Saturday, July 19, 2014

Review of THE BLUE BOOK OF GRAMMAR AND PUNCTUATION by Straus, Kaufman, and Stern

Title: The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation
Author: Jane Straus, Lester Kaufman, and Tom Stern
Publisher: Jossey-Bass
What It's About: The Blue Book of Grammar and Punctuation is a comprehensive guide of English grammar and punctuation rules.
What I Liked About It: I'm an English teacher, and what I like about this book is the clear layout of grammar rules throughout. The different parts of speech are divided into sections with clear communicating of how they work in a sentence, rules that apply to them, and clear examples of the parts of speech in action. The book even includes quizzes, which are helpful if you're trying to brush up on your English grammar, or if you're a teacher, looking for a resource to assess your students' knowledge of grammar.

Review copy provided by Jossey-Bass

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Title: The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook
Author: Karl M. Kapp, Lucas Blair, and Rich Mesch
Publisher: Wiley
What It's About: The Gamification of Learning and Instruction Fieldbook
What I Liked About It: As a teacher, I'm always looking for new and effective ways to engage students. I'm also very interested in the concept of gamification because I think game mechanics can be used to great effect to build motivation in people. This book does a great job of discussing games, gamification, and simulations and how to apply them to the classroom setting. I love the clear and comprehensive nature of the information covered. The authors outline the nature of interactive learning events, why they're important, and some basics of where to come up with ideas for them. Then there are contributions throughout the book of specific ways to incorporate ILEs to the classroom. If you're a teacher and you're into gaming, this is a great book for putting gamification into practice.

Review copy provided by Wiley

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Friday, July 11, 2014

Review of WRITING FANTASY & SCIENCE FICTION from Writer's Digest Books

Title: Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction

Author: Orson Scott Card, Philip Athans, Jay Lake, and the Editors of Writer's Digest

Publisher: Writer's Digest Books

What It's About: Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction is a comprehensive guidebook to creating fantastic storyworlds and characters for stories that have more of a fantasy or sci-fi focus.

Why I Read It: Many of the stories I love the most fall into the realm of either science fiction or fantasy, or at least have fantasy and sci-fi elements as a part of the story.

What I Liked About It: This book is really about creating a world for your story, and the variety of authors who contribute to this book cover a wide-range of elements you need to consider as you're crafting your story. Things like the society of your story, dress, weapons, religions, creatures. Everything that you can think of that has a place in either fantasy or sci-fi stories is covered in this book. One of the interesting parts of the book is the section on steampunk stories, and it might get you interested in trying your hand at one. Orson Scott Card, who wrote Ender's Game, is one of the primary contributors and the reason why I wanted to read the book. The other authors have just as much insight to offer, however, and it's a valuable addition for any fiction writer's bookshelf.

Review copy provided by Writer's Digest Books

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Review of STORY PHYSICS by Larry Brooks

Title: Story Physics
Author: Larry Brooks
Publisher: Writer's Digest Books
What It's About: Story Physics outlines the fundamental forces that drive any story so that any fiction writer can learn to utilize them to craft a compelling story.
Why I Read It: I loved Brooks's other book Story Engineering and found it to be one of the best books on story structure I've ever read. When I found out he was expanding upon what he'd written in that book in Story Physics, I knew I wanted to check it out.
What I Liked About It: I loved Brooks's discussion of the difference between an idea, a concept, and a premise because it makes so much sense. It helps you to refine your idea to make it uniquely your own. I love engineering metaphors, and this book makes great use of the ideas of forces that drive a good story forward. Brooks argues that every good story follows certain story physics, and the stories that don't are the ones that people aren't reading. I loved his discussion of mission-driven scenes and the role of subtext in the stories we tell.

For those who haven't read Story Engineering, this book in some ways rehashes some of the key elements of that book, as well as provides some summary of what Brooks calls the Core Competencies of storytelling at the end. Since I loved the first book, I didn't mind revisiting what he'd already shared in the first book. Plus, it's stuff I try to use as I'm writing anyway. One of the most helpful parts of the book comes toward the end when Brooks applies what he's been talking about with story physics to The Hunger Games, which is one of my favorite novels. He also applies it to The Help

Story Physics is a great book if you're writing fiction because it will help you to understand what makes great stories great and give you some strategies for creating your own.

