Sulky Sam

Title: Preacher Sam
(Same Geisler, Murder Whisperer – Book 1)
Author: Cassondra Windwalker
Genre: Mystery / Christian Fiction
Pages: 284
Rating: 2 of 5
Future Release Date: 9/17/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Preacher Sam is not your typical Christian/Religious fiction. It includes profanity (including “the F bomb”), it discusses sexual addiction and lustful thoughts frankly (and occasionally explicitly), there is no strategically placed “get saved” speech, and it falls into the mystery genre rather than historical romance.

Our protagonist is a disgraced, porn-addicted ex-pastor who is living with his atheist single-mom sister while trying to get his life and marriage back together. In the past he was instrumental in getting a murderer to confess. References to this abound, but the details remain so sketchy that it feels like we’ve missed out on book 1 of the series. When one of his former parishioners is jailed for murder and refuses to defend herself or speak to anyone but him or the victim’s husband, Sam must figure out what really happened.

Unfortunately, the story focuses far more on Sam whining and sulking about his life and family relationships than it does on the murder mystery. His pursuit of “what really happened?” proceeds in a desultory, mopey fashion, and the amazingly convenient item that finally helps him solve it is ill-explained and/or doesn’t quite make sense. Add a shoehorned-in romantic subplot for his sister, some preachy bits, and a final line that undercuts any apparent character growth, and this really didn’t work for me.

Using Biblical Hebrew Responsibly

Exegetical Gems from Biblical Hebrew: A Refreshing Guide to Grammar and Interpretation by [Hardy, H. H. II]Title: Exegetical Gems from Biblical Hebrew –
A Refreshing Guide to Grammar & Interpretation
Author: H. H. Hardy II
Genre: Biblical Studies / Translation Theory
Pages: 224
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Publication Date: 7/16/19 (Thank you to the author and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

A Couple months ago I reviewed the companion volume to this book (Exegetical Gems from Biblical Greek) and strongly recommended it. Pretty much everything that I said about that book goes for this one. It is an excellent resource for second year (or maybe even second semester) biblical Hebrew students or those (like me) wishing to brush up on what they studied back in college/seminary.

Each short chapter provides a sample verse and discusses one major aspect of grammar and interpretation. It shows the proper way to use your knowledge of biblical Hebrew rather than the “gold nuggets” approach that reads way too much into every little nuance of the language. This book did seem to have a little more technical jargon in it than its Greek counterpart, but it may just be that my Hebrew is way rustier than my Greek, so I can’t say for sure.

The eARC that I read had some serious formatting issues with the Hebrew font (it frequently read left-to-right with no vowel pointings). I am assuming that this will not be the case in the finished product. With that assumption, I highly recommend this book to anyone in the middle of learning biblical Hebrew or who needs a little refresher course.

Two from the TBR

I just knocked two more books off my TBR Pile Challenge list. Both were a bit on the”pulp” side, and each is part of longer loosely-connected series.

Title: The Roads Between the Worlds
(Eternal Champion Series, Volume 6)
Author: Michael Moorcock
Genre: Sci-fi
Pages: 391
Rating: 3 of 5

This volume in the Eternal Champion series does not  feature any of the better-known iterations of the Champion (e.g. Elric, Corum, Hawkmoon). In fact, other than the concept of the multiverse and preachy idealizing of anarchic government, most of the plot elements that pop up in Eternal Champion stories are absent or receive only the subtlest of nods.

The three novellas that make up the volume are on the more sci-fi side of Moorcock’s writing and largely involve political maneuvering and/or revolution on alternate versions of the earth. As is usual with Moorcock, the plots are an odd blend of pulp sci-fi and preachiness. If you’re really into the Eternal Champion series, this is probably worth reading, but for casual readers something featuring Elric, Corum, or Hawkmoon would be a more entertaining introduction to Moorcock’s style.

The Case of the Velvet Claws (Perry Mason Series Book 1) by [Gardner, Erle Stanley]Title: The Case of the Velvet Claws
(Perry Mason, Book 1)
Author: Erle Stanley Gardner
Genre: Mystery/Crime Fiction
Pages: 193
Rating: 3 of 5

My past exposure to Perry Mason was the older, fatter, gentler version in the later TV shows; this book features the hard-boiled original. Perry Mason’s code of ethics dictates that he works for the interest of his client regardless of how nasty (or even guilty) they might be, and this client is as dishonest and manipulative as they come. The plot twists and turns through a pretty middle-of-the-road pulp mystery. There’s none of the snappy snark that you get from authors like Raymond Chandler, but it’s a decent tough-guy detective/lawyer story.

I survived!

Thanks to my awesome wife I survived this year’s Vacation Bible School. Just for fun, here are a couple pictures.

My Love:

Us4

The kiddos:

IMG_1485

…and (hopefully edifying) fun was had by all.

Sympathy for the Devil?

Image result for heart of darkness and the secret sharer bantamTitle: Heart of Darkness & The Secret Sharer
Author: Joseph Conrad
Genre: Classic Novellas
Pages: 237
Rating: 4 of 5

I would categorize these classic novellas as interesting rather than enjoyable. In them, Conrad displays his usual bleak view of human nature and society.

