Saturday, September 18, 2010

The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

The Thief (The Queen's Thief, Book 1) 
Title: The Thief by Megan Whalen Turner

Pages: 220

How it was obtained: Library.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 3 days.

Days spent reading it: 2 days.

Why I read it: I read a sample chapter on my kindle and it was interesting.

Brief review: I was really interested in this book after reading the first few chapters on my kindle. I thought this was a book that had a lot of potential. The Thief is set in a fictitious nation called Attolia. I believe it is loosely based on ancient Greece at the height of its power. The main character, Gen, is a wonderful narrator. His counterpart, the magus, is a believable and interesting character as well.

As I was reading The Thief, I thought the pace was a little slow. I guess I did not think there was enough adventure throughout this tale. However, I must admit, the last few chapters redeemed this book for me. There are some fantastic turns and developments during the falling action of this novel.

I think anyone who is interested in young adult fantasy type novels would enjoy this little tale. There is a whole series the stems from this first novel. I do not think I will start reading them just yet, but would consider them when I have caught up on some of my reading lists.

Favorite quote: "It is too bad for you that intelligence does not always attend gifts such as yours, and fortunate for me that it is not your intelligence I am interested in, but your skill. If you are as good as you say you are."

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Unexpected.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Genius Squad by Catherine Jinks

Genius Squad 
Title: Genius Squad by Catherine Jinks

Pages: 436

How it was obtained: Bargain bin at Borders.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 1 year.

Days spent reading it: 3 days.

Why I read it: It is a part of the Evil Genius Series.

Brief review: Genius Squad is the follow up novel to Catherine Jinks' young adult novel Evil Genius. I was really looking forward to reading Genius Squad until I actually started reading it. For some reason the book seemed to be really slow to me. Not much happened in the first few hundred pages. I enjoy the character of Cadel, but was not really impressed by the plot of this particular installment. I wonder if Jinks could have trimmed the fat from this book and made it a more readable and enjoyable story in the process.

I know that there is a third installment in this series coming out, but I am not really convinced to pick it up. While the last half of Genius Squad picked up the pace, I just do not feel invested enough to continue the series. Overall Genius Squad falls flat for me.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

Final Word: Slow.

Sunday, September 12, 2010

Simple Church by Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger

Simple Church: Returning to God's Process for Making Disciples 
Title: Simple Church: Returning to God's Process for Making Disciples by Thom S. Rainer and Eric Geiger

Pages: 257

How it was obtained: It was given to me by the lead pastor.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 0 days.

Days spent reading it: 2 weeks.

Why I read it: As a part of church leadership we decided to read through this book and brainstorm through some ideas about discipleship.

Brief review: Clarity. Movement. Alignment. Focus. These are the four basic principles that the entire book revolves around. The simple argument of Simple Church is that our discipleship process needs to be simple. That's all there is to it. The rest of the book was filler on how that objective is accomplished. We need to have clarity, in other words we need to know what we want to accomplish. We need to have movement, people need to grow, they need to know what the next step in the process is. There needs to be alignment between the different areas of the church. A youth ministry should follow the same process as the adult ministry, etc. Keep everyone on the same page. The hardest element is focus. Cut all the clutter. Are you doing fun things that serve no real purpose? Cut them. Do you have programs that are just there, but not really helping people move forward in their walk? Cut it.

I appreciated the thoughts I found in Simple Church. I think some churches will embrace the message, while others will struggle to reduce the clutter that years of different programs have created. I think this book helps us rethink how we are processing our disciples through our churches. It was certainly worth going through, but I think the churches that need it most will struggle the most to implement the changes the book suggests. I definitely recommend to senior pastors and elders in churches that need some clarification on what they are doing.

Favorite quote: "First Church gives a lot of announcements. People are invited to everything. The Sunday we are here, they announce eight different things. All with passion. All with the "this will change your life and you must come" tone….There is a lot of activity. A lot of busyness. And a lot of complexity. All of it can be justified by the right spokesperson. It just does not fit into a big picture. There is no big picture, no process that guides the ministry."

Stars: 4.5 out of 5.

Final Word: Simple. (Too easy!)

Saturday, September 11, 2010

A Canticle For Leibowitz

A Canticle for Leibowitz
Title: A Canticle for Leibowitz by Walter M. Miller, Jr.   

Pages: 320

How it was obtained: Library.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 1 week

Days spent reading it: 2 weeks

Why I read it: I heard it was a story about life after a nuclear holocaust. That's almost always right up my alley.

Brief review: The world has plunged itself into darkness once again. Nuclear war broke out between America and other nations in the world. From the rubble civilization attempts to rebuild itself. At the heart of this renewal are monastic enclaves which continue to carefully copy any books or documents they can. So as this novel opens, one monk finds a cave filled with documents that date back to just before the world literally blew up. He finds original blueprints from the hand of Leibowitz, who is about to attain sainthood in the church.

A Canticle for Leibowitz explores three different eras after the atomic war. Each one has a unique look at how the world plummeted, but also how it is recovering. These three eras are all based around the abbey that Leibowitz supposedly founded.

What I found interesting about this story compared to other end of the world stories was the clear imprint of the cold war on the author. The book was written in the 1950s, and you can feel the fear and anxiety in every page. This book brilliantly explores the consequences of Mutually Assured Destruction without dwelling too much on the past. A Canticle for Leibowitz does what every good science fiction novel does: it paints a unique world in the future and addresses current world problems within that world. I enjoyed the setting of the monastery, but sometimes the Latin was difficult to follow.

I would definitely recommend this book for sci-fi fans, and people who enjoy a good end of the world book.

Favorite quote: "Are you going to submit to the yoke, son? Or aren't you broken yet? You'll be asked to be the ass He rides into Jerusalem, but it's a heavy load, and it'll break your back, because He's carrying the sins of the world." "I don't think I'm able."

"To minimize suffering and to maximize security were natural and proper ends of society and Caesar. But then they become the only ends, somehow, and the only basis of law—a perversion. Inevitably, then, in seeking only them, we found only their opposites: maximum suffering and minimum security."

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Rewarding.

Tuesday, August 17, 2010

Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Leviathan (Leviathan (Quality)) 
Title: Leviathan by Scott Westerfeld

Pages: 440

How it was obtained: Library.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 1 ½ weeks.

Days spent reading it: 3 days.

Why I read it: The cover looked cool and it kept getting recommended to me in my amazon searches.

Brief review: Leviathan is set during World War I with a few significant changes.  Genetically altered animals serve as the backbone of the British Empire, and mechanical war machines for the German army. This is a futuristic novel written about the past.  The story follows two individuals: Alex (the son of the assassinated Archduke of Austria) and Deryn (a girl who disguises herself as a boy to join the air force). The plot kept moving, the characters were interesting, the creativity was flowing. We follow their adventures as these two characters attempt to find safety from their pursuers and eventually join forces. My only gripe is that this was just the first installment of a trilogy and I thought it was a stand alone.  But really this is not a bad thing, the story was interesting enough that I would follow a trilogy (I was a little less excited about the possibility of a longer series). 

This is a fun introduction to the steam-punk genre if you have never experienced it before. Steam-punk usually involves a story set in the Victorian era and then adds crazy elements from the future back into the era. Like giant mechanical war machines, or flying whale-like airships.

Leviathan was a fun novel, worth the quick read. I would highly recommend to young adults and people who like (or would like to be introduced to) steam-punk.

Favorite quote: "What the Clankers lack in finesse they make up for with blanket ruination."

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Beastly.

Monday, August 16, 2010

Fire by Kristen Cashore

Fire (Graceling) 
Title: Fire by Kristen Cashore

Pages: 480

How it was obtained: Purchased on the Kindle for Susan.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 7 months.

Days spent reading it: 3 days.

Why I read it: I enjoyed Graceling, Cashore's first young adult novel. Thus I read Fire, her second novel in the same world.

Brief review: In Fire, we sort of revisit the world Kristen Cashore created in Graceling. But we are placed a few decades before the events in Graceling and in a different major nation. Fire is about a "monster" girl named Fire. In this world, a monster is any creature (human, lion, mouse) who was born with a magical twist. Monsters are born with unnatural hair color, like Gold or Green or Blue. They also are able to control the minds of those who are weak willed. Furthermore they attract the attention and affection of anyone they encounter. It's a crazy world.

Kristen Cashore delivers a very unique and surreal world yet again in her second novel. I liked the main character and the plot, but it was just a little less great than Graceling. Here's the thing, if I had never read Graceling I would have thought this book was great. Maybe a 5. But Graceling was spell-binding, and Fire just does not live up to that first introduction to Cashore's writing. I enjoyed Fire. I thought her ideas were once again fresh, but I also know how great her writing can be and this was just a little sub-par. I definitely recommend Fire without hesitation, but I would once again recommend Graceling as a superior work of writing.

Favorite quote: "Brigan, could you attempt, at least, to make yourself presentable? I know this is a war, but the rest of us are trying to pretend it's a party."

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Imaginative.

Sunday, August 15, 2010

The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Prisoner’s Dilemma by Trenton Lee Stewart

The Mysterious Benedict Society and the Prisoner's Dilemma 
Title: The Mysterious Benedict Society and The Prisoner's Dilemma by Trenton Lee Stewart

Pages: 400.

How it was obtained: This is the first book I ever ordered for my Kindle. Took me awhile to get to it!

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 7 months.

Days spent reading it: 3 days.

Why I read it: I have enjoyed the Mysterious Benedict Society series and wanted to continue reading through them.

