‘Season’s Revenge,’ by Henry Kisor

Season's Revenge

I hate it when I encounter a writer who’s good in himself, and even gracious in his attitudes, but still feel obligated to turn from his work for ideological reasons. So let’s get it out of the way at the beginning. Henry Kisor is a fine writer, and Season’s Revenge is a pretty good rural mystery. My reason for stopping after the first book in his Steve Martinez series is that I’m an ideologue, and I prefer to stay away from books written from certain points of view. To the extent that you find my attitude narrow-minded, you are likely to like Kisor’s books. In that case, I heartily recommend them to you.

Steve Martinez is a sheriff’s deputy in fictional Porcupine County, in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula. In spite of his name, he’s Lakota Sioux by heritage, and was raised by white evangelical Christians, who died while he was young. He ended up in Porcupine County, with which he had no previous ties, more or less by chance. In other words, he feels somewhat disconnected in the world.

One day in early winter the richest man in the county is found dead in his camping tent, mauled by a bear. The coroner’s verdict is heart attack, caused by shock. But Steve is skeptical. Why did this man, an accomplished outdoorsman, commit a rookie error like eating breakfast in his tent, where bacon grease could spill and lure a bear in? Continue reading ‘Season’s Revenge,’ by Henry Kisor

Author of The Exorcist, 89, Has Died

William Peter Blatty, who wrote The Exorcist in 1971, has passed away at age 89. He wrote the novel in response to news accounts his classmates discussed while attending Georgetown University. A Lutheran family in 1949 said their teenaged son could be possessed. His symptoms were–supernatural: flying objects, moving sheets, and messages in rashes on his skin. Blatty’s story based on this account has been called the scariest story ever, at least its film adaptation has.

Ted Gioia points this out in his review of the book, which he read last year along with many other horror classics:

This is perhaps all the more surprising given the large dose of theology in Blatty’s conception of his story. Much of the tale revolves around a crisis of faith. There’s little actual bloodshed in The Exorcist, and—in place of the typical arsenal of the slasher films that flourished in the aftermath of The Exorcist—the weapons at play here are little more than holy water, a crucifix and some lines in Latin. The horror is mostly existential…but perhaps all the more unnerving for that very reason.

In 2015, Washingtonian ran a biographic article on Blatty. Here’s a great, little story from his post-college years.

To pay the bills, he worked as a flack for the University of Southern California. Meanwhile, he soothed his acting jones by posing as Prince Xeer, the make-believe black-sheep son of King Saud. The nearly yearlong caper was facilitated by former Hoya classmate turned FBI agent Frank Hanrahan, who would explain to Sunset Strip nightclub owners that he’d been “saddled by the State Department with the task of being ‘this pain-in-the-ass Prince’s’ guide and bodyguard while he ‘cooled down’ from some grave but unspoken problem back home,” Blatty writes in his memoir.

The gambit fooled stars like Zsa Zsa Gabor and led to another stereotype-skewering article in the Saturday Evening Post. There was also a ghostwriting gig for “Dear Abby,” Abigail Van Buren, on a book for young adults. In his memoir, he writes that the result, Dear Teen-Ager, earned a Mother of the Year Award from the Los Angeles Times for its “matronly wit and wisdom,” even though it was mostly concocted by a chain-smoking Blatty during a break from USC.

‘Who is Conrad Hirst?’ by Kevin Wignall

Who is Conrad Hirst?

Call it conscience, if you will; all I know is that it’s a sadness for which I’m profoundly grateful, no less than if my sight had been restored to me after years of blindness. What overtook me yesterday was a longing to be the person I once was.

Conrad Hirst, titular hero of Kevin Wignall’s Who Is Conrad Hirst?, is a professional hit man. He works (or so he thinks) for a German crime boss. Years ago he stumbled into the profession after a devastating personal loss and time spent as a mercenary. He has been good at his job because he felt nothing, and because he displayed so little personality that people tended to overlook him.

