Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Review of ACTUALLY, CLAMS ARE MISERABLE by Bryan Allain

Rating: 5 out of 5

Bryan Allain is a blogger who focuses on communicating through humor. His latest book ACTUALLY, CLAMS ARE MISERABLE is a testament to his ability to make people laugh. In this book Allain takes some of the most common phrases and clich├ęs that people say that when you think about them don’t really make a lot of sense or when taken literally conjure up some pretty funny images. He tackles phrases such as:

“Don’t cry over spilled milk.”
“Yeah, but that’s like comparing apples to oranges.”
“The proof is in the pudding.”
“That’s not really my cup of tea.”

The book reads like a collection of thoughts by Allain on each of these phrases and clich├ęs, and they had me laughing throughout. Allain really gets you thinking about what ideas some of these things conjure up. The part about comparing apples to oranges was one of my particular favorites. There are also some funny illustrations included with several of them.

ACTUALLY, CLAMS ARE MISERABLE is a light and funny read, and if you’re looking for something to make you laugh, Allain’s book is a good one.

Review copy obtained by the author through Story Cartel

Saturday, November 24, 2012

Review of THE ONLY WISE GOD by William Lane Craig


Rating: 5 out of 5

If God knows the future, and what he knows will infallibly come to pass, how can human beings have genuine free will? THE ONLY WISE GOD by William Lane Craig is a book that strives to answer this fundamental question.

Craig is a well-known apologist and philosopher of religion, and this book, which was published in 1987, explores the nature of God’s foreknowledge. Craig explores the biblical witness to show that God has infallible knowledge of all things, including the past, present, and future. He also strives to show that God’s foreknowledge doesn’t have to result in fatalism where everything, both good and evil, is predetermined by God. Craig rejects foreknowledge that is based on foreordination. He shows from different fields that fatalism should be rejected.

Finally, Craig explores a couple of ways that God has infallible foreknowledge that preserves human freedom. He argues that though God’s foreknowledge is chronologically prior to our actions, our actions are logically prior to his foreknowledge. Basically, God knows that I will do something because I will do it. This is innate knowledge.

But Craig argues for a second model of God’s foreknowledge that preserves human freedom. This is the model known as middle knowledge. Middle knowledge suggests that God’s knowledge is divided into three logical moments. First is God’s natural knowledge, which is the knowledge of all possibilities. Second, God’s middle knowledge encompasses all the free choices that people would make under any given circumstances. Finally, the third moment is God’s free knowledge of the world that he has created. This is God’s knowledge of all things pertaining to this world he decided to create. Craig suggests that God utilized his middle knowledge of all the free choices people would make under any given circumstances to decide on the world and its world history that he would create. This preserves human freedom because God factored in all the free choices people would make when he planned out the world.

While I think there is some credit to be given to middle knowledge, I’m not sure I buy it with all its implications that Craig lays out. It seems to preserve freedom in name only, and it suggests that God couldn’t create a world free from sin. However, THE ONLY WISE GOD is a brilliantly argued book that should be read by anyone interested in the debate over God’s foreknowledge and the existence of human freedom.

Review copy provided by Wipf and Stock publishers

Review of READING THE GOSPELS WISELY by Jonathan Pennington


Rating: 5 out of 5

The Gospels of the New Testament give us the life and teachings of Jesus, and in the Gospel of Matthew in particular, Jesus says that whoever does the words that he says is like a wise man who built his house on a foundation of rock rather than a foolish man who built his house on a foundation of sand. If the Gospels give us the life and the words of Jesus, then according to Jesus, there is a wise way to read the gospels, and there is a foolish way to read the gospels. The wise way of reading leads us into deeper relationship with Jesus and results in personal transformation.

READING THE GOSPELS WISELY by Southern Baptist Theological Seminary professor Jonathan Pennington is an invaluable guidebook on understanding what kind of writings the gospels are, their purpose, and how to read them in a way that draws us closer to Jesus and transforms our hearts.

Pennington spends considerable time exploring the literary genre of the gospels and gives us a working definition of what the gospels are, “Our canonical gospels are the theological, historical, and aretological (virtue-forming) biographical narratives that retell the story and proclaim the significance of Jesus Christ, who through the power of the Spirit is the Restorer of God’s reign.” He explains why we need the gospels and why we need four of them. He also works to show that the teachings of Paul and other New Testament writers were built upon the content that would be recording in the four Gospels, so that there is no disconnect between, for example, the teaching of Jesus and the teaching of Paul.

