Although I'd never added it to my bookshelves until this week, this is the textbook I used for 10th-grade English classes when we home-schooled our giAlthough I'd never added it to my bookshelves until this week, this is the textbook I used for 10th-grade English classes when we home-schooled our girls. Originally, I added it as "to-read," only because I couldn't recall for certain if I'd read the entire text. However, I've certainly read (and remember very well!) the lion's share of it. So, I've decided that I've read it sufficiently to go ahead and review it, with that caveat, rather than try to go back later and read every selection I don't distinctly remember. (In the case of those that are just excerpted snippets from longer works, my usual practice would be to skip over those anyway.)
In American high school education, the junior and senior English classes traditionally consist of survey courses in American and British literature, respectively. The sophomore year (10th grade) prepares for this by a broader course in the appreciation of literature in general. This is designed as a textbook for that course and, like most such, consists almost entirely of literary selections (152 of them, in this case) ranging from the Bible to the 20th century, each one followed by a few intelligent discussion questions and in most cases by a short bio-critical paragraph about the author, if known. (It is indexed by authors and titles, and has two glossaries, one of literary terms and one of words in the various selections that students may not have encountered before.) It is not designed for systematic coverage of world literature or any particular national literary tradition, nor does it include blocs of secondary didactic material. Rather, it's a straightforward sampler of good literature, designed to awaken and whet the interest and appetite of students who have the potential to appreciate it.
A Beka Books is the publishing arm of Pensacola Christian College, specializing in textbooks for Christian schools and homeschoolers. (No information is supplied on editor Anderson, but I'm assuming she may have been affiliated with PCC.) However, the scope of the work isn't limited to works with religious themes, or by Christian authors. A number of the latter are represented (including Leo Tolstoy, John Cardinal Newman, John Milton, John Bunyan, and St. Augustine); but so are a number of secular or non-Christian writers, such as Thomas Hardy, Walt Whitman, Emerson, and A. E. Housman. As an epigraph for the book, Anderson chose Philippians 4:8, "Whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things." She took this to heart by including worthy works of literature regardless of their source. The majority of the 111 known authors (some, especially among the poets, are represented more than once) are from the 19th or 20th centuries, and most are American or British; but several other European countries are also represented.
Structurally, the organization is topical, rather than by types of literature or chronology; Anderson selected ten broad themes (hence the title) --Truth and Wisdom, Courage, Humility, Justice, Temperance, Beauty, Joy and Peace, Faith and Hope, Love, and Time and Eternity-- and arranged blocs of selections under each heading that she felt were related to it. (With no secondary discussion, the relationships aren't explained; if they aren't obvious, teachers/students can try to analyze them for themselves, or do as I did and just ignore the bloc arrangement and consider each selection more or less independently.)
If I count correctly, 30 short stories are included. (A few selections from The Canterbury Tales and The Decameron, adapted as prose stories, are included, too, as is one from Charles and Mary Lamb's similarly handled Tales from Shakespeare.) Some of these are familiar classics, like "The Necklace" by Maupassant, Edward Everett Hale's "The Man Without a Country" and O. Henry's "The Gift of the Magi." Other favorites of mine that I encountered here for the first time are Tolstoy's "How Much Land Does a Man Need?" Mona Gardner's 1942 masterpiece "The Dinner Party" (short enough that today we might call it a "flash fiction" --but dynamite can come in small containers!), O. Henry's "The Last Leaf," Pedro Alarcon's "The Stub-Book," and my first introduction to Saki, "The Interlopers." (And a powerful introduction that was; but no spoilers here!) Other tales worth special mention are Hawthorne's "Dr. Heidegger's Experiment;" "If I Live till Sundown," a Civil War story by Henry Woodfin Grady; and "A Start in Life," by neglected 20th-century Iowa regional Realist Ruth Suckow. (Her novel The Folks is in the BC library, and I want to read it sometime.) Hemingway's "A Day's Wait" is superior to most of his work, IMO. But I don't recall any stories here that impressed me as poorly done. There are also excerpts from a few novels, such as Tom Sawyer and Don Quixote.
Nonfiction prose accounts for 19 selections. These are mostly excepts from historical or autobiographical works, like Booker T. Washington's Up from Slavery or Washington Irving's The Life and Voyages of Christopher Columbus (though Thomas a Kempis' medieval classic The Imitation of Christ is also excerpted), with one or two self-contained essays like Helen Keller's "Three Days to See." I did read the latter and found it worthwhile, though I skipped the excerpts. Some historical accounts that can stand alone also make interesting reading. On the dramatic side, Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet is represented by an excerpted scene, but there are a few one-act plays, including a 1968 dramatic adaptation of a scene from Dickens' Great Expectations. The best of these, in my estimation, is "The Finger of God" by Percival Wilde.
The rest of the material here is poetry. Longfellow's Evangeline: A Tale of Acadie is included in an abridged version; I didn't read this, but I want to read the whole thing someday. The rest of what we have here is a potpourri of good poetry (some of it great poetry), mostly short, from the likes of Emily Dickinson, Robert Frost, Wordsworth, Christina Rossetti, Tennyson, etc. Some of these gems, such as Tennyson's "Crossing the Bar," I'd read before, others (like Hardy's priceless "The Oxen") were new discoveries.
There are newer editions of this text listed on Goodreads; but since truly good literature doesn't become dated with time, I'd say that even this 1979 edition would be perfectly serviceable as a textbook for the sort of course it was designed for. I'd recommend it to any schoolteacher or homeschooling parent (Christian or not --as I noted, the content isn't sectarian, and the editor doesn't preach) looking for such a resource, or for anyone wanting to do independent study of this type. (That could include readers young and old --very few of the selections here were written with younger readers particularly in mind.) It would also be a treasure trove for someone looking for an anthology of general literature to just kick back and read for pleasure!...more
Note: When I originally attempted, back in 2008, to add this book to my Goodreads shelves, it had already been a long time since I read it, and I coulNote: When I originally attempted, back in 2008, to add this book to my Goodreads shelves, it had already been a long time since I read it, and I could recall only the title, not the author's name. As a result, I wound up for a long time confusing it with Poltergeist! by Colin Wilson (which I've never read). However, I've recently examined both books, and confirmed that this is the one I actually remembered.
Author Roll was a serious scientist, who spent much of his career as part of the pioneering research program in parapsychology at Duke Univ. (long headed by J. B. Rhine, who contributes a foreword here). Between 1958 and 1968 (roughly) he was involved in several investigations of "poltergeist" phenomena (i.e., buildings, usually occupied houses, that are plagued primarily by objects moving --and often flying through the air-- without human touch). Most of these studies took place in the U.S. (one of them in Indianapolis, where my wife and I happened to be living when I read the book!), but he also did some field observation in Europe. (The Indianapolis case was unusual in that one of the victims also experienced puncture wounds and teeth marks inflicted without a visible source.) He also makes reference to earlier historical reports of similar phenomena, going back to 858 A.D., and to a few investigations by contemporary European researchers that he did not personally witness. The modern field research, and the phenomena observed, is described in exact and considerable detail. Roll and his cohorts were not unduly credulous and did not automatically accept reports as genuine (indeed, he devotes a chapter to "ersatz" poltergeist claims). The phenomena observed first-hand, which makes up the bulk of the book, is difficult if not impossible to dismiss as fraudulent, unless the person doing the dismissing has an a priori commitment to the impossibility of unexplained phenomena which trumps ANY empirical evidence of any sort. That type of dogmatic commitment is, IMO, more divorced from reality and more inimical to the spirit of genuine science than the open-mindedness it rejects.
Traditionally, this kind of phenomena was ascribed to ghosts or spirits, an explanation I don't personally accept (poltergeist is German for "noisy ghost" or "noisy spirit"). However, in the tradition of the Duke Univ. school of thought, with its interest in psi capabilities, Roll posits a different cause: unconscious telekinesis by a human agent who serves as the focus for the event. In this theory, disturbed family dynamics creating a considerable residue of frustration and hostility --which could be demonstrated in at least some of the studied cases-- provides a matrix for the phenomena. This is predicated on the hypothesis that all or most people have at least some low-level psi capability. This explanation is certainly very far from proven, and I wouldn't say that I "believe" it. But I do think that it can serve as a respect-worthy working hypothesis, for the present state of knowledge.