But now he’s had a shock. “I saw myself in a mirror,” is how he describes it. He wants out. He wants to stop being this person.

His exit strategy seems clear. Because of the compartmentalized nature of the organization he works for, only four men know who he is – all of them bad men. He’ll just kill them and walk away with a clean slate.

Of course it’s not that easy. He soon discovers that he isn’t working for the people he thinks he’s working for, and a whole lot more people know about him than he guessed. He keeps on the move, improvising as he goes, trying to figure out who his real boss is and to eliminate him. As he goes, he makes an effort to overcome the bad habit he’s acquired – killing inconvenient people. When most of us slip in our efforts to end a bad habit, the results aren’t that devastating. When Conrad slips, people die.

The moral contradictions of being a professional killer are boldly explored in Who Is Conrad Hirst? What is a hero? What is a villain? There are truly distressing moments – lots of them – when we bounce back and forth between sympathizing with Conrad, and hoping someone will just kill him and put him and everybody else out of his misery.

Who Is Conrad Hirst? is a fascinating, troubling book, like all Kevin Wignall’s work. I salute the author’s focus on questions of human choice and moral reformation, though I think he gives more credit to human nature (unassisted by divine grace) than it deserves.

Also, there’s a very neat twist at the end.

Highly recommended, with cautions for violence, language, and extremely shocking situations.

‘A Death in Sweden,’ by Kevin Wignall

A Death in Sweden

Inger said something under her breath in Swedish, something affectionate, brought on by the sight of the old man. And Dan understood the sentiment even if he hadn’t understood or even heard the words properly, because it was reassuring after a day like they’d had, to be reminded that there were good things in the world, and good people, simple food cooked well, strangers sharing their kindness indiscriminately. Dan had been outside that virtuous circle himself for most of his adult life, but he was grateful to be inside it now.

In northern Sweden, a lumber truck crashes into a passenger bus. Only one person survives, a teenage girl. A fellow passenger, a stranger, had thrown himself on top of her to save her life.

That’s how A Death in Sweden starts. Dan Hendricks, an Englishman but a former CIA operative, now makes his living as a sort of bounty hunter for various employers, some governments, some less legitimate. Doing a job in Madrid, he gets word that several of his colleagues are dead. Shortly after, he and a friend barely escape a hit squad. It becomes clear that someone powerful is liquidating a particular group of intelligence freelancers. Dan’s old boss asks him to go to Sweden to investigate Jacques Fillon, the man who saved the girl’s life on the bus. Jacques Fillon was not his real name, and his boss thinks he is the key to the motivation for the vendetta.

Dan goes to the town, where a Swedish agent, Inger Bengtsson, joins the investigation. As they pry into Fillon’s secrets (fending off more than one assassination attempt as they do), they grow closer to each other. This is something Dan wasn’t prepared for, having cut himself off from ordinary human life for far too long.

As in his other novels, Kevin Wignall trains a spotlight on an aspect of intelligence work that is generally passed over lightly in spy novels – the morality of killing. Again he paints a portrait of men who have reached moments of clarity, who have had to reevaluate not only their professions, but their very approaches to life. Again he contrasts profound human feeling and relationships with the kind of injury a professional killer must do to his own soul. Choice is at the center.

Another very satisfying, though often harrowing, novel by Kevin Wignall. Recommended, if you can handle the violence, language, and adult themes. Like all Wignall’s books, it’s not for the faint of heart.

‘No Snakes in Iceland,’ by Jordan M. Poss

No Snakes in Iceland

What do you say when you imagine yourself the only author in the world to write a certain kind of novel, and then find yourself reading a novel of a very similar kind, in a very similar style?

If you’re me, you breathe a sigh of relief. Because it means you’re not the only one who sees a need for such a book.

I don’t mean to suggest (let me hasten to add) that I think Jordan M. Poss, author of No Snakes in Iceland (he could have found a better title, I think) borrowed from my work in any way. I think he’d have handled some things differently if he’d read my books. But this is a Christian fantasy story of Vikings, told from an outsider’s point of view, written in a style that leans heavily on Old English vocabulary in order to convey a flavor of the time and the original language.

