Category Archives: Fiction

28 Recommendations of Black Children’s Books

For Black History Month, librarian and poet Scott Woods likes to recommend children’s books that don’t focus on boycotts, buses, or basketball. Here’s his list of “28 children’s picture books, most of them featuring Black children doing what all children do: play, make up stories, learn life lessons, and dream.”

These titles look like great fun for a library afternoon in the short seat section. I wonder how many of these my library has. (via K.A. Ellis)

‘A Man With One of Those Faces,” by Caimh McDonnell

A Man With One of Those Faces

She was not a bad looking woman, truth be told; a couple of years older than himself, short brown bobbed hair, decent figure – she wouldn’t be launching a thousand ships any time soon but she’d undoubtedly create a fair bit of interest in a chip shop queue.

Paul Mulchrone is “A Man With One of Those Faces” – a face so ordinary that people frequently mistake him for other people. This comes in handy when he helps out in a Dublin hospice, sitting with dying old people, holding their hands, letting them imagine he’s a family member or a friend. He does this to fulfill the terms of his aunt’s will, which allows him to live in her house on a small stipend so long as he puts in a certain number of public service hours every month. It’s all fine until one night when Nurse Brigid Conroy persuades him to stay a little beyond his time with a particular old man, in return for a drive home. In the event, the old man tries to murder Paul with a knife he’s somehow acquired, and then drops dead.

Turns out the old man is a gangster whom everyone thought dead years ago, one who was involved in a legendary unsolved kidnapping. And his old partners in crime don’t know what he might have told Paul in those last moments. Best to kill him, just to be on the safe side. And Nurse Brigid too. Continue reading ‘A Man With One of Those Faces,” by Caimh McDonnell

‘Ready Player One,’ by Ernest Cline

Ready Player One

An online friend urged me to read Ready Player One, by Ernest Cline. He wanted to know how I’d react to it.

Well, having read it, I’d say it’s a geek fest – a video gamer’s fantasy wish-fulfillment story…

But it’s an excellent gamer’s fantasy wish-fulfillment story.

Wade Watts is a teenager living in a mid-21st Century American dystopia, in Oklahoma City. The world’s fossil fuels have run out, and the alternative technologies haven’t kept pace. So multitudes of Americans, like Wade, live in “the Stacks,” mobile home parks where the trailers are stacked high on steel racks. He shares a trailer with his aunt and several renters, but most of his time is spent in a hiding place, where he lives a virtual life in OASIS. OASIS is a sort of virtual-reality Facebook, where you can live an entire, ultra-realistic digital life, except for taking care of the most basic physical needs.

Most of his time is spent studying the life and work of James Halliday, the genius who developed OASIS. Halliday died several years earlier, and instead of a will he left a game. Clues, he said on a final video, are hidden in the world of OASIS. They lead to three keys, and the keys in turn lead to an “Easter Egg.” Whoever finds the Easter Egg first will inherit Halliday’s entire fortune and control of his company. Continue reading ‘Ready Player One,’ by Ernest Cline

‘Cold Granite,’ by Stuart MacBride

Cold Granite

Behind the approaching van the North Sea raged, grey and huge, the frigid wind making its first landfall since the Norwegian fjords.

I like to tell you right off when I think a book is well done. Cold Granite, by Stuart MacBride, is an extremely well done mystery/thriller, a book that handles a troubling subject about as well as any writer could.

Detective Sergeant Logan McRae has been nicknamed “Lazarus” by his fellow officers. It’s his first day back on the job, after a long convalescence from knife wounds received from a serial killer. He’s hoping to take it easy for the first few weeks, as he still feels some pain.

No hope of that. The first day a three-year-old boy is found murdered and mutilated in a flooded ditch. Soon other children go missing – or are discovered dead. Long hours will be required, in the extremely unpleasant weather of Aberdeen, Scotland in December (the rotten weather is a major character in t this book). Logan will have to deal with sniping associates, demanding (or lazy) superiors, maddening defense attorneys, and persistent news reporters (one of whom attaches himself to Logan as his special project). Apparent connections between murders prove illusory, while apparently separate murders turn out to be linked. It’s one step forward, two steps back all the way to a pretty cinematic climax.