The author also provides an appendix distinguishing poltergeist from "haunting" phenomena (which he ascribes to hallucination), and giving how-to advice to would-be investigators of both. While the few black-and-white photographs in the main text aren't especially illuminating, the four-page bibliography for further reading appears to consist mostly of pretty solid scholarly sources. The reading level is appropriate for interested lay readers (although interested academics could read it as well), but Roll does make use of endnotes, and the book is indexed....more
Though Lewis is a favorite writer of mine, this is the first time that I've read this particular short volume, presenting his theological, moral, psycThough Lewis is a favorite writer of mine, this is the first time that I've read this particular short volume, presenting his theological, moral, psychological and philosophical reflections on the human experience of the four kinds of "love" referred to (by different Greek words) in the New Testament. One reviewer spoke of this as an "apologetic," and indeed Lewis wrote many apologetic works, designed to make a rational case for Christianity for unbelieving readers. However, this isn't one of them. Here he's presupposing that the Bible and the Christian gospel are true, and writing to offer readers who share that view his insights into how, in the light of that truth, we should think about love in its various manifestations. Non-Christian readers would probably not be interested in that approach to the subject (although, since all truth is God's truth, he draws his thoughts from a lifetime --this was published three years before he died-- of observation of human beings, not simply from Scripture and theology). It's also not a book that's designed to be a "practical" manual, laying down all sorts of rules for day-to-day conduct. Rather, it's concerned with helping people to think about the subject rightly, in the consciousness that "ideas have consequences" for behavior. The vocabulary and thought, as always in Lewis' writing, is aimed at the ordinary intelligent layman; it avoids jargon, and while it's profound, it's never pedantic.
The six-chapter structure of the book is simple and logical. First, he introduces the subject of love in general in Chapter 1, moving beyond the facile labeling of "gift-love" as invariably positive and "need-love" as invariably inferior and negative, and expounding the idea that "God is love" (and not the converse). Chapter 2, by way of prolegomena, treats our "Likings and Loves for the Sub-human," including love of nature, and patriotism; these aren't the types of love for personal beings spoken of in Scripture, but have a certain "continuity" with them. Finally, he devotes a chapter to each of the "loves" addressed in Scripture: the natural affection of family and close association; freely-conferred friendship; Eros, or romantic love; and "charity" (Latin, caritas; Greek, agape), the kind of unconditional, self-giving love God has for us and desires us to have for Him and for each other.
Simply recounting the chapter schema, however, doesn't reflect the variety and depth of insight here, and summarizing it in the limited space of a review wouldn't do it justice. This is a meaty, pithy book to sink your intellectual and spiritual teeth into, and designed to make you think. Even when you disagree with him (and I do on one or two minor points), here as elsewhere, Lewis is always intellectually stimulating, and leads you to insights you wouldn't have come to without the interaction. But what he proffers, he does so with a profound humility that commands my respect and admiration as much as his wisdom. His was a first-rate mind; and it's always a privilege to read his work....more
This is another book that wasn't on my radar at all, but which I read because it was a common read in one of my groups, and wound up falling in love wThis is another book that wasn't on my radar at all, but which I read because it was a common read in one of my groups, and wound up falling in love with! My only regret is that, in the constraints of a more-than-usually pushed and busy day, I may not have time to do it justice in a review --but it's due back at the public library today, and I'd like to have it on hand as I write. (Normally, before writing a review, I read my friends' reviews of the book and sometimes interact with their thoughts --and in this case, there are a LOT of friends' reviews, and they're apparently a mixed bag as to ratings-- but this time, my review is my own immediate reaction untempered by any comparison with others.)
For once, the Goodreads description is pretty accurate (though it doesn't suggest the depth of the reading experience). The Cirque des Reves is the venue for an intentionally vaguely-defined contest of skill and power between the pupils (groomed for their roles since childhood) of two rival sorcerers, distinctly different personalities but both sociopathically indifferent to any harm they do to human beings in the process of vindicating themselves against the other. What powers the circus is magic (though the two rivals both disclaim the term), of an incantational sort, a "natural" magic supposedly inherent in the way the universe is, and which people who believe in this can learn to tap into --especially if they have a natural talent for it, as the young duelist pupils both do. Morgenstern brings the circus to vivid life as one of the more richly drawn, most beautiful and imaginative settings in fiction, in a way that appeals to all of the reader's senses. When I opened the book, I feared it would be too surreal for my taste. As one review I glanced at noted, it does have, in places, a dream-like quality (reves is French for dreams). But the narrative never loses its real-world grounding or its quality of coherent story, and the characters are always real people with realistic reactions and motivations (even if, as in life, some of them have motivations that are egoistic and grandiose).
Morgenstern has chosen to tell her story in present tense; I didn't find this off-putting, and it gives the narrative a deliberate sense of immediacy, like the occasional use of the "historical present" tense in the original New Testament Greek. Our read opens with a short second-person vignette taking us into the circus; there are a few more of these interspersed at key points through the text, leading us through the experience. The main narrative is in the form of dated chapters, starting in the young pupils' childhood in the early 1870s and moving chronologically forward through the formation of the circus and its early years; but in the midst of this chronology, we have a new plot thread, introduced in chapters dated after the main storyline, but interspersed with it. But this non-linear narration isn't a gimmick introduced for its own sake; there's a good artistic reason for it, which will become clear in time. All the parts of this creation dovetail into a perfect whole that's a tour de force.
Detractors of supernatural fiction tend to dismiss it (usually unread) as "escapist," having nothing to say about the real world. Many supernatural tales inherently refute that canard, none more so than this one. First of all, it shows us powerful people, running the lives of others with no accountability and no real concern for anyone's welfare or feelings but their own. (Yeah, that's completely unlike anything in the real world --NOT!) It's about people learning to find their own path and make their own choices when they're dealing with forces that would constrain them. It deals with things like friendship, kindness and caring, the consequences of selfish or unthinking behavior, the role of story and dreams in our life, the meaning of "magic" and the differences between what's real and what we tell ourselves is "real," the way that what we do can make a difference even if we don't see ourselves as special. And it's also very much about love, including romantic love (as a warning to very romance-averse readers) --though, as I've indicated, it's also about a lot more. All of this is delivered seamlessly in a compelling and well-developed story which sweeps you up in powerful emotional reaction, as it unfolds in a gripping plot with very high stakes indeed, and which could not, IMO, have been crafted better. I don't often use the term "mesmerized" to describe my reaction to a book; but I was mesmerized by this one.
As an added plus, there's very little bad language here, no explicit sex,and very little of the non-explicit variety (it's about love, not about sex). You will encounter one f-word in the first chapter; but that's the only one, and in its placement and context, it's designed to give you an instant insight into Hector Bowen's character. (Of course, first impressions can be wrong --but not in this case!) And while the inherent menace of the situation is real, and leads ultimately to mounting suspense and tension, there's not much violence and minimal gore. (It's a supernatural read, but not scary "horror.")
All I can say in conclusion is, I'd definitely like to be a reveur! (Now, where can I get one of those red scarves...?)...more
Full disclosure at the outset: I got a free PDF electronic review copy of this short anthology from one of the contributors, my friend Andrew M. SeddoFull disclosure at the outset: I got a free PDF electronic review copy of this short anthology from one of the contributors, my friend Andrew M. Seddon. So far, it only exists as an e-book; as per my policy, when the print edition comes out, I plan to buy a copy, since I don't believe in using e-books as substitutes for printed ones. (Of course, that's just me!)
There are 10 stories in the collection, all either written originally for it or (in at least two cases) written earlier but not previously published. Of the eight contributors (anthology editor Isobel Mason and Malcolm Cowen are represented twice), several are Christians, including Mason and Seddon; I'm not sure whether all of them are, or whether the British-based publisher is a Christian press. Only two stories have clearly Christian or Biblical content, but all are free of lewd sexual content and foul language. Each story is followed by an author's note explaining the conceptual basis for his/her particular alternate world.
