Friday, April 4, 2014

Book Review: Critical Condition

I'm a fan of Richard Mabry's books. Critical Condition is the fifth one I've read — somehow I missed Heart Failure, but I'll rectify that — and it was not a disappointment. The book will be released on 15 April 2014.

Shannon Frasier, first year medical student, witnesses the shooting death of her fiancé, Todd, and is helpless to help him. Ten years later, as a surgeon in a Dallas hospital, another man is shot and killed in her front yard and she is, again, powerless to help him.

Shannon, her recovering addict sister, Megan, and her almost-fiancé, Mark, get tangled in a bank robbery/murder case. In the midst of all of this, Shanon struggles with her weakened faith in God.

As always, Mabry's medical/murder mystery compelled me to finish. His characters are real, struggling with daily issues of stress, faith, fallenness, doubt. I like and appreciate the fact that Mabry's does not resort to foul language or to sex scenes to "enhance" (tongue-in-cheek) his stories. Even though two of the main characters are doctors, the storyline itself is only tangentially related to the medical profession.

While this was a really good read, there are weaknesses in the plot. Shannon, Mark, and Megan's interferences in the investigation would probably have earned them serious trouble in real life. I sincerely hope that the Dallas police would have taken the threats against Shannon's life more seriously than the story portrays. Some things that seemed weak in the first half of the book made sense later (I won't detail to avoid spoilers).

Shannon's struggles with her own doubts about God may seem trite to non-believers, its a very real struggle for many believers -- how to reconcile one's belief in a loving God with difficulties and evil in daily life. Once again, I highly recommend Mabry's books.

(DISCLAIMER: I received a copy of Critical Condition free from the publisher as a participant in their Book Look Bloggers program. However, I was free to write the review that I believed the book deserved. My only compensation is continued participation in the review program.)

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Thursday, March 27, 2014

Book Review: Take This Cup (edited 28 March 2014)

I was first introduced to Bodie Thoene's writing with her Zion Covenant and Zion Chronicles series (currently, on Amazon, both Bodie and Brock are listed as authors for these series of books; the editions I read in 1991 were attributed only to Bodie). I was enthralled with her portrayal of the Jewish experience in Germany. Then, I read The Man From Shadow Ridge, written by Bodie and Brock Thoene, and was greatly disappointed. The writing was lifeless and the story seemed forced. So, I was pleasantly surprised that I enjoyed Take This Cup. I was concerned when I found that this is book #2 in a series. However, it seems to stand well on its own.

This book needs to be read as fiction -- it doesn't purport to be anything else. A young boy, Nehemiah, born to a shepherd and a crippled weaver, is "chosen" as the cup-bearer, to bear the cup of blessing and suffering that has passed from Melchizidek to Abraham, to Joseph (the cup placed in Benjamin's bag), and now is to go to the Messiah. Nehemiah's rabbi was one of the wise men who visited Jesus after his birth. Nehemiah must endure a long, perilous journey to get to Jerusalem in time to pass the cup to the Messiah. There are some odd inclusions:
* The white hart that supposedly survived from Eden is almost a spirit-guide. This is inconsistent with the book's basis in the biblical message about the Messiah.
* The star patterns predicting the Messiah's return seems out of character for the story.
* Bible passages seem to be used in contexts in which they were not initially used.

One thing that the Thoenes do stress in the story is that the Jewish people were expecting the Messiah to be a military/political leader who would overthrow the Romans and reestablish the Jewish nation under a descendent of David. In that interpretation, the crowd celebrating Jesus' entry into Jerusalem and then turning against him a few days later makes sense. Jesus, a descendent of David, was not the kind of Messiah they expected, so they turned on him.

Take This Cup is an engaging, fun read as long as it's treated as very fictionalized.

(DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher's Book Look Bloggers program in exchange for writing a review. I was free to write the review that I thought the book deserved.)

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Saturday, January 18, 2014

Book Review: The Prodigal: A Ragamuffin Story

Mega-church pastor, Jack, falls from grace — not in the sense of losing his salvation, but he gets drunk and sleeps with his assistant when they get stranded on a church missions publicity trip. The church he founded fires him, his wife leaves and takes their daughter. Jack is devastated by what "they" are doing to him and refuses to acknowledge doing anything wrong. He retreats to a getaway where, over a 2-month period, he tries to drink away his problem. But he's rescued by his father from whom he has been estranged for 10 years.

Back "home", Jack begins the long process of facing who he really is, what God really thinks about him, and restarting his life. It's a good story that hits close to home in that we all have failed, in some way, to live up to our own expectations of our self and we struggle with how to be worthy enough to be accepted by God and others.