Edgar, the hero of No Snakes in Iceland, is an Englishman, a poet and a chronicler, formerly in the service of the king of England. Following a personal tragedy he went slightly mad, and the archbishop of Canterbury bade him go abroad somewhere where his enemies dwell, to learn to forgive them. So now he’s living in a missionary monastery in Iceland (a fictional institution; I’m pretty sure no monasteries existed there at that point). When a distant chieftain asks his abbot to come to his home to “kill a ghost,” the abbot pleads his age and sends Edgar instead, along with a pair of monks.

There Edgar engages, mostly against his will, with a variety of Icelanders, chieftains, common folk, and slaves, and faces the challenge of an Icelandic ghost – the Norse kind who walks by night in a physical body, grown to giant size, kills livestock and people, and rides houses like horses. Gradually he learns to respect and even like these people, as he tries to find a way to do the seemingly impossible.

It’s a good book. I liked it a lot. The author has clearly done a respectable amount of research, though I can point to a number of minor inaccuracies – he has a thrall carrying a sword, he thinks there were towns in Iceland in the Viking age, he makes wine more common than it was, etc., etc. But the overall effect is admirable. He excels in descriptions of nature and the conveyance of atmosphere. And the Christian passages are handled well, generally the chief challenge for the Christian novelist.

So I recommend No Snakes in Iceland highly. If you liked my Erling novels, I think you’ll like this one. Cautions for a very small amount of coarse language.

The Tribe of Readers Increases

Gallup says a majority of Americans are still reading.

The research group says over a third of Americans are heavy readers, meaning they read more than eleven books in a year, and about half of Americans read at least one but not more than ten books in a year. Only sixteen percent say they did not read a book last year, which is a percentage that hasn’t changed significantly since 1990.

Three-fourth of all readers surveyed said they read printed books most often. That’s far more printed books than they apparently expected to be reading, according to this Book Boon survey from 2013 showing over fifty-seven percent of US readers thought they would be reading mostly eBooks by now.

Maybe great shops around the corner like Blue Willow Bookshop encourage us to keep reading printed books.

I don’t know if we do anything better than other bookstores but I doubt any of them has ever changed out a customer’s vacuum cleaner bag for them. When the Oreck store across the street closed, we had a customer come in distraught because she didn’t know how to change the bag. We have an Oreck so a staffer went out to her car, brought it in, and we changed it. Now that is customer service! We like to think of ourselves as the neighbourhood bookshop with a citywide reach. We do tons of events throughout Houston. We are most proud of our three festivals: Bookworm Bookfest (for picture book and emerging readers), Tweens Read, and TeenBookCon. It’s our mission to connect families to reading.

‘The Hunter’s Prayer,’ by Kevin Wignall

The Hunter's Prayer

‘Nothing happened. I just decided to change.’ He said no more, and yet he wanted to warn her that it wasn’t that easy – something he and Bruno Brodsky and her own father all would have testified to. Once in, there was always a route out; staying out was where the difficulty lay.

Another novel by Kevin Wignall. Again I was impressed, but in a somewhat different way. The Hunter’s Prayer is equally well executed, but it’s much darker than The Traitor’s Story. It contains, I must warn you, one of the most shocking scenes I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction.

Ella Hatto is an American college student, on vacation in a small Tuscan town with her boyfriend, when they are suddenly attacked by hit men. Just as suddenly a rescuer appears, an efficient killer who dispatches the assassins and spirits Ella and her friend away in a taxi cab. This is the end of Ella’s old life. From now on, everything will be different for her. At the beginning she gets some support and advice from Lucas, her rescuer, a man who is trying to overcome his social isolation, to break out of a lifetime of separation from humanity. “You don’t get it, do you?” he says at one point. “See, I am the bad guy.”