Given that I'm a fan of alternate world scenarios in fiction, it might be expected that I'd rate this book more highly than I did --though, as my rating shows, I did like it overall. Three of the stories, IMO, were genuine five-star productions. But the literary quality of the rest unfortunately tended to fall short of this, in my estimation, and some didn't rise above mediocrity. Mason's "Danger of Death" (which posits that Adam and Eve resisted the serpent's temptation, resulting in an unfallen world without sin and death) is interesting as a theological speculation, but lacks dramatic conflict as a story. The same can be said for Forrest Schultz's "Autobiography of a Lateral Time Traveller," which along with Mason's "A Second Chance" is one of two that doesn't concentrate on exploring the conditions of a very different world with an altered history, but rather on characters who get to explore different individual lives in a very similar world. A common flaw of both of these is that they don't explain how the protagonists simply displace their other selves (who are, after all, distinct individual human beings!) --even if we accept the idea that they can somehow travel to an alternate dimension in the first place as a "soft" SF premise that doesn't need explanation. In Jeffrey Paolano's "Milking the Good," the premise of the story (the U.S. black community, at the time of Pearl Harbor, unitedly blackmails the government into granting civil rights to blacks by withholding their support for the war effort until that demand is met) is just too sweeping to handle credibly in a short story; it reads simply like an unfleshed exercise in wishful thinking. (It would be hard to make it credible even at novel length; successful alternate world fiction depends on premises that could actually have happened, and there are too many wild improbabilities with this one.)
Both Heather Titus ("Flesh Eyes") and Magdalene Zapp ("American Samurai") give us tales in which the Axis won World War II, a pretty common staple premise of this sub-genre. The former also suffers from a credibility problem (the Nazis won through a program of creating cyborg super-soldiers who defeated the Allies on D-Day --this of course has no resemblance to any experimentation in the real world!). But both of these present very realistic and emotionally engaging vignettes of human relationships in the face of this kind of situation. "Wave Goodbye" by Steve Wilson is based on a very detailed working out of the complex premise, of an altered path in a key 19th-century technological development, something of an intellectual tour de force which would probably greatly intrigue and please hard SF buffs. The story also develops a very effective surprise ending, but a grim one that, for me, left a bad taste in the mind.
Seddon and Cowen contribute the three outstanding stories here, each one based on a very careful and plausible extrapolation of developing differences from one small and easily imaginable change in real-world history. The Minoan civilization was extraordinarily advanced by the standards of the Bronze Age; had it continued to develop without interruption, it might well have produced high technology by the time of classical antiquity. Instead, it was obliterated by the volcanic eruption of Thera in ca. 1600 B.C. (which was 1,000 times bigger than the 1880s eruption of Krakatoa, and caused false winter effects as far away as China). "Pride of Knossos" (which I had the privilege of beta reading a few years ago!), written with Andrew's characteristic vision and literary skill, posits that Thera didn't erupt then; so, in 33 A.D., the Minoans are ready to launch their moon shot. Cowen capably explores alternate possibilities in British history. The title story (Tanist is a Celtic title, for the heir-designate to a throne) is set in 1633 --but 1,000 years after the great Welsh victory at Heavenfield, where they decisively defeated the Saxon invaders (rather than the other way around). It's a masterful exploration of ethnic tensions between haves and have-nots, powerful and dispossessed, with an exciting and suspenseful plot. And his "The Other England" is a delightful pastiche with Conan Doyle's Professor Challenger and other Doyle characters. (I could imagine Sir Arthur himself appreciating it!)
Despite the uneven quality, this is a collection worth reading, overall. The Cowen and Seddon stories alone are worth the purchase price (and some fans might like the other selections better than I did!)...more
My recommendation of this book is for "fans of contemporary poetry," and those would indeed be its primary audience; but its appeal can be a bit broadMy recommendation of this book is for "fans of contemporary poetry," and those would indeed be its primary audience; but its appeal can be a bit broader than that, since I'm generally not among those fans, but still rated it at three stars (which, for anyone who needs reminding, is a positive rating on Goodreads' scale, equivalent to Amazon's four). That's an overall rating; some poems here are absolute gems which would earn a much higher rating, and a few I didn't care for at all. While I like well-written poetry as such, I tend to read much more fiction, and in general don't seek out modern poetry, so this isn't a book I'd have been apt to pick to read on my own. But my Goodreads friend Lynne King was kind enough to gift me with a copy, and to urge me to read it right away. The (short) time it took to do that wasn't wasted by any means!
There are 39 poems in this collection/chapbook, arranged into three parts. Part One, which has the same title and subtitle as the book as a whole, contains the first 22 of these. Thirteen of these are basically of an autobiographical nature, speaking directly of the poet's feelings about the course of an affair she had about ten years ago, written after the break-up --but not long after, since the book was published in 2007. (Her lover was married, but he didn't drop that item of information on her until she was already deeply involved with him.) These directly autobiographical poems are interspersed with nine others that are suggested by movies she saw during that time (each one identified after the poem title by movie title and director). Here the poems' relationship to the course of her doomed romance is usually less obvious and much more indirect; but some of the connections are more obvious than others, especially with the last poem in this section, "The Heart Is a Phoenix." A reader of these would undoubtedly benefit from being familiar with the movies referred to (I wasn't), but that isn't a necessity for responding to them. The poems in the other two parts, titled Photographs (Part Two) and Places and People (Part Three) arise out of her own life experiences, but aren't related to the titular "love affair."
Frances' style has been called prose poetry, but (IMO) it isn't that exactly; her writing is free verse (at least, I can't tell if it has meter; it doesn't rhyme), but it has a true poetic quality and the arrangement of words into lines does matter --they aren't simply put down to use every bit of the page except for paragraph divisions, as prose is. (She generally uses a relatively long line, but not always.) It would be fair to say that she's influenced by the Imagist school, and a strong suit of her style is command of beautiful language and ability to conjure vivid images (this also impressed both of my Goodreads friends who've reviewed the collection.) Her fluency with the English language is particularly impressive when we consider that she was born and raised in France, though one of her graduate majors is English. Generally speaking, she's more a poetess of emotional feeling than of thoughtful reflection --though a few pieces here do express, and invite, insightful thought. Despite the subject matter of Part One, there's very little sexual content there or elsewhere in the book, and nothing offensive in that way except for "Loved" in Part Three (which may also be autobiographical, and provided much more information than this reader needed or wanted). Similarly, there's only one instance of bad language in the whole book, an f-word in "Letter to Whomever Is Watching. The latter is one of the few poems here that, for me, completely failed to communicate; Frances, like all poets, often uses indirection and metaphor to convey her meaning, but in the main she does convey it accessibly.
The preoccupation with feeling is especially crucial in Part One; this isn't an exercise in moral reflection about the ethics of her or her partner's behavior, nor an attempt to defend and glamorize it either, just a rawly honest description of her own feelings at the time (including, in "The Others," her own pervasive pain "like needles under my fingernails" at the lack of monogamy in the relationship). In part, writing these poems was clearly a cathartic exercise, as was including the texts of the only three letters to her lover that she'd kept copies of (the only part of this book that's actually in prose), which follow the 19th poem, "The Lost Letters." (I didn't read these in their entirety; despite the last lines of that poem, "since they are no longer yours/ and since they don't belong to me, I send them back into the world," I found them very definitely the private property of original writer and reader, and wasn't comfortable entering that sanctum to violate it. :-( ) But this isn't simply a self-indulgent wallow in a pointless pity-party; it's a journey towards healing. "If you think that you will never love again, look up."
Since they aren't as sharply differentiated, we can consider Parts Two (which only has five poems) and Three together. A couple of poems here, "Edward Hopper" and "Joseph Brodsky by Richard Avedon," are directly inspired by visual art; the former speaks for itself even if you aren't very familiar with Hopper's paintings, but the latter (responding to a portrait or photograph of the famous Polish-born American poet Joseph Brodsky) probably requires a familiarity with his poetry to be fully appreciated. I didn't have that familiarity; but I have read some of Isak Dinesen's stories and know something of her life, so "African Quiet" (which bears the notation "For Isak Dinesen" and conjures a image of the dying writer) had more meaning for me and is one of my favorite poems here. Perhaps my top favorite is the final one, "Kirkwood, Missouri" (which isn't really about the titular town so much as about the myriad opportunities for experience and human connection that life offers us, and how we either embrace them or let them slip). This one, IMO, is a modern masterpiece. Another that I find particularly powerful is "Sierra Leone." The most purely Imagist selections here are "Work," "Heartland," and "Mobile."
I don't have nearly enough familiarity with contemporary poetry to assess Frances' place in it. But I can truly say that she's in the top tier of contemporary poets that I've actually read; and at her best here, she produces work which I would consider equal to some of that which has gone before her and already stood the test of time....more
Full disclosure at the outset: Ron Andrea and I are long-standing Goodreads friends, and he offered me a free copy of this book (which, obviously, I aFull disclosure at the outset: Ron Andrea and I are long-standing Goodreads friends, and he offered me a free copy of this book (which, obviously, I accepted!) in exchange for an honest review.
