“Success to Crime”

Today I will be giving a couple of quick reviews of story collections featuring successful criminals…sort of.

Title: Sleep No More
Author: P. D. James
Genre: Murder Mystery Short Stories
Pages: 208
Rating: 4 of 5

Sleep No More collects six short stories that defy standard expectations for “cozy” mysteries. The settings are what you would expect: manor houses, small English villages, etc. However, in each story the point of view is not that of the primary investigator, and the murderer is not necessarily brought to justice (which does not always mean truly “getting away with it” in the sense of avoiding all consequences). The stories provide a quick, entertaining read as long as you don’t mind your fiction a touch dark and morally ambiguous.

My one criticism would be that the stories are so similar in subject matter that after the first two or three it’s pretty easy to guess where the last three or four are going very early on in the story. It seems a shame to lessen the impact of cleverly out-of-the-ordinary stories by packing them all into one collection rather than interspersing them with more standard fare.

This was my first P. D. James, and I was impressed enough that I’ll definitely have to try one of her full-length books in the future. Any suggestions?

Title: The Saint: Five Complete Novels
(The Man Who Was Clever, The Lawless Lady, The Saint Closes the Case, The Avenging Saint, The Saint vs. Scotland Yard)
Author: Leslie Charteris
Genre: Pulp Vigilante Fiction
Pages: 663
Rating:  2.5 of 5

My previous exposure to the character of Simon Templar, aka the Saint, was the 1997 movie starring Val Kilmer (my wife’s distant cousin). This book stars the original, and there’s very little resemblance to the movie version. Charteris’s Saint is a suave vigilante whose goal is to bring seemingly untouchable criminals to justice, usually also relieving them of a significant amount of money which he donates to charity …after taking his 10% cut, of course.

Simon is reckless and debonaire. He trades snarky quips with criminals who have the drop on him, laughs in the face of death, and uses his agility and physical prowess to save the day, though not always without personal loss. He seems to be the author’s conception of the ideal manly man in a world full of sad sacks, moral cowards, and sensitive snowflakes. It was definitely a mistake to read all five novels close together as his charmingly contemptuous man-boy act wore thin pretty quick (and some casual racism in one book and plot-centric antisemitism in another didn’t help matters). I generally enjoy snarky pulp heroes, but I’ll probably give the Saint a miss from now on.

A Love Letter to Liturgy

Title: Disruptive Witness
Author: Alan Noble
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 192
Rating: 3 of 5
(Thank you to the publisher for a free review copy via NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of the review)

Recently I have noticed a number of books riffing on Charles’ Taylor’s tome, A Secular Age. I have never read A Secular Age in all its 900-page glory, but it was interesting to be exposed to the ideas of someone whose thinking has been shaped by it. This is my first detailed encounter with his philosophies, so I may not be entirely accurate in my understanding of them, but here are my initial impressions:

The first half of this book offers the author’s perception of the constantly-distracted, non-introspective-yet-identity-obsessed culture in which we live. In this culture, says Noble, Christianity is seen as a collection of options in a buffet of more-or-less equal ideas, preferences, and opinions that I can adopt to express what I perceive as “the real me.” Noble desires some way to “disrupt” this “secular” way of thinking and make it clear that the Christian faith is a transcendent reality, that tells us who we are and our place in the universe (loved by God, deeply in need of his grace, etc.).

Much of his diagnosis in the first section is insightful (or at least thought-provoking), but I was uncomfortable and bemused with much of the second half. To me, he comes across as nostalgic for his (Charles Taylor’s?) vision of pre-Reformation days when Christianity was generally accepted because it was imposed from the outside by “Christendom” and “the Church” (i.e. the Roman Catholic Church) who spoke with a unified voice. Throughout the second section, fidelity to Scripture (a major concern of the Protestant Reformation and the “noble” people in Acts 17:11) takes a back seat to promoting a sense of awe and transcendence.

The primary ways he suggests promoting this disruptive awe are: prayer before meals, sabbath-keeping, and especially solemn liturgy with a strong anti-technology bias. He offers little or no biblical support for anything he says. To me, he communicates far more about his own “high church” sensibilities than he does about what is at the heart of the Christian faith and the sanctifying truth of God’s Word (John 17:17).

