Monday, February 29, 2016

Dante and Islam (Oxford University Press)

Dante and Islam is one of the toughest books on Dante I have read. That is saying a lot, as I have been reading a lot on Dante this past month. For the past century, it has been a hot topic in Dante scholarship that Muslim eschatology influenced The Divine Comedy. There is speculation that Dante knew Arabic, but as it has never been proved, so we must continue to dig deeper in this matter. In the essay "Dante and Islamic Culture," we learn of the proximity and contacts between the Catholic world and the Islamic world in the Middle Ages, We are also given examples of possible connections between Dante's works and Arabic texts. Subsequent essays then discuss the availability of a translation of the Qur'an in Dante's time and whether or not Dante would have read it/borrowed from it. The most interesting section in the book was "Images of Muhammad in Dante." There are two essays in this section. One compares Islam and the heresy of Arianism and the other examines Dante's placement of Muhammad in Hell. Both were fascinating to read, but highly academic.

This book, as I stated in the last sentence, is highly academic. I knew that going into this book, because it is from a university's publishing house. However, it was printed in a more affordable paperback version, which usually signifies that this book would have a broader appeal and will interest many readers. Unfortunately, I found this book to be too specialized and only really appealing to a very, very small audience. I have had this book in my possession for months and tried to read through it time and time again, but I had to keep putting it down because it was both over my head and contained many references which I did not understand. I'm not sure if that is a flaw with the book or a flaw with me. I did want to test this, so I lent the book to my local Dante scholar, and even she could not make it through this book. If you think you are the audience for this book, I recommend getting an inter-library loan and giving this book a test drive before you invest your actual money in it. I truly wish this book would have been better and more approachable, but this book was not for me.

This book was provided to me for free by Oxford University Press in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Friday, February 26, 2016

Extraordinary Migrations (Capstone)

Educational picture books are some of my favorite books to read with my son. Not only does he learn something (without realizing it), but the pictures in the book are usually stunning. The books I am telling you about today are a perfect example of that are part of the "Extraordinary Migration" series from Capstone.

When Crabs Cross the Sand tells the migration story of one red crab (out of millions) on Christmas Island who once a year migrates toward the Indian Ocean. It begins with a female crab waking up after being tucked in her burrow for winter. With the rainy season beginning, all the crabs are waking up and heading to the ocean. The journey takes approximately a week and is perilous. When they arrive at the ocean, they must dive in or else risk drying out. Afterwards, a male crab and female crab mate. The male then returns to the forest, and the female crab waits for the moon and tide to be just right so she (and all other female crabs) can lay their eggs in the ocean. The female crab heads back to the forest and the eggs immediately hatch. Those that are not eaten by fish grow for one month in the ocean, and then they instinctively head to the forest.

When Whales Cross the Sea tells the migration story of one gray whale who makes the longest migration of any mammal in the world, travelling 5000 to 7000 miles. It is October in the Arctic with feeding season almost over. This female whale must make her way south to warmer waters. Before the journey, she eats nonstop for several days - over one ton a day. The journey is dangerous, and because of that, the whale never stops swimming, not even to eat. The migration takes 60 days, which is amazing, because shortly after the journey ends, she gives birth to a calf. At a "small" 1,000 pounds, he must put on a lot more weight, because he will have to make the return journey with his mother in a few months. He drinks about 50 gallons of milk a day and can gain approximately 60 pounds a day.

Each book tells a fascinating story with very detailed and real-to-life illustrations. At the end of each book is a glossary, fact page, and suggestions for further reading. The age range for these books is 5-8, so you will probably have to read them with your kids, but that's okay because you'll enjoy them as much as they do. I know I did! There are two other books in this series - When Penguins Cross the Ice and When Butterflies Cross the Sky. I haven't read them, but I am sure they are as great as these two are.

These books were provided to me for free by Capstone in exchange for honest reviews. If you found these reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Thursday, February 25, 2016

Lanterns: The Harvest Festival (Renegade Game Studios and Foxtrot Games)

There are some games that take a long time to set-up, explain how it works, play, and then score. And then, there are other games that you can sit down, explain the rules in two minutes, open the box, play and score in 30 minutes. Lanterns: The Harvest Festival is one of those quicker games, and because my wife likes the lighter and quicker games, it has been making it to the table a lot lately. Let me tell you about the game!

Lanterns: The Harvest Festival is a tile-placement game for 2-4 players. The recommended age is 8+, but can be played at a much younger age. Total playing time is approximately 30 minutes, It retails for $35, but you can usually find it for around $25. The game takes place during the time of imperial China. You are an artisan who is decorating the palace lake with colored lanterns, which you will exchange for honor. The person with the most honor at the end of the game wins. Simple, right? Right! Let's get to the set-up for the game, which I will explain for 4 players, as this is the best number of players to play with.