Brief review: The Mysterious Benedict Society (MBS) is a series of books by Trenton Lee Stewart. I absolutely loved the first book in the series. This third book in the series, while not bad, was not as inspired as the original either. The MBS is about three children geniuses and their friends who must outwit an evil mastermind. I guess as I have read this series I found the first book fresh and new, but the subsequent books have had a little of the same old same old genius kid vs. evil genius. I typically love those kind of plots, but this incarnation is getting a touch hackneyed.

What I did enjoy about this book was that it brought the trilogy to a good conclusion. Loose ends were tied up, character arcs were completed. Stewart will probably go on writing more in the series, but here is a clean wrap up for right now. Stewart is a solid writer. His characters are charming, at times annoying, and occasionally brilliant. This is a solid series which entertains, and I think it has greater potential than the two sequels have produced.

I would definitely recommend this series to young adults. Parents and other adults might also enjoy the series, but as I said it is never as inspired as that first installment.

Favorite quote: "Yes, but you're smarter than he is, Reynie. Also, you're not evil."

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

Final Word: Unoriginal.

Saturday, August 7, 2010

Feed by M.T. Anderson

Title: Feed by M.T. Anderson

Pages: 237

How it was obtained: Library

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 1 week.

Days spent reading it: 2 days.

Why I read it: Combination of seeing it in the bookstore and then a recommendation from a youth pastor friend of mine.

Brief review: Feed was a fascinating book about our dependence on being connected. In the story people have had implants put in their brains which keep them connected to something like the internet 24/7. While this theme alone would be interesting, Anderson's most incisive themes revolve around our consumer mentality and what it would look like if fueled by a constant barrage of signals to our head telling us to buy new things tailored specifically for us. Feed is a very thought provoking, insightful book. However I have to warn readers about the language. Curse words are prevalent, as I believe Anderson was hoping to capture the feel of the real vernacular of teenagers today. I could see youth talking like this. Sad, but I can see it.

Apart from the language, I would whole-heartedly recommend Feed. It is targeted at young adults, but parents would be wise to read this with their kids and talk about the themes of constant connection and dependence on technology, consumerism, and even suffering and death. Feed is the 1984 for today's youth.

Favorite quote: "I am filled with astonishment at the regularity of your features and the handsome generosity you have shown my daughter. The two of you are close, which gladdens the heart, as close as twin wings torn off the same butterfly."

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Thoughtful.

Friday, August 6, 2010

The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

The Invention of Hugo Cabret 
Title: The Invention of Hugo Cabret by Brian Selznick

Pages: 534

How it was obtained: Library

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 0 days.

Days spent reading it: 2 days.

Why I read it: The concept for the book seemed interesting.

Brief review: The Invention of Hugo Cabret is a unique offering. The story is told through two mediums—written words and pictures. The story is about Hugo Cabret who discovers and begins to repair an early prototype of a robotic machine. The story is fairly basic. It follows Hugo as he repairs the machine and introduces a few characters along the way.  It is clear that Brian Selznick loved early movies and Hugo's adventures depend on people caring about those kind of movies as well.

Overall I thought this book was only alright. It looked very creative as a media presentation, but the story line was just not that great. The pictures, while moving the plot, also were not my cup of tea. I hope Selznick attempts more books like this because it is a good idea, but it just was not executed as well as it could have been. I would recommend to middle school students who might not like to read too much but do enjoy seeing plots unfold through pictures. Not too bad, not too great.

Favorite quote: "Time can play all sorts of tricks on you. In the blink of an eye, babies appear in carriages, coffins disappear into the ground, wars are won and lost, and children transform, like butterflies, into adults."

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

Final Word: Different.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Title: The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness

Pages: 479.

How it was obtained: Susan got it for my birthday.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: About a month.

Days spent reading it: 3 days.

Why I read it: I ran across a copy at a bookstore and thought the premise sounded interesting.

Brief review: Holy cow. After reading the first chapter I was hooked. A few more chapters in and the action begins and does not quit. Ever. I loved it. The premise of the book is simple, what if men's thoughts were broadcast out loud for everyone to hear? And that's what happens in this book. Prentisstown is filled with men (just men, no women) whose thoughts are out there for the world to see. It is a form of germ warfare that left the women dead and the men with unfiltered thoughts exposed to the world.  They call it "the Noise."

But there are secrets in Pretisstown, and as soon as Todd Hewitt begins to discover a few of these secrets his life changes dramatically and he is forced to flee Prentisstown. As far as the plot goes, that's all I am willing to divulge.

The Knife of Never Letting Go is full of incredible plot twists, revelations, and action. I could not put it down. Ness writes a captivating story that makes you want to press on just a little bit further every time you want to put the book down. I love that.