Pennington briefly walks us through reading Scripture in general well, reading it historically, literarily, and theologically, keeping these three avenues in balance. He provides some illuminating discussion on authorial intent and the ways that the Author behind the author can intend meaning that the human author may not have consciously been aware of. This explains how people can come away from a passage of Scripture with two different ideas that may be both biblical and accurate. In this way, God uses Scripture to speak to different people in the contexts that they are in. He also proposes that meaning is bound up with application because Scripture is meant to be lived out and to transform us. Some may not agree completely with his discussion concerning authorial intent, but he argues it well, I think he may be on to something.

Finally, the heart of the book is looking at the Gospels as stories about Jesus and taking a narrative approach to reading the gospels. Pennington covers basic story structure and reveals how meaning is discovered in the midst of a story, even revealing that a different meaning may be deduced from each character in the story. He also shows that the characters in the story have character traits that are meant to be imitated or rejected.

READING THE GOSPELS WISELY will help you to wrestle through how you read the Scriptures and what you’re trying to accomplish from studying them. It’s a great introduction to the gospels, and it will help you to read for transformation in the midst of growing deeper in your relationship with Jesus. It’s one of the most illuminating books I’ve read this year and one I’ll go to again and again.

Review copy provided by Baker Books

Review of GRACE by Max Lucado


Rating: 5 out of 5

Max Lucado’s latest inspirational book GRACE: MORE THAN WE DESERVE, GREATER THAN WE IMAGINE expounds upon the topic of God’s grace in a way that only Lucado can. Lucado launches into this book with the assumption that we all hear all about grace all the time, but we often don’t truly understand it because to understand it, we must be changed by it.

Lucado looks at grace as revealed through the pages of Scripture, and he does it in a way that is fresh and draws you in. He has a way of writing in a way that produces an emotional impact. Reading GRACE will help you grasp how spiritually bankrupt we are and how incredible God’s love for you is. Lucado is careful to show that there is nothing we can do to merit God’s favor; in fact, we only do the things that make grace so necessary. God’s grace is so incredible because it is freely given though we deserve far less.

I’ve loved Max Lucado’s writing ever since I became a believer and I always experience a freshness about God’s grace when I read on of his books. He does a brilliant job of painting a beautiful and humbling picture of God’s grace.

Review copy provided by Thomas Nelson through the BookSneeze program

Review of JESUS: A THEOGRAPHY by Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet

Rating: 4 out of 5

JESUS: A THEOGRAPHY by Frank Viola and Leonard Sweet is a unique approach to telling the story of Jesus. Viola and Sweet seek to combine Scripture and findings in historical Jesus studies to create a reader-friendly biography (or theography) of Jesus' life. The main thrust of the book, however, is to show that all of Scripture centers on Jesus.

The book begins before the beginning, describing Jesus as the second person of the trinity in eternity past, before the creation of the world. The authors seek to reveal Jesus as the infinite hero of the story God is telling through creation. The rest of the book looks at key moments in Jesus' life as recorded in the gospels.

The strength of this book lies in its Christocentricity. The book is truly about Jesus and about illuminating Scripture's comprehensive focus on Christ.

Some concerns I had with the book were areas where the authors seem to allegorize Scripture, finding Jesus in areas of the Old Testament that clearly aren't about him. For example, the authors compare the creation narrative to Jesus' life in a way that is merely speculative. There are other areas of speculation throughout the book, but overall it's a good illumination of the life of Jesus.

Review copy provided by Thomas Nelson as a part of their BookSneeze reviewer blog program

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Review of Red Rain by R.L. Stine

Rating:3 out of 5


After a deadly hurricane rips through the island that travel blogger Lea Sutter is visiting, Lea finds two twin boys in the midst of the devastation who have lost everything in their lives. Moved with compassion for the boys, she makes a sudden decision to take them off the island and adopt them. Her husband and two children are unhappy with her decision, but they try to make the best of it. But where did these boys come from? Something about them is off, and soon the Sutters' lives begin spiraling out of control. Children begin disappearing, and Mark Sutter is wanted for murder. The story progresses to a shocking conclusion as Lea discovers the truth about the boys and what happened on the island.

