Book Reviews

Apocalyptic Fevers And Ships: Two Novels Of Life After The Collapse
I've always been a fan of apocalyptic fiction. Plagues, zombies, alien invasions, world wars, the end of the world, I love 'em all. It's not that I'm morbid (or so I will defend to the bitter end). It's more that I like seeing how people envision humanity's response when everything falls apart. Two recent library impulse reads, Fever by Deon Meyer and The Ship by Antonia Honeywell, gave me a golden opportunity to visit two visions of a world in collapse.

Calamity (The Reckoners)
The ending will not surprise you, but the manner in which the journey unfolds is clever, compelling and insightful, as is always the case with Brandon Sanderson.  This is a series I have pushed my sons to read. The protagonist, David, is brave, loyal, and kind. His character is solid, and he longs for peace even as he enters a war that cannot be avoided. In the face of calamity, he clings to the hope of restoration and new life. If he is going to lead the ones who bring about a reckoning, I’m in.

The Beauty (#1-6)
I give The Beauty high marks for what it is attempting. It reminds me of a comic version of the thought-provoking but disturbing Black Mirror, with a smattering of Scott Westerfield’s Pretties and Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World thrown in for good measure. We often takes culture norms of beauty for granted; we just as often accept faulty ideas of what things give our lives worth – in this case, the idea that the more sexually desirable we are, the more life is worth living. That’s a great topic that needs to me discussed far more than it is. Yet from the beginning, I felt like The Beauty undermined its own message.

"America's Blessings: How Religion Benefits Everyone, Including Atheists" (Rodney Stark)
This book is not meant to be an apologetic for the Christian faith. It does not argue that Christianity is true. Mr. Stark merely makes a well-informed case that by multiple measures of what is popularly called ‘human flourishing,’ Christianity is the solution we’ve been looking for, not the problem we should be seeking to avoid.

Dean Koontz's Ashley Bell: The World Is A Battleground
That’s why I like Koontz so much. It's not just that he writes such creative and diverse stories. It's not just that I am rightly mesmerized by goodness in his heroes and properly appalled by the evil in his villains. It's not just that he writes book after book that I can recommend to my boys, knowing that what they read will be part of the process that forms them into men. It's not just that when I read his stories, I hear an echo of the greatest one ever told. It's that when I read his books, they feel like home.

The Girl On The Train: Unreliable Narrators and Hearts
I read The Girl On The Train before I knew it was The Next Big Deal. It was interesting but not captivating, suspenseful but not surprising, and populated with characters in whom I had trouble investing. Having said that, I did appreciate how Ms. Hawkins described the inner lives of Rachel and Megan. The story is ordinary on some levels, but it is thought-provoking and insightful when it explores their hearts.

Hollow City
I kept thinking of how C.S. Lewis and J.R.R. Tolkien were influenced by the myths and fairy tales that pointed them toward Christ. I’m not saying Riggs is another Lewis or that Hollow City points people toward Christ, but it manages to capture some of the wonder that comes with the realization that reality is deeper and wider than it seemed. There are believers and skeptics in the story, so the author allows for some back-and-forth. In the end, I think we are meant to walk away siding with wonder.

Visiting Heaven and Hell: A Look At "Heavenly Tourism"
Personal reports aside, does the Bible suggest we can visit heaven or hell before we must remain on that side of the veil? If so, do we have good reason to believe the stories of those who return? I can think of three biblical precedents relevant to the discussion, and none of them lend strong support to the recent accounts of visits to heaven or hell.

Miss Peregrine’s Home For Peculiar Children: Ransom Rigg's Miss Peregrine’s Home for Peculiar Children was a New York Times best-seller, reaching the #1 spot on the Children's Chapter Books list during its 90 week run. The book has sold 15 million copies, and the graphic novel adaptation checked in with a 50,000 copy first printing. A movie is in the works from 20th Century Fox (Tim Burton is the director; he is a good fit for this story). Hollow City, the 2014 second installment in the trilogy, had a 500,000 printing order for its release.

Neil Gaiman's Interworld Trilogy: A Hero In A Cautionary Tale: A series with imperfect, flawed characters who nonetheless carry on with bravery, integrity, and humility as they move toward maturity? A world in which reality is comprised of things both seen and unseen, and in which both are meant to be known and appreciated in their own right? That’s my kind of story. Here’s hoping Gaiman writes more of the same.

