Archive for the ‘Starred Review’ Category

Review of White Bird, by R. J. Palacio

Monday, January 27th, 2020

White Bird

by R. J. Palacio
inked by Kevin Czap

Alfred A. Knopf, 2019. 220 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 29, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #6 in Children’s Fiction
2020 Sidney Taylor Book Award Winner

This beautiful graphic novel written and illustrated by the author of Wonder is framed as a story told by the grandmother of a boy who’s a bully in Wonder. But his grandmother tells him the story of how she was hidden in a barn during the Holocaust – and that story will touch anyone’s life.

The boy who helped her escape and whose family saved her life had been crippled by polio. So the other children mocked him, and Sara did not stand up for him against that bullying, even though she’d sat next to him for years because their last names both started with B.

The story of Sara’s escape, and then the constant fear of discovery, and the way Julien and his mother helped her keep her courage up – but at great risk – all makes gripping reading. The story is not true, but there is information at the back telling about how it is all based in fact.

In the present, Julien’s grandmother tells him this was the boy he and his father were named after – someone who showed great kindness when any kindness felt like a miracle. The image of a white bird found throughout the book and the lessons drawn about standing up to evil and showing kindness make this a story that will resonate.

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Review of Sal and Gabi Break the Universe, by Carlos Hernandez

Saturday, January 25th, 2020

Sal & Gabi Break the Universe

by Carlos Hernandez

Disney Hyperion, 2019. 390 pages.
Starred Review
Review written November 4, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #5 in Children’s Fiction
2019 Cybils Finalist, Elementary/Middle Grade Speculative Fiction

This is the first one of the “Rick Riordan Presents” imprint that I’ve read that doesn’t feel like Rick Riordan could have written it if he belonged to that culture. Yes, it’s an “Own Voices” book from Cuban-American culture. But it doesn’t follow the formula of kid-finds-out-mythological-characters-are-real-and-they-are-part-of-it. Instead, this is science fiction involving parallel universes, a kid who is able to open windows between universes, and his father who studies “calamity physics.”

Now, I have to say that I think the “science” in this book is silly and bogus. There’s hand-waving that goes on about how Sal is able to open windows between universes and pseudoscience about “calamitrons” that result. Also, the thing that happened at the end didn’t make sense to me.

I’ve said before that if a novel makes too much of alternate universes, we start asking, why then are we hearing the story of this particular universe, when a story exists where the characters make different choices? To me, it cheapens the importance of those choices.

However, that said, I loved this book! The characters, especially Sal and Gabi, are completely delightful. I love that Sal, who can open windows between universes and bring things through, is a showman and a magician. What a great trick – to bring a dead chicken from an alternate universe and then make it disappear without a trace!

Right at the start, Sal stands up to a bully by putting a dead chicken in his locker. He does it with flare, and later the evidence disappears. Gabi’s a friend of the bully, and we soon learn that she’s not the sort of person who’s going to let a mystery like that stand.

Sal and Gabi attend an Arts Magnet School – and it makes me wish such a school existed. The teachers and principal are reasonable and try to be fair. Sal’s also got diabetes, and dealing with that is a nice underlying realistic piece of the plot.

There’s a spot where Sal scares Gabi much more thoroughly than he meant to – and he apologizes beautifully. That’s where I thought, What a wonderful kid! But then later in the book, we see an alternate reality Sal whose mother never died of diabetes, and that Sal isn’t nearly so thoughtful. I like that nod to the way difficult experiences make us grow. I could believe that Sal was so aware of others’ feelings because of what he’d been through.

And let’s face it, the interaction between universes was so much fun, I was willing to suspend my disbelief. A chicken in a bully’s locker. Sal’s dead mother coming from another universe and thinking she’s still married to his Papi. A Calamitron-scanner with artificial intelligence and a personality. A lie detector using brain science that Sal turns into a performance.

So maybe the “science” is very hand-wavy. But as a novel about people – people interacting with grace, performing, and dealing with the hard parts of life – this novel shines. I agree with the blurb on the back by William Alexander, “filled to the brim with a fiercely unstoppable joy.”


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Review of Saturday, by Oge Mora

Friday, January 24th, 2020


by Oge Mora

Little, Brown and Company, 2019. 36 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 29, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 in Picture Books

Oge Mora won a Caldecott Honor with her first book, Thank You, Omu! This second book is a delightful story of a girl and her mother trying to have a special Saturday. She knows how to insert just the right amount of repetition and anticipation, and her collage illustrations are fun to look at.

The book begins:

This morning Ava and her mother were all smiles.
It was Saturday!

Because Ava’s mother worked
and Friday,
Saturday was the day they cherished.

We learn their plans for the day – the library for storytime, the salon for a hairdo, the park for a picnic, and the theater for a special one-night-only puppet show.

As they prepare for each event, we’re assured:

The day would be special.
The day would be splendid.
The day was SATURDAY!

But with each item on their agenda, something goes wrong.

The first three times, what happens after they are stymied is similar:

They paused, closed their eyes,
and — whew! — let out a deep breath.

“Don’t worry, Ava,” her mother reassured her.
“Today will be special.
Today will be splendid.
Today is SATURDAY!”

