‘First to Kill,’ by Andrew Peterson

I was looking for a new mystery series to read – especially one that would be cheap – and I thought I’d give Andrew Peterson’s Nathan McBride series a try. I’d say it’s not really a mystery, but is pretty good of its kind, though not to my taste.

Nathan McBride and his friend Harve run a private security company. But they have ties to the FBI (it doesn’t hurt that Nathan’s father is an influential senator) and sometimes they’re called in to do dirty work that permits agency deniability. Nathan was a Marine sniper in the past, and bears on his face and body a set of scars that testify to the time he spent under torture in Nicaragua.

As First to Kill begins, Nathan and Harve are asked to assist in an FBI attack on a compound where three brothers are holding a cache of Semtex, which they’ve been selling to fringe groups. The brothers prove to be more resourceful than expected, and Nathan ends up killing the youngest brother, an action that saves lives. But the other two brothers get away through a tunnel nobody knew about, vowing to get even. They get their revenge shortly after, through a horrific terrorist act.

Now Nathan and Harve become the sharp end of the federal government’s response – they will hunt the brothers down, secure the Semtex, and kill them, employing any means necessary. For justice and national security, the gloves are off now. But they will also discover some shocking betrayals, at very high levels.

First to Kill is an exciting excursion in a kind of story that doesn’t really ring my bell (except for Stephen Hunter’s Bob Lee Swagger books, which are a special case). Such stories are revenge fantasies, where the reader can enjoy the hero’s ruthlessness. The hero will violate people’s rights, and even employ torture, for a higher good. I have no doubt that there are situations when such things may be justified (it relates to the whole just war doctrine, which I believe in), but I’m not really capable of enjoying such stories.

The writing wasn’t bad, except for a couple places where exposition got repeated, as if the author had moved a few sentences and forgot to omit the original passage. Also at one point it confused the sequence of action.

But all in all it was pretty good of its kind. If you like this sort of thing.

‘The Program,’ by James Swain

James Swain’s Jack Carpenter series continues – sort of – in The Program. It’s not strictly a Jack Carpenter book though, as Jack only appears a couple times. This adventure belongs to a secondary character in the previous books – FBI agent Ken Linderman. Linderman runs the FBI’s Miami Abducted Children office. His work is motivated by his own unfinished business – his teenaged daughter was abducted, and her fate remains unknown.

A serial killer has been murdering women – mostly prostitutes – by cutting their throats. However, that killer has now been forensically linked to a pair of abductions of young boys, who were later found shot in the head. Now a third boy has disappeared.

Serial killers don’t generally change their game plans in this fashion. Ken teams up with Rachel Vick, an ambitious young FBI agent, to try to identify and stop this killer, whom they call Mr. Clean. Their trail leads to an even more dangerous figure – an incarcerated serial killer with a brilliant mind and a plan for escaping and commencing a new round of atrocities.

The Program was the kind of book that keeps my interest, but makes me uncomfortable. I have some trouble handling stories where I spend substantial time inside the minds of very evil people, and in the minds of imprisoned victims. Such episodes were limited here, but I did sometimes have trouble getting back to the book for that reason. I should mention that, unlike most of Swain’s books, this one included a fairly explicit sex scene (actually a rape scene) which made me uncomfortable. The scene was, however, pretty necessary to the plot. So I don’t blame it, but I think you should be warned.

There was an inordinate number of typos in this book. It’s been released solely as an e-book, and shortcuts appear to have been taken.

I found the ending (mostly) highly satisfactory. So I do recommend The Program, if you bear my cautions in mind.

‘The Night Monster,’ by James Swain

I have seen the dead more times than is healthy. One thing I’ve learned from the experience: The dead don’t talk, but they do scream.

I’m continuing with James Swain’s interesting Jack Carpenter series. Jack is a former Broward County, Florida, police detective, once head of their missing persons unit. Now he makes a marginal living as a private eye, specializing in missing children. He lives above a bar. His marriage has broken up, but he’s still friendly with his wife and college-aged daughter. He has a dog, an Australian Shepherd named Buster.

Years ago, when he was in uniform, Jack blew the opportunity one day to stop a gigantic kidnapper who nearly killed him, and disappeared with a young girl, who was never found again. It was that experience that left him obsessed with finding kids.