Undivided (The Unwind Series): "The Unwind series is not without its flaws.* However, considering the way in which Mr. Shusterman develops a pretty complicated story with plenty of tie-ins to current events (all the books feature actual news stories), I highly recommend this series. It's disturbing and brutal at times, but it's also full of hope.  Buy it. Read it. Then buy more for your friends. It's the kind of story that could change a culture's perspective on the value and nature of human life."

Saint Odd: "Through the Odd Thomas series, Koontz has mesmerized millions of people with a story that takes God and the supernatural seriously; values honor, integrity, purity, and dare I say holiness; and points us toward the life to come in a way that shapes the life we live now. It's not the greatest story every told, but it most certainly points us toward it."

Golden Son (Red Rising): "Golden Son, the second book in Pierce Brown’s Red Rising trilogy, is garnering even better reviews than its excellent predecessor. Mr. Brown deftly blends Greek and Roman mythology, sci-fi, fantasy, and dystopian fiction (you can see the influences of Star Wars, The Hunger Games, Ender’s Game, Lord of the Flies, and Game of Thrones) into a vast, mesmerizing story of revenge, power, love and betrayal."

Attack On Titan: Both the anime and manga of Hajime Isayama's Attack on Titan have been absurdly popular and widely praised. Last year, five of the books in the series were in the Top 20 graphic novels in the U.S., beating even The Walking Dead;  8.3 million copies sold in just the first half of 2014 to boost its total sales close to 22 million copies in just under five years. 

Sinner (Wolves of Mercy Falls) - "I can think of several people I know for whom this story reads like a biography – not because they are rock stars or glamorous LA socialites, but because their inner landscape is so familiar. Ms. Stiefvater knows how to write a story that lays bare the souls of her subjects, and those souls can be found within or around us all (she did this equally well in The Raven Boys). To whatever degree Sinner offers hope that even the worst of us deserve love and can make the best of second chances, that’s a good thing. But I put Sinner down with a sense of frustration as well. Wanting to save people from themselves is an appealing idea, but it leads Isabel to move into a closer relationship with Cole (and eventually a sexual one) when he has given her no compelling reason to think this is in any way a good idea."

Red Rising: You Must Live For More - "Pierce Brown's Red Rising received strong critical reviews after its release in January of 2014.  By February, it had made the New York Times' best-seller list, and Universal Pictures had won a 7-figure bidding war for the movie rights (World War Z’s Marc Forster is slated to be at the helm). The second book in the trilogy, Golden Son, has just been released. So far, it's getting even better reviews than Red Rising. If you are looking for the next big YA dystopia, this is it." 

50 Shades of Longing - "The longing to be cherished, rescued, and sexually fulfilled in mind-blowing ways while saving the bad boy from his inner demons happens all the time in the fantasy worlds that readers find increasingly compelling, but the promised fulfillment doesn't pan out in real life. Just to be clear, I'm not criticizing the longings. I'm criticizing a deeply flawed plan for fulfilling them that spills over into real-world decisions. When actual relationships resemble those in books like 50 Shades (or the Twilight saga, if you are looking for a tamer version), the stories never end well."

Stephen King's Revival: A Novel - "In Revival: A Novel, King has reminded us once again why he is the master in his genre. By blending a number of significant influences in his life (Arthur Machen's 'The Great God Pan,'  H.P Lovecraft's  Cthulhu, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein) as well as his religious upbringing, he has crafted a tale that I can best describe as bleak."

The Zombie Bible: Hungers that Devour and Hopes that Preserve - Mr. Litore has written in multiple blog posts that his goal is to let readers take a fresh look at biblical stories and experience their beauty, horror and depth in a new way. He cites Tolkein and Chesterton’s perspective of art as a type of “recovery” that brings a freshness to experiences that have begun to feel ordinary. He quotes one of Chesterton's observations in Orthodoxy: ““Fairy tales say that apples were golden only to refresh the forgotten moment when we found that they were green.” Mr. Litore tries to accomplish this by throwing in a plot device that shocks, engages, and forces us to wrestle once again with stories that should never have lost their importance. Risky? You bet. Effective? That’s up to individual readers, but I found his writing compelling.

UnSouled (The Unwind Dystology) - "Since my reviews of Unwind and UnWholly established the basic premise of the series, this review will simply offer a series of quotes from UnSouled to give you an idea of the worldview that shows up in the course of the story. Shusterman has some strong opinions about societies that are 'a mill of commerce, trafficking in flesh, working outside the realm of ethics yet within the law and with the complete consent of society.' And he's not afraid to give 'em."