Overall, I appreciated the thought-provoking perspective on society in the first half of the book, but was entirely unimpressed with his solution for effectively sharing the faith (and disturbed that the days of “orthodoxy” imposed by raw power should be idealized).

Loosely Linked Mini Reviews

Title: George MacDonald: An Anthology
Author: George MacDonald (duh)
Editor: C. S. Lewis
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 152
Rating: 4 of 5

C. S. Lewis made no secret of the fact that he was heavily influenced by George MacDonald. In this slim volume he collected 365 excerpts from MacDonald’s writings. Most of these gems come from his (deservedly) lesser-known writings rather than his beautifully crafted fantasy novels which Lewis claims must be taken as a whole to be fully appreciated. The writings of Lewis (especially Mere Christianity and The Screwtape Letters) do indeed echoe many of these thoughts, though I would say that MacDonald has a more mystical bent and many of his ideas smack of perfectionism of a rather Methodist variety (a doctrine I find unsustainable both Scripturally and through observation of the real world). Overall, this is a great little book with many thought-provoking ideas. However, to see MacDonald at his best I’d recommend reading the two books of the Curdie series.

Title: Creed or Chaos
Author: Dorothy L. Sayers
Genre: Theology/Philosophy
Pages: 85
Rating: 5 of 5

This book also has a vague connection to C. S. Lewis as Dorothy Sayers is considered to be an associate of the “Inklings” literary circle. In this collection of essays she discusses the need of sound, objective doctrine over a more subjective “all you need is sincerity” approach to Christianity. I have previously admired Dorothy L. Sayers as a translator of The Divine Comedy and author of the Lord Peter Wimsey detective series, and I must say she is equally engaging as a theologian/philosopher.

Title: The Dante Chamber
Author: Matthew Pearl
Genre: Mystery/Historical Fiction
Pages: 357
Rating: 3.5 of 5

Speaking of The Divine Comedy, Matthew Pearl has returned to the world of his wildly popular The Dante Club with this sequel. Now people are turning up dead in London, gruesomely killed in ways reminiscent of The Purgatorio. Pearl’s main historical characters for this one are Christina Rossetti (and family), Robert Browning, and Alfred Lord Tennyson (with an encore appearance by Oliver Wendell Holmes). There’s lots of info-dumping of interesting historical tidbits about these people and fawning commentary over the greatness of Danté wrapped around a twisted mystery. It’s basically the exact same formula as the first one and as such felt a bit played out…for me it was only okay.

Title: The Magic of Recluce
(Saga of Recluce: Book 1)
Author: L. E. Modesitt Jr.
Genre: Fantasy
Pages: 512
Rating: 2.5 of 5

“Only okay” brings us to our next book. I found The Magic of Recluce to be pretty disappointing and almost DNFed it a couple times. The main character is a sullen brat who constantly complains about being bored and whines that no one tells him the answers to his questions but zones out when given the opportunity to learn anything important. The plot is a wandering “find yourself” narrative where mister whiney-pants suddenly makes huge deductive leaps, vast progress in his skills, or sudden increases in maturity seemingly at random. At the end he’s a better person but it all felt pretty haphazard. The Order vs. Chaos dynamic of the author’s world is interesting enough that I’ll give the next book a shot, but it had better be a whole lot better than this one.

The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (Hercule Poirot) Agatha Christie 0425200477 9780425200476 And when the second and final colume of Williams Collected Poems is published, it should become even more apparent that he is this centurys major American poet. --LTitle: The Murder of Roger Ackroyd
(Hercule Poirot, Book 4)
Author: Agatha Christie
Genre: Mystery
Pages: 358
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This book is one reason I’m willing to give an author or character a second chance. I do not care for Hercule Poirot; I am annoyed by his smug manner and holding back information so he can make a big splash at the end. However, this book has one of the best twist endings ever in a “cozy” mystery, so it’s worth putting up with the smarmy little Belgian.

Not a Tame Lion

The Chronicles of NarniaTitle: The Chronicles of Narnia
Author: C. S. Lewis
Genre: Children’s Fantasy
Pages: 870
Rating: 5 of 5!

Though the seven books of The Chronicles of Narnia are written as fairytales for children, they follows C. S. Lewis’s philosophy that, “A children’s story that can only be enjoyed by children is not a good children’s story in the slightest,” and “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” While I have not yet reached the “fifty and beyond” category, I enjoy these books a little more each time I read them (and I have read them every two or three years since I was in first grade).

