Friday, July 21, 2017

Batgirl at Super Hero High by Lisa Yee, 2017

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Get your cape on with the DC Super Hero Girls the unprecedented new Super Hero universe especially for girls! Readers of all ages can fly high with the all-new adventures of Wonder Woman, Supergirl, Batgirl, and some of the world s most iconic female super heroes as high schoolers!
Batgirl has always hidden in the shadows but does she have what it takes to stand in the spotlight at Super Hero High? 

Barbara Gordon has always been an off-the-charts, just-forget-about-the-test super-genius and tech whiz, and then she gets the offer of a lifetime when Supergirl recognizes that Barbara s talents make her an ideal candidate for Super Hero High. Donning the cape and cowl, Barbara Gordon becomes Batgirl, ready to train at the most elite school on the planet, next to some of the most powerful teenagers in the galaxy. She s always had the heart of a hero . . . but now she ll have to prove that she can be one. Good thing she loves a challenge! 

Award-winning author Lisa Yee brings mystery, thrills, and laughs to this groundbreaking series that follows DC Comics most iconic female Super Heroes and Super-Villains. Move over Batman and Superman the DC Super Hero Girls are ready to save the day and have fun doing it!

(240 pages)

Oh, gosh.

I honestly don't know how to review this book. For one thing, it's an audio book; I'd literally never listened to an entire book on audio before Batgirl at Super Hero High, so my library of comparisons is completely blank. I have no idea if this was a good or a bad narrator, whether the packaging was appropriate, nothing. So I guess I'll just talk a little bit about what I noticed and then discuss the story some.

Packaging first, I guess. It comes in a rectangular cardboard box which holds a plastic thing that takes up about half of the box's width, and then a white cardboard fold-out thing that holds the four CDs that contain the actual audio. The entire audiobook takes 4.5 hours to listen through from beginning to end, which was very convenient for me–I listened to the entire thing over the course of two days while I did hands-on jobs like cleaning my room and walking the dog! I really liked the narrator, a rather perky young woman, and listening to her speak was almost like watching a movie. Once or twice I couldn't tell which character was supposed to be speaking, because there are so many she had a hard time giving them all distinct voices, but that was a very minor issue.

As for the story, well, what do you expect from a story set at "Super Hero High?" It's ridiculously hokey and unrealistic–Batgirl's ability to reprogram complex objects in mere seconds is a particularly egregious example of this–but it's so fun and exciting that you can't help but engage in some major suspension of disbelief. It is a superhero story, after all, so logic (and science!) work a little bit different there. I was never a huge superhero reader when I was younger, mainly I think because I just wasn't exposed, but Batgirl at Super Hero High shows me the sort of ridiculous fun my young imagination was missing out on for all those years. If you or a kid you know is looking for a superhero book, then this one might be just right!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 17, 2017

Outlaw Christian by Jacqueline A. Bussie, 2016

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Jacqueline Bussie knows that too many Christians live according to unspoken "laws" that govern the Christian life: #1: Never get angry at God; #2: Never doubt; #3: Never question; #4: Never tell your real story; #5: Always speak in cliches about evil and suffering; and #6: Always believe hope comes easy for those who truly love God.

Living according to these rules is killing real Christian life;
Outlaw Christian proposes a rebellious, life-giving, authentic alternative. Through captivating stories and with disarming honesty, Bussie gives concrete, practical strategies to help readers cultivate hope, seek joy, practice accompaniment, compost their pain, and rediscover the spiritual practice of lament. Tackling difficult questions without political divisiveness, Bussie speaks to both progressive and conservative Christians in ways that unite rather than divide. And in doing so, she provides a new way to handle the most difficult and troubling questions of life in a broken world that God will never abandon.
(288 pages)

I moved eight times over the course of my childhood, which means I've attended nine churches (plus visiting dozens more). We've found several good permanent churches over the years, but they've been in a variety of denominations. Over the past 18 years, I have been a part of Presbyterian, Church of Christ, and even non-denominational churches. There are even more denominations, I'm sure, that I simply can't remember at the moment.

I say all this simply to point out that my family has never stuck to a specific set of "laws" tied to a certain sect of the church. We're definitely not revolutionaries, and most of my parents' (and my) beliefs likely fall most closely in the "moderate" area of the political/religious scale, but I was raised to pursue my own ideas about God and religion rather than to parrot the dogma of any one specific church. For a long time, though, we faced limited church options and wound up attending a rather strange conservative church. Looking back now, I realize that I gained a bitterness and disrespect for the church from my time there because I was constantly in interaction with people who had their own set of rules about what it took to be a "good Christian" that didn't match my own. Now that we've been away from that church for almost two years, that outlook is fading–largely thanks to books like Outlaw Christian that introduce me to other people who share some of my criticisms of church culture but still participate in it and pursue a meaningful relationship with God.

Reading Outlaw Christian, I get the vibe that Bussie is someone I would legitimately like if I ever met her in person. She's thoughtful about her faith and honest about her struggles, patient with those who disagree with her, and open-minded/nonjudgmental while still confident in her own beliefs. She tackles the hardcore issues like death, grief, hardship and abuse, arguing that we should feel comfortable bringing our anger and doubts to God instead of letting them fester while we do our best to feign perfection. I really like her arguments against the misconception that a Christian has to be happy all the time.

Just a note, her points are great and sort of organized by topic by the different chapters, but they meander a little bit. I didn't mind, but others who are a little more finicky than I might. Also, I really want to take Bussie's college class on religion now. Any chance you'll be heading to St. Andrews, Scotland any time soon, Dr. Bussie?!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, July 14, 2017

Dog Company by Lynn Vincent and Roger Hill, 2017

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Two decorated American war heroes survive combat in Afghanistan only to find themselves on an unfamiliar battlefield - the courtroom - in this true story by the commander of Delta Company, 1/506th a.k.a. Dog Company.

The deaths of two of his men is agony for Captain Roger Hill and the agony is intensified when he realizes those responsible - 12 Taliban spies- have been working right under his nose on the American base.

When unreasonable military regulations demand that he free the spies within 96 hours, and Hill can't get his superior officer to respond to the deadline, he takes action to intimidate the prisoners to confess - and to protect his company from another attack.

Instead of being thanked, Hill's superior brings him up on charges making this decorated officer's next battle a personal one - for his honor and for that of 1st Sergeant Tommy Scott, his second in command.

Combining the camaraderie and battle action of
Band of Brothers with the military courtroom drama of A Few Good Men, Roger Hill's story will leave you impassioned, inspired and forever changed.
(448 pages)

I'm not sure what was going through my mind when I asked to review Dog Company. It's not exactly my typical read, you know? I've been trying to become a little more informed about modern international relations, though, so I guess I thought a true story about soldiers deployed in Afghanistan could be a beneficial read.

I guess I forgot that I really don't like war. I mean sure, I've read lots of stories set during wars–about Jews fleeing the Holocaust, for example, or the brother-against-brother quandaries confronting soldiers during the Civil War–but the main characters in my books almost uniformly are either civilians or green soldiers. Captian Hill is just that: a captain. At the time of the events in the book, he'd served for eight years, and most of his men for far longer. They're all just such complete . . . well, soldiers. And I'm really not one. And I never really want to be. Lots of respect to the men and women who risk their lives to keep the nation safe, of course, but I could never stand the idea of shooting anyone; if I felt the call to join the service, I'd do it as a medic of some sort rather than as a soldier. The other reason I'd never want to be a soldier–and this is a huge one for me–is that I'd dread the day my higher-ups ordered me to do something that went against my moral code.

And really, that's what happened to Captain Hill. He was under orders to release the twelve men who were unequivocally spies for the Taliban, men whose intel had directly led to the deaths of two of his men, back into their freedom because his higher-ups wouldn't accept custody of them. Before they went, he wanted to get some good information out of them that would help them take down the Taliban and, presumably, prevent the loss of more men. To do so, one or two of the soldiers first slapped around a few of the prisoners (something that, in and of itself, was definitely illegal). When that didn't work, Hill grabbed one of them and pulled him outside, dumped him on the ground and shot at nothing so the other prisoners thought he'd killed their comrade. When they still didn't talk, he pretended to shoot two more men and then one of the remaining men cracked, spilling valuable information.

That's . . . pretty awful. I mean, I know the prisoners were probably all horrible people who would have done even worse to the soldiers if the roles had been reversed, but that still doesn't excuse that sort of behavior. We're supposed to be better than the Taliban; that moral high ground is our only real excuse for being in Afghanistan in the first place. So while I can understand the emotional reasons why Captain Hill decided to break the law and use such violent scare tactics on his prisoners, I actually agree with the decision to punish him. Was completely kicking him out of the army necessary? Definitely not, that seems rather disproportionate to his crimes. He should have just been demoted a rank or two (or however they call it) and posted somewhere where he could be monitored a little more closely.

Anyway, while the core moral dilemma is an interesting one, I didn't really enjoy reading Dog Company. It's broken up into units that jumble the chronology just enough to be rather confusing, and just kind of randomly jumps into the backstory of soldiers that were interesting but not exactly relevant. It also covers more than I really needed to know of the months leading up to the prisoner situation, which shifted from intriguing and educational to just straight-up boring by some point. I wound up skimming through a lot of the second half of the book. People more interested in military stuff might find those parts more entertaining than I did, though. Also, the language in the book is atrocious–gobs of f-words are littered in all over the place along with a whole alphabet of other (mildly less offensive) swear words. I pushed past them to read the book, but it wasn't pleasant.

If you've reading this review to the end, then you probably have a pretty good idea of whether Dog Company is for you. I can't say that I really recommend it personally, but it might do something for you that it didn't for me.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 10, 2017

My Brother's Keeper by Rod Gragg, 2016

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Thirty captivating profiles of Christians who risked everything to rescue their Jewish neighbors from Nazi terror during the Holocaust. 

MY BROTHER'S KEEPER unfolds powerful stories of Christians from across denominations who gave everything they had to save the Jewish people from the evils of the Holocaust. This unlikely group of believers, later honored by the nation of Israel as "The Righteous Among the Nations," includes ordinary teenage girls, pastors, priests, a German army officer, a former Italian fascist, an international spy, and even a princess.
In one gripping profile after another, these extraordinary historical accounts offer stories of steadfast believers who together helped thousands of Jewish individuals and families to safety. Many of these everyday heroes perished alongside the very people they were trying to protect. There is no doubt that all of their stories showcase the best of humanity--even in the face of unthinkable evil.
(352 pages)

I asked to review My Brother's Keeper because it looked like a really great compilation of nonfictional stories from WWII, but once it actually showed up on my doorstep I continually put off cracking it open because I thought it would be too depressing (and also because it looked kind of boring).

It wasn't boring, though. Come to think of it, I've never read a book about the treatment of Jews during WWII that was boring–everything was just so horrific back then that even the most snooze-inducing historian couldn't dull the horrifying tales. As for my other concern, yes, My Brother's Keeper was definitely depressing. Its description of the systematic hunting down and wiping out of an entire race is horrifyingly detailed, and primary source quotes and images are used hauntingly throughout the book. Every chapter opens with a black and white image, occasionally of the featured person/family but often of German soldiers or real children who were murdered in concentration camps. In the beginning of the chapter there's a little bit of background on the featured figures, a detailed description of the historical context and the evils that they faced (including some truly horrific descriptions of German murder techniques), and then a detailed account of how they risked their lives to help the Jews and what happened to them afterward. I'd say that most of the featured people wound up surviving the war, though a large amount of them spent at least some time in a concentration camp. In one or two instances, the heroes–and their entire families–were murdered outright for their "crimes" under German law.

Honestly, it's pretty amazing to read about the people who risked everything to help save hundreds (sometimes thousands) of Jews from the Germans. Many heroes found it incomprehensible that the Jewish children were also being targeted, so they set up elaborate systems that rescued thousands of young innocents right out from under the Germans' grasp. It's amazing. But at the same time, I can't believe the depths of inhumanity that went on during the war. It's great that there were some heroes who rescued children, sure, but it's also horrifying to learn that 1.5 million kids died during the Holocaust. That's obscene. That's . . . I can't even find words for it. Monstrous fits, but it's not even enough. The actions of the people described in the book were amazing, incredibly brave, but they didn't even begin to conquer out the terrible evil of all the people who perpetrated the murder of innocents–or all of those who sat by and watched them do it. Gragg discusses the fact that many Christians throughout Europe allowed themselves to get swept up by the Germans, swearing their loyalty to the Third Reich and turning their backs on their Jewish neighbors, but he says that all of the people in My Brother's Keeper channeled their belief in God toward a conviction that they had to help the Jews in whatever way they could. I think that's amazing, but again–I only wish that more people, Christian or atheist or whatever, had stood up to the monstrosity of the Nazis.

But then I stop and wonder what I would have done in their shoes, and I'm afraid that I would have shut up and put my head down in order to save myself. And even if I worked up the courage to sacrifice myself, it's hard to decide whether it's worth saving others at the risk of having all of my loved ones murdered. It was an impossible time, an impossible situation. The Nazis were truly monsters in every sense of the word, and the noble secret actions of these thirty heroes (and of many more, I'm sure!) are even more incredible in contrast to the inhumanity surrounding them. I weep for all those they couldn't save, but I still celebrate every life they managed to save.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, July 7, 2017

Cheesus Was Here by J.C. Davis, 2017

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Sixteen-year-old Delaney Delgado knows miracles aren’t real—if they were, her kid sister wouldn’t be dead. So when the image of baby Jesus appears on a Babybel cheese wheel, she’s not buying the idea that God’s got a dairy obsession. Soon, religious signs begin turning up all over Del’s hometown, tiny Clemency, Texas. Overnight, news vans fill the streets and religious pilgrims start searching for God in the discount aisle of the grocery store.

Hell-bent on proving the so-called miracles are fake, Del convinces her best friend, Gabe, to help her find the truth. While Gabe’s willing to play detective, as a preacher’s son he’s more interested in finding evidence that supports the miracles. But when the whole town becomes caught up in religious fervor and even the late-night talk show hosts have stopped laughing and started to believe, finding the truth might cause more trouble than Del can handle. This novel is neither pro nor anti-religion, and will appeal to fans of contemporary YA novels that explore deep themes with an element of humor. The voice and characters are funny, strong, and full of heart. This is a book for anyone who loved
(272 pages)

I waffled on this one.

I almost didn't agree to review Cheesus Was Here because I worried it would be offensive to me as a Christian. The teaser promised it was "neither pro nor anti-religion," though, so my curiosity won out and I got the book. I agree that it doesn't wind up siding firmly with one side of the argument of the other, though there are some interesting points made along the way. In many ways, I almost thought it was a little biased toward religion.

Don't get me wrong–as I said, I'm a Christian myself. But I find it rather disturbing that the entire town of Clemency believes in the miracles except for Delaney, and that everyone (including characters who are considered by the author to be voices of reason!) constantly tells Delaney that her only reason for trying to disprove the miracles is some sort of bitter, slightly immature vendetta against God for her sister's death.

I mean, I don't know about you, but if people started worshipping a hunk of Babybel cheese I'd definitely be skeptical and start investigating. You can be religious without being gullible, and you can roll your eyes at some baby-shaped cheese just because you think it's stupid (and not because you're angry at the universe). Granted, Del's particular reasoning may have had something to do with her sister's death, too, but it would have been good to see some other viewpoints.

Besides that, though, I thought the book's take on everything was really good. The crazed way people start worshipping the hunk of cheese (and then later a window and a board that appear to be similarly marked by God) is frustrating but realistic, and Del's emotional turmoil and cynicism after her sister's death by cancer the year before rings crushingly true. There's a little bit of language and some references to mature topics (including sex and homosexuality), but nothing horrible to turn people away.

Basically, Cheesus Was Here is a really interesting book that raises some fascinating questions about religion and death and mourning. I really enjoyed it, much more than I thought I would.

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, July 3, 2017

Cold Summer by Gwen Cole, 2017

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Today, he’s a high school dropout with no future.
Tomorrow, he’s a soldier in World War II.

Kale Jackson has spent years trying to control his time-traveling ability but hasn’t had much luck. One day he lives in 1945, fighting in the war as a sharpshooter and helplessly watching soldiers—friends—die. Then the next day, he’s back in the present, where WWII has bled into his modern life in the form of PTSD, straining his relationship with his father and the few friends he has left. Every day it becomes harder to hide his battle wounds, both physical and mental, from the past.

When the ex-girl-next-door, Harper, moves back to town, thoughts of what could be if only he had a normal life begin to haunt him. Harper reminds him of the person he was before the PTSD, which helps anchor him to the present. With practice, maybe Kale could remain in the present permanently and never step foot on a battlefield again. Maybe he can have the normal life he craves.

But then Harper finds Kale’s name in a historical article—and he’s listed as a casualty of the war. Kale knows now that he must learn to control his time-traveling ability to save himself and his chance at a life with Harper. Otherwise, he’ll be killed in a time where he doesn’t belong by a bullet that was never meant for him.

(322 pages)

Some of my favorite story tropes include childhood friends falling in love, time travel, and kids healing and growing after parental abandonment. Cold Summer has all three of those, so it seems like it should be perfect for me.

And in some way, it is. I really, really enjoyed reading it. Kale and Harper's relationship is so beautiful, built on the shared experiences of their childhoods. They trust each other completely and it's beautiful to watch. Kale's struggles with his uncontrollable time travel and the PTSD from living as a soldier during WWII are tragic, though also preventable (he's literally offered an out at one point!) and occasionally skated past (we spend a lot more time in the drama of the present than in the life-or-death horror of the past). The storylines about Harper's neglectful-to-the-point-of-abandonment mother and Kale's tense-and-angry father are very delicately and honestly done.

But at the same time, the book isn't perfect. Like I said, I liked the romance between Kale and Harper–but I also didn't like how physical things got between them. At one point, they nearly even had sex! Also, the language was less than ideal: swears are littered here and there, and the f-word is even used maybe once a chapter. It's used during times of great stress usually, sure, but that's still not great especially for younger readers. I thought Harper's abandonment issues were dealt with way too quickly at the end, and the time travel mechanism still seems kind of hazy to me. I like the "purpose" they realize Kale's experiences served, but it seems really random that he was chosen for that one thing out of everything he could have done throughout history.

All that aside, I still spent a couple of hours reading and enjoying Cold Summer. It's a good summer read, full of plot and grit while somehow managing to simultaneously be rather fluffy. If you're curious, and you don't mind the medium to high-level racy material and swearing, then you might like it. Let us know in the comments section what you think if you do decide to read it!

Disclaimer: I received a complimentary copy of this novel from the publisher in exchange for an honest review.