At the beginning of The Night Monster, Jack gets a call from his daughter, who is on a university basketball team. A creepy guy has been following her team around, filming them with a cell phone. When Jack intercepts the guy after a game, he finds himself attacked by a familiar form – the very giant who nearly killed him when he was a rookie. Again, Jack barely gets away with his life. But the creepy stalker and his giant partner make off with a prize – one of Jack’s daughter’s teammates, the daughter of a very rich man.

This time, Jack is determined to find the giant, and end a string of abductions going back years. The investigation (bankrolled by the victim’s father) will take him to a closed state mental hospital with a dark secret, and to a quiet Florida town with a secret even weirder.

Pretty good thriller. Like the other books in the series, The Night Monster keeps the tension high and ramps it up. The language is relatively mild for the genre. Some of the situations are disturbing. But the storytelling is tops, and the surprises really surprising. Recommended.

Between Camps in Defense of the Truth

Last week Dr. Anthony Bradley revisited topics he wrote in the introductory chapter of his collaborative book, Aliens in the Promised Land: Why Minority Leadership Is Overlooked in White Christian Churches and Institutions. It’s the kind of statement some battle-hardened writers and speakers may dismiss as part of the normal push and shove of public theology, but minority writers and speakers in our country appear to have one extra front to defend–expectations on their ethnicity. When a smart, young, black man embraces the Westminster Confession, why would he have to justify himself to his peers for choosing a “white” church and defend himself from his would-be allies against charges of tokenism?

I know this is a hot-button topic I’m unqualified to blog about, but I’m pressing on to recommend Aliens in the Promised Land as a good start at catching our blind spots. Believers and church people alike easily read their cultural assumptions and convictions into the Bible, turning them around to others as proper applications of God’s Word. We talk about this whenever we bring up selections from a list of most misunderstood or misapplied verses. How many sermons barely apply the text in favor of the speaker’s personal convictions?

Life assumptions come from our family history, life experiences, and place in society, and in that last area minorities say they have suffered. One professor in the book wrote about his ancestors living in the Texas area long before the state was formed. He said they didn’t cross the border, the border crossed them. They have been US citizens for five generations, but because of his Latino heritage this American has had people tell him to go back to Mexico and the people who didn’t say that ask him why he wasn’t Catholic. If you look a certain way you must be a certain person.

That may be the world’s response , but let’s leave it with them and conduct ourselves in light of Christ’s great work, “having abolished in His flesh the enmity, that is, the law of commandments contained in ordinances, so as to create in Himself one new man from the two [Jew and gentile], thus making peace and that He might reconcile them both to God in one body through the cross, thereby putting to death the enmity” (Ephesians 2:15-16 NKJV).

Continue reading Between Camps in Defense of the Truth

Dispatch from the Barren North

Actual photo of my front yard. Photo, public domain.

OK, the picture above isn’t really from my place. But it expresses my personal truth.

I actually took a picture of my front yard for you, but then I thought, “Why give my enemies another clue about where to find me?”

In fact, the big snowstorm wasn’t that big. Six inches or so of heavy, wet snow. But on top of all the rest, it amounts to a lot of meringue.

I’d decided not to worry about ice dams this year – those little walls of ice that build up over the gutters, which freeze at night and often force ice up under your shingles – because my attic isn’t heated. But I talked to my neighbor the other day, and he pointed to the actual, existing ice dams on my house. He suggested I might want to do something about them. I should have gone to work with my roof rake that day, but I had a bad cold, and wanted to postpone it.

This morning I still had the cold, but decided I’d better get on it. My efforts proved ineffectual – the whole, thick layer of snow on top of my roof is hard as a glacier now, and I was only able to rake off the layer that fell over the weekend.

But I had further advice from my neighbor. “Those salt pucks work,” he said.

Salt pucks are pieces of salt you can toss onto your roof. They melt in place, and reduce the pressure overall (I guess).

I set out in search of salt pucks this morning. I thought, “I’ll bet everybody’s sold out.”

I was correct. (For a change.) But the local hardware store says they’re getting some tomorrow.

I tossed some sidewalk salt on the roof, and am hoping for the best.