Uglies, Pretties and Specials: Scott Westerfield's Brave New YA World: "I appreciate the issues Mr. Westerfield seeks to tackle in this series. The more we remind ourselves of the importance of grace and forgiveness, the more we realize that our character is more important than our appearance, the more we understand that self-worth and self-esteem are two very different things, the better off we will be. I just wish I had more confidence that his target audience was able to clearly hear what he is trying to say."

The Maze Runner: Something WICKED This Way Comes: "Mr. Dashner has said that he "had no message in mind" when he wrote the story. I think a more focused intent could have turned the series into a sobering story about both the corruption and potential in human nature. As it is, a good start gives way to a world that features morally ambiguous heroes and villains, a confusing mix of good and evil, a lot of graphic and what at times felt like gratuitous violence, and an ending that will leave many readers frustrated."

Patrick Ness's Chaos Walking Trilogy: Knives, Questions, and Monsters of Men - "The ability to empathize with others is a virtue. Perhaps the things that make monsters of other men will break our hearts and challenge us to offer love toward those we tend to dismiss or despise. On the other hand, if our attempt to understand clouds our ability to discern whether or not some differences are, in fact, better or worse, we are in trouble. Without a shared understanding of genuine goodness and moral clarity, we may well empathize our way into the very chaos we seek to flee. That, too, would make monsters of us all." 

Steelheart - "The evil that lurks within us does not have to have the final word on who we are or what we will become.  We may be more inclined toward evil then we know - but we also have a greater potential for good than we realize. That's a story worth telling again and again."

The Knife of Never Letting Go - "'ll be honest: the trilogy does not end as well at it begins (reviews of the next two books are pending).  But as The Knife of Never Letting Go winds downs, a couple things are clear for Todd and Viola: Chaos walks among them, the Noise resounds around them, but hope lives within them. That's a message we all long to hear."

Dean Koontz's Innocence - "Dean Koontz is perhaps the most famous Christian author alive today. He has sold over 450,000,000 books, with 17,000,000 added each year.  He's sold more books than Stephen King, which is no small feat. Since he’s not published by a Christian publishing house, he flies under the radar in Christian circles. That’s a shame. He is writing about horror, hope, good, evil, nihilism and purpose in a way that is captivating, true, and broadly accessible."

This Dark Endeavor: The Apprenticeship of Victor Frankenstein - "I was prepared to be disappointed. I am a fan of Shelley's classic, and I was concerned This Dark Endeavor would be a cheesy intro heavy on shock value and silly romance. How delighted I was to be wrong."

The 5th Wave - "It's certainly an ambitious book, perhaps more memorable for what it attempts to do than what it always accomplishes. However, it has resonated strongly with a huge audience for good reason. Mr. Yancey has tapped into some of the deepest hopes and fears of this generation."

Jonathan Maberry's Rot and Ruin Series (Flesh and Bone, Fire and AshRot and Ruin)  - "One does not leave the Ruin unmarked. But they have memories of their own integrity and commitment; they have fellow travelers with whom they can find solace and hope; they have helped to usher in new life from the fire and ash of the world."

Neil Shusterman's Unholy Series: Unwind and Unwholly.

"In Unwind, Neil Shusterman began a brilliantly disturbing look at a culture in which parents can have teenage children “unwound” – a process which kills them as every part of their physical body is separated and given to someone else. Perhaps because this cruelty is so counter-intuitive, the government floods society with manipulative slogans (“Experience a world outside yourself: Embrace the divided state.”)

As if the story weren't disturbing enough, Shusterman connects the issues with some current trends in the world. He cites current news stories about children abandoned under Safe Haven laws, exorbitant organ prices on the global market, and surgeons who profit by harvesting organs from euthenized patients. It's not the same as unwinding, clearly, but seeing the real world juxtaposed with his fictional world is sobering.

Shusterman introduced some weighty concepts in Unwind: Do we have souls? Do people have intrinsic worth? What makes human life valuable?  Fortunately, UnWholly continues with the same skill and depth offered in Unwind.

Baigalupi's The Drowned Cities - "Mr. Baigalupi writes what he calls 'accidental futures', where "human beings are selfish, short-sighted, and stupid, and thereby create worlds that everyone can agree are hell — but that no one can fix anymore." That's the world of The Drowned Cities. But even in the midst of this watery hell, a compelling story of honor, horror and hope emerges."

James Dashner's The Maze Runner Trilogy - "Morally ambiguous heroes and villains. A confusing mix of good and evil. A love triangle where both choices are questionable. A lot of graphic violence. An ending that will leave many readers baffled. This doesn't seem like a formula for success."

