‘Broken Skin,’ by Stuart MacBride

Broken Skin

More and more often, it seems to me, a book series I’m enjoying “jumps the shark,” from my point of view. The reasons vary, but usually they’re political or religious.

I’m dropping the Logan McRae series of dark comic police mysteries for a slightly different reason.

In Broken Skin, we rejoin Detective Sergeant Logan McRae of Aberdeen, Scotland, as he continues to operate (after a fashion) in a chaotically dysfunctional police department, investigating deadly serious crimes. This time a famous football (soccer) player is suspected of a string of sadistic rapes, but the police can’t break his alibi. And a BDSM porn star is discovered murdered in a rather… unconventional way.

I was all in with the story until the very climax, which (to me) was kind of… icky.

Then I moved on to the next book, Flesh House, which involves (I’m not making this up) a serial cannibal. And once I figured out where the story was going…

I metaphorically got up out of my seat and left the theater. None of that for me, sir, thank you very much.

Author Stuart MacBride has made the decision – and it may very well be a wise one in business terms – to go full shockmeister in this otherwise enjoyable series. He seems to be quite successful, so he probably hasn’t misjudged his audience.

But it’s not to my taste.

Lars’ Labors Lost

What a weird night last night was.

It was as if God was playing a practical joke on me (which, in my theology, is not entirely inconceivable).

I told you in my last installment how I accidentally scheduled myself for two appointments at nearly the same time yesterday. First, at 6:00, a meeting at a restaurant with an elderly man who wanted translation help. Then, at 6:30, my annual meeting with my tax preparer.

I didn’t have the elderly man’s phone number, so I decided to be at the restaurant, catch him going in, apologize for having to leave right away, and reschedule.

I arrived ten minutes early. I stood (couldn’t sit in my car because the nearest spot was behind a big van) in a pretty chilly wind for 25 minutes, waiting for the man. Nobody of his description showed up. At 6:05 I went inside to see if he’d beaten me there and was waiting. The only old guy present told me (rather alarmed at my Ancient Mariner aspect, I think) that he wasn’t the guy I wanted. I don’t think he actually said, “Don’t hurt me,” but he looked like he wanted to.

So I went to my tax appointment. (I later got a call from the elderly guy. He’d been detained, and will call again to reschedule).

When I walked in to the tax place, the receptionist said, “We’ve been trying to reach you.” Turned out they wanted to reschedule, and had left a message on my home answering machine. Which I never got to hear, because I’d been waiting at the restaurant.

As it was, somebody was there to help me, so I got the ordeal over with.

The final score is that, of the two overlapping appointments I so worried about, neither one was actually operative. I could have skipped out on one or both without a problem.

But I had no way of knowing that. So I kept my promises.

Sometimes that’s the best you can do in this life.

Thus endeth the lesson.

Don’t Believe In Yourself: Dying to Self-love

Today seems a good day to remember this post on dying to ourselves.

There’s much talk of self-love in Christian circles right now, the kind of self-love that promotes a perceived circumstantial happiness. When I hear of Christian bloggers or authors or even just professing Christians in my own private life diverging from orthodox Christian faith or values because it’s “too hard,” I feel a depressing weight on my shoulders. Their quest for happiness outside of orthodoxy demoralizes me in a way a combative atheist never could. They demoralize me in a way even my own particular burdens of suffering do not.

Believe in yourself

Does God ever call us to accept ourselves, believe in ourselves, or understand that we’re are okay just as we are? No, I think he calls his people saints who are hidden in Christ and completely righteous. He urges us to believe in him, because he has all power and authority. He is the loving father of both the tiger and the kitten. The kitten shouldn’t tell himself he is a tiger. The tiger shouldn’t tell himself he is the greatest. Both are subjects of the Kings of kings, meant to give him glory in their own way.

A pastor friend talks about this is much better ways this year for the Lenten season. He’s putting together three-minute sermons for every day in Lent. Each one has been a stirring meditation on a life that carries the cross. Even if you don’t remember Lent in any personal way, I recommend these brief messages for this month and next.

The Ethereal Artist Hercules Segers

Even in his most representational works, like a wonderfully detailed View Through the Window of his spacious house in Amsterdam, Segers introduced fanciful elements—a line of trees in the distance, for example, when the actual view consisted of houses and other buildings. He let accidents dictate content. Cutting up a printing-plate he had used for a large ship, he turned the fragments into landscapes instead, with the rigging and mast morphing into tree branches. In a fascinating related development, the steps of which are documented in the exhibition, Rembrandt took a plate that Segers had etched of the biblical subject of Tobias dragging a big fish, made some adjustments, and transformed it into Joseph leading a donkey, with Mary aboard, on the Flight to Egypt. But whether Rembrandt was inspired by Segers’s own experiments with recycled images or thought he could improve on Segers’s figures, is unknown.

