Sunday, September 30, 2018

One Snowy Day, by Diana Murray, illustrated by Diana Toledano

As summer winds down and kids are going back to school, it's hard to imagine that winter is around the corner!  Diana Murray and Diana Toledano help us anticipate the best days of winter in their new counting book, One Snowy Day.

Two kids and their puppy get up and see the new-fallen snow.  They and their friends have a ball sledding, making a snowman, having a snowball fight.  During the day, they count up to ten and then back down to one.

Murrays rhymes and Toledano's classic illustrations make the book memorable and re-readable.  Kids will have fun counting the objects on each page.  It's an idyllic world of snow and fun, just the way a kids books should be.  Now, let it snow, let it snow, let it snow!

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

Friday, September 28, 2018

Dance, Dance, Dance, by Haruki Murakami

I found a web site that ranked Haruki Murakami's novels.  Dance Dance Dance came in first.  Most other sites rank it in the middle single digits (among his couple of dozen novels).  This is the first of his novels I've read.  I picked it up after reading his wonderful memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About RunningEven though he's a respected, award-winning novelist, I didn't particularly enjoy Dance Dance Dance.  It's not terrible, it was just sort of pointless.

I thought Murakami, a Japanese novelist, would give me a window to contemporary Japanese culture.  But the vast majority of the references to movies, music, and literature are Western.  The whole story seemed very American, from my American perspective.  This tells me that people in advanced cultures around the world share many cultural similarities, and/or that the Japanese embrace American culture.

I won't recount the plot (such as it is) itself.  It involves some sort of supernatural portal in a hotel.  It involves a middle-aged man's friendship with a teenage girl.  It involves a writer who is unhappy writing ad copy and restaurant reviews.  It involves the lost loves of the writer.  Murakami comments on consumerism, pop culture, and longing in love.  It all comes together in a hodgepodge of existential aimlessness and dream-like narrative.  Truthfully, I don't get the appeal of this book. 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The Deep State, by Jason Chaffetz

Does anyone doubt that there are elements of the federal government that want President Trump to fail?  Every week we hear more revelations about government employees scheming to disrupt, discredit, or destroy Trump's reputation, agenda, and legacy.  As a congressman and chairman of the House Oversight committee, Jason Chaffetz had a front-row seat to the politicization and scheming of various departments and offices in the federal government, and has a unique perspective on efforts by unelected government officials' schemes to thwart Trump.

The Deep State: How an Army of Bureaucrats Protected Barack Obama and is Working to Destroy the Trump Agenda demonstrates that while there may not be an organized cabal calling the shots across the whole federal government, pockets of people throughout the District of Columbia, unelected and unaccountable, wield tremendous power as they protect their own interests and the interests of insider politicians.

As an outsider to Washington, Trump was doomed from the start.  Chaffetz writes that the Deep State doesn't like "exposure, accountability, or responsibility. . . . And they certainly don't like disruptive forces such as Donald Trump."  When Trump said he was going to drain the swamp, they knew exactly what he was talking about, the "vast, self-perpetuating bureaucracy whose aim is singular: to exist again tomorrow and the day after, to replicate itself, to be indestructible and nearly impossible to disrupt."

Give the Deep State's desire for the accumulation and centralization of power, Obama and Hilary exemplify their ideal chief executive.  Trump, on the other hand, not at all.  Much of The Deep State recounts Chaffetz's experiences trying to hold various federal agencies and programs accountable through his role on the House Oversight committee.  Time after time, he saw selective enforcement, cover-ups, lack of consequences or accountability, as wrongdoing was ignored or rewarded and investigations were blocked.  Even as a congressman, he had unelected bureaucrats shutting him out, refusing to appear before his committee, and withholding documents.

Upon the election of Donald Trump, the Deep State went into hysterics.  "The constitutional priority to enforce the law seems to have been replaced with a prerogative to sabotage and undermine the duly elected president of the United States."  The media views talk about the Deep State as paranoid ravings of a lunatic president and his sycophantic followers.  Chaffetz has seen it first hand.  Just because there's not an office with "Deep State" painted on the door doesn't mean that it's not alive and well.  Chaffetz has the stories to demonstrate that it's a real, corrosive force in our federal government.

