Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Review of WONDER by Travis Thrasher

In Wonder, the first book in Travis Thrasher's Books of Marvella series, Thrasher sets up a story that moves forward on two levels. First, there's the story of Brandon, a teenager with an abusive drunk for a father and a summer job that he volunteers to work for free just so he can get to know the new girl in town, Marvel Garcia. As Brandon navigates the life of a teenager and the unique struggles he faces, there's another level of the story brewing in the background. A teenager has been murdered in their small town, and no one knows who is responsible. As Wonder takes us into the first half of Act 2 of Thrasher's Marvella story, Brandon and Marvel become closer as they discover more and more about each other, their dysfunctional families, and the role Marvel believes she is to play in God's redemptive plan.

Wonder is a love story, but it's one that is played out against the backdrop of the mystery surrounding the murders occurring in the town. What's interesting about this story is that this is clearly about the murder that occurred in Marvelous, but it's as if Thrasher refuses to let us explore the murder with any depth just yet. It truly feels like that plot thread is running in the background, and it gives the story a sense of foreboding throughout.

This story, or at least this part of the story, is about Brandon and Marvel. Marvel is a great character. She's unique, bold, confident, and yet strangely humble. She has a deep love for God, and yet Thrasher isn't afraid to show us that she struggles at times with the faith she embraces. This is important because although she feels deeply for Brandon, she's sure she's not supposed to be with him.

What I always love about Travis Thrasher novels is the characterization. Being written in first-person point-of-view, Brandon has a very distinct voice and personality that comes through clearly in the story. But the depth of characterization isn't limited to just the main character. Thrasher has created a distinct voice for Marvel and all of Brandon's quirky friends, as well as his enemies. I don't think you can read a Thrasher novel without getting a clear idea of what each of the characters is like, and it's great because although this is another young adult series like Thrasher's earlier Solitary Tales (one of the best series I've ever read), Brandon Jeffrey definitely isn't another Chris Buckley; he's his own character with his own struggles and journey.

Wonder is the second book in a four-book series, and the last few pages will leave you wanting to continue the story because it's the midpoint, and the midpoint is the place where things start to get crazy. I'll be interested to see where this story goes from here and its connection to Solitary (read the acknowledgements in the back for the vaguest hint that they're connected). If you're looking for a story with exceptional characterization and a suspenseful plot, The Books of Marvella is one to check out.

Review copy provided by Tyndale House Publishers

Tuesday, January 27, 2015

Review of J by Howard Jacobson

J by Howard Jacobson is a story that takes place in a unique future dystopian world. An event has occurred sometime in the past that completely changed the tide of human history. It's an event shrouded in mystery, and it has somehow erased any record of history. The story surrounds a character named Kevern Cohen who falls in love with a girl named Allison. While their love for each other grows, their relationship reveals the brokenness of their world and the potential destruction that could occur as a result of their love.

Jacobson creates a world that keeps you turning pages in search of answers. This is a book that explores some deep themes, and feels truly disturbing at times. The mystery drives the story forward, and the love story keeps you committed to it until the end. This book has been compared to other classic dystopian novels, and it's an apt comparison. Definitely an interesting read if you're into dystopian stories.

Review copy provided by Blogging for Books

Thursday, January 22, 2015

Review of ALOOF by Tony Kriz

Tony Kriz's new book ALOOF deals with one of the most frustrating aspects of the Christian life: we worship a God who is always there, and yet more often than we'd like feels not there. Tony Kriz shares his own experience of a God who seems aloof and the struggles he's had with making sense of a life of faith in which God often seems to hide.

More than just a recollection of his own experiences, Kriz strives to show us a God who is, in fact, there. The book reads as an encouragement to search for God and learn to see where he is working, which is often in the moments when we think he isn't. Kriz's honesty and transparency make this a book that's refreshing to read while also seeing our own struggles and hearing our own questions asked throughout its pages.

Review copy provided by Book Look Bloggers

Thursday, December 25, 2014

Review of JESUS, CONTINUED... by J.D. Greear

Many Christians struggle with the idea that if Jesus were actually present in their lives, then they'd find living him for much more doable. Of course, the disciples of Jesus lived with him right in front of them and still struggled to understand him and do what he wanted them to do. Jesus himself made a surprising statement before his death. He said that it would be better for the disciples if he left because then the Holy Spirit would come and lead them to all truth.

That's the focus of J.D. Greear's new book JESUS, CONTINUED... In the book, Greear looks at what the Bible teaches about the Holy Spirit. This is important because most talk of the Holy Spirit either goes to extremes of an overemphasis on spiritual gifts or a complete ignorance of him altogether. Greear shows the vital work that the Holy Spirit does in the world and in the lives of believers. He gives a clear understanding of the Holy Spirit's divinity and how people can recognize the Spirit's work in their lives.

Greear's book has a great section on spiritual gifts that is helpful in the midst of what can often lead to messed-up theology. By the time you finish with the book, you'll understand that the Holy Spirit finishes what Jesus starts in the lives of believers.

Review copy provided by Book Look Bloggers

Sunday, December 14, 2014

Review of STATION ELEVEN by Emily St. John Mandel

On the night a famous Hollywood actor dies on stage while performing Shakespeare's King Lear and in a moment that none of the world expects, a new strain of flu begins to rapidly spread across the globe, wiping out 99% of the population of the world in just a few weeks. Twenty years later, a band of survivors who call themselves The Traveling Symphony wanders from town to town in the broken down landscape of their post-apocalyptic world, performing Shakespeare for those who can still appreciate art from a distant time. One of their number is a girl named Kirsten who was there the night the actor died. She was eight. And she tries to make something of the life she’s been given, striving to find the world they’d once left behind, just like a character named Dr. Eleven tries to do in a series of graphic novels she’s carried around since before the collapse of civilization.

Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel is a beautifully written novel that follows several well-developed characters back and forth in time. The book features a nonlinear plot at its finest as Mandel weaves the narrative from the time before the collapse to several years after and back again.

The writing of the story reminded me a lot of reading the first two books in Justin Cronin’s The Passage trilogy, with it’s beautifully detailed descriptions and thoughtful character development. The book follows the actor Arthur Leander, his wife-then-ex-wife Miranda, a photographer turned paramedic named Jeevan Chaudhary, Arthur’s oldest friend Clark Thompson, and Kirsten Raymonde. The primary story is centered on Kirsten, and what I liked about her character is her curiosity and fascination with art and creativity. She carries around a series of graphic novels about a space station filled with people that await the day they can return to an inhabitable earth. The space station is called Station Eleven, which is where the story gets its name. There are a lot of interesting parallels between the narrative of Mandel’s story and the story of Dr. Eleven and the inhabitants of Station Eleven. The origin of the Dr. Eleven graphic novels is interesting.

Though this story follows several characters back and forth in time, Mandel carefully weaves all of their stories together because this really is one story she is telling. Some of the most interesting aspects of the story are the prophet and his origin story and the airport where civilization seems to stop. Mandel also fuels reader interest by providing several elements of mystery throughout the story that promise answers later on in the story.

I picked up Station Eleven because so many people had been saying how good it was. They were all right. Out of all the novels I’ve read this year, this one definitely goes down as the best one I’ve read. Emily St. John Mandel has created such a vividly real world that I’d love for her to continue the story in another book.

Review copy provided by Knopf

Friday, December 12, 2014

Review of VIDEO GAME STORYTELLING by Evan Skolnick

Call of Duty: Advanced Warfare is one of the latest video games that combines interactive gameplay with a compelling story. Many gamers have been into story-based games for some time. Personally, I've always enjoyed the stories that I got to experience through the Final Fantasy series of games. Though I don't get to play games as much as I used to, I still find the story lines of popular games intriguing. Storytelling in games gives gamers a unique opportunity to be immersed not only in the gaming world but the experiences of the characters in the games themselves. Because I'm a storyteller and I've always found storytelling in games intriguing, I've always wanted to create a game story like Final Fantasy.

Evan Skolnick's new book VIDEO GAME STORYTELLING is a welcome introduction to the concept of writing stories for video games. The book is divided into two parts. In the first part, Skolnick covers the basics of storytelling, which includes three-act structure, the hero's journey, writing and believability, and the narrative force of conflict, among many other important concepts in the world of storytelling. These are the things that are true of stories, regardless of the medium. Part 2 looks more closely at how the storytelling elements are applied specifically to games. It's interesting that there really aren't many big names associated with video game stories. As Skolnick shows, it's because the video game narrative isn't the job of one person. Video game design is the work of a team of people, working together to create the best gamer experience possible. Part 2 takes you into the video game development process and the many people that are a part of it. Learn about gaming environments, missions, and character design.

VIDEO GAME STORYTELLING is an insightful introduction to the world of video game design from a storytelling perspective. It's a great book for storytellers in general, but specifically for those who want to create their own video game stories.

Review copy provided by Blogging for Books

Monday, December 8, 2014

Review of THE SKELETONS IN GOD'S CLOSET by Joshua Ryan Butler

People who struggle believing in God the most often struggle with some common questions, and it's understandable why they do. These questions center around hell, judgment, and the actions of God in the Old Testament. The way these concepts have traditionally been presented creates a picture of God that is almost monstrous. Some Christians want to just ignore these parts of Scripture and pretend they aren't there. They like to treat them as skeletons in God's closet, deeply buried away in our conversations with people.

Joshua Ryan Butler, in his new book THE SKELETONS IN GOD'S CLOSET, chooses not to run from these questions, but to face them head-on, and he does so thoughtfully and with a heart toward understanding God for who he truly is. I've often wrestled with the concept of hell until I discovered much of what Butler conveys in this book. Though I don't agree with the idea that he seems to present that hell is created by humans, I do agree that the condition humans end up in begins in the human heart. Salvation is an interruption to the natural progression of the human heart toward more and more evil. It's a rescue from the worst in us to love God and love others. It's a restoration to who we were designed to be. Hell, however, is what happens when we definitively reject God's rescue of us. We become worse and worse as we are separated from the true source of life.

Butler presents God as truly loving in what he does, even when it seems harsh. He shows how God's love requires judgment; it requires a desire to eliminate the evil infection in human beings. While this isn't a deep theology book, it is a very thought-provoking book that genuinely wrestles with the questions. The only complaint I would have toward this book is that I wish Butler would have dealt in more detail with the verse that describes hell as a place created for the devil and his angels. This verse doesn't necessarily undo what he teaches in his section about hell, but I think it's an important verse to wrestle with.

Butler presents God as truly more beautiful than we could imagine. God communicates in a way that requires thought, but he can be understood. Unfortunately, he's often been misunderstood. I didn't expect this book to be that great, but I thoroughly enjoyed it.

Review copy provided by BookLook Bloggers