All posts by Lars Walker

‘Lost in a Good Book,’ by Jasper Fforde

Lost in a Good Book

“You’re the Cheshire Cat, aren’t you?” I asked.

“I was the Cheshire Cat,” he replied with a slightly aggrieved air. “But they moved the county boundaries, so technically speaking I’m now the Unitary Authority of Warrington Cat, but it doesn’t have the same ring to it….”

Jasper Fforde’s Thursday Next novels were recommended to me by a reader of this blog. I found Lost in a Good Book, the second in the series, amusing. But alas, I didn’t love it.

The world of female Special Operative Thursday Next is an alternate one from ours. In this world England was occupied during World War II (though they beat the Germans at last), and the Crimean War went on for more than a century. The cloning of extinct species is routine, so that many people keep pet dodos, mastodons roam the land, and sad Neanderthals work at menial jobs. The plots and characters of works of fiction are not entirely fixed, so that agents like Thursday keep occupied running down truant literary characters.

When a nobleman discovers a lost play of Shakespeare’s in his ancient library, Thursday helps to authenticate it, but it’s not what it appears. Thursday’s husband vanishes at about the same time she discovers she’s pregnant. The people who abducted him pressure her to enter the world of Poe’s “The Raven” to do a job for them, in spite of known dangers. In need of money, she moonlights as a “JurisFiction” agent, helping fictional characters police their own under the tutelage of Miss Havisham from Great Expectations. And, according to Thursday’s father (who doesn’t technically exist), the world is about to end in a couple days.

The closest parallel I can think of is A Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy. The action is non-stop, and so are the jokes. If you like puns, these books will please you.

I think my problem with it was that I’m deficient in a certain kind of imagination. I want to have a sense of the logic of a story, and I was never really sure what the rules were here. Oddly, the parts that really spoke to me best were the brief passages involving Neanderthals, sad strangers in the world who find no place for their distinct way of thinking, and have no hope of posterity because they’ve all been cloned sterile.

Lost In a Good Book is a very clever, very creative book, and you may enjoy it a lot. Cautions for some bad language, and for strange religious concepts.

Parallel worlds

“But that’s not the way of it with the tales that really mattered, or the ones that stay in the mind. Folk seem to have been just landed in them, usually – their paths were laid that way, as you put it. But I expect they had lots of chances, like us, of turning back, only they didn’t. And if they had, we shouldn’t know, because they’d have been forgotten. We hear about those as just went on – and not all to a good end, mind you; at least not to what folk inside a story and not outside it call a good end.” (J.R.R. Tolkien, The Two Towers)

Tonight, a writing report. I passed a milestone in my Work In Progress the other night, achieving 50,000 words. I also incorporated a passage of dialogue I’d been saving for the right moment. So I enjoyed a small sense of satisfaction as I went to bed.

I’ve written about courage before, I think. Courage and faith are almost identical in my view – the main difference being the object to which the particular virtue is directed. I’ve written about the fact that good stories are about courage – the main character tries, and fails, and tries and fails again, until everything looks hopeless. But at that point he/she chooses to go on, perhaps without rational reason. And he or she either succeeds, or fails in a way that’s significant.

And it occurred to me that writing itself works the same way. In the course of writing almost any story, there come moments (generally toward the middle or two-thirds of the way through for me) when the whole thing appears hopeless, and the writer is strongly tempted to give it up. The successful ones keep on, hoping against hope, and finish the story.

Thus, what is going on on the page correlates directly with what the author is doing in the real world.

How did I never notice this before?

Talk like Charlton Heston

It be “Talk Like a Pirate Day,” ye lubbers, and this here be a stub from what’s to my mind the most squared away and Bristol fashion version of Treasure Island ever filmed, the 1990 TV version starring Charlton Heston as Long John Silver, and a young Christian Bale as Jack Hawkins.

You can’t say fairer than that; ye has me affy-davy on it.

‘Sword of Honor,’ by Evelyn Waugh

Sword of Honor

Some of Mr. Churchill’s broadcasts had been played on the mess wireless-set. Guy had found them painfully boastful and they had, most of them, been immediately followed by the news of some disaster, as though in retribution from the God of Kipling’s Recessional.

