ORIGINAL BOOK REVIEW: “The Portal” (CORT Chronicles Book 1) by David D. Bernstein

“The Portal” (CORT Chronicles Book 1) by David D. Bernstein; illustrated by Richa Kinra

OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION*:

After falling into a time portal during a Little League baseball game in Trinity, New York, eleven-year-old Andy finds himself transported to a ghostly version of his hometown––101 years in the future. Twisted metal, rotten wood, and garbage litter the seemingly empty streets, but Andy will soon discover that the city is controlled by CORT robots . . . and that this reality is Earth’s possible future. When thirteen-year-old Zack receives a strange letter that guides him through the portal, he and his brother are reunited, and together they must journey through a nightmare world that only they can change. But how can two young boys alter the present by saving the future?

REVIEW:

101 years in the future, thirteen-year-old Zack and eleven-year-old Andy find themselves caught up in a new civil war. After various misadventures including time-traveling portals at baseball fields and old abandoned supermarkets, a three-dimensional letter, and a ruined library full of frightful reminders that they are nowhere near home, the boys team up with future teenage resistance fighter Wendy and her crew. The boys face trial after trial as they begin to figure out what, exactly, is going on in this future: fifty years of cultural memory has vanished, and every possible thing is now manufactured by a shadowy organization––CORT. Children and seniors live segregated lives, with children brainwashed into accepting the new system from toddlerhood. One of the boys is captured, leading to the formation of a rescue party and a cliffhanger ending.

Now, I personally am not the biggest fan of cliffhangers! Many a young adult or middle grade novel has been flung across the room in my house because of an unfinished series leaving readers hooked–and frustrated that they can’t keep going the minute they finish earlier books in the series. (I do not condone the throwing of books, whether print or digital. As a librarian, here is my obligatory reminder to take good care of your precious stories.) Having said all of this, I do know that cliffhangers are an effective tool in an author’s toolbox, and that the mere fact I’m still grumbling about those cliffhangers from the distant past indicates those authors have made good use of this particular tool. Still, I am eager to lay my hands on the next book in this series so that I can learn the ultimate fates of Zack, Andy, and Wendy.

Middle grade readers will probably also be familiar with dystopias–future worlds where the systems governing society and/or government have somehow gone awry and are no longer serving to protect and serve those people who remain. There is always some rather mature themes involved in communicating dystopic ideas, and The Portal is no exception. Parents and readers should be aware that bombs fly and skeletons turn up at the most inopportune times, and yet the reading level or difficulty of this series indicates that it is written for those transitioning from Easy Reader (ER) books into chapter books. I could see this being a hit with the demographic currently (if clunkily) referred to as “struggling readers”: in other words, those children struggling to make the transition in reading level difficulty to the Junior Fiction section of the local school or public library. (I’m thinking of the Dork Diaries audience here.) The combination of an action-driven plot. lower-difficulty language, and eye-catching illustrations set these books apart from your more standard chapter books.

And those illustrations–I really can’t say enough about Richa Kinra’s ability to communicate so much in simple black-and-white pencil sketches. The face of each and every character is just so expressive, and important details within the story well featured. I’ve been drawing and painting since I could hold a pencil (or brush) and I absolutely could not even halfway imitate Kinra’s fantastic work.

What’s not to love? There are action sequences: The bombs! The evil robots! The people running! The purple flames! And there are also the mysteries: Who sent the letter? And how? Where do the seniors and children go? What is CORT really after? How did the resistance first get started? At around 75 pages, Bernstein’s first book in this series only just hints at answers still to come. Despite the occasional typographical hiccup, The Portal reads as a fun, immersive romp. Here’s hoping there are many installments left to come!

IN SUMMARY:

Going into this book, I expected it to be solidly good. I’ve never yet been disappointed by any book picked out by the CIPA EVVY process as a merit or award winner, and The Portal was in keeping with that high expectation. As much a work of fantasy as it is of science fiction, this book is very much written with a middle grade audience in mind, and is packed with the kind of zany adventures junior readers love.

WHERE TO BUY?

You can find The Portal wherever good books are sold, including Bookshop.org, Barnes & Noble and Amazon. You can also find out more about it on the book’s Outskirts Press listing.

WHAT NEXT?

