Archive for the ‘Starred Review’ Category

Review of Flames of Love, by Heath Bradley

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017

Flames of Love

Hell and Universal Salvation

by Heath Bradley

Wipf & Stock, Eugene, Oregon, 2012. 176 pages.
Starred Review

Recently, I posted on Facebook an article that questioned the common view held by evangelical churches about the duration of hell. The article referenced the fact that it isn’t entirely clear in the Greek text how the word should be translated – there’s definitely a strong case to be made that eternal conscious torment is not what’s intended in the original Greek after all.

This did get the attention of some of my friends and relatives. The discussion that followed motivated me to finally pick up this book that I’d purchased awhile back and had been meaning to read – and I love it. In fact, it’s completely pertinent. Every objection that people brought up in the online discussion is directly addressed, as are many others.

This book is for people who, like me, believe that the Bible is the Word of God. If you aren’t concerned about whether the Bible is entirely true or not, you don’t need this book to convince you that a loving God probably isn’t going to threaten his creatures with everlasting conscious torment.

But if you think Isn’t that what the Bible says?, so that you think you have to believe this if you believe the Bible, I strongly recommend reading this book. The author takes Scripture seriously and shows that it may be much more responsible interpretation to take a different view.

Now, a key word here is “everlasting.” When talking about hell, the Greek word used is aeonian, or “lasting eons.” I knew about this from my other reading. It does not mean going on and on without end, even though it may mean a very long time. Christian Universalists do not believe that hell is not real, but that it will not last forever and has a redemptive purpose. They also believe that the Bible’s promises that all will be made alive in Christ are completely true.

Here are a few sections from the introduction.

I believe hell is very real, yet I also believe that a God who is love is also real, and that this God gets the last word.

I related to this next passage. When I became a Universalist, I was afraid that it would destroy any motivation to evangelize. But instead, it made me feel hugely better about evangelism. Now I feel I actually have good news!

If the message that Jesus came to bring is that most people will actually spend an eternity experiencing the most horrible torment conceivable, well, to be honest, I can think of much better news than that! That theological vision does not strike me as good news at all. It certainly does not set my heart on fire with a joyous desire to share this news with as many people as I can. In fact, when I thought that this view of things was indispensable for Christianity, it made me feel anxious to think about and embarrassed to talk about. God, it seemed to me, had a dark side underneath the veneer of grace and goodness, contrary to how John summed up the meaning of Jesus’s message that “God is light, and in him there is no darkness at all” (1 John 1:5).

There is, however, a theological vision that does strike me as good news, indeed as the best news possible for the world. It is a vision that fills my heart and soul with grateful awe and joyful excitement. It is a vision that I believe is Christ-centered, biblically-grounded, spiritually-compelling, and life-inspiring. In this book, we are concerned with understanding and evaluating a specific Christian vision of God and God’s relationship to humanity known as Christian universalism. Although this view will be fleshed out throughout the book, we can define it initially and simply as the belief that ultimately every person will be saved through Christ. This vision of salvation stands in sharp contrast, of course, to the dominant Christian vision of hell which we can define as the belief that all people who are not Christians will spend eternity in conscious torment.

Here’s another thought worth pondering:

From the outset it should be noted that on the Christian church’s traditional view of hell, not only Hitler spends an eternity in hell, but also his victims. Six million Jews suffered horrific torment in this life from Hitler, yet on the dominant Christian view of hell, after they died they entered into a realm of unending torment and punishment at the hands of God because they did not profess Christ as Lord. One has to honestly ask who comes off looking worse, Hitler or God? I bring this point up now just so we can have clear in our minds what we are dealing with when it comes to the traditional view of hell. This is certainly a doctrine that raises lots of theological questions and moral objections that need to be given thoughtful attention.

And he makes some very good points about interpretation. This is from that discussion:

Christians have been reading the same Bible and holding greatly different beliefs for over two thousand years now. Awareness of this historical fact alone should make us quick to listen to others, and slow to assume our position is the obviously right one. It should also give us pause before accusing someone of denying biblical authority just because they question the legitimacy of our interpretations. In other words, in questioning hell we are not throwing away the biblical puzzle pieces we do not like, we are simply questioning if the picture on the lid that we have received from the dominant tradition actually gives us the best way to put all the pieces together. Perhaps there is a better picture that can make room for more of the pieces to fit together better. At this point we need to acknowledge that people who disagree with our own biblical interpretations are not necessarily denying the Bible, but simply questioning the lenses through which we currently see the Bible.

I do like this take on it, looking at the big picture of theology:

Christian universalism simply affirms with Calvinists that God can and will do whatever God desires to do, and with the Arminians that God desires to save all people. Put those premises together, and you get the conclusion that God will save all people….

Consider the following three statements, each of which, at least on the surface has some degree of biblical support:

1. God loves every human being the same and desires all to be saved.
2. God has the power to accomplish God’s redemptive desires.
3. Some people will remain in hell forever.

The three statements, taken together, are contradictory. One of them must be false. Calvinists deny the first one. Arminians deny the second one. Universalists deny the third one. At the beginning of the debate, why assume that the first two are up for discussion, but the third one is untouchable, as Christians so often do? Why assume the priority and clarity of the everlasting hell passages while being willing to reinterpret the passages used in support for the other two claims? At the end of the day, each position has to try to explain why some passages do not mean what they appear to mean. While I think the universalist position does a better job than the other two in making the most sense of the whole of the biblical witness, at this point my hope is that you can see that Christian universalism is a position at least as worthy of consideration as the other two major theological systems.

In the main text, the author takes the approach of using each chapter to address one of six objections to universalism.