For Evelyn Waugh, World War II was not a great crusade, or the triumph of western democracies over tyranny. It was the moment (subsequent to the alliance with Stalin) when the West gave up its purpose entirely, and submitted to the whims of totalitarianism.

The hero of Sword of Honor is Guy Crouchback, scion of an ancient, noble Catholic family in England. As the last of his line, he has failed in his duties of succession through marrying a frivolous Protestant who divorced him and has since moved on to a couple other marriages. Now he can’t marry again under church law. World-weary, he is living in a villa in Italy when the war begins, and he goes home to England to volunteer for service. Eventually he finds a commission in the (fictional) Royal Halbardiers, and later transfers to a Commando unit. An official misapprehension of his status as a security risk generally keeps him out of action, and when he gets into it he gets involved in disasters. Gradually he grows disillusioned with the Great Cause, but he persists in quietly attempting to do his duty, in the midst of increasing absurdity.

I was reminded of Joseph Heller’s Catch-22, in the sense that this is a darkly comic book about the insanity of war. Only Waugh’s presuppositions are very different from Heller’s. His hero longs for a reason to fight – even to die – but is denied it. There were also similarities to Graham Greene, another Catholic writer. But Greene admired the Communists and hated Americans, while Waugh loathes the Communists, and find Americans merely vulgar.

Sword of Honor can be very funny, but it’s also rather depressing. The writing, needless to say, is top drawer, with many memorable passages and a full cast of farcical characters.

Recommended, if you’re looking for this sort of thing.

‘The Last Farewell’

You might be surprised to know that Sissel is not the only singer I’ve been obsessed with over the years. Though my obsession for Roger Whittaker was of a different sort. I never fantasized about marrying him, for instance.

“The Last Farewell” came out at a time in my life when I was susceptible to such a song, and it knocked me for a loop. I kept the radio on all the time, waiting for it to be played, until my roommate took me out to a store (Target, I think) to get the album. (The idea of buying music was still unfamiliar to me in those days.)

The song itself is actually about the 10 Years’ War of the 18th Century. The situation is supposed to be that an English sailor has fallen in love with a beautiful Caribbean woman. Now he has to sail off to fight. It was written in response to a sort of competition they held on a TV show Roger Whittaker hosted in England. People would send their original songs in, and if one passed muster Roger would sing it on the show.

Hope you enjoy it. Have a great weekend.

Skeleton in armor (not by Longfellow)

A number of people have drawn my attention to an article recently published in The American Journal of Physical Anthropology. I think I’ve seen it linked at least twenty times of Facebook: A Female Viking Warrior Confirmed by Genomics.

Several people asked my opinion of it. My initial responses were brief. I had a pretty good idea that there was more smoke than fire here, and that the article was going to get some pushback.

And I was right. This article is by none other than Judith Jesch, author of Women in the Viking Age, a standard work on its subject. I’ve never read the book, allergic as I am to feminist historians, but I think I’ll get it now. Because Ms. Jesch has articulated exactly my concerns. (Plus a lot more, because she’s you know, smarter than me.) Continue reading Skeleton in armor (not by Longfellow)

Speaking of Vikings…

Sorry about not posting yesterday. It was a day like no other, remarkable in its occurrences. There was no time, or energy, for blogging.

I don’t think I mentioned it before, because the event was a closed one, but I was invited to speak – twice – at a retreat for the pastors of my church body. They wanted me to first do an afternoon presentation on the Vikings, and then give a sermon to the pastors at the evening banquet.

Even I thought this rash, and probably ill-advised.

But I prepared my talks, and I was on the spot at the appointed hour. First I spoke about the conversion of Norway in the Viking Age, rehashing Fridtjof Birkeli’s revisionist arguments that the whole business was more peaceful than the saga writers suggest, and that Haakon the Good has been unjustly underrated by historians. I wondered whether any of the pastors would care about this, but in fact it turned out to be the first standing room only crowd I’ve ever addressed. The question and answer session afterwards was thoughtful and fun, and it ran overtime.

In the evening I gave a sermon on 1 Corinthians 12:12-20, where St. Paul describes the church as being like a body, in which every member has a function to carry out. I related this to our church body’s history, and to its emphasis on lay participation back in the days when it was still a debatable question whether a layman would be allowed to lead a prayer in the pastor’s absence. I stressed the risks involved in this way of doing church, and urged them to become risk-takers. (Easy for me to say; I’m not a pastor.) It went over very well, and the response was positive.

