Thursday, November 30, 2017

Bible Promises for Parents of Children with Special Needs, by Amy E. Mason

Amy Mason is the parent of a child with special needs.  Her book Bible Promises for Parents of Children with Special Needs is exactly what it says it is.  An alphabetical list of 128 topics, from Abandonment to Worry, will point parents to a variety of scriptures address the issue, and offer a paragraph or two of encouragement and inspiration from Amy.  As with any book like this, some of the topics and content won't apply to every reader.  But every reader will find something helpful here.

Although the arrangement is simply alphabetical, there are many pairings which, whether intentional or providential, go together nicely: thankfulness and trials, knowing God and letting go, expectations and faith.  This isn't really a book to be read cover-to-cover.  It's designed to keep handy and turn to specific pages according to what is going on in your life.  But these pairings made me think sometimes God will speak in ways that we don't expect and aren't looking for.

Most of the verses and Mason's portion will apply widely to parents and even to Christians without children.  But I appreciate her gathering these verses together to be read in light of the unique perspective of parents of children with special needs.  Bible Promises is a handy resource to point us to God and his word.

Thanks to the Tyndale Blog Network for the complimentary review copy!

Wednesday, November 29, 2017

Jimmy, by Robert Whitlow

After five legal thrillers, Robert Whitlow shifted gears a bit with Jimmy.  Jimmy, a teenager with intellectual disabilities, has a strong sense of right and wrong, deep faith in God, and a team of "watchers" who are his occasional companions.  Jimmy follows Jimmy as he experiences life and growing up.  He testifies in a trial about what he heard on a police radio while he was washing police cars.  His grandfather teaches him how to climb a power pole.  His birth mother, whom he hasn't seen in years, comes around wanting to establish a relationship with him.  He gets lost in the woods.  He and his grandfather compete in a fishing tournament.  He becomes the football team's manager and thwarts a point shaving scheme by some of the players.

Unlike most of Whitlow's books, there is not much of a plot in Jimmy.  Some of the events and experiences string together, but it's more of character sketch of Jimmy during a crucial period of his life.  I enjoyed Whitlow's descriptions of Jimmy and his relationships with his family and community.  He is very committed to church and to his faith, and talks to and about his watchers (angels).  He also wants those around him to experience salvation.

Jimmy is an adorable character with a pure heart.  His ups and downs are pretty melodramatic; it's like Whitlow tried to cram in a few too many major events in a short amount of time.  But it's still a fun, emotional, enjoyable read.

Monday, November 27, 2017

Running Out, by Dave Essinger

What better person to be stranded in the wilderness, miles from nowhere, than someone who is experienced in running through the wilderness, miles from nowhere?  In Dave Essinger's debut novel, Running Out, Dan Collins and his wife and baby daughter crash in a remote part of Canada.  Their pilot is killed, Dan's wife's leg is broken in the crash, and they have no way to contact anyone.  Dan, who ran cross country in college and now competes in ultramarathons, barely hesitates before he concludes their only option is for him to run until he can find help.

And run he does.  He recalls seeing power lines from the air, and decides to run toward the power lines, then follow the power lines to civilization.  He runs and runs, for a couple of days, but the bulk of the story is flashbacks to his college days, running cross country, training for longer distances, pursuing a doctorate in physical therapy.  Besides reflecting on his personal story, he gives a lot of technical information about running mechanics and the physiology of running.  Dan's research involves the limits of human endurance and the stresses the body endures while running long distances.  He uses himself as a research subject.  While running out of the wilderness in hopes of saving his own life and his wife and daughter's lives, he experiences the realities of his research to the extreme.

I enjoyed Running Out even though the flashbacks got a bit old.  I was wishing for more "running out of the wilderness" narrative, not so much the "autobiography of a runner" narrative.  To be fair, if it was just the former, the story would have been a little flat.  "Our plane crashed.  I ran for help.  I ran until the sun went down.  Then it came up.  Then it went down.  Still I ran."  So, yeah, the balance between present day and flashback was well done.  Toward the end, Dan begins to lose his grip on reality, hallucinating and talking to people who aren't there, so much so that I wasn't quite sure what actually happened in the end. . . . 

Barnes is a good writer.  Runners especially will enjoy his detailed, insider's view of the world of running, but readers of all stripes will enjoy the story of human struggle, reminiscence, and striving for redemption.