The Chronicles of Narnia tell the tale of a magical world of talking animals in which British children have a variety of adventures (defeating a witch, winning the throne for the rightful king, rescuing a lost prince, etc.). Though children from our world are the main characters, the true hero of the series is Aslan, The Great Lion and Son of the Emperor-Over-the-Sea. Aslan is clearly a Christ character, intended by Lewis to be “a supposition” of what it would look like for the Son of God to appear in a different world. Lewis recognized that “The value of myth is that it takes all the things you know and restores to them the rich significance which has been hidden by the veil of familiarity.” Each book, besides being a fun fantasy story, explores a different aspect of Aslan’s character.

  • In The Lion the Witch an the Wardrobe he is the Redeemer
  • In Prince Caspian he is the One who sends help
  • In The Voyage of the ‘Dawn Treader’ he is the Guide and Renewer.
  • In The Silver Chair he is the One who guides with his Words.
  • In The Horse and His Boy he is the One in sovereign control of events.
  • In The Magician’s Nephew he is the Creator.
  • In The Last Battle he is the One who ushers his children into paradise.

…and so much more. These books have grown with me through increased understanding in a way described by Aslan in Prince Caspian:

“Aslan,” said Lucy “you’re bigger.”
“That is because you are older, little one,” answered he.
“Not because you are?”
“I am not. But every year you grow, you will find me bigger.”

The only book in the series about which I have some reservations is The Last Battle. It contains breathtaking descriptions of paradise but also emphasizes some confused pluralistic ideas that depart from biblical orthodoxy. It is still worth reading, but those who take seriously Jesus’ claims to be the only way to heaven (e.g. John 3:16-18) should approached it with discernment.

The order in which I have listed the books above is C. S. Lewis’s original publication order, and I personally think they are far better when read in that sequence rather than the “chronological” order currently used by publishers. If nothing else, Lewis clearly intended The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe to be the readers’ first impression of Aslan. And I will leave you with part of Aslan’s beautiful introduction from that book. Come meet Aslan:

“…Aslan is a lion–the Lion, the great Lion.”
“Ooh!” said Susan, “I’d thought he was a man. Is he–quite safe? I shall feel rather nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or else just silly.”
“Then he isn’t safe?” said Lucy.
“Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. “Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King I tell you.”
“I’m longing to see him,” said Peter, “even if I do feel frightened when it comes to the point.”

(Note: I was just taken on as a volunteer writer for a local online magazine and this is a copy of the second article I will be submitting to them)

Kafkaesque Police Procedural

Image result for the city and the cityTitle: The City & the City
Author: China Miéville
Genre: Surreal Police Procedural
Pages: 312
Rating: 3.5 of 5

In the Surreal world of The City & The City, two antagonistic city states locked in a Cold War-like relationship share the same geographic location. The citizens of each city employ doublethink worthy of Orwell’s 1984 to unsee, unhear, etc. anything that is not in their city. Violations are an unthinkable crime and are summarily dealt with by the shadowy agents of Breech.

The plot revolves around a murder investigation with “international” complications. Inspector Tyador Borlú of the more run-down, Eastern-European-flavored city of Beszel must cooperate with Detective Qussim Dhatt of the more prosperous Middle-East-flavored Ul Qoma. The murder mystery plot wraps up in a satisfactory manner after plenty of twists, turns, and conspiracy theories. Along the way we learn quite a bit about how the politics and culture of the two cities and Breech operate. However, we never really receive solid answers as to why the cities exist as they do and why Breech does what they do.

The lack of solid “why are things like this?” answers didn’t really bother me since that was not the main plot. If the author wants to leave his setting unexplained, I’m okay with that…especially in a book this surreal. What did detract from my personal enjoyment of the book (knocking it down from a 4.5 to 3.5) was the pervasive profanity. Call me a prude, but I’m not a fan of F-bomb-strewn dialogue. Overall: if you’re a fan of fantastic world-building and don’t mind profanity or non-answers to some questions, this might be a good book for you.

A Dish Best Served Cold

Title: The Count of Monte Cristo
Author: Alexandre Dumas
Translator: Robin Buss
Genre: Classic
Pages: 1,276
Rating: 3.5 of 5

This classic tale of revenge served cold was entertaining enough, but was ultimately a bit disappointing. In my limited experience with Dumas (The Three Musketeers & The Count of Monte Cristo), I’ve come to the conclusion that if you’re going to really enjoy his stories you need to just cheer for his heroes without thinking too much about the morality of the actions that you’re supposed to be applauding. There’s some token introspection from Dantes about whether he is truly right in seeing himself as God’s instrument of justice, but it tends more toward self-justification than interesting moral consideration.

Personally, I found Dantes/Monte Cristo to be so coldly calculating and unsympathetic toward anyone he did not personally know and love that he was almost completely unappealing. I don’t necessarily mind antiheroes, but something about the way Dumas tries to get us to adore and cheer for his deeply flawed heroes as if they were remarkably admirable human beings grates on me. Your mileage may vary (Obviously, I’m in the minority on this since Dumas has enduring popularity).

I’m not sure how this translation compares to others, but I can say that it flowed nicely without feeling stilted. According to the forward, the translator restored parts that were removed or toned down in older Victorian translations. I appreciate this, because even though the plot was overlong and meandering, I want to read an author’s work as close as possible to how they intended it. The footnotes provided helpful historical information for those (like me) not well acquainted with French history. Overall: I’d say that this was an excellent edition of a classic that is more about enjoying the plot than wrestling with the morality of vengeance.

One last thing: I’m using this for my Classic in Translation category at the 2018 Back to the Classics Challenge.

Fish Drags Man for 50 Pages

Image result for the old man and the seaTitle: The Old Man and the Sea
Author: Ernest Hemingway
Genre: Classic
Pages: 93
Rating: 3 of 5

I read this in literature class back in high school and hated it (“a man hooks a fish and it drags him for 50 pages” was my summary then). When it was selected as the read of the month for the Dewey Decimators book club, I decided to give it another shot thinking that maybe 21 years had changed my taste in literature enough that I’d enjoy it now.

This time around I didn’t hate it. I could appreciate some of the artistry in the vivid descriptions, and some of the Christ-figure imagery of the old man was interesting to spot, but it still wasn’t my favorite. I find Hemingway’s style of short choppy sentences and very basic vocabulary annoying after a while, and have never really been into “man against nature” stories (especially ones that end depressingly). Overall, I give it a “meh,” due primarily to personal taste.

Also, because I have been putting off reading anything Hemingway since a couple negative experiences in lit classes, I am using this for my “Classic that Scares You” category over at the Back to the Classics 2018 challenge.

Final Killer Robot Noir

Title: I Only Killed Him Once
(Ray Electromatic Mysteries: Book 3)
Author: Adam Christopher
Genre: Sci-Fi Noir
Pages: 224
Rating: 4.5 of 5
Future Release Date: 7/10/18 (Thanks to the author and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This does not affect the content of my review)

The concluding book in Adam Christopher’s LA Trilogy pulls together plot threads from the previous 2.75 books (one short story + one novella + two novels…reviews here) and ties them up in a nice pretty bow. You could probably read this on its own and be able to follow the plot since there is plenty of recapping (too much in my opinion), but why would you deprive yourself of the joy of reading the full version of what came before?

This final tale of the robot PI-turned-hitman in alternate 1960’s Los Angeles contains some fun twists and turns. Admittedly, most of them you can see coming a mile away as they have been pretty heavily hinted at, but the big one caught me by surprise without feeling completely random. Not too many books do that to me, so that (plus some clever Raymond Chandler in-jokes) made this the highest rated book in the series for me. I don’t want to say much more than that so as to avoid spoilers.

Overall: I highly recommend this series! There are some areas where you have to suspend disbelief and go with the flow (but classic noir is always a bit hackish anyway), and you have to realize that the books are not as self-contained and stand-alone as classic noir fiction, but this series is just a lot of fun, and this book was a great wrap-up to it.