Oh yes, the food was delicious, too. We bachelors don’t get that many really good meals that we can afford to overlook them.

Then I drove home (depending on my GPS to get me around a bridge under repair), a shell of my former self, because that was about all the human contact I could handle in one day.

‘Terminus,’ by Pete Brassett

Terminus

Pete Brassett’s Inspector Munro series of police procedurals, set in Scotland, are in some ways hard to tell apart from other similar series I’ve been following, set in other parts of the British Isles. But this series manages to distinguish itself in some ways from the others. That’s partly because Munro is just a bit less curmudgeonly than other aging fictional detectives (he shows genuine concern for his colleagues, and often picks up the check in pubs), and partly because his (almost obligatory) female sidekick is an alcoholic who could crash her career at any moment.

At the beginning of Terminus, we find DI Munro in the hospital (or “in hospital,” as they say over there), after being hit while walking by a hit-and-run driver. He refuses, of course, to obey doctor’s orders, and escapes without being formally released. All indications are that the hit-and-run was intentional, related to a drug case Munro worked on earlier. The drug kingpin (a Norwegian!) has disappeared and is thought dead. But is he?

Meanwhile, in a seemingly unrelated matter, the team learns that a shady lawyer has been falsifying the wills of elderly people, to his own profit. Before they finish kicking over rocks, some very surprising beasties will come scuttling into the light. And the whole thing culminates in a shocking (if slightly improbable) confrontation.

Good fun, and I didn’t notice any unacceptable language. Recommended.

‘Full Dark House,’ by Christopher Fowler

Full Dark House

When John looked at the posturing actresses angling their best sides to the audience, he saw nothing but mannequins and painted flats. Arthur saw something fleeting and indefinable. He saw the promises of youth made flesh, something beautiful and distant, a spontaneous gaiety forever denied to a man who couldn’t open his mouth without thinking.

The premise is promising – a secretive, small unit within the London police apparatus, devoted to handling cases that fall outside the parameters of science and reason. The Peculiar Crimes Unit exists for cases with hints of witchcraft, the paranormal, and myth. The actual execution of Full Dark House, first in a series by Christopher Fowler, however, was at once delightful and disappointing to this reader.

The Peculiar Crimes Unit’s primary investigators are two men, very different but complementary. John May is handsome and affable, a man who prefers reason and hard evidence. Arthur Bryant is dumpy and socially awkward, fascinated with the esoteric and the arcane. In spite of their differences, they are devoted friends.

The story is told in “envelope” form. The outside envelope is set in the present day, when John is called to view the smoking ruins of their office, destroyed by a bomb. Arthur’s body is taken away from it. Grieving, John makes up his mind to discover the guilty party, despite the fact that he recently retired (improbably, in his 90s). Arthur (also improbably) had stayed on in the Unit.

John’s inquiries convince him that the bombing is related to their first case together, back when they were very young policemen promoted to detective ahead of schedule due to wartime manpower shortages. A ballerina was discovered murdered in the Palace Theatre – her feet cut off. A string of murders followed in the same building, in the midst of the even greater horror of the London Blitz. Their suspicions came to center on the theater’s owner, a Greek millionaire with a grudge to settle, but some surprises were in store.

What I liked best about Full Dark House was the prose. Author Fowler is an excellent stylist. He can put a sly (and hilarious) slant on seemingly ordinary sentences, making reading his work a delight. His characters and dialogue are also quite good.

But the plot didn’t work for me. I found the final resolution improbable and overly convoluted (and not because of paranormal elements). Also there were some subtle hints of leftist politics. And there’s the eternal problem for the Christian, so common in supernatural stories, of the treatment of witchcraft and the occult as positive (or at least neutral) forces.

So I can’t recommend Full Dark House to our readers, despite some superior qualities.

Tragic anniversary

I feel that I ought to post something about the 9-11 anniversary. But I really don’t want to.

The day makes me sad. And not just (though certainly in part) for the loss of innocent lives on that black day 16 years ago.

I’m sad because, for a short time, we thought we were all united as a nation again. “This,” some of us hoped, “will be the event that will turn America back to its founding faith (secular and sacred).”

But that did not happen. It didn’t happen because of one – essentially racist – conviction held by the Left today. That conviction is that only white people possess moral agency (the ability to choose and decide issues of right and wrong). For leftists, brown people and black people cannot act as moral agents. They are like children, or animals. Their sins are always really the fault of white people.

Because of that belief, we have failed to meet the challenge of 9-11. Our enemies hoped to frighten us into compliance. And, as far as I can see, they have succeeded.

I would be delighted to be proved wrong.

‘Jack of Hearts,’ by Christopher Greyson

Jack of Hearts

I’ve been following Christopher Greyson’s entertaining series of mystery thrillers starring Jack Stratton. They are both exciting and wholesome, a rare combination.

Jack of Hearts, for my money, was not among the best in the series. It’s certainly worth reading, but I didn’t think it entirely worked.

Jack Stratton and Alice, his girlfriend, take a flight to Florida to visit Jack’s adoptive parents. Due to unexpected circumstances they have to bring along Lady, their gigantic German Shepherd. This turns out to be both a good and a bad thing.

In the retirement community where Jack’s folks live, the chief topic of conversation is “the burglaries.” Someone has been stealing fairly worthless stuff from people’s lawns and homes. The retirees are delighted by the excitement, and a group of them, including Jack’s mother, have started their own investigation. They’re all mystery readers and eager for adventure.

Unfortunately, amid the petty crime, there are a couple real criminals, people without scruples or mercy, who will pose a deadly threat to Jack’s family.

Much of the book is taken up with the antics of the retiree-detectives, which are intended to be funny. For me that element just didn’t work. Broad humor isn’t author Greyson’s forte. Most of the comic situations seemed to me contrived and improbable.

The darker elements worked better. Once the light stuff was out of the way, the story actually got going and had me by the throat. Also there’s a new (and moving) development in Jack’s and Alice’s relationship.

If you’re looking for clean adventure with romance and an understated Christian element, the Jack Stratton books are definitely worth reading. You may even enjoy the “cozy” humor in this one more than I did.

Momentous day

Twice a year, I experience a major moment of accomplishment at work. That is the day I finally get all the assigned textbooks onto the shelves of the campus bookstore. Today was that day. Since this was also the first regular class day, it was none too soon.

Openly, and without fear or favor, I shall identify my biggest problem. It was Harper Collins Publishers, which owns, among its posse of subordinate religious houses, Zondervan and Thomas Nelson. I sent a lot of orders their way this fall, and I can’t fault HC for promptitude in delivery. The books came with dispatch (though they could improve their carton sealing procedures. One box was split open, though no books were lost).

The problem was their billing. Usually in this life we complain that bills come too soon. “The bill’s here already?” we say. “I just took delivery!”

But it’s different in my wild and crazy world. If I were like those bloated capitalists who run the average bookstore, I’d pause from lighting my cigars with $500 dollar bills to slap the suggested retail price on every book, then sit back and rake in the obscene profits. But at the schools of the Association of Free Lutheran Congregations, we just add a small percentage markup to the wholesale cost, and pass the savings onto the customer. If we get a good deal, the buyer gets the benefit. That’s how we Free Lutherans roll.

But I can’t do perform that process if I don’t have the full cost of each book order. Many publishers include an invoice in the carton, or state the total cost (including shipping and handling) in the packing list. Harper Collins, however, does not do that. Their invoices finally arrived in the mail today, and I was able at last to price all our new books.

Then I performed some librarian magic to get the seminary dean a copy of an old journal article he wanted. Before I checked it out, I didn’t even know I could do that.

I need a medal. Some kind of an achievement award.

I’ll take a donut. Anybody got a donut?

‘Angels in the Moonlight,’ by Caimh McDonnell

Angels in the Moonlight

I suspect author Caimh McDonnell is having us on.

He’s producing three books called the Dublin Trilogy. I’ve reviewed the first two already (loved the first, thought the second was OK). Now, instead of releasing the third book like a decent citizen, he’s come out with a prequel.

I’d be miffed if it weren’t so bloody good.

Angels in the Moonlight is set in Dublin in the fall of 1999, when the whole world is worrying about the Millennium. Detective Sergeant Bunny McGarry (whom we know from the previous books) is living life his own way, dividing his energies between his police work and the schoolboy hurling team he coaches. He worries about his partner and friend, “Gringo” Spain, who’s feeling the pressures of a failing marriage and a gambling habit.