The next book on my list is rather a pithy one: a nonfiction exploration of both the present and historical past of the Old Spanish Trail, portions of which I happen to be a bit familiar with, but much of which has intrigued me for years! I’m definitely the kind of person that can get lost in a guidebook to (name a national forest or park or monument) or any book along the lines of A Roadside Geology of … book. Much to look forward to!

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

* Courtesy of Bookshop.org book listing.


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ABOUT KENDRA M.: With nine years in library service, six years of working within the self-publishing world, as well as extensive experience in creative writing, freelance online content creation, and podcast editing, Kendra seeks to amplify the voices of those who need and deserve most to be heard.

ORIGINAL BOOK REVIEW: “Our Story: Jamaica’s Visionary Experimental Secondary Classes (1954-1960)” ed. by Jonathan Goodrich & Owen Everard James

“Our Story” ed. by Jonathan Goodrich & Owen Everard James

OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION*:

Equal opportunity for children to access “good education” has to be one of the primary obligations of any government. In a developing country like Jamaica, such opportunity is tantamount to ensuring the country’s viability if not its very survival. OUR STORY is a collection of first-person narratives by graduates of one of the most visionary and effective yet undocumented experiments in the history of secondary education in the English speaking Caribbean. The poetic prose of graduate Trevor Thomas highlights this shortcoming: “A brilliant meteor had streaked across the bleakness of Jamaica’s education landscape, briefly illuminating its dark canopy, but attracted scant attention, and the remains were unceremoniously buried without headstone or epitaph.”

The observation of Prof. Emeritus, the Hon. Errol Miller, OJ, CD, Ph.D., DLL (Honoris Causa), an internationally recognized scholar on the subject, further emphasizes the sentiment in his exceptional foreword: “Our Story recounts and reflects upon a unique chapter in the history of Jamaican secondary education told sixty-seven years after it began and sixty years after it ended by some students who assess its impact on their lives.”

Although OUR STORY focuses on the period 1954-1960, it directly references critical antecedents as well as pivotal outcomes from the period, especially in the area of Education Policy. The revolutionary role of the Hon. Edwin Leopold Allen, the then Minister of Education who envisioned and implemented the Experimental Secondary Classes, and the notable teachers that were the definitive agents of the success of the endeavor are recognized. The inextricable connection between the Classes and the broader history of Secondary Education in Jamaica is boldly clarified in the volume.

OUR STORY references Jamaica’s political, economic, and cultural history as these unfolded during the period immediately preceding and immediately following, national Independence in 1962. The absence of the story of the Classes from the larger narrative of secondary education in Jamaica substantiates a void in the history that should be addressed. This history and the related influence of the imposed, traditional, generally elitist, and highly discriminatory, imposed British system of education are well known and documented. This history is therefore not the main driver of this effort. Instead, the effort is driven by the realization that the Experimental Secondary Classes have not received the recognition and credit that they unquestionably deserve.

The historical linkages with our own stories demand that we acknowledge the nature, cause, consequences, and relevance of the international protests instigated by the worldwide recognition of systemic discrimination against people of color. It would be irresponsible not to do so. The common origins, direct relevance, and impact on how we may view our own heritage, and the future of the land of our birth are inescapable. Notably, the protests are in direct response to historical inequities in the opportunity to access crucial socio-cultural prerequisites such as education, justice, and the benefits that generally accrue from a clearly flawed, artfully marketed participatory economy that is extensively dependent on the education status of participants.

Hopefully, as the stories are told and read, the telling will not be in vain.

REVIEW:

If this last year has taught me anything, it’s that our education systems (globally speaking) still leave a lot to be desired. One might say they “need some work.” When students’ education suffers, no matter what grade or level they are at, society suffers––both in the moment and for decades to come. I had the benefit of an unconventional childhood, with a mix of homeschooling with dedicated and deeply invested parents, and a middle and high school education overseas. I can’t speak for the intervening years since I finished high school, but at the time, that particular education system ranked fairly high on the various “best education systems” lists that are released every year. It certainly wasn’t perfect, but it was challenging in some really good ways that prepared me incredibly well for college.

I can’t say the same was true for my fellow students in college and graduate school––many of my friends struggled, especially in the first two semesters, with the workload and the different ways of thinking that university-level courses require of students. I remember feeling rather proud to have received a “better” education (although to an extent that word is subjective), and now I feel a bit ashamed of having lorded that over my friends. As many research reports have shown, blame for poor performance across American school districts and elsewhere shouldn’t be placed on the shoulders of the students or teachers––the system itself is broken, and the fractures show at every level, from childhood through adulthood.