(via Prufrock News)

Slave to the calendar

When you’re me (I’ll agree the odds of that are fairly low), one thing you should never have to worry about is non-job-related schedule conflicts. When you have half a dozen appointments per month (at most) during your own time, the odds are against lightning striking twice on the same day, let alone the same hour.

Yet here I am, with a conflict that’s not only inconvenient, but embarrassing.

Of course, pretty much everything embarrasses me.

Sunday morning I was getting ready for church when I got a call. It was from an elderly gentleman who’d gotten my name and number somehow. He had some documents in Norwegian, related to his family, that he wanted translated. He’s from my town, and he wanted to meet at a restaurant. I told him, off the top of my head, that we could meet Tuesday evening at 6:00.

After we ended the call, I checked my pocket calendar. What do you know – my annual appointment with my tax preparer is Tuesday at 6:30. There isn’t time for both things.

What was worse, I hadn’t thought to get his phone number (my land line doesn’t remember these things). And I could only remember his last name.

So I tried to find all the locals with that name in the phone directory. Of course I don’t have an actual phone book in my house. I used to be able to find numbers easily online.

Have you tried to find a number online recently? Most of the sites won’t refine the search in greater granularity (“granularity” is a great word – I learned it in library school) than the entire metropolitan area. The rest of them are trying to sell you people-finding software.

Then I checked my calendar again and heaved a sigh of relief. The “TAXES” note I’d made in there didn’t indicate the actual appointment, but was just a reminder to make sure my records were in order the week before. Dodged the bullet, I thought.

Only today I checked again. I was looking at the wrong week. It’s tomorrow I have the tax appointment, all right. So I’m double-booked after all.

If I can’t find this guy’s number to get a rain check, I figure I’ll show up at the restaurant and apologize, and reschedule then.

What I need is people. Handlers. A retinue!

I’m an artist. I can’t work under these conditions.

The Window Says Welcome, but the Door Says Closed

Family Christian Stores are closing. The company president said they could not compete in today’s market.

B&N sales are slumping. They report having success with educational toys and games, but still need to grow sales in general. The CEO says they are testing many ideas and some newly designed stores are working well. “He said B&N is ‘on the eve’ of developing a new prototype store ‘that we think will carry us well into the future,'” reports Publishers Weekly.

What do you think about the physical bookstores? Are they yesterday’s shopping venue? Will they go the way of Woolworth? What would you like to see in a local bookstore that would attract your business?

My only thought is that if a company like B&N could gain the reputation (reality aside) of having the book you want when you want it, readers would run to that. That may be too much. Perhaps making the shopping process as easy as walking through the store with your smart phone, but complications will always abound there.

But those are big store ideas. Blue Bunny Books in Dedham, Massachusetts, hopes its unique personal touch will sustain it in the shadow of a brick-and-mortar Amazon store. Its customers seem to think so.

‘Dying Light,’ by Stuart MacBride

Dying Light

The Regents Arms was a little bar on Regent Quay with a three am licence. Not the smartest place in Aberdeen; it was dark, dirty, missing an apostrophe, and smelled of spilt beer and old cigarettes.

Imagine that the Keystone Kops were real policemen in the real world, running around in feckless circles while real criminals carried out their genuine atrocities in technicolor splendor. That’s sort of the impression I get from Stuart MacBride’s series of police procedurals starring Detective Sergeant Logan McRae of Aberdeen, Scotland. No stalwart, heroic cops here – just confused and overworked plods keeping after the criminals until the criminals make a mistake.

I suspect the realism level is pretty high in these darkly comic books. One authentic element is that the detectives don’t have the luxury of concentration. They work several cases at once. In Dying Light, a serial killer is abducting and murdering prostitutes, someone is screwing doors shut and torching homes with families inside, and a young husband has been reported missing.

In the previous book, Cold Granite, which I reviewed a couple weeks ago, DS McRae worked under Inspector Insch, a clownish-looking fat man, but intelligent and concerned about his team. In Dying Light, he’s assigned to Inspector Steel, a raddled lesbian who’s sloppy, lazy, glory-grabbing, and oblivious to her subordinates. McRae’s frustration level spikes as his sleep deficit widens, but he plugs on in his obsessive way, until all the questions get answered in the wake of a pretty explosive climax.