I loved reading the Goosebumps series of books by R.L. Stine when I was younger, so I was excited to read his new adult novel RED RAIN because he had in mind those of us who grew up on his children's books and are adults now. While the story was intense, I have to admit that I was disappointed with RED RAIN. It felt as if Stine was taking the type of horror stories he's accustomed to writing, but adding coarse language in the dialogue of his characters and sexuality. 

In addition, the story itself felt a little unoriginal. It seems like the evil twins narrative has been done. There are a couple of twists at the end, but they were predictable in light of things we learn in the beginning of the story. The character of Lea is interesting in the way that she seems oblivious to everything that's going on around her. The scene between Mark and his assistant felt incredibly out of place and unnecessary to the story.

The story is a horror story, and it features some scary elements to it. The twins are definitely creepy, and I would give it to Stine that he knows how to tell a suspenseful story. If you're a Goosebumps fan or even if you're not, you might find RED RAIN to be a good story. Unfortunately, I can't say that I did.

Review copy provided by Touchstone Books

Review of The High Calling's Weekly E-Newsletter


The High Calling is an online magazine with a focus on seeing your vocation as a calling from God. The team at The High Calling want you to find God in your work in a way that is more than just about evanglism, and they want you to be encouraged to honor God in your daily work.

The online magazine features articles and interviews, as well as videos, designed to encourage you in your work. One of the features of The High Calling is their weekly e-newsletter. The e-newsletter is a summary of the best content featured on the site from the previous week. The e-newsletter features "an audio message from Howard Butt, several articles from The High Calling, a new video from The High Calling, and several community articles from around the community and other important sites."

An example of content featured in the e-newsletter is an article titled "Micromanagement: Leadership Style or Pathology" about micromanagement in the workplace and whether or not it might be a legitimate leadership style needed in certain contexts at certain times.

The High Calling is a great resource if you're a Christian who works. The only criticism I would have is that the articles I read, which were only a few, seemed a little light on God content. 

You can sign up for The High Calling's e-newletter on their website in the sidebar.

Wednesday, November 14, 2012

Review of THE SHEPHERD LEADER AT HOME



Photo Credit: Crossway Books

Rating: 5 out of 5

THE SHEPHERD LEADER AT HOME by Timothy Z. Witmer speaks to the heart of husbands and fathers in their God-given role to be the leaders of their families. Using the biblical leadership model of the shepherd, Witmer outlines the four primary responsibilities shepherd leaders must embrace to lead their families well and cultivate their hearts toward Jesus.

The four responsibilities are:
1. The Shepherd Knows His Family
2. The Shepherd Leads His Family
3. The Shepherd Provides For His Family
4. The Shepherd Protects His Family

Using Scripture and specifically the model of Jesus as the Good Shepherd, Witmer leads us on a journey of growing in our relationships with our wives and children and learning to embrace our roles as fathers and husbands. The book is thoroughly challenging as it forces you to examine your own life, but by putting the biblical concepts contained in it into practice, men will surely grow in their relationship with God and become men who provide strong loving leadership to their families.

Review copy provided by Crossway Books

Monday, November 12, 2012

Review of THE INFINITY RING: A MUTINY IN TIME by James Dashner



Photo Credit: Scholastic

Rating: 5 out of 5

Teenagers Dak Smyth and Sera Froste live in a world controlled by the powerfully oppressive SQ. It is a world that is continually plagued by natural disasters, and it’s only getting worse. When Dak and Sera discover a device called the Infinity Ring, they soon learn they have found the secret to time travel. Two groups want the Infinity Ring, the SQ and a secret society called the Hystorians. The Hystorians bring Dak and Sera into their inner circle, and they learn that history is fractured. There are breaks in the timeline where things that should have happened didn’t, and if someone doesn’t go back and fix the breaks, then the natural disasters will only increase until the world is no more. What the Hystorians don’t realize is that they need Dak and Sera to fix the breaks. With the help of a Hystorian named Riq, Dak and Sera go on a dangerous adventure to discover and fix the places where history has gone wrong, while also searching for Dak’s parents who have been lost in the time stream.

THE INFINITY RING: A MUTINY IN TIME by James Dashner is the first book in a new middle grade series that has the feel of a fast-paced adventure story with a bit educational discovery included within the story. The story’s narrative includes an altered timeline different from the one we know in real life. For example, in this story it isn’t Christopher Columbus who discovered America, but the Amancio brothers. Hence the breaks in our timeline.

Dak and Sera are best friends, and I thought Dashner did a great job of conveying that. Both characters were very likable, and we get a glimpse into what makes them tick and the tragedies that inform their approach to the world. They’re both very smart, and as unbelievable as a small group of young teens traveling into the past to fix history is, the story makes it believable. It’s a different type of world they inhabit that causes them to be a different type of people. The SQ is a very mysterious antagonistic force, and I’m eager to learn more about them in future stories, as well as the Hystorians.

A MUTINY IN TIME was written for middle grade readers, but I enjoyed the story just as well as an adult. What I like most about any story is when it has a redemptive storyline, and Dak, Sera, and Riq are in a very real fight to save the world by fixing the breaks. This story is unique in that it includes an online game that allows you to dive deeper into the story. The book includes a free guide for the game. A MUTINY IN TIME is a great beginning to what is surely going to be a groundbreaking series.

Review copy provided by Scholastic

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Blog Tour Review of PLACEBO by Steven James



Photo Credit: Revell Books

Rating: 5 out of 5

Jevin Banks used to be a famous magician and escape artist until an unforeseen tragedy changed everything. Abandoning the career that was once his passion, Jevin put his skills to use by debunking psychics on his own television show. His latest assignment is to debunk the research findings of a quantum physicist concerning nonlocal mind-to-mind communication. But he soon discovers he's into something much bigger than he realized. He and his partner and former assistant in his stage shows Charlene find themselves wrapped up in a plot to assassinate the President. Dodging multiple attempts on their lives, Jevin and Charlene must uncover the truth about a pharmaceutical company's research into the impact people's thoughts can have over another person.

Steven James' latest novel PLACEBO has the feel of an adventure story, as well as an exploration of human nature and scientific findings in quantum physics. It all comes together to create a very interesting story. I've read several of James' previous stories, and this one is another example of his ability to craft a great story. In light of his previous stories, I appreciated that this story was less gritty than his Patrick Bowers novels.

Jevin Banks is an interesting character given his background as an escape artist, and his skills come in handy at several points in the story. The tragedy of losing his family haunts him throughout, and his inner struggle over questions of God's existence and how he feels about Charlene give him authenticity as a character.

Riah Collete is an interesting character that I found myself hoping for better things for throughout the story. The rest of the cast of characters, especially Jevin's team, really made this story work really well.

The story ends with the indication that Jevin's adventures are far from over. I'm excited about this new series from Steven James, and I'm looking forward to seeing where he takes us next.

Review copy provided by Revell Books

Review of OPENING MOVES by Steven James

Rating: 4 out of 5

A killer is loose in Milwaukee, connecting his heinous crimes to the likes of Jeffrey Dahmer and Ed Gein and forcing innocent people to do unspeakable acts in hopes of saving the ones they love. Police detective Patrick Bowers, an intelligent force with a rare knack for getting into the minds of criminals, is on the case. Working with the FBI, Bowers must find the killer before he strikes again and rescue one more person who will suffer at his hands. In the midst of all this, he must also navigate a struggling romantic relationship and evaluate where the future will take him.

OPENING MOVES is Steven James’ prequel to his Bowers Files series of novels about FBI agent Patrick Bowers. This story gives us some back story to his life before becoming an FBI agent, and it’s interesting because being an FBI agent seems to be the last thing Bowers wants to do. I read this novel having only read the first book in the series THE PAWN.

I must confess that I had to stop reading this novel about midway through because I was so disturbed by the nature of the crimes described in it. It’s not that James is glamourizing evil. Instead, he’s showing us the darkest part of human nature, and it was difficult to focus on. A couple weeks later I picked the book back up with a determination to finish it, and I’ll say that it’s definitely a page-turner. I was never bored by the story. James knows how to tell a fast-paced thriller that’s full of mystery. It’s really a novel for people who love to think a lot because there’s a lot to take it.

The story is told from Bowers’ perspective, so we really get into his head and hear his struggles. And it’s from this perspective that we’re faced with the potential for incredible evil that exists in everyone. Yet Bowers is a hero who strives to eradicate evil rather than embrace it.

OPENING MOVES is a well-crafted thriller that introduces us to James’ Patrick Bowers character. I didn’t like it as much as THE PAWN, but I’m sure it definitely helps us to understand Bowers better.

I received this book for free for review from Signet Select

Monday, November 5, 2012

Review of DEEP AND WIDE by Andy Stanley



Photo Credit: Zondervan

I’ve been following Andy Stanley and the ministry of North Point Community Church for several years, so I was really excited when I found out that Andy Stanley was releasing a book covering North Point’s strategy of “creating churches unchurched people love to attend.” DEEP AND WIDE is an incredible guidebook on doing effective church ministry that reaches unchurched people, helps them commit to the church, and grow in their relationship with Jesus.

First, Stanley tells us the story of how North Point came about, sharing a transparent account of working for his father Charles Stanley at First Baptist Church of Atlanta, and the tragic aftermath of his parents divorce. It’s clear that his experiences shaped how he approached doing church.

Stanley gives us the layout of North Point’s strategy in creating a church environment that unchurched people feel comfortable checking out. He explains how North Point approaches reaching these people with the gospel of Jesus, and the means they use to reach people.

I love Stanley’s honesty and conviction about doing things in a way that some people may find unorthodox. For example, Stanley is known for topical preaching. Stanley argues that all of the Bible is inspired, but not all of it is equally applicable at all times. He even shows how Jesus chose texts that were relevant for the moments in which he was preaching. Jesus didn’t preach verse-by-verse. Not that there is anyone wrong with verse-by-verse. Stanley is also passionate about biblical application, arguing that Jesus was always preaching for a response.

As I read this book, I got excited about the prospect of designing a church that unchurched people love to attend. There are a lot of books on strategy for doing church, but this is definitely one of the best.

Review copy provided by Zondervan Publishing

Review of DRAW COMIC BOOK ACTION by Lee Garbett

I’ve always loved doing things that are creative and artistic, but lately I’ve been interested in drawing. Specifically, drawing for comic books and graphic novels. I love the way stories are told visually through the comic book art form. My interest led me to the book DRAW COMIC BOOK ACTION by Lee Garbett, and it is an immensely practical tool for anyway interested in drawing comic book-type characters.

Garbett doesn’t just assume that anyone picking up this book has any drawing experience, and he starts with some very basic techniques. After describing the tools a comic book artist will need, Garbett launches into teaching the reader to draw basic male and female forms, then, using stick figures, he shows how to approach different action poses the artist might want to incorporate into their drawings. The book also covers drawing different parts of the body, such as the head, feet, and hands.

From reading comic scripts to creating panels to scenery interaction, this book will quickly get the reader drawing their own comic book action shots. I immediately grabbed a pencil and paper and started drawing using the directions in the book. DRAW COMIC BOOK ACTION is a great resource for the aspiring comic book artist.

Review copy provided by David and Charles

Review of THE WORKING FILM DIRECTOR by Charles Wilkinson

Available February 2013

Rating:
5 out of 5

Who doesn’t find in themselves somewhere to make a movie? I love storytelling and visual storytelling through film is one of the most powerful ways to tell a story and to impact people. But where to get started?

THE WORKING FILM DIRECTOR by writer/director Charles Wilkinson takes aspiring filmmakers on a journey from the very beginning to the working career itself. From discovering if you have what it takes, to how to break into film, to how to succeed as a filmmaker, Wilkinson’s book is a comprehensive career guidebook for the film director.

Wilkinson gives some very helpful information about film schools, producing your first film, getting your film exposure through film festivals, and even a journey through all the production steps of making a film.

I was excited to get this book because I’ve always been interested in film and specifically the director’s role in making a film. This book is a great introduction to the world of film directing.

Review copy provided by Michael Wiese Productions

Review of WRITING THE SCIENCE FICTION FILM by Robert Grant

Available April 2013

Rating:
5 out of 5

Some of the greatest films are science fiction films. Some of my personal favorites are Inception, The Hunger Games, and I Am Legend. There’s also some great sci fi television series like LOST and the new show Revolution. Science fiction writers get to explore some serious what if questions, and, as Robert Grant describes in his upcoming book WRITING THE SCIENCE FICTION FILM, Sci Fi also explores human nature, often presenting a mirror for us to look into and see some aspect of ourselves that may be significant or in need of change.

WRITING THE SCIENCE FICTION FILM is about the process of crafting great science fiction stories like the ones we’ve grown to love. Interestingly, Grant points out that science fiction itself isn’t so much a genre because sci fi films themselves can come in many different genres. For example, Inception and Alien are both science fiction films, but they both have different genre elements. It’s the dependence upon some area of science that makes a film a science fiction film. This book is helpful in exploring the different genre approaches a science fiction film could take.

From there, the book goes through basic storytelling elements such as characterization and dialogue. The really helpful parts are about creating sci fi settings and two chapters on getting the science right to make your story having a feeling of realism to it.

The book is a great journey through the best in science fiction movies and television and is a great resource for any writer interested in crafting their own science fiction stories.

Review copy provided by Michael Wiese Productions

Blog Tour Review of CONTEND by Aaron Armstrong



Photo Credit: Cruciform Press

Rating: 5 out of 5

In recent years there’s been a call by some of Christianity’s most well-known leaders to get back to a precise understanding of the gospel of Jesus Christ as presented by the Bible. In too many instances, churches and the teaching contained within them have been diluted by an incomplete and sometimes absent understanding of the gospel. Aaron Armstrong in his new book from Cruciform Press CONTEND suggests that a proper and complete understanding of the gospel is vital for churches and Christians in general because God’s glory is at stake, as well as the eternal destiny of the many souls of those who are just waiting to be rescued by the gospel. Dilution of and absence of the gospel in a Christian community are serious matters, and Armstrong points to a verse in the book of Jude that calls believers to “contend” for the gospel.

Contending is a fight against anything that threatens what is most important to us. This begs the question, “How important is the gospel message to me?” How important is it to our Christian communities? How important is it that God wants this message communicated to everyone in a desire to rescue them and reconcile them to himself? Sadly, I think most of us would discover that the gospel’s message and proclamation are things we say are important to us, but our actions would prove otherwise.

The call of CONTEND is to rightly understand the gospel and to grow in our love for it and our Lord who provided it. The gospel is the most vitally important piece of information we carry, and its accuracy should be protected. Armstrong addresses church leaders in correcting false teaching and feeding the congregation with the gospel message. In addressing the congregation, Armstrong calls believers to build up their faith by actively cultivating their relationship with Jesus through Bible study and prayer and staying purposefully connected to the faith community of the church.

The call back to the gospel in recent years is a great thing, and CONTEND is a battle cry for believers to fight for the gospel of Jesus because it is vitally important to us. We embrace the gospel because it reveals who God is and it rescues people out of darkness and into God’s kingdom. God’s glory and the people God loves enough to give his life for should be incredibly valuable to us, and we must contend against anything that threatens to silence the gospel message. CONTEND is a clear and practical guide for believers to do this.

Review copy provided by Cruciform Press

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Review of THE RADICAL QUESTION and THE RADICAL IDEA by David Platt

Rating:4 out of 5

David Platt has become known as someone proclaiming a radical pursuit of Jesus and his calling. In the new combined edition of the two booklets THE RADICAL QUESTION and THE RADICAL IDEA, Platt outlines two things that he believes are vitally important to Christians and the church.

In THE RADICAL QUESTION, Platt explores the disconnect between American Christianity and the calling to follow Jesus outlined in the pages of the New Testament. This booklet, a condensed version of his book RADICAL, is a call to evaluate the things that are most important to us. For most Christians in America the call seems to be to the American Dream while people around the world are starving and many dying without Christ. Platt asks the question, “Is Jesus worth it to you to sacrifice everything for what he wants?”

In THE RADICAL IDEA, Platt looks at the role of the church in Christian belief. We were never meant to follow Jesus in isolation, and Platt suggests that it isn’t solely the role of church leadership to lead people to faith in Christ. Instead, church leaders are called to equip believers to do the work of ministry, spreading the gospel wherever they go.

Platt’s teaching is challenging, and certainly radical. It gives you much to wrestle with, and ultimately it is a call to follow Jesus more wholeheartedly.

Review copy provided by Waterbrook Multnomah