Begin by making a stack for each color of lantern cards (red, yellow, green, blue, pink, grey, and white). Underneath them, place the dedication tokens in four stacks - green, blue, red, and grey. Each stack of dedication tokens should have the numbers arranged from largest to smallest. You will then have a pile of wooden discs called favor tokens. Last in the box are the lake tiles. Pull out the one with a brown boat in the center. Then, shuffle the rest of the lake tiles face down and deal everyone three. Arrange the players so that they are sitting like the points on a compass (North, South, East, and West). You may then either select the first player or spin the lake tile with the boat on it. Whoever, the red area ends up pointing at goes first, because red is considered lucky.
Looking at the first tile, you can see there are four colors on it - red, white, grey, and blue. Depending on where you are sitting is what color lantern card you will receive. If I was the starting player, I would receive red. The person to my left would receive white. The person across from me would receive grey. And the person to my right would receive blue. It is important to distribute the lantern cards clockwise, as they could run out, and if so then that person would just be out luck and not receive a card. Now, it would be my turn to place a lake tile, and I place one underneath the starting tile. If I matched the connecting colors (not something that is required, but it does behoove you), I would get a red lantern card for making a color match and a blue lantern card because that is the side of the tile facing me. The other players would get pink, red, and green respectively. I draw a replacement lake tile to get my total back up to three, and it's the next players turn. That person plays a lake tile with a platform on it. The platform gives them a favor token if they matched the color of the tile they played next to, so they get one favor token, a white lantern card for the color match and a yellow lantern card, because that is the side facing them. Everyone else would then get a green, white, and green respectively.
You're probably thinking,"What is a favor token?" and "What do I do with all these lantern cards?" Well, these are where you score your honor points in the form of dedication tokens. Before placing a tile on your turn, you can take two favor tokens and a lantern card you own to exchange for a different colored lantern card. You may then exchange lantern cards one of three ways. You can turn one of every color to receive a green dedication token. You can turn in three pairs, i.e., two blue, two red, and two green to receive a blue dedication token. Or you can turn in four of one color to receive a red dedication token. You can only exchange two favor tokens or claim a dedication token once per turn. It also behooves you to claim these dedication tokens early, because the points you receive for them drops the more people claim them. In the green stack for example, the first person to "cash in" one of every lantern color gets ten points, but the next person would only get nine. You continue to play lake tiles and redeem lantern cards until all the lake tiles run out. You then have one final chance to redeem any remaining lantern cards. Then you total your dedication tokens and the one with the most honor points wins.

I really like this game, because it is deceptively simple. By that I mean, it is easy to learn, but there are different strategic moves you can make to benefit you and/or hinder others. For starters, everyone has a hard time getting it out of their heads that colors on lake tiles have to match. Most of the time, it is to your advantage that they do match, because it nets you an extra lantern card. However, if you have six different lantern colors, and you need one more to claim that ten point green dedication token, it might be to your advantage to not match the colors and instead place a tile in a way to get you that seventh color. You can also pay attention to what lantern cards other players have, and if you see that they are one lantern color short of cashing in, make sure they don't get that color. In addition to the simple strategy, it is just an easy and fun game. The gameplay and goal is straightforward and when you're done, you can sit back and admire the beautiful lantern display you made for the emperor. (Side note, the emperor is Christopher Chung. His last name is the symbol that appears on the favor tokens.) If you are looking for a relaxing and fun game to play with the kids or warm you up before tackling a bigger, more serious game, Lanterns: The Harvest Festival definitely scratches that itch!

This game was provided to me for free by Renegade Game Studios in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, February 24, 2016

Saints Who Battled Satan (TAN Books)

Dr. Paul Thigpen is an excellent teacher of the Catholic faith. Among the 40+ books he has written and edited, are A Year with the Saints, A Year with Mary, and Manual for Spiritual Warfare. With those recent titles, his latest book, Saints Who Battled Satan, is the logical topic choice. In Saints Who Battled Satan, Dr. Thigpen, provides us with examples of saints who fought Satan with Scripture, prayer, and the sacraments. The book begins with the story of Eve and the Fall. He sets the stage by telling us of the angelic rebellion led by Lucifer, and how his first target after he was expelled from Heaven was Eve. He then walks us through the crafty methods Satan used to cause Eve and all of humanity to fall as well. We then receive 17 chapters, one per saint, which gives brief background information on the saint, and then tells us how Satan attacked them and how they prevailed. Some of the saints include the Virgin Mary, St. Joseph, St. Paul, and St. Dominic. Allow me to tell you about a favorite saint of mine - St. Anthony of the Desert.

St. Anthony was born in the 3rd Century to a wealthy family in Egypt. When his parents died, he made sure his sister was taken care of, and then disposed of his inheritance so that he could go out into the desert, like Jesus did. His reason for doing this was that he wanted to learn how Jesus overcame Satan and then teach it to others. Satan did not like Anthony, because he knew he would be a powerful foe if he succeeded, so he first attacked him with all the physical pleasures and comforts of the world. The second attack on St. Anthony involved Satan and a band of demons whipping him to near death. The rest of the chapter details other attacks by Satan and victories by St. Anthony. It then concludes with the details of other men joining St. Anthony in the desert to become monks as well. I pretty much know St. Anthony's story by heart, but it is always an inspiration to read through it. He shows us a perfect example of battling Satan, not with his own strength, but relying solely on God to help him. This is the only way to ever achieve victory over Satan.

The above profile of St. Anthony is just one of seventeen examples of saints who waged spiritual warfare against Satan. If the book was nothing but these profiles, that would be enough to make a compelling read. However, there is a 50 page epilogue that contains more (shorter) examples of other saints who battled saints as well as wisdom from the saints on how to fight Satan. Some of these saintly tips encourage us to pray the Our Father, pray the Sign of the Cross, use Holy Water frequently, and find strength in receiving the Eucharist. This impressive epilogue and the detailed examples of the saints make for a winning combination. I highly recommend this book for all Catholics and Christians alike, as we are all at war with Satan and need all the help we can get!

This book was provided to me for free by TAN Books in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Monday, February 22, 2016

Reflecting the Eternal: Dante's Divine Comedy in the Novels of C.S. Lewis (Hendrickson Publishers)

When I received a copy of Reflecting the Eternal, I was intrigued by the subject matter (Dante's influence on C.S. Lewis) but equally intrigued by the author, Dr. Marsha Daigle-Williamson. The name stood out to me and it bugged me until I figured out who she is. She is the translator for the Preacher to the Papal Household. As soon as I had that ah-ha moment, this book moved up from a must read to an instant read. The book begins with an introduction that talks about the themes and characters in Lewis' novels and how they were influenced by classics in Western literature. She then points out that no one has analyzed Dante's impact on Lewis' works, which she finds surprising because she believes that Dante's Divine Comedy is essential for understanding all of Lewis' works. She then provides us an opening chapter which details Lewis' admiration for Dante and a brief summary of the Dante Comedy.  Dr. Daigle-Williamson then takes us through a chronological examination of the works of C.S. Lewis and explains the influence of Dante in each. The chapters are as follows:

2. The Pilgrim's Regress
3. Out of the Silent Planet
4. The Screwtape Letters
5. Perelandra
6. That Hideous Strength
7. The Great Divorce
8. The Chronicles of Narnia
9. Till We Have Faces

Reading through this book, I realized just how little of C.S. Lewis' works that I have actually read. For that reason, the chapters I connected with more are logically the ones which I have read. For example. In the chapter on The Pilgrim's Regress, we see the use of a pilgrim and a guide like Beatrice. In the chapter on The Screwtape Letters, we see similarities between Lewis and Dante in the description of Hell and the three stages of spiritual development. My favorite chapter, without a doubt, was the one that addressed The Chronicles of Narnia. Dr. Daigle-Williamson shows how The Silver Chair is similar to the Inferno, and she also compares The Voyage of the Dawn Treader to Dante's Purgatory and Paradise. As many times as I have read those books, the clear influence of Dante never struck me, but it made me want to immediately go re-read them all. That will have to wait until I read Lewis' Ransom Trilogy (Out of the Silent Planet, Perelandra, and That Hideous Strength). It is a series I have always wanted to read, but I have extra motivation to do so now.

The level of research, notes, and academic depth in this book is astounding. You would normally pay $50 for a book of this nature from an academic publisher, but the $15 price point makes this book a bargain! I have long considered myself a student/fan of C.S. Lewis, but after reading this, I realize I still have so much to read and learn. If you are a fan of Lewis, Dante, and/or great literature then you will want to read this book. Like me, you'll probably need to read or re-read some of these works either before or after reading this book, but you will read them at a deeper level and appreciate them all the more.

This book was provided to me for free by Hendrickson Publishers in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click this link and hit Yes!

Friday, February 19, 2016

Nature Anatomy and Farm Anatomy (Storey Publishing)

I receive a lot of interesting books in the mail. Some solicited, and others unsolicited. However, perhaps two of the most interesting books I have received in recent memory are Farm Anatomy and Nature Anatomy, available from Storey Publishing. Let me tell you about them.

Farm Anatomy is a gorgeous softcover book that illustrates life on a farm. It begins by telling us about one of the most important aspects of a farm - the soil. There are images that show what generally makes up different levels of soil; what makes up healthy top soil; and the texture triangle, which shows the 12 different classifications of soil texture. Next, nutrients in soil and crop rotation is discussed and illustrated. There is also discussion of plowing, erosion, and weather patterns/predictions. Chapter Two discusses barn and other building construction. Chapter Three details farm tools you will need; how the tools have evolved through the years; and ways of doing various tasks, like felling a tree. Chapters Four and Five are my favorite chapters as they have to do with crops and animals. There are scores upon scores of illustrations, which show different varieties of fruits and vegetables, cattle, sheep, etc. After these chapters, there are recipes and guides to different cuts of meat and how to butcher them.

Nature Anatomy begins by telling us about layers of the earth, minerals, fossils, the  rock cycle, and different landforms. Chaper Two discusses atmosphere, water cycle, phases of the moon, and constellations. Chapter Three is a beautiful chapter with descriptions and illustrations of flowers, butterflies, bees, and ants. Chapter Four dissects and details trees, various leaf shapes, and even different mushrooms. The final three chapters are where we learn about animals and birds of all sizes. There are snakes, lizards, cats, dogs, and even some aquatic animals like whales. A really interesting illustration detailed the life cycle of Lyme disease and how it forms and spreads.

