Sunday, December 14, 2014

Fiction Review: The Patmos Deception

Davis Bunn moves along slowly, but keeps interest in his suspense mystery novel “The Patmos Deception.” The story follows archeology specialist Carey and friend and journalist Nick, but Bunn wisely includes a third character’s point of view to keep the tension throughout. Boat owner Dimitri has been talked into smuggling artifacts, but when he finds that more than artifacts are at stake, more characters become involved and a journey of faith and discover is at hand. 

I definitely recommend this book as a good read, but I also have a few complaints: Bunn writes with a reverence for the Greek church, and I’m not sure I can support that since I consider at least Catholicism a different religion from Christianity. Bunn’s story ends rather quickly, and with a big cliff hanger that leaves the story too open (come on, tell us how the romance ends!).  Lastly, Bunn’s sentence structure bothers me. He opens with descriptions leading into quotes rather than quotes leading into descriptions (ex: Carey asked, “Could he have received an advance?” Instead of “Could he have received an advance,” Carey asked.).

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Fiction Review: The Christmas Cat

I have to confess. I only requested "The Christmas Cat" to annoy my dad, who hates cats and is very allergic to them. I never expected that my dad would have that in common with the main character of Melody Carlson's holiday book. Garrison Brown must find a home for each of his recently-deceased grandmother's cats, but his grandmother was very specific about the kind of home her cats can go to. And, of course, Garrison finds romance along the way.

While the book takes place during the holidays, I didn't feel a great holiday spirit about the story. The characters could use more development. There's certainly great potential for it with all the neighbors and, ultimately, cat owners Garrison meets. But the conversations and situations never go too deep. The majority of the book is spent on Garrison going from home to home for the cats, and the narrative is sweet, but formal and organized rather than natural and flowing.

It's a quick read that could easily turn into an endearing Hallmark film, but, like the Carlson book I recently finished (see my review on "Trading Secrets"), it was nothing special. Heart-warming, but not to its best ability.

*I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Young Adult Romance Review: Trading Secrets by Melody Carlson

“Trading Secrets” by Melody Carlson is a sort of mix between the films “You’ve Got Mail” and “Witness” for teens, but without the suspense or secrecy. It does not take long for Micah to reveal to her pen pal that she is really a girl and not a boy as she let him believe in her letters. The plot of the book revolves more around her spring break with his Amish family after she tells the truth and finds herself stuck in an unwelcome environment.
Since Micah is only 17 and Zach only 18, the romance is not fully able to take off, which is why I say this book is written more for teenagers. We all know that the book will end well, but not with a marriage or proposal. The ending does leave room for a sequel or series, though.
The novel is an enjoyable read, but nothing too special. Just the usual light fair for when there’s nothing much better to read. What really bugs me, though, is Carlson’s use of the present tense in her first person narration. I have never cared for this style, and, personally, I would want to know that a book is written in that style before choosing to read it or not. So for all those who agree with me, this is your warning. I have read present tense books before that I surprisingly enjoyed. But this was not one of them. It was a pleasant enough read, but there was not much to the plot and the book did not make me want to run out and buy another Melody Carlson novel to read. But if you like teenage novels, you’ll still probably love “Trading Secrets.”
*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Nonfiction Review: God Loves Sex

"God Loves Sex" is basically a book by two scholars (Dan B. Allender and Tremper Longman III) commenting on the Song of Songs as a book to be taken literally, that is as sexual poems rather than metaphors for the church and God. In other words, Song of Songs sets out an example of true worship, love and desire within the context of marriage and the relationship and pursuit that leads to marriage and consummation.

The authors go back and forth between commenting on certain poems and providing a narrative in the form of a journal by a fictional man named Malcolm attending a Bible study on sex. I was not too keen on the narratives, at first, but they surprised me as the most relatable portions of the book. I did have a difficult time following Malcolm's thoughts, though, and as much as I gained from the authors' explanations of culture and meaning for Songs, I just could not connect the dots. There is a big picture, but the organization isn't the greatest.

I do recommend the book, but with caution. The authors are not afraid to use explicit language, so know your boundaries. There was also mention of masturbation without further explanation, and I needed more development on the authors' stance, otherwise they came off the wrong way.

*I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Nonfiction Review: Exploring Christian Theology Volume One

I previously read volume three of "Exploring Christian Theology" on the Church and the End Times. While Scripture and the Triune God are not quite as interesting and layered of topics, it is the completely unique format of these volumes that makes them worth reading and keeping on the shelf for later. You're not just getting a systematic theology (there is some of that), but also great (sometimes difficult to understand) quotes from church fathers and modern leaders, a historical perspective, a practical perspective and more. For Volume One, I do wish there had been more room for defense of the reliability of Scripture, but I did appreciate some new insights on passages that point to Scripture's divine inspiration. I also appreciated that the half on the Trinity focused on God's character in addition to the Trinity's reality within the Bible.

*I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Fiction Review: At Bluebonnet Lake

Thank you Amanda Cabot. I can't tell you how wonderful it was to sit down to a good romance novel with actual character development and character chemistry!

"At Bluebonnet Lake" follows a Marketing wiz on a long vacation (or sacrifice) for her grandmother. While at the Rainbow resort in Texas, she meets a gentleman with a secret (girls will love this guy), deals with her own reasons for aspiring to partnership at the firm, and then her grandmother also has a charming romantic side plot.

The story is lovely, the characters relatable, and Amanda Cabot even threw in some musical references for all us Broadway lovers! It's a longer novel, but it develops well and really gives you a chance to enjoy the setting and characters.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Nonfiction Review: "The Foundation of Communion with God: The Trinitarian Piety of John Owen"

As with any classic author, John Owens is interesting, and, at times, beautiful to read. But also very difficult to read. Not because of content, but because of long sentences with difficult to follow structure. Editor Ryan M. McGraw attempts to make things a bit easier in his book "The Foundation of Communion with God: The Trinitarian Piety of John Owen." McGraw writes that he has broken Owen's work up into paragraphs and small, select sections. In fact, personally I was disappointed that the majority of the book is Owen's text without much commentary. McGraw provides a short bio and introduction, as well as an appendix on reading Owen's works. But I still had a hard time getting through the book. I finished it because these classic works are usually worth reading. The selections provided stick to basic orthodox theology on the Trinity and the Church. But their short nature, while making it easier to read, also made it more difficult to connect the dots and take something away from the book.
Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, October 25, 2014

Christian Nonfiction Review: Randy Alcorn's "hand in Hand"

“Hand in Hand” by Randy Alcorn is basically a shorter version of his book “If God is Good,” but with stronger emphasis on explaining the various Calvinist and Arminian positions regarding human free will and God’s sovereignty. The two books share a lot of the same content. Alcorn’s conclusion in “Hand in Hand” even focuses on explaining how a good God allows evil to happen, the idea emphasized in “If God is Good.” 

There’s unique content, though, albeit sometimes repetitious. Alcorn makes his own Calvinist leanings evident, but goes back and forth between the various positions, providing a good overview that is fairly non-partial. Several illustrated charts and headlines make the book easy to read, and Alcorn uses a lot of Scripture, in addition to some quotes from other authors. I do wish his chapter on “voices of the past” had included more historical voices on more topics than finding neutral ground. 

At the end of the book, I still hadn’t quite wrapped my head around the book’s topic. I had plenty of unanswered questions and thoughts. Alcorn’s purpose seems more focused on bringing his readers to a position of Compatibalism that can lean toward either side of the debate, so he spends a great deal of space making it clear that the paradox of Sovereignty and Choice can work, even if we cannot understand it.

At any rate, Alcorn provides a good book for beginners, but perhaps he could write another book more the length of his previous books that goes into more detail.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Nonfiction Review: The Romantic Rationalist

About half way through reading “The Romantic Rationalist” I came across an article that listed several factors that the article’s author believed led to the conclusion that C.S. Lewis was “a wolf in sheep’s clothing.” “Romantic Rationalist” had already piqued my interest in Lewis’ weaknesses, and I respected and appreciated that its authors were not afraid to address the bad along with the good. However, thanks in part to the critical article and a comment from my father, I finished the book unsatisfied. Only one issue brought up in the article I read was addressed (and thoroughly, at that) by the book.

“Romantic Rationalist” was written by a group of authors (John Piper, Randy Alcorn and more) for a conference on C.S. Lewis. The authors have different styles of writing, but for the most part the book is well laid out and written. The only chapter that gave me any trouble was a difficult-to-follow chapter on salvation with confusing points on Calvinism. The chapters only graze the surface of Lewis’ writings, which means, once again, I’m left with a desire for deeper exploration. Other topics included Biblical Inerrancy (which Lewis did not wholly support), Imagination (and its compatibility with reason), the problem of evil, a good and sanctified creation, and Hell. Overall, it’s a very quick, easy and short read that honors C.S. Lewis and his place in the authors’ lives.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Thursday, October 9, 2014

Christian Nonfiction Review: Deep Things of God

I really tried to understand Fred Sanders' "Deep Things of God." I read more than 80 pages of the book, which has very long chapters. And I picked up a few points: The Trinity is the Gospel. The Trinity is already evident in the daily aspects of Christianity and our beliefs. However, Sanders often goes off on tangents, uses big words, and is very difficult to follow at times. Most of all, what he writes doesn't fit his main points. The organization needs fixing. Perhaps with shorter chapters, smaller words and a bit of organization this book might actually teach something about the Trinity. Or perhaps there's more about the Trinity later in the book. Good luck getting that far. I may give it a try, but not before posting this review so I can move on to a better read.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Young Adult Review: Thunder

"Thunder" is a young adult novel about a girl marked by an immortal and hunted by the people who brought her up. The action moves slow, and the character development lacks, but the book sets the stage for what will likely be an engaging series.

Author Bonnie Calhoun picked unique names for her characters, but difficult and unpleasant to pronounce names. The setting was also difficult to follow, with a mixture of fantasy and reality. The book takes place in what seems to be America after a tragedy called the Sorrows, but the presence of surreal "Landers" do not fit that setting so much.

The book was somewhat graphic in its violence toward its end, with one particular death being a bit too gruesome for me (unfortunately, it did stick in my mind). I also did not care for the switching of point of view so often with so many different characters, including the villains. Although, for the most part, these views served their purpose in telling the story.

The plot arc works well and leaves the reader anxious for the next book. That book, "Lightning," will arrive in Fall 2015. I probably will have forgotten the series by then. 

But as negative as this review may seem, I give the book four out of five stars and recommend it for any fan of young adult novels.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, October 6, 2014

Bible Review: NIV First Century Study Bible

Kent Dobson's NIV First Century Study Bible gives you all the cultural contexts and notes. Before now, the Chronological Bible (which requires a more steady reading plan) was the only Bible I could find with this kind of information. I only wish the NIV version used here had not been updated to include gender neutral terms. Unfortunately, Dobson's determination to give all sides of the story means a study Bible that lacks firm conviction on controversial issues. A passage in Romans about homosexuality, for example, is said to be possible referring to a specific cultural situation. The same goes for passages about women in the church. Therefore, I recommend that when using this study Bible, readers find other resources for tough topics and compare notes with other study Bibles and commentaries.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Suspense Review: Deceived by Irene Hannon

"Deceived" by Irene Hannon is an incredible mystery thriller. The reader knows all along who did it, but with parts of the narrative told from the villain's point of view, it is always difficult to tell where the clues will lead, and the clues do unravel rather well.

Kate Marshall hires a private detective to find out if a boy she saw in the mall is her long lost, supposed dead son. By book's end, it seems all may end poorly. The threat is high and the hero unlikely to save the day. If the reader has been on the edge of her seat throughout, she'll now end up on the floor.

Apparently, the book is a part of a series that share characters, but one need not read the preceding books to enjoy "Deceived." And after reading Hannon's latest, one may easily devour the remaining books.

Personally, I don't care much for multiple view points in one book, and Hannon did bring in the lost son's point of view for a very short section of the book. The romance in the book seemed like a distraction, as well, but a beginning to what I hope could be another book.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

Review: Lost in Translation by Ella Frances Sanders

Lost in Translation is a great coffee-table book that will intrigue those who discover it. The illustrations of words from other languages are creative and the short comments based on provided definitions are cute and fun to read. My favorite words included definitions of blue smiles, bananas, sunlight through leaves, falling out of love, "grief-bacon," "staircase words," "ostrich politics," showers, "cable-salads" and more.

I do wish author had included a few examples of usage of these foreign words, or at least a pronunciation guide. Also, the definitions are on the right, while the commentaries are on the left, the opposite of a normal reader's pattern of direction for reading.

*I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Wednesday, October 1, 2014

Christian Nonfiction Review: Edwards on the Christian Life: Alive to the Beauty of God

When I first began reading Dane C. Ortlund's book on Jonathan Edwards and the Christian Life, I had two impressions. First, that the book might become difficult to follow, and, second, that the book might turn out to be a systematic theology of sorts that leaves the reader better off returning to Edwards' original works in full text. About half way through the book, however, a few things began to stand out to me, and, ultimately, I finished with a few more gems of knowledge in my pocket.

Ortlund addresses Edwards' teaching son love, joy, gentleness, Scripture, prayer, pilgrimage, obedience, Satan, the soul and Heaven. I most appreciated his attention to worship in solitude (giving credence to all us introverted Christians), as well as his points on the true Christian's love of obedience, the sinner's inability to not sin, and God's unlimited love for the redeemed in heaven.

Ortlund's final chapter includes a few criticisms of Edwards' theology and sermons, a refreshing change from books that mostly praise the people they describe.

*I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Christian Fiction Review: Tried & True by Mary Connealy

Mary Connealy adds bits of old West flare to her descriptions and writing, making the first in her "Wild at Heart" series a lovely, enjoyable read. The characters are real, relatable and instantly likable.  As with most stories, the romance progresses quickly, but thankfully not at the expense of character or plot.

Kylie's father has forced her to act and dress like a man and fight in the Civil War. She has never received any protection or special attention, so when local land agent Aaron Masterson comes along and discovers her secret, ready to treat her like the woman she is, Kylie is torn between her desire for independence and her newfound enjoyment of love and protection.

What seems the main problem of the plot is solved fairly quickly and unexpectedly, with a subplot taking the foreground at book's end, setting up the characters for future books. I'm not entirely sure if I liked the easy resolution. The one thing I did not care for was Connealy's narration, which was told a few times from the point of view of a minor character and gave away the mystery.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Christian Nonfiction Review: Can I Really Trust the Bible

Part of a series of books on various Christian topics, "Can I Really Trust the Bible?" by Barry Cooper is a good start for those ready to jump into a study for the defense of the faith. For the more modern person looking for relatable narrative, I'd recommend Lee Strobel's books, but for those looking for a simple and easy read, Cooper's fits the bill. I was hoping for more detail, however. This book served as more of an overview of what I already knew. The chapters on corruptions, conspiracies, contradictions and criticisms don't actually cover many corruptions, conspiracies, contradictions or criticisms. So consider this a tract, only longer (81 pages).

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, September 19, 2014

Group Devotion Review: Heaven, Hell and Life After Death

More of a systematic theology than an in-depth study, Kay Arthur and Bob & Diane Vereen's 40 minute weekly Bible study on Heaven, Hell and Life After Death doesn't provide for much conversation. Beginners will get a lot out of it, as will visual learners who will enjoy the prompts to add drawings and underlines to specific words and phrases in Bible passages. The texts themselves are conveniently provided within the Bible study, although the questions don't always leave much room for writing down answers. The questions are very straight-forward, mostly sticking to "What did you learn from marking ___?" and repeating what the passages already tell readers. The content goes over the basics of what the Bible says about Heaven and Hell, but do not provide any new insights. There are pull-out "insights" that occasionally provide interesting facts, but other than that there isn't much commentary. The weekly, no-homework studies are supposed to last 40 minutes, but they last several pages and seem to be more than 40 minutes worth. I found this study a refresher on what I already knew, but thought I could get just as much from reading the passages alone.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Christian Nonfiction Review: Biblical Portraits of Creation

In "Biblical Portraits of Creation," authors Walter C. Kaiser Jr. and Dorington G. Little attempt to lay out a theological survey of sorts, point out parts of the Old and New Testament that involve creation, as well as some that involve the future of creation (new heavens and new earth - a bit off topic, but still relevant).

It took me a while to get into this book, and I did not do much underlining. The chapters are mostly repetitions of the passages with very little commentary. The extremely few chapters that Little contributes are on their way to more interesting, but Kaiser writes the majority of the book. As far as style and grammar go, the book reads well. The authors organize the book in outline format, with commentary on their points. The appendix provides the most informative section of the book, discussing the literary genre of Genesis - in other words, the books supposed similarities to ancient religions. Unfortunately, this section is difficult to follow. But it does get its point across.

I am putting this book on my shelf for a possible future reread, as I have a feeling there may be more to it than first appears.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Friday, September 5, 2014

Film Review: The Identical

The celebrity actors (Seth Green, Ashley Judd, Joe Pantoliano) do not add much to "The Identical," and the title character does not become his title until an hour into the film. Still, it's better than typical Christian film fair with so-so acting and likable characters. The conclusion meets most expectations, but focuses more on redeemed relationships rather than the main character's rise to fame or personal faith. The Elvis Presley influence comes across as somewhat laughable, with unrealistic musical numbers, but both catchy and moving songs.

It's satisfying family entertainment, similar to most made-for-TV Hallmark-type films. Not boring, but a bit slow, finding its worth in its heart. Fans of "When the Game Stands Stall," "Amazing Grace" and other faith-inspired films will thoroughly enjoy.

The story follows twin brothers separated at birth, one set apart for God and the other destined to follow the path of the troubled celebrity. Neither knows the other exists, but when their musical talents cross paths in unexpected ways, it sets one brother on an inspiring and hopeful path.

The Identical is now playing in theatres.

Monday, September 1, 2014

Christian Nonfiction Review: Same Sex Marriage

I work in the theatre world. I am also a strong, traditional Christian. Therefore, same-sex marriage and gay rights are constantly on my mind.

Sean McDowell and John Stonstreet's "Sam-Sex Marriage: A Thoughtful Approach to God's Design for Marriage" included a great section on real-life examples of how to treat those of the LGBTQ community and provided a starting point for moral dilemmas. I appreciated the authors' information on the history of the same-sex marriage movement and their point that the definition of marriage has changed in society. The authors call Christians to stand up for traditional marriage by living moral lives while recognizing that no sin is worse than another in God's eyes. At the same time, the earlier portion of their book seems to call people to a political stand.

I feel more called to the personal level, as politics go right over my head and lead to unpleasant arguments. So I have a hard time putting both the personal and political levels together, and I couldn't really figure out which was important to the authors. Their arguments for traditional marriage were short and unsatisfying, relying on the usual "procreation" idea and such. The book acknowledges that emotion rules over logic in our society, but lacks any real content that I feel I could use in conversation.

The book as a whole provided bits of good information, but didn't really put all the pieces together. It was organized, but doesn't feel together.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Sunday, August 31, 2014

Bible Review: NIV The Journey Bible

The NIV Journey Bible doesn't really address any serious issues in the church. No questions of doctrine or other controversial ideas. So it won't answer any complicated questions "seekers" might have. It is, however, entirely written for beginners, whether those new to the faith or those considering the faith.

The version's various sections repeat the basic message of the Bible and put it in easy-to-understand terms. There are several opening sections on topics such as Jesus' famous one-liners, a chapter on commitment to the faith as commitment to a bride, a section on defining moments of the Old and New Testaments, and a sometimes difficult to follow section that summarizes the entire Bible using exact quotes. There are also reading plans for five basic books of the Bible (Genesis, Deuteronomy, John, Acts, Romans) and for the devotionals / short articles provided throughout. Book intros include bottom line and central ideas, timelines, outlines, introductory stories and more. They're all written with the beginner in mind.

I had hoped to find some more defense of the faith material, but there wasn't much there. Just a section on who Jesus was and a summarized defense of the faith.

The e-book includes a section on how to navigate using the device and includes the various articles at the end of each book rather than within the Bible text.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Saturday, August 30, 2014

Nonfiction Christian Review: God’s Design for Man and Woman by Andreas J Kostenberger and Margaret E Kostenberger

In “God’s Design for Man and Woman,” the Kostenbergers lay out a theological survey of what both the Old and New Testaments say about the battles of the sexes. In short, their basic premise is that God set up Adam as the head of humanity before the fall, set up men as leaders of Israel as priests and kings, set up 12 male tribe leaders and 12 male apostles, and that he could have changed that to include women at any time if it were just a cultural situation.  The book includes an appendix on the history of women’s rights, particularly in America, on Biblical interpretation, and on special issues regarding gender passages.

The Kostenbergers give great detailed defenses from Scripture and summaries of their points, which I thoroughly agree with. I recommend their book for anyone wishing to truly explore what the Bible has to say on the very prevalent issue of sexuality. But a warning to all: it is an academic read. The text itself is easy to read, but the Kostenbergers leave very little white space (reserved for pull quotes) and divide the book into chapters that could have been further divided into parts.

I realize that the book is already very long, but I do wish the authors had trimmed some of the unnecessary biblical character profiles for the sake of adding more to other sections. They go into very little detail on the defense of the Bible, for example, and while they include a chapter on practical application, I would have appreciated more examples. They refer to deacons and offices in the early church, but give little detail on what those entailed. While their appendix on women’s rights was useful and extensive, an appendix on homosexuality would have been just as useful.

And the book still left me with many questions. If the place of a woman is in the home, what about single women? What about women who don’t have a heart for service? And what about the roles of men and women after the resurrection when there will be no marriage or sex? What is the difference between women holding authority in the church and holding authority elsewhere, such as in the academic world?

Read the book and detailed footnotes, but make your own connections, and be prepared to look elsewhere for more information.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.

Christian Fiction Review: Annie’s Stories by Cindy Thomson

Since Cindy Thomson’s book “Annie’s Stories” follows a young woman with a great love of reading, any natural reader is bound to enjoy the title character’s journey. At a time when immigrants were still coming through Ellis Island and facing a poor economy, Annie’s own personal story takes a surprisingly deep and moving turn.

Annie comes from a laundry where women are falsely accused and then mistreated. She clings to her father’s written and illustrated stories, the only positive memory she has of home. Living in a boarding house with her unpleasant cousin, Annie dreams of setting up her own library and helping unwanted women learn and grow. When a detective with foul motives snoops around and a postman, Annie’s love interest, discovers a secret behind Annies’s father’s stories, things suddenly become complicated in the boarding house, and Annie is determined to stay independent with her head held high.

Author Cindy Thomson keeps the reader on the edge of her seat, anxious for resolution. Thomson’s story development is refreshing in that Thomson knows how to develop relationships slowly while keeping the action moving. The romance feels authentic and the story keeps you hooked with suspense, drama and emotion.

*Disclaimer: I received this book for free in exchange for my honest review.