The author is a Christian believer (as am I), in his case for over fifty years. A veteran of 30 years of military service, he currently serves as an elder and Bible teacher for Prevailing Word Ministries/Glen Allen Christian Fellowship, a non-denominational evangelical church in Glen Allen, VA. His book apparently grows out of his congregational teaching, and is structured as an exploration of the Apostle Paul's message(s) in the New Testament Epistle to the Romans. Written strictly for lay readers, it doesn't purport to be either an academic treatment or a verse-by-verse commentary, and there are no bibliography or footnotes. (He does draw on other writers in places, notably the early 20th-century Chinese Christian thinker Watchman Nee.) At 218 pages of actual text, and with jargon-free prose, this is a pretty quick read.
Passionate pastoral concern radiates from these pages; Ron clearly cares deeply about the message of the book, and writes from his heart with a clear desire to reach and engage with the reader. Like many (perhaps most) thoughtful contemporary Christians, he's highly dissatisfied with the sub-biblical thought and lifestyle of the modern American church, and its failure to impact the surrounding world with the gospel. At the risk of over-simplification, I would summarize his main themes here as: unconditional love of God and others is the basis of the entire Christian life; our moral transformation from selfish egoist to loving saint is something only God can accomplish in us, not something we can do for ourselves; and we'll never become what God wants us to be until we're totally surrendered to His will (to the point of the breaking of our own self-will). All of these messages are perfectly scriptural and true, and I think would be agreed on by virtually all Christian readers --though the author suggests that the main problem of the church today is that we don't seem to understand any of this in actual practice. There are a number of other valuable insights scattered through the text. The discussion questions that follow each chapter here are first-rate; a pastor or Sunday school teacher doing a series of lessons on Romans could profitably use these to encourage self-examination/discussion by students in his/her class.
A criticism that could be made is that, though the introduction states that the focus is on Paul's message in Romans, and the chapter headings progress through Romans section by section, relatively little of the text actually expounds the epistle. Main ideas of each section are identified from one or two verses, and then elaborated by quotes from other Pauline writings, other parts of the New Testament, and even the Old Testament. (One chapter even leaves Romans completely, digressing to cover Mark 14:3-9.) Now, exposition of Romans could certainly include reference to other Pauline letters where he makes similar points, or elaborates a point, and reference to the Old Testament sources of his thought (especially where, as he often does, he directly cites the Old Testament). But if you're expounding on the message of Romans, even if you aren't purporting to comment on it verse-by-verse, most of your discussion needs to be on the words of Romans itself. That proportion here is completely reversed. (Even when verses from Romans are quoted, they often aren't from the part of Romans that's supposedly being discussed!) Perhaps a viable solution would have been to make the book simply a discussion of Paul's message as a whole, and not to try to tie the framework directly to Romans.
Personally, I'm not as convinced as Ron is that misunderstanding the basic ideas he's presenting here is the source of the church's sorry state, nor that the message here will correct things if it's just read and taken to heart. (Indeed, I could see some readers distorting the message of spiritual/moral transformation as God's responsibility into an excuse for not bothering to cooperate with the process, though that isn't the author's intention or a fair interpretation of what he says.) Rather, I think the main problem of the church is a lack of understanding as to how the abstract ideas of love, moral transformation and consecration to God's will are to be lived out in practice. Each denomination has its comfortable standard of expected behavior (mostly handed down from the 19th century), that's been the way they've always lived; it's naively assumed that this lifestyle is exactly what Jesus and the apostles had in mind, and anybody that wants to go beyond it or try it by the yardstick of Scripture is weird and rocking the boat. We need a root-and-branch reexamination of the specifics of contemporary Christian attitudes and behaviors, more than we need re-assertions of the general principles. Another valid criticism here, then, is that this book is light on practical specifics of how to apply Paul's behavioral commands. Some specifics are touched on, indeed, but in very brief and undeveloped fashion.
Despite these criticisms, though, I think this is a book that can benefit some Christian readers. It would perhaps be most beneficial as a wake-up call to those whose dedication and practice is lukewarm....more
Dutch author Halm is a native of Amsterdam, his setting for this series, but apparently writes it in English rather than in Dutch. (If he occasionallyDutch author Halm is a native of Amsterdam, his setting for this series, but apparently writes it in English rather than in Dutch. (If he occasionally interjects a Dutch word, it's explained in context.) The Goodreads description reproduces his own blurb for this e-story, so it's a fairly accurate explanation of the premise (with a caveat explained below), and the place of the short stories in the Amsterdam Assassin series. Nobody officially recommended this tale to me, but my Goodreads friend Nancy recently gave it four stars (so some reader responses are much more favorable than mine!). While her review tweaked my curiosity, I had doubts whether I'd like this as much as she did; but the fact that it's free on Kindle, and takes very little investment of time, convinced me to give it a try. (And trying something you don't ultimately like isn't necessarily a waste of time; it provides exposure to the unfamiliar, and a perspective on the reading that you do like.) On the surface, one could argue that it should be up my alley; after all, while I haven't read very much assassin fiction, I do think that assassins can make interesting protagonists, and strong, tough female protagonists appeal to me a lot more than timorous and emotionally frail ones (Katla's credentials are impeccable in that area). A big part of the low rating comes from a fundamental lack of sympathy with Halm's literary vision, which he explains in one part of the additional material promoting the series that's included with this story.
Halm writes (speaking of himself in the third person) that he: "...always enjoyed stories about assassins, but his opinion on assassins differed from the books he read. Since most fictional assassins are antagonists, they're often warped individuals... . However, Martin has come across mercenaries (basically the same field) who are pretty regular people. Sure, their view of the world differs from ordinary citizens, but they're not "warped." This made him want to write about an assassin who has no deep-seated frustration or abused childhood, but who just realized that killing was what she was good at and who had the appropriate world view and lack of conscience to pull it off." The result is Katla, who'll willingly kill any fellow human for enough money. To be sure, her mark here, as she observes at one point, is essentially as conscienceless as she is, and has blood on his own hands shed by criminal negligence. But while that matters to her client, as she also points out explicitly, it doesn't to her; all that matters is the fee. If she was paid the same amount to whack Albert Schweitzer or Mother Teresa, we sense that she'd have no problem with the idea. Some obvious rejoinders to Halm's statement suggest themselves.
First, the fictional assassins I've read about are not necessarily warped people, in a moral sense. Some, like Karin Kaufman's Jane Piper in All Souls: A Gatehouse Thriller or Mark Cooper's British spy Leah Bennett Hargraves (whose missions often involve covert assassinations) take on a vocation of extralegal killing because they believe it's a legitimate way of fighting evil. Similarly, B. R. Stateham's Smitty (Call Me Smitty), though he's a very dark and damaged soul, is very scrupulous about who he kills; he's an avenger who smites the wicked, not the innocent. We can differ with their method, but we can respect and support their motive. Other fictional assassins, like John Sandford's Clara Rinker, ARE in their trade for the money, and may not have such strict scruples over who they kill to get it, or to protect themselves. But even some of these characters are not totally without conscience; like the rest of us, they're compounds of goodness and evil, images of God with a fallen nature, and their interest as characters derives from how they deal with the contending impulses of their nature in a very extreme life situation, and the interplay of light and dark, and shades of grey, that this creates. Clara, for instance, draws some lines in the sand that she won't cross, and there is real good in her that shows itself at times; she's a very three-dimensional character who fascinates because she's human and unpredictable. (And like real people, fictional assassins may be on a moral journey, with a story arc that may not end where it starts; that possibility also excites interest.) In contrast, Katla comes across as pretty much flat and one-dimensional, a morally lobotomized incarnation of selfish egoism without any empathy for others, and nothing to evoke empathy for her --a cunning predator, like the vampires of the classic Dracula tradition, but like them not really a dynamic or round character. And we feel innately that she's journeying nowhere different from where she is; that she made her last moral choice when she picked her profession, and now ticks on like a clock. (To be fair, Halm may develop the character more deeply in the novels, and introduce more complexity in her moral thinking. But this is how she comes across to me here.) This doesn't, for me, create a very interesting protagonist, nor one that I can like, care much about, or get behind and root for. (I'd also beg to differ with Halm about whether mercenaries and assassins are in the same field, but that doesn't affect this review.)
For me, there were also considerable problems with the execution here (no pun intended!) To my mind, while technical manuals and how-to books are about technology and processes, good fiction is about people. This story compliments its lack of a round and dynamic human element with a heavy concentration on technology and processes, explained in great detail. There's some justification for explaining how Katla can get in and out of a locked room and re-lock it from the inside. (This differs from traditional mystery genre "locked room" puzzles, though, in that in these it's obvious that a murder was committed; whereas Katla's trademark method is to make her killings look accidental.) But we also learn how to solve the problem of making a functional spud-gun/grappling hook light enough for a utility belt (what, you weren't burning with curiosity about that?), how locks and lock-picks work, and hear a lot about computer hardware, etc. etc. This pads the story to a decent word count, and some readers might be fascinated with it. (I wasn't.) IMO, Halm's logic failed seriously in his handling of the murder method. (view spoiler)[Katla drowned the victim in his bathtub; but much was made of the need to do this gradually, by lifting him in and out, with reference to the real-life "Brides in the Bathtub" case solved by early 20th-century pathologist Spilsbury; "they died uncommonly quick... in normal drownings, the victim will struggle for life and so ingest much more water." Well, I'm not familiar with that case; but a drowning victim struggling for life in a bathtub, unlike a river or pond, could readily stand up in it. An actual drowning victim in that case would have to be unconscious --as Katla claims would be caused by water hitting the vagus nerve in the nose!-- and so WOULD drown fairly quickly, rather than rising and falling in and out of the water like a yo-yo. And the stressed need to avoid marks on the body was incongruous; a bump on the head would plausibly explain how the deceased could have fallen underwater and knocked himself out. Were I an M.E., I'd be curious about how someone with no marks of injury on him wound up on his back with his head underwater in a bathtub to start with. (hide spoiler)] At one point, Katla "took a pen" to write something --in a bathroom, where people don't usually store writing materials, and when Halm has established that she's wearing a one-piece bathing suit, which presumably doesn't have pockets. Usually very exhaustive at explaining every physical detail, the author is quite cagey about where this pen comes from; since this isn't urban fantasy, she probably doesn't conjure it. Finally, when she's making her escape, she finds a potential witness or two blocking the egress passageway, and is resolved not to wait "in the cold and wet" for even a few minutes until they leave; instead, she's thinking about disabling or killing them. This is spectacularly unrealistic, because she's gone to great pains to ensure that the crime scene presents nothing untoward that would suggest to anyone that anything unusual went on, besides an unfortunate accident. It's completely out of the character the author has already established to imagine that she'd even consider throwing all that effort away to spare herself some minor discomfort --to disguise a kill, this woman would be quite content to wait for hours under a lot more discomfort than this, and not bat on eye. (Halm is apparently trying to let us know that she's ruthless --uh, DUH, we already kind of got that!-- but did so at the expense of credible character consistency.)
On the plus side, this story has almost no bad language at all, and no lewd sexual content, even in situations that some writers would milk for every drop of titillation they could get; Halm is a very clean writer in this respect. (He doesn't present Katla as a super-sexualized bimbo, either.) It's also a pretty quick read; I finished it in one sitting. But those points didn't redeem it for me, and I don't have any interest in exploring any more of the series.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Full disclosure at the outset: I accepted the author's offer of a free copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.
Author Lloyd dedicates thisFull disclosure at the outset: I accepted the author's offer of a free copy of this book, in exchange for an honest review.
Author Lloyd dedicates this debut novel, appropriately, "to all the invisible heroes in the world who risk their own lives to save others." It's the opener for a projected series, the Vormund/Ames Files, dealing with a secretive consulting firm that caters to governments and businesses with needs in the security and counter-terrorism area. What they provide is usually advice and analysis --but there are times when they go beyond that. While they're not amoral mercenaries simply out for a buck --they choose to be on the side of good, not evil-- they may operate on the edge of the law, and in operations where their employers sometimes might want some "plausible deniability."
Though published this year, the book is set in 2008. A few months before it opens, a small party of innocent and idealistic American botanists ventured into the jungles of Honduras, researching medicinal plants. Unfortunately, they blundered into the territory used by drug lord Hector Vega, and while trying to flee from a fire fight between his minions and a rival gang, they were all brutally gunned down. Both the U.S. and Honduran governments know, from eyewitness testimony, that Vega was responsible; but his political connections and back-scratching arrangements give him blank-check immunity. He's not as home free as he imagines, however, because the grief-stricken fiancee of one of the murdered men is a soft-spoken young woman from Georgia named Elizabeth Ashton. Liz is a decent, ethically-oriented person who cares about others and about doing the right thing. She's also a professional sniper for the FBI, with the rank of Special Agent, and probably as deadly a markswoman with a rifle as it's humanly possible to be.
The plot here has two focal points of action (and this doesn't disclose anything that's not basically outlined in the cover copy, which is also used as the Goodreads description): the Vega problem in the early chapters, and the main plot strand, code-named "Operation Angelica." Law enforcement runs in Liz' family (her father is a county sheriff, and her brother a state trooper); respect for legal due process and commitment to basic justice are both important principles for her. When they're in irreconcilable conflict, and she has to decide which one trumps the other, she doesn't take it lightly. Personally, I don't have any problem with her decision (I'm much less hard on her on that score than she is on herself!). But it's one that, eventually, brings her to the notice of the Vormund/Ames management --who are impressed rather than scandalized. That leads to a job offer (and given the series title, it's no surprise that she accepts!).
The company's current big project in hand is a rescue mission for a group of hostages --especially a critically ill journalist with both Columbian and French citizenship-- held by a drug-trafficking Marxist guerrilla rebel group in the South American jungle. We also have a sub-plot involving a high-ranking CIA official with a gambling-debts problem and a lot fewer ethical scruples than he needs to have.
Lloyd's prose style is highly accomplished; she handles diction, syntax, and vocabulary extremely well (a refreshing experience nowadays!). She also appears to have pretty good technical knowledge of firearms and the training, procedures and equipment involved in SWAT-style ops; I don't have personal experience in that area, but the writing has a solidly realistic feel to me. Not only Liz, but all of the major characters here are clearly delineated and lifelike. Character and relationship development occupies more of the book than action, as does planning, intelligence gathering and set-up --that's also realistic for this type of thing, where the time involved in actual gun-blazing action, if you've planned well, is actually relatively brief. That said, there's a good deal of taut tension that mounts steadily before the shooting starts, and there's a high body count when it's finished!
For the most part, the plotting here is linear and straightforward, without a lot of convolution, and this is a quick read. I withheld the fifth star in my rating because of several logical missteps in the CIA-official subplot; but that didn't stop me from really liking the book, and I definitely intend to follow the series!
Note: Liz and other characters use a certain amount of bad language, of the d/h/s/a-word sort, at times, but no obscenity or religious profanity. Their speaking style is well within the bounds of realism for these types of characters and situations. One of the flashbacks has Liz recalling a conversation she and her fiance had when they were lying together in bed, and it's clear that another couple make love at one point; but there's no explicit sex, and Lloyd doesn't portray any of these four people as promiscuous types....more
Seasoned speculative fiction author D. B. Jackson is also a PhD. in history, and his Thieftaker Chronicles series allows him to blend those two intereSeasoned speculative fiction author D. B. Jackson is also a PhD. in history, and his Thieftaker Chronicles series allows him to blend those two interests. This e-story was written, and published online, as a sort of appetizer and prequel before the first novel of the series was released. Since I've been reading favorable reviews of the series novels, my interest was piqued, and I decided to check it out through this venue.
The year is 1763 (it's not stated directly in the text, but readers who know their American history can date it from the historical reference). Series protagonist Ethan Kaille is a young-ish (his exact age isn't given, but Jackson gives us intriguing glimpses of a backstory that goes back some 15 years; I'd guess the character to be in his early 30s) single guy who makes his living as a "thieftaker" --a recoverer of stolen goods, for a fee-- in Boston. He's also a conjurer (with genuine powers) in a milieu where laws making "witchcraft" a capital crime are still on the books, and where lethal witch hysteria is a matter of living memory. So that's not an aspect of his abilities that he puts on his resume;' but there are troublesome rumors that don't generally do him any good. Those rumors directly set up the premise (which is adequately summarized in the Goodreads description above) of this exciting, tightly-woven tale.
Jackson evokes colonial Boston vividly, with what appears to be sound historical accuracy (I'd never heard of "thieftaking" being a recognized profession before this series came onto my radar, but I don't have any reason to doubt that it might have been) and a grasp of the physical geography of the city as it existed then (he tosses out street and locality names with considerable assurance.) His plotting observes all of Aristotle's classical unities, and the story arc isn't predictable in the way many supernatural yarns are. The approach to magic is distinctive. Ethan's a likeable character, the supporting cast is well-drawn, the prose is brisk and lucid (I didn't know a couple of period nautical terms, but that didn't impede the story's flow). There's very little bad language and no sex, but a hint of possible clean romance with a worthy lady. Best of all, the story raises ethical questions that aren't cut-and-dried, and that make the reader think.
Why, then, did I withhold the fifth star? That was a response to just one factor, the moral ambiguity of the magic. Elsewhere, I've indicated that I don't have a moral/philosophical/theological problem with the idea, as a literary conceit, of incantational magic (magic that draws on morally neutral power that's supposedly inherent in the universe), as opposed to invocational magic that works by calling on superhuman entities or the departed dead. I do have a problem with the latter. (Of course, I don't believe either one exists in actuality!) Ethan's conjuring seems to straddle the line, or to be very close to the latter; he (and other conjurers) draw on "the power dwelling between the living world and the realm of the dead," but each speller is "enabled" to do this by a "spirit guide," apparently a ghost of someone long dead, who appears when magic is evoked by the shedding of blood from the conjurer's own veins. To be sure, Ethan sincerely believes that his spellcraft isn't evil; and we're not told much about how it works, or how spell-casters are connected with their spirit guides in the first place. My misgivings weren't strong or definite enough to keep me from really liking the story. But they are nonetheless there.
As far as I know, this story has never been published in print form; it's strictly an e-story. But I've indicated before that where short fiction is concerned (unlike whole books), I don't have a problem with reading it electronically; indeed, I think electronic distribution of short stories, in this era of the demise of general circulation magazines, is a boon to both writers and readers. This one can be read for free (as I did) on the publisher's website, by clicking the URL link given in the Goodreads description for this edition. (That's certainly preferable, IMO, to buying the Kindle version, which Amazon is selling for 99 cents!)...more
Note, Nov. 28, 2014: I just edited this review slightly to make a factual correction --I recognized two of the names in the bibliography, not just oneNote, Nov. 28, 2014: I just edited this review slightly to make a factual correction --I recognized two of the names in the bibliography, not just one.
Full disclosure at the outset: I won a free copy of this book in a recent Goodreads giveaway.
Because of my liking for supernatural fiction and my interest in folklore, it's perhaps not surprising that I'm intrigued by unexplained phenomena in the real world, and have been since childhood. My own attitude is one of open-minded inquiry, tempered by caution and a critical faculty. While I don't "believe in ghosts" in the conventional sense, I also don't dogmatically assume that naive materialism explains all observed reality. I've never had any paranormal experiences of my own (I'm using "paranormal" as most people do, in the sense of uncanny or strange, with no connotations about the cause --not, as Clarke defines it at one point in this book, as a technical term that itself implies a non-supernatural explanation); but I have family members who have, and a neighbor whose veracity I have no reason to doubt, who fully believes that her house is harmlessly haunted by the ghost of a child. So my interest in Clarke's book was piqued when I saw the giveaway.
Roger Clarke grew up in the 1960s and 70s on England's Isle of Wight, an area with folk beliefs in ghosts, and lived in houses that had tales of hauntings connected to them. As a kid and teen, he developed an avid interest in ghost hunting, becoming the youngest member of the Society for Psychical Research at the age of 14. (The first chapter of the book provides this background, and discusses the several "haunted" sites he's visited personally.) While the bulk of the Goodreads description just reproduces the cover copy, which is a bit sensationalized, it does give a pretty accurate idea of the book's flavor. It's not really a systematic treatise on the subject, or a full history of ghost beliefs (it's organized topically, rather than chronologically), but it's a very wide-ranging discussion, with a lot of fascinating factual information. Clarke takes it as a given that some people do experience "ghost" phenomena; the question for him is not whether these exist or not, but rather how they should be explained, and what ghost beliefs tell us about ourselves. (And, at least in this book, he doesn't really attempt to suggest definitive answers.)
Though the book isn't really a "natural history" of ghosts, the second chapter does provide a "taxonomy" or classification (actually taken from ghost researcher Peter Underwood) of eight types of "ghostly" phenomena: "elementals," poltergeists, traditional or historical ghosts, mental imprint menifestations, crisis or death-survival apparitions, time slips, "ghosts" of the living, and haunted inanimate objects. Some of these categories, which are mostly distinguished by how they can possibly be explained, are concepts I was already aware of from other reading, but I still found the discussion informative. The succeeding chapters deal with a variety of subjects (which aren't always neatly organized), including 20th-century style ghost hunting, spiritualist seances, attempts to photograph ghosts, use of other kinds of technology for ghostly research, ghost phenomena associated with the military in wartime, and bogus ghost phenomena. Another interesting theme is the role of religion in European ghost belief. In the Middle Ages, the Roman Catholic church explained ghosts as souls from Purgatory; once souls were in heaven or hell, they stayed there. The Protestant rejection of Purgatory was associated with denial of the possibility of ghosts, and the explanation of all alleged ghostly phenomena as demonic in origin. (An exception was the early Methodist movement, which was open to the idea of ghosts due to the Wesley family's experience of poltergeist phenomena in Epworth in John Wesley's early years.) Much of this information was new to me or only vaguely grasped before. Several chapters concentrate on famous cases of "hauntings," including the 17th-century Tedworth Drummer, the phenomena at Hinton Ampner in the 18th century, the "Brown Lady of Raynham Hall," and the case of Borley Rectory in the 20th century.
For the most part, Clarke expresses no opinion, or ambiguous opinions, about the phenomena he describes, with the exception of some incidents, like the Cock Lane "ghost" in London in 1760-62, that were clearly faked. Based on the material here, I would say that there is a good deal of claimed "ghost" phenomena that can be discounted or that is susceptible of a natural explanation. There is, IMO, a core residue of data that is more resistant to that sort of explanation. This doesn't mean that we're obliged to explain it as the activity of revenant spirits of the dead, though I don't dogmatically deny that some of it could be. (I personally believe that the souls of the dead are normally unconscious and inactive until the time of the future resurrection; but that's a Biblical interpretation, not a proven fact, and what's normal may also not be invariable. I also don't rule out the reality of genuine demonic activity as an explanation for some phenomena; and I would recommend Kurt Koch's Between Christ and Satan as a worthwhile resource on that topic. But that's also not a handy-dandy explanation that all data can be forced to fit.)
One of the most fascinating aspects of the book to me was Clarke's highlighting of connections between supernatural fiction and real-life incidents. For instance, he makes a good case that the Hinton Ampner haunting suggested Henry James' The Turn of the Screw. Daniel Defoe's "True Relation of the Apparition of One Mrs. Veal" turns out to be an only lightly fictionalized account of an actual reported event; and famed ghost story writer M. R. James had a traumatizing paranormal experience as a boy.
Clarke isn't a scientist as such; he's an interested dabbler in the subject, writing for interested lay persons. His style is lively and chatty, but not ultra-scholarly, and his treatments of various facets of the subject are often not deep. He uses endnotes, but they're often just factual tidbits about a subject, not documentation of sources, and a lot of quoted and other material isn't documented. (The book is also indexed, but there are some omissions in the indexing.) Also, the editing was sometimes careless; information will occasionally be repeated because he apparently forgot he supplied it earlier. More than once, he left me wanting more information than I got. He did, however, clearly do his homework, and took it seriously. The bibliography for further reading fills about three-and-a-quarter pages, and consists of apparently solid sources, several of them from university presses. I haven't read any of these, and the only authors I recognized were folklorist Andrew Lang and Peter Haining (who edited The Mammoth Book of True Hauntings; but at least one is a book I'd like to read.) Two valuable sources not included are William G. Roll's The Poltergeist, and True Irish Ghost Stories by St. John Seymour and Harry Neligan.
All in all, I enjoyed the book enough to feel it earned its fourth star. It's not the definitive exploration of its subject by any means. But if that exploration is ever written, this is one source its author will probably want to make use of!...more
Although Norah Lofts is a writer I first encountered back in the late 60s, and I count her as a favorite, I've still only scratched the surface of herAlthough Norah Lofts is a writer I first encountered back in the late 60s, and I count her as a favorite, I've still only scratched the surface of her work, which includes voluminous historical fiction. This novel, set in the 18th century (a date, 1775, is given only late in the book; but her reference, in a note preceding the book text, to Bayne-Powell's English Life in the 18th Century clues us to the general setting, and the period details are consistent with that) is one of her best that I've yet read; there was no way I could rate it at less than five stars! It's also one of her earlier works --her sixth novel, penned when she'd only been a published author for about four years. It already exhibits a marked maturity of style and literary vision. In particular, while it has similarities to her fourth novel, Out of This Nettle (1938), in that both have a protagonist who goes from the British Isles in the 1700s to the West Indies (that would be a spoiler, if not for the fact that the front cover copy of the edition in the above description, which isn't the one I read, already announces the fact!), this one is far more readable, IMO, than the earlier book, better paced, and has a much more likeable protagonist.