In Our Story: Jamaica’s Visionary Experimental Secondary Classes (1954-1960), editors Jonathan Goodrich and Owen Everard James have collected the background, methods, and results of a unique educational experiment carried out in Jamaica during a six-year periods ending in 1960. It is, I must say, an exhaustive document––fully book-length––about this educational programme, and yet it is also fascinating. I knew very little about the history of education in Jamaica and the other Caribbean islands, merely that it had been altered irrevocably by the area’s colonization by various foreign actors, namely Spain and Britain, and the import of imperial cultures along with slave labor from Africa (and later, indentured Chinese and Indian peoples). The native Taino peoples had been devastated, so I only expected that the country’s education system would reflect norms established during the British occupation. This book deals with what was essentially an educational experiment carried out in the years immediately prior to Jamaica’s emancipation in 1962, making it an interesting historical document of a time of great change on the island––and the ways in which all of these changes impacted how education was done. And indeed, the first chapter alone documents far to many of these changes for me to summarize effectively here.

As is stated in the forward, “Our Story is about fruitful lives: some thirty-fold, some sixty-fold and some a hundred-fold, made possible by access to good quality education with international currency.” It is, by its mere existence, a document that refutes the argument that educational success ought to be approached in the same way as business success. The book draws on personal recollections collected well after the fact, and the editors acknowledge both the benefits (hindsight and lived experiences) and the drawbacks (erroneous and incomplete memories of events as they happened) of this approach. Its editors set the scene for the unfolding of this particular experiment by first describing the various (and often ad hoc) other competing systems in use during this period. But as Goodrich and James put it, the book exists not to focus on these things but rather the experiment itself––the ESCs (Experimental Secondary Class)––and to remedy the fact that these classes had never “received the recognition and credit that they unquestionably deserve.”

A quick note for those of you who like to know such things: There is a religious inflection to this book and the educational experiment it documents. This is something of an historical artifact of the period being discussed––and of the British heritage and influence that even now persists in an independent Jamaica.

Would the ESC system work today, in 2021, in my country? I have no idea. It would certainly require a complete restructuring of the system––a system admittedly that I’ve previously described as “broken.” In this I’m not exactly unusual; almost everyone I know is unhappy with the current state of things and with the quality of education that children and teenagers are receiving. The challenge isn’t one of motivation, but rather execution: How can a country overhaul its educational system without a period of great disorganization, and without protest against the ways and means of getting it done? Goodrich and James document one possibility, carried out as an experiment with a limited reach that still managed to make a vast difference. I would certainly recommend that educators and administrators take a look at this book––it might just prove the very thing that’s needed going forward.

IN SUMMARY:

Editors Goodrich and James cover the results of the Experimental Secondary Class (ESC) programme in Jamaica in the years before that country’s independence. The book provides a thorough and inspiring template for modern educators to learn from as we continue to face educational systems drained of funds and adequate support, as well as the freedom to innovate.

WHERE TO BUY?

You can find Obsolete wherever good books are sold, including Bookshop.org, Barnes & Noble and Amazon. You can also find out more about it on the book’s Outskirts Press listing.

WHAT NEXT?

The next book on my list is The Portal by David Bernstein, which won a CIPA EVVY merit award back in 2018 for Juvenile Fiction. It’s a work of fantastical science fiction, and promises me robots and time portals, so I’m quite excited about that!

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

* Courtesy of Bookshop.org book listing.


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ABOUT KENDRA M.: With nine years in library service, six years of working within the self-publishing world, as well as extensive experience in creative writing, freelance online content creation, and podcast editing, Kendra seeks to amplify the voices of those who need and deserve most to be heard.

ORIGINAL BOOK REVIEW: “God and Country” by Joseph Bylinski (Religion, Politics & State)

OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION*:

The Bible and politics unite in a new non-fiction book which discovers that finding the answers to the Biblical mysteries leads to understanding that politics and the Bible must come together for our country of freedom to survive.

Hidden within the Bible are many creatively written and cleverly placed phrases which specifically point to these times. And when these extraordinary phrases are rearranged, they clearly explain our current world and answer one of the Bible’s biggest mysteries. They identify the Beast of the book of Revelation, the being commonly known as 666. And to obtain this elusive answer the Biblical phrases will take the reader on an incredible journey back to the birth of America to discover why we have our freedom and they’ll make it known that the true meaning of Jesus is what binds our nation together.

In God and Country the Biblical phrases unlock the secret to understanding how our freedom is earned, and more importantly, the Biblical phrases warn us that our country and our freedoms will not last unless we do indeed become “One Nation under God and Indivisible”. All of our countrymen shall live by God’s words or we will fail. And this becomes evident when the Beast is revealed.

The rearranged Biblical phrases expose our nation’s problems but in doing so they also reveal the secret to discovering the solution …..that politics and the Bible must become partners in a free democracy.

Our country was founded upon the Bible. Our laws are based on the Bible. And unfortunately, we are currently throwing the Bible out the window. Our country has wandered away from its founding ideals as we have pushed aside, ignored and thrown out God’s laws without realizing that they are here to discipline us and keep us in control.

Let it be known that freedom comes with the restriction of living by faith, that freedom has responsibilities with our mutual duty to be kind and considerate to one another, and that freedom must be constrained by discipline, and that this discipline is the Bible.

It’s time to change America’s politics, values and direction.

REVIEW:

I’m not particularly shy about my religious background, which in this case is probably a good thing, since Joseph Bylinski’s God and Country: ….United We Stand! ….Divided We Fall! is itself not even remotely shy about its stance and content. In my case, I come from a conservative Evangelical Christian household with supremely specific and controversial interpretations of the scriptures. I’m much more of a seeker and questioner now as an adult, but none of my more recent struggles and doubts have erased the practically perfect recall of the passages Bylinski refers to that I acquired in my childhood.

I absolutely refuse to spoil the main points of a book that is entirely built upon the principle of unveiling hidden truths! You’ll just have to buy a copy if you want to unlock them all. Without spoiling anything, I will simply say that the book leans heavily on the notion of freedom, stating in its early pages that “by understanding the concept of freedom that [the founding fathers] created back in the 1700’s […] helps us realize that we all have a greater obligation to fulfill in being a citizen beyond just taking an oath or being born on this soil.” Bylinski’s book is deeply political in that many of the passages he analyzes are, he argues, built entirely to communicate political truths and citizenship ideals.

For someone who lives within a community like mine, Bylinski’s claims make perfect sense once grasped. This particular book draws upon a long legacy of biblical interpretations that lean on numerology or cypher cracking in order to better understand the meanings and prophetic declarations within red letter passages. Bylinski’s approach is not quite either of those things (numerology or cypher based, that is) but it will likely appeal to those readers who have found something to value in them. And yes, it goes without saying that those who don’t already buy into the sanctity and inerrancy of these same passages will likely not walk away with the same degree of sympathy and agreement as those who do. But that, too, is perfectly in keeping with a long tradition; even within the bible itself one can find the acknowledgement that “the message of the cross is foolishness” to those who are not a part of the community of believers (1 Cor 1:18, NIV).

This is certainly one book that asks, repeatedly: Are you a believer?

IN SUMMARY:

Decisive in voice and unafraid to stick to its unique approach to the sacred texts of Christianity, God and Country: ….United We Stand! ….Divided We Fall! by Joseph Bylinski is a bold book in these unprecedented times. For those who fall within its ideal audience, it is likely to be an absolute hit.

WHERE TO BUY?

You can find God and Country wherever good books are sold, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You can also find out more about Joseph Bylinski’s work on the book’s Outskirts Press author page.

WHAT NEXT?

It’s been quite the busy e.

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

* Courtesy of Barnes & Noble book listing.


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ABOUT KENDRA M.: With nine years in library service, six years of working within the self-publishing world, as well as extensive experience in creative writing, freelance online content creation, and podcast editing, Kendra seeks to amplify the voices of those who need and deserve most to be heard.

ORIGINAL BOOK REVIEW: “A Sense of Urgency” by Patrick McLean (Fiction)

A SENSE OF URGENCY by Patrick McLean

OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION*:

Baseball franchise moves can break your heart.

Mark Weber, President & CEO of the St. Louis Cardinals, thought he landed his dream job. Little did he know it would turn into a nightmare shortly after management changes at parent company Rheinhold Brewing Company.

Christina Rheinhold, newly installed President & CEO of the company that bears her name, is anxious to keep the small brewery afloat. What better way than to shed non-beer assets? Especially if you don’t even care about the team, purchased by her father when In-Bev acquired Anheuser-Busch and they also were in an off-loading situation. Christina [is] well aware of the 125 year plus tradition of the team in St. Louis, but it [is] very tempting to sell the team to out of town parties for top dollar.

Can Mark, with the help of natural and even supernatural support, save the team for the city and their fans?

REVIEW:

Baseball! So many different aspects of my life seem to be telling me I should brush up on my (nearly nonexistent) knowledge of the sport. I spent my middle and high school years abroad in a country where baseball doesn’t exist, which probably explains why I know so little about the sport–including its history and why it is of such significant importance to Americans today. There are some similarities across sports: baseball and cricket, for example, are both considered “gentlemens’ sports” in that competition coexists with camaraderie and umpires are as important as the players, their calls are of the utmost importance, and sassing an umpire is as gross a misdemeanor as exists. In many other ways, though, baseball and the culture that has formed around it is utterly unique. In A Sense of Urgency, Patrick McLean captures much of the detail and texture of daily life with baseball and infuses his book with the spirit of the same.

Like the sport itself, A Sense of Urgency is a dialogue-driven read. Thumb your way through the book and you’re liable to land on a series of pages where the majority of the text printed on that page is being spoken aloud by one character or another. McLean is somewhat unusual in this–in writing, I mean. My personal addiction when writing is to scenic description (sometimes I think it’s all I know how to write) and that was fairly common among the writers I became acquainted with back in my college years. There are also plenty of authors who are addicted to what you might call the Infodump, or in some genres worldbuilding without much action. In moderation both worldbuilding and scenic description can be useful, but as most of you can probably attest, something needs to happen in a book in order to keep the momentum going and readers engaged. Too much summary description of action as it unfolds, though, can come off as distant. (“He ran, then he stopped. He ate a sandwich. Then he moved to Alaska to learn how to muster sled dogs.”) It’s almost as if some writers (me included) can completely forget about the power of dialogue–but not Patrick McLean.

One of the benefits of a dialogue-driven book is that it doesn’t come off as teasing or deliberately disingenuous to withhold certain information until the critical moments in which those details are important; a third person omnipresent narrator, however, knows everything the character knows and can therefore be something of a tease in books that depend on the timing of those details for plot momentum and reader interest. (If an author knows that it was Lady Scarlett in the dining room with the candlestick but asks me to consider the butler and Colonel Mustard as primary suspects, I start to wonder what else the narrator is hiding from me. And then I start skimming ahead. Because sometimes I’m a very impatient reader! Whoops.) With dialogue, though, an author is fully justified in only conveying what the characters themselves know or are willing to share in the moment, since their voices are the only (or at least the dominant) voices on the page. This comes in very handy in A Sense of Urgency.

Dialogue also conveys personality and regionality in a way like no other text can. Speech patterns, dialect, and idiom tell people who we are when we speak, more than even our clothes and our resumés, since we can put on costumes and brag as much as we like, but how we speak and how we speak to each other will always reveal who we are underneath the affectations and behavioral habits we acquire.

When it comes to plot, there’s not much I can tell you about A Sense of Urgency that’s not already in the description without spoiling key details, but as the omnipresent narrator of this review I’m going to tease you with hints at what you’ll discover when you crack open a copy for yourself. McLean’s command of the details is exquisite. (Who wears loafers without socks??! Who are these people? My mother would be mortified if she were caught out of doors without socks in her sneakers. I, meanwhile, wear sandals until the snow is thicker than the soles of my sandals. Then I switch to boots. I do not loaf. You’ll have to read on in order to discover why this is important in the book.) The little things aren’t always little in this book. But that could also be a hint of misdirection; a Colonel Mustard moment of mine, if you will. (See? Don’t you hate it when a narrator tortures you? McLean doesn’t do this thanks to his dialogue-driven approach.) The Cardinals are more than just a team. Security is called to escort people out … and there are several moments where things get “a little dicey,” to steal an expression from the book. There’s plenty of drama to go around, but I won’t embarrass myself by trying to replicate McLean’s command of how baseball works and will simply state instead that this is a book that is focused on the game and what the game makes possible in the lives of those people who are involved in it.