Heart of Darkness records a barely fictionalized account of Conrad’s own experience piloting a steamer in the Belgian Congo. It pairs well with King Leopold’s Ghost (which discusses it at some length). Unlike King Leopold’s Ghost, which reflects current attitudes toward racism and colonialism, Heart of Darkness is loaded with product-of-its-era prejudices. The narrative deplores the dark and horrifying nature of the European characters while at the same time showing a general contempt for the Africans who are on the receiving end of their cruelty.

Our narrator’s response to “what evil lurks in the hearts of men” is complex. He is disgusted by the pettiness, greed, and violence of the Belgian traders but fascinated by the charismatic Kurtz who started out with seemingly higher ideals but has done far more horrifying things. His feelings for Kurtz teeter between sympathetic defense and disgusted horror. Trying to untangle the message of this bleak classic provides an interesting challenge. (Also, I’m using this for my Classic Novella category for the Back the the Classics Challenge)

The Secret Sharer features another narrator who sympathizes with a dark-hearted character. In this tale, a young captain hides a fugitive aboard his new ship. He becomes oddly obsessed with the idea that this self-confessed murderer (“justifiable homicide” of course) is his double. Tensions escalate between the captain and his new crew due to the secretive, bizarre behavior required to keep the “secret sharer” of his cabin hidden. While quite different in tone from Heart of Darkness, it includes the same tangled message of a sort of sympathy for a cruel person paired with a cynicism toward society.

Speak of the devil…

The Devil Aspect: A Novel by [Russell, Craig]Title: The Devil Aspect
Author: Craig Russell
Genre: Psychological Horror
Pages: 414
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Psychiatrist Viktor Kosárek believes that horrific criminal behavior is caused by the “devil aspect,” a dark facet of human nature present in everyone to some degree. His new appointment to the Hrad Orlu Asylum allows him to study Europe’s most infamous violent criminals: the “The Devil’s Six.”

The story drips with atmosphere. The asylum is a sinister castle (an Elizabeth Bathory-like nobleman figures in its past) in 1930’s Czechoslovakia (Nazis casting covetous eyes on the Sudetenland) with a serial killer known as Leather Apron on the loose in Prague. The plot splits its focus between the hunt for Leather Apron and Viktor’s sessions with each of the Devil’s Six as he attempts to isolate the “devil aspect.” Add a sprinkling of Slavic mythology, and chilling, gory details abound.

As much as I appreciated the atmosphere, this was only a 3.5 for me. Some of the Devil’s Six material (chilling as it was) felt like it contributed little to the plot. The pacing was slow until the end which was rushed and unsurprising (the foreshadowing of Leather Apron’s identity was fairly obvious much too early in the book). I was also very annoyed by the final coda as it eliminated a certain intriguing ambiguity. Overall, this is worth reading if you are a fan of psychological horror, but I feel like it could have been a lot better in terms of plot & pacing.

The Horror! The Horror!

King Leopold's Ghost: A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa by [Hochschild, Adam]Title: King Leopold’s Ghost:
A Story of Greed, Terror, and Heroism in Colonial Africa
Author: Adam Hochschild
Genre: History
Pages: 306 (plus citations, etc.)
Rating: 4.5 of 5

In the mid-1800’s, Leopold II, King of the Belgians, claimed a massive chunk of central Africa. With the help of trading companies and their armed “sentries” he brutally exploited the people in it for his own personal enrichment while convincing the world that he was a great humanitarian. King Leopold’s Ghost examines the sordid history of the Belgian Congo, the land that inspired Joseph Conrad’s bleak Heart of Darkness.

Hochschild covers everything from the early exploration of central Africa to the results of the international protest movement spearheaded by journalists and Protestant missionaries and all the horror in between. Reading about exploitation, mutilation, and death on such a massive scale is not easy, but is crucial to understanding the history of European colonialism in Africa and its continuing impact.

The author definitely “has it out” for Leopold, but I’m not sure how you would be completely dispassionate about someone responsible for deaths on a scale similar to Hitler or Stalin. Africans are presented in a balanced manner, emphasizing their victimization without falling into the idealized “noble savage” mindset or ignoring the complicity of some in the slave trade. Europeans and Americans working against the cruelties of Leopold’s rule are portrayed sympathetically without glossing over their blind spots, weaknesses, and limited impact.

I highly recommend this book for anyone interested in the history of Africa and/or European Colonialism. The overall style is a very readable “popular level” but features high quality primary-source research.

(Also, this is my sixth book read for the 2019 TBR Pile Challenge).

Historical Hamartiology

Against God and Nature: The Doctrine of Sin (Foundations of Evangelical Theology) by [McCall, Thomas H.]Title: Against God and Nature:
The Doctrine of Sin
Author: Thomas H. McCall
Genre: Theology (Hamartiology)
Pages: 448
Rating: 3 of 5
Future Release Date: 6/25/19 (Thank you to the author & publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This does not affect the content of the review)

Last year I reviewed another book from this Foundations of Evangelical Theology series: Light in a Dark Place: The Doctrine of Scripture. That book was by John S. Feinberg, the general editor of the series, and I found it helpful and academically rigorous. I was a bit less impressed with this offering by Thomas H. McCall.