Both Farm Anatomy and Nature Anatomy are beautiful and affordable books that open a world of knowledge to children and adults alike. The books have a rustic/simple look and feel to them, but when you open them up you are treated to hundreds of illustrations, which not only take your breath away, but teach you as well. The amount of words on each page are enough to educate, but not enough to overwhelm. I could not put these books down and still find myself picking them up, thumbing through them, and re-reading the information contained within. I'd go so far as to say that I think I enjoyed the books as much, if not more than my son. I hope the author publishes another book to accompany these two, as I devoured these books. If you are looking for interesting books with a science theme for the traditional or homeschooling classroom, I cannot recommend these books enough!

These books were provided to me for free by Storey Publishing in exchange for honest reviews. If you found these reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, February 17, 2016

When You Suffer (Servant Books)

When You Suffer is the second book from Jeff Cavins in his recent "Biblical Keys" series. The first book was entitled Praise God and Thank Him and focused on a joyful life. This latest book focuses on hope and understanding for moments of suffering. With that theme and the purple book cover, this book screams LENT! So I figured, that would be a good time to read through it and share it with you. The book begins with a chapter on the notion of an "ideal life." That concept is hard to grasp, so he narrows it down to an ideal day. After thinking about your ideal day, which involves doing things you enjoy doing, he broadens us back to an ideal life, which involves a predictable life, comfort, and one that reflects your gifts. Unfortunately, real life is never like the ideal life. Real life is uncomfortable and full of suffering.

This leads to the next chapter, which discusses the meaning of suffering. He doesn't dive into the weighty Scripture on making your suffering mean something, but instead gives us two concrete examples of people (one being Pope John Paul II) who took their suffering and made it matter. Chapter Three takes us all the way back to Adam and Eve to show how and why they suffered. He then provides us with a few brief pages with examples of suffering all throughout salvation history. Chapter Four provides different purposes for suffering, i.e., punitive, probative, and disciplinary. Chapters Five and Six detail the concepts of supernatural suffering and Jesus' suffering and our participation in it. The final chapters are the most practical/beneficial as they focus on practical things you can do when you suffer, such as prayer, confession, and, trusting that God will never put you through more than you can handle.

We are all fallen human beings in a state of sin. This sin leads to suffering, and this suffering is something that will never leave us until we reach Heaven. Fortunately for us, suffering isn't the end result, but merely a spiritual tool we can use to grow closer to God. So let Jeff Cavins easy to understand writing style and his vast Scriptural wisdom be your guide to this difficult concept. You might also want to get a second copy, because with a topic like this, it's sure to be a well-borrowed book.

This book was provided to me for free by Servant Books in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Monday, February 15, 2016

Dante's Inferno, Purgatory, and Paradise (Catholic Courses)

Have you ever read through The Divine Comedy? Did you understand it all? Do you wish you understood more of it, but don't really want to read another book explaining it all? Well, you're in luck! Catholic Courses has released a three-part series! Three parts means there is one for the Inferno, one for Purgatory, and of course, one for Paradise! Each course is taught by the brilliant Dr. Anthony Esolen and is comprised of eight lessons! That means you get 24 lessons on Dante's epic poem The Divine Comedy, which if we are being honest still might feel like not enough. The individual lessons then walk us through three to five cantos. At approximately thirty minutes a lesson, you are looking at about five to ten minutes per canto. It's not enough time to give you a super in-depth explanation on each canto, but it's long enough to help you grasp the main concepts.

In the first lesson of the Inferno, we learn about the three beasts Dante first encounters - a spotted leopard, a lion, and a she-wolf. Most commentators associate these with lust, pride, and avarice. Dr. Esolen says they could also represent the sins of the flesh, the sins of the devil, and the sins of the world. Lesson Two then begins by Dante entering Limbo and the nine circles of Hell. One of the really interesting things I learned about The Divine Comedy is that it is very precisely constructed. "We have the ten-square number of cantos; the division of the poem into three realms; the age of Jesus at his Passion, thirty-three; determining the number of cantos in each (one too many or one too few for Hell, depending on how we regard it)."

Walking through this poem and course invoked a lot of emotions. In the Inferno we feel pity, fear, despair. Purgatory was probably the most eye-opening. We know a lot about Heaven and Hell from Scripture, but Purgatory is not one we read a lot about. Dante does a masterful job of demonstrating the humbling experience that Purgatory is. We are bent over and crooked with sin, but Purgatory straightens us out. It is not easy and pleasant, but we are not shackled there. We are free to move around and it is in this place that we are cleansed of our sins and climb the mountain to enter Paradise.

With 24 lessons, one can spend six months to a whole year going through all three courses. Catholic Courses also provides several methods to study these courses including MP3 audio download, MP4 video download, audio CDs, and video DVDs. I prefer the video DVDs, because they come with a lecture guide book, and because it forces me to sit down, watch and focus. If I'm just listening to audio, I might get distracted and zone out on the lecture. Others might listen to these on the commute to and from work, and if that works for you, great! We all learn in different ways. The important thing is to keep learning. I can't afford to take college courses now, but Catholic Courses is an amazing alternative, because you get great instructors who are faithful to the teachings of the Church. Be sure to check out their other selections, which include topics like J.R.R. Tolkien, books of the Bible, and Church History, just to name a few. If you're looking for something to study, there's a good chance they'll have what you're looking for.