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

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

On the Block, by Doug Logan

Doug Logan is a pastor in Camden, New Jersey, one of the poorest, most dysfunctional cities in the United States.  In that setting, he cannot ignore the missiological aspect of church life.  His congregation and the unchurched his church reaches out to are poor, addicted, jobless, minorities, homeless, or some combination of the above.  In On the Block:Developing a Biblical Picture for Missional Engagement Logan tells stories from his neighborhood and church that will inspire other Christians to open their eyes to the people around them.

One example of a non-traditional ministry and outreach strategy is Logan's participation in breeding American bullies, a dog breed that is popular in Camden.  Through his kennel and the American bullies community, young men have been drawn into friendship with other Christian dog owners and into church membership.  I honestly never thought of dog breeding as a missional opportunity.

Logan calls out some of his Camden church neighbors for preaching a health-and-wealth gospel which exploits poor congregants while enriching leadership.  This is a problem in inner cities across America, not just Camden.  (It's a problem in other countries, too.)  Logan is well-connected to church-planting networks and other organizations that keep them accountable, both in mission and theology. 

No matter where they are located, churches must heed Logan's challenge to quite making "the false dichotomy between them people out there and us people in here."  Whatever it looks like in your neighborhood, get out "on the block" and live out the gospel in your community.

Thanks to NetGalley for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, September 24, 2018

Why Trust the Bible, by Greg Gilbert

Pastor Greg Gilbert has a message for people who don't trust the Bible.  All he wants is a hearing, for open-minded people to look at the evidence of the Bible's historicity and validity.  In Why Trust the Bible?, Gilbert clearly and succinctly lays out his arguments for trusting the Bible.  It's a relatively brief book, aimed at a broad audience, but his footnotes provide an array of scholarly sources that interested readers can explore.

Gilbert's strongest arguments demonstrate the reliability of the text itself.  Compared to other ancient writings, we have many more copies of the Old and New Testament books than other works.  While there are some differences between different manuscripts, the differences are so few and far between that they are insignificant.  Gilbert tells the story of the passing down of the books and the assembly of the canon, putting together a strong case for the reliability and originality of the text.

On matters of faith, the case is not as convincing for the true skeptic.  Yet Gilbert does lay out enough that one must grapple with the testimony of scripture before rejecting it out of hand.  Many non-believers parrot arguments against the Bible without really knowing what they are talking about.  Many believers parrot their faith in scripture without a knowledgeable foundation.  Both groups should spend some time with Why Trust the Bible? and take Gilbert's exposition seriously.

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

Sunday, September 23, 2018

Hot Wheels, by Kris Palmer

If you are a person, you probably played with Hot Wheels at some point.  Hot Wheels are among the best-selling toys of all time.  On the 50th anniversary of their introduction to toy boxes everywhere, Kris Palmer has written Hot Wheels: From 0 to 50 at 1:64 Scale.  Hot Wheels fans will enjoy the story of the iconic toys.

Palmer covers the history of Hot Wheels, the development of the production process, the people behind the cars, and the many manifestations of the cars and the related toys.  I spend many an hour racing the cars on the orange tracks, with a lever you pull to boost them around another lap.  Not every car is covered here--there have been thousands of designs--but you are sure to see some that are familiar.

Hot Wheels is a testament to the enduring love of cars in our culture.  Grown-ups get into the action as well, as collectors or even as owners of special Hot Wheels editions of full-size cars.  In a way, the book is a real nostalgia trip, but the fact is, Hot Wheels are not in the past.  They still sell millions of them every year, and show no signs of slowing.

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

Friday, September 21, 2018

None of My Business, by P.J. O'Rourke

If there's anyone we can count on for hilarious and insightful political and economic commentary, it's P.J. O'Rourke.  How can anyone speak so much truth and make me laugh out loud so much?  His latest collection of wisdom and laughs is None of My Business: P.J. Explains Money, Banking, Debt, Equity, Assets, Liabilities and Why He'sNot Rich and Neither Are You.

Some of O'Rourke's stories, and certainly his ideas, will be familiar to O'Rourke's readers.  He is a libertarian/conservative, but most of all he's full of common sense (but I repeat myself).  Besides his lucid take on economics and economic policy, his perfectly placed one-liners set his work apart.  For instance, after comparing the cost of living for a middle class family today to the years of his youth, he writes, "What the math tells us is . . . In order to live an ordinary middle-class life, you have to be rich." I can relate to that. 