I could easily dislike the Logan McRae books, which are fairly cynical in many ways. But I enjoy the high quality prose and the slapstick, and the fact that the good guys generally muddle through in the end. Hard to believe Sgt. McRae doesn’t find another line of work, though. Cautions must be given for language, adult situations, and disturbing violence.

Clearing up another ‘fine’ mess

The San Francisco Examiner reports on a recent fine amnesty carried out by the San Francisco Public Library. Nearly 700,000 books were returned, valued at $236,000.

Included in the recent returns were a collection of short stories titled 40 Minutes Late, which was 100 years past due, and Brass, a Novel of a Marriage by Charles Norris with a due date stamp of 1937, making the item 80 years past due. In both cases, the books were originally checked out by the returners’ great grandparents.

Read it all here.

More and more libraries are in fact abolishing fines altogether. They’ve given up the pretense of any control. They just want somebody to come and use their facilities so the cities don’t close them down.

Would Southerners Have Killed Spurgeon?

On March 22, a “Vigilance Committee” in Montgomery . . . burned Spurgeon’s sermons in the public square. A week later Mr. B. B. Davis, a bookstore owner, prepared “a good ore of pine sticks” before reducing about 60 volumes of Spurgeon’s sermons “to smoke and ashes.” . . .

Anti-Spurgeon bonfires illuminated jail yards, plantations, bookstores, and courthouses throughout the Southern states. In Virginia, Mr. Humphrey H. Kuber, a Baptist preacher and “highly respectable citizen” of Matthews County, burned seven calf-skinned volumes of Spurgeon’s sermons “on the head of a flour barrel.”

British newspapers quipped that America had given Spurgeon a warm welcome, “a literally brilliant reception.”

Christian George, head of the C. H. Spurgeon Library, has produced the first volume of lost sermons by the great London preacher. The dark history above comes from the preface of this volume.

‘In No Strange Land’

Francis Thompson
Francis Thompson (1859-1907)

On Ash Wednesday, a Lenten poem by Francis Thompson, who also wrote “The Hound of Heaven.” If you pay close attention, you’ll find the inspiration for a famous movie title.

In No Strange Land
“The Kingdom of God is Within You”

O world invisible, we view thee,
O world intangible, we touch thee,
O world unknowable, we know thee,
Inapprehensible, we clutch thee!

Does the fish soar to find the ocean,
The eagle plunge to find the air —
That we ask of the stars in motion
If they have rumor of thee there?

Not where the wheeling systems darken,
And our benumbed conceiving soars! —
The drift of pinions, would we hearken,
Beats at our own clay-shuttered doors.

The angels keep their ancient places; —
Turn but a stone, and start a wing!
‘Tis ye, ’tis your estranged faces,
That miss the many-splendored thing.

But (when so sad thou canst not sadder)
Cry — and upon thy so sore loss
Shall shine the traffic of Jacob’s ladder
Pitched betwixt Heaven and Charing Cross.

Yea, in the night, my soul, my daughter,
Cry — clinging Heaven by the hems;
And lo, Christ walking upon the water
Not of Gennesareth, but Thames!

‘Heartbreak Hotel,’ by Jonathan Kellerman

Heartbreak Hotel

I don’t know how Jonathan Kellerman does it. The premise of his Alex Delaware novels is pretty implausible – child psychologist works as consultant for the L.A. Police Department, and gets closely involved in a long series of homicide cases at the request of his friend, Detective Lt. Milo Sturgis (the least gay homosexual in literature). But not only does Kellerman make it work, he keeps the series fresh and exciting.

In Heartbreak Hotel, Alex receives a call from Thalia Mars, an elderly lady (nearing 100, he learns) who lives in a private cottage at a “hotel” which is actually a recovery facility for cosmetic surgery patients. She offers a high retainer for a little of his time, but he goes to see her mostly out of curiosity. A charming lady, she asks him whether he believes there’s such a thing as a criminal personality. Then she promises to tell him something of her story when he returns the next day.

But there is no second appointment. Overnight Thalia is murdered. Alex calls Milo, and Milo catches the case.

Thalia is a woman of mystery. She has hid her past, and the sources of her wealth, well. But Alex and Milo go to work following clues to old gangland crimes from more than a half century in the past, to thwart a conspiracy of “criminal personalities” who think Thalia owed them something. The climax is shocking, and the anticlimax more shocking still, in its own way.

I loved Heartbreak Hotel. Pure mystery reading pleasure. Highly recommended, with cautions for adult themes and (probably, though I didn’t actually notice) language.

Future shock… or present shock, anyway

Tonight I am wracked with existential angst. I am contemplating changing my very way of life; of crossing a cultural divide and becoming, after long resistance, One of Them.

I’ve decided to get a smart phone.

Not a really smart phone, of course. An Android, first of all, because I refuse to be roped into the religion of the iPhone. That would be like joining a mainline Protestant church.

OK, not really. It just feels that way, when you’re an old men being dragged, kicking and screaming, into the 21st Century. Or the end of the 20th Century, depending on how old a phone version I decide on. Can’t get the latest one. That would be like buying a new car – sudden and irrevocable depreciation being the wages of the sin of purchasing a time share in Vanity Fair (the town in Pilgrim’s Progress, not the magazine). Last year’s model was good enough for last year’s people, and is probably twenty years better than what I need.

What happened was I developed brake problems on Miss Ingebretsen, my PT Cruiser. Knowing I’d be without internal combustion capability tomorrow, I asked someone at work about getting a ride. He graciously agreed to do it, but mentioned Uber and Lyft. I answered, shame-faced, that I have no smart phone, and so am reduced to begging rides, like we used to do in the old days, long before he was born.

“Enough,” I said to myself. “It’s time you got some kind of smart phone. Preferably one that’s slow and prone to locking up. Like your knees.”

I tried calling my (cheap) provider after work tonight, but they said it would be a 15 minute wait, so I hung up. Who do they think they are, making me wait for 15 minutes?

I insist on at least 20. If I wanted convenience and speed, I’d get an iPhone.

Silence: A Difficult, Important Film

John Murdock talks about beautiful, but problematic the movie Silence is. It isn’t a success story. The power of believing doesn’t end the war. It ends on a note that will need explanation for many viewers.

In an age of ISIS brutality, its themes are sadly relevant today, and it opens a window on a period in church history of which too few are aware. It is not a perfect picture, but those who proclaim it a masterpiece have reason to do so.

‘The Hanging Tree,’ by Ben Aaronovitch

The Hanging Tree

If you’ve followed my reviews of Ben Aaronovitch’s Rivers of London series of comic-mystery fantasies, you know that Detective Constable Peter Grant works for “the Folly,” a secret division of the London Metropolitan Police. The Folly’s brief is to deal with supernatural, magical crime. Peter is still learning his magical craft under Inspector Nightingale, an eccentric officer over a century old. The “Rivers” of the series title refer to several women who are in actuality the local goddesses of London’s various rivers, the daughters of “Mother Thames.”

In this installment, The Hanging Tree, a young socialite is found dead of a drug overdose in an upscale apartment building. The investigation turns up connections to certain members of Mother Thames’ family, and so the Folly is called in. Their inquiries uncover drug dealing among members of the semi-magical “demimonde,” and the trail leads to the Faceless Man, a magical supervillain Peter and Nightingale have been hunting for some time. It all culminates in a magical showdown in which a great deal of real estate gets trashed.

As always, the writing is excellent (although I’m annoyed by Peter’s narratorial tendency to use the construction, “me and x did so and so”), and the story combines excitement and wit.

However, I think this will be the last Rivers of London book for me. The series bears a resemblance to the revived Doctor Who TV series (for which author Aaronovitch has been a writer), including its ideological themes. Each book works more LGBTQ (etc.) characters in. I suppose the idea is to acclimate the reader to such things, in a frog-in-the-kettle manner. However (as you probably know), the frog in the kettle is an urban myth. Real frogs in real life stay until the water gets uncomfortable, and then jump out.

Which I’m doing now.

Books, plated

theconversation.com had an article on bookplates yesterday.

Edwardian readers were expected to share books from their own library with others, and so very special attention was paid to the plate design, to indicate the type of person that the owner was. While the wealthy were able to afford privately commissioned plates by famous artists, the average Edwardian depended on stationers or booksellers for mass-produced plates, or something from a pattern book. For the bibliophile, choosing a bookplate was a delicate process and the purchase commanded quite a price, varying from £2 to £50 – roughly £220-£5,500 today.

I’ve got some bookplates around here somewhere – in my old desk, I think. I used to have a store where I could pick them up, and I had a favored design – an etching of a full-face lion who reminded me of Aslan. It was an Antioch design, but I don’t find it at Bookplate Ink, which claims to have the largest online supply of Antioch plates.

Some years ago somebody gave me one of those embossers with Ex Libris and my name on it, so I mostly gave up bookplates. And of late I’ve bought most of my books in electronic form.

Hey — there’s a business opportunity! Bookplates for ebooks!

Book Reviews, Creative Culture