These courses were provided to me for free by Catholic Courses in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, February 12, 2016

The Glass Mountain and Over the Hills and Far Away (Candlewick Press)

The Glass Mountain is a collection of eight stories from the land of Poland that are retold by David Walser. The stories in this collection are as follows:
  • The Fern Flower
  • The Krakow Dragon
  • The Frog Bride
  • The Miller's Daughters
  • The Trumpeter of Krakow
  • The Glass Mountain
  • Pan Twadrdowski
  • The Warsaw Mermaid
The book is illustrated by Jan Pienkowski and is the fourth book on which he and David Walser collaborated. At the beginning of the book is a brief account of Jan's childhood in Poland. It is an interesting account, and in it he also shares with us about the Polish folk art of paper cutouts, which is what he used to illustrate this book. After this section, there is a one page pronunciation guide of some of the tougher to say Polish words. After this introductory material, we are treated to the stories, which I would describe as dark at best. The first story "The Fern Flower" talks about a little boy, who wants to pick a flower to become the richest man in the village. His greed consumes him, and he ultimately loses everyone he loves. "The Miller's Daughters" is a tale of three sisters. Two of them are only worried about shallow things, but the third wants to read. Their shallowness would have cost them their life, if not for their studious sister. In "The Warsaw Mermaid" two fishermen capture a mermaid, but her hypnotic song entices a third man to set her free. After setting her free, he follows after her into the river and neither of them are seen again. Overall, this is a dark fairy tale book, which I guess I should have expected seeing that the idea of a happy fairy tale is still a somewhat modern invention. The illustrations are beautiful, and enhance the stories exponentially. If you're looking for happy fairy tales, check out Disney. If you're looking for authentic fairy tales, this is the book for you!

Over the Hills and Far Away is a collection or treasury of 150 nursery rhymes from around the world. Including the geographic diversity of these familiar and unfamiliar nursery rhymes, what sets this book apart is the illustrations. Instead of having one illustrator, there are 77 world famous illustrators including Alan Lee, Eric Carle, Marcia Williams. This is a cute book with a lot of rhymes I recognized and a smattering of ones I didn't recognize. My son loves this book, and the sing-songy way the words flow. The illustrations also provide color and character for the visual learner. I confess that I didn't love all of the illustrations, but it was fascinating to flip through the book and see all the different illustration styles of the various artists. Overall, it was a clever book and one worth investing in if you have little ones in the house!

These books were provided to me for free by Candlewick Press in exchange for honest reviews. If you found these reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Rolling America and Rory's Story Cubes (Gamewright)

There's something about dice in a game that enhance the value in my book. For starters, it makes the game feel more tactile and hands on. There's no feeling in a game like picking up a handful of dice, chucking them, and seeing your fate randomly determined. In Monopoly, it can be the difference between Community Chest and Boardwalk with a hotel. In Yahtzee, it can be the difference between Four of a Kind and having to zero out your Yahtzee space. Each scenario could ultimately cost you the game! Today, I would like to tell you about two particular offerings from Gamewright that rely solely on dice. So let's roll the dice and get started!
Rolling America could be considered a micro game (fits in your pocket) and a filler game (15 minute play time). It is for ages 8 and up; retails for $12; and accommodates any number of players including one. Included in the box are a dice bag, seven dice (Red, Blue, Yellow, Purple, Orange, Green, and Clear) and a pad of maps of the United States with regions in the six colors previously mentioned (not Clear). The map is your game board and where you will be placing your dice rolls. To start out the game, place the seven dice into the bag, and the first player draws two dice out. He/She rolls the dice and then places the number on each die in a corresponding colored box on the map. The clear die is a wild color and can be used for any color. The next player then repeats the action of the first player, choosing two new dice out of the bag to roll. The third player follows suit, and that ends a round. As you can see, only six of the seven dice are rolled per round, and there are eight rounds total. This all sounds simple enough, but the I haven't told you about the biggest strategy element of the game. You cannot place a number next to another number unless it is within +1 or -1. So a 3 could be surrounded by a 2, 3, or 4. However, there are three different "power-ups" that can be used three times each to help you. These power-ups including color change, duplicate a number, and guard. The first two are self-explanatory, but guard means you can put an "illegal number" (a 6 next to a 2 for an example) on your map and circle it, so you remember it is guarded. If you can't place a number legally and are out of power-ups, you must place an X on your map. After all eight rounds are complete, you count the number of Xs you have and the fewest win. The first time I played this with my wife, I got creamed, but I have gotten better. Unfortunately, so has she! :) A lot of people might not like the random nature of dice games, because it does require good rolls or a bit of luck to get the numbers you need. However, the "power ups" and the ability to choose where you place the dice results add enough strategy to counter the randomness of dice rolls and create a nice strategy-luck balance. This game is clever in design, easy to learn, quick to play, requires logical thinking, and also a bit of luck. It's definitely worth checking out!