If you like baseball, or even if you know nothing about baseball but enjoy seeing just desserts dished out by characters who are knowledgable and passionate, this is a book to add to your reading list.

IN SUMMARY:

While the world keeps reminding me that Americans play baseball and not cricket, A Sense of Urgency pairs the sport with storytelling that is bound to appeal to fans and newcomers alike. And yes, Patrick McLean really does convey … a sense of urgency … in this compelling slice of life narrative.

WHERE TO BUY?

You can find A Sense of Urgency  wherever good books are sold, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You can also find out more about Patrick McLean’s work on the book’s Outskirts Press author page.

WHAT NEXT?

The year 2020 being what it is, I couldn’t help but feel drawn to Integrity Based Policing by Dan Barry, which is an insider’s perspective based on Barry’s thirty or so years in law enforcement for the City of Las Vegas. Personal opinions aside, I think it’s an important moment to be seeking out stories from all perspectives on this topic in order to better understand what’s going on in the world (specifically America) today.

 

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

* Courtesy of Outskirts Press book listing.


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ABOUT KENDRA M.: With nine years in library service, six years of working within the self-publishing world, as well as extensive experience in creative writing, freelance online content creation, and podcast editing, Kendra seeks to amplify the voices of those who need and deserve most to be heard.

ORIGINAL BOOK REVIEW: “Religion 531 – The Master’s Course: 2000 Years of History Can’t Be Wrong, Can It?”

Religion 531 cover art

OFFICIAL DESCRIPTION*:

You Are Much More Powerful Than You Think You Are—And, Unfortunately, Are Totally Responsible For What Happens In Your Life.

You are NOT a physical being with a Spiritual nature. You are a Spiritual being that happens to be in a physical body at the moment. It is almost certain you have lived many physical lives. Your mission (and everyone else’s) is to return to God as an eternal companion to him. You do this by learning what brings you closer to God and what moves you farther away. In this book, you will learn:

  • God judges no one—You are your own moral agent—You will reap everything you sow
  • Whether you are religious or not, you are on your ‘correct’ path, for all paths lead to God
  • In 325 CE, a schism split ‘Christianity’ into those who believed in the ‘Mystical’ Jesus and those who believed in the ‘Mythical’ Jesus—the ‘Mythical’ believers won
  • Long lost, and recently rediscovered, writings indicate the ‘Mystical’ Jesus is a better choice
  • The ‘Mystical’ Jesus taught reincarnation, Karma, The Law of Return and other long-suppressed truths
  • Jesus did not start the Christian religion you practice

REVIEW:

Many books on religion are a minefield of biases, whether the author is conscious or unconscious of that fact. Refreshingly, Josephus the Scribe is extremely up-front about his goals from the very beginning of Religion 531 – The Master’s Course: 2000 Years of History Can’t Be Wrong, Can It? (I’ll shorten the title to Religion 531 from here on in this review). I always read introductions, without fail, because they are critical to my trust and faith in a book’s content, in that I can’t quite relax into a book until I know I grasp the author’s intent and baseline character. In his introduction, Josephus lays out his relationship to the facts (discoverer, not proprietor) and the analyses within the book. He both acknowledges his credentials and admits that credentials do very little to persuade those who disagree with the facts as written. So, by the time he gets around to saying:

Forty years of work experience, particularly those with the federal government, coupled with an extensive informal study of many religions, reinforced what I learned in college and illustrated repeatedly how ‘good intentions’ get derailed by bureaucracy and dissent.

… I believe him. I believe that he is not setting out to (as I’ve heard often during my childhood about those outside of Christianity) “undermine the Church.” (Capitalized to represent the entirety of orthodox believers, according to whatever the speaker took to be orthodox.) Even on my first read-through of his introduction, I understood that Josephus’ goal was to lay out the commonalities and shared beliefs between groups that have been divided from each other in public debate for eons, and to provide perhaps some talking points for those wishing to build bridges between various faith-based groups. In fact, later in his “About This Book” section, Josephus writes that “You do not have to deny your faith (whatever it is) to learn from this book. […] This book attempts to identify some of the common threads that are woven through all.”

In my mind, that’s an admirable goal.

As a reviewer’s job, my question is to ask if he achieved that goal so that you can feel equally as confident as I do in reading that introduction.

Let’s talk about the book in terms of clarity first. I appreciated Josephus’ warning (in “How to Read This Book”) that “The concepts in this book are difficult to follow. They are also difficult to explain.” A part of me, the sassy teenage daughter part, wants to roll my eyes (just a little bit) at his need to defend the book’s existence as-is, but mostly I’m grateful for the warning. He might as well have posted a big warning sign: IT GETS COMPLICATED. Which, well, that fits with the way life is working out, doesn’t it? “It is also likely that you will need to go back to previous pages of the book to understand fully concepts that you are reading in later pages,” Josephus writes: “This is expected, as absorbing a new way of thinking is tough.”

What is this new way of thinking? It’s not “scholarly,” as the author points out, but it is primary-text-driven. As he also notes that he’s primarily anticipating that his readers will mostly be Christians (presumably, protestant ones), it’s also not an attempt to “validate or refute” existing understandings. Josephus is clearly attempting to slow down the tendency to leap for an Apologetics-driven reading when his stated goal is to simply get people thinking and to a place of connection.

In some ways, the book’s structure is a hybrid between something like a traditional devotional book and a philosophy textbook for those looking for something more digestible than Plato or Kant. Each chapter is short, between roughly 5 and 15 pages long, excepting only the chapter on “What Does This All Mean?” which is broken out in 1 to 2-page bite-sized chunks. The opening Table of Contents and the closing Index are your friends, since some chapters are indeed worth revisiting as Josephus’ thoughts circle back later on. (I suggest sticking a post-it note there to make them easy to find. I don’t dog-ear books, but if you’re okay with me gasping in horror, go ahead and you do you! JOKING.) The book is fantastically easy to navigate.

Religion 531 is extremely accessible when it comes to voice as well as structure. Sentences are short and to the point, as well as what my writer friends like to call “voicy.” That is, there’s a lot of personality on the page, with humor and emphasis writ large on the page using punctuation, asides, and metaphors. Not all of the paragraphs are short, but they are all way shorter than you will find in typical textbooks and philosophy books. (Thank you, Josephus!) I love a good and to-the-point paragraph. The only stylistic choice that gives me pause is Josephus’ regular use of quotation marks (“”) to set apart words or expressions tied to common religious principles or beliefs. It can make him come off as skeptical, even though it would overall appear that he is nothing of the sort.

I reserve the right not to step into the minefield of attempting to review this book on the merit of its religious or religion-adjacent points. As a child of Christian missionaries, I know exactly how fraught that can be, no matter who I’m’ in conversation with. I am growing increasingly immune to taking offense when someone disagrees with me on arguments (I’m not naturally good at it) pertaining to the Deep Things (my umbrella term for faith, mental health, relationships, human nature, natural history, and science)–but in large part I can thank my brother-in-law’s family for making it clear to me that many people in this world just naturally love debate, love pushing thought to the outer edge of the envelope, and arguing over topics without taking them personally. I think Josephus would love having dinner with that side of the family. (You’re welcome to sub in for me at the next reunion, Josephus!)

If you’re more like me and prone to care very deeply about these things and feel utterly wrecked when the ground shifts underfoot, I still think it’s worth going on the adventure (or roller-coaster ride, depending) that is Religion 531. You just might want to take it slow and remember, always, that Josephus’ goal is to expand both your mental and emotional vocabulary for thinking about and connecting over items of faith. That’s an admirable goal, but he leaves the success in your hands!

That’s pretty brave, I think.

IN SUMMARY:

Josephus the Scribe tackles the core tenets of world religions, with an emphasis on modern protestant Christianity, in an attempt to broaden readers’ understandings and possibilities for connection over matters of faith in an easy-to-read, voicy book that isn’t afraid to ask big questions.

WHERE TO BUY?

You can find Religion 531 – The Master’s Course: 2000 Years of History Can’t Be Wrong, Can It?  wherever good books are sold, including Amazon and Barnes and Noble. You can also find out more about Josephus the Scribe’s work on the book’s Outskirts Press author page.

WHAT NEXT?

I’ll be wrapping up A Sense of Urgency for my next review! It has been a process working through these two books side-by-side, but a very enriching one. Watch this space!

 

I received a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review. 

* Courtesy of Outskirts Press book listing.


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ABOUT KENDRA M.: With nine years in library service, six years of working within the self-publishing world, as well as extensive experience in creative writing, freelance online content creation, and podcast editing, Kendra seeks to amplify the voices of those who need and deserve most to be heard.