Today was a nice day to be out and about, though. The temperature was still below freezing, but the sun is strong at last – like the mighty eagles at the climax of The Lord of the Rings – and thawing is going on wherever it shines.

Tomorrow will be warm, and the day after will be cold again.

It is not the end. But it is the beginning of the end.

‘The Night Stalker,’ by James Swain

Five minutes later, a cruiser pulled up in front of LeAnn Grimes’s house with its bubble light flashing. It contained the classic mismatch of uniformed officers; a crusty male veteran, and an inexperienced young female. The pairing worked great on TV cop shows; in real life it created nothing but friction.

Book 2 in James Swain’s Jack Carpenter series. In The Night Stalker, Abb Grimes, a convicted serial killer on Florida’s death row, nearing execution, calls Jack – who helped put him away – to ask for a favor. His grandson has been kidnapped, he says. The police think his son snatched the boy himself, but Abb says that’s not true. Someone has taken the boy and is threatening to kill him unless Abb keeps silent about certain things he knows.

Jack is impressed by Abb’s appeal, and agrees to look into it. He will clash with old fellow cops and rivals, and discovers long-buried secrets and cover-ups. As in all James Swain’s books, the suspense never lets up as Jack (assisted by his faithful Australian Shepherd dog) races the clock to learn the truth.

Fun book. I found it interesting that a couple characters are described as born-again Christians, and their conversions are seen as valid and good things. I don’t know whether author Swain himself is a believer (he also writes occult fiction), but at least he respects Christianity.

He does, however, promote the false message of “always follow your heart.”

The language is relatively mild, but there are intense scenes and descriptions. Fun and recommended.

Best Tolkien Movie Yet

Jeffrey Overstreet calls Peter Jackson’s They Shall Not Grow Old, a documentary on the war that shaped J.R.R. Tolkien the best offering of all of Jackson’s Tolkien-inspired movies.

Honoring these intimate archival recordings, Jackson reveals harrowing accounts of the misleading propaganda that summoned so many young men, the dehumanizing pressures of the war, the particular chaos and slaughter of the Somme, the burdens that the survivors would have to carry, and the betrayals, abandonment, and loneliness that awaited those few who returned. And as we listen, he fills the screen with highlights (that word sounds trite and inappropriate here) from more than 600 hours of material from the Imperial War Museum and BBC archives. Much of it is sharpened and focused, but then, as in Wings of Desire and The Wizard of Oz, its black-and-white footage suddenly blooms into color and detail that takes your breath away.

Tolkien fans: Peter Jackson saved the best for last

‘Ragnarok’ is coming

Once again, I’ve gotten clearance to tell you about a project I’ve helped to translate.

‘Ragnarok’ is a miniseries based on Norse mythology, set in the present day in a Norwegian high school (!).

You can read more about it here.

If you’re wondering what I think about the series… well, let me say this. Though it’s set in a high school, if I had high school kids, I wouldn’t want them to watch it.

In other news, we’re expecting about a foot (more) of snow this weekend.

I think I can speak for all Minnesotans when I say this has gone beyond a joke.

‘Midnight Rambler,’ by James Swain

The King Tides, which I reviewed last night, is the first book in a new series by James Swain. But he has an earlier series – which is oddly almost identical in character, setting, and themes – and Midnight Rambler is its first volume.

Jack Carpenter, the series hero, is a former Fort Lauderdale police detective. He used to be in charge of Missing Persons, until he resigned (or was fired, stories vary) after beating up a suspect. Now he works as a private eye, searching for lost children.

The book starts with a neat little story where Jack locates a lost child. But soon he gets shocking news. The murderer he beat up, Simon Skell the “Midnight Rambler,” who was convicted anyway, is now appealing for release. The body of one of the Midnight Rambler’s victims has been found (the first to be found). His lawyer claims this proves his client is innocent. Skell will be released if Jack can’t discover the truth in a couple days.

The cops don’t trust him, and the press doesn’t believe him. And as he hunts, Jack realizes the Midnight Rambler crimes were more than a one-man show. Many lives will be at risk if he can’t learn the truth, fast.