Some of the characters were particularly well developed — Tom, Jack's father; Frank, the Catholic priest who advocates for grace; and James Taylor, the despicable mayor.

While I recognize that I come from a different religious tradition than Manning and the characters in his book, I found the liberal use of alcohol by believers unsettling. It was not just by one or two characters, but by many (maybe most). And, with the 3 main characters, there was misuse, even abuse, of alcohol that essentially went unchallenged, even as it led to problems.

The basic message of the book — that God loves us, extends his grace to us when we don't deserve it, and is forgiving — is a great theme and one that's necessary. The problem, in my limited exposure to the US over the last many years, is that this is a theme that is taken to the extreme by some (Osteen, for example) to the point where there is no repentance necessary. Thus, Jack's focus as a mega-church pastor — we've all totally ruined our live — seems like a straw man. However, his focus on self-improvement (we have to do better) seems to be a more common thread — works-based salvation. The truth is between those two — we have sinned, we do need a Saviour, God does extend his grace and we can repent and turn to him for forgiveness and eternal life. Jack finally experiences God's grace and forgiveness as he slowly realizes that the love he receives from his earthly father is a picture of how God deals with us.

I rate the book 4 of 5 stars. If you're struggling with guilt because of real sin, this is a great book to read to help you see God's love and forgiveness at work. It's also an enjoyable story of one man's struggle.

(DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of this e-book in exchange for a review of the book through Thomas Nelson's blogger review program, Booksneeze. I have been free to write the review I think the book deserves.)

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Tuesday, January 7, 2014

Book Review: "The Total Money Makeover"

Read this book and put the principles into practice. You have to do both. If you're only going to read it, don't spend the money on the book in the first place.

I had just talked to one of my brothers and sisters-in-law about Dave Ramsey's financial advice and books when I checked on available books via Thomas Nelson's blogger review programme, Booksneeze. Ramsey's book, The Total Money Makeover, was available, so I decided to see what I thought. My brother and sister-in-law are big fans. She says Ramsey's advice helped her see the error of her own financial management. And, while I don't think of them as wealthy, they are financially comfortable.

Let me acknowledge that this book was not really written for me (just shy of 60 years old). It barely addresses financial issues that I face as I don't have 20 years before retirement. We do use credit cards but have no debt, have an adequate nest egg, and our kids are already through with university.

First impressions: a lot of hype and a lot of cliches and sound bites. I've never listened to Ramsey's radio programme but I often felt like I was reading a transcript, particularly in the first part of the book, which seemed primarily motivational. That is fine, but I didn't really need that.

All of that being said, this is an excellent read for anyone who has consumer debt or who is undisciplined with finances or who has 20 years or more before retirement. Ramsey lays out clear principles and plans for controlling one's finances rather than letting them control you. And, it doesn't matter whether one has an annual income of $25,000 or $225,000 — the principles and the plans apply. In fact, this book may be more important for the one with the $25,000 income.

Ramsey's primary messages, though he doesn't use these phrases, "get out and stay out of debt — avoid it like a plague" and "be laser-focused on working your financial plan" (Ramsey's phrase is "focused intensity"). His advice is sound, though it may be unconventional:
  • Quickly set aside a starter emergency fund
  • Get rid of consumer debt, starting with the smallest debt first — early success is a strong motivator for future effort.
  • Complete your emergency fund
  • Maximize retirement savings
  • Save for your kids' college
  • Pay off your mortgage
  • Build wealth
  • Give, have fun, invest
His motto is, "If you will live like no one else, later you can live like no one else."

For me, the biggest weaknesses of the book are:
  • It's cliche-ridden — to be fair, though, he warns the reader up front that it will be.
  • I think he doesn't make a strong enough emphasis on giving early in the book. One could get the impression that giving doesn't begin until one has built wealth.
  • He doesn't address what to do if one is within 10 years of retirement and doesn't have decades to build wealth.
But, none of those weaknesses detract from the importance or helpfulness of The Total Money Makeover.

Run well, y'all,
Bob

[DISCLAIMER: I received a free copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review of the book. My future participation in the program is not dependent on how I review the book, I'm free to write the review that I think the book deserves.]

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Monday, December 9, 2013

Perceived Corruption — A Threat to Develpment

I am not an economist — I took precisely one course in economics in university and that was an entry–level course that I took primarily to get the hours I needed for graduation. (Hindsight: I wish, now, I had taken the course more seriously.) But, it doesn't take an economics genius to see that when an investor (either national or expatriate) is considering whether or not to spend money and energy in developing a business in a particular place, a country that is perceived to be corrupt is not going to be high on that investor's list of places to go.