They’re assigned to a task force devoted to bringing down a gang that runs a particular housing project. It started out kind of noble, when honest citizens, frustrated by the impotence of the police, took matters into their own hands and drove the drug dealers out.

But the original leader is dying, and his son is taking over. That son is highly intelligent and possesses formidable fighting skills, being a veteran of the SAS. But he has a different attitude from his dad, and intends to get into the drug business himself. As he masterminds and carries out a string of “Robin Hood” style operations against banks and wealthy businesses, he is not only always two steps ahead of the police, but he finds ways to make them look foolish. It’s fun until people start getting hurt. And killed.

Meanwhile Bunny is falling in love with an American jazz singer who has extremely dark secrets. She lives in a house of very unconventional nuns. Bunny would die for her – and may have to. He will certainly bend the law.

Angels in the Moonlight is funny and tragic. It’s profane and obscene and full of off-color jokes. But I enjoyed every page. This is a brilliant, hilarious, touching, and moving book. Highly recommended, if you can handle its earthy qualities.

‘The Kidney Donor,’ by P. F. Ford

The Kidney Donor

I expect you’re tired of my reviews of P. F. Ford’s Dave Slater novels, but that’s what I read last, and I don’t have any deathless thoughts about Labor Day to share (I labored today, for the record). I promise the next one will be from another author.

In The Kidney Donor, we find our hero Dave Slater freshly separated from the Tinton (England) police force and freshly returned from a vacation in Thailand. He and his former partner, Norman Norman, are thinking about starting a private investigation agency. Norman takes him to meet a vicar and his wife, who run a soup kitchen out of their church. When one of the homeless men they care for is killed in a dumpster fire, while sleeping in another homeless man’s usual place, they wonder why their former police colleagues are taking so little interest in the death. When more deaths follow, they grow even more suspicious. Their pro bono investigation uncovers organized crime connections, police malfeasance, and a very old grudge.

I’m amused by the fact that I enjoy these books so well. The writing can be very uneven. Author Ford has a particular problem developing his characters. In one scene here a tough old gangster carelessly speaks to Dave and Norman about a very personal tragedy – something a hard man like that would never mention to cops (or ex-cops) in real life.

But I have fun with the Dave Slater books. They’re light and positive in tone. I recommend them on that basis, with cautions mostly for language.

‘No Moon to Pray To,’ by Jerry Guern

Everyone talks to me with Your voice, Enik thought. Everyone but You. Every time I’ve ever set out to serve You, it’s all turned out wrong. All my life I’ve begged You to tell me, to show me what You want. Nothing else. Why did You make me Your knight and then refuse to command me?

It’s a rare pleasure to discover a Christian fantasy I can really recommend. It’s even rarer (unprecedented, I’m pretty sure) to find a vampire story I can recommend. No Moon to Pray To, by Jerry Guern, impressed me very much.

Father Michael is a member of an ancient Church order, a secret fighting order devoted to hunting vampires. The order is led by a strange old bishop who has a secret – a secret Michael shares, though he doesn’t know it yet.

Enik is an old French knight, a former crusader. Once a hero, he went home disgraced. Now he lives in self-imposed poverty in his castle, devoted to one thing only, the protection of the peasants in his care. Right now he has to protect them from an attack by a nest of vampires.

Fate, or the hand of God, will throw them together. But that will only make things more complicated.

One of my chief problems with run of the mill Christian fiction is a lack of ambiguity. Good and evil tend to be pretty obvious, making choices easy for the characters, and making the stories irrelevant to actual human experience. It also makes them boring. Author Guern is not guilty of this sin. No Moon to Pray To is chock full of ambiguity. The best of his characters are always in doubt about God’s will, and his worst characters (even some of the vampires) have their admirable moments. Sometimes you wonder whom to root for.

The characters were well-drawn. The dialogue was generally good. The prose was good, with a few slips. I think there may have been some factual errors (Guern doesn’t seem to know how a mail shirt is taken off), but overall I’ve got no real complaints.

I can heartily recommend No Moon to Pray To. In fact, I’ll go so far (if this actually constitutes praise) as to say that if you enjoy my novels, you’ll probably enjoy this one too.

Cautions for adult themes, violence, and gore.