I would definitely recommend this book. It is marketed as a Young Adult book, but the violence (there is a lot of violence), occasional cursing (including one f-bomb, and many substitutes), and undercurrents of despair would keep me from recommending this outright to youth. Parents should be discerning. On the other hand the premise is very relevant to teens today.  The author thought about the idea of the "Noise" is based on the fact that information is becoming more and more prevalent.  With social media like facebook it is harder to keep information controlled.  It's just out there, noise.  What if we could not get away?  What if we could never unplug?  That thought of not unplugging is what makes the premise behind the plot so compelling. This book was definitely worth reading, and is one of my favorites so far this year. I highly recommend.

Favorite quote: "The Noise is a man unfiltered, and without a filter, a man is just chaos walking."

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Final Word: Non-stop.

Saturday, April 24, 2010

To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Title: To Say Nothing of the Dog by Connie Willis

Pages: 493.

How it was obtained: I bought it just before we came to Thailand, thinking I might read it on the plane.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 8 months.

Days spent reading it: 3 days.

Why I read it: I ran into the book a few times from browsing or seeing book recommendations and decided to check it.

Brief review: About 75 pages into the book I almost put it down for good. I was so confused and disappointed I just about called it quits. By page 100 I could not put it down. The rest of the book flew by, and I could not praise it enough. I understand why Connie Willis wrote the first 75 pages like she did, but it sure annoyed me. But listen to this, if you can endure those first 75 pages you will find a delightful, funny, chaotic, and charming book. The main character Ned Henry, is a time traveler who is sent back in time to find the bishop's bird stump. The fact that this object is not explained for almost 300 pages did irk me, and was entirely unnecessary. In his search, Ned gets a bad case of time lag and is ordered to find rest. He jumps to Victorian era England, and that is when the book begins to shine. Willis' writing style vaguely reminded me of P.G. Wodehouse (although Willis is not nearly as outright funny or entertainingly absurd).

Ned runs into a fellow time traveler, Verity, who may have accidentally set in motion the destruction of the space-time continuum by taking something into the future which should not have been taken. I know I am not doing this book justice in rehashing the plot (because the plot just gets crazier and crazier). Let me just say there is a little bit of everything in this book. It reads almost like a timeless classic novel with an additional touch of sci-fi, and mystery, and a lot of wit.

I do not think this book is for everyone, but I would definitely recommend it to people who are up for something a little more unique. Here is a book that breaks from traditional genre boundaries and is not quite like anything I have ever read before.

Favorite quote: "Come here, cat. You wouldn't want me to destroy the space-time continuum, would you?"

Stars: 4.5 out of 5.

Final Word: Unpredictable.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Ghost by Fred Burton

Title: Ghost: Confessions of a Counterterrorism Agent by Fred Burton

Pages: 275.

How it was obtained: I borrowed it from a friend.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 1 week.

Days spent reading it: 1 week.

Why I read it: Since I've talked about dreaming about being a spy, my friend Kristen suggested I read this real life account of a counterterrorist. She handed me this book and told me it was fascinating. Of course I had to read it after that glowing endorsement!

Brief review: This is the story of Fred Burton, a cop who joins the Diplomatic Security Service. On his first day he is put into the Counterterrorism branch, a division in the 1980s that consisted of 1 veteran, and now 2 rookies. And his story is gripping. As Burton is thrown into the underworld of terrorism in the 80s, he makes it clear that America was in a very precarious position in our security measures. Burton becomes an expert on the Middle East.

Burton's tale is intriguing, scary, and informative. It will force you to think about all the work that goes into keeping America safe. Even though most of the book is written about the 80s and 90s, it is so poignant to today's milieu. 9/11 looms ever present in the background of Burton's narrative. He sees it coming, and he sees something like it coming again because when people want to destroy your way of life, they will find a way around the security measures and safety measures you have developed over time. There are gaps in security everywhere. That is the haunting part about reading this book.

I would definitely recommend this book to anyone interested in the counterterrorism efforts of America. Burton loves his country. But more importantly, the part I really liked about this book, is that Burton never seems to lose his sense of moral right and wrong. He begins to see more shades of gray, but he makes a clear declaration that some things are good and some things are evil. What a breath of fresh air from the often ambiguous "Dark World." There is a lot we can learn from Burton's work as a DSS agent, and it made for compelling reading.

Favorite quote: "Justice became just another bargaining chip. This is the way the world works. We've got to make these deals if we're ever going to bring the cartels down and take out their leadership. Still the idea that U.S. Marshals have to guard a man like Victor makes my skin crawl. Though logically I recognize that the Dark World is morally ambiguous, I cling to my black-and-white view of things. Right and wrong, they are the pillars of what I stand for and believe in. But the big gray gap between them just got a little bigger today…. I've got to be careful in this business. If I let it own me, I'll lose my moral compass like so many others in the past."

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Spooky.

Friday, March 26, 2010

The Magician’s Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

Title: The Magician's Elephant by Kate DiCamillo

Pages: 201.

How it was obtained: It was a birthday gift.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 4 days.

Days spent reading it: 1 day.

Why I read it: Because I love everything Kate DiCamillo writes.

Brief review: The Magician's Elephant is another wonderful tale by Kate DiCamillo. It is about a boy, a magician, an elephant, and a sister believed to be lost. But it is about so much more. I love how DiCamillo weaves in themes of love, freedom, hope, and redemption into this compact tale.

The Magician's Elephant is written like a bedtime story or a fairy tale. What if the impossible happened in this world? What if a magician, one day, summoned an elephant into a small town? That's where DiCamillo's tale begins, and it is a journey worth taking. Her hero Peter, is very loveable. His quest is very noble. You will fall in love with him from the first page.

I would not say this is DiCamillo's best work, but it still shines. The Magician's Elephant is sure to capture your heart, break it a little, and then sweep you into a satisfying conclusion. I would highly recommend this book, it is definitely worth taking an afternoon and reading from start to finish.

Favorite quote: 
"What if?" he said to the policeman.
"Why not?" said Leo back to him. He smiled.
"Enough," said Gloria.
"No," said Leo Matienne, "not enough. Never enough. We must ask ourselves these questions as often as we dare. How will the world change if we do not question it?"

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Final Word: Magical.

Wednesday, March 24, 2010

The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Title: The Magicians by Lev Grossman

Pages: 416.

How it was obtained: Bought it on my kindle.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 0 days.

Days spent reading it: 3 days.

Why I read it: I saw this book recommended on Amazon as a selection for the best of the month. The description sounded interesting, so I checked it out.

Brief review: I had just finished a string of great books, and was looking for a great follow up. Sadly The Magicians let me down. After a very promising introductory section, this book never quite lived up to the potential I thought it had. Our main protagonist in this story is Quentin. He is smart, obsessive, and one day he finds out he can do real magic. He is brought into a secret school and taught how to use his power in the real world. In Grossman's world, magic is difficult to learn. It takes practice, obsessive practice, to learn even the most elementary of spells. I thought his system was interesting.

The book is well written, and the plot is acceptable. My problem with the book comes in the form of the characters and the setting. The characters are just too depressing for words. All of the anxiety and depression and escape mechanisms of the Millennial Generation seem to be focused in a handful of characters in this book. There is just a touch of redeeming value in some of the main characters as the book comes to a close, but it seems like too little too late for me.

My other problem is that a large part of the book is set in finding, or exploring a world called Fillory. Fillory is obviously based on Lewis' Narnia. And so blatantly it was actually distracting to me. Maybe Grossman really loved Lewis's works and wanted to revisit them in his own writings, but it seemed a little odd to me.

I liked this book, I did not love it. I felt there was a lot of potential, but it was squandered on making me feel depressed by the character's lack of good judgment and decency.

Favorite quote: "He had reached the outer limits of what Fun, capital F, could do for him. The cost was way too high, the returns pitifully inadequate. His mind was dimly awakening, too late, to other things that were as important, or even more so."

Stars: 3 out of 5.

Final Word: Depressing.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

Why We’re Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck

Title: Why We're Not Emergent (By Two Guys Who Should Be) by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck

Pages: 256.

How it was obtained: I bought it for my kindle.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 2 days.

Days spent reading it: 3 days.

Why I read it: I have a love/uneasy relationship with the Emergent movement. Ever since I first read Velvet Elvis by Rob Bell, I knew something big was going down. But I was not sure if I liked, or did not like this new movement. I knew this book would be a thoughtful counter-point to the Emergent movement, and put it on my reading list as soon as I heard about it.

Brief review: Why We're Not Emergent is an insightful book that evaluates the Emergent movement. Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck have done their homework. They have read the major authors (McLaren, Jones, Bell, Kimball; you name them, they've read them to some extent). In this book, DeYoung and Kluck take on a huge task of synthesizing the beliefs of the Emergent movement and interacting with them on a theological and philosophical level. The result is a thought provoking addition to this discussion about the Emergent church.

The book is set up so that the authors alternate chapters. DeYoung's chapters are an academic look at the Emergent movement. He takes a look at the big picture stuff. I liked these chapters the most. DeYoung takes what Emergent authors have said and evaluates their statements in light of scripture and philosophical merit. So you have chapters about The Bible, Doctrine, Modernism, and throughout the whole book a discussion about the merits and shortcomings of Postmodernism. I found DeYoung to be informed and informative. He gives a (I think) fair overview of the Emergent movement's thoughts and ideas and where those thoughts will take them.

Kluck's chapters are more about the personal exploration of the Emergent movement. It was told as if it was a memoir about Kluck's journey into and out of the Emergent movement. I'm sure it will resonate with some readers who are more story oriented. For me, it was down time between the real substance chapters of the book. I am also sure they do this intentionally because Emergents love a good story, and Kluck knows how to write.

I would recommend this book to anyone who wants to think more or understand more about the Emergent movement and its role in American Christianity. I think this book tries to be fair to the movement. I really think DeYoung and Kluck are sympathetic to the Emergent's cry that something is wrong.  At the same time, DeYoung and Kluck are unwilling to bend on some doctrinal and philosophic truths that they see as a foundation for their beliefs. For my two cents, I think the Emergent movement raises some valid concerns about our ecclesiology, but I am uneasy with their epistemology and sometimes with their view on Scripture and doctrine. This book was easy to read, and I think it is a great addition to the conversation. Check it out if you have any interest in the movement or the conversation, you won't regret it.

Favorite quote: "But let us not forget: Jesus is more than a coping mechanism. We may desire sweet fellowship with a kind, caring Jesus, but if He is to help us in any real way, He must be more than a sensitive good listener—He must be strong, exalted, and mighty."

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Final Word: Thoughtful.

Sunday, March 21, 2010

Counterfeit Gods by Timothy Keller

Pages: 240.

How it was obtained: I bought it for my kindle.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 0 days.

Days spent reading it: 5 days.

Why I read it: We are working through a sermon series based on this book in my church. I am scheduled to preach based on two chapters from the book, so I imagine I really needed to understand the whole argument before I preached my part of it.

Brief review: In Counterfeit Gods, Keller forces us to search our hearts and our souls for the idols that keep us from following God. His words are like a prophetic call against our culture and everything we hold dear but God does not. I enjoyed the basic structure of this book. In each of the chapters he covers an idol of our heart, and how our culture has generally embraced that idol as an ultimate thing. He also uses one Biblical account for each idol he talks about. For example he uses the story of Zaccheus when talking about the idol of money. Keller tackles the big "idols" like power, love, and money. In every account he challenges each individual to take account of how a particular idol may be dwelling in our hearts without us even knowing it.

I thought Counterfeit Gods was a solid effort by Keller to expose and redeem some major ailments in American culture. It was challenging, informative, and insightful. I admit when he was talking about some economic and political policies I felt in a little over my head, but it was not Keller's fault as much as my own ignorance of the topics themselves. I felt this book echoed, in broad terms, some of the same ideas found in The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer. This is not a dismissal of Keller's work, just an observation that similar topics were handled and sometimes in similar ways.

I would recommend Counterfeit Idols. I think Keller is a decent writer, but more importantly his words need to be heard and applied. He believes very strongly in exposing the sin of individuals and societies, but also in redeeming those sins through the work of the Cross.

Favorite quote: "The human heart is indeed a factory that mass-produces idols."

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Relevant.

Monday, March 8, 2010

Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Title: Love, Stargirl by Jerry Spinelli

Pages: 274

How it was obtained: I bought it at Border's.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 9 months.

Days spent reading it: 4 days.

Why I read it: This book is the sequel to Stargirl, which I loved. So I was looking forward to reading it.

Brief review: I looked forward to reading Love, Stargirl since I heard it was coming out. The original Stargirl was a great twist on the boy meets girl tale, and I thought the sequel would be just as original. Sadly this book did not live up to the standard set by its predecessor.

Love, Stargirl is written as if it was Stargirl's journal. So it is not a straightforward tale, instead it follows the everyday exploits of our heroine. Some days are interesting; others, not so much. The love story that made the first book so wonderful is missing and instead Stargirl is paired up with a 6 year old named Dootsie, and a myriad of random people from the town. 

My biggest problem with the story is that I have read the same plot before. Because of Winn-Dixie has many of the same elements, these include: multi-generational misfits in town pulled together by an especially loving girl, big celebration at the end, and a random pet that serves a major character. The truth is Because of Winn-Dixie was much better and written years before. And the sad thing is that Stargirl is such an original character, it is a shame to see her wasted in a regurgitation of a tried and true plot.

I wanted to like, Love, Stargirl, but it just was not that great. The slow beginning picks up by the end, and the theme of love and loss is handled very well, but this book is just sub-par compared to the original material. Not terrible, but not great. Stargirl fans are sure to pick it up, but they would preserve their memory of Stargirl better if they left this one on the shelf. Really it is my respect for the original Stargirl that compels me to be honest in evaluating this offering by Spinelli.

Favorite quote: "May our reunion be not a finding but a sweet collision of destinies!"

Stars: 3 out of 5.

Final Word: Unoriginal.

Friday, March 5, 2010

Shadowmancer by G.P. Taylor

Title: Shadowmancer by G.P. Taylor

Pages: 274

How it was obtained: A friend lent it to me.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: A few days.

Days spent reading it: 3 days.

Why I read it: It was recommended by someone in my small group.

Brief review: Shadowmancer is the creation of G.P. Taylor, a vicar in England. The story is about a corrupt priest named Demurral who calls upon the powers of darkness and unleashes spiritual forces he does not understand and cannot control. The protagonists are Thomas and Kate, young adults from the town who stumble across Demurral's plan. They are teamed up with Raphah, a mysterious person from Africa who is shipwrecked by Demurral.

I thought I might enjoy this book, but I found it hard to really get into at the beginning. The writing was slow and cumbersome. The characters were flat or over-the-top caricatures. The plot was a little cheesy. One quirk about the book that bothered me was that for a book that was openly and boldly Christian, it presents God's name as "Riathamus" and Satan's name as "Pyratheon." After a quick check on google to make sure I wasn't crazy it seems that Riathamus and Pyratheon are just made up names. {Quick edit:  Riathamus means King of Kings, and was used in reference to King Arthur.  I have no idea in which dialect, but there you go.  I still have no idea about Pyratheon either.} They probably have meaning for G.P. Taylor, but to me this just seemed like a gimmick to mask what religion he was talking about. Everything else was so blatantly Christian, down to quotes from the Bible, it seemed odd that he would use these made up names. Other authors like Ted Dekker have done something similar, and I did not like it when they did it either.

I wanted to like this book, but I found it had too many flaws for me to really appreciate. Others clearly disagree with me, because Shadowmancer became a runaway hit both in England and the US. But for me, Shadowmancer falls flat. I am delighted to see Christian fiction that people are interested in reading, but I am sorry that I cannot embrace it along with them.

Favorite quote: "Please, Captain Farrell, do one thing. Kill him. I don't care how you do it, you can bore him to death if you want to, but I want him dead. Throw him from the cliff, have him crushed by a stampeding flock of sheep, do anything, but please KILL HIM!"

Stars: 2 out of 5.

Final Word: Awkward.

Saturday, February 27, 2010

Messy Spirituality by Michael Yaconelli

Pages: 141

How it was obtained: It was sitting on my book shelf at the office.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: I just picked it up and started reading it.

Days spent reading it: 3 days.

Why I read it: I've been interested in reading this book for awhile. It is often lumped into discussions about spiritual formation along with Abba's Child by Brennan Manning and Return of the Prodigal Son by Henri Nouwen. So I have been interested in reading it for quite some time.

Brief review: Messy Spirituality is a book about unconventional Christian growth. It is a book for people who are willing to admit they are spiritual losers. The premise of the book is that none of us is perfect, and we will not be. But God loves messy people. He loves entering their lives and transforming them. But most of all, God loves us even when we are not cleaned up and polished after he saves us.

I think there are a number of great principles in this book. I think a lot of people feel like they do not follow after God hard enough. They don't DO enough. This book is a healthy corrective to that mentality. Messy Spirituality is full of anecdote after anecdote of imperfect people trying to live by grace. Many people have been hurt by their churches because they do not fit the mold of perfection (and legalism). What I like about Messy Spirituality is that it reminds me that all of us are broken people and need God's grace every day. Some of us are just more blatant than others.

I agree with a lot of what Yaconelli says in this book. I agree that people are broken. Even Christians are broken. I loved what he had to say about us being spiritual losers. We get things wrong and we need to rely on God's grace. However, my biggest complaint about this book is that sometimes Yaconelli seems to revel in defiance. At times the message almost (or maybe it does) comes out as a blatant disregard for actual growth. We should never get rid of our rough edges. We should stay defiant and allow our imperfections to run along unchecked. I think there is something to be said for being real, and embracing our brokenness. It is something else to want to stay there. I think Jesus did so much more for us on the cross than simply allow us to join him. He takes us broken and hurt and dirty. But I think he also wants to transform us. And it is a process, and it will take time, but I think real growth and real maturity is possible. I'm not sure Yaconelli's book teaches the same.

I would recommend this book to people who struggle with wanting to (or needing to) feel like they are perfect. I would also give it to those who feel the exact opposite. I think there are great words of encouragement in this book. There are great stories of God's love. I think it just falls a little short of helping us to truly grow.

Favorite quote: "Spiritual growth is more than a procedure; it's a wild search for God in the tangled jungle of our souls, a search which involves a volatile mix of messy reality, wild freedom, frustrating stuckness, increasing slowness, and a healthy dose of gratitude."

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

Final Word: Messy.

Sunday, February 14, 2010

Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks

Title: Evil Genius by Catherine Jinks

Pages: 542

How it was obtained: I bought it from a clearance sale at Borders.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 1 year.

Days spent reading it: 4 days.

Why I read it: I enjoyed the Reformed Vampire Society by Jinks, and I decided I would read this much acclaimed book by her as well.

Brief review: I love books about genius kids. I guess I always wished I was a child prodigy. Like the main character of Evil Genius, Cadel Pigget. He is a child prodigy. The only real problem is that he seems to have no moral compass. None. This book is about how he is nudged into a life in the dark side. He is drafted into the Axis Institute for World Domination (a great idea by the way, university for evil leaders, genius!) and begins to study how a life of crime can pay.

I admit I had some qualms with how this book was progressing at the beginning. I felt like it was a good idea with no heart. But sticking through the whole book, I was delighted by how Cadel grows and matures through this book. He is a wonderful character, very memorable. And his evil mentors Dr. Phineas Darkkon and Thaddeus Roth are great bad guys. They are complex, nuanced, and great manipulators of truth.

I felt this was a solid book. My major complaint would be that some of the plot became too complicated; I did not understand the set up and execution of a few of Cadel's plans. Apart from that, I enjoyed the book. I would definitely recommend it to people who like young adult fiction. I think for parents it might be a good discussion starter on the nature of good and evil. There are plenty of questions about morality throughout this book. Definitely worth a look if you had the time and interest.

Favorite quote: "Cadel Pigget was just seven years old when he first met Thaddeus Roth."

Stars: 4 out of 5.

Final Word: Complex.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Southern Cross by Paul Clark

Title: Southern Cross by Paul Clark

Pages: 158

How it was obtained: I borrowed it from a person in my small group.

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: Less than a week.

Days spent reading it: 2 days.

Why I read it: I read it based on the recommendation of a person in my small group at church.

Brief review: Every now and then I read a book that challenges me, encourages me, and reminds me about who God is and what He is doing. This was definitely one of those books. I was completely hooked on the stories that Paul Clark tells in this book about his life.

Paul Clark is a missionary in Lima, Peru. This book is a collection of the different people he has met in his life as a missionary. The chapters are individual snippets about how God met these people in the streets of Peru or in the jungles of the Amazon. The stories told in this book are about how the simple gospel can transform a life completely. One of my favorite stories was about Tariri. He was the chief of a tribe of headhunters, when he was transformed by the gospel. "He learned to obey God and love his enemies and those who spitefully used him. He ordered his tribe to no longer kill, even if they were attacked. God honors those who honor him. Tariri and the many Christians in his tribe are living witnesses to this truth." One thought I had as I read this story was about how missionaries clearly teach tribes to stop killing each other (makes sense right?). They say to stop killing even if it is a unilateral move—meaning that they may be attacked, but to not fight back. They believe God's transformational love is able to overcome even in death. These tribes become powerful witnesses to those around them. I think about that, and then I think about how the world would be different if we took that simple concept and applied it to a nation. I'll just leave that thought there for you to think about.

What struck me about Clark's story is how he lives and breathes his faith in every single step he takes. He sets aside the security and safety that the world offers and instead lives by faith (which is a completely different kind of safety and security). It is the memoirs of faithful missionaries like Clark that remind me of the true power of the Gospel when we allow faith to completely filter down through our lives.

I highly recommend this book. It will pushes and challenges. But it will also warm your heart. It is a solid book about God's love for lost and broken people. 

Favorite quote: "The great lesson I was about to learn was that although circumstances and settings can be vastly different, God's dealing with all men and women, girls and boys, is the same. He meets us all at the point of our greatest need and, having heard our cry for help and sensing our anguish of soul, responds with compassion and love. I was to witness love at work in this ancient, troubled, and mysterious land of Peru."

Stars: 5 out of 5.

Final Word: Faithful

Friday, February 12, 2010

I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Title: I Am the Messenger by Markus Zusak

Pages: 357

How it was obtained: I bought it at Borders from their bargain bin. Sweet!

Time spent on the "to read" shelf: 1 year.

Days spent reading it: 2 days.

Why I read it: I enjoyed The Book Thief by Zusak, and I was interested in reading some of his other stuff.

Brief review: I really looked forward to this book because of how much I enjoyed The Book Thief. And while this book was alright, it was not nearly on par with the quality and insight that I know Zusak is capable of achieving. I Am the Messenger is about a young man named Ed who mysteriously receives a playing card in the mail one day with addresses on it. As the story progresses, Ed realizes he must go to these addresses and accomplish some task. 

The driving force of the book is Ed accomplishing these missions, which range from heart-warming to butt-kicking. It was a strange mix. The clear message of this book is that normal people can be extraordinary if they open their eyes and address the needs around them.

I had two problems with this book. First is the use of violence in this book. Ed uses violence to accomplish his goals. A mysterious "benefactor" uses violence against Ed to force Ed to act. It is like there are no other alternatives to violence in these scenarios. I think that is a dangerous message to put into a young adult novel. Second was the ending. I will not spoil it, but the concluding revelations at the end made the rest of the novel weaker. It was just not convincing to me. And unlike some endings, the very premise of this book hung on the ending.

I did enjoy I Am the Messenger, but I thought it could have been better. There are moments of wonderful writing and story-telling. The characters are believable and you are clearly invested in their lives by the end of the tale. With a stronger ending this book could have dazzled me, but instead it was just middle of the road.

Favorite quote:
She soon says, 'You're my best friend, Ed.'
'I know.'
You can kill a man with those words.
No gun.
No bullets.
Just words and a girl.

Stars: 3.5 out of 5.

Final Word: Average.