McCall deals with the doctrine of sin; not a pleasant topic, but crucial to a proper understanding of the Christian faith. He approaches the topic with an Arminian point of view, which sets him apart from many of the other authors in the series as they tend to be more Reformed. Though I lean in a more Reformed direction myself, that wasn’t what irked me about this book (though he may have spent more of his page count than was strictly necessary on “Arminian vs. Reformed” related concerns).

The book covers pretty much all the facets of the doctrine that you would expect, but there was relatively little direct exegetical interaction with Scripture compared to other broadly Evangelical systematic theology books I have read. McCall spends much of his page count surveying what different councils and theologians have said about the topic down through history. While I appreciate the use of historical theology (something Evangelical theologians aren’t always very good at), I do not appreciate how it dominates the book. After the second chapter which surveys what the entire Bible says about sin, there is little directly digging into the grammar, examining possible cross-references, or other biblical theology concerns. Instead we get to hear what the Council of Carthage, Augustine, John of Damascus, Thomas Aquinas, John Calvin, Karl Barth, etc. thought about the matter.

This focus on historical theology means that most of the time the book is dealing with Scripture at (at least) one remove, occasionally going into Scripturally iffy territory (e.g. some death existing before the fall). I did find some of the discussions profitable (e.g. the section on original sin helpfully explored many possible understandings of the difficult concept), but overall I was disappointed by the relative scarcity of detailed exegesis or direct appeal to Scripture.

Obsessive Discontent

Image result for Jude the obscure book coverTitle: Jude the Obscure
Author: Thomas Hardy
Genre: Classic Fiction
Pages: 414
Rating: 3.5

I read this book for the Classic Tragedy category at the Back to the Classics Challenge. I didn’t know much about it going in other than that it was supposed to be horribly depressing and scandalously frank in its discussion of sexuality for a Victorian Era book…and that’s exactly what it was. Hardy attacks the snobbery of academia and the institution of marriage. I’m not sure whether he is entirely against the idea of marriage as a lifelong commitment or just the way that he sees it being manipulated and abused.

Our protagonist, Jude, spends his whole life discontented and obsessed. His life swirls around the effects of a hasty marriage to a pig farmer’s daughter (Arabella), inability to progress in his scholarly pursuits (due largely to the elitist nature of Christminster / Oxford), and a romantic infatuation with his brilliantly unconventional, narcissistic cousin (Sue). Jude wallows in misery as he repeatedly chucks aside anything good he has going for him in order to pursue immediate lusts or sulk over his dissatisfaction. Between Jude’s obsessive discontent, Arabella’s manipulations, and Sue’s love of being loved (with minimal reciprocation), ugliness and tragedy abound.

Overall, the book is pretty horrifying, but I have to give it credit for a certain kind of realism. As a pastor who does a fair amount of counseling, most of the life-ruining decisions made by the people in this book are sadly familiar. Hardy and I would probably analyze the problems and moral course of action differently in some cases, but the man certainly understood the dark, selfish side of human nature.

Fantastical Fiction

Title: The Big Book of Classic Fantasy
Editors: Ann & Jeff VanderMeer
Genre: Fantasy(ish)
Pages: 848
Rating: 3.5 of 5
Future Release Date: July 2, 2019 (Thank you to the editors and publisher for a free eARC via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Having read and greatly enjoyed Ann & Jeff VanderMeer’s massive anthology entitled The Weird, I jumped at the chance to review another one of their tomes. This volume collects “classic fantasy” stories (and excerpts from longer books) ranging in date from the early 1800’s up until World War II when fantasy became more of a defined genre. The blend of authors includes classic fantasy/sci-fi/weird writers, classic literary legends dabbling in the fantastical, and many authors less known to the English-speaking world.

The editors’ most basic definition of fantasy is: “…any story in which an element of the unreal permeates the real world or any story that takes place within a secondary world that is identifiably not a version of ours, whether anything overtly ‘fantastical’ occurs during the story.” This allows for a wide variety of stories, very few of which fall into high fantasy, swords & sorcery, or other popular modern sub-genres.

A large number of the stories have a folklore, fairy-tale, or tall-tale feel with all the incoherencies and random digressions common to them. Quite a few are unclassifiable other than to say that they contain a fantastical element…maybe magic realism or surrealism? Some are more didactic like beast-fables or political satire that dips into the fantastical. A few I would classify solidly in the weird/horror or pulp sci-fi categories rather than fantasy, but such things are always a matter of opinion.

Overall, the editors have produced an interesting blend of the fantastical. How much you enjoy it may depend on your taste and how willing you are to give fantasy an extremely broad definition. Personally, I like a fairly coherent story even when I read fantasy, so the high number of folkloric tales, surreal stories, and small excerpts from longer books sometimes got on my nerves. However, if you’re into fantastical stories or “fantasy before there was a fantasy genre” this book is well worth your time.