early!

Although the rhymes are a bit stilted, they do manage to convey good information.  Even better is the matching game at the end that kids can play to recall what they've learned, and more detailed information that older kids and teachers can refer to for more in depth background.

Daytime Nighttime is written and illustrated by nature lovers, and is sure to engender love for and curiosity about nature in your young readers.

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

Saturday, August 5, 2017

The Love Bridge, by Jonathan Schkade, illustrated by Tim Bradford

As complicated as we try to make religion, the gospel of Jesus is really quite simple.  In The Love Bridge, Jonathan Schkade presents this simple message of our need for God and Jesus' role in reconciling us to him.  He pulls of the difficult challenge of packing a lot of good theology into a very few words.  Tim Bradford's bold, colorful illustrations perfectly support Schkade's text.

The Love Bridge would be perfect bedtime, dinner time, devotional time, or Sunday school story time reading.  It's never too early to learn about God's love for us and Jesus sacrifice.  I enjoyed The Love Bridge and will love sharing it with the kids in my life.
"God heals our brokenness with Jesus' love and forgiveness."  Praise God for that!

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

Friday, August 4, 2017

Agenda 21: Into the Shadows, by Glenn Beck and Harriet Parke

Glenn Beck and Harriet Parke's Agenda 21: Into the Shadows continues the story of Emmeline's escape from the compound, after the cliffhanger ending of Agenda 21.  She flees with her husband, her baby girl, and one of the boys at the compound.  As Into the Shadows begins, her husband's parents follow after them, with a team of enforcers in pursuit.

While the political themes of Agenda 21 are still present in this sequel, the emphasis is on the escape, survival, and the chase.  Emmeline and David meet up with an old couple who fled before the Authority took over and have been living in a cave for years.  Emmeline sees the luxurious compound where the top Authorities live.  Earth Protection Agency (EPA--haha!) enforcers are shown to be ruthless (but a little clueless) in their hunting of the escapees. 

Less a political tract than a story of survival and escape, Agenda 21: Into the Shadows nevertheless illustrates the depravity and unsustainability of a centrally controlled, authoritarian regime.  As Emmeline discovers, such a system may talk about equality, but some are more equal than others, as George Orwell would say.

Beck notes that the Agenda 21 novels are over-the-top.  But he also notes that the actual Agenda 21 could be applied and lead to, in the extreme, the Authority, the compounds, and the Earth Protection Agency.  Once we really look at the proposals of Agenda 21, we would be wise to heed Beck's words of warning and vigilantly protect our freedoms.  As another novelist wrote, to say "It can't happen here" might be all it takes to get the ball rolling toward it happening here!

Wednesday, August 2, 2017

The List, by Patricia Forde

The book description calls Patricia Forde's The List "Fahrenheit 451 meets The Giver for middle grade readers!"  That seems pretty apt.  The List is cut from the same cloth as the recent trend of teen-oriented post-apocalyptic and dystopia fiction.  While this whole genre of YA novels would point to classics like Fahrenheit 451 and The Giver as sources of inspiration, none of them measure up, including The List.

Letta, Forde's young, female heroine (most of these have young, female heroines, of course) is the assistant to the Wordsmith of Ark.  Ark was founded by an environmentalist named Noa (haha) who became frustrated when no one heeded his warnings about the rising sea level.  He established Ark, the ice caps melted, and his new city was high and dry, seemingly the last remnant of human civilization.

Noa, the authoritarian leader of the tightly controlled community of Ark, believes that language was the root of all of humanity's problems.  "Our aim is to curtail the use of language," he tells Letta, who becomes the Wordsmith after her mentor disappears.  "As you know, throwing words around is quite irresponsible, considering our history."  His public agenda is to limit language to The List, a list of a few hundred words.  His private agenda, which Letta eventually catches wind of, is much more insidious.

The List isn't bad.  It checks all the boxes for the genre.  Noa is a caricature of the evil dictator with a charming side.  The central planning and the enforcers of societal structure are stock as well.  The List is not wholly cookie-cutter, but it was not original or well-written enough for me to love it.

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