On a more practical level, he raises legitimate considerations for the charitably inclined.  "The . . . problem with charity is that you have to be careful when you try to make the world a better place.  When you try to make the world a better place, you're assuming that you know what the world needs, that you know what the world should be doing, that you know what everyone in the world wants.  I don't even know what I want."  Humbling and true.  Same goes for government efforts as well.

On the media, O'Rourke says "a significant American consumer trend is a bull (not to say bullsh-t) market in shallow, sensationalist, and often erroneous news stories."  He's not a Trump lover or hater, but he sees the bias in the news: "You'll never see a headline about how good things are.  Especially not involving President Trump." 

None of My Business is a breath of fresh air.  O'Rourke's unique perspective is decidedly on the right, but with enough good will and truth that surely those on the left can appreciate his writing.  May his pen never run out of ink.

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

Wednesday, September 19, 2018

The Equalizer, by Michael Sloan

Michael Sloan created and wrote the 1980s TV series The Equalizer, about a character who was part retired James Bond, part street justice vigilante.  In 2014, about the time Denzel Washington re-created the character for the movie based on the TV series, Sloan published The Equalizer, a novel giving the Equalizer's back story.

Robert McCall has recently retired from his deep black CIA division and settled into a New York apartment.  He wants to live a simple, quiet life, but when he sees someone in trouble, he can't resist helping out.  He befriends a young lady who is a regular at the restaurant where he tends bar.  A paid dancer at a night club, her boss is pressuring her into prostitution.  McCall gets involved, and gets in deeper than he ever imagined.  The contacts from his past life are not as far away as he would have liked.

The Equalizer flashes back to his covert days, and brings those past days into the present, as he contacts old friends and confronts old enemies.  While there are many parallels to the TV show and movies, McCall in the novel feels like a different character.  This novel is not the basis for the movie.  I'm not sure about the TV show; I have seen a few episodes, and I didn't recognize the plot from any episodes I've seen.  So it's best to view the novel as a stand-alone work.

In some ways, McCall reminds me of Jack Reacher, without the drifting.  Sloan has clearly updated the Equalizer character from the TV show, and added lots of 21st century pop culture references and use of technology.  He weaves sub-plots together with the major plot, and fills in McCall's networks around the city, in the back streets, subway tunnels, restaurants, and specialty shops.  It's an entertaining read that fills out the enjoyment of the small screen and big screen versions of Robert McCall.

Monday, September 17, 2018

Conquest, by John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard

John Connolly and Jennifer Ridyard's Conquest starts out like a lot of sci-fi novels: a more advanced civilization takes over a more primitive Earth.  The Illyri look much like us, and their culture is enough like ours that they blend right in.  This was sort of strange--there were greater cultural and physiological differences between European explorers and some of the natives they encountered than between Illyri and humans.  For the most part, the Illyri are benevolent dictators, sharing beneficial technology and medical advancements, while only killing a few million people and destroying Rome (minor details).

But humans don't like to be invaded.  Once the set-up of the story is complete, Conquest turns to a teen love story that feels like it should be on the shelf next to Twilight or Hunger Games.  The daughter of an Illyri leader gets mixed up with some super-cute teenage boys who are part of the resistance, fighting Illyri occupation.  Then her dad's super mean political rivals arrive from the home world to assert control over Earth.  She has to escape with her new boyfriend and fight the mean Illyri.

Conquest is not so much a book for sci-fi fans as a book for teens.  The tone, the scientific element (lack of), and the overly simplistic story places it squarely outside the realm of serious sci-fi.  Besides the whole star-crossed lovers element, I couldn't stand the melodramatic court intrigue.  It was almost insulting to read the cartoonish villains, like from a bad fairy tail.  And they had to throw in an dash of magic and telepathy to further push it into YA fantasy and away from hard sci-fi. 

If they ever make a movie of this, it might be entertaining.  I don't mind 90-120 minutes of special effects, battle scenes, and cheesy story lines.  But I didn't enjoy reading it, and I certainly won't be reading the sequel(s).  Too many other good books out there.

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

Sunday, September 16, 2018

Radiant, by Traer Scott

If you are a dedicated carnivore, but have a tender heart toward animals, you probably want to avoid Traer Scott's Radiant: Farm Animals Up Close and Personal.  Scott's collection of photographs of a variety of farm animals will make you want to cuddle these animals, not eat them.  As he points out, we don't typically think of farm animals as having personality, but spending time around them he discovered the intelligence of pigs, the friendliness and warmth of cows, and the social nature of chickens.

Many of the pictures are exactly what you would visualize as stereotypical farm animals, but a few, like the llamas and alpacas, won't be in any danger of showing up at the butcher.  In fact, all of the animals in Radiant were photographed at animal sanctuaries, where they can live out their lives without fear of the slaughterhouse.

Scott presents these photographs as a counterpoint to the factory farms so prevalent today.  He doesn't spend a lot of time on factory farms, but it's enough to make you think twice about the meat you eat from the supermarket or fast food restaurant.  Ecological or ethical questions aside, you will enjoy the simple beauty of these animals.  They may not be exotic, but Scott's photography captures their individual looks and unique characteristics in a very appealing way.

Buddy?  Or bacon?

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

Saturday, September 15, 2018

#Sad!, by G. B. Trudeau

Unfortunately, the once estimable G.B. Trudeau has come down with a case of T.D.S. (Trump Derangement Syndrome).  In his collection of comic strips #Sad! Doonesbury in the Time of Trump, he covers the months leading up to Trump's election and the first year or so of his presidency.  Like virtually every American comedian, Trudeau has given up humor in favor of bashing Trump.

Occasionally some of the strips poke fun at things like the PC culture, and Trudeau's characters go on with their lives.  So if you're a fan of Doonesbury, this collection might be just the thing for you to enjoy.  But if you're tired of the "Trump is stupid and evil" narrative being passed off as humor, don't waste your time with this book.  Let Trudeau write himself into obscurity.

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

Friday, September 14, 2018

Every Job a Parable, by John Van Sloten

As a pastor, John Van Sloten has made it his mission to help lay people see the sacredness and service of their own work, whatever that may be.  In Every Job a Parable: What Walmart Greeters, Nurses, and Astronauts Tell Us about God, he helps readers "kindle a new kind of vocational imagination, to help you experience God at work more, and to help you read the parable that is your job."

Van Sloten doesn't just point out the obvious ways in which certain jobs help others, but points to the manifestation of Christ that we can show.  In the medical field, doctors, nurses, and other practitioners can be the healing hands of Jesus.  First responders give a very present help in time of need.

But beyond some of the obvious examples, as the title suggests, every job is a means to demonstrating and practicing love and service for God and for others.  Van Sloten writes, "You are not primarily what you accomplish at work, nor is your value based on the sum of your aptitudes and skills.  Who you are is defined by how you selflessly and humbly relate--how you give, how you receive, and how you image the giving and receiving God."

I really enjoyed Van Sloten's take on vocation.  Even when you're punching a clock at a dead-end job, let Van Sloten change your perspective and see how God can use you there.  It's a word that most people in today's economic milieu need to hear.

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

Wednesday, September 12, 2018

White Kids, by Margaret A. Hagerman

Toward the end of her book White Kids: Growing Up with Privilege in a Racially Divided America, Margaret Hagerman writes, "Overall, from my point of view, this has not been a particularly hopeful book."  I would agree, but I would add that this has not been a particularly helpful book either.  Here's a news flash: white adolescents from well-to-do families may not have the most progressive views on race.  In fact, like any adolescent, their views on race (and everything) is fluid, immature, unformed.

Hagerman spends a whole book reproducing her conversations and observations from white kids and their families.  In doing so, she seeks to demonstrate that "white children receive the wages of race from very early ages and well into young adulthood."  That when white parents "fail to acknowledge inequality and racism . . . they are unintentionally complicit in the reproduction of it."  That even when parents "raise children in ways that truly cultivate antiracist praxis" they nevertheless receive "unearned white advantage and the benefits of class privilege."

Hagerman spends all her time talking to families in a thinly disguised, unnamed midwestern city.  (Based on the descriptions, and based on the fact that she taught at the University of Wisconsin, I'm guessing Madison.)  As a result, her sample size is quite limited.  When one thinks of a broadly diverse racial culture, I'm not sure Madison, Wisconsin comes to mind.  For many of these kids, the only black people they know are from poor and working class families.  In a larger metropolitan area, or in Southern cities, I suspect she'd find a wider array of black families.  (Come to Fort Worth and I'll introduce you to some.)

Despite the limited scope, she makes a few good points.  Many of the white families do value diversity.  They want their children to experience environments where they will interact with children of other races.  As Hagerman points out, though, wealthy white families have the option to choose their experiences.  Poor black families also want their children to interact with other races, but they are often not welcome, by tradition or simply an entry fee, at place or programs where white kids are participating.

White families do face a dilemma: like every family, we want the best for our kids.  But what if our kids have access to the best schools, programs, job opportunities, etc., because of our race, the (white) neighborhood we might live in, the financial status and generational wealth our family has (which black families haven't had an opportunity to have in prior generations), and other structural issues?  Do we then deny our own kids?  That way lies white guilt and racial restitution.  Hagerman's book sparks important conversations, but her whole tone and direction are not hopeful--or helpful.

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

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

The Warmth of Other Suns, by Isabel Wilkerson

From about 1915 until well past the middle of the 20th century, a great migration occurred of African Americans from the South into the Northeast, the Midwest, the West Coast.  In the Warmth of Other Suns: The Epic Story of America's Great Migration, Isabel Wilkerson tells the stories of three families and the history that surrounds them during this era.

Wilkerson doesn't lie when she includes "epic" in the subtitle.  The stories she tells span most of the century and several generations.  She selected three subjects whose family stories are representative of the experiences, tragedies, dreams, and triumphs of countless black families.

George Swanson Starling grew up picking oranges, but went off to college.  Unfortunately, his father refused to continue to pay his tuition.  He returned to the orange groves and rallied his fellow pickers to demand better pay.  That made him a target, so he left Florida, moved to Harlem, and went to work as a railroad porter.

All Ida Mae Brandon Gladney knew was picking cotton with all the other sharecroppers in Mississippi.  After her cousin was falsely accused of stealing turkeys and beaten badly for his troubles, Ida Mae and her family settled up with their landlord and headed north.  They ultimately settled in Chicago, where she became a pillar of the black community.

Robert Joseph Pershing Foster, like most blacks in Monroe, Louisiana, dreamed of living somewhere else.  His father was the principal of the black high school, his mother was a teacher, and his older brother was a doctor, so it made sense that he would get a good education and go to medical school.  After serving in the military as a doctor, he wanted to practice medicine somewhere besides their small Louisiana town, so he headed to California.  He eventually built a successful practice, primarily serving other black immigrants.

Wilkerson weaves the stories of these three stories together with their families' stories, the stories of other immigrants of the era, and the broader history of black America.  Several things stand out.  First, the sheer numbers of black people who left the South--millions and millions.  Some industries had to shut down for lack of workers.  Whites actively tried to keep blacks in the South, patrolling train stations and preventing people from leaving.

In each of these three cases, in New York, the Midwest, and in California, the migrants were disappointed to find that while they may have left Jim Crow behind in the South, his relatives were alive and well in other parts of the country.  Hotels, clubs, casinos, restaurants, even whole neighborhoods were off-limits to blacks.  White people assumed they were fit only for certain jobs, like hard labor or domestic work.  European immigrants who were arriving during this same period were able to blend in eventually because of their complexion, but blacks stood out, no matter how much education they had or how much they acclimated to their new homes.

Wilkerson masterfully conveys the broad sweep of history that the Great Migration represents.  Many of the stories she tells sound like ancient history, so foreign do the attitudes toward race seem.  Yet some of these immigrants are still alive.  In another sense, she helps to point out the ways that racism was woven into the very structure of many of our institutions.  The Warmth of Other Suns will give you an appreciation for all that this generation of black Americans had to overcome, and gratitude for the much more racially harmonious times we live in today.

Monday, September 10, 2018

What I Talk About When I Talk About Running, by Haruki Murakami

I have often said that the value of a book about running is whether it inspires me to get off the couch and go run.  Haruki Murakami's What I Talk about When I Talk about Running: A Memoir passes that test with flying colors.  Many American readers are not familiar with Murakami, an award-winning Japanese novelist.  He has written dozens of novels and short stories that have been translated into more than 50 languages.  In this running memoir, first published in 2008, Murakami talks about how his work as a novelist, his life, and his running are all a piece of who he is.

Murakami took up running at the time he decided to become a full-time writer.  He knew that sitting at a desk writing or thinking about writing all day would be detrimental to his health.  He began a habit of running an average of six miles a day and training for a marathon each year.  Later on he began competing in triathlons.

At no point does Murakami come off as an elite runner.  But he certainly sets an example as a dedicated, competitive amateur.  His work has clearly benefitted from his activity as a runner.  Most of us will never be famous novelists (or famous anything), but he models for us the habits of life and attitudes that can contribute to our success and overall well-being. 

Murakami's writing is engaging, personal, sometimes funny, and, most of all, relatable.  Not only does he inspire me to prioritize habitual running and racing, but I may also need to check out some of his novels.

Sunday, September 9, 2018

Spacecraft, by Michael Gorn and Giuseppe de Chiara

It's hard to imagine that mankind has been traveling to space for over half a century.  During that time, hundreds of different spacecrafts have been used to carry people and things into space.  Michael Dorn and Giuseppe de Chiara's book Spacecraft: 100 Iconic Rockets, Shuttles, and Satellites That Put Us in Space introduces readers to 100 of those spacecraft.

Spacecraft is a great intro to human space exploration, with the spacecraft we use serving as touchpoints along the way.  De Chiara and Gorn include a few photos, such as the stunning photo below, but most of the spacecraft are illustrated with detailed drawings.  It's interesting to see how the designs evolved, as well as to observe the differences and similarities between the designs used by NASA and by the USSR and other space agencies.

More than anything, Spacecraft got me excited about what's next.  My parents' and grandparents' generations have seen unfathomable changes in the way humans travel and interact with our world and in space.  I can't begin to imagine what my grandchildren will see in their lifetimes.

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

Friday, September 7, 2018

Sex Outside the Lines, by Chris Donaghue

Chris Donaghue wants you to jettison all the sexual mores you have learned from culture, religion, and community.  In Sex Outside the Lines: Authentic Sexuality in a Sexually Dysfunctional Culture, she encourages her readers that "all parts of your sexuality and arousal patterns are acceptable and should carry no shame," and that "sexual integrity means living in ways that honor what arouses you and are consistent with your own chosen value system, not a system you may have inherited from mainstream culture, psychology, religion, law, or the media."  So, do what feels good no matter what.

I'll focus on the positives here.  Donoghue is a therapist for couples, and is deeply committed to helping couples who are having issues.  Throughout the book, she offers guidance for healing relationships.  Her intent is certainly in a good place.  One of the principles is that "for those choosing the option of sexual monogamy, it is sexually abusive and aggressive to want to own your partner's sexuality and to be their only source for partnered sex, but then refuse to have sex with them."  I am not sure I would put that sentiment so harshly, but I agree with the basic point.

Good intentions and a few good points aside, Donoghue jettisons just about any other conventional wisdom, cultural norm, or religious principle regarding sex and marriage.  She promotes the following, for example: Sex experimentation should start as early as someone wants to.  "Waiting to have sex until after marriage or commitment is a template for failure."  Dating is a time for sexual exploration.  "All sexualities are equally valid."  Marriage is patriarchal and sexist, a holdover from ancient culture.  Marriage should be temporary.  "Compulsory monogamy is what makes marriages problematic, not infidelity."  There are many genders, not just two.

For her, basically, anything goes.  This is classic relativism.  She builds an ethic from every kink and deviance away from societal norms, rather than calling for behaviors within norms.  In fact, there are no norms.  Of course, she would reject any sexual activity that is not consensual, but the philosophy of sexuality she describes has let to relational pain and societal destruction.  Yes, there are some swingers whose marriages seem healthy, at least for now.  But how many more marriages have been ripped apart because of swinging or other activities?  To her, that simply means the relationship had run its course.

If you are seeking license to explore many expressions of sexuality, an excuse to break out of the monogamous norms of most of the world, well here you go.  Donaghue will give you the sources and arguments you need.  But if you're looking for a healthy relationship and real sexual integrity, you will not enjoy this book.

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

Thursday, September 6, 2018

The Gift of Prophetic Encouragement, by Debbie Kitterman

Foursquare pastor Debbie Kitterman sets just the right tone in The Gift of Prophetic Encouragement: Hearing the Word of God for Others.  First of all, she makes it clear that prophecy is for today; God did not quit speaking to his people in the first century.  Christians should be listening to God and paying attention to people around them, listening for words from God and preparing to speak those words to others.

Kitterman recognizes that prophecy has been abused in the church.  Her ministry of teaching about prophecy is built around a message God spoke to her: "The misuse and abuse of prophecy inside and outside the church has to stop!"  So while she acknowledges that one element of prophecy can be "calling forth and declaring God's plans or the speaking of future events," we must never forget that "Prophecy's purpose is to strengthen, encourage, and comfort those who hear and receive it."  She writes that God does not intend prophecy to bring recognition to the person speaking prophecy, nor does she believe the intent of prophecy is ever for public shaming or public revelation of sin.

The Gift of Prophetic Encouragement is full of anecdotes and scriptural guidelines.  She provides solid guidance for reflection and testing prophetic words before you speak them.  Some people think prophecy is only for a tiny, especially gifted group of prophets.  There are some who will be more gifted, but Kitterman insists that every Christian has access to prophesy.  I was encouraged to step out in faith and try to stay tuned in to God's voice as I go about my day, asking God with whom I might share a prophetic word of encouragement.

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

Wednesday, September 5, 2018

Calm, Cool, and Connected, by Arlene Pellican

Arlene Pellican recognizes that constant connectivity via our cell phones is a permanent feature of most all of our lives.  In Calm, Cool, and Connected: 5 Digital Habits for a More Balanced Life she introduces five habits that will help you control your phone and not be controlled by it.

I'll go ahead and be a spoiler and tell you what the five habits are:

  • H=Hold down the off button.
  • A=Always put people first.
  • B=Brush daily: Live with a clean conscience.
  • I=I will go online with purpose.
  • T=Take a hike.
Simple, right?  Well, sometimes.  For each of these habits, Pellican provides scripture and illustrations demonstrating that our smart phone or internet use is part of life like every other part of life, and needs to have its purpose focused above and beyond ourselves.  She gives simple reminders of how to manage our lives.  Put the phone down and look at the person you are talking to (or should be talking to).  Go outside and see the world with your eyes, not just on the screen.  Don't while away your time aimlessly scrolling through feeds.  Don't get sucked in to the seedier content that's out there.

To be honest, Pellican doesn't break any new ground here.  You already know pretty much anything she says.  But look, even though you know it, you need to hear it, right?  Admit it, you do.  She's not trying to nag, she's just trying to help you.  So put down your phone, read this book (or read this book on the Kindle app on your phone. . . . hmmm . . .), and let Pellican help you find more balance in your life.

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

Tuesday, September 4, 2018

On Reading Well, by Karen Swallow Prior

Karen Swallow Prior, professor of English at Liberty University, wants her students--and the rest of us--to read well.  In On Reading Well: Finding the Good Life through Great Books, Prior reflects on the classical and Christian virtues as they are demonstrated in several literary works.  For each of the Cardinal Virtues (prudence, temperance, justice, and courage), the Theological Virtues (faith, hope, and love) and the Heavenly Virtues (chastity, diligence, patience, kindness, and humility), she has chosen a novel or story to illustrate the virtue.  In doing so, she models a habit of reading in which the reader practices "discerning which visions of life are false and which are good and true--as well as recognizing how deeply rooted these visions are in language."

Her selections are probably familiar to most readers.  She covers a wide range of eras and styles: Henry Fielding, Dickens, Mark Twain, Tolstoy, and modern authors like Shusaku Endo, Cormac McCarthy, and Flannery O'Connor, among others.  Some I've read, some I've only seen movie adaptations, but even if I was completely unfamiliar with the featured work, Prior engages each in such a way that ignorance of the work doesn't prevent the reader from appreciating her analysis.

If you have an interest in the works included, you will certainly want to take time to read those chapters.  But I found Prior's overall emphasis to be most helpful in encouraging the reader to read anything he or she reads with a new set of filters.  Consider some of her advice for readers:

  • "Practice makes perfect, but pleasure makes practice more likely, so read something enjoyable." 
  • "Read books you enjoy, develop your ability to enjoy challenging reading, read deeply and slowly, and increase your enjoyment of a book by writing words of your own in it."  
  • "Reading virtuously requires us to pay attention to both form and content. . . . We have to attend to form as least as much as to content, if not more.  Form matters."  
  • "Reading well entails discerning which visions of life are false and which are good and true--as well as recognizing how deeply rooted these visions are in language."  
  • Literary reading is "reading that makes on the reader more demands of time, attention, and thought than casual reading."  

Prior doesn't directly address the question of literary fiction versus popular fiction.  I didn't sense a tone of snobbery toward non-literary fiction, but I wonder what she might say about popular modern authors.  Authors like Twain, Austen, Dickens, and Bunyan were hugely popular in their own day.  Their work has stood the test of time and remains popular today.  Today's popular authors like John Grisham, Stephen King, or Nora Roberts are not typically considered literary authors, but they are as popular today as Jane Austen and Charles Dickens were in their day.  So is the issue more how we read than what we read?  Too bad we can't fast forward two or thee hundred years to see which 21st century novelists are on the syllabus.  (My personal feeling is that many "literary" authors are over-valued, and that the world of popular fiction is full of overlooked and undervalued work.)

Whether I'm reading a centuries-old classic or a contemporary sci-fi novel (and I really need to read both), I can pay attention to the moral lessons and multi-layered messages implicit in any story.  Prior has helped me think about reading more slowly and deeply than I otherwise would.

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

Monday, September 3, 2018

Primordial Threat, by M.A. Rothman

When reading M.A. Rothman's Primordial Threat, you might think, "Yeah, I've seen this movie before."  A global disaster threatens earth, and a team of scientists, politicians, and regular people have to band together to figure out how to save all of humanity. . . .  Rothman takes this familiar archetype and adds enough originality to make Primordial Threat fresh and entertaining.

A group on the lookout for near-earth objects--meteors that threaten to impact earth--finds that the increased activity they detect is due to a black hole that happens to be on a course to intercept earth's orbit and swallow it up.  This, of course, would be a very bad deal for the future of the human race.  Since there's no way to alter the course of the black hole, the obvious solution is to move earth out its path.  Simple, right?

Thankfully reclusive supergenius Dave Holmes had an inkling of this and has been preparing for a decade.  When he comes out of hiding, his scientific team goes into high gear, producing the materials and power sources needed to pull of his plan to move the earth to another solar system.  In the meantime, a secretive global network of religious zealots believes that the black hole is God's deserved judgement, so they fight to thwart Dave's plans at every turn.

This is a big-budget, action-packed, special-effects-driven popcorn movie in a book.  Just as with those movies, you have to sit back, suspend disbelief, and enjoy the ride.  Do you have questions about the science involved in moving the entire planet into orbit around another distant star?  Well, stop!  Your place is not to question, but to enjoy the ride!  And a fun, science-y ride it is. 

If you like your sci-fi at a fast pace and on a grand scale, you get it in Primordial Threat.  If the earth is ever truly in the path of a black hole, lets hope a real-life version of Dave Holmes steps up to bat.

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

Sunday, September 2, 2018

Less, by Rachel Aust

With her YouTube videos and blog posts, Rachel Aust has made a name for herself in promoting the minimalist lifestyle.  In Less: A Visual Guide to Minimalism, she gathers many of her ideas in one place as a handy resource.  I found that while most people wouldn't want to go completely minimal as she has, her topic-by-topic presentation makes taking steps toward minimalism practical and doable.

Throughout the book, she has flow charts and decision trees you can use as you make changes in your home.  So as, for instance, you are sorting through the clutter in your closet or garage, you ask "Have I used this in the last six months?  Did I forget I own it?  Am I sure I'll need it again?"  That will be step one, and then there are more questions to ask, but, eventually you can decide whether to keep it, or gift/donate/sell it.  Her methods got me to thinking about how much junk in my house I can really live without, and to stop and think before I buy one more piece of junk where it will be in six months.

On other topics, I wasn't quite so excited.  For instance, on the minimal wardrobe, she promotes wearing a single color palette (bland) and wearing the same things over and over.  There is certainly something attractive to this.  I guess I am a bit like this (I'd be happy with a wardrobe of all the same neutral color pants with a variety of shirts to match), but guys have it easier than girls.

As an advocate for minimalism, Aust is over-the-top minimalist in every area.  But she doesn't beat you over the head with it.  Her attitude seems to be, "Here's what I do.  Take bits and pieces of it and figure out what works for you."  I'm pretty sure every single person reading this review could put some of Aust's suggestions to work and be better of for it.  I know I could!

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