The first objection is “Universalists don’t believe in hell.” Here’s a bit of the answer to that:

Judgment need not be everlasting conscious torment in order for it to be very serious. This cannot be emphasized enough. Christian universalists do not deny the reality of judgment and hell, they simply contend that judgment and hell should be conceptualized and imagined in such a way as to be congruent with a God who is genuinely loving to all people and who therefore seeks what is best for all people.

This is the chapter where the author talks about the Greek word gehenna and what it would have meant to Jesus’ followers. While the Bible clearly teaches there is a hell, it’s not absolutely clear it means the currently popular depiction of hell. Here’s another good point the author makes:

In applying this to the question of hell and judgment, I am not suggesting that since God is like a loving parent there is no judgment. What I am suggesting is that however we conceptualize and imagine the reality of hell, it must be consistent with the affirmation of Jesus that God relates to us as a loving parent, and loving parents only punish their children for the purpose of correction and restoration. If you are inclined at this point to object that I am limiting God by reducing God to the confines of good parenting on a human level, I would remind you that it was Jesus himself who taught us to think of divine goodness on the analogy of human parental goodness. If divine goodness is completely of a different kind than the goodness of a human parent, then Jesus’s admonition wouldn’t make any sense and there would be no use comparing the two. I don’t think that can be emphasized enough.

Here’s another good point in that chapter:

I confess that I am often baffled when defenders of the traditional view of an everlasting hell say things like, “God will not tolerate sinners.” I know this doesn’t sound very nice to say, but it really makes me wonder if they have ever paid close attention to Jesus’s life. If one thing is abundantly clear about Jesus’s life, it is that he not only tolerated sinners, he loved them, ate with them, and accepted them into fellowship with himself, to the chagrin of the top religious leaders of his day (Luke 15:1-2). If we believe that Jesus reveals God more than anything or anyone else, as Christians have always believed, then how can we ever come to the conclusion that God cannot tolerate sinners? The Pharisees were the ones who thought that God could not tolerate sinners, not Jesus and his followers.

The second objection is “Universalists don’t believe the Bible.” The answer is that universalists interpret the Bible differently – and there are strong hermeneutical reasons to interpret the Bible as we do.

Here’s a bit of his discussion about that:

As I see the debate, the traditionalists and the universalists both have a difficult interpretive task set before them. To put it concisely, the traditionalists have to try to explain why “all” doesn’t really mean all when it comes to who will be saved, and the universalists have to explain why “eternal” doesn’t really mean eternal when it comes to the duration of the punishment in the age to come. I will argue that I think the universalist position is more exegetically sound and theologically coherent than the traditionalist position, but before getting there, it is important to see that both positions have a similar predicament. Oftentimes Christians of a traditionalist perspective seem to think that the Christians who have a universalist perspective have the burden of proof on them. But, as we have argued, there is no good reason to simply assume from the start that the traditionalist passages should be taken as primary and more clear than the universalist passages. Certainly the weight of tradition leads many people to quickly filter out the universalist passages without much thought, but this is not a fair way to proceed in examining these texts. We should be willing to set aside, as best we can, our preconceived and inherited notions of which texts are really “clear,” and see which position can do the best job of accounting for the other set of passages.

Here he looks at the strong case that “all” does mean all, but that “eternal,” hasn’t been translated well, and means “pertaining to an age.” He treats it as a serious interpretive question. It’s good to realize that this is an interpretive question, and not a matter of whether you believe the Bible or not.

I like this sentence toward the end of the chapter:

God does not punish people instead of saving them from their sins, but, if the foregoing picture of divine punishment is true, God punishes people (by showing them the essential ugliness of their sins) so that God can save them.

Objection #3 is “Universalists deny human freedom.”

Again, the answer is a chapter long. Here’s a bit of it:

Christian universalism deeply values human freedom, so much so that it holds that God will not even take it away in the age to come. Freedom to choose God does not end at death in this view, as it does for traditionalists. In addition to extending human freedom in the age to come, the Christian universalist can also criticize the free-will defense of an everlasting hell for failing to take into account several important features about the nature of human freedom. In this chapter, we will explore how the account of human freedom offered in a free-will defense of everlasting hell fails to consider two very important things: the power of God to change a human will, and the inherently socially-embedded and constrained nature of human freedom. In other words, the free-will defenders of an everlasting hell do not give enough credit to the power of divine love, and they give too much credit to the power of human choices.

He waxes eloquent about the power of God’s love here. (And this is partly why I love the theory of universalism. How great God is in His great love!)

It seems that this comes down to whether or not we should have more confidence in the power of human sin, or the power of divine grace. I’m going with divine grace. Paul writes that “where sin abounds, grace abounds all the more” (Rom. 5:20). At the end of the day, I believe that God’s love for us will be more relentless than our rejection of him, and that is why I am a universalist. I do not at all underestimate how deeply rooted self-centered and sinful patterns of living can be, but at the same time I do not think we should underestimate the power of God’s just and holy love to pull the roots of sin out of our hearts.

If I am proven to be wrong about this, if some will forever hold out against God, then I think God will not be offended if I put too much confidence in the power of divine love. Even if one doesn’t go all the way in affirming that God will ultimately heal every human heart and transform every evil will through destroying all sin with the fire of his holy love, it seems to me that every Christian should at least have hope in the possibility of this happening. Jesus, after all, told us that, “with God, all things are possible” (Matt. 19:26). We should take careful note of the fact that when Jesus said this he was explicitly referring to the power of God to save even those who seem impossible to save from a merely human perspective (Matt. 19:23-26). When it comes to who can be saved, our hope is in divine possibility, not in human probabilities.

The fourth objection addressed is “Universalists think all religions are equally true.”