Besides being an excellent game mechanic, dice can serve another function. They can tell a story! No company has achieved the ability to tell a story with dice like Gamewright and their Rory's Story Cubes product line. The original version of Rory's Story Cubes were a box of nine dice with different images inked in black (Ink color will be important later) on every side. This created 54 unique images that could show up with a shake and roll of the dice. Due to the low price point ($10), box, the quick playtime (15 minutes), and the low age required to play it (8 years old), several expansions were released - Actions and VoyagesActions and Voyages each come with nine dice, like the original, with their ink color being blue and green respectively. You could then choose to use these sets individually, add three of each version for a total of nine, or roll all 27 together to create 162 possible images that can come up on the dice. Having these three versions of Rory's Story Cubes felt like it created infinite possibilities, and I was content, but puzzled why they stopped with these three boxes. Apparently, I was not the only one who wondered if we'd ever see another expansion, because this amazing product has seen a recent rebirth.

In addition to licensing Batman to make a Dark Knight version of Rory's Story CubesGamewright has released three mini-expansions called Rory's Story Cubes Mix with at least another three on the way. The first three mini-expansions are Clues, Enchanted, and Prehistoria in the colors purple, pink and green respectively. Each of these Mix sets comes with three dice, as opposed to nine, with a price point of $5. As with previous versions, you can mix-and-match to suit your fancy, and while making a monster set of 36 dice may be tempting, your story might not make a ton of sense. However, that might be okay with you, because you wanted to do a CSI: Fairy Tale Land. The other three coming out later this year are Intergalactic, Medic, and Score (sports related). I've seen others on Amazon, but can't confirm or deny their validity, so I won't bother mentioning them yet, as I'm not one to spread rumors.

I cannot begin to express how much I LOVE Rory's Story Cubes! I have been buying and recommending these dice for years. In addition to making a fun game out of the dice, they are also excellent teaching tools that can be used in the traditional or homeschool setting. In fact, that is the reason I bought them in the first place. My wife and I have kicked around the idea of homeschooling before, and I thought these dice would be perfect for an English/Creative Writing class. Just grab a handful of dice, roll them, and make a story out of them. In addition to a formal writing assignment, they can be used as an icebreaker in a classroom or social setting. First date and want to know if your guy/girl is a keeper? Bring the dice and see how they respond.With Rory's Story Cubes, not only are the story options limitless, but the personal uses you'll find these dice are equally limitless. With the addition of Batman to the product line, I'm curious to see if they will continue to license other DC superheroes, like Superman, or other things in general. Only time will tell!

Some of these products were provided to me by Gamewright, and some came from my personal collection. If you found these reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, February 10, 2016

On the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ (St. Herman Press)

St. Philaret of Chernigov was born in 1805 and the son of an Orthodox priest. He too became a priest and later a bishop. He was said to be extremely spiritual and humble, "an ascetic in the best traditions of Orthodox Patristic spirituality." He became a saint in the Orthodox Church in 2009. Today, I am going to tell you about his book On the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ, available from St. Herman Press.

On the Passion of our Lord Jesus Christ is a book which contains 60 homilies given by St. Philaret of Chernigov during Lent with one bonus homily given on Pascha. The book begins like most Orthodox books with a brief biography of St. Philaret of Chernigov. I always find this feature useful, and I wish more Catholic and even secular books would adopt this practice. We then arrive at the homilies. The first one begins by telling us about the importance of Christ's Passion and the role it plays in Great Lent. He also encourages and implores his congregation to listen to the Scripture and the homilies over these forty days. The homily then transitions its main subject of Jesus foretelling His death and Judas leaving to betray Him. The next homily then takes us to the preparation of the Passover feast that Jesus will celebrate with his disciples, and the third homily is on Jesus washing the feet of His apostles. As you can see, these homilies are going in chronological order.

I noticed that a great portion of the homilies dealt with the words Jesus said, which proved to be most edifying. The homilies that most piqued my interest dealt with Pilate. I always like to read the words of greater minds when it comes to this tragic figure, as I have mixed thoughts on Pilate and his action/inaction. St. Philaret of Chernigov gives several reasons for Jesus' silence in response to Pilate's questions. For starters, Jesus didn't need to answer the questions, because Pilate already knew the answers in his heart. Secondly, by not directly answering the questions, Jesus lessened some of Pilate's guilt. It did not completely remove his guilt though, as he turned Jesus over to be crucified, if only to save political face and not upset Caesar. Part of me still pities Pilate and wonders if he ever repented and converted, but we will have to wait to find that out.

Books of homilies are some of my favorite types of books, and this one did not disappoint. The shortest homilies in this book are six pages with others being twice as long, so this won't be a book you can pick up and read for five minutes a day. You'll have to carve out a bit of time to fully appreciate the wisdom of this saint and the previous saints he draws on for inspiration. What I found most helpful in this book was that each homily had the Scripture passages with them, so you could read the Scripture and then the homily. The only drawback to this book is that there are more than 40 homilies, so you'd have to double up on reading a lot to make it through Lent. You could also, more sensibly, read it one per day and finish when you finish, as this book is good anytime, not just Lent. At $20, this book is an absolute bargain, and I highly recommend it.

This book was provided to me for free by St. Herman Press in exchange for an honest review. If you found this review helpful, please click here and hit Yes!

Monday, February 8, 2016

Dante's Lyric Poetry (University of Toronto Press)

When people say Dante, the first thing that comes to mind is his Divine Comedy, as it should. However, few people realize that Dante actually wrote much more than this. It is just much less well-known. For the first time in 50 years, the University of Toronto Press published all of Dante's poetry from his youth (1283-1292), as well as the Vita Nuova. The book, Dante's Lyric Poetry, begins with notes on the poetry of Dante, the translation, and his plan for future volumes. We then dive into the actual poetry.

The first four poems are duels (tenzone) between Dante Alighieri and Dante da Maiano. We then arrive at Vita Nuova III. For those unfamiliar with the Vita Nuova, it is a combination of prose and verse which Dante wrote on medieval courtly love. One then sees the Vita Nuova throughout this book, with his poetry scattered between it. With each poem, we receive Italian (not the original, but very similar) and a more scholarly translation that improves on previous translations and gets closer to the original meaning than we've read before. With each poem, we receive an essay which is very scholarly and feels like something one would hear in a classroom setting. There are also receive copious footnotes, which are the editor's notes on why he translated words a certain way as well as references to other translations and works.

This was a very interesting and challenging read. It is definitely a scholarly book and one that is not for the novice, like myself. Being a big fan of The Divine Comedy, it was fascinating to read Dante's early works and see his writing style develop into his epic masterpiece. If you are a serious student of Dante and poetry, then you will want this book in your collection. If you are just a casual fan, then stick with The Divine Comedy as this book is very tough. I am intrigued if there will be another volume published after this one, but doubtful if I will be at the literary level to appreciate it.

This book was provided to me for free by the University of Toronto Press in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, February 5, 2016

Beautiful Birds and This Strange Wilderness (Flying Eye Books and University of Nebraska Press)

Nature is a beautiful thing, if you take the time to stop and appreciate it. Unfortunately, we seem to be moving non-stop lately. The concrete jungle is also ever-expanding. Technology is becoming pervasive and people can't seem to take their eyes off their phones. Today, I invite you to appreciate some beauty and check out these two books on birds. The first one, for young children, is called Beautiful Birds and is from Flying Eye Books. The other book is for the older crowd and is called This Strange Wilderness from University of Nebraska Press.

Beautiful Birds is a 12" x 9" fully illustrated "A is for" book. By this description, I mean that each letter of the alphabet has a bird associated with it. For example, "A is for albatross, the admiral of the skies. B is for bee-eaters, BEWARE any bug that flies." Each page is dedicated to one bird, with a vibrantly colored illustration, and a one-line descriptor, as seen above. As you can also see there is a bit of a rhyming scheme to this book, but a lot of the descriptors are too advanced for the intended audience of this book. "Q is for quetzal, a god among us." How many 7 year-old children will know about the Aztecs and their deities? If you take this book at face value, which is a gorgeously illustrated book that can teach your children the alphabet and birds at the same time, then it is a top-notch book. If your children have more questions after reading about some of these birds, then you could make expand the lesson for this book and research the birds that interest them. You could also use it as a beginner's field guide. Overall, a quality made book that your kids will enjoy reading through.

One could argue that no one loved birds more than John James Audubon. He devoted his life to discovering and painting every North American species of birds. The book This Strange Wilderness is a biography of Audubon and also includes some of his artwork, which is stunning if you have never seen it. The book begins with Audubon's birth in Haiti and the death of his mother he never knew. His father, a French sea captain and plantation owner, took him back to France where he and his wife Anne raised James and his half-sister Rose. James' father was responsible for his love of birds and his passion for illustrating them. Audubon was never happy with his drawings. He was so disappointed with them that he burned the drawings every year on his birthday with a vow to do better.

The book then chronicles the horrors in France, including the French Revolution, and Audubon's engineered escape to America. It was here where Audubon met his wife. He had three children by her, two boys, and a girl who died at a very early age. Audubon had several failed business ventures and contributed much to the study of bird migration, ornithology, and taxonomy while attempting to provide for his family in these business ventures that failed. There are times in this book that Audubon didn't come off as a particularly great husband or father, as he left his wife (albeit with her blessing) to pursue his lifelong ambition of finding, painting, and cataloging every bird in North America. The book continues to trace Audubon's journey across America and his keen insight into birds and sadly their eventual extinction.

Reading through this book felt like reading a story, not a dry biography. The Audubon quotes demonstrated both his intelligence and his personality. The book also is full of photographs of the Audubons and Audubon's beautiful paintings. I also learned a lot about Audubon that I never knew, such as his early childhood and the fact that he drew mammals after he completed his book of birds. This was a fascinating read and one that I would recommend for middle-school and up. It contains a nice blend of science and history and would also make an excellent book for the homeschooling crowd!

These books were provided to me for free by Flying Eye Books and University of Nebraska Press respectively. If you found these reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

On the Family and Love Unveiled (Ignatius Press)

On the Family is a 120 page book, which contains 28 General Audiences given by Pope Francis from December 17, 2014 to September 16, 2015. The talks began shortly after the Extraordinary General Assembly of the Synod of Bishops on the Family in October 2014. Each talk is approximately four pages long and serve as the middle period between the Extraordinary Synod in October 2014 and the Ordinary Synod in October 2015. Pope Francis begins by talking about Nazareth and the Holy Family. He then takes a methodical approach to the topic of family by discussing individual roles in the family including mother, father, children, siblings, grandparents, etc. He then discusses the topics of male and female, marriage, death, wounded families, and of course evangelization.

The General Audience on Community I found most enlightening. We tend to think of our families as those we are related to by blood. However, Pope Francis reminds us that the Church is our spiritual family. All who believe in Jesus are part of the brotherhood, the Kingdom of God. Pope Francis also instructs that Jesus formed His own family by surrounding Himself with the Apostles, i.e., Peter and John. However, He also surrounded Himself with tax collectors, the elderly, the sick, and the margins of society. This book was a very quick read, because Pope Francis delivers a message that is straightforward and easily understood. Due to the approachable nature of his talks, one could read this book an hour or two at most, but they would miss the chance for reflection and meditation. I therefore recommend that you read through one chapter/talk per day. This will mean you finish the book in a month, but it will also give you proper time to chew on and digest the message.

DVD Study Programs have revolutionized the way we can share the Catholic faith with others. There have been some great ones produced, including Catholicism and Symbolon. Unfortunately, not everyone has the time or resources to commit to these studies. Dr. Sri took that into account when he wrote the book Love Unveiled, which is based on Symbolon. In this book, Dr. Sri explains the Catholic faith in a way that few have tried to do. The main premise of the book isn't the tradition or rituals of the Catholic Church. (Though, they are important.) Instead, he tells us "The Catholic Church stands for the God who is madly in love with you, who has a plan for you and wants you to be happy - the God who even sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to die for you, who wants to forgive you and help you in your life, and who, most of all, wants an intimate, personal relationship with you so that you can be with him forever in heaven." Re-read that and let it sink in. If every Catholic could adopt that message and share that message, we could set the world on fire!

The book is sixteen chapters long and covers all the tenets of the Catholic faith. It discusses who God is, Divine Revelation, Mary, the Sacraments and so much more. However, instead of a dry presentation of this is what we believe and this is why we believe it, Dr. Sri presents all these aspects through the lens of God's love. For example, people can choose to look at the cross as a torture device, but we instead look at it as the ultimate symbol of love. Some might choose to look at Confession as unnecessary or even an invasion of privacy. Why do they need it if they can just go to God and confess their sins? Instead, the Church views it as a loving way to reconcile man with God and His Church. As you can see from just these two examples, love is the underlying theme of this book and of the Catholic Church. Unfortunately, too many people have forgotten that truth.

Dr. Sri has a way of explaining the faith that makes it simple without taking away the profound nature of it all. If you are in an RCIA program, new to the faith, or just looking to deepen your appreciation of the Catholic faith, then this is the book for you. It is highly recommended for all and would make a great gift for graduating seniors who might be moving away for the first time ever.

These books were provided to me for free by Ignatius Press in exchange for honest reviews. If you found these reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Divine Comedy (Quarto Knows and Oxford University Press)

The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri is the greatest poem ever written. Because of its importance to literature, there have been many translations, editions, and texts written on it. I am not qualified to judge translations, but I do know someone who is. So instead of pointing you toward the best translation, I will instead tell you about two editions I have recently been reading.

The Knickerbocker Classics version of The Divine Comedy is the translation of Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. Longfellow was the first U.S. translation of The Divine Comedy, and because of that it is a very accessible translation. It's not the best translation I have read in terms of beauty, but it is an easier read than others which I have attempted. The best part of this edition is the images of Gustave DorĂ©. The illustrations of DorĂ© are easily recognized and you will also find them in the works of John Milton. Like all books in the Knickerbocker Classics line, the pages are thinner than my liking, and that creates both word and image bleed-through. This is not a textbook edition, but more a bookshelf edition. Because of that, it is missing footnotes both for translation and literary references. Those are helpful and I'd argue essential for anyone reading through Dante the first time. There is a brief introduction on Dante, a section on "The Life and Times of Dante Alighieri," and some keys to studying the text at the end. However, for a thorough study, you'll want a more scholarly translation and perhaps a textual guide or commentary on it. Overall, this is a good book for an affordable price and you could walk away from it with a basic grasp and appreciation of The Divine Comedy. I recommend it for someone who has never read this great work or someone looking to re-introduce themselves to this work.

If you are a bit more experienced or adventurous in your reading of The Divine Comedy, then you could check out the three-volume paperback set from Oxford University Press. Like any translation, there are pros and cons to this edition. Even though, the poem is meant to be read as one work, the fact that they are in three books makes it a bit more portable if you want to read one at a time. The biggest plus to these books though is that they are a parallel translation. That means you get the original Italian on one side (if you are smart enough to know the Italian, which again, I know someone who is), and John D. Sinclair's translation on the other. The translation loses the beauty of the poetic verse in doing a translation of this type, but it adds a scholarly level to it, if that's your thing. There is also commentary included in these volumes, which while helpful can be leading. Works need to be read on their own before you start listening to what other people have to say about them. Overall, this is a solid translation and one that I would recommend if you are experienced in Dante and if you have an interest in reading what others have to say about Dante.

This book was provided to me for free by Quarto Knows and Oxford University Press in exchange for an honest review. If you found these reviews helpful, please click here and/or here and hit Yes!