But when they don’t have the tickets for the puppet show, it’s Ava’s turn to be reassuring.

And they come up with a wonderful solution – together – for a beautiful Saturday.

This book reads aloud well, and it’s a modern story with a working, single mother. But the repetition gives it overtones of a folk tale, and it’s got a whole lot of love.

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Review of Free Lunch, by Rex Ogle

Thursday, January 23rd, 2020

Free Lunch

by Rex Ogle

Norton Young Readers, 2019. 208 pages.
Starred Review
Review written January 2, 2020, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-outs: #4 in Longer Children’s Nonfiction

Free Lunch looks like an ordinary middle school novel. If you don’t pay attention, you might think it’s simply a hard-hitting, gritty story, with the hardships maybe a little overdone. But this story is true.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to quote from the Author’s Note at the back. In fact, knowing that it’s true makes this all the more powerful.

I just finished writing the story you’ve just finished reading. I feel exhausted and sad and a little sick to my stomach. (Don’t worry, I’m not going to puke on you.) The reason I feel like I’m about to vomit, or maybe just burst into tears, is because everything that happened in this book happened to me in real life. Every laugh, every lunch, and every punch that you’ve read about is the result of an emotional deep dive into my past.

Like most children entering sixth grade, I was focused on friends and grades and locker combinations. But I was also worried about other things: where I’d get my next meal, what mood my mom or stepdad might be in when I came home from school, and when other kids would finally discover my darkest secret – that I was poor.

I was beyond terrified of my peers knowing that my parents – and by proxy, me – were on welfare, using food stamps and living in permanent-subsidized housing. Along with living under the federal poverty line, I also dealt with verbal and physical abuse on a regular basis. I hated my life and I hated myself. I didn’t want people to know that my family was scraping the bottom of the barrel, because I believed being poor meant being less-than. And I was deeply ashamed for it. And worse, it made me feel completely alone.

The title comes from Rex being on the free lunch program, and every single day the cafeteria worker would make him tell her he was on the free lunch program and loudly tell her his name so she could look it up in a notebook. This made it tricky to hide it from his friends.

In fact, many things in his life revolved around not letting his friends know he was poor. When they moved to subsidized housing near the school, he’d linger at school until most of his friends had left on the bus, so they wouldn’t see where he lived. And he never told them why he hadn’t gone out for football.

This story pulls you into the mind of a middle school kid, including his surprise at people who are kind and like him for who he is. It also gives you an inside perspective on a major problem in America, where nearly one in five children under eighteen live in poverty. This book is written on a level children can understand, but I hope adults will read it, too.

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Review of Butterfly Yellow, by Thanhhà Lai

Monday, January 20th, 2020

Butterfly Yellow

by Thanhhà Lai

Harper, 2019. 284 pages.
Starred Review
Review written January 2, 2020, from an advance reader copy picked up at ALA Annual Conference
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #3 in Teen Fiction

(I have to apologize. My web host doesn’t support the notations for the Vietnamese diacritics over ‘a’ and ‘e’. I carefully found the right symbol in Word, but it did not carry over when I copied it to my blog. I acknowledge that this is not the correct name for the main character without the diacritic symbol, nor is it the correct name for the country where she was born. It’s not even the correct last name of the author. I am sorry.)

Butterfly Yellow is set in summer 1981 in Texas, about a girl who has survived a harrowing journey from Viet Nam, including a traumatic journey on a boat where most of the other passengers, including her mother, died or were killed by pirates.

Now Hang is in Texas, staying with her uncle, who got to America before the war. But Hang is on a mission to find her brother, who was taken away from her six years ago, when he was five years old and she was twelve and tried to carry out a scheme.

In the final days of the war in April 1975, Hang thought she was so clever, devising a way to flee while her family strategized and worried. Every day newspapers printed stories about Americans panicking to save hundreds of orphans. There was even an official name, Operation Babylift. She assumed she and her brother would go first, then somehow her family would join them in America. But in line at the airport she was rejected, a twelve-year-old passing as eight. Linh was five, three to foreign eyes, just young enough to be accepted as an orphan. Hang saw little Linh thrashing as he was carried into a Pan Am.

By the time her brother was ripped from her, nobody cared to hear why she lied. With so many scrambling to flee before the victorious Communists marched in, one more screaming child was just that. An American volunteer with puffy, sweaty hands must have felt sorry for her. He pressed a card into her palm as he pushed her away from the ladder. Sun rays radiated through each strand of his mango-colored hair. She had to stop an impulse to extinguish the fiery puff of gold threads on his head. He was the last to board. Hang screamed until the Pan Am blended into the sky and left a long loose-curl cloud. For hours, until dusk enveloped her and mosquitoes chased her home, she focused skyward and pleaded for forgiveness. When she opened her palm, the card had disintegrated except for one clue: 405 Mesquite Street, Amarillo, Texas.

Hang’s mission, her one purpose now she is in America is to find her brother. That mission starts out on a bus, but when the bus’s motion, reminding her of the escape boat, makes her sick, the bus leaves without her. Her mission ends up entwining her fate with that of LeeRoy, a boy who is also eighteen and has left his home for the summer on a mission to ride in rodeos and be a cowboy.

