Back from the Dead?

I’m dusting things off here and I’m getting ready to open back up for business, so to speak. It’s been two years, almost, and a bunch has happened. Suffice to say I’m ready to start posting reviews here! I’ll probably start with posting a few of my better Amazon Vine reviews (I’ve gotten some REALLY cool stuff from them), and them some more recent things I’ve gotten to review.

I’m also going to talk a bit about some electronics projects I”m working on (or thinking of working on). Hoping to be a bit more regular and productive around here in the near future, so stay tuned!


MY Top Android Apps

Everybody writes their Top Ten Android Apps that You Have to Have on Your New Smartphone lists each year, and invariably they list apps that I would never use, don’t need, or something like that.  So I’m going to post MY list.  These are the apps that I install first on any new device I have, whether it’s a new phone, or a tablet, or what.  Most of them I also have installed on my iPad, so they’re not necessarily Android only.

For some background – I am a bi-vocational pastor.  I pastor a small church, and also teach technology at the local elementary school.  Both of these jobs influence what I consider must-haves.  This is something that the other lists won’t tell you — they will just assume that you are just like them, and have the same needs they do.  So as I list my apps, I’ll tell you why they are there.

  1. The Bible App from YouVersion:  This is essential for me as a pastor.  It’s not a study resource – I don’t really do major sermon prep with YouVersion’s app, but I DO constantly review the text I’m preaching from.  The more you read it, the better off you are, when it comes to preaching a text, and YouVersion’s Bible app lets me do that.  It also has some GREAT reading plans – and not all of them are a full year.  There are great topical reading plans that may only last a few weeks or even a few days.  And there are always Lent and Advent plans that are must reads.
  2. Evernote:  I have to have this to stay organized.  Combine this with the Evernote Web Clipper plugin for Chrome and you’ve got a powerful tool.  Whenever I read something that sparks an idea for a sermon, it goes in the Evernote folder marked Future Sermons.  All of my sermon notes go in the Sermon Notes folder, with tags for the book of the Bible I preached from.  On the teaching side, lesson plan ideas go in their own folder, as do my finished plans and a scope and sequence for each school year.  I’ve also got a LOT of tech-related articles that I need to have constant access to, as well as network-specific information for the school (proxy addresses, network printer IP numbers, etc.).  I tell people all the time that Evernote is my brain, and I honestly couldn’t function well without it.
  3. feedly:  I have a LOT of RSS feeds, and I’m old-school enough that I want them in a reader.  I used Google Reader until they shut it down (WHY, GOOGLE, WHY?!), and then in a panic I went hunting and found  It works really well, though integration with Evernote requires a pro account, and it let me import my Google Reader settings when I signed up.  Most importantly, it’s easy to use.
  4. Dropbox:  I have accounts with several cloud storage places (Box, Mozy, Google Drive) and have apps for all of those.  But Dropbox is the one I download first.  It integrates seamlessly with my laptop computer (there’s a Dropbox folder in Windows Explorer that I can drag and drop to), and I can automatically upload all my pictures from my phone to Dropbox.
  5. Kindle for Android:  I have a ton of ebooks; in fact, it’s how I buy commentaries anymore, unless I get a really great deal.  This lets me keep everything in one format, and I can use them across all my devices (including my iPad and my Surface).

I’m not picky about my clock widgets, or my weather apps (though I do LOVE MyRadar).  I do always install Netflix, but that’s not something I consider a must.  And of course, I’ve got a bunch of games.  But those five up there are the ones I really cannot live without.  I’m using my Kindle Fire a lot less now, in fact, partially because there is no Dropbox app in the Amazon app store anymore.

So what did I miss?  Let me know in the comments.

Book Review: Dawn’s Early Light by Pip Ballantine and Tee Morris

DEL coverI’ve been reading a lot lately, but nothing has grabbed my attention like Dawn’s Early Light. I’ve been looking forward to this book since it was announced a while back, and it certainly did not disappoint.

Dawn’s Early Light is the third in the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series. I have reviewed the other two books on this site (Phoenix Rising was the first and The Janus Affair was the second). The books follow the adventures of field agent Eliza Braun and archivist Wellington Books as they attempt to save the world from a variety of unusual threats. Fans of well-written steampunk will thoroughly enjoy the series. If you haven’t read the first two books, though, be warned — this review will contain some spoilers. You COULD read this one without the first two, but you will be missing a LOT of backstory, so I really don’t recommend it.

Dawn’s Early Light starts off with our intrepid duo headed to North America, partially to help the American counterpart to the Ministry and partially to avoid the fallout of their last adventure (The Janus Affair). A not-so-simple airship ride later and they are in the States, meeting their American counterparts.

And they certainly are counterparts. Felicity Lovelace, librarian, and “Wild Bill” Wheatley are gender-swapped Books and Braun, which actually makes for some interesting situations later on in the book. Remembering the kiss in book 2, the reader instantly wonders what will happen to that relationship as Books and Braun spend so much time with counterparts that are so much more … compatible with themselves. The interplay between characters (especially Braun and Lovelace) is entertaining without being overbearing and adds to the plot.

Without spoiling too much of the book, you should prepare yourself for an entirely different perspective on Thomas Edison, an all-too-brief encounter with Henry Ford, and Nikola Tesla working with the Ministry. Books and Braun’s adventure sends them coast to coast, from the sands of North Carolina to the thriving town of San Francisco, with stops in Detroit and Arizona along the way. The breakneck pace of these travels will keep you up late reading “just one more page.” I had decided at the beginning that I would read one chapter per night — that didn’t last long at all, and I finished the book just a few days after I started.

From the very beginning, I have seen the influence of The Avengers in Books and Braun. Not the MArvel super hero Avengers; no Captain America or Iron Man here. No, I’m talking about the real Avengers — John Steed and Emma Peel. Books and Braun work well together, compliment each other perfectly, and help each other grow as people — everything you could ever want from a partner. The one thing I feared from the second book was what I call the Moonlighting Effect. When you have a male/female leading pair that starts off the series with some serious romantic tension, there is often a sort of disappointment when the two finally declare their love for each other. It seems like this is the reason for the introduction of the American counterparts — to test and see how serious Books and Braun are about each other and to provide some tension. I look forward to seeing how the blooming relationship between Eliza and Wellington is treated in future books.

I absolutely love subplots in fiction, especially when those subplots are carried throughout a series, in the background at first but increasingly brought to the front. There is a definite subplot in this series, a “something is rotten in the state of England” type of subplot that has been around since book 1 but that is really brought to the front in this volume. I am curious about one point in this subplot though — Dr. Sound agrees to act as though a certain individual has been killed, and not even let that person’s mother know the truth. Yet at the end of the book he tells her the truth. I’m really curious about that — I’m going to have to reread the ending to make sure I didn’t misunderstand something that I read. That point confused me a bit, but the subplot that it touches sounds fascinating, and I look forward to more.

As with the first two books, Dawn’s Early Light is highly recommended. Read the other two first, so that you get the backstory and side references that you will encounter. If you’ve never read steampunk before, this is a good introduction. The book is out on March 25, just five days from now. But why wait? Click the cover above and place your preorder. You’ll be glad you did.

OR — you can win yourself not ONLY a copy of this book, but the other two as well. That’s right — there’s a giveaway involved here, and you can win some good stuff.

Three paperback set (signed) of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences
Signed Abney Park Poster
Signed Abney Park CD Ancient World
Signed coverflats of Phoenix Rising and the Janus Affair

Three paperback set (signed) of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences
The Extraordinary Contraptions CD
Signed cover flat of Phoenix Rising

Three paperback set (signed) of the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences

And here’s how to enter:

a Rafflecopter giveaway

This post is part of the Dawn’s Early Light blog tour, which runs through the 21st. If you want more information about the Ministry of Peculiar Occurrences series, check out the Facebook page at

Book Review:Evangelical Theology: A Biblical and Systematic Introduction by Michael F. Bird

This post is part of a blog tour sponsored by the Koinonia blog. I received the entire book, but was asked specifically to review section 8 on evangelical ecclesiology.

The entire idea of an evangelical ecclesiology is pretty difficult to narrow down; there are evangelical Christians who are Baptist, Presbyterian, Lutheran, Methodist, Free Church, etc. — and each has slightly different views on the church and how it is organized. I honestly think that this weakness in ecclesiology has resulted in the modern idea of the Christian without a church – people who have decided that they are going to go it alone rather than unite with a local congregation. And I really don’t think it’s a good thing.

Bird discusses this early on in this section, mentioning the evangelical tendency toward “ecclesiology-lite.” He sees three problems with this — a tendency toward dualism that emphasizes spiritual unity over physical unity, an anti-Catholicism that ends up rejecting the church fathers and traditions, and hyperindividualism that makes people more concerned with how church is meeting their needs rather than how they can more effectively meet the needs of the church they are part of. All three of these are problems that I see in today’s churches — and I think that finding solutions to them are vital to the continued growth of our churches.

Bird doesn’t stop there, though; his criticisms are simply part 1 of this section. Section 2 gives us what the Biblical image of the church is; after all, if we are going to claim to be people of the Book, we have to find out what the Book says first of all. He details how God’s people are described in Scripture, pointing out similarities between the Old and New Testaments but also showing distinctives present in the New. The section on the similarities and differences between the church and Israel was particularly interesting and informative. The section on the visible vs. invisible church in part 3 of this section was also very helpful, as there is a lot of tension here in my own denomination at times. Very telling, I think, are the marks of the church listed in section 4. There is a sermon series here, I’m sure of it.

Section 5 is where there will be differences of opinion and tradition among evangelical believers – the governance of the church. Bird simply lists the different types of church governance that are being practiced, and tries to show how the denominations that follow them justify them based on Scripture. I enjoyed this section; having just finished a series of Sunday School lessons about Baptist distinctives, I was happy to be able to learn a little bit about other denominations and how they “do church.” He also manages to do this without making any judgment on which is “right” or “more Biblical,” but gives each the attention and respect it deserves.

Almost as controversial is the next part on baptism and the Lord’s Supper. While you can hear Bird’s own opinion coming through in the section about paedobaptism, he treats other beliefs with a much-appreciated fairness. And I know many Baptists who would be well-advised to study Bird’s section on the meaning of Baptism; too often, we see it as so much of a symbol that we cheapen the ordinance completely.

This section of Bird’s work takes a subject that can seem nebulous at first, at best rather vague and unclear, and tries to narrow it down even while it explains why there are so many different views and what those views are. If we are ever to recover a Biblical idea of what it means to be the Church and to do church, we need to consider what Bird is saying very carefully.

Book Review: Deeply Loved by Keri Wyatt Kent

Deeply LovedI get a lot of Christian books to read and review. I get a lot of theology (more now that I’ve joined the IVP book club). Keri Wyatt Kent’s book was a welcome, refreshing change of pace for me, that is certain.

That is not to say that the book is spiritually shallow — far, far from it. This is, in fact, the kind of book I wish more people were writing, and more people were reading. The book is a pure devotional/spiritual discipline type of book, meant for reading and contemplating over a long period of time. In fact, Kent often encourages the reader to take their time, and the book is easily digested over a period of 40 days.

Each daily devotional study ends with a “Presence Practice” that encourages the reader to reflect on what was studied, and to put that day’s study into practice. This isn’t a simple question and answer thing that just asks you to repeat what you read. These reflections ask you to DO things, even if it’s just reading, and they challenge you to really think about how that day’s study impacts the way you are walking with Christ each day, and how you can change to grow closer to Him.

My own observance of Lent tends to be nontraditional, to say the least. As a Baptist, I really don’t have a liturgy to follow. In the past, the idea of giving something up for Lent has left me hollow — I either gave up something I needed to get rid of anyway (which seemed like cheating), or I gave up something and ended up being resentful for not being able to do it after just two weeks (sometimes not that long). One thing I have determined to do, though, is to try to focus my devotional time each Lent and Advent on something that strikes at the heart of the season. For Advent, it is the idea of anticipation and longing. For Lent, it is usually the idea of redemption. When I received Deeply Loved, however, I saw the opportunity to immerse myself in the love of Christ revealed in His sacrifice for us. Deeply Loved is a great book to use as a devotional during Lent, but it’s not bound to that time of year the way so many Lenten devotions are. You can pick this book up at any time in the year, set aside 40 days, and study. In fact, I will probably be picking Deeply Loved up again this winter and using it as part of my Advent preparation.

Each study is not that long; it can be read in no time at all, even if you don’t read quickly. But if you pay attention to what you are reading, and are really taking the time to think about what Kent is saying, what you read each day will stay with you. You will find yourself in situations where your morning devotional reading will pop back into your mind. You will find yourself growing closer to Christ, and appreciating His love for us even more.

That is, after all, the purpose of a devotional book. This is where the rubber meets the road, so to speak. This is where all the theology and doctrine we learn and read about is made valuable — when we put it into practice in the service of the King.

I end up packing a lot of my review copies up in boxes after I finish them; I just don’t have the shelf space for all the books I have (835 books, according to LibraryThing, and 227 review copies). I won’t be packing this one up any time soon, though. This book will be used over and over again. Highly recommended.

Book Review: Leaving Everything Most Loved by Jacqueline Winspear

The tenth installment of Winspear’s Maisie Dobbs series finds our heroine facing changes in all aspects of her life. She’s been feeling the need to travel, and a new case concerning the death of an Indian immigrant (later two Indian women)inspires her to travel first to India, and then (possibly) throughout the world. But loose ends need to be tied up first.

The case is intriguing, and touches on themes of discrimination, gender roles, and even religious bigotry. Maisie finds herself confronted on many occasions with how insular her society has become, which makes her want to travel all the more. In the midst of all this, she receives an “ultimatum” from her fiance that makes her question even more about her life.

It’s tough to say much about this book that isn’t a spoiler, to be honest. I felt through most of the book that the entire point of both cases that are solved was to show why Maisie was leaving to travel the world. The character development in this book is beyond anything in previous books, and Winspear is no slouch in character development. It really seems like this case takes longer than it actually does, because of how much actually happens.

The ending worried me a little bit — Maisie starts to reminisce about past cases in a way that seems as if we’re saying goodbye to her as much as the rest of the cast is. But the promise at the end of the book, “Yes, she would be back,” gives hope that there will be a book 11, and beyond.

I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again — I really enjoy this series. I started reading it as a change of pace from the fantasy and science fiction I’d been reading, and I was quickly hooked. The time period, the characterizations, the intricate plots — just everything conspires to make me read each one quickly, and then anxiously await the next one. Highly, highly recommended to just about anyone, as long as you enjoy reading and immersing yourself in a story.

Edit to add — I just realized that it has been one year and a day since I reviewed the last Maisie Dobbs book. So maybe I only have another year to wait!!

Book Review: Agent Garbo: The Brilliant, Eccentric Secret Agent Who Tricked Hitler and Saved D-Day by Stephen Talty

The first research project I ever did in high school was on deception campaigns in WW2. I’d read a little bit about them before, but I didn’t realize exactly how much deception was involved in the Allied efforts against Nazi Germany. Since then, I’ve read just about everything I could find on the subject, and no matter how much I read, I always seem to learn something new.

That was certainly true of Agent Garbo. I had, of course, read about Garbo’s operation — how he had a “spy network” of dozens of fictitious “agents” who fed him “intelligence” that he sent on to the Abwehr. Of course, all of those efforts were coordinated by the British XX Committee, which oversaw all of the double agents operating against the Germans, and they were all absolutely essential to the eventual Allied victory in Europe.

But there was a lot about the man I didn’t know. I’d never read of his experiences in the Spanish Civil War, or his failed businesses, or his propensity for exaggeration and his incredible imagination. I also didn’t realize that his wife was just as responsible for his work with British intelligence as he was — she’s the one who finally got him in with the British government, after he’d tried repeatedly.

Talty’s book is well researched, and well written. This is no dry history text, or boring biography; it is a living story, told as well as any spy thriller ever written. So much of it seems too incredible to believe; truth really is stranger than fiction.

This is a book that I would heartily recommend to anyone who wants to learn more about wartime intelligence in World War 2, or anyone who just wants to read a fascinating account of the life of an extraordinary man.