The writing is top-notch, vivid and epigrammatic. The characters of Logan, his fellow officers, and a variety of scaly suspects are well drawn. What particularly impressed me about the story is the way author MacBride conveys the frustrations of the work of policing – I began to wonder why anyone puts up with it. There is no attempt to soften the horrific suffering and deep grief involved in the crimes, but he makes it endurable through a kind of slapstick – Logan’s many frustrations, disappointments, and injuries are not laughable, but they’re presented in a way that lightens the mood and keeps the whole effort from being too much for the reader to bear.

I very much enjoyed Cold Granite, and look forward to reading further Logan McRae mysteries. Many cautions are in order – language, sexual themes, and very disturbing crimes against children.

Close to Realizing a Brave New World

Tom Nichols, a professor of national security affairs at the U.S. Naval War College, says everyone’s reading 1984 to see the parallels with current events, but Trump is not Big Brother and America is not Oceania. He’s not trying to control everyone or tap everything down so it all looks orderly on the surface. But there are dangers to watch for.

One of the most endearing (and infuriating qualities) of Americans is that they don’t like to be told what to do. We retain a fierce streak of independence, even when it leads us astray. But make no mistake: we are killing our own sense of industry and independence on both the right and the left—yes, across the American political spectrum—and thus are far more at risk of sliding into the affluent but illiberal “Brave New World” than the regimented and disciplined world of Oceania.

In the Washington Post yesterday, Nichols says the constant media outrage over every little bit of news coming from the White House is only deadening our ears to honest critique or curiosity over actual policies.

This continual panic is short-circuiting any reasonable debate about the president’s policies by indulging Trump’s fiercest opponents in the belief that something could destroy his presidency before it has a chance to govern. Still furious over the outcome of the election, Trump’s critics seize on every move as if there is a Watergate moment to be found if only they look hard enough.

Read Langston Hughes’ Stories

Justin Taylor recommends we read the short stories of Harlem Renaissance poet Langston Hughes.

“If racism and race-based slavery was America’s original sin,” Taylor says, “Hughes demonstrates that racism and the legacy of slavery were alive and killing us in the middle of the last century.”

But for a winter of heartache, we can still see a spring of hope.

For Hughes, humanity—sheer cussed humanness—is always breaking out and defying the lies of the racialist.”

‘The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin,’ by L. Jagi Lamplighter

The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin

I am manifestly on record as mistrusting a) books by women (in my experience they tend to do male characters badly), and b) modern Christian fantasy books (because by and large they are amateurish).

The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin by L. Jagi Lamplighter is both. And I loved it.

So sue me.

A kind of cross between Harry Potter and The Chronicles of Narnia (with just a tincture of Jane Austin), The Unexpected Enlightenment takes us to a world where, familiarly, a school of sorcery exists out of sight of the ordinary (here called Unwise) world. But there are differences – one being that, although the culture is recognizably like ours, nobody has ever heard of monotheism.

Rachel Griffin is the daughter of an English duke who is an important official in the Magical World. She is sent to Roanoke Academy for the Sorcerous Arts, which exists invisibly on an island in the Hudson River in New York. Rachel is a gifted child, younger than the other freshmen. She has never had serious friends, and dreams of acquiring real ones, like in the books she reads. She also hungers for knowledge – any and all knowledge. One of her gifts is a photographic memory.

At Roanoke she does make friends – and some Mean Girl enemies. Her friends include an Australian (!) princess, a boy who slew a dragon and sleeps on a bed of gold, and an aspiring reporter. Rachel’s memory gives her an advantage most magicians lack – when she reviews her memories, she can see invisible things that she missed the first time through. By means of this power, she is able to identify sinister, magical activities, and manages to save a friend from an assassination attempt. Trying to figure out the reason for this crime sets her on an investigation of mysterious currents moving beneath the surface of the school’s day by day activities. Eventually she realizes that something very big and very bad is being planned by someone… even as she falls for a handsome upperclassman… who may be evil. Continue reading ‘The Unexpected Enlightenment of Rachel Griffin,’ by L. Jagi Lamplighter