Transparency International has released its 2013 report on Corruption Perception Index. I think it's very important to note that this report doesn't attempt to measure actual corruption — merely the perception of corruption in the public sector (bribes, backroom deals). And, in this case, it may well be true that perception is reality. For more details, go to TI's site. For a quick look at a particular country, put your cursor over that country. Scores range from 8 to 91, with 8 being the countries (Somalia, North Korea, and Afghanistan) perceived as being the most corrupt. Rankings are 1-177, with those same 3 countries tied for worst with a ranking of 175.



Having lived in Kenya for most of the past 27 years and now looking forward to moving to Uganda, it is very sad to me that the corruption in both of those countries has such a huge negative impact on the citizens of those countries.

Run well, y'all,
Bob

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Saturday, November 16, 2013

Book Review: "Unleader" by Jane Overstreet

Unleader: The Surprising Qualities of a Valuable LeaderUnleader: The Surprising Qualities of a Valuable Leader by Jane Overstreet

My rating: 5 of 5 stars


Overstreet compares and contrasts the lives of Saul and David to illustrate the character and qualities of a Godly leader. Best chapter is 4 "Do I Use Up or Build up People Under My Leadership" b/c she talks about a righteous leader helping people to move beyond their potential. (David and the rabble who became "mighty men".) Take-aways: be more interested in the wellfare of followers than of your own; own mistakes and immediately repent of sin; find security in God's love, not in approval or winning; the end does not justify the means.

The book is not without small problems. She was slow in pointing out that Saul referred to God as "the Lord **your** God" (emphasis mine) and then only mentioned 1 of 3 instances. She also didn't point out that Saul was sorry that he disappointed Samuel and not, apparently, that he had sinned against God. But, these are also matters of interpretation and don't take away from the value of the book.



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Book Review: "Christ-Centered Preaching & Teaching"

Short book (36 pages) but good, quick overview of the topic.

Christ-Centered Preaching TeachingChrist-Centered Preaching Teaching by Ed Stetzer

My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Compilation of blog posts from Stetzer's blog on Christianity Today. For me, this was a somewhat unfamiliar topic and I felt like they were splitting hairs, straining at gnats in distinguishing between ways to approach Christ-centered preaching. For one not familiar with technical theological vocabulary (soteriology, eschatology, etc.), have a dictionary available. The consensus seems to be that the best preaching and teaching is to take the tack that all of Scripture shows God's plan of redemption that was completed in Christ. Good about pointing out the pitfalls of this approach. The examples of how to treat Samson and Delilah and David and Goliath were very helpful for me and the best part of this short book.



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Sunday, November 10, 2013

Book Review: "Dead Lawyers Tell No Tales"

(I read the Kindle edition.) Really good book. Landon, a former SEC quarterback who was convicted of point shaving, gets out of jail, immediately marries girlfriend & mother of child. In prison, finds faith in God and finishes law school. Finally gets hired by lawyer, Harry, about whom he initially questions his ethics but develops a high respect for his investigative and trial gut sense and, though he doesn't always agree with Harry, realizes that he is ethical.

Kerri, Landon's wife, is a budding investigative journalist who gets some unusual breaks. Both Landon and Kerri are suddenly immersed in intrigues -- murder trial for which Landon is the assistant lawyer to Harry, client is accused of insider trading, Kerri is being "sponsored" by the head of a clandestine security agency and is offered an easy path to a dream reporting job. Things begin to fall apart when 3 lawyers with Landon's firm are killed and Landon takes the lead in the murder case.

There are a number of twists and turns in the book that compelled me to continue reading to find out what would happen. Singer weaves the plot skillfully so that the end is never clear. Both Landon and Kerri struggle with attraction to someone else but are held in check by their love for each other and their strong faith, though Landon's friendship with Rachel crosses an emotional line.

The story deals with friendship, true loyalty, temptations and testing, and faith in ways that I did not find obnoxious. (DISCLAIMER: I share the principles of the main characters. Some will find the Epilogue too evangelistic, but it's consistent with both the faith of the characters and with Singer's 'day job'.) There's even a twist at the end that's reminiscent of O. Henry stories and Jeffrey Archer books and short stories.

To me, the biggest problem with the book is that it seems very unreal to have a rookie, first-year lawyer develop instincts and insights so quickly -- taking on a 1st amendment case, talking seriously about opening his own law firm in DC, etc. Frankly, that's the only reason for 4-stars instead of 5-stars -- Landon and Kerri are just a bit too good at what they do. I thought the book was as good as Grisham and the language was less offensive, as in no foul language. HIGHLY RECOMMENDED.

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