That isn't to say that Hester is a plaster saint without foibles; she's a very realistically drawn, imperfect human being. The same can be said for most of the supporting characters; even the great majority of the sympathetic characters have shortcomings. But the deep human sympathy for her characters that shines through Loft's mature work is already present here; even her genuine villains usually have some good qualities, and we can always understand what motivates and shapes the characters' social and moral choices. Hester, however, transcends the circumstances of her rearing; she grows into a strong, courageous woman with a solid moral compass, whom readers can like and respect.
There's a sustained note of social concern here, sympathy for the downtrodden and hatred for cruelty and injustice. Related to this is a definite feminist subtext (written in a social milieu that was much less equalitarian than today's). Lofts does not, however, fall into the trap of portraying oppressed people as themselves invariably saintly and benevolent, or suggesting that every way that they respond to oppression is blameless. Parts of the novel are dark and tragic, fully illustrating the human capacity for treating other humans inhumanly. But the tone isn't as hopeless as the dark, unremitting grimness I found in Out of This Nettle (in fairness, I didn't read the whole of the latter novel), and a livelier plot; indeed, this book is compulsively readable, abounding in genuinely suspenseful situations. Lofts' treatment of evangelical characters elsewhere in her work is often colored by apparent "high-church" prejudice, but that's not the case here; she has two of the latter who come across as very admirable and sympathetic (and an Anglican vicar who does not!).
My only regret is that I waited so long to read this one!...more
Goodreads author Andrew Seddon and I have been pen pals for about 10 years now, and he kindly gave me a signed copy of this latest book from his pen -Goodreads author Andrew Seddon and I have been pen pals for about 10 years now, and he kindly gave me a signed copy of this latest book from his pen --not as a way of angling for a review, but as an expression of friendly generosity. While I've stated here that I read the book one time, I've actually beta read most of the dozen stories earlier (and Andrew graciously noted that in the acknowledgements); but I don't think I did the last three, and since it had been awhile for the other nine, I felt the review would benefit from a reread. These tales were every bit as good the second time around!
This is a sequel to the author's Saints Alive! New Stories of Old Saints: Saints of Empire, which focused on saints from late Roman antiquity. The quality, technique and tone of this volume is very similar, and many of my comments in my review of the first book apply to this one as well (see www.goodreads.com/review/show/555923014 ), except for one factual error there: the author converted from High Anglicanism to Roman Catholicism several years ago. Here, though, the focus is on the saints of the immediately following period --the "Dark Ages," roughly the 6th and 7th centuries A.D.-- flourishing in the Celtic fringe of Europe. (Andrew is a co-author of Walking with the Celtic Saints: A Devotional, so has familiarized himself with that milieu as well as the earlier one.) Written sources for the lives of these saints are even less extensive and less reliable, with much legendary accretion and often conflation of accounts of saints with the same name. (Andrew's main reliance here is on Butler's Lives of the Saints and The Lives of the British Saints by Sabine Baring-Gould and John Fisher.) The best-known Celtic saint, Patrick, isn't represented, the focus being on those less known; I'd previously heard only of St. Columba, St. Brigid, and St. Brendan. The world of these saints is less prosperous and civilized, and if danger and persecution come, it's from the unsettled condition of a war-torn continent, not from the persecuting machinery of a centralized state. In some ways, the Celtic mindset was more mystical than the Roman, with a conviction that the Otherworld is never far from this one. This allows Andrew to give freer vent to some of the motifs that make him a top-notch writer of speculative fiction, such as St. Columba's confrontation with Nessie (which actually is recorded by St. Adamnan!) and the apparent temporal slip in a half-waking state of "The Sun on the Liffey," perhaps the most thought-provoking tale here --and what if St. Brendan's voyages ever took him to the Bermuda Triangle?
These are well-crafted stories, each one a polished jewel, faith-filled, imparting a quiet wisdom, and often graced with gentle humor. Some of them may reflect the violence of a violent time, but there's nothing gross or gratuitous. It's hard to pick a favorite, but "Autumn Wolves" is a special treat for any reader who has a soft spot for wolves and knows how unfair their distorted popular image is. But none of the tales disappoint!...more
Although I'd seen a student production of this play back in my college days, I'd never read it until now. This month, it was a common read in one of mAlthough I'd seen a student production of this play back in my college days, I'd never read it until now. This month, it was a common read in one of my Goodreads groups; so I decided to join in, and watched it again (this time on film) as well. (I didn't read it in the above edition, but in the 1918 Yale Shakespeare set edition.)
Quite a few of my Goodreads friends have rated this play, mostly at four or five stars. My three-star rating (which is rounded up from two 1/2!) marks me as a bit of a heretic, or at least nonconformist. I'll readily admit that it has its pluses. As several reviews point out, it's funny (in places), especially if you like screwball situational humor --but the verbal humor of the play-within-a-play is a hoot as well. The blank verse diction of the play is grandiloquent and impressive (and has a few often quoted lines) as poetry. And I'll admit I'm always a sucker for a happy ending (okay, that's not a spoiler; given that it's one of the author's comedies, would you expect it to be tragic?) But it has, IMO, it's artistic weaknesses as well; and some of its attitudes haven't worn well with time. I wouldn't rank it as highly as some Shakespeare plays I've read/watched.
Naturally, I sympathize with Hermia and Lysander, who seem to genuinely love each other, and I rooted for them to be together. To his credit, Shakespeare clearly doesn't side with Egeus' and Theseus' ultra-patriarchial defense of arranged marriage and absolute paternal authority. Egeus, who wants to hand his own daughter to a suitor of his choosing in complete disregard for her feelings, and is seriously willing to actually have her killed for defying him, comes across to me as out-and-out evil pond scum. For me, though, that's a dysfunctional family situation that's hard to see as the stuff of comedy. Demetrius doesn't show up as much better; he's physically and selfishly infatuated with Hermia, to the point where he wants to essentially rape her for his own gratification regardless of what she wants, an attitude as far from love as it's possible to get. And he's thrown over an engagement (which the Elizabethans regarded as just as binding as marriage) to Helena, whom he obviously doesn't love either, to pursue this infatuation; and he treats her like dirt. It's hard (no, make that impossible) to imagine what Helena can see in him, and why she'd actually want him. Her absolute groveling before him, with lines like, "I am your spaniel... The more you beat me, I will fawn on you," etc., etc., for any male viewer who admires and respects women, can't help but come across as wince-worthy (or vomit-worthy). The fairy king and queen, Oberon and Titiana, have their own battle of the sexes going on, over a changeling human boy that Oberon selfishly wants to take for his own, despite Titiana's rather touching desire to raise him out of love and respect for his dead mother. Shakespeare's handling of some of these plot elements doesn't exactly suggest a real proto-feminist statement.
The motivation for some of the characters' key decisions at turning points of the plot are incomprehensible and implausible. (view spoiler)[Helena has nothing to gain by betraying her close friend's confidence to Demetrius, and much to lose (besides unaccountably throwing away a cherished friendship, she's acting to keep Hermia in the sights of a man she herself wants; is she wearing a sign saying "STUPID"?). And it's never explained why Titiana's infatuation with Bottom in his donkey-eared guise is supposed to make her suddenly willing to give in to Oberon's wish about the changeling, when nothing in her feelings about that situation have had any reason to alter, and falling for someone else would seemingly make her LESS considerate of Oberon, rather than the reverse. We might add that most husbands who want revenge on their wives probably wouldn't think of getting it by trying to make her fall in love with somebody/something else, at least if they valued her fidelity at all (though some aspects of fairy folklore suggest that fairies weren't thought of as being naturally monogamous, the way that humans are in their created nature). (hide spoiler)]
A central premise of the play, the idea that love can be magically alienated from its object and attached to someone else, sends a rather reductionist message about what love is, and the role of the mind and free will of humans in those kinds of feelings and choices. To be sure, we don't take this message seriously, because we don't believe fairies and magic exist; to us, they're just literary conceits. But to Shakespeare and his audience, these things actually DID exist (and love philtres were taken as seriously as a heart attack in the folk magic of that day --though most of them were actually just herbal aphrodisiacs), and we have techniques of brainwashing and mind control today that their believers credit with as much reductionist power. At a deeper level than the superficially amusing, one might find it problematical to see things like love and friendship made playthings for fairy amusement, and "esteem" it less of a "sport" than Puck does. That raises fair questions about the ending, too. (view spoiler)[How valid is Helena's HEA if Demetrius' newly-regained "love" for her is the product of ensorcellment, even if neither of them knows that? (And how "happy" is any lady going to be who's sentenced to life with Demetrius?) While we're on the subject of the ending, if Theseus couldn't override the laws of Athens on paternal authority at the beginning of the play, how come he can near its end? (hide spoiler)]
While Bottom and his fellow artisan actors (who obviously aren't well-educated, as few manual laborers were in the 16th century) are highly comical at times, one can detect a certain stereotyping and disparaging of those who aren't of the upper class in some lines. There seems to be an intent to portray them as being as moronic and naturally inferior to their social "betters" as possible; and that's another aspect of the play that comes across as irritating if you dig below the surface level.