Then their paths separate and they take very different roads. One road culminates in the truly awful moment I warned you about. Another leads to a kind of redemption. If it weren’t for the redemption angle, I’d probably have panned this novel as just too nihilistic. But it works in the end, in a somber way.

I recommend The Hunter’s Prayer, with cautions. Not only for language and the other usual stuff, but for the shock. I’m finding Kevin Wignall’s books profoundly moral – but the morality isn’t precisely Christian.

‘The Traitor’s Story,’ by Kevin Wignall

The Traitor's Story

…And Finn had probably undersold himself – he was acting out of self-preservation, out of revenge for everything that had gone wrong in the past, but he was also acting out of conscience and a sense of moral outrage, traits that until that moment he’d believed he no longer possessed.

From time to time a book hits you square in the sweet spot, and that’s what happened to me with The Traitor’s Story, by Kevin Wignall. It’s a gripping yarn, and it’s told in a fresh and fascinating way.

Finn Harrington is a popular historian, the author of several successful books. He lives in an apartment in Geneva with his girlfriend who, half as a joke, tells people he used to be a spy. The problem is that she’s right. Six years ago Finn was working for British Intelligence, and he was “corrupt.” He didn’t sell state secrets, but he used his contacts to enrich himself, and he left the service under a cloud.

Then one day a neighbor couple comes to him in panic. Their teenaged daughter Hailey, they tell him, has disappeared without warning. Maybe Finn, with his “spycraft,” can help them find her. He refuses at first, but then relents.

What he discovers explodes his world. The girl left home saying she was afraid that someone was following her. Finn discovers that she and a friend had hacked into another neighbor’s computer. When he discovers what they found, he’s appalled – the man they’d hacked, who has since moved out, had been surveilling Finn himself. He realizes that his peaceful life is over; someone from his old life is coming after him for revenge.

I enjoyed the story for its own sake, but I enjoyed its execution as much. Author Wignall has a remarkably spare and lean, no-nonsense style. The style matches the dispassionate attitude Finn has adopted to the world, up until now. That unadorned narration continues as the story grows steadily more violent and suspenseful. The contrast between style and action makes the fireworks – and there are plenty – all the more surprising and effective.

I have nothing but praise for The Traitor’s Story. Cautions for adult themes, language, and violence. There are numerous opportunities to take cheap shots at religion, and the author avoids them all.

“Whom does it serve?”


Puritan church drummer

Sohrab Ahmari’s The New Philistines, which I reviewed last night, sparked a few thoughts under my follicles.

I noticed some years back that my interest in movies, once keen, was waning. Taking the trouble to make the trip to a theater just didn’t seem a good exchange. Whatever the old rewards had been, they were diminishing. And today, although I have Netflix and Amazon Plus, I don’t use their streaming services a whole lot, either. If I decide I want to view a movie, as often as not I can’t find anything I care to click on.

I used to watch television all evening, every evening. I liked some shows better than others, but I could always find something to amuse me. Then gaps started opening up, where there was nothing I wanted to watch. And now I’ve reached the point where there’s zero network programming that I watch regularly.

Ahmari’s book illustrated why those changes happened. I grew more and more aware – unconsciously at first, but consciously more and more – that everything coming out of Hollywood, big screen or small, was propaganda. In the legend of the Holy Grail, one of the questions asked of the seeker of the Grail was, “Whom does it serve?” With modern entertainment, even the most trivial, that question always applies. Each offering is in service of something. And that something is always some social or political cause.

In the days of the Puritans, it was often complained that people got religion shoved down their throats, that everything turned into a sermon.

Ahmari’s The New Philistines might have been called The New Puritans. Because in the 21st Century, the sermons never end.

‘The New Philistines,’ by Sohrab Ahmari

The New Philistines

The marginal is the norm. We are in the final chapters of liberal democracy’s story of ever-greater inclusion. What are the hardline identitarians to do? Posing as permanent outsiders, they are deeply uncomfortable now that they own the culture.

This book moves me a little out of my comfort zone. The New Philistines is written by Sohrab Ahmari, who proudly lets us know that he fully supports many progressive social initiatives, such as homosexual marriage (though I was surprised to learn, when he happened to appear on Dennis Prager’s talk show just today, that he has recently converted to Roman Catholicism). In spite of his social views, however, author Ahmari is appalled by the fruit contemporary political movements have produced in the world of the arts. Truth, beauty, all the traditional pursuits of art have been swept from the stage. Only political identity (what he calls “identitarianism”) matters in the art world today.

He starts with a visit to the new Globe Theatre in London. Built some years ago to reproduce the kind of structure in which Shakespeare’s plays would have been originally produced, the theater attempted, in its initial phase, to do Shakespeare “straight,” to give the audience an idea of what a performance would have been like in the 17th Century. It sounds like a project both entertaining and enlightening.

But recently a new director has taken over. She is a doctrinaire feminist, whose goal is not to make Shakespeare accessible, but to deconstruct him, and with him all our “imperialist, oppressive” western civilization. The author describes a production of A Midsummer Night’s Dream in which all roles are distributed equally between males and females (hasn’t she heard there are more than 50 genders?), the love-inducing magic flower becomes a date rape drug, and one of the two chief romantic pairs is male/male.

The author doesn’t argue with the social goals of the kinds of “artist” who produce this kind of ugliness. He merely complains that what they are creating is crude polemic, not art. Instead of truth and beauty (which he is old-fashioned enough to still seek in art), modern art has become a frenzied exercise of ever-decreasing effectiveness, desperate to find new ways to shock an increasingly unshockable – and disinterested – public.

The New Philistines is a well-written, very short book. I found it stimulating and convincing. Cautions for disturbing subject matter, and some foul language.

Arguing Over Hamlet

When was Hamlet written, and did it refer directly to any particular historical person, family, or event? One man says it was written in 1603, two years later than popularly believed, “after the death of the Bard’s own father and after James I took the throne,” meaning it points directly to the King of England who succeeded Elizabeth I in March 1603.

But Jonathan Bate says that solves nothing and would have raised the ire of the queen, Anne of Denmark. Was Shakespeare trying to poke her in the eye by suggesting there was something rotten about her home country? (via Prufrock News)

‘The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga, by Margaret Clunies Ross

The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga

I’m scheduled to give a lecture on the Icelandic sagas for a Sons of Norway lodge next month. Consequently, in an unaccustomed spasm of integrity, I thought I ought to check out the latest scholarship, since the information I’ve been operating on is a decade old or more. I chose The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga, by Margaret Clunies Ross. I think I chose well.

I had learned from my efforts translating Torgrim Titlestad’s work (still awaiting publication in English, dash it all) that there has been some upheaval in saga studies of late. This Cambridge Introduction concentrates mostly on different aspects of saga studies from those Titlestad does (he’s mostly interested in the use of sagas in historiography), but it reinforced the impressions I got from him.

During the 20th Century, scholarly interest concentrated mostly on what are often called “the Icelanders’ sagas” (designations of categories seem to be a continuing problem in the field), the famous “wild west” stories of individuals and families involved in feuds and lawsuits, sometimes over generations. But Ross reminds us that there are in fact many different kinds of sagas – the sagas of ancient times, the chivalric sagas, the saints’ lives, the historical sagas, etc. Scholars are beginning to appreciate the other genres, and to admit that a) the earlier sagas aren’t necessarily better, and b) they’re not sure which ones are earlier anyway. As in biblical studies, textual critics in the 20th Century got a bit grandiose in their certainties about the evolutions of textual variants and which variants have priority. Scholars today are becoming a little less snobbish, and are broadening their range of tastes.

I enjoyed The Cambridge Introduction to the Old Norse-Icelandic Saga. Recommended for anyone looking for a fairly accessible, up-to-date guidebook.

