Empires by Hillsong United

unitedHillsong United is responsible for Oceans, Hosanna, Lead Me To the Cross, The Stand, The Desert Song and others that have for some defined the last decade or so of Christian Worship. The question is how does Empires stack up as a worship album? For me, I’m not sure.

Empires
Hillsong United
Hillsong
May 2015

In my opinion, this album is a mixed bag of a few really good songs and a lot of mediocre songs that don’t resonate for various reasons, like, some low key performances, issues with lyrics, and a performance focus.

Many of the songs fail to find crescendo after build up for several minutes of slow, deliberate and low key singing. Very introspective but after a long time – and many songs on this album are very long – they fail to pay off. The music tends to build, but the singing really doesn’t. Other songs are excellent in this regard. Touch the Sky, Prince of Peace, and Even When It Hurts all build and pay off and are the best songs on the album in my opinion.

Many songs have complicated, non-rhyming verses. I’m all for this for songs I listen to. But for songs I want to sing along to, I prefer ones I can anticipate the next verse and learn after hearing only a few times. See Prince of Peace for a very popular song on this album that exemplifies this. It’s gonna take a while to learn all the words and even more if you try to translate this for church service. This is a problem for several songs: they are catchy but ultimately not something easily translatable to a church setting in my opinion because they are too heavily produced with electronic noise to make the jump to Sundays. Great performances, but tough to sing along to and play along with. We’ll end up with acoustic versions if at all. (For an example of what I mean, search YouTube for “Touch the Sky acoustic.” It was recorded in Nashville and has several plugged in electronic devices needed to give the song its produced sound. It’s not acoustic at all.)

One song SHOULD be the big single but may fail to find a place in church: Even When It Hurts (Praise Song). This is a song that has a message that fits very well in American churches, a sort of updated worshipful Praise You in the Storm. It builds to a satisfying conclusion. It has a great beat. The words are easy to learn and fun to sing. And it cusses. Yeah, it cusses on the album version. Most of us won’t have an issue with this in our cars or homes singing along, but in a church service we tend to be more conservative than when we step outside the walls.

(Check it out here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d8tvOKMp5u4 – the live version is much easier to listen to than the album version, which has a lot more electronic noise that can at times make it hard to hear. The live version is also a clean version. Yeah, a clean version of a worship song. I didn’t think I’d ever say that.)

Every album has hits and misses. This one has several hits and time will tell if any of them rise to the level of the great United songs.


@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of BookGateway.com. He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

Forty Days of Celebration by Baxter

CelebrationI’m a big fan of devotionals. And too often in our society I feel we focus more on the negative than the positive and when we focus on the positive we focus on false positives. True joy, though, is something we Christians need more of – and should be known for. Does this Scripture Journal help us with joy? Maybe.

Forty Days of Celebration
A Scripture Journal
by Elizabeth T. Baxter
Common English Bible
January 2015

Each day the “journal” has two to three passages from the Bible, all in Common English Bible version, with a meditation question. The verses focus on the goodness of God and our response to him in the Bible. Lots of praise the Lord, promises of God’s love and character. The meditations tie the passages together and then ask us to consider some questions. For me, I’m expecting these to be about joy and celebration, but many just aren’t. And some are confusing. Day 22, for instance, we are asked to think of those who are “vulnerable and powerless in our world today” and then how we can “responsibly use power to respond to” them. What power? I’m not sure. Shouldn’t this ask us who we should pray for? Maybe support financially? But then, how is this tied to celebration? I’m just not sure I get the connections between the meditations and the passages and topic.

But there’s another question of whether or not I should buy this at all. Like all devotional publishers, I believe that the hurdle you have to get over in order to entice buyers is to somehow show more value in the paid product than all the free devotionals available online (via email lists, websites or great apps like Bible by LifeChurch.) In this case, I just don’t see the need. Some good stuff here, but I’m not convinced as a consumer to spend $10 when I can get daily devotionals for free on my phone – where I can also make notes and highlight, see the verses in different translations and see what popular authors and teachers have to say about the verses?

Like another Scripture Journal (Meditation also by Common English Bible) there is very little room for “journaling.” There is no room set aside on the page for your thought and if you just want to write you’ll have less than half a page on the majority of days. This devotional is 124 pages (the previous one is 122), which makes it very short and pricey (at the $9.99 publisher suggested price.)


@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of BookGateway.com. He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

Coffee, Tea, and Holy Water by Hudson

Coffee-Tea-and-Holy-WaterThere are a lot of really great books out today from authors trying to call American Christians back from materialism, false idols and malaise – the American church – but this book takes us one step further by putting our version of Christianity in its place in the big picture. Not all Christianity is the same. Not all issues are the same. Not all methods are the same. But Christ is the same.

