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.