I’m enjoying James Swain’s books quite a lot. I wouldn’t rank him up there with Connelly or Sandford, but he writes good, solid stories. (The plots veer into the improbable at times, but that’s how it is with thrillers.) The language in the books is fairly tame (sometimes, for instance, he uses “crummy” where I’d expect a real-life character to use a saltier word), and when Christianity or the Bible are mentioned, they get respect.

I recommend Midnight Rambler, with cautions for disturbing situations involving sexual perversion.

‘The King Tides,’ by James Swain

James Swain is an author I haven’t read before. But he turns out a good story. The King Tides grabbed me from the first page, and kept my interest as few books have in a while.

Jon Lancaster is the hero. He’s a former cop and Navy Seal who now works as an unlicensed private eye in Fort Lauderdale, specializing in finding missing children. Instead of charging his clients a fee, he asks them to buy him something – a refrigerator, or a set of silverware or something. That way, he says, he’ll always remember them as individuals. (Author Swain has also made an interesting – and puzzling – choice in giving Lancaster a big stomach. It’s the result of a congenital condition, he explains. He’s not overweight, and is in excellent shape.)

At the beginning of the book Lancaster makes a quick rescue in Melbourne, Florida (I mention that because I used to live near Melbourne). Then he gets called in by a family whose daughter has not disappeared – yet. 15-year-old Nicki Pearl is beautiful and seems innocent. But wherever she goes men are following her, carrying their cell phones. And today somebody tried to kidnap her.

About half-way through the book Lancaster connects with FBI agent Beth Daniels, a one-time abduction victim herself (it appears they’ll be a team from here on out). Together they uncover a vicious ring of human traffickers and child pornographers, protected by some very dangerous people.

I didn’t consider The King Tides among the best-written novels I’ve read, but author Swain knows how to grab the reader and keep him riveted to the story. I enjoyed reading this book immensely, and look forward to the next installment.

Cautions for language and some very disturbing accounts of sexual abuse.

‘Night Man,’ by Brett Battles

I’m a big fan of Brett Battles’s Jonathan Quinn series of thrillers. I’m less enamored of his recent X-Coms spin-off series, which is heavy on Girl Power™. But I was eager to read his new spin-off in a different direction, Night Man, starring Quinn’s partner, Nate (I’m having trouble finding Nate’s last name. I wonder if it’s ever mentioned).

As you may recall, Quinn and Nate are “cleaners,” employed by covert agencies to clean up things that might constitute evidence at scenes of action – anything from fingerprints to bodies. Their partnership suffered a setback a couple years back, when Quinn’s sister Liz, who’d been helping them out, got killed. Liz had also been dating Nate, and he and Quinn were inclined to blame each other. That break has been mended to a degree, but it’s left a space in Nate’s life. He now fills that space by living a secret life, more or less as Batman.

A psychologist might argue that Nate has suffered a psychotic break, because he hears Liz’s voice talking to him. She directs his attention to crime stories in the news, and he applies his spy skills to locating the criminals and stopping them. He does this for Liz.

This time Liz directs him to the story of a young girl seriously injured in a hit-and-run accident in a northern California town. The accident turns out to be no accident at all, and Nate will uncover a monstrous evil hidden discreetly away in an innocuous setting.

Author Battles is extremely good at creating appealing characters, and can be quite funny. (I especially enjoyed the conceit of using very short chapters, a technique I’ve never had the nerve to try.) The writing is generally good, though I can’t resist noting that he misuses the term “begs the question” once. I would have hoped for better than that, but otherwise I have no complaints.

Recommended. Language and situations are adult, but not terribly shocking. Night Man is a fun thriller.

The finished product

And here’s the final poster produced by the 99th Infantry folks. I’m quite happy with it. No, that’s not true. I’m delighted.

What you can’t see in the original picture (below) is that I’m surrounded by snow. Lots and lots of snow. And it’s snowed a few inches since the picture was taken. I mentioned to someone that it’s kind of like living in the trenches in WWI (except for minor details like automatic weapons fire). We have trenches to walk in, and trenches to drive in. We generally don’t go anywhere without a trench.

The gas company sent an announcement that we should check that the vent pipes around our gas meters are clear. If they’re blocked, we could suffocate. But to get to mine, I’d have to plow through two or three feet of snow — more where the snow shoveling piles are. And I’m pretty sure I’m not going to do that. From a distance, it looks as if the snow isn’t drifted very high just at that point.

Twitter Mob Turns on Its Own

People who know nothing about the Bible seem to know a few verses, such as “Judge not lest ye be judged,” but the young, bright users of the Internet will want to think those words through and apply them before a social media mob over takes them. Because (sorry for the remedial) Jesus wasn’t condemning judgement in toto. He was saying, “For with what judgment ye judge, ye shall be judged: and with what measure ye mete, it shall be measured to you again.”

To put it another way, if you call out people for cultural offenses, you put yourself at risk for being called out for the same.

This week, a YA author, who led Twitter mobs against perceived social injustices, has had the mob turn on him. He participated in this outcry:

[A] campaign based on misunderstanding and exaggeration led the author Amélie Zhao to take the unusual step of agreeing to cancel the publication of Blood Heir, her hotly anticipated debut novel, which was set to be the first in a trilogy. Advance reading copies had already been sent out. But an angry and underinformed subset of YA Twitter decided that a racially ambiguous character in Blood Heir was black, or this fictional universe’s equivalent of black—the character had “bronze” skin and “aquamarine” eyes—and that therefore certain things that character said and did constituted harmful tropes. (YA Twitter has very conservative norms pertaining to what characters of different ethnicities are allowed to say or do.) The fact that Zhao is ethnically Chinese, is an immigrant to the U.S., and had written Blood Heir in part as a commentary on present-day indentured servitude in Asia didn’t offer her much protection.

Now he has pulled his own novel from publication, having run afoul of his own tribe of trolls.

Jesse Singal (quoted above) notes that this outrage may be warranted or at least understandable if it came from readers who had read the books, but this outrage flames up from shallow reviews, tweets, or public comments before books are even released.

“Young-adult books are being targeted in intense social media callouts, draggings, and pile-ons—sometimes before anybody’s even read them,” Vulture‘s Kat Rosenfield wrote in the definitive must-read piece on this strange and angry internet community. The call-outs, draggings, and pile-ons almost always involve claims that books are insensitive with regard to their treatment of some marginalized group, and the specific charges, as Rosenfield showed convincingly, often don’t seem to warrant the blowups they spark—when they make any sense at all.

(via Prufrock News)

“Uncle Lars Wants you”

Sorry to post another picture of myself.

No, I’m not. I love it.

Anyway, you may recall my small involvement with the group devoted to memorializing the 99th Infantry Battalion (Separate), the commando battalion recruited from Norwegian expatriates and Norwegian-Americans during World War II.

I was recently asked to be their “spokesviking,” and they asked for some pictures of me in my kit, in the James Montgomery Flagg “I WANT YOU” style. I meant to get photos taken during our reenactment group’s Viking feast last week, but the forces of nature made that impossible, as is their wont in these parts.

So I got a friend over to take some yesterday. Here’s one. I sent several off to the 99th people, and I’ve seen a preliminary mock-up of what they’re going to do with it. It’s pretty cool. I look forward to sharing the finished product.

‘Echo Killers,’ by Danny R. Smith

A pair of armed robbers, one big, the other small, knock over a store in the rough Compton neighborhood of Los Angeles. The owner refuses to report the crime, but a little boy tells the cops.

The same pair (apparently) hit another store shortly thereafter, killing a well-liked storekeeper and a wino on the sidewalk.

In Danny R. Smith’s Echo Killers, Detective “Dickie” Jones has a new partner – a feisty Latino woman named Josie – and they join the hunt for a team of outlaws who mirror themselves, in a way – a big Anglo and a Latina. We learn the story of these two outlaws, too. They are Army deserters, and the woman doesn’t know she’s still being hunted by an officer she spent a night with once. Their almost star-crossed story bears the marks of tragedy, as the two hurtle toward one another on a fatalistic trajectory.

This is the third volume in Smith’s “Dickie Floyd” series. “Dickie” and “Floyd” haven’t actually been partners since the end of the first book, but they keep gravitating together. Their personal bond is a tight one. The book’s mood is somber, but the ending is rather sublime – an affirmation of what Luther would have called the policeman’s “vocation.” Another book is coming, according to Amazon.

I liked Echo Killers it a lot. Cautions for foul language, cop humor, and intense situations.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture