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

Tuesday, November 25, 2014

Review of SKETCH by France Belleville-Van Stone

Sketch by France Belleville-Van Stone is the kind of book that makes being an artist look like something you could do. Especially how she lays it out in such a way as to be something you do to capture moments in your daily life. The book is relatively short, yet contains all the essential information you need to get started if you've always wanted to draw what you see.

She covers some philosophical elements about why anyone should draw and how to find time to draw when you live a busy life. But she also covers the technical aspects such as the supplies you'll need for the various types of drawings you'll want to try. You'll learn some basic drawing techniques, combined with illustrations to make learning easy. There's even a section on using technology to create art.

Sketch is a fun little book that will help you to make sketching a regular part of your life and a great artistic outlet.

Review copy provided by Blogging for Books

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Review of INSIDE THE CRIMINAL MIND by Samuel Samenow

Nobody really wants to get inside the criminal mind for fun because the criminal mind holds the worst that human potential has to offer. Criminals do bad things that harm other people. We know that. But why do they do it? What is it that causes a person to submit to acting out criminal behavior?

Inside the Criminal Mind by Dr. Samuel Samenow seeks to explore the criminal mind, and Dr. Samenow comes to the subject with decades of experience in the field. In fact, this is an updated edition of the book. The book is an exploration of human evil. It's not that outside forces don't contribute a degree of influence in a criminal's mind; but Samenow's book looks at specifically how criminal behavior originates in the criminal's mind. They are responsible for their actions, and they weigh their actions.

I'm not sure who the ideal reader would be for this book, but it's a great resource for fiction writers who want to get into the heads of their potential villains to make them more believable.

Review copy provided by Blogging for Books

Sunday, November 9, 2014

Review of TABLES IN THE WILDERNESS by Preston Yancey

Tables in the Wilderness by Preston Yancey reminds me a lot of Heroes and Monsters by Josh Riebock, which is a book I love. Yancey is a former Southern Baptist who has made his home in the Anglican tradition. This book is about his journey of discovering God.

This journey is very contemplative and involves some rough patches here and there where God seems silent. It also involves some genuine encounters with God that many people long to have. Yancey writes with gut-wrenching honesty, and while some believers may take issue with some of the things he writes, he's definitely thoughtful and thought-provoking throughout.

It's unlikely that anyone gets everything right when it comes to God, but I think readers can appreciate the willingness Yancey exhibited in sharing his personal journey with all of its stops and starts. This is a beneficial book in helping believers wrestle with what it means to commune with God.

Review copy provided by BookLook Bloggers

Friday, November 7, 2014

Review of A.D. 30 by Ted Dekker

Ted Dekker has spent years creating stories that explore man's interaction with God, and although he's always fought the label of "Christian author," he's never hesitated to say that his stories are about Jesus and what Jesus has done. That's been clear in books like The Circle Series, The Books of Mortals, Boneman's Daughters, and The Bride Collector. Many of his stories have been parables, much like the kinds of stories Jesus himself told, but for a more contemporary audience. In A.D. 30, Dekker dives deeper than he ever has into a story about Jesus. This is no allegory. This is a look at Jesus in his original context from the eyes of a foreigner.

We take a journey with Maviah, a woman who has been shamed into slavery even though she should be a queen of her people. After her father's tribe is overrun, she's sent on a mission to King Herod Antipas to ask for help. She makes the long journey, a desperate woman who aches over the loss of her child. What she discovers when she arrives in Palestine is rumors of a Jewish mystic who has been causing quite a stir with his message about a kingdom not of this world. Soon she encounters Yeshua, and his message challenges everything she's ever known.

The strength of this book is the way Dekker makes us experience the world of the story. It's clear that Dekker did a lot of research for this book because it feels so authentic. By putting us in the mind of Maviah, we experience Jesus as a foreigner, which is really what we all are to the way of life he calls for. The book reads like a first-hand glimpse at the ministry of Jesus, and it's profound.

My only complaint about this story, and it's a small one, is that it felt like forever until we got to Jesus. That may have been the point, however. Much of the first half of the book is Maviah's dangerous journey to Palestine, and this part was difficult to get engaged with at times. However, once Maviah has arrived at the end of her journey, that's where the story picks up.

Ted Dekker has been my favorite author for years, and though I love some of his books more than others, I always appreciate his striving for authenticity in each of his books. He's one of the best storytellers out there. A.D. 30 is a unique book and one that anyone would benefit who wants to encounter Jesus afresh.

Review copy provided by Center Street