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

Sunday, November 26, 2017

The Very Very Very Long Dog, by Julia Patton

Julia Patton's The Very Very Very Long Dog is one of those silly, sweet children's books that is fun to read just because of its absurdity.  Bartleby is the very, very, very long dog of the title.  He lives in a bookstore and is beloved by all.  The problem is that when he goes on his walks around the city, he can't keep track of where his back end is!  Chaos follows in his wake.  Traffic accidents, construction site mishaps, pedestrian collisions, and all sort of "crashing and bashing" leave people flustered and unhappy.

This makes Bartleby sad, so he determines to stay in the bookstore, never to go on the street and cause so much trouble.  His kind friends put their heads together and come up with a solution.  Dog loving children will get a kick out of Bartleby.  Patton's illustrations are comical and cute.  Every kid will want a cute, long dog like Bartleby.

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

Saturday, November 25, 2017

Meet Me Where I'm At, by Cindy Best and Joyce Shor Johnson

One of the challenges of having a child with disabilities is introducing him or her to a new teacher or caregiver.  This is especially challenging if the child is nonverbal.  Out of this type of experience, Cindy Best and Joyce Shor Johnson have written Meet Me Where I'm At.  Best notes that this book is based on a "guidebook" she made for her son when he was young "in order for his teachers to understand him."  She "wanted to have a way to inform each teacher, coach, or adult he encountered along his journey that this is how he is wired."

Throughout, the plea is to "Meet me where I'm at."  If the child runs away, can't sit still, doesn't seem attentive, or has trouble understanding, Best and Johnson offer some explanations and solutions.  Even better, they leave space for your child to fill in his or her own needs.  For example:
What works best for me is _________!
To learn best, sometimes I need to _________.
To quiet myself down, I _________.
In fact, these fill-in-the-blank sections have the greatest potential to make this book useful for each child or family.  Some of Best's descriptions may fit your child's behaviors exactly.  But every child is so different that you will want to add plenty of your own content.  The best use for Meet Me Where I'm At is probably as a model.  Use it as a template for writing your own personalized book, with pictures of your child, descriptions of his or her behavior and needs, and input from the child.  This is what my wife has done, and all of my daughter's caregivers and teachers have been delighted to know exactly how to meet her where she's at.

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

Friday, November 24, 2017

A Death in China, by Carl Hiaasen and Bill Montalbano

If I didn't see Carl Hiaasen's name on the cover of A Death in China, which Hiaasen co-wrote with Bill Montalbano, I'm not sure I would have believed he had a role in writing it.  First of all, as the title suggests, this story doesn't take place in south Florida!  A Hiaasen book that is not set in Florida?  What universe are we living in?  Second, it's not funny.  At all.  If you've read Hiaasen's solo fiction, you know he's one of the funniest crime novelists ever.

But that fact that Hiaasen had a little something to do with writing A Death in China is revealed by the delightfully twisted plot.  Tom Stratton is an American art history professor on tour in China.  He runs into his academic mentor, who has come to visit his long-lost brother, a Communist Party official.  When the mentor is reported dead, Stratton investigates, and soon finds himself on the bad side of the Communist brother's smuggling plot, running for his life.

Hiaasen and Montalbano keep it interesting and keep the reader guessing.  Stratton deals with memories of his brief, violent incursion into China while he was in the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.  His desire to atone for his actions during that time, as well as his desire to avenge the death of his friend and mentor, drive him to take some risks and get to the bottom of the antiquities theft.  It may not be a Hiaasen-esque story, but A Death in China is a decent mystery.

Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Stranger No More, by Annahita Parsan

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 20, 2017

Life Everlasting, by Robert Whitlow

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

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

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

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Ian Fleming

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 18, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 17, 2017

Life Support, by Robert Whitlow

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Artemis, by Andy Weir

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Best Kind of People, by Zoe Whittal

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 12, 2017

101 Movies to Watch Before You Die, by Ricardo Cavolo

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

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

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 11, 2017

Random Illustrated Facts, by Mike Lowery

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 10, 2017

Mean Dads for a Better America, by Tom Shillue

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

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

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 8, 2017

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, November 6, 2017

The Trial, by Robert Whitlow

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

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

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

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

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

Sunday, November 5, 2017

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

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

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

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

Saturday, November 4, 2017

How to Be Perfectly Unhappy, by The Oatmeal

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, November 3, 2017

Directive 51, by John Barnes

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

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

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

Wednesday, November 1, 2017

Not a Crime to Be Poor, by Peter Edelman

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

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

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

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

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

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