The Last Apprentice - "The series apparently gets much bleaker as it unfolds. An excellent author interview at  The Gothic Imagination notes that "the books have clearly developed in terms of their complexity. They have certainly become darker, bleaker, murkier. It seems as though The Wardstone Chronicles imagine an audience who are growing up, becoming mature – perhaps even becoming more cynical." Delaney himself comments that, as the series unfolds, "Tom has evolved and changed. He’s not going to be the nice lad he once was.”

Joseph Finder's Paranoia -"“Oh, come on,” she said, her voice like velvet, suggesting everything, promising nothing. “Will you just get in the car?” Much like Alana, the book suggested a lot. It could have been a morality tale about deceit and greed. It could have been a warning against materialism and self-absorption. In spite of a lot of unsettling details, the overall story arc set up a pretty good parable about the importance of integrity. Paranoi ultimately provides very little moral clarity or direction other than "be true to yourself." Alana might represent all that is duplicitous, callous, and destructive, but... she's gorgeous. She wants him. And she has an Austin Mini Cooper. I suspect Adam will just get in the car."

The Ocean at the End of the Lane - ""In my dreams I spoke that language too, the first language.. nothing said in that language can be a lie... Once I dreamed I kept a perfect little bed and breakfast by the seaside, and to everyone who came to stay with me I would say, in that tongue, 'Be whole,' and they would become whole, not be broken people, not any longer…"

Aprilynne Pike's Wings - "On the one hand, I liked the creativity and the overall decency of the characters. On the other hand, the story felt very vague. There are some stories that can be read multiple ways because they are deeply layered with insight and wisdom. I listed all the different ways Wings could be read because I can't find the core reason this book blossomed from the author. It's one thing to plant a story in the minds of readers; it's quite another to nourish it and bring it to life. The story is a lot like Laurel - winsome, light and full of charm. I just wish there could have been more to it than that."

World War Z - "World War Z is both sobering and hopeful. It reminds us that great evil lurks within humanity, waiting restlessly to be unleashed when our structures fall apart. It also reminds us that great good simmers below the surface, capable of defending and rebuilding a devastated world."

Joe Hill's Horns - "Horns could have been a sobering morality tale about what happens when people give in to the devil inside. Instead, Mr. Hill has written a book that, while acknowledging the ubiquitous nature of evil, suggests that our hope is to be found in embracing our fallen, sinful nature. There's a light at the end of life's dark tunnel, but it's only fire for those who like to burn things down."

The Forest of Hands and Teeth - "She wants to break rules, disrupt order, and ignore boundaries. That is not heroic. That’s foolish. She left a wake of broken people behind her as she followed her heart. I felt sorry for everyone around her. When she finally took off on her own to find that ocean, I couldn't help but cheer that fact that those who remained behind were freed from her presence. I really didn’t care if she made it or not."

Throne of Glass - "I get why the book is popular to young female readers. Celaena has it all. She can protect herself and others; she can overcome the loss of her parents; she can survive incredible horrors; she is beautiful, and alluring, and smart. She attracts the most popular men – and rejects them both.  The author has noted, "I'd love for some young woman to read [Throne of Glass] and feel empowered."

But I wonder what kind of empowerment is happening here. This is not a story that translates well into the real world. Girls who survive what she has desperately need help – not because they are weak, but because they have been terribly damaged. People cannot commit the violent acts she has without paying a price in their soul."

Warm Bodies - "Though this zombie romance book (?) was originally written for an adult audience, the recent movie targets a YA crowd. If you are tempted to dismiss the story as yet another sign that we are staggering toward cultural annihilation, you might want to reconsider. Warm Bodies gives a sobering, concise and (I’m afraid) largely true warning about the trajectory of a humanity consumed by the worst parts of its own nature."

Beautiful Creatures - "The beginning of Beautiful Creatures quotes Martin Luther King Jr.:
“Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” Lena has brought on a storm because of her power, but she may yet blow the darkness away as the series unfolds. As of now, the clouds don’t look like they will be going away any time soon. Beautiful Creatures does offer some light, but I’m not sure it shines brightly enough for those who need to be truly set free from the darkness that lurks inside us all."

Allie Condie's Matched Trilogy - "There is a lot to like about this series. Mrs. Condie honors family, tradition, integrity, imagination, creativity, loyalty, bravery, friendship, commitment... It's quite a list. I do find it interesting, however, that when she writes a story without religion, she also writes a story that is quite bleak. Close to the end of the series, Cassia concludes: "But I also know we can't plan on anyone else rescuing us. We have to do it ourselves. There can be no one Pilot. We have to be strong enough to go without the belief that someone can sweep down and save us."

It's all up to us.  We must save ourselves.  That sounds noble, but the story's conclusion shows the barren hope that humanity has to offer. In the end, the Rising will become the society, much like the rebellion in The Hunger Games.  Sure, Ky and Cassia have each other, but there love is one small candle in an sweeping darkness.  It may warm their hearts, but not the world.  Perhaps Mrs. Condie knows she has an audience that doesn't expect a "happily ever after" ending."

The Raven Boys - "I look for stories that make us want to be a better people. In terms of challenging the readers' loyalty, character, and friendships, The Raven Boys is solid. In terms of pointing them in the right spiritual direction, I think it piques more interest in the legion of devils than it does in the God for whom Blue is apparently looking."

The Mortal Instruments - "But as good as the main characters are at fighting demons, they are pretty bad at fighting temptation. The first of the Shadowhunters inscribed their motto on the Mortal Cup: “The Road To Hell is Easy.”  When those meant to hunt in the shadows begin to live in those shadows, the journey has begun."

Incarceron - "This is the story of Genesis and the Garden retold (as some of the imagery in the book makes very clear).  We live in a jungle that used to be a Garden. We are not naturally prone to good; there is that within us the subverts every good thing. Even the prison understands this. “[People] torment each other. There is no system that can stop that, no place that can wall out evil, because men bring it in with them, even in the children…” This is a world in need of a savior.

Full Dark, No Stars - "I admire King's laudable desire to write honestly, but creating a world without God is creating a world that refuses to “tell stories about what people actually do”; i.e.,  rely on a God who interacts with the world.  It also is a world which refuses to shine the brightest light of all into the dark places.Even the darkest night has stars."

Divergent and Insurgent - " Veronica Roth’s Divergent introduced us to a utopia gone terribly wrong. Society has been divided into factions, each focusing on a particular character quality or skill that humanity needs to flourish. Instead of bringing stability and unity, it ushered in pride and division. Tris is one of the Divergent, someone with the capacity to thrive in multiple factions. She and the few others like her have been targeted by those who profit from the broken social structures and fragmented families.

Divergent ended with the beginning of a bloody revolution; Insurgent enters fully into a society at war, and not just between the factions. “The battle we are fighting is against human nature itself – or at least what it has become.’"

Daughter of Smoke and Bone - " Daughter offers a healthy perspective on certain issues: genocide and racism are wrong; beauty and ugliness are not synonymous with good and evil; backstabbing and betrayal destroy trust, love, and hope.  I’m glad to see moral clarity there, but I can't overlook the lack of a consistent moral compass in the challenges of ordinary life."

The Wolves of Mercy Falls - "This is a haunting story of one Grace more than a generous grace; of a beautiful Mercy that falls mostly  on the deserving; of a woods populated with wolves both lupine and human, and of saints who rise from the ruins of their own lives.

I must add the truth I wish could have been embedded more deeply: grace is for all, mercy exists for the underserving, and all of us can become saints who transcend the wolf within us and forgive the wolves around us."

Bitterblue - "Bitterblue brilliantly captures how hard it is to wake up from a world of lies. When someone has been immersed in deception for so long, breaking free from the spell is brutal. What could be worse than living in a world where everyone believes a lie and can’t break free of the influence?What makes me uncomfortable is that, in spite of a stellar narrative frame, there are elements of this story which confirm a lie that deceives so many of us in real life.

Graceling - "In a culture that tells us we are simply animals, at the mercy of blind, pitiless evolutionary forces, controlling DNA and a postmodern belief in the inescapable shackles of our community and family history, the idea that we can transcend our fate resonates soundly.  Katsa feels that war within her, the clash between who she is and who she wants to be; the contest between what fate has handed her (her Grace and the King's brutal control) and what a new-found hope has offered her."

The Road - "In The Road, human civilization is our only hope for lifting us out of our primal state of nature. Rather than ending human immorality in a nuclear reenactment of Sodom and Gomorrah, the apocalypse undoes our only chance at managing it. In the secular apocalypse, humanity is both responsible for and capable of his own redemption. The religious and secular views of the apocalypse, then, do not just differ in the details: they present two fundamentally different theories of human nature."

The Hunger Games - "The series has a lot to offer in a world awash in worldview battles. Collins did not shy away from the reality of the world she created. There were no false moments.  If one can learn truth equally well through a story that shows compelling good as well as disgusting evil, The Hunger Games has done a lot in the service of truth, even if the story is disturbing and grim."

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