Book Reviews

Magnus Chase and the Gods of Asgard by Rick Riordan

There are five Rick Riordan books on sale for $1.99 each (today only). They are all the first books of the series, this one, Hidden Oracle (Apollo), Percy Jackson and the Lightening Thief, The Lost Hero and the first in the The Red Pyramid from the Kane Chronicles.
Summary: New series, new characters, a new set of gods, all of what made Percy Jackson good. 

I have had a hard time finding time to read lately. With two young children, never enough time to do the work that actually pays bills and other responsibilities, reading (and writing reviews) keeps getting pushed aside. Part of the problem is that when I get less time to read, I tend to want to read ‘important’ books. But ‘important’ books are often slow, time consuming and require lots of brain power. Sometimes you just need young adult fiction.

I am a big fan of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series. I am not a fan of his Kane Chronicles (I just read the first of the trilogy and really did not like it.) The follow up series to Percy Jackson (Heroes of Olympus) I am more mixed on. They just felt too long and full of filler. And I still haven’t started the last book of that series in spite of the fact that I bought it almost a year ago.

But when Magnus Chase was on sale for Black Friday I picked it up. Once I started reading it, I sped through it and finished it in just a couple days. This series is not wildly different from Percy Jackson. Magnus Chase is a homeless 16 year old. He has never known his father. Two years ago his mother died protecting him and Magnus has been living on the streets (and on the run) ever since.

Darker Shade of Magic by V.E. Schwab

Summary: A fantasy multi-verse where four worlds are connected via the city of London, and a dark magic wants to destroy them all.

I have not enjoy a good fantasy book in a while. I picked up the audiobook of A Darker Shade of Magic up when it initially came out in early 2015. (It was free as a promotion.) And six months ago or so I picked up the kindle edition when it was on sale. And I finally got around to reading it last week.

The premise of A Darker Shade of Magic is that there are four Londons. All called London and with several places that are the same regardless of their world. The worlds are nicknamed Black London, White London, Red London and Grey London. Black London was destroyed by dark magic, White London uses magic as a powerful weapon against one another and is a cruel world. Red London uses magic as a tool and is a prosperous place (but is shielded from Black London by White London). And Gray London is a 19th century non-magical London that we would recognize historically.

It used to be that it was easy to move between Londons through doors. But the doors were closed to protect the three remaining worlds from the dark magic of Black London. Now only two magicians have the power to moved between world through their blood magic. One is from White London and one is the main character, Kell, from Red London.

The Rich Are Different by Susan Howatch

The Rich Are Different by Susan Howatch Book ReviewSummary: Historical fiction with the rough story of Julius Caesar, Cleopatra, Mark Antony and Augustus Caesar set in 1920-40 financial world of New York and London.

Any one that has read long has read of my love of Susan Howatch. Her crowning achievement, at least as far as I have read, is her Starbridge series. That series of six books about Church of England clergy from 1930s to the 1960s was a masterpiece discussing spiritual growth, the long hand of sin and the role of the church and faith in society.

But many of her books were written before Howatch returned to a deeper faith and wrote the Starbridge series. The Rich Are Different is the first of two long historical fiction books. Howatch likes alternating between multiple narrators. And in this case she alternates between the characters that are roughly Caesar, Cleopatra, Mark Antony and Augustus.

Set in the pre Wall Street crash of the late 1920s though the early days of World War II, the rich really are different in some ways. But in many ways they are not. They still have concerns, loves, loss and heartbreak. Their money does insulate them somewhat from the conventions of the day. But wealth cannot buy happiness, good marriages, healthy children, or an end to tragedy.

Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker Palmer

I am reposting this 2013 review. Let Your Life Speak, as well as A Hidden Wholeness: The Journey Toward an Undivided Life and The Courage to Teach: Exploring the Inner Landscape of a Teacher’s Life are all on sale for $3.99 on Kindle. I think this is a one day sale today.
Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation

Over the past several months I have started meeting with a spiritual director.  This is a result of reading the Church of England series and several books on spiritual direction.  Since I clearly process through reading and writing about what I read, my spiritual director suggested I read something by Parker Palmer in part because I have such problem integrating the formalized Benedictine spirituality that I keep trying to move toward.  (If you can’t do it, try the opposite Quaker spiritual thought.)

So I started by listening to the audiobook of Palmer’s classic Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation.

Palmer’s idea that we do not always consciously know what we unconsciously speak of or our body unconsciously does follows the findings of behavior economics quite well.

Best Books I Read in 2016

This is my annual best of 2016 list. (Way late I know.) This is my list of the books that at the end of the year I still think about. They are not all from 2016 (most are not) and they may not be the ‘best’ books that I have read. Some years my best list has been more heavily fiction oriented. And some years I have split it up into a fiction list and a non-fiction list. But this year I am going to keep it all together (fiction is at the bottom). This is my list, roughly in order. I am not sure how you really compare books of widely different genres. So think of it as an approximation.

Silence and Beauty: Hidden Faith Born of Suffering by Makoto Fujimura The new Martin Scorsesee movie Silence, based on the novel by Shusaku Endo goes into wide release next weekend. You theoretically have time to read the original Endo novel and then this book, which is Fujimura’s reflection on the novel and his reflections his and Endo’s Christian faith and the culture of Japan. Silence is not for the faint of heart. It is a novel about Christians that renounce their faith in the face of persecution. I think it is an important book and I think Fujimura’s book is the best book I have read this year. I am in the middle of re-reading it right now.

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah is the most unexpected book on the list. I have liked Noah when I watched The Daily Show, but I don’t watch it often. And I tend to not pick up many celebrity memoirs, so if this has not been offered for free on audiobook I would not have picked it up. But it is very well written and a fascinating look at a culture and country that I do not know much about. Growing up in post-apartheid South Africa is not a particularly funny subject. But Noah handle it with humility, appropriate weight for the subjects and with lots of humor. I will pre-order anything else that he writes.

The March Trilogy by John Lewis and Andrew Aydin with illustrator Nate Powell deserves it accolades (National Book Award and Goodreads Graphic Novel of the Year among others.) I have read a number of comic book/graphic novels this year. I have become acquainted with Seth Hahne who is behind the Goodokbad blog. He has shown me that there is so much more than traditional superhero or Manga. A lot of history is particularly well suited to graphic novel format. And the story of the Civil Rights movement through the biography of John Lewis, hits all the right notes.

Another very good graphic novel is Vision by Tom King. Vision is a member of the Avengers, but this is more a comic book about his family and what it means to love in difficult situations than about superheroes.

As You Wish: Inconceivable Tales from the Making of The Princess Bride by Cary Elwes was my light pick of the year. I tend toward heavy fiction and lots of non-fiction. But I can’t only read those. I need funny books and lighters books as well. I am a huge fan of the Princess Bride movie and book. But I had not picked it up until it was on sale several years after I heard about it. This is a book that should be listened to. Elwes is not only an excellent narrator, who does great impressions of the other stars in the movie, but many of the others involved in the movie participated in reading their sections of the book as well.

Prophetic Lament: A Call for Justice in Troubled Times by Soon-Chan Rah is the best biblical book I read this year. It is both a commentary on the book of Lamentations and a call to bring the concept of lamentations back to Evangelical worship and a commentary on how Christians should think about social issues. Soon-Chan Rah is a former pastor/church planter and now a professor at Northpark Seminary. He is a prime example of why we need more diversity not only in our seminaries, but in our reading and thinking about scripture as well. Diversity is not simply about making minority Christians feel represented but about becoming the whole body of Christ. Also related and worth reading is The End of White Christian America by Robert Jones. It is a book about demographics and polling more than theology, but it just serves to reenforce the need for a more diverse understanding of the church.

Bel Canto by Ann Patchett

Summary: Beautiful, tragic story of a temporary utopia that can never last.

Just over a year ago I listened to a short audiobook by Ann Patchett about marriage.  Since then I have wanted to read one of her longer fiction books.

But the descriptions of the books kept putting me off.  Her first book, the Patron Saint of Liars is about a home for unwed mothers.  Run is about a father trying to keep his children safe, The Magician’s Assistant is about widow who finds her former husband had a secret life.  All of her books seem to be about tragic subjects.

Faith and the Public Square by Rowan Williams

Faith in the Public Square by Rowan Williams Book Review

Summary: Wide ranging series of essays about faith, ethics, public morality and the theological concept of the common good.

Some authors are more aural in their writing style. They write in a method where reading it out loud is the best method. Neil Gaiman, Eugene Peterson, Rob Bell all are authors that I immediately go to the audiobook first. And then maybe later re-read their books in a print format.

Rowan Williams I have decided is the opposite. I do like his writing, but he writes in a style that has lots of asides and subtle nuance that makes audiobooks difficult. I am always assuming that there is a footnote or some other feature from the print book that would help make sense of the context that is unavailable to the audiobook listener. (Although some of these essays were originally lectures and those are much easier to hear and understand.) And that is unfortunate for me, both because for some reason almost all of Williams books are cheaper on audiobook than in print and because I tend to listen to more audiobooks these days.

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah

Born a Crime: Stories From a South African Childhood by Trevor Noah book reviewSummary: The story of a Trevor Noah’s birth and childhood at the end of the apartheid and early days of freedom in South Africa. A celebrity memoir that isn’t about celebrity. 

I do not read many celebrity memoirs, unless you include theology professors. But Born A Crime will now be ranked with Julie Andrew’s Home as the two best celebrity memoirs I have read.

Trevor Noah was born to a Black African mother in apartheid South Africa. It was illegal for any mixed race sexual relations to occur. And the very existence of Trevor was actually proof of a crime. His father was a white German ex-pat working in South Africa. His mother, the real force of the book, was going to live the life she wanted regardless of the political rule. Until the fall of apartheid, when he was about 5, Trevor could not be seen with either parent in public for fear of him saying Daddy or Mommy or someone thinking they may be connected.

The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan (Trials of Apollo #1)

The Hidden Oracle by Rick Riordan (Trials of Apollo #1)Summary: Zeus got mad at Apollo, so he sent the self centered God to Manhattan and made him mortal to learn a lesson.

I am an unabashed fan of Rick Riordan. Not every book is great, but most of them are quite fun and worth reading. The Hidden Oracle is the start of a new series in the same world and time as Percy Jackson. (Percy is in the the book briefly). Riordan is continuing to build on the story from other books. So there are references to other books and story lines that you will either need to remember or just accept without knowing.

Apollo is a self-centered narcissist. Everything is really primarily about him. And this is told in his voice, so especially the early book shows a former god that can’t understand why everyone isn’t doing more to help him. The reader understands that he is annoying. And readers of Riordan’s earlier books remember why Zeus was mad at Apollo in the first place and why the other characters are not particularly fond of him.

Thank You for Being Late by Thomas Friedman

Thank You for Being Late: An Optimist's Guide to Thriving in the Age of Accelerations

Summary: Three increasingly fast movements are unsettling the world. Friedman, without minimizing the danger, gives an optimistic account of how we can survive and thrive.

I am broadly a fan of Thomas Friedman’s general worldview. He is a progressive (by the definition of Jonathan Haidt’s The Righteous Mind‘s understanding). He is a globalist (in a non-pejorative sense.) He is fascinated with technology, and while not universally trusting in it, he thinks that technology is the way that many of the problems of our world have been and will be solved. He also thinks that government has a role is cushioning the problems of the global markets and regulating those markets for the benefit of the average person. He does not easily fit into a left/right dichotomy on issues of economics, social safety net, foreign policy or many other issues.

But it has been a few years since I have read one of his books and I am not a regular reader of the New York Times or his columns. Friedman is a bit of an outsider at this point. He falls into the general charge of technocrat and the problems with that label. He is deeply knowledgeable about world politics and for more immigration and more international cooperation, which again, is unfashionable. And Friedman is generally writing as an optimist with wonder about the world in an age that is more cynical and pessimistic.

Thank You for Being Late is broadly about the increasing (and Friedman uses the term exponential often) growth of three areas, computing (especially the movement toward big data), global market forces (and this is broad to include trade, immigration and migration and ideas) and climate change. Friedman is not shy about the fact that the world is scary. We know more about the world know than at any other time and we cannot and should not hide from that knowledge. But we also have limited capacity to absorb and process and change.

The title is from a phrase that Friedman frequently tells people that he interviews. “Thank you for being late”. He frequently meets people for early breakfasts to interview them. And because of traffic or bad planning or other reasons, it is not infrequent that his guests are late. He has started to say thank you because it is only in those unplanned free times that he can think and process. The quote from this section (and I listened to this on audiobook, so I believe this is accurate, but transcribed.)

“The ancients believed there is wisdom in patience, and that wisdom comes from patience. Patience wasn’t just the absence of speed, it was the space for reflection and thought. We are generating more knowledge than ever before…but knowledge is only good if you can reflect on it.”

I like Friedman’s writing style, but he can tend to overwhelm the reader with examples and stories to make his point. So there is far too many fascinating stories and examples that prove his point to really mention. But starting in about 2007, there has been an exponential growth in the ability of technology to collect and harness data. Part of this is felt in the always connected worker. But it is also felt in the slightly too targeted ads that feel like someone is always watching you, and they are.