Some readers/viewers might find the Elizabethan English here (and in other plays of the period) to be a deal-breaking stumblingblock. For me it wasn't. In viewing the play, I think most intelligent people could basically follow the action and get the gist of the dialogue without a problem. Making sense of the written text actually isn't too hard in most places (especially if you've previously seen the play performed). The Yale Shakespeare has very short explanatory footnotes, and longer endnotes, explaining the meanings of archaic words and phrases, with an index of words glossed; but I usually didn't have to refer to this. (When I did, it was generally helpful.) This edition also has short appendices on the sources of Shakespeare's ideas for the play, on the theatrical history of the play (to 1918), and on the text of it, and a few suggestions, now a bit dated, for collateral reading. I didn't read over any of these in much detail, but I'll probably refer to some of the material for discussion in the group during the rest of the month.["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>["br"]>...more
Note, July 18, 2014: I've just corrected a one-letter typo I found in this review. (Doggone it; I thought I'd proofread the thing to start with! :-) )Note, July 18, 2014: I've just corrected a one-letter typo I found in this review. (Doggone it; I thought I'd proofread the thing to start with! :-) )
June 18, 2014 The late Manly Wade Wellman (1903-1986) was a virtuoso master of supernatural fiction, though it wasn't the only field in which he wrote. For a time in the 1960s, he abandoned the genre altogether; but he returned to it in the early 70s, and continued to produce quality work in it for the remainder of his career. In this volume, Karl Edward Wagner, one of many younger writers Wellman befriended (and his designated literary executor), collected all 23 of the short supernatural stories written in these last 15 years of the older author's life, with a short and simple introduction. Wellman has been a favorite writer of mine for nearly 30 years; so when I stumbled on this collection last week at the public library in Harrisonburg, VA, I was delighted to start reading it. (I hope to finish it later this summer, when my wife and I are back in the Harrisonburg area to visit family.)
As the subtitle suggests, these stories are mostly set in southern Appalachia. They're apparently arranged by their main character(s), rather than chronologically; for instance, the six stories Wellman wrote during this period featuring homespun mountain folk singer and "witch-master" Silver John come first. All of the Silver John stories (going back to 1951) are collected in John the Balladeer (my 5-star review of the latter book is here: www.goodreads.com/review/show/18460294 ). Probably my favorite of the ones here is "Trill Coster's Burden," but they're all good. Wellman's two long-standing series occult detectives, John Thunstone and Judge Pursivant, each appear in one of the other six stories I read in this batch, the former in "Rouse Him Not" and the latter in "Chastel," the only one of the stories I've read so far in this collection that's set outside Appalachia. (It draws on the real-life vampirism accusations surrounding members of the Ray family in mid-19th-century Jewett City, CT.) Judge Pursivant protege Lee Cobbett, one of two new series protagonists Wellman created in the 70s, also appears in this story, and he's featured in three others, two of which, "The Beasts That Perish" and "Willow He Walk," have a couple of the most original premises I've ever read for hauntings. (The title character of "A Witch for All Seasons" is somewhat reminiscent of Tahpanes in the author's excellent Silver John novel, The Lost and the Lurking.) Cobbett's background isn't fleshed out much in these tales, but I'd like to learn more! Finally, the last story I read in this batch, "Hundred Years Gone," features Hal Stryker, who's here a college student (or fledgling graduate) who's discovered a fascination with folklore studies. (Most students in the field don't have quite the kind of experiences that he does.)
All of the characteristic features of Wellman's writing are here: quality storytelling, good use of history, unobtrusive Christian faith, a strong sense of place, clean romance, little or no bad language, appealing characters, and above all an optimistic perspective and solid moral compass. I'm greatly looking forward to my next opportunity to read more in these pages. More of this review will follow then!
July 14, 2014: I finished up the remaining 11 stories in this round of reading, and it was the literary equivalent of relishing a favorite meal! There are two basic story arcs that usually characterize most traditional supernatural fiction in the classic mode: supernatural menace that threatens the innocent, but is thwarted; and greed and malice running afoul of supernatural vengeance. Wellman is a master at handling both types (sometimes in the same story). It might be said that this isn't fiction that delivers marked surprises at an essential level. As far as it goes, that's true; but just as you anticipate a familiar good experience as you sit down to a super-favorite meal, so I (and, I suspect, many other fans) approach tales of this type; surprise is not something we desire on the menu. But within that structure of basic predictability, there's room for infinite variation in detail, and Wellman never disappoints there either; each of his stories is unique in some way. All of those here exhibit his skill at characterization, and his knowledge of actual occult lore; Appalachian culture and history are palpable here, as is an ear for mountain dialect. A touch I particularly appreciate is the well-read author's frequent reference to actual books, especially The Long Lost Friend by Johann Georg Hohman (1820).
"Keep Me Away" (one of the more unusual yarns here, and one of my favorites) and "Yare" also feature Hal Stryker; the others are stand-alones, but some stories are linked to the rest of the author's corpus by mentions of shared characters, localities, etc. Native American lore figures in a couple of stories, "Along about Sundown" and "Caretaker." My favorite selection in this batch is "The Ghastly Priest Doth Reign;" but "Chorazin" and "Goodman's Place" are also standouts, IMO. But there isn't a clunker in the bunch!...more
Fans of the 80s-90s TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation know Wil Wheaton as the actor who played Wesley Crusher for several seasons. Since then,Fans of the 80s-90s TV series Star Trek: The Next Generation know Wil Wheaton as the actor who played Wesley Crusher for several seasons. Since then, however, he's apparently developed a second career as an author. My only prior acquaintance with his work was my recent read of another of his freebie short stories, The Monster in My Closet, which I checked out via a link in one of my groups. Although I didn't rate it, I didn't care much for it; so my friend Amber (who'd given both stories five-star reviews) suggested this as an example of his work that I might like better.
The two stories are very different in setting and subject matter; but both are short, exhibit all of Aristotle's classic unities, and have only a few significant characters (here, two). Our setting here is a far-future, human-colonized planet, now under the boot of a vicious and brutal conquering alien race, the Gan. Pyke is a "pragmatist," a human turncoat who captures humans who are still fighting and turns them over to the Gan (after getting his jollies by brutalizing and abusing them). Teenaged Nina is his current prey.
Both stories have other commonalities, one being that they're both competently written, in a way that's crafted to serve the intended effect. Another is that the adjectives "dark" and "grisly" apply to both. This isn't a rosy, feel-good tale by any stretch of the imagination (although going into much more detail about the plot, as in the other case, would quickly involve major spoilers). But the moral and psychological quality of its darkness is significantly different from the other story, and that's reflected in the different way I handled the rating. Of course, unlike Goodreads' three and four-star ratings, a five-star rating doesn't necessarily mean that I "liked" this one; it's the type of work you experience rather than like. Literally, five stars indicates that I found it "amazing;" it amazes in its unflinching exploration of the dark side of human nature, the originality of its plotting, and the powerful way in which it achieves its effect. And it's a story with something constructive to say.
If I have a serious criticism, it's that although this is apparently a stand-alone story, there are significant elements of the plot and world-building that cry out for more development and explanation. This could easily be a teaser for a full-length novel (and that novel would be one I could see myself reading). Readers who want to avoid bad language should be warned that there's some of that here, including three or four f-words. (I rated it the way I did despite that.)