Coffee, Tea, and Holy Water:
One Woman’s Journey to Experience Christianity Around the Globe
by Amanda Hudson
Abingdon
March 2015

Amanda Hudson decided to visit five different countries to find out what Christianity was like on the ground and in the homes of the believers in those countries. What she finds is eye opening. Brazil, for instance, is extremely superstitious and much less materialistic and the challenges of spreading the Gospel are specific to their culture. Wales suffers from apathy and a post-Christian mindset. Tanzania, China and Honduras all have their own customs, their own challenges, their own versions of worship. Every new place she visits works to shed light on what American Christianity struggles with and ideas for overcoming those struggles.

This is part travelogue, part diary and part challenge to overcome American Christian issues, this book is a must read. As someone whow has been on short term trips to other countries I can attest to the need for Americans to think outside the borders of our narrow, very rich lives, and see the world and Christianity in the big picture. When we see how others live in abject poverty but demonstrate limitless generosity we are humbled. When we see actual idols – small statues! – next to statues of Christ, the Bible takes on a very real, very timely message for those who barely crack it open because of its otherness.

In my opinion, every Christian in America should visit Christians in other countries on short term trips, but if they can’t then books like this one are a must read. Christ is there in every culture, and finding Christ in the midst of all the different cultures in this book help readers cut out all the excess and see the beauty of a refined and purified Gospel.


@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of BookGateway.com. He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

Exhale by Plumb

plumbI’ve been a fan of Plumb since the late 90s – The Late Great Planet Earth blew me away back in the day! – and I am very excited to say that this album is everything I’d hoped for.

Exhale
by Plumb
Curb
May 2015

I recently had a chance to listen to and review a so-called worship album by Christy Nockels that sounded a ton like CCM. Contrast that with this album, which many would expect to be CCM due to the hit Lord, I’m Ready Now has been playing in high rotation on CCM stations, which is actually more of a worship album. A rock worship album, but hey, that’s good for me.

Of the songs on this album, my favorites are Smoke, Resurrection and Broken Places. In fact, the first 7 songs are the best in my opinion. After that, they get more introspective and the sound moves away from lyrical rock, which I think Plumb does best. Overall, this is a great album for rock fans of Plumb and CCMers looking for something new and a little deeper than the average CCM.

Congrats to Christopher H. of Victorville, CA.


@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of BookGateway.com. He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This CD was provided by the publisher via FlyBy Promotions as a review copy.

Faith of Our Fathers by Pure Flix Entertainment

Faith-of-our-fathers-movie-posterArmed with high hopes and a bag of snacks, I attended a pre-screener of the faith-filled family film, Faith of Our Fathers.

Faith of Our Fathers
Pure Flix Entertainment
July 2015

I genuinely enjoyed it; however, I left feeling grieved that it fell short of what it could have been. I have the unsettling conviction that it will draw scathing criticisms from people outside the Christian faith, many of them merited.

It cannot be denied that, at times, the acting is stilted, the plot under cooked, and the credibility almost totally lacking. (For example, Rebecca St. James’s cameo as a sultry car thief, though well acted, was pretty ridiculous).

Be that as it may, it held my interest throughout and made me laugh out loud more than once. More importantly than that, it is a movie that glorifies Jesus Christ and proclaims the gospel message. Also, what with its messages on faith, patriotism, friendship, and fatherhood, Faith of Our Fathers has more substance than most of the drivel that one can find in movie theaters these days.

(Be forewarned, this movie contains war violence, so you might not want to show it to the younger kiddies).


Jaime Jane Motok is a violin teacher by trade, a lover of Narnia, funny movies, Simon and Garfunkel and the perfect cup of Joe.

A preview version of this movie was provided by the producers for review.

Wabanaki Blues by Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel

wabanaki-blues-coverMona Lisa LaPierre’s parents give her little notice that she’ll be spending the summer after graduation  in a remote cabin with her curmudgeonly grandfather.    Mona must learn who she is in the face of family secrets and her dual Native American heritage.

Wabanaki Blues
by Melissa Tantaquidgeon Zobel
The Poisoned Pencil
June 2015

When Mona’s parents announce they’ll be heading to Russia to study bears, Mona is shocked to learn she’ll be spending the time with her granfather in remote New England woods.  She is forced to miss graduation and the chance to get her crush, Beetle, to notice her before they part.

Mona, the child of both Mohegan and Abenaki tribes, has a passion for blues.  This passion and the voice of her grandmother Bilki keep her grounded as she goes on a journey to learn the truth about a young woman’s disappearance and in reality, about herself.

Zobel, being Native American herself, really paid tribute to her heritage.  Instead of watering down Native traditions and stories, they took forefront in this novel.  Zobel shares her traditions and writes them with such reverence and respect.

I REALLY wanted to like this book.  Unfortunately, too many story lines and crossing details made it hard to keep the different parts of the story straight.  It’s a genuine coming of age story told in an uncoventional way, which I appreciate.  It just became very complex in a way that wasn’t able to keep me engaged.  Complex in the name of suspense is fantastic.  This just fell short of that for me.


Robin Gwaro is the Young Adult and Women’s Literature Editor at Bookgateway.com. She currently spends her days wrangling her 8 year old science nerd and 5 month old busy body.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

 

Never Fight Again . . . Guaranteed! by Hawkins

neverfightWhen you say something is guaranteed it really only promotes the sale if there is a chance that the thing for sale may not actually be – on its face – obviously going to work. But this book promotes as “Groundbreaking” common sense ways of dealing with conflict that will work. Without the need for a guarantee.

Never Fight Again… Guaranteed!
Groundbreaking Practices for a Win-Win Marriage
by David B. Hawkins
Abingdon
July 2014

This may seem to suggest that the book isn’t useful or good at doing what it promises. That’s not the intention in this review. Rather it’s a commentary on the sensationalism of the title and calling Dr. Hawkins “Your Relationship Doctor.” We get it, you want to sell this book. But when I’m looking for relationship advice I’d rather read about how the help is going to actually help rather than ad copy. Enough of this, how is the book?

The book will help you stop fighting if you actually change how you fight into one of not fighting. Circular, right? What Dr. Hawkins promotes is empathy, courtesy, charity and self control. Not groundbreaking, but perhaps not mentioned enough in books like these. I’ve read most of the big names in this industry and most relationship book focus on explaining behavior then responding to the behavior once you understand where it’s coming from. Men are from Mars so they act this way… Woman need love while men need respect… and so on. This book avoids dealing with the consequences of behavior by challenging the reader to change how they respond in a way that may be summarized as simply, “It’s not healthy to fight.”

So if it’s not healthy to fight then it’s not healthy to argue. It’s not healthy to let your emotions loose or vent. Instead, control your tongue and focus on loving your spouse. If this sounds familiar it really should be for buyers of Abingdon books because this is straight out of Proverbs and Jesus’ sermons. Love your enemies. Be patient. Return love for hate and so on. Which brings me to a concern. This is a “Christian” publisher and the author does quote the Bible at times but there isn’t a clear connection to the source material that if Dr. Hawkins were quoting ideas by any other author or book than the Bible you’d expect citations. There are very few quotes from the Bible here, but the ideas seem to be influenced heavily by them.

(One other thing: the initial quote in the book about how good and pleasing it is when “families” live together in harmony is a misquote. Only the CEB uses families. In all other translations this is better translated as “members of the community of believers” or “brothers and sisters [in the faith].” I had previously thought highly of the CEB but this is a red flag. What other small changes were made?)

Overall, any reader who listens to these words and takes them to heart wont fight. Because basically the book is saying to not fight, don’t fight. Not a bad message, but not groundbreaking. I believe the book over promises on an overly obvious principle. The Dr. is right, but you don’t need the book to know it in my opinion.


@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of BookGateway.com. He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

I Am Princess X by Priest

PrincessXForced by circumstances to sit out together during PE, Libby and May became the best of friends. Together they created Princess X and wrote story after story together. Until tragedy strikes And Libby is taken from May’s life.

I Am Princess X
by Cherie Priest
Arthur A. Levine Books
May 2015

After the funeral, Libby’s father moved away and donates everything in their home – including all the stories and artwork for Princess X. May becomes distraught at losing both her best friend and their creation. Then May’s parents divorce and life competes its turn towards terrible.

Three years later, May is staying with her father in Seattle and comes across the most unexpected of things: a sticker featuring Princess X! And then she finds more. And a webcomic… that tells the story of of Libby’s tragedy in a completely unexpected way. Had someone found their stories and changed them or is Libby somehow so alive?

Adventure ensues as May starts looking for clues to solve the mystery of the webcomic and uncover the true story of what halogens that night to Libby.

This is an outstanding, tense book! It’s a mystery, drama and young reader novel all in one and the best part is that no fluffy romance muddling up the core story. No love triangles.

NOTE FOR SOME PARENTS: The only complaints I had were in just a few small parts that as an adult I don’t mind but since this is a book for young readers (middle to high school) they probably could have been avoided. First the only mention of religion is when May and Libby come across an “angry white man” shouting about how sinners go to hell. That’s an overplayed negative bias that had no part in the story. Second, there are a couple throw away sentences about “marriage equality” that play no part in the story. Again, political bias displayed for no reason. Every family in the book is divorced. Every family. Divorce happens but not at a rate of 100%. Finally, one of the latter main characters is gay. Since none of the characters hook up, sexual preference isn’t explained for any other characters and romance plays no part in the story this is irrelevant. One has to wonder why they are included.

I’m not suggesting that there can’t be hateful religious characters, gay people, divorce or political issues in books. But almost all of these are not necessary to the story and story pop up out of no where and don’t go anywhere. For children I’d prefer we stay away from these topics if we can.

A great story that’s very well written with only a few small decisions that some parents may object to.


@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of BookGateway.com. He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

The Lizard War by Patton

battlebugsMax loves bugs. All kinds of bugs. So when his mother brings him an ancient book of bugs and corresponding magnifying glass you can imagine his excitement! That enthusiasm quickly turns to terror when he finds himself on an island in the book, small, and facing an Emperor Scorpion!

The Lizard War
Battle Bugs (Book 1)
by Jack Patton
Scholastic

Somehow, Max finds himself inside the book, on the map in the center of it on Bug Island. Another island, hosting the Lizard Empire, has recently had an eruption of their local volcano where the lava has formed a land bridge to Bug Island. The lizards are now filing across the new bridge to the massive amounts of food (bugs) available on this island. Max, lacking all the cool powers and abilities of bugs uses the one thing humans have that bugs don’t – his large brain – to help the bugs fight back.

But that’s not exactly how it goes though. The story is full of loop holes in logic and storytelling. Max is at heart a lover of nature but for some reason he dislikes lizards – who are evil because they eat bugs, but bugs that eat bugs are not evil, like the spider or scorpion he befriends – and sides with the bugs. [SPOILERS] His big brain helps in two very small ways, 1) telling the bugs to attack the lizards on the nostrils, and 2) telling them to escape across a fast moving stream by cutting down a tree. Neither of those ideas display knowledge of bug specific abilities or human specific knowledge. You could say that the beetle cuts down the tree because they chew through wood to be bug specific, but why didn’t the beetle think of it? The “Battle” bugs don’t actually fight much, and the story ends with them running away across the stream and Max going back home. [END SPOILERS]

In the end, you don’t have much or a story at all. Almost nothing happens. No character development. No battles. Very little learning about the bugs. It’s a big shrug. I let my science loving 8 year old read it and he gave up, calling it boring.

This is a cross between Honey I Shrunk the Kids (shrinking and adventure) and Ant Bully (but where Max actually likes bugs) but it’s not as funny and much less happens. In my opinion, there isn’t much to recommend it.


@ashertopia is the Managing Editor of BookGateway.com. He is an avid reader and a lifetime learner. His favorite genres include science fiction, fantasy, as well as theology and Christian living. His personal blog is AshertopiA – a land flowing with milk and honey… and a lot of sticky people.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die by Marnie Riches

girlwhowouldntdie

The University of Amsterdam is sent into a panic after a series of murders and explosions. Georgina McKenzie is invited to help keep an eye out for anything suspicious that happens on campus.  What she doesn’t realize is that someone is also keeping an eye on her.

The Girl Who Wouldn’t Die
by Marnie Riches
Harper Collins, Maze
April 2015

When Georgina, or George as she’s known to her friends,  finds herself in the middle of what’s assumed to be a religiously driven terror plot, she ends up getting more than she bargained for.  Friends and classmates begin to die with no understood connection.

George goes beyond her initial “eyes peeled” request and begins to dig further into what is going on.  As a result, the main inspector on the case comes to her for recommendations.  As she gets deeper and deeper into the case, George finds herself more in the center of the investigation that she ever thought she’d be.

This novel is AMAZING!  This is the first of Riches’ work that I’ve read, and I would quickly grab another!  What seems to start out as a simple crime store with religious motivation quickly becomes so much more.  Riches throws a plot twist into the novel that is completely unexpected, yet perfectly executed in this fast-paced, exciting novel.

While some of the loose ends were tied up, Riches left just enough open for George’s return to another novel coming in August of this year, and I can’t wait to read it!

 


Robin Gwaro is the Young Adult and Women’s Literature Editor at Bookgateway.com. She currently spends her days wrangling her 8 year old science nerd and 5 month old busy body.

This book was provided by the publisher as a review copy.

 

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