When Hang does find her brother, he doesn’t remember her. And his American mother wants Hang nowhere near him. But Hang is going to find a way to stay as close as she can – and a lot of things happen to Hang, LeeRoy and Linh that eventful summer in Texas.

This book is beautifully written, from several different perspectives. One thing I love about it is how when Hang speaks in English, the phonetic spelling is given – but phonetic from the perspective of someone from Viet Nam, full of diacritic marks, and not using the same phonetics as an English-speaking person would use. The reader has to learn how to understand Hang and gradually figure out what she is trying to say. When she thinks or writes in Vietnamese, she is completely fluent, so the reader understands the difficulty of trying to communicate in a foreign language.

We gradually learn about the trauma Hang survived, both in Viet Nam and as she escaped from Viet Nam. It’s horrific, and explains why she covers herself up and hides even in the Texas summer and doesn’t even think of trying to look pretty.

This is a book of cross-cultural understanding, as well as a book of love and healing.

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Review of Cog, by Greg van Eekhout

Monday, January 13th, 2020


by Greg van Eekhout

Harper, 2019. 196 pages.
Starred Review
Review written October 20, 2019, from a library book
2019 Sonderbooks Stand-out: #2 in Children’s Fiction
2019 Cybils Award Finalist

This book is utterly delightful. It’s true that I’ve got a strong prejudice against books that claim robots have emotion or that assign basically magical abilities to robots, so I did have a tiny bit of trouble with suspension of disbelief. But I loved the characters so much, and they were so quirky and creative, I didn’t really care.

Here’s how Cog introduces himself:

My name is Cog. Cog is short for “cognitive development.” Cognitive development is the process of learning how to think and understand.

In appearance, I am a twelve-year-old boy of average height and weight. This means I’m fifty-eight inches tall and weigh about ninety pounds and seven ounces. In actuality, I am seven months old.

Now I will tell you some facts I have learned about platypuses.

Cog tells us about his home and his bedroom and about Gina, who lives with him and makes repairs and adjustments when he needs them.

Gina is a scientist for uniMIND. She has brown eyes like my visual sensors and brown skin like my synthetic dermal layer. Her hair is black and shiny, like the feathers of birds in the corvid family, which includes crows and ravens. When she smiles, which is often, a small gap is evident between her two front teeth. My teeth, which are oral mastication plates, have no gap, but I enjoy practicing smiling with Gina.

Cog is programmed to learn, to increase his cognitive development. As the book begins, Gina takes him to Giganto Food Super Mart to learn about shopping. She gives him a list and asks him to get the items unsupervised.

Cheese is the first item. Cog discovers many kinds of cheese that he hadn’t known existed before. He fills the cart with them. When he gets back to Gina, she tells him that for a first attempt he did a very good job.

“But we actually don’t need all this cheese,” she continues. “Nor do we need seven dozen apples or eight different kinds of orange juice or twelve different varieties of dish soap. So let’s start putting most of this back.”

I learn that unshopping takes longer than shopping.

As we return items to shelves, Gina explains to me where my judgment was faulty and led me astray.

“Is my judgment the result of a bug?” I ask her. “Can you fix it?”

“No,” she says, hanging seven bags of shredded cheese back on their hooks. “It’s just something you have to learn. It’s like my old professor used to tell me: ‘Good judgment comes from experience, but experience comes from bad judgment.’ That means we learn by making mistakes.”

I process this for a while.

“How long did it take you to learn good judgment?”

“Oh, I’m still learning it, buddy. I’m learning it all the time.”

Since Cog’s mission is to learn, he makes a resolution. The next morning, he sneaks out of the house.

Leaving the house without Gina’s permission is a mistake. this pleases me, because a mistake is an act of bad judgment, and I expect my act of bad judgment to increase my cognitive development.

Unfortunately, out in the yard, Cog sees a Chihuahua about to be hit by a truck. He saves the Chihuahua – and gets hit by the truck.

When Cog wakes up, he is in bed and hooked up to data ports beneath his flipped-up fingernails, but something is not right. He is not in his bedroom at home, and Gina is not there.

It turns out that since she allowed Cog to be hit by a truck, she’s been taken off the project. Cog is at UniMIND headquarters and told it’s his new home.

When he finds out they want to open up his brain and take out the X-Module (whatever that is), Cog resolves to run away and find Gina.

And so we end up with a delightful road trip story. Cog travels with four other robots – ADA, an Advanced Destructive Apparatus who looks like a twelve-year-old girl, a Trashbot that asks everyone if they have waste, a robotic dog, and a talking Car. The Car asks if he will accept liability before it agrees to set out with them.

The adventure is wild – okay, perhaps quite a bit unlikely – but oh, so much fun. Each one of the robots has a distinct and consistent personality, and I love Cog’s voice narrating the whole thing. In fact, I will end this review with some words of wisdom from Cog:

Since leaving the UniMIND campus, I have had several bad experiences, and one thing I have learned is that friends and sandwiches make even the worst of situations more tolerable.

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Review of That All Shall Be Saved, by David Bentley Hart

Sunday, December 29th, 2019

That All Shall Be Saved

Heaven, Hell and Universal Salvation

by David Bentley Hart

Yale University Press, 2019. 222 pages.
Starred Review
Review written December 26, 2019, from my own copy purchased via

My cousin Keith mentioned on Facebook that this book was coming out, a book on the same topic as Rob Bell’s Love Wins. He mentioned it with concern, but it gave me great delight, and I ordered the book on Amazon. It makes a nice addition to my collection of books supporting universalism.

This one takes a very academic perspective. The book is written in academic language, and I’m ashamed to admit that some of the language went right over my head. He also takes a primarily philosophical approach, arguing about the nature of God and goodness and free will. (No wonder my cousin knew of this author – my cousin is a professor of philosophy.)

One thing I love about this book is that there’s not a trace of wishy-washiness in his opinions. Now, when I first started reading about universalism, I’m glad I encountered writers with more humility, more willing to concede they might be mistaken. But the more I’ve read, the more universalism seems to make everything make sense, and for me at this point, it feels refreshing to read an author who’s sure about what he’s teaching. Here’s how he puts it in the Introduction:

If Christianity taken as a whole is indeed an entirely coherent and credible system of belief, then the universalist understanding of its message is the only one possible. And, quite imprudently, I say that without the least hesitation or qualification.

And he adds to that in the end of the book:

To say that, on the one hand, God is infinitely good, perfectly just, and inexhaustibly loving, and that, on the other, he has created a world under such terms as oblige him either to impose, or to permit the imposition of, eternal misery on finite rational beings, is simply to embrace a complete contradiction. And, no matter how ingenious the rhetorical tricks one devises to convince oneself that the claim is in fact logically coherent, morally elevating, and spiritually enlivening, the contradiction remains unresolved. All becomes mystery, but only in the sense that it requires a very mysterious ability to believe impossible things.

The book begins by looking at the question of an eternal hell, and then four meditations looking at four questions: “Who is God?” “What Is Judgment?” “What Is a Person?” and “What Is Freedom?”

In the section on the question of an eternal hell, he says that he is okay with the view that suffering in hell is essentially self-imposed.

A hardened heart is already its own punishment; the refusal to love or be loved makes the love of others – or even just their presence – a source of suffering and a goad to wrath. At the very least, this is a psychological fact that just about any of us can confirm from experience.

His problem with the common teaching on hell is strictly with the idea that hell is never-ending.

Once one has had time to think about it for a little while, one should notice that, when all is said and done, this very rational and psychologically plausible understanding of hell still in no significant way improves the larger picture of God as creator and redeemer – at least, not if one insists upon adding the qualification “eternal” or “final” to the condition of self-imposed misery that it describes. At that point, we find that our two questions remain as gallingly unaddressed as ever: the secondary question of whether this defiant rejection of God for all of eternity is really logically possible for any rational being; and the primary question of whether the God who creates a reality in which the eternal suffering of any being is possible – even if it should be a self-induced suffering – can in fact be the infinitely good God of love that Christianity says he is.

David Bentley Hart goes into great detail looking at these questions. He gives a preview of where he’s going:

One argument that I shall make in this book is that the very notion that a rational agent in full possession of his or her faculties could, in any meaningful sense, freely reject God absolutely and forever is a logically incoherent one. Another is that, for this and other reasons, a final state of eternal torment could be neither a just sentence pronounced upon nor a just fate suffered by a finite being, no matter how depraved that being might have become. Still another is that, even if that fate were in some purely abstract sense “just,” the God who would permit it to become anyone’s actual fate could never be perfectly good – or, rather, as Christian metaphysical tradition obliges us to phrase it, could never be absolute Goodness as such – but could be at most only a relative calculable good in relation to other relative calculable goods. And yet another is that the traditional doctrine of hell’s perpetuity renders other aspects of the tradition, such as orthodox Christology or the eschatological claims of the Apostle Paul, ultimately meaningless. If all of this seems obscure, which at this point it should, I hope it will have become clear by the end of the book.

By this time, you understand what I mean when I say this book is primarily philosophical and written in academic language. This book isn’t for every reader, but if these quotations make you wonder or want to argue, you know where to find more.

Now, please don’t think that his arguments are merely philosophical and apart from Scripture. No, as with every book on universalism, an important part of his argument is the assertion that our modern day infernalist view of eternal hell comes from mistranslations of Greek and Hebrew Scripture.

This author has already published his own translation of the New Testament. So that either means that he has a thorough knowledge of the Greek language used or it means that he’s translating to please himself. Since his conclusions match what so many other authors have told me about the meaning of significant Greek words, and since he looks at the historical use of key terms outside the Bible, including their use by Plato as well as by the early church fathers, I’m going with the view that he’s got a thorough knowledge of the Greek.

He covers the writings of the New Testament most closely in his meditation “What Is Judgment?” Here’s a little bit from that section:

There is a general sense among most Christians that the notion of an eternal hell is explicitly and unremittingly advanced in the New Testament; and yet, when we go looking for it in the actual pages of the text, it proves remarkably elusive. The whole idea is, for instance, entirely absent from the Pauline corpus, as even the thinnest shadow of a hint. Nor is it anywhere patently present in any of the other epistolary texts. There is one verse in the gospels, Matthew 25:46, that – at least, as traditionally understood – offers what seems the strongest evidence for the idea (though even there, as I shall explain below, the wording leaves room for considerable doubt regarding its true significance); and then there are perhaps a couple of verses from Revelation (though, as ever when dealing with that particular book, caveat lector). Beyond that, nothing is clear. What in fact the New Testament provides us with are a number of fragmentary and fantastic images that can be taken in any number of ways, arranged according to our prejudices and expectations, and declared literal or figural or hyperbolic as our desires dictate. True, Jesus speaks of a final judgment, and uses many metaphors to describe the unhappy lot of the condemned. Many of these are metaphors of destruction, like the annihilation of chaff or brambles in ovens, or the final death of body and soul in the Valley of Hinnom (Gehenna). Others are metaphors of exclusion, like the sealed doors of wedding feasts. A few, a very few, are images of imprisonment and torture; but, even then, in the relevant verses, those punishments are depicted as having only a limited term (Matthew 5:36; 18:34; Luke 12:47-48, 59). Nowhere is there any description of a kingdom of perpetual cruelty presided over by Satan, as though he were a kind of chthonian god.

On the other hand, however, there are a remarkable number of passages in the New Testament, several of them from Paul’s writings, that appear instead to promise a final salvation of all persons and all things, and in the most unqualified terms. I imagine some or most of these latter could be explained away as rhetorical exaggeration; but then, presumably, the same could be said of those verses that appear to presage an everlasting division between the redeemed and the reprobate. To me it is surpassingly strange that, down the centuries, most Christians have come to believe that one class of claims – all of which are allegorical, pictorial, vague, and metaphorical in form – must be regarded as providing the “literal” content of the New Testament’s teaching regarding the world to come, while another class – all of which are invariably straightforward doctrinal statements – must be regarded as mere hyperbole.

But this book especially stands out in tackling head-on the argument that God has to respect mankind’s “free will” and allow people to choose eternity away from God. Even C. S. Lewis had this view. But is someone who acts irrationally truly free?

A choice made without rationale is a contradiction in terms. At the same time, any movement of the will prompted by an entirely perverse rationale would be, by definition, wholly irrational – insane, that is to say – and therefore no more truly free than a psychotic episode. The more one is in one’s right mind – the more, that is, that one is conscious of God as the Goodness that fulfills all beings, and the more one recognizes that one’s own nature can have its true completion and joy nowhere but in him, and the more one is unfettered by distorting misperceptions, deranged passions, and the encumbrances of past mistakes – the more inevitable is one’s surrender to God. Liberated from all ignorance, emancipated from all adverse conditions of this life, the rational soul could freely will only its own union with God, and thereby its own supreme beatitude. We are, as it were, doomed to happiness, so long as our natures follow their healthiest impulses unhindered; we cannot not will the satisfaction of our beings in our true final end, a transcendent Good lying behind and beyond all the proximate ends we might be moved to pursue. This is no constraint upon the freedom of the will, coherently conceived; it is simply the consequence of possessing a nature produced by and for the transcendent Good: a nature whose proper end has been fashioned in harmony with a supernatural purpose. God has made us for himself, as Augustine would say, and our hearts are restless till they rest in him. A rational nature seeks a rational end: Truth, which is God himself. The irresistibility of God for any soul that has truly been set free is no more a constraint placed upon its liberty than is the irresistible attraction of a flowing spring of fresh water in a desert place to a man who is dying of thirst; to choose not to drink in that circumstance would be not an act of freedom on his part, but only a manifestation of the delusions that enslave him and force him to inflict violence upon himself, contrary to his nature. A woman who chooses to run into a burning building not to save another’s life, but only because she can imagine no greater joy than burning to death, may be exercising a kind of “liberty,” but in the end she is captive to a far profounder poverty of rational freedom.

He’s also very clear about the injustice of applying eternal punishment to finite creatures.

None of this should need saying, to be honest. We should all already know that whenever the terms “justice” and “eternal punishment” are set side by side as if they were logically compatible, the boundaries of the rational have been violated. If we were not so stupefied by the hoary and venerable myth that eternal damnation is an essential element of the original Christian message (which, not to spoil later plot developments here, it is not), we would not even waste our time on so preposterous a conjunction. From the perspective of Christian belief, the very notion of a punishment that is not intended ultimately to be remedial is morally dubious (and, I submit, anyone who doubts this has never understood Christian teaching at all); but, even if one believes that Christianity makes room for the condign imposition of purely retributive punishments, it remains the case that a retribution consisting in unending suffering, imposed as recompense for the actions of a finite intellect and will, must be by any sound definition disproportionate, unjust, and at the last nothing more than an expression of sheer pointless cruelty.

So that gives you the idea. There’s much more in this book. I hope there are people out there who are intrigued by this (to me) refreshing logic. Here’s where the author leaves us at the end of the meditation on freedom:

Freedom consists in the soul’s journey through this interior world of constantly shifting conditions and perspectives, toward the only home that can ultimately liberate the wanderer from the exile of sin and illusion. And God, as the transcendent end that draws every rational will into actuality, never ceases setting every soul free, ever and again, until it finds that home. To the inevitable God, every soul is bound by its freedom. In the end, if God is God and spirit is spirit, and if there really is an inextinguishable rational freedom in every soul, evil itself must disappear in every intellect and will, and hell must be no more. Only then will God, both as the end of history and as that eternal source and end of beings who transcends history, be all in all. For God, as scripture says, is a consuming fire, and he must finally consume everything.

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Review of Look Both Ways, by Jason Reynolds

Monday, November 25th, 2019

Look Both Ways

A Tale Told in Ten Blocks

by Jason Reynolds

Simon & Schuster Audio, 2019. 4 CDs.
Starred Review
2019 National Book Award Finalist
Review written November 22, 2019, from a library audiobook

This book is a set of overlapping stories about lots of kids, all of them walking home from school. The audiobook version is read by too many people to list at the top of this review, so I’ll list them here: Heather Alicia Simms, Chris Chalk, Bahni Turpin, Adenrele Ojo, Kevin R. Free, JD Jackson, Guy Lockard, January LaVoy, David Sadzin, and Jason Reynolds. Something odd that all the stories have in common is the mention of a school bus falling from the sky.

School’s important in this book, because the kids are leaving school, but our heroes and heroines are walkers. They do get passed by buses and talk about buses and think about school buses falling from the sky, but most of the action happens once school gets out, in the ten blocks near the school.

I think it was a little more difficult to notice details that overlapped between stories when listening. If I’d had the print book in front of me, I would have leafed back to make sure I remembered when a name popped up again. But I did enjoy the variety of narrators, so I think it was worth listening. I may not be sure if there was a big picture in this book, but I do know I enjoyed each individual story.

The stories include things like buying penny candy from a lady in the neighborhood after scrounging change; planning to outwit a new fierce dog that’s popped up on the route home from school; preparing to talk with someone you like; navigating hallways; and figuring out how to protect your mother who’s there to protect others – and who got hurt doing that.

These are slice-of-life stories about a lot of different kids, and there’s something here for everyone to like. Some of the stories do have hard things, but through all the stories, there’s an infusion of joy and a splash of friendship. Everybody’s got someone looking out for them.

As usual, Jason Reynolds is writing about a black neighborhood, and that makes me happy – but there’s nothing here that kids of any ethnicity won’t enjoy. I’m also glad that this isn’t an issue book. It’s a book about kids being kids together during that daily activity – walking home from school.

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Review of The Rapture Exposed, by Barbara R. Rossing

Sunday, November 17th, 2019

The Rapture Exposed

The Message of Hope in the Book of Revelation

by Barbara R. Rossing

Westview Press, 2004. 212 pages.
Starred Review
Reviewed November 16, 2019, from a library book

When I was only in elementary school and junior high, I was already an expert on the End Times. That is, the End Times as defined by dispensationalists. (Dispensationalists believe that God deals with humans in different ways during different time periods or dispensations.) The church my family attended had a chart on the wall in the library where my Sunday School class met showing all the dispensations of human history, including the Church Age (when we are now), the Rapture, the Great Tribulation, the Millennium, the Second Coming, and the New Heaven and New Earth. It was all charted out in that order. Many books were being published about biblical prophecy, including Hal Lindsey’s The Late Great Planet Earth. My family purchased many of them, and I read them, fascinated. Our church held some conferences on biblical prophecy where some of the authors spoke. I read Tim LaHaye’s books on the End Times a couple decades before he ever became a best-selling author with the Left Behind novel series.

When I got to college, I attended a Christian university. As it happened, I took a class on “The Church and Last Things” at the same time I was memorizing the Book of Revelation. I couldn’t help but notice that the Book of Revelation has no chart. And that the things I’d been taught might be something of a stretch to actually find in the Bible.

I’d already noticed that when Jesus came the first time, he did not meet the expectations of religious leaders. I have a feeling that prophecy isn’t usually given so we’ll be able to predict the future, but more so that we’ll be able to recognize God’s hand when He moves. I also noticed that Revelation is about telling us who’s going to win. Almost every chapter has a significant section of praise to God.

Things certainly don’t seem to be strictly chronological in Revelation. And a lot of the imagery to me doesn’t seem to quite fit what I was told it represented. When I did read the first several Left Behind books, I thought it was silly how they took some things literally – like locusts with human faces – and others figuratively.

I also clearly disagreed with some theology in the books, but I still had pretty ingrained in me that Revelation would happen basically the way they predicted. I am thankful to this book for showing me another way to look at Revelation, and a way that makes more sense and to me seems to follow more easily from what you read.

Now, I did know from my class at Biola University that not all Christians believe in a “pre-tribulation rapture.” But almost everything I’d read about end times – except the Bible itself – was from that perspective. Barbara Rossing begins her book this way:

The rapture is a racket. Whether prescribing a violent script for Israel or survivalism in the United States, this theology distorts God’s vision for the world. In place of healing, the Rapture proclaims escape. In place of Jesus’ blessing of peacemakers, the Rapture voyeuristically glorifies violence and war. In place of Revelation’s vision of the Lamb’s vulnerable self-giving love, the Rapture celebrates the lion-like wrath of the Lamb. This theology is not biblical. We are not Raptured off the earth, nor is God. No, God has come to live in the world through Jesus. God created the world, God loves the world, and God will never leave the world behind!

Most of this book is about going through the book of Revelation and looking at the things it actually tells us, but the author begins by giving us the history of the idea of the “Rapture.” She explains that it began about two hundred years ago when a girl in Scotland had a vision that the second coming of Jesus Christ would happen in two stages. The word “Rapture” does not occur in Scripture, but comes from the Latin word raptio, a translation of the Greek word for “caught up” from I Thessalonians 4:17 about what will happen when Jesus returns. But the two-stage return idea was new, and the idea of dispensations was developed to make it fit.

Dispensationalists admit that they pull things together from different parts of the Bible to make their teachings and their charts. Even the idea of seven years of tribulation has to be pieced together within the book of Revelation.

So you can read all this – where the Rapture came from and how the whole theory is pieced together, and it’s all very interesting, sounding much less coherent than when I read the theories from the authors themselves when I was a child.

But what I especially love about this book is the way she looks at Revelation and helps me to look at it with new eyes. She talks about how Revelation fit with other apocalyptic writings of the time and followed a similar format. Here’s an overarching view of the message of the book:

In the first of his apocalyptic journeys (Rev 4-5) John travels up to heaven. There he sees a beautiful vision of God’s throne, revealed to be the true power behind the universe. Angels and animals are worshiping God and singing songs of praise to Jesus, the Lamb. Revelation’s subsequent visions pull back the curtain to “unveil” the Roman empire for what it really is: Rome is not the great eternal power it claims to be, but a demonic beast that oppresses the world. God’s people must undertake a spiritual exodus out of the empire, led by the Lamb. God threatens evil Babylon/Rome with plagues like the plagues of the Exodus story. We must not put our trust in Roman security or power, nor that of any other empire. We are to give allegiance to God alone.

She reminds us of how the book came across to its original recipients:

Revelation was originally written for those whom South African theologian Allan Boesak calls “God’s little people” – communities of people who struggled under oppression – not for people with access to airplanes or money or the latest technology. The best way to understand Revelation’s message for today is to put ourselves in the place of the audience for whom it was originally written. Imagine Revelation as a message from the underside, written to comfort beleaguered churches struggling under Roman imperial violence and power. Revelation has spoken powerfully to oppressed people throughout history. Its voice of protest is heard in spirituals as well as gospel songs and hymns.

I do love that she points out something that struck me hard when I memorized the book of Revelation: the book is packed with praise.

Revelation is full of songs – heavenly choruses praising God and encouraging us to sing in the midst of tribulation. Just when the book begins to sound hopeless or despairing, a host of witnesses in heaven break into song. Even animals join the Lamb’s chorus, singing along with a cacophony of “every creature in heaven and on earth and under the earth and in the sea.” No other book of the Bible has shaped Christian hymns and music as much as Revelation, from Handel’s “Hallelujah Chorus” to “When the Saints Go Marching In,” to the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” African American spirituals, and even reggae (“Let’s get together to fight this Holy Armageddon,” from Bob Marley’s “One Love”). Revelation’s songs are not intended to be literalistic. Indeed, the metaphorical dimension is precisely what gives Revelation’s songs their power. Songs connect us to something deeper: they evoke our capacity for solidarity and resistance, they give us hope.

Or as she puts it later:

Singing and worship are central to Revelation, a fact often overlooked by people who see the book only as a system of end-times predictions and timetables. In Revelation we sing our way into God’s new vision for our world, more than in any other book of the Bible.

The author urges us to relish the metaphors of Revelation:

Revelation’s world of vision is like that of a Magic Eye picture. It is an “Aha” kind of vision that draws us in to see the deeper picture. God invites us to let go of the flat page, to stop trying to figure out each literal detail of Revelation, and instead to enter further into the larger picture. As we read and meditate on the images of Revelation, we find whole new levels of God’s vision for our world unveiled to us: We taste water that is not just water – it is living water, the river of life. We follow Jesus, the shepherding Lamb, who invites us to drink from springs of that living water. We hear God’s lament for our world that is oppressed, and we witness the trial and judgment of oppressors in a suspense-filled courtroom. Finally, most wonderfully, we see God coming to earth to live with us in a beloved city – to wipe away all the world’s tears.

But I especially love the chapter called “Lamb Power,” where Barbara Rossing explains the subversive heart of the book of Revelation. She points out that just when you expect Rome’s images of power and victory is when the Lamb comes out.

Seated on the throne in heaven, God holds a scroll sealed shut with seven seals that must be opened. But who is worthy to open this scroll? God’s voice from the throne tells John in chapter 5, “Do not weep, for the lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals.” Two words in this admonition – “lion” and “conquer” (nike in Greek) – lead us to expect that a fierce animal will appear to open the scroll with its claws, like the conquering lions in gladiatorial spectacles. A lion would be typical for an apocalypse; such fierce animals are often introduced to advance the plot. In Second Esdras, for example, the Messiah is portrayed as a roaring lion prophesying judgment against the Roman eagle and its violence.

But Revelation pulls an amazing surprise. In place of the lion that we expect, comes a Lamb: “Then I saw between the throne and the four living creatures and among the elders a Lamb standing as if it had been slaughtered” (Rev 5:6). It is a complete reversal. Actually the Greek word John uses is not just “lamb,” but the diminutive form, a word like “lambkin,” “lamby,” or “little lamb” (arnion in Greek) – “Fluffy,” as Pastor Daniel Erlander calls it. The only other place this word arnion is used in the New Testament is where Jesus says he is sending his disciples out into the world “as lambs among wolves” (Luke 10:3). No other apocalypse ever pictures the divine hero as a Lamb – Revelation is unique among apocalyptic writings in this image. The depiction of Jesus as a Lamb shows him in the most vulnerable way possible, as a victim who is slaughtered by standing – that is, crucified but risen to life.

Reminiscent of the servant-lamb of Isaiah 53, who “is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep to the shearer is silent,” the Lamb of Revelation became the victor not by militaristic power and slaughter but rather by being slaughtered. From beginning to end, Revelation’s vision of the Lamb teaches a “theology of the cross,” of God’s power made manifest in weakness, similar to Paul’s theology of the cross in First Corinthians. Lamb theology is the whole message of Revelation. Evil is defeated not by overwhelming force or violence but by the Lamb’s suffering love on the cross. The victim becomes the victor.

Lamb theology is what true victory or true nike is. For we, too, are “victors” or followers of the Lamb on whom the term nike or conquering is bestowed. This is one of the amazing features of the book. Much of Revelation can sound so violent, but we have to look at the subversive heart of the book — the redefinition of victory and “conquering” — to understand how Revelation subverts violence itself. Just like the Lamb, God’s people are called to conquer not by fighting but by remaining faithful, by testifying to God’s victory in self-giving love.

Another point that I love comes when the author talks about the centrality of the final two chapters of Revelation – chapters that dispensationalists gloss over as for a far distant day.

Contrary to the dispensationalist view, there is no rapture in the story of Revelation, no snatching of people off the earth up to heaven. Look at it this way: it is God who is raptured down to earth to take up residence and dwell with us – a rapture in reverse….

The word “dwell” in Revelation [21] is the same word as used to describe Jesus’ coming to earth in the Gospel of John, “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” The whole message of the Bible is that God loves the world so much that God comes to earth to dwell with us. The Gospel of Matthew calls Jesus “Emmanuel,” which means in Hebrew “God is with us.” Revelation proclaims that same message of God’s dwelling in our world. It is the message that God’s home is no longer up in heaven, but here in our midst, incarnate on earth. In Revelation 21-22 God’s throne moves down out of heaven, where it was in chapter 4, and is now located in the midst of the city – in the city descended down out of heaven, down to earth.

There’s lots more in this book. I highly recommend it. I admit that I am still will freak out if someone suggests everyone get a chip embedded in their right hand or on their forehead in order to buy and sell. But for the most part, this has enabled me to look at revelation with eyes of hope instead of fear and terror.

The hope of Revelation centers around the slain-yet-standing Lamb who has conquered – and around everything that that Lamb represents in God’s vision for us and for the world. The Lamb who replaces the expected lion in Revelation’s storyline continues to dwell with us and to overturn all the structures of war and injustice. In the face of empire, Revelation teaches us a way of life that is “Lamb power” – the power of nonviolent love to change the world. The hope of Revleation is simply this: that the Lamb has conquered the beast and that a wondrous river of life now flows out from the Lamb’s throne to bring healing water to every corner of our wounded world.

I also appreciate how she leaves us in the Epilogue:

To read the Bible’s hardest passages is like wrestling with God, much like Jacob who wrestled through the night at the river Jabbok. You grapple to make sense of the words, you hold on, you struggle for clarity, you seek to wrest answers for all your questions. What God gives you instead of a system of answers is a blessing, a new name — a living relationship. You are forever changed by the encounter. You have seen the face of God.

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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Review of The Wicked King, by Holly Black

Monday, November 11th, 2019

The Wicked King

by Holly Black
read by Caitlin Kelly

Hachette Audio, 2019. 10.5 hours on 9 CDs.
Starred Review
Review written 9/13/19 from a library audiobook

The Wicked King is the sequel to The Cruel Prince, and was just as action-packed and full of plots and intrigue as that one.

In this installment, Jude, a mortal who has grown up in Faerie, has gained power over Carden, who once bullied her and is now the High King of Faerie. (Never mind how she gained power – that’s what the first book was about.) Jude’s twin sister Taryn is getting married to Locke, another immortal who has treated Jude terribly.

But gaining power is one thing; keeping it is quite another. The Queen of the Sea is plotting something with Carden’s older brother, who had expected to gain the throne but is now in prison for murder. And it looks like they will make their move at Taryn’s wedding.

There are plots within plots, shifting alliances, and confusing feelings toward Carden. Can Jude navigate it all, stay alive, protect her little brother, and keep hold of the power she finds she enjoys perhaps a little too much?

There’s a lot more I could say, but I don’t want to give anything away. I don’t think I’ve expressed how gripping this book is, with one tense situation happening after another. It ends at a satisfying place – but also at a place where you need to know what will happen next! The next book cannot come out soon enough for me!

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Disclaimer: I am a professional librarian, but I maintain my website and blogs on my own time. The views expressed are solely my own, and in no way represent the official views of my employer or of any committee or group of which I am part.

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