Now, some universalists may think this, but not the Christian universalism presented here. First he presents the views of pluralism and exclusivism. He’s a little bit harsh about exclusivism.

The exclusivist viewpoint, when pressed, has a supreme irony, or shall I say contradiction, at the heart of its claim. It claims that God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, yet for the people who do not know about how much God loves them, God will subject them to never-ending suffering. While this view certainly highlights the central role of Christ in our salvation, it ultimately paints God as something of an arbitrary tyrant rather than the loving parent Jesus describes.

He does present an alternative:

Fortunately, there is a third option available to us that preserves what is good about pluralism and exclusivism, while avoiding the pitfalls that come with both of these views. This view is known as inclusivism. According to this view, Christ is the only way to God, yet the saving work of Christ is not limited to people who in this life knowingly and intentionally put their trust in Christ.

I love this perspective about the calling of Abraham. I’d never noticed this thread before, and it rings true to look at it this way:

Another key aspect of the argument for inclusivism is the broad scriptural theme of God’s saving love that reaches out to the whole world. From the beginning of the biblical story of redemption, God reveals himself to be a God who is not concerned with only a small set of people in the world, but rather with all the people of the world. In fact, God’s particular election of the people of Abraham is for the universal purpose of drawing all people into the blessing of God (Gen. 12:1-3). The Christian tradition has mostly missed this point in a huge way, and has instead talked about “election” as pertaining to the salvation of some instead of others. But in the biblical story, election is about a calling for the sake of others. Election is not a matter of God favoring some people over others. Election is a matter of God choosing some people to be instruments of blessings to the rest of the people. It is never about God choosing some individuals for redemptive privilege, but rather it is about God choosing a group of people for missional service.

The fifth objection is “Universalism undermines evangelism.”

I enjoyed this chapter, because when I first decided to embrace universalism, this was the biggest objection in my mind – and then I found, to my surprise, that I was much happier telling people about my faith, so it came much more naturally. I no longer felt like I had to tell bad-news-good-news, but no, I believe that the message is purely good news. God loves everyone utterly – and He’s going to redeem everyone!

The author seems to have had the same transformation of his feelings about evangelism. And he makes some excellent additional points in this chapter.

While belief in an everlasting hell may be what has motivated many evangelists and missionaries, I would argue that it is precisely this belief that has largely contributed to a transactional, decision-oriented focus towards evangelism that has made accepting the gospel the minimal entrance requirement for heaven. In contrast, Jesus said evangelism is to be about making disciples by teaching people how to live as he taught through empowerment of his Spirit. If we think that people are going to be tortured for an eternity if they do not believe the right things, then all of our focus is on getting them to say a certain prayer or accept a certain creed to escape that fate. What matters, on this view, isn’t getting the whole gospel into people as deeply as possible, but rather what becomes top priority is simply getting just a part of the gospel into as many people as possible. But, wehn the part becomes the whole, then the whole thing gets distorted. Teaching people how to live in the Way of Christ becomes optional on this view, instead of being essential as Christ said it should be.

He makes a great point about the first Christian sermons in the Bible:

Interestingly, “hell” is never mentioned in any of the sermons recorded in the book of Acts. This is highly significant because Acts offers us an account of the spread of the church in its earliest years (from roughly 30-60 AD). The whole book is filled with one missionary story after another, and yet not once do the apostles threaten eternal punishment to people if they do not accept their good news. They didn’t see their mission as getting people to buy “celestial fire insurance.” They do preach a judgment in the age to come, but as we have seen, one cannot simply read into an affirmation of judgment an eternally dualistic outcome. While the preachers in Acts do not preach a doctrine of everlasting hell, one preacher named Peter did in fact proclaim that one day there would be a “restoration of all things.” Even though Peter apparently believed that one day God would restore and reclaim all things, this didn’t at all dampen his missionary zeal. In fact, Peter argues that because one day the work of Christ will be consummated in a universal restoration, we should repent here and now so our sins will be forgiven and so that we can begin to live in tune with how life in the kingdom of God will be (Acts 3:19)….

The logic of Christian universalism isn’t that because all will be reconciled to God, we should therefore not be concerned about how life is lived here and now. No, the logic of Christian universalism is that because we are all headed towards an inescapable encounter with the complete truth about ourselves and about God, we should open ourselves up to the light of God here and now so that the light can begin to dispel the darkness and we can begin to be transformed now and experience a glimpse of the fullness and richness of life with God in the age to come (Acts 3:20).

The sixth and final objection addressed is “Universalism undermines holy living.”

I appreciated the author’s take on Holiness. I’d never thought of it this way before, but once my eyes are opened I notice that, yes, this fits with many, many passages in the Bible, both Old and New Testaments:

If the charge is made against Christian universalism that it dilutes the motivation for holy living, not only can the previous defense be offered, but we can also go on the offensive and make the case that it is actually the traditional doctrine of everlasting hell that potentially undermines holy living insofar as it actually distorts what God’s holiness is all about. Recall that earlier we said God’s holiness is God’s “otherness,” that is, it is what makes God essentially different from us. According to the traditionalists, God’s holiness lies in God’s right to retributively punish sin forever out of being offended by human sin. However, Jesus defined God’s holy perfection much differently. He didn’t describe God’s holiness as God’s desire or need to restore his offended majesty, but rather he explicitly and clearly defined God’s holiness as God’s unbounded love for God’s enemies (Matt. 5:43-48). Remember, it was the Pharisees who defined God’s holiness in terms of separation from sinners. The Pharisees (whose name means “separate ones”) excluded sinners from their fellowship because they believed they were imitating the way God relates to sinners. Jesus, on the other hand, welcomed sinners into fellowship with himself because he believed he was imitating the way God relates to sinners. Jesus subversively redefined God’s holiness as compassion, not separation. When thinking about the holiness of God, it is crucially important that we let Jesus define divine holiness for us, since he is the pinnacle of God’s revelation to us. “No one has ever seen God,” the apostle John writes, but Jesus “who is close to the Father’s heart has made him known” (John 1:18). God is holy, to be sure, but traditional defenders of hell rely far too much on the vision of divine holiness put forth by the Pharisees, and not enough on the way Jesus revealed the holiness of God as compassionate love.

Taking that a step further:

On the traditional view, God essentially asks of humanity what God is not willing to do. God asks us to not seek merely retributive punishment and to forgive indefinitely, yet God is not willing to do this himself. On the traditional view, it is easier to write people off and condemn them because it is believed deep down that this is what God in fact does with the majority of people. On the universalist view, restorative justice and reconciliation are the ultimate reality. Because the universalist believes that the world is heading towards the reconciliation of all things, we are motivated and inspired here and now to begin to make that a reality.

In the final chapter, Heath Bradley looks at some remaining questions with shorter answers. I like his way of wrapping up the book:

I realize that there are legitimate questions to be asked and genuine concerns to be raised with the view that holds that ultimately all will be saved through Christ. I hope I have addressed them in thoughtful and helpful ways, although I am sure I have not done so in such a way as to dispel all doubt. My hopeful belief is that these remaining doubts and concerns will turn out to be similar to the question that the women disciples asked on their way to the tomb, concerning how the stone will be rolled away (Mark 16:3). They discovered, beyond their ability to imagine or conceive, that with God, all things really are possible. Christian universalism is the conviction that their discovery, that the darkness cannot overcome the light, will one day belong to us all.

I’ve included lots of excerpts here, because I love the logic and thoroughness of his thinking, and I wanted to give a taste of it. Please be aware that this is not the entire book! If you find these arguments at all compelling, I encourage you to read further. If you find yourself dismissing all of them, you might also want to read further and get more background, understand more clearly why someone who solidly believes that the Bible is the Word of God also believes that hell is not a place of everlasting conscious torment.

I’ve done a lot of reading on this topic over many years now, and I love the way this one sums up many good arguments and brings up some new ones, and does so clearly and consistently. This author has read many of the same books I have.

But I also love his take on God’s holiness as expressed above all in God’s forgiveness. And I love the way his love for God and for sinners shines through in these pages.

And praise be to God’s great, unending, amazing Love that indeed gets the last word!

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Review of The Fox Wish, by Kimiko Aman

Thursday, July 6th, 2017

The Fox Wish

by Kimiko Aman
illustrated by Komako Sakai

Chronicle Books, 2017. Originally published in Japan in 2003. 32 pages.
Starred Review

This book charmed, surprised, and enchanted me.

The book starts in the middle of the action, well, in the middle of a snack. We see a little blonde girl and her younger brother, and she’s got big surprised eyes. She left her jump rope at the park!

She goes to get it, and Lukie comes along. But when they get to the park, the jump rope isn’t there. But they hear laughter in the trees. They go to investigate.

The laughs were louder now, and I could hear it:
the swish, whip of the jump rope.

But it wasn’t Thomas and Samantha jump-roping.
It was foxes.

“Doxy, foxy,
touch the ground.

Doxy, foxy,
turn around.

Turn to the east,
and turn to the west,

and choose the one that
you like best.”

The spread shows the children looking out from behind some trees at a line of foxes jumping rope. Two are turning the rope, one is watching, and seven foxes are joyfully jumping, in various poses in the air.

The foxes were not very good at jump rope.
They were good jumpers, but their tails kept getting caught in the rope.

Lukie can’t help but laugh. So then they come out and join the foxes. The foxes politely ask them how to jump rope without tripping, and Roxie is glad to explain that they simply need to hold their tails up.

They all have a lovely time jumping rope together until it starts to get dark. When it’s Roxie’s time to turn the rope, she sees that the rope indeed has her name on the handle.

But when it’s time to go home, there’s a surprise. This is the part where I was utterly charmed. I don’t want to give it away, so let me just say that it’s delightful to watch wishes come true.

I love this book. The illustrations (Those fox faces! The joyful jumping!) are a big part of that. But also the story of a little girl who learns to give joy to others.

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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 Shadow Land, by Elizabeth Kostova

Wednesday, July 5th, 2017

The Shadow Land

by Elizabeth Kostova

Ballantine Books, 2017. 478 pages.
Starred Review

When Alexandra Boyd gets off the plane in Sofia, she’s jet lagged, exhausted, and not even thinking straight. She’s in Bulgaria to begin teaching English, but came a month early to do some sight-seeing. First, the taxi driver brings her to a nice hotel, instead of the hostel where she has a room booked – and drives off before she can fix it.

While she’s trying to figure out what to do, she sees an elderly couple and a younger man come out of the hotel. As the younger man is helping the older man in a wheelchair get into a taxi, the older lady stumbles. Alexandra catches her arm and helps her. And then she passes their bags to them and helps them settle in the cab.

The younger man thanks her, and chats with her about her travel plans. She asks if she can take their picture – the first people she’s spoken to in Bulgaria.

Then Alexandra gets into a taxi and heads for her hostel. But as they are driving away, she suddenly notices that she has the tall man’s satchel. When she opens it up, it contains an urn with ashes and a name on the urn, Stoyan Lazarov. She asks the taxi driver to stop and bursts into tears.

When Alexandra opened the urn, she began to cry not because she was afraid of human remains but because it was just too much, the last straw. She was in a strange country, she was exhausted, her plans had already gone awry, and in the dramatic way of the young she felt herself in the grip of something larger — destiny, or some plot that could as easily be evil as good.

Alexandra has the driver, who says she can call him Bobby, take her back to the hotel, but there’s no sign of the people who lost the urn. She goes to the police, which Bobby doesn’t think is a great idea. But the police give her an address to try. First, though, she and Bobby drive to the monastery where the tall man said they’d be traveling.

In the monastery, Alexandra and Bobby get locked into a room, but it turns out Bobby has lockpicking skills.

By now Bobby is interested in Alexandra’s quest, so they continue on the trail of the Lazarov family. Each place they go, they find the family is not there, but get another lead of a place where they might be found. Along the way, they find out more about Stoyan Lazarov as well. But at the same time, as they travel, Bobby’s car is vandalized and they get threatening notes. Someone besides the Lazarov family seems to want the urn.

This book has a chase saga and a mystery, as well as being a story of a young American woman traveling in Europe on her own for the first time. Just when I thought it was especially lovely, pleasant reading, the book starts delving into the history of Bulgaria – particularly Stoyan Lazarov’s time in a prison camp – particularly brutal and awful.

But the overall feeling of the book is hopeful and surviving through art and through love. The story is compelling, as Stoyan Lazarov’s past has repercussions in the present.

This is a very personal story, despite having large themes. Alexandra has some of her own issues to deal with, but she cares about the people she meets along the way, and the reader can’t help but care, too. The author weaves in flashbacks well, never interrupting Alexandra’s story long enough to make us impatient.

I still say it’s a lovely book, even though it has some very hard chapters. The author brings Bulgaria to life so vividly and so lovingly, I wasn’t surprised to read at the back that she’s married to a Bulgarian. The plot is gripping, yet she manages to weave in lots of background material without letting up on the tension. On top of all that, these characters – from Alexandra and Bobby all the way to the man in the urn – are people you come to love.

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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 Your Presidential Fantasy Dream Team, by Daniel O’Brien

Tuesday, July 4th, 2017

Your Presidential Fantasy Dream Team

by Daniel O’Brien
illustrations by Winston Rowntree

Crown Books for Young Readers, 2016. 264 pages.
Starred Review

I had a whole lot of fun booktalking this book in the local elementary schools this year. I never realized a book about the presidents could be so much fun.

Here’s how the author explains the premise:

I can’t predict the future. So I’m not saying that several years from now, robots will rise up and attempt to overthrow humanity and it’ll be up to you to travel through time and assemble a Presidential Attack Squad to defend America. But I am saying that we’d all feel really stupid if at least one of us wasn’t prepared for such an event. If you’re ever tasked with organizing the Dream Team of Presidents, this chapter will probably be more helpful than any other chapter in any book, ever.

Whether you’re forming an action team to defend the planet or just putting together a group of presidents to pull off some kind of grand scheme, every good team needs Brains, Brawn, a Loose Cannon, a Moral Compass, and a Roosevelt. I’ve included my best recommendations for all these positions, but you should feel free to pick your own.

He proceeds to tell about the presidents, rating them in terms of brains, brawn, loose cannon, moral compass and whether they’re a Roosevelt(!). But the fun in reading this book is his irreverent tone and over-the-top descriptions. I’m afraid this book was far more entertaining than Ken Burns’ worthy and lovely picture book of presidents, though that one would probably make a better resource for reports.

He includes scandalous and surprising facts such as Ulysses Grant was a drunk, and Andrew Jackson had so many bullets in his body, contemporaries said he rattled like a bag of marbles when he walked.

Kids liked hearing this description of President Woodrow Wilson:

During this time, Wilson grew suspicious of even his closest friends (something historians later attributed to undiagnosed brain damage). He went days without sleeping and his brain slowly started deteriorating, which, like everything at this point, only made Wilson angrier and more stubborn. Determined to win public support for the League of Nations, Wilson decided to go against the orders of his wife, doctors, and basic common sense, and toured the country to give speeches that would rally people to his side. He rode all over America, coughing and sneezing and being fed predigested foods (the only foods he could eat) by day, and giving rousing speeches by night (sometimes five in one day). He delivered his speeches with closed eyes, shaking hands, and a weakened voice. With his wheezing, sleeplessness, strained mumbling, rapidly failing body, and singular, obsessed focus, it’s not completely uncalled for to label Woodrow Wilson our first zombie president.

The book only includes past presidents who have already died, so we don’t have the gift of finding out how this irreverent historian would approach our first president. (I’m thinking “Loose Cannon” is his strongest field.)

In conclusion, Daniel tells kids that the reason he wrote this book is “to teach you that history is much cooler than they tell you it is in school.”

It’s safe to say this is one of the most entertaining history books I’ve ever read.

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Review of Frogkisser! by Garth Nix

Monday, July 3rd, 2017


by Garth Nix

Scholastic Press, February 2017. 372 pages.
Starred Review

This one’s fun. Garth Nix, the author of dark and mysterious tales of necromancy in the Old Kingdom has here taken a light-hearted and more traditional route. In a tale peppered with cleverness and delightful twists on tropes, we meet Princess Anya, whose wicked stepstepfather wants to take over her sister Morven’s kingdom.

He’s her stepstepfather because he married her stepmother. The stepmother “was expected to be quite evil but mainly turned out to be a very enthusiastic botanist.” But Anya’s father died a year after marrying the stepmother, and her stepmother married Duke Rikard.

So the girls had two stepparents. Their stepmother the botanist wasn’t a huge problem, but as it turned out, their stepstepfather was evil and wanted to be the king. Though Morven should by rights be crowned when she turned sixteen, in three months’ time, it was fairly certain Duke Rikard would somehow prevent this from happening.

Anya’s adventures begin when Duke Rikard transforms the current prince Morven’s in love with into a frog. But then he jumped into the moat with thousands of other frogs. Morven gets Anya to make a Sister Promise that she’ll find him. Anya makes a magical dowsing rod with the help of Gotfried, their castle librarian/sorcerer, to figure out which frog is Denholm, using hair from Morven’s locket.

But when she brings the frog to Morven, her sister refuses to kiss a frog. Fortunately, Gotfried has one dose left of Transmogrification Reversal Lip Balm. This works best when a princess uses it, so now Anya gets to kiss the frog.

But when Anya does so, the frog turns out to have been a different former love of Morven’s, not Denholm. And then her stepstepfather, who notices someone has tampered with his spell, decides to send Anya to a distant land to school, and he’s got a new prince for Morwen who Anya realizes is a transformed magpie – with no actual family or kingdom to help Morwen take her rightful place as queen.

Anya does manage to find Denholm, in the hands of the local frogcatcher. But then consultation with the Royal Dogs convinces her the time has come for her to go on a quest.

“You can’t hide away,” the elder dog informed Anya. “You can’t even go back to the castle now. It is time that you sought help against the Duke. He grows in strength and power, and he clearly feels he can move against you and Morven now. This is your Quest: to find those who can help you defeat the Duke.”

When Gotfried gives her a copy of the spell for the making of “Fairly Reliable Transmogrification Reversal Lip Balm,” Anya gives in and adds to her quest a search for the ingredients to the spell, which include witch’s tears, a retired druid’s blood, and feathers fresh-pulled from a cockatrice’s tail.

Along the way, Anya collects allies – but many of those have also suffered transmogrification. Anya will get their help if she promises to reverse their transformation once she makes the lip balm. And so she assembles a motley crew. Once the heralds give her the name Frogkisser, her reputation spreads. When she finally assembles the ingredients, Denholm manages to break free and get into a pond with many other transformed frogs – so the Frogkisser name is apt.

This book is full of silly fun, with a nice traditional quest and amusing obstacles.

I enjoyed it immensely – so I’m not quite sure why it took me a very long time to finish. Probably the episodic nature of the story made the book easy to put down. This is light-hearted magical fun that makes me smile as I write the review.

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Review of Born a Crime, by Trevor Noah

Friday, June 30th, 2017

Born a Crime

Stories from a South African Childhood

by Trevor Noah
performed by the author

Brilliance Audio, 2016. 7 discs, 8 hours, 48 minutes.
Starred Review

Trevor Noah, current host of The Daily Show was born in South Africa during apartheid. Since it was illegal for people of different races (as defined by the authorities) to have sexual relations, his birth to a black mother and white (Swiss) father was proof that a crime had been committed.

He couldn’t be seen in public with either of his parents. To walk in the park, they’d get a colored woman to walk with him, and his mother would pose as the nanny. At his grandmother’s house in Soweto, Trevor wasn’t allowed to go outside, because if police saw him, there could be serious trouble.

This book was especially good to listen to, since Trevor can speak the various African words correctly. His mother made sure he learned English first, but he learned many other African languages as well. He has some interesting observations about how you can be part of any group if you speak like they do.

Though he did have trouble fitting in. There are interesting observations on that, too. This book helped me understand how to this day, Trevor Noah’s outsider perspective helps him get to the heart of things.

This book is abundantly entertaining. The author is a comedian and shows us the funny side of so many things, while at the same time giving us perspective on things as wide-ranging as racism, poverty, going to church, and domestic violence.

This is an eye-opening and amazing story. And it’s all true. Mostly, it’s about Trevor’s life growing up in South Africa as apartheid fell. There are lots of laughs mixed in with more sobering truths. I highly recommend this audiobook.

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Review of Real Friends, by Shannon Hale, illustrated by LeUyen Pham

Saturday, May 6th, 2017

Real Friends

A True Story About Cool Kids and Crybabies

by Shannon Hale
illustrated by LeUyen Pham

First Second (Roaring Brook Press), May 2017. 218 pages.
Starred Review

Shannon Hale, one of my favorite authors, has written a graphic novel memoir! And the illustrator is LeUyen Pham, who illustrates The Princess in Black books! I’m afraid there’s no way I wouldn’t like this book.

As if that weren’t enough, I heard LeUyen Pham speak about the book at ALA Midwinter Meeting — and when she signed my Advance Reader Copy, she sketched a cartoon of me!

But even if all those things weren’t true, this book is brilliant, and I feel sure it will be popular. It’s a true story of navigating friendships, being part of “The Group,” being bullied by an older sibling and others, and just wanting to have friends who actually like you.

Shannon grew up in a Mormon family; I grew up in an evangelical family. I’m afraid the panel I liked the most is from Shannon’s imagination, with her sitting, sad and alone, in the foreground, with “The Group” rejoicing in the background that she’s gone. Sitting next to Shannon is Jesus, and he says, “Well, I like you.” “Thanks, Jesus,” says Shannon. A kid tries to take comfort in the love of Jesus. But friends are important.

Shannon was already destined to be a writer, as evidenced by all the scenes where she’s imagining. She’d write stories with her friends — but really it was Shannon doing the writing.

The way things resolve is done well. In 5th grade, Shannon’s in a mixed 5th and 6th grade class, which doesn’t include most of “The Group” she’s been with for years. She makes some new friends who appreciate her for who she is — and it gives her a good perspective for dealing with The Group.

I don’t think I need to say any more. A graphic memoir about friendship and sisters. This will be every bit as popular as Raina Telgemeier’s Smile and Sisters. And it’s marvelously done! Anyone who’s ever had friends — or ever felt left out — will relate.

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Review of My Italian Bulldozer, by Alexander McCall Smith

Friday, May 5th, 2017

My Italian Bulldozer

by Alexander McCall Smith

Pantheon Books, 2017. Originally published in Great Britain in 2016. 232 pages.
Starred Review

I love Alexander McCall Smith’s books! This one has that same gentle philosophy, but I appreciated that, most of the time, the characters did not sound like Mma Ramotswe and Mma Makutsi talking with each other. They were their own distinct people. Though this new main character also takes life as it happens.

Paul Stuart is a successful food writer. This is how we meet him at the beginning of the book:

It was the first time Paul had made duck à l’orange for friends since Becky left him for her personal trainer. Her departure — after four years of living together — had been a surprise, but not as great a shock as the discovery of her new lover’s identity. Looking back on it, Paul realized that all the signs had been there, and might so easily have been spotted. He felt a lingering, slightly reproachful regret: had he been less absorbed by his work, he might have noticed her indifference; had he given her more time, he might have been forewarned by her restlessness, by the occasional guilty, almost furtive look; but even had he picked this up, nothing could have prepared him for her choice of Tommy, the tattooed mesomorph with whom she suddenly went off to live.

“I didn’t want this,” he said to Gloria, his editor, trying as hard as he could to be stoical. “But it’s happened. That’s all there is to it, I suppose. People split up.”

His editor, Gloria, helps Paul make a plan to write his next book about the food of Tuscany – so of course he needs to make a trip there.

But when Paul arrives in Tuscany, there’s a problem with his rental car – a problem that puts him in jail temporarily. If he hadn’t met a helpful Italian on the airplane, things might have gone very badly. But then that new Italian friend puts him in touch with a friend who rents out construction equipment – and Paul ends up renting a bulldozer to drive from Pisa to the hill town of Montalcino.

I love the description as he begins driving the bulldozer.

Now, sitting in the cab of the bulldozer as it trundled along a quiet side road, Paul could enjoy the view that his elevated position afforded him. It had been a surprise to him to discover just how commanding that view was: as cars passed him, he saw only their tops; as he approached a corner, he was able to see around and beyond it; as he drove past walls, he saw into the farmyards or gardens beyond. A couple lying on a lawn in intimate embrace looked up to see Paul waving to them as he went past; a man pruning an apple tree near the roadside, high on his ladder, finding himself eye to eye with Paul as the bulldozer growled by, was able only to open his mouth in surprise. And beyond such unexpected human encounters, there stretched the Tuscan countryside, now plains sloping down to the coast, now rolling hills blue in the distance under the first shimmering of heat haze.

The bulldozer’s slow pace meant that a line of cars would build up behind it, but Paul, being able to see very clearly what was coming, could wave people past when it was safe for them to overtake. They signaled their appreciation by sounding their horns, pleased at the courtesy of this construction worker, bound, they assumed, for some pressing local task of earthmoving but still considerate of those with longer distances to cover. A police car went past, slowed down momentarily, but then sped off again. Nobody imagined that the bulldozer was on such a lengthy and inappropriate journey.

One thing quickly became clear to Paul. As a regular visitor to Italy he had experience of Italian driving. The Italians are not noted for their patience on the road and will make their displeasure known to any driver who holds them up by sticking to the speed limit. For the visitor, this can be alarming, as small and underpowered cars sweep past them at dangerous corners or on blind rises. But Paul noticed none of this now, and realized that the attitude of other drivers to a bulldozer was one of cautious respect. There was no point in driving too close to its rear in an attempt to get it to speed up; not only would the driver of the bulldozer not see you, but should he brake suddenly, he might not even notice the crumpling of metal as your car collided with the hardened steel outer provinces of his vehicle. In the pecking order of the Italian road, then, a bulldozer’s position was evidently not to be questioned.

Now, that’s not all there is to Paul’s adventures. While out driving with the bulldozer, he meets an attractive American woman whose car has gone off the road, and he is able to help. But then Becky wants to talk to him, and comes to Montalcino to do it. And Gloria comes to help him straighten that out. And meanwhile a few uses pop up for the bulldozer that he hadn’t anticipated.

As with Alexander McCall Smith’s other books, this one left me with a smile on my face. Delightful reading.

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Review of We Forgot Brock, by Carter Goodrich

Friday, May 5th, 2017

We Forgot Brock!

by Carter Goodrich

Simon & Schuster Books for Young Readers, New York, 2015. 44 pages.
Starred Review

Okay, I’ll say it. I’m a little tired of the recent spate of books about imaginary friends. Usually, they simply don’t win me over. There’s pretty much always a logical inconsistency somewhere in the idea of the reality of these imaginary friends. Something that wouldn’t quite work if carried to its logical conclusion.

Maybe this one caught me on a good day, but I was charmed by We Forgot Brock!.

This is Phillip and Brock. They’re best friends. They spend all their time goofing around together.

The weird thing is, nobody else can see Brock. Everyone calls him “Phillip’s Imaginary Friend.” Whatever that means.

Carter Goodrich uses the same technique used in Bill Watterson’s Calvin and Hobbes. Most pictures show the world from the kid’s perspective, but sometimes we see what the adults see – no Brock.

Then the whole family goes to the Big Fair. They have a great time. Phillip falls asleep, but Brock wants to ride the Brain Shaker.

When Phillip wakes up in the car, to his dismay, his parents have left Brock behind!

Meanwhile, at the Big Fair, someone sees that Brock is upset. It’s a little girl named Anne with her friend, Princess Sparkle Dust. They take Brock home with them, and fortunately, it’s in the same neighborhood where Phillip lives.

Brock has a great time with Anne and Princess Sparkle Dust. But when he sees the Lost poster Phillip put up for him, he remembers how much he misses Phillip. Fortunately, they find each other.

Somehow, the adults are happier when Phillip and Brock play with Anne and Princess Sparkle Dust than they were when Phillip and Brock just played together. Fortunately, Phillip and Brock are happier, too.

There are lots of lovely touches in the illustrations of this story. Brock and Princess Sparkle Dust both appear to be drawn by one crayon. Both children are clearly imaginative. Phillip always wears a cape and Anne wears wings.

Maybe I was won over this time because the author didn’t try to explain where imaginary friends come from (That’s usually where the world-building breaks down for me). Maybe I was prepped for this book by loving Calvin and Hobbes. But whatever the reason, We Forgot Brock! stands out for me in the Imaginary Friends Genre. It takes imagination seriously and takes friendship seriously.

Don’t forget to read this book!

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Review of Thick as Thieves, by Megan Whalen Turner

Monday, May 1st, 2017

Thick as Thieves

by Megan Whalen Turner

Greenwillow Books (HarperCollins), May 16, 2017. 339 pages.
Starred Review

Here’s how eagerly I’ve been looking forward to this book: First I reread three books in the Queen’s Thief series in the week before ALA Midwinter Meeting in January. (I couldn’t find my copy of the first book, The Thief. I am going to order myself a new copy.) I looked up the number of the HarperCollins booth at ALA, and on opening night of the exhibits, I went straight there, without passing Go. I asked for and received an advance reader copy of Thick as Thieves. I had my reading material for the rest of the conference!

There’s a note at the front of the advance reader copy from the author. She says, “If you’ve read any of the other Queen’s Thief books, there are characters here you might recognize and be happy to spend time with again. If you haven’t read any of my other books, you can start with this one if you like. Every book spoils some other book, just a little, so there are advantages and disadvantages no matter where you begin.”

On the back of the book, it says that Megan Whalen Turner is the “bestselling and award-winning author of four other stand-alone novels set in the world of the Queen’s Thief.” The “stand-alone” part is arguable. I think you’ll enjoy them more if you read at least the first three books in order.

However, they have a case about this book being stand-alone. I think I might have enjoyed it more if I hadn’t been so impatient for Eugenides (the Queen’s Thief) to show up and for me to find out what he was up to. (I knew he was up to more than met the eye.)

Anyway, this book is set in the Mede empire, focusing on Kamet, the slave of the Mede ambassador to Attolia, who was a part of the second book, The Queen of Attolia. Now they are back home, and Kamet is again close to great power. His master, whose affairs he manages, is the nephew of the Mede emperor, and brother of the emperor’s chosen heir.

As the book begins, Kamet is accosted in an alleyway by an Attolian, who tells Kamet to meet him at the docks after dark. The Attolian will escort Kamet to freedom.

Kamet pretends to go along with it, but he’s laughing inside. Here are some of the reasons why he is happy in his place:

As a slave in the emperor’s palace I had authority over all of my master’s other slaves and most of his free men. I had my own money in my master’s cashbox. I had a library of my own, a collection of texts in my alcove that I carefully packed into their own case whenever my master moved households. I not only could read and write, I could read and write in most of the significant languages of the empire. My master had paid good money for it to be so. Someday he meant to make a gift of me to his brother, and then, as the next emperor’s personal slave, I would be one of the wealthiest and most powerful men in all the empire. I wouldn’t have taken the Attolians’ offer even if I’d believed it was sincere – and I didn’t. They meant to slice my throat and toss me in a sewer, I was sure.

But that same day, something happens to change Kamet’s mind. A friend in the household informs him that their master has been poisoned in his room.

When a man is murdered, his slaves are tortured. If any confess, then all are executed whether they share in the guilt or not. No one will buy them and they can hardly be freed – what a temptation that would put before the enslaved population. In the case of a poisoning, where the administration of the poison is unclear, the slaves are put to death on principle. The Medes fear little in quite the way they fear their own slaves.

So Kamet lets the Attolian help him escape. Most of the book deals with their adventures trying to escape the Mede empire and get to Attolia. All the while, Kamet has not told the Attolian that his master is dead and he’s a wanted man. The Attolian thinks that the emperor’s elite guard are after them because an important slave has escaped. They must deal with pursuit, slavers, hunger, illness, and many other pitfalls along the way.

As with the other books in the series, Megan Whalen Turner has her characters telling each other myths about the gods. I enjoyed that this time, as tales from the Mede empire, they are in a completely different style from the tales told in the earlier books. Those resembled Greek myths, and these resemble Assyrian tales. As before, the tales told mirror situations the travelers face.

Now, I wanted the journey to finish a lot sooner than it did. I suspect that might not be as much of a problem for folks who aren’t already familiar with the series. Also, the Advance Reader Copy has blank pages that it says will be filled with maps. I think maps would really help me enjoy the story of the journey more, so I could see that the two are making progress. As it is, without a map it feels like the journey is going on and on, facing obstacle after obstacle. This is enough motivation for me to preorder the finished book, despite having this advance copy. (And advance copy isn’t enough for one of my very favorite series!)

In the big picture of the series, we know that the Mede empire is eventually going to attempt to annex the three kingdoms of the peninsula. In the previous books, the big picture story focused on getting those three kingdoms to stop fighting one another so they could deal with the Mede threat. In this book, we saw one small step in holding off that threat a bit longer.

The author says at the front that she’s not done with the world of the Queen’s Thief, and she’s definitely not done with the Queen’s Thief. I’m so glad! Of course, she spends so much time crafting her tales, it’s time to settle in for another long wait. Good thing the wait is always worth it!

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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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