Tolkien Almost Didn’t Write LOTR

It’s J.R.R. Tolkien’s 125th birthday today. As has been the case for years, there’s a toast to honor the professor on the books for 9:00 local time. Wherever you are with whatever you wish to drink, raise a glass to Tolkien at 9:00 tonight with the words, “The Professor.”

Brenton Dickieson offers what he calls “The Shocking Reason Tolkien Finished The Lord of the Rings,” drawn from the author’s letters. Tolkien suffered with illness and a busy schedule for a quite a while and made excuses to his publisher for not making progress on their planned sequel to The Hobbit, but something happened to provoke him to write again.

The Rostnikov novels, by Stuart M. Kaminsky: An appreciation

A Whisper for the Living

I’ve been spending my New Year holiday in a manner delicious to me – staying at home mostly, resting, and trying to let a new set of medications kill off this bronchial infection that’s taken up residence in my respiratory system. I think the next step, if this fails, is tenting and fumigation.

And so I finished at last Stuart M. Kaminsky’s fascinating police procedural series set in Russia, starring Inspector Porfiry Petrovich Rostnikov. I’ve reviewed several of these books before, so I’ll just do a blanket appreciation of the series here. It’s weary to work to put up a string of direct links to each volume on Amazon. So here’s the link to Amazon’s list of Rostnikov books.

The books are remarkably consistent, and yet there are major changes over time. Rostnikov and his team remain generally intact all through, with only limited alterations (major or minor) in relationships and domestic situations. There’s young detective Sasha Kotch, constantly bedeviled by a libido that threatens his marriage, and might result in his losing his children. He suffers greatly with guilt, but not enough to really change his ways. His peace of mind is not improved by the constant meddling of his mother, a deaf woman who refuses to use her hearing aids, turning every conversation into a shouting match.

There’s Emil Karpo, “the Vampire,” a man who aspires to becoming the perfect Communist machine. He excels in logic and eschews human relationships. And yet humanity creeps in. Regular liaisons with a prostitute morph into genuine human tenderness. The loss of that relationship, along with the fall of the Soviet Union (traumatic for Karpo) leave him in genuine existential despair. It’s hard to create a Communist character with whom I am willing to sympathize. Kaminsky succeeded with Karpo. Continue reading The Rostnikov novels, by Stuart M. Kaminsky: An appreciation

Dr. Wayne Barber

From now on, the national news and your social media friends will remind you that Gene Wilder died on August 29, 2016, but another man died that day who had far greater influence on my life. He wasn’t visible to national news writers, but his work was arguably more important than 95% of those who will be profiled this week and next. He was Dr. Wayne Barber, pastor of Woodland Park Baptist Church in Chattanooga, Tennessee.

Wayne emphasized God’s grace for as long as I knew him. I studied the book of Romans with him in a class at Precept Ministries, which took two years and required reading that epistle several times–a great way to study the Bible. I believe he said his favorite song mirrored his favorite topic: Jesus be Jesus in me.

I wish I could say I will never forget one of his messages on Romans 6, but the truth is I can barely remember any of it, but the effect of the whole moved me. It was essentially an extended illustration. He even paused after fifteen minutes to say he was not just winging it to burn time but would come to a point soon. That point, bringing with it all the power of a good story, was that we cannot outrun God’s grace nor can we abuse it. If God intends to save us, we can’t force him to forget us, but if he has saved us, he won’t let us forget him either. If we are truly free of sin’s bonds, he will not allow us to continue to submit to sin’s authority.

But the other side of that message is what Wayne apparently saw in many congregations, the desire to live free of sin in our own power. We recognize that we have been made in the image of a hand, designed to hold, pull, touch, and lift things, but we are only gloves. We can’t grab anything without an outside power within us, but that hasn’t stopped us from trying.

Wayne was easily the kind of pastor you’d want to see in a quarter of all of the churches in the world. He was funny, loving, and wise. May the Lord continue to bless us with men like him.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture