Friday, March 30, 2012

A Princess of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs


The adventures of Confederate Civil War veteran John Carter, who is mystically transported to the planet Barsoom (Mars), where he encounters violent, six-limbed Tharks, wild thoats, an incredibly loyal calot, vicious white apes, a moss-covered desert, flying machines, and (of course) a beautiful Red Martian princess by the name of Dejah Thoris.  Time after time, Carter's physical prowess and southern sensibilities enable him to save the day . . . and the planet.

The first time I read this book, I remember being rather underwhelmed.  It was just so . . . cheesy.  The adventure was ok, I guess, but John Carter is so conveniently good at everything.  And the love story is just ridiculous.  It reads like an 8th grade boy's (non-pervy) fan fiction.

On this second read through, I realized . . . that's the entire point.

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Legacy, by Thomas E. Sniegoski


An excerpt from a new review posted on Children's Books and Reviews:
This is a classic superhero story. I’m not saying it will become a classic; it’s simply not that memorable. But it has all the classic superhero ingredients. A young slacker (Green Hornet); the onset of inexplicable physical changes (Spider-man); a long-lost father who reveals the hero’s true identity (Superman); a billionaire with a secret (Batman); a jaded superhero who’s willing to use questionable means to achieve his supposedly ‘good’ ends (Watchmen); a superhero with severe physical limitations (X-Men); flying suits (Iron Man); botched science experiments (The Hulk); super powers (pretty much all of them); crime syndicates (ditto) . . . this reads like an amalgam of tried-and-true superhero stereotypes. [...] 
Fortunately, these clichés are popular because they work. While this is by no means a terribly original work of fiction, it likely ticks enough of the superhero boxes to hold the attention of fans of the genre—particularly those who might previously have avoided traditional novels in favor of the more accessible and visually stimulating graphic novel.
Full review available here.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

The Imitation of Christ, by Thomas à Kempis


An excerpt from a new review posted on Schaeffer's Ghost:
The problem is the gospel.  It's simply not there.  While it may be that Kempis believed the gospel and took it for granted that his readers did the same--which was my opinion when I first read this book back in high school.  However, the simple fact is that Christ's atoning sacrifice for our sins is completely absent from this volume.  There are vague references to grace, to appealing to God and Christ for aid, but ultimately this is a book about the things you should do--not the great thing that has already been done.  In this sense, it functions a bit like the law--it opens your eyes to see how utterly you fail to live up to the standard (in this case, your failure to imitate Christ).  Indeed, I remember vividly the conviction I felt the first time I read it.  It's great for making you feel the weight of your sin.  It just can't help you bear that burden.
Full review available here.

[The original review appeared here in its entirety, and is now available at the above blog.]

A Journey to the Center of the Earth, by Jules Verne


Axel Lidenbrock, nephew of the dedicated scientist and professor Otto Lidenbrock, is pressured by his uncle to join him in a fantastic voyage from their Germany to Iceland, and thence into the belly of a volcano, where he hopes to trace the footsteps of a medieval alchemist who claims to have traveled to the center of the earth.  Axel reluctantly parts ways with his beloved Grauben (the Professor's god-daughter) and heads off into the unknown with his uncle and their preternaturally proficient and uber-reliable Icelandic guide Hans.  But will they really be able to travel into the center of the earth?  How will they get there?  What will they find?  And how will they ever get back?

This is a decent enough story (which makes sense, given its reputation as a classic work of science fiction).  the three main characters--the Professor, Axel (the narrator), and Hans)--are well drawn, and good thing too, since we spend almost the whole book with these three.  The Professor is dedicated to the point of mania and unfailingly optimistic about the success of their mission.  Hans, who speaks only Danish (and thus is unintelligible to the narrator and to us) is conveniently capable and willing to follow the Professor into any danger or seemingly hopeless situation, provided he is paid his weekly wages.  Indeed, more than once, he functions as a sort of deus ex machina to get the other two characters out of a tight spot.

As for Axel . . . well, he belongs in a Lovecraft story.  By which I mean, he is prone to fits of despondency and gloom and has a tendency to faint when things get too intense.  He waxes eloquent about Grauben, is devastated to be parted from her, is convinced the journey will be a failure, then becomes elated at its possible success, only to bemoan their certain demise when things go poorly.  He is the perpetual pessimist poking holes in the Professor's upbeat certitude.  Until, of course, he decides that they might just succeed, at which point he becomes positively giddy.  Not, perhaps, the most scientifically minded individual.

Still, for all that, it's a pretty enjoyable read.  The voyage drags on a bit--first they have to get to Iceland and make arrangements for their descent, which takes a while, then they're in tunnels for quite a while, then sailing on an underground sea for a while longer, and so forth and so on.  They do find some interesting things, but it takes a while before the reader gets that payoff.  The focus really is the journey, as the title suggests, and the reader spends a veritable eternity with the trio as they navigate the bowels of the earth.

Definitely worth picking up if you enjoy old-school adventure stories, or if you just want to catch up on the classic science fiction that paved the way for the flashier, faster-paced stories we love today.  No sex or violence, really, though there's plenty of 'danger'--this should be fine for younger audiences, if they can pay attention through all the long and occasionally monotonous passages.  Though at 160 pages, give or take, even the monotonous bits don't drag on for too long.  The audiobook, narrated by Simon Pebble, is quite good (there is another version narrated by Tim Curry, which I suspect is also worth checking out).

Friday, March 16, 2012

Hymns for Lent II: Go to Dark Gethsemane

[NOTE: The second in a series of seven blog posts on Lent. The full series is available here. Enjoy!]

Maundy Thursday is pretty much the only big Holy Week day, other than Holy Saturday, that doesn't get much in the way of an official observation.  We have church services on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday, of course, and lots of churches have some sort of church service or gathering for Good Friday, but Maundy Thursday services are fairly rare in the Protestant denominations (though they're increasing in popularity for some reason).  But the events of Good Friday--Christ's sacrificial death on the cross--really start on Thursday night, in the Garden of Gethsemane.

The Scent of Cherry Blossoms: A Romance from the Heart of Amish Country, by Cindy Woodsmall


Things have been tense in the Martin household.  Nineteen-year-old Annie tries to ignore her brothers' antics, but there's no denying that their drinking and swearing and gambling is a far cry from appropriate behavior for Old Order Mennonites.  When her mother sends her off to stay with her grandfather in Apple Ridge, Pennsylvania, she's relieved to get away from all the fighting.  But Apple Ridge brings its own challenges, as Annie is reminded of her affection for quiet, stuttering Aden Zook.  As a young girl, she'd admired him; as a grown woman, she realizes he's everything she's looking for in a man.  And Aden seems equally taken with her.  There's only one problem: he's Old Order Amish, and the two are forbidden to intermarry, or even court.  With Annie's grandfather threatening to put the Zook family diner out of business, and Aden's crippled brother doing everything he can to tear them apart, will Annie and Aden ever find a way to be together?  Can they overcome the obstacles in their way?  Should they?

This books marks my first foray into the growing genre of Amish fiction.  And I have to say, I suspect it may not be the genre for me.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Lois & Clark (Season 1)


Mild-mannered Clark Kent starts working for the Daily Planet, Metropolis's most respected newspaper, only to discover that a) Metropolis needs more than a crack reporter, it needs a superhero; and b) he has the hots for one Lois Lane, the Planet's arrogant star reporter. Fortunately for Clark, he just happens to be a superhero (or, you know, an alien with superpowers). Unfortunately for Clark, Lois is a heck of a lot more interested in this new 'Superman' guy than she is in the kind, reliable guy at the next desk.  Hijinks ensue.

This show is, at least in this season, rather underwhelming. And I say that as a longtime fan of sci-fi/fantasy TV cheese (see also, Buffy, Angel, Hercules, The Tick, Chuck, etc.). But Cain and Hatcher lack the chemistry needed to succeed as the lynchpin relationship of the series. Cain's Kent is nice but dull, and his Superman isn't much better. Which may not be entirely Cain's fault--Superman is, at heart, just a nice Kansas guy. He is, in essence, a boring guy who does cool things. (Lex Luthor always was more interesting than Superman.) Hatcher, in her turn, plays Lois as bossy, domineering, and occasionally insufferable--definitely not worth the hype Kent (and eventually Luther) think she merits.

Fortunately, what the stars lack in chemistry and likability, the supporting cast has in spades. John Shea is smarmily evil as the manipulative and powerful villain Lex Luthor (though sadly, his days as the 'big bad' are numbered--after the first season, his involvement is limited to a handful of guest appearances). His butler-cum-sidekick Nigel (Tony Jay) is everything an evil British henchman should be. Clark's parents are ably portrayed by K. Callan and Eddie Jones as down-to-earth farmers--kind and supportive, but not fools. Jimmy Olsen (played by Micheal Landes, but only for this season, on account of he looks too much like Dean Cain. Or something) is likable and has decent chemistry with the rest of the cast.

But the real star here, acting-wise, is Lane Smith as the firm-but-fair father figure/editor-in-chief of the Daily Planet, Perry White. Whether he is sharing Elvis anecdotes, giving orders, or simply reacting to the other characters, Smith dominates the screen, deftly selling his comic moments while suggesting a force of personality fully equal to even Lex Luthor himself. He is, quite simply, a joy to watch.

The plotlines are largely rather lame, though there are occasional bright spots, usually connected to the appearance of more competent guest stars, such as Paul Gleeson ('The Ides of Metropolis'), Elliott Gould ('Witness'), Leslie Jordan ('I'm Looking Through You'), and Morgan Fairchild ('Pheromone, My Lovely').

Bottom line: It's a decent enough series, I guess, but, with the exception of Lane Smith, you're better off getting your cheesy superhero kicks elsewhere.

Quigley Down Under (1990)


Wyoming sharpshooter Matthew Quigley is a newcomer to Australia.  Someone in Australia wanted the services of the best long-distance shot in the world, and there's no better shot than Quigley--especially when he's using his custom-made Sharps rifle with extended barrel (and all sorts of other features I don't really understand).  Quigley is in for an unpleasant surprise, however, when he learns that his would-be employer, Marsten, wants him to use his skills to shoot not wild dingoes, but people--specifically the local Aborigines that Marsten claims have been causing trouble on his land.  Quigley is understandably outraged and refuses in no uncertain terms, but Marsten is not the sort of man you say no to . . . The next thing Quigley knows, he's been abandoned in the middle of the Australian outback with nothing but his rifle and a crazy woman who thinks he's her long-lost husband.  How will he survive?  What will happen to the Aborigines Marsten is so eager to eliminate?  And will Marsten ever get his comeuppance?

This plot is, as you may have noticed, is on the dark side for a Western.  Not that the genre is all sunshine and rainbows normally, but I'm used to seeing good cowboys pitted against, I don't know, robbers, brawlers, and drunken, lecherous fools.  Even the ones guilty of murder seem to steer clear of killing women and children. Marsten's men are certainly qualified in drunken lechery department--when we first meet them, they are trying to force Crazy Cora into their wagon, presumably for nefarious purposes. But their villainy does not end there. In an interesting (and unsettling) spin on the usual cowboys-and-Indians conflict, Marsten's men are slaughtering native people by the dozen--including women and young children. In one particularly disturbing scene, a group of Aborigines is herded to a cliff's edge where they are essentially forced to jump to their deaths (including mothers with children screaming in their arms). Thus, while the overall tone of the film is not terribly somber--there's plenty of good fun along the way, and the violence, while distressing, is not graphic--but there's no denying the stakes are higher than in your average lighthearted, high-octane action movie.

Warped, by Maurissa Guibord


An excerpt from a new review posted on Children's Books and Reviews:
It is a truth universally acknowledged that little (and not-so-little) girls love unicorns. In fact, the only thing little girls like more than a unicorn is a handsome young prince with a slight streak of arrogance but also, when push comes to shove, a good heart. 
This story has both. Ok, yes, Will [...] is technically the son of an earl, but let’s be honest: any title of nobility will work in a pinch. He’s occasionally brusque, and haughty, and understandably old-fashioned in his ideas, but he’s also brave and strong and daring and did I mention handsome? That Tessa starts to fall in love with him will come as a surprise to precisely no one. [...]
All of this adds up to a fun and frothy fairy tale romance with plenty of danger and action and relational angst along the way—perfect for the not-so-little girl and the little girl that, more often than not, still lives inside her.
Full review available here.

Wednesday, March 14, 2012

John Carter of Mars (2012)


Civil War veteran John Carter just wants to be left alone.  Well, to be left alone so he can find a legendary 'cave of gold'.  His plans are rudely interrupted, however, when he is mysteriously and unceremoniously transported to the planet Barsoom--or as you and I know it, 'Mars'.  Life on Barsoom is hard; the ruthless four-armed Tharks have no patience for weakness (even killing children who are deemed too weak to survive), and the power-hungry ruler of Zodanga is poised to overthrow the city of Helium . . . of which uber-hottie Dejah Thoris is (conveniently) the princess.  John Carter, acclimated to the heavier earth gravity and thus possessed of seeming super-powers in Mars' reduced gravity, is heavily recruited by Helium for its defense.  Will he be persuaded to take an interest in the events around him?  What of the godlike Therns worshiped on Mars--what is their role in the conflict between Zodanga and Helium?  And what can one man do about it?

This movie is about par for the course in the sci-fi/action blockbuster genre--which is to say: critics were unimpressed, and the audience by and large enjoyed it.  The original novel, while a 'classic', is far from a literary masterpiece--it was one of many pulp stories published by the truckload in the early 1900s.  The writers here clearly played fast and loose with the source material, tweaking the plot wherever they saw fit.  Some of these tweaks--like the superweapon known as 'the ninth ray'--unnecessarily complicated the plot and ultimately contributed to the confusion surrounding the film.

More troubling than the plot changes, however, were the character changes.

Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, by Adam S. McHugh


I confess I was pretty disappointed in this book.  Which may have been due as much to my unrealistic expectations as to the product itself. McHugh sets out to help introverts thrive in the increasingly extroverted evangelical church--and to help the church better welcome introverts.  These are noble goals, to be sure.

However, he runs into difficulties right from the get-go: nailing down a definition of introversion.  Not all introverts are shy or quiet.  Not all extroverts are loud.  The definition I like best has to do with what energizes you--if you are energized by being around people and sapped by being alone, you are probably an extrovert.   If being with people wears you out and you recharge in solitude, you are probably an introvert.  Any definition more expansive than this tends to cause problems.  So when McHugh tries to make generalizations about what introverts are like, their strengths and weaknesses, I found myself constantly thinking of extroverts I know who are the same way, or introverts who are not.  It's a tough situation to be in--you need to talk about the attributes of introverts in order to speak to the ways they struggle to fit in at church.  But the simple truth is introverts don't have the market cornered when it comes to listening, thinking deeply, or any number of other qualities McHugh highlights.

Then, too, there is the issue of why the introversion/extroversion distinction matters in the church context.  Yes, certain things are harder for some people than others--so what?  McHugh has concluded that this introvert/extrovert distinction is a created difference to be celebrated.  His basis for this conclusion is primarily biological, and makes for interesting reading, but doesn't answer the ultimate question.  After all, there may be any number of behaviors or attitudes to which I am predisposed.  It does not necessarily follow that I am 'allowed' to avoid difficult tasks.  For example, as an introverted Christian, I loathe the 'mingling' that comes at the close of a church service.  The fact that I am a biological introvert does not give me a free pass to duck out.  And just because an extrovert doesn't like solitude doesn't mean he or she can simply neglect personal prayer.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Hymns for Lent I: Ride on, Ride on in Majesty

INTRODUCTORY NOTE:  In the weeks before Christmas, I blogged through several of my favorite (fairly) well known Christmas carols.  It was a very helpful, and a great reminder of the true meaning of Christmas.  I've decided to do something similar for Lent--just seven this time, not twelve.  It will be a bit tricky, since it's hard to find hymns that meditate on Christ's suffering without moving on to celebrate His resurrection.  But then, perhaps that is for the best, since He is risen.  Anyway, here goes.

Traditionally speaking, Lent is a time of somber meditation and self-denial. During this season we remember the temptation of Jesus Christ and his eventual death on the cross. The culmination of Lent is Holy Week--the week leading up to Easter. (An excellent timeline of the Holy Week is available here.)  It's easy to skip ahead to Maundy Thursday and Good Friday, and we'll be talking a lot about the events of those days in this series. But Holy Week doesn't start in Gethsemane. It starts on the Sunday before, on the road into Jerusalem.  Which is where our first hymn starts off.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Murder in Manolos, by Linsey Mastin


Heidi Hart has just graduated from business school, and is determined to support herself without her wealthy father's assistance.  But after two months of job hunting in New York City, she's getting worried, and the rent is due.  In a fit of desperation, she takes a job as a nanny with a wealthy family, only to discover that she's been hired to be more of a companion than a nanny, and that her charge is a bright and beautiful fifteen-year-old.  Between shopping trips and talking about boys, Heidi learns that Lauren's mother died in a tragic and mysterious boating accident years before, and soon the two girls have partnered together to uncover the real story of what happened that night.  But someone is trying to keep the truth a secret . . . and it just might be a secret worth killing for.

As you may have noticed, Mastin's story is essentially an updated re-telling of du Maurier's classic novel Rebecca . . . with some significant changes.  Our narrator is not the shy, overwhelmed second wife, but the bold, outspoken 'nanny' investigating a mysterious death.  Then, too, the victim has something of a different temperament from the titular Rebecca.  Nonetheless, the parallels are unmistakable--and highly effective.  As a huge fan of the original novel, I found myself eager to solve the mystery, eager to find out whether (and how much) Mastin had changed the details.

As with many modern novels, some of the 'hip and trendy' references border on dated, and may not age well.  For example, a Julia Roberts movie marathon, while quite commonplace in the 90s, is significantly less common today, especially when it includes less 'classic' fodder.  Pretty Woman will likely be a favorite for young girls for years to come, but I don't know that a modern teen (now or in the future) would have a nostalgic affection for such films as Runaway Bride (or Charlie's Angels, which makes an appearance later on). However, Roman Holiday and Breakfast at Tiffany's, having already withstood the test of time, are safer choices, and Mastin is wise to use them.  (Ditto for Tyra Banks, who gets a free pass simply because she's Tyra.)  [NOTE:  Nora Ephron does a great job of this, centering her films around classics like Pride & Prejudice (in You've Got Mail), Casablanca (in When Harry Met Sally), and, most notably, An Affair to Remember (in Sleepless in Seattle).]