Innuendos & Poop Jokes

Title: Kill the Farm Boy
Authors: Kevin Hearne & Delilah S. Dawson
Genre: Fantasy Satire
Pages: 384
Rating: 2 of 5
Future Release Date: 7/17/18 (Thank you to the authors and publisher for a free eARC through NetGalley. This in no way affects the content of this review)

This book promised to be a hilarious romp through every imaginable fantasy trope. If your sense of humor is that of the average young teenage boy, it might deliver on that promise. There were some laugh out loud moments, but the truly clever bits were buried under a flood of adolescent humor. The book is essential one big compilation of gross-out jokes and innuendos (e.g. the elven kingdom of Morningwood provides the authors a seemingly endless source of raunchy puns).

I can’t say much about the plot without spoilers, but I will say that they did indeed cleverly tweak most of the classic tropes. What they did with the “chosen one” trope was particularly entertaining. For me, the constant stream of poo & sex jokes got old very quickly and overshadowed the cleverness. For humorous/satirical fantasy I’d recommend sticking with Discworld or maybe Peril in the Old Country (another eARC I reviewed here).

Miscellaneous Mini Reviews

It’s time to get caught up with some mini reviews:

Camber of Culdi (The Legends of Camber of Culdi Book 1) by [Kurtz, Katherine]Title: Camber of Culdi
(Volume 1 of The Legend of Camber of Culdi)
Author: Katherine Kurtz
Genre: Historical Fantasy
Pages: 277
Rating: 3.5 of 5

If you’re into court intrigue featuring a race (the Deryni) with telepathic, telekinetic, teleportation, teletcetera powers, this may be the book for you. In this alternate Medieval Gwynedd, the new Deryni monarch is an oppressive tyrant to his human subjects. The wise Deryni lord, Camber MacRorie, must step up and counteract this unjust ruler. Cue pages and pages of plotting and counter-plotting and trying to prod a reluctant conspirator into assuming his birthright. It was well-written and had a certain building tension, but the “chivying someone into ‘doing the right thing'” trope is one of my least favorites so my personal reading experience suffered a bit. Also, I’m pretty sure this is a prequel trilogy to a long-established series in which Camber is a legendary character of the distant past, so I think I would have enjoyed it more had I read the original books first. (kind of like how The Magicians Nephew is actually not the best place to start The Chronicles of Narnia…read them in order of writing! And I won’t go any further with that thought lest I get up on my soapbox)

Title: Killer in the Rain
Author: Raymond Chandler
Genre:  Noir/Hardboiled Detective Short Stories
Pages: 394
Rating: 4 of 5

When Raymond Chandler wrote his Philip Marlowe novels, he “cannibalized” a number of his short stories for characters and plots. This collection assembles eight of those short stories. None star Philip Marlowe, but you can see the protagonists becoming increasingly like him. Some of the plots are almost identical to the novels that came out of them, and some differ fairly significantly.  This is worth reading if you’re a Chandler fan, but I’d strongly recommend reading the novels first so that you can appreciate the superior works without spoilers.

Title: The Code of the Woosters
Author: P. G. Wodehouse
Genre: Classic Humor
Pages: 272
Rating: 4 of 5

If you’ve read one Jeeves & Wooster book you’ve read them all. That’s not necessarily a bad thing as they’re all good for a laugh. However, don’t read them too close together or they all sort of run together and you can’t remember what to say about them other than that they are enjoyable, which is pretty much what happened with this one…Bertie was good-hearted but inept, Jeeves saved the day with the magic word Eulalie, and it was enjoyable.

Title: Now That’s a Good Question:
How to Lead Quality Bible Discussion
Author: Terry Powell
Genre: Teaching Theory
Pages: 96
Rating: 4

This book has excellent suggestions for how to generate useful, thought-provoking discussion questions for small groups (or any other ministry that allows for interactive teaching). It also has some decent guidelines for putting together a Bible study if you are a beginner. To me, the few “teamwork” exercises scattered throughout the book felt like the kind of stupid “rah-rah let’s all pretend that this is beneficial but it’s really just obnoxiously cheery and insulting to our intelligence” exercises that I had to suffer through at various job orientations (though maybe I’m just emotionally scarred by past experience).

The biggest weakness of the book was in its formatting. Some pages looked like the content was just barfed onto it in a jumble of font sizes and styles, bullet points, block quotes, infoboxes, and awkward stock photos. I think it’s supposed to look light and playful, but it comes across amateurish. I mean, what is this?!

Tacky Formatting
Where do I look first?!

Overall, despite the tacky formatting, I highly recommend this book for new teachers in church ministries.