Thursday, June 30, 2011

Ronia, the Robber's Daughter, by Astrid Lindgren


Another classic from my childhood. Lindgren is a very capable Swedish author (best known for Pippi Longstocking and Mio, My Son), and this book is a great example. Lindgren presents the life of a robber's daughter quite compellingly--the day to day pleasures of life in and around the woods are told in vivid detail; the reality of robbing and other adult concerns are only vaguely addressed. In that sense, it is very like a child's view of life. Ronia, the title character, is spunky and courageous, and her friendship with Birk, the rival chieftain's son, is quite touching. The family unit is portrayed fairly well. There is some violence, though it's mostly fear of things about to happen--there is not much gore. Overall, the book has good things to say about the foolishness of feuds (and possibly even racism), the wisdom of children, the love of a father for his daughter, the importance of friendship, and the morality of robbery as a career. The story largely reads like a children's story--that is, a story from the child's point of view. Some problems loom larger, while others recede into almost nothing...and not the problems you'd expect from an adult point of view. It's artfully done, and the result is a fun yet compelling story. Which is hardly surprising, from Lindgren.

Definitely worth reading.

Tuesday, June 28, 2011

The Curse of the Gloamglozer, by Paul Stewart


A fun young adult read--and even more notably, one that is truly appropriate for young adults and even children. Stewart steers clear of sex, profanity, and even violence for the most part (what violence there is tends toward the action variety rather than out-and-out gore). The characters are not terribly compelling, but then they aren't the main point of the story anyway. Stewart has created a complex and elaborate and incredibly original universe full of fascinating creatures and places. Libraries full of scrolls on wooden trees (in an amusingly literal depiction of the "branches" of knowledge), a floating city over the Edge (of what, you ask? It is not entirely clear), and flying rocks are just a few of Stewart's more inventive creations. Though the plot was decent enough, I found myself wanting to learn more about the world Stewart created than the people that lived there or the things that happened. Still, to leave a reader wanting to read more of his writing is more than many YA authors can boast.

As for the illustrations, they do contribute to the overall feel of the book, and provide the reader with some much needed context in such an otherworldly setting. Riddell's drawings have a decidedly Silversteinian quality, and he is at his best drawing places and non-human creatures (which might be hard for readers to visualize without assistance)--his "people" are less impressive.

A short and easy read, even if it's not terribly deep or meaningful. But if you're looking for a good, clean, fun read for a young (or young-at-heart) adult, this is a worthwhile find.

Monday, June 27, 2011

The Improbable Adventures of Sherlock Holmes, by John Joseph Adams (ed.)


Quite good, and thoroughly enjoyable. Which is a pleasant surprise, since "continuing adventures" of classic characters can be atrocious when done poorly--which they often are. In this case, the editors wisely culled (or commissioned) stories from some extremely gifted authors--and more importantly, authors who seemed to truly cherish and appreciate Holmes and his work.

Many of the stories take advantage of the overlapping lives of such well-known authors as H.G. Wells, Bram Stoker, H.P. Lovecraft, and even Sir Arthur Conan Doyle himself. What would happen if Holmes met Doyle? If he went to school with Stoker? If he were hired by Wells to investigate a seemingly paranormal mystery? If the mythology of Lovecraft were true?

The authors overall do an excellent job of keeping Holmes true to himself--they do little violence to the character of the man himself. Some choose to write mysteries mentioned in passing in the canonical Holmes stories: the shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland (referenced in Doyle's "Adventure of the Norwood Builder" and the basis for two stories in this collection); Merridew of abominable memory (referenced in "Adventure of the Empty House"); and the inexplicable disappearance of James Phillimore (referenced in "Problem of Thor Bridge"). Others choose to flesh out existing characters like Irene Adler, Mrs. Hudson, and Professor Moriarty. Many of the stories have truly fantastical elements--dinosaurs, aliens, time travel, a mummy's curse, ghosts . . .

There are stronger and weaker stories of course. I particularly enjoyed "The Singular Habits of Wasps" and (not surprisingly) "A Study in Emerald". I was less impressed by "The Adventure of the Death-Fetch" and "You See But You Do Not Observe". Ultimately, I think Holmes is at his best when he finds a rational solution to a seemingly supernatural mystery (which in no way disproves the existence of the supernatural on the larger scale), though several of the authors were able to introduce clearly supernatural elements into Holmes' world quite smoothly.

All in all, it's a fun collection, and definitely worth the read.

Vampire Stories from the American South, by Lawrence Schimel & Martin Greenberg (eds.)


A middling collection of vampire stories. Some were--of course--more creative and enjoyable than others. And the American South is--of course--an excellent setting for vampire lore. Still, I was hoping for more. Vampires make for such great stories; it's a shame this collection didn't boast better ones. The editors, too, have much to answer for, as the text has more than its fair share of typos, grammatical errors, and other mistakes. Still, it's not a bad way to pass the time while traveling, so I can't complain too much.

Monday, June 20, 2011

The True Confessions of Charlotte Doyle, by Avi


Man, I loved this book as a kid. So when I spotted a copy in a used book store, I simply couldn't resist. I had to see if it was as good as I remembered. I shouldn't have worried.

The first time you revisit a beloved book from your childhood is always a bit unnerving . . . what if it sucks? What if it's stupid? What if you had terrible taste in books as a kid? What if you still have terrible taste in books?

Fortunately, this book stands up well to the test of time and maturity, though that's hardly surprising in a book written by Avi. It's still a compelling tale of high adventure, justice, social norms, prejudice, guilt, restitution, cruelty, mercy, fear . . . and a pretty empowering (and effective) upending of traditional gender roles.

Charlotte is just your average gentleman's daughter, on a merchant ship bound for America to be reunited with her family after finishing a year at boarding school. The other gentlefolk who were to accompany her back out at the last minute, and she ends up being the only passenger on the ship with a bunch of rough sailors and the captain they hate. Throughout her journey she learns a lot about who to trust, what to admire, and what she herself is capable of.

One note that rings false in this otherwise excellent and gripping book is [SPOILER] her willingness at the end of the story to abandon her family and return to her new life as a sailor. Yes, her family does not understand the changes she went through. Yes, they are still rigidly stuck in their belief that a captain is a gentleman and thus trustworthy and good and sailors are common and vulgar. Yes, she has grown to despise her constricting women's clothes. And yes, she's been away from them for quite some time already because of her stint at boarding school. But still, they are her family. And just because the crew was willing to accept her as one of their own on a bizarre crossing where they were short-handed doesn't mean they will accept her has a crew member for the foreseeable future. Also, as a young woman, she is particularly vulnerable to violence and other ills if cooped up on a ship with a bunch of men for months at a time.

But other than that, the book is quite good--thoroughly enjoyable and eminently readable.

Friday, June 17, 2011

In Odd We Trust, by Dean Koontz


Kind of disappointing. I think Dean Koontz is just too verbal a writer to translate well into graphic novels. Odd Thomas's inner monologue is severely truncated, and Koontz doesn't get to flex his descriptor muscles. (Which is both good and bad--sometimes in his novels, it seems like Koontz is using words just to use them and not because they're the actual word that flows naturally. Still, it's obvious that he loves words, and the lack of verbal flavor makes the graphic novel a little lackluster.) The story is not the most brilliant ever, but it would be much more palatable if Koontz had the time and space of a novel to relish the characters and meander them through the plot. Instead, it feels bare and utilitarian. Also, Terrible Chester and Little Ozzie are completely absent from the book, which is unacceptable.

As a side note, I don't tend to go in much for manga. I think the characters all look too similar and nondescript.

I think I'll stick to the audiobooks.

Touched by a Vampire: Discovering the Hidden Messages in the Twilight Saga, by Beth Felker Jones


This is going to sound weird, but I was kind of disappointed that this book wasn't worse. I mean, with a title like Touched by a Vampire: Discovering the Hidden Messages in the Twilight Saga, I expected it to be atrocious. Deliciously bad. But apparently the title is the worst part. The rest of the book isn't nearly as bad as you'd expect.

Jones claims in her introduction that she's not out to make your decisions for you, and she seems to stick to that claim. She compares reading to food--there's healthy food, junk food (which isn't bad for you but shouldn't be the only thing you eat), and poisonous food. She maintains that it's up to the reader to determine which category the Twilight Saga falls into, and whether he or she wants to read it. For the most part, she keeps a pretty even hand in discussing Twilight and its themes. (For one thing, it appears that she's actually read the books, which is refreshing--people are often more than willing to share opinions about books they've never read.)

Some of her expectations seem a little unrealistic--for example, she notes that salvation in the Twilight Saga is works-based, rather than grace-based, as in the gospel. But this is not a book about the gospel, nor is it intended to be an allegory for the gospel. And while I agree with Jones that fallen man is powerless to resist sin in his life apart from the grace of God, a book where everyone just sits around being terrible until God comes along and saves them . . . well, I don't know that it would make for much of a read. Still, Jones seems to be willing to acknowledge good where she finds it. And even when she criticizes, it is less an indictment of the books as evil and more an encouragement for parents to discuss with their children how Christian theology differs from the worldview presented in Twilight. Which is completely valid, and a great idea.

Her writing and insights aren't brilliant, and there are themes she misses, but if you want to think about the Twilight Saga and its underlying themes (especially if you have kids who read the books), then it's probably well worth your time to read this little book.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Nero Wolfe of West Thirty-Fifth Street: The Life and Times of America's Largest Private Detective, by William S. Baring-Gould


Merely mediocre. It's nice to have the data from all the Nero Wolfe stories collected in one volume (well, all the stories published prior to 1969, that is--Death of a Dude, Please Pass the Guilt, and the rather dark A Family Affair came later and are not included here). I particularly appreciated the chronology (presented concisely in an appendix of sorts, and rather unnecessarily in text form in chapters 12 through 26). I read the books as they came my way, and never really got much of an idea of their proper chronological order. I expect that I will refer to the chronology often in future re-reading of the Nero Wolfe mysteries.

I also appreciated the map of the ground floor of the brownstone--I'd always pictured the office and front room to the right of the front door, and was grateful to have my misconception corrected.

Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Starship Troopers, by Robert A. Heinlein


Excellent book. The only thing that keeps it from getting five stars is that it doesn't really end. Or at least, the ending doesn't really provide closure. There is a significant battle toward the end of the book, but it's not significant in the sense of establishing a winner or loser in the overall war humanity is fighting. Rather, the battle has significance to the narrator and his development as a true soldier and officer (indeed, the whole book is less a story of the war and more a story of the narrator's journey from civilian to recruit to soldier to cadet to officer). But the final battle doesn't resolve anything in a cosmic sense. Which I guess makes sense, since life (and war) don't always have tidy endings.

The story and writing are very reminiscent of Ender's Game (or, I suppose, Ender's Game is reminiscent of Starship Troopers, since it was written a good 25 years later), though the soldiers are adults, not children, and the main character is not a messiah character but merely a capable soldier. (Also, Ender's Game provides an extremely clear and final "end", on a large scale, in a way that this book does not.)

This book is a classic example of science fiction that is about many different things--Heinlein has lots of interesting things to say about war, politics, voting, power, violence, morality, and a number of other topics.

An easy and engaging read (and not terribly long, either, by science fiction standards), this is definitely worth reading.

Monday, June 13, 2011

Early Will I Seek You: A 40-Day Journey in the Company of Augustine, by David Hazard (ed.)


Not great, not terrible. Hazard presents Augustine in his (Hazard's) own phrasing, which is kind of frustrating, and the sections are so short that any kind of flow or context is precluded. Reading this book makes me want to actually read Augustine for myself, instead of a paraphrase. Which, if that is Hazard's goal, then well done. The sections are certainly short, so if you're looking for a devotional that's like two pages per day, well, this is that. But I think there are meatier, more challenging devotionals (My Utmost for His Highest and Morning and Evening, to name just two).

All in all, sort of . . . meh. Which is not a quality often attributed to Augustine, so I am determined not to hold it against him. I expect I will feel very differently when I read him in context.

Friday, June 10, 2011

Three Victorian Detective Novels, by E.F. Bleiler (ed.)


Definitely a worthwhile read. It's strange to think that there was a time when no one had yet thought of the idea of detective stories. This collection boasts three of the earliest. Andrew Forrester's The Unknown Weapon features one of the first female detectives in fiction--and not just an amateur or free lance detective, but an official one. Forrester highlights the many avenues of investigation uniquely available to women. This is quite a surprising (and feminist) elevation of ability over gender, considering the state of gender relations at the time.

My Lady's Money, by Wilkie Collins (best known for The Woman in White, another mystery), presents a more classic mystery: the theft of a 500 pound bank note from an open envelope. The detective here is dirty, unprepossessing old man with keen powers of perception--the unlikely amateur detective at his best.

The final novel in the collection, The Big Bow Mystery is one of the very first "locked room" mysteries. A man in found dead, his throat slit, in a locked room--the windows and doors all locked from the inside. Israel Zangwill injects a healthy dose of humor into the tale, which was not always a characteristic of the genre. Also, Zangwill's introduction sheds some interesting light on the serial nature of Victorian mystery writing. Because he wrote in installments, readers had an opportunity to write in their guesses as to who perpetrated the crime and Zangwill had an opportunity to interact with those guesses. The extent to which those guesses affected his writing is anyone's guess, but it's fascinating to think of that sort of interaction predating television or the fan-fic so prevalent in the internet age.

All in all, an enjoyable and interesting collection, well worth reading. The mysteries aren't the most brilliant, but then the genre was still quite nascent. As first forays into a new kind of literature, they are quite good.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Women, Typology, and I Timothy 2:15

I haven't posted a plain old article in kind of a while.  It's pretty much just been book reviews.  But I ran across this one today, and I had to pass it along.  Mary Kassian writes a lot about issues for Christian women; I have no idea what her exegetical/theological/biblical interpretation qualifications are.  But she decided to take a crack at the ever-challenging I Timothy 2:15:
Let a woman learn quietly with all submissiveness. I do not permit a woman to teach or to exercise authority over a man; rather, she is to remain quiet. For Adam was formed first, then Eve; and Adam was not deceived, but the woman was deceived and became a transgressor. Yet she will be saved through childbearing—if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.  
 (1 Timothy 2:11–15, ESV)  Tough stuff, right?  Her take on it is that Paul is being typological, not ontological.  Since Adam is a type of Christ, and marriage is a type of the relationship between Christ and the Church, it follows that Eve--who was married to Adam--is a type of the Church.  So Kassian's reading is as follows:

Dingo Devotionals: Learning to Heel, by Lynne Scott


Really more of a one-and-a-half star book. The idea is good--look to the discipline and training of animals to learn more about the ways God disciplines and trains us--but the execution is rather abysmal. Some of the connections and analogies don't really work (or were actually problematic), and even when she lights on a analogy with real potential, she stops before she ever really gets going. The result is a book that never really goes anywhere. It has fits and starts, but no follow through. What could have been a very challenging look at discipline ends up . . . empty. I don't know whether to blame her writing, her thinking, or her editor, but something just did not deliver here. I'm sure the intentions were good, and like I said, I like the idea. But the actual conclusions needed to be more thought out, and then fleshed out. Also, I'm not entirely sure the gospel was clearly presented. It's a short book, with short chapters/sections, but it's still not worth the read.

Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Risk, by Dick Francis


One of the first Dick Francis books I ever read as a kid (the absolute first was Dead Cert), and still one of my favorites. The hero (of sorts) is an accountant to those involved in the racing world, and a bit of an amateur jockey himself. Toss in a dash of romance, an inexplicable kidnapping, and the challenges of coping with long term confinement in a small space (this would be a substitute for the usual man v. nature portion of Francis' novels), and you have yourself a decent little mystery. Also, the villain's motives are largely normal, and they themselves are fairly run-of-the-mill. Francis is at his best when he avoids the "insanely psychopathic villain" trope. All in all, not a bad book.

Monday, June 6, 2011

Smokescreen, by Dick Francis


Dick Francis delivers again. This time, the setting is exotic South Africa, and the lead is a likable, down-to-earth action film star. The usual Francis tropes make their appearances . . . most notably the protracted battle between man and nature. And of course, there is the male lead with an unusual ability to interpret data to reach reliable conclusions (though I suppose every good mystery needs someone with such an ability). As usual, Francis mixes the familiar (the racing industry) with the unfamiliar (here, the gold mining industry). Definitely a fun book. (Incidentally, if you like Francis' take on the film industry, I recommend Wild Horses (the lead is a film director), and if you liked Wild Horses, Smokescreen might be right up your alley.)

I Talk Back to the Devil, by A.W. Tozer


A bit lackluster, honestly. I haven't read Tozer before, but I will try not to hold this book against him in the future. It's not entirely clear what the point of the book is. The subtitle has changed since the original edition, and the title itself is a bit confusing. Spiritual warfare isn't really the theme of the book at all. Instead, the book is one long exhortation not to accept Christian mediocrity, but to press on toward perfection and the standard set by Christ. Tozer is right to criticize the modern Christian contentment with merely "adequate" faith, but he sometimes seems to believe that perfection is an attainable goal. Which is not only patently false--we will never attain perfection in this life--but does his readers a disservice, since the inevitable failure of this "quest for perfection" tends to lead to guilt and depression. The book doesn't really seem to say much of anything. He exhorts Christians to be filled with the spirit, to be set on fire with love of God, which is all well and good. The modern churchgoer is far too reluctant to be a fanatic for Jesus (not in the legalistic, hateful way portrayed on news shows, but in a sold-out-for-Jesus sort of way). But I didn't feel like Tozer really helped the reader get there. The book seemed to be more about selling the reader on the idea than actually providing meaningful guidance. So all in all, I would have to say that it kind of lacked substance. Which feels like a very critical thing to say about someone of Tozer's stature, but there you have it. Not a bad book, by any means, and my own spiritual mediocrity may be coloring my perception, but all in all, I expected better. Then again, this is not one of his best-known books. Maybe there's a reason for that.

Turn Back the Night, by Stephen R. Lawhead


Excellent, if amusingly dated. Lawhead's pop culture examples range from Dynasty to Dukes of Hazzard to Olivia Newton John to Flashdance. The times, they have a-changed. And the industry has changed with them--I think television is not quite as simplistic and straightforward as it was in the '80s; the gap between popular literature and "serious" literature is closing; and with the rise of the indie music scene, many musicians actually do care about artistic integrity and technical excellence. The '80s were admittedly an insanely commercial era--substance was not particularly prized. Still, many of Lawhead's conclusions remain valid. He opposes a wholesale rejection or acceptance of pop culture, and advocates instead for discerning and selective consumption. He also has some very harsh things to say about the contemporary Christian genre, which was particularly unimpressive (from a quality and excellence standpoint) in the '80s. Indeed, many of his recommendations have come to pass. For example, it is much easier now to find Christian reviews of secular books/movies/television/music. Indeed, the advent of the internet has provided a glut of reviews of all shapes and sizes. A consumer wishing to do his due diligence is more than adequately equipped to do so.

All in all, a decent read. Lawhead's theology is a bit wonky, but the bulk of the book is about practical application of Christian morality, and that does not seem to be too affected by his unusual theological beliefs.

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

Slay Ride, by Dick Francis


A decent Francis book. The villain was medium-sized--not a raving psychopath, but not a run-of-the-mill John Q. Citizen either. A fair number of harrowing experiences for the hero, and a few alluring and possibly off-limits women . . . all in all, a pretty solid entry. Oh, and it takes place largely in Norway, which is a fun change from Francis' usual setting.