Review copy provided by Writer's Digest Books
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Review of STORY TRUMPS STRUCTURE by Steven James

Title: Story Trumps Structure
Author: Steven James
Publisher: Writer's Digest Books
What It's About: Story Trumps Structure is a book about writing that focuses less on structural story formulas and more on letting a story form on its own as you're writing.
Why I Read It: I've been reading Steven James's books for years, long before he became a fiction writer. I've enjoyed reading his novels and think he's one of the best storytellers out there. 
What I Liked About It: I've read almost all of the books on story structure formulas, and some of them I really enjoy. There are really two types of writers: those who outline and those who don't. I tend to feel more free as a storyteller when I have an outline to work from, but sometimes I like to write without one. James's book is a book primarily for those who just want to write. James doesn't argue that stories don't have structure. They do, and, ironically, you'll find a lot about structure in this book. But the focus of Story Trumps Structure is to get you feeling free to let a story flow. I know I enjoy getting a story out and then fine tuning it afterward. James's book helps you to do that.

Like many books on fiction writing, James tells you the things that a good story needs, then unleashes you to write a story organically. He gives you some strategies to keep moving if you get stuck in the form of some questions to ask of your story, which I love and find most helpful.

There is a certain thrill from writing a story and not knowing beforehand where the story will go or how it will end. I tend to find myself outlining my stories because it's easy to get to a certain point in the story where you feel stuck. Those tend to end up unfinished stories. That's why I tend to rely on outlines. Story Trumps Structure is for writers who want to get away from feeling they have to have an outline. It's about keeping your story moving, keeping yourself engaged, and ultimately producing a story that will keep an author engaged.

When one of my favorite authors puts out a book about their process of writing, it's an exciting thing. Story Trumps Structure by Steven James doesn't disappoint.

Review copy provided by Writer's Digest Books
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Title: Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed
Author: Austin Fischer
Publisher: Cascade Books
What It's About: Young, Restless, No Longer Reformed is an honest look at one person's journey in and out of Calvinism and what led him to believe that Calvinism gets much about God's character wrong.
Why I Read It: I've studied Calvinism thoroughly, and though I think they have some good logical arguments, I've never been able to buy into it because I believe the Bible reveals things as a little more complex than Calvinist doctrine teaches. When I heard about this book, with a title that plays on the title of another book called Young, Restless, and Reformed, I decided to check it out.
What I Liked About It: I love Fischer's honesty. It's not so much a book that tries to make careful and complex arguments against Calvinism as it is a book that honestly follows Fisher's journey from believing Calvinism to be true to finding it to be inconsistent with what the Bible actually teaches. Along the way, he shares what led him to believe Calvinists have it all wrong.

Fischer sees Calvinism as making the Bible impossible, which I agree with. Calvinists seem to take a stance that treats God as someone who needs to be defended because his glory is always in danger of being taken away. Of course, that's not how they see it, but all the talk about glory makes many Calvinists sound extremely paranoid that non-Calvinists will up and steal God's glory with their proclamations of libertarian free will and claiming of responsibility for their salvation.

Toward the end of the book, Fischer argues how silly it sounds for someone to accept a gift and then claim that they should be merited for receiving the gift. God's glory is in no danger, and I think non-Calvinists actually believe that more than Calvinists do. One argument that Calvinists often make concerning the elect is illustrated by comparing a husband's love for his wife as unique above his love for any other woman. I've always been frustrated by this argument. Fischer easily reverses this argument that even though a husband has a unique love for his wife, he doesn't treat all other women terribly. It would be ridiculous to claim God loves some people uniquely, so his love for the others leads him to send the others to hell for all eternity. Therefore, the comparison to a husband's love for his wife to illustrate limited atonement just doesn't work.

I'm with Fischer in believing that there are many great Calvinists that we can learn much from, but Calvinism itself paints God all wrong. For anyone struggling with Calvinism, this is a book I would recommend above many others.

Review copy provided by Cascade Books
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Review of THE GOOD NEWS ABOUT MARRIAGE by Shaunti Feldhahn

Title: The Good News About Marriage

Author: Shaunti Feldhahn with Tally Whitefield

Publisher: Waterbrook Multnomah

What It's About: The Good News About Marriage is a book that takes a serious look at the data on marriage and divorce and claims that marriages aren't failing as widely as most people believe.

Why I Read It: I've read a lot of books by Shaunti Feldhahn and enjoy the insights she discovers through her extensive research.

What I Liked About It: This book is aptly titled because I was surprised to learn that marriages within the church tend to succeed far more than those outside the church. The data has always told us it's the same and that the message of Jesus doesn't make a difference upon marriage. This is good news because it shows that the gospel actually does impact people in a way that brings lasting change. I love the approach Feldhahn takes to ensure that she's presenting carefully researched data while presenting insightful examples of real couples throughout. This book is small and easy to read, and it's a great companion to Feldhahn's other book The Surprising Secrets of Highly Successful Marriages. It gives great hope for those who are married while eliminating much of the discouragement that the culture has been feeding us for some time.

Review copy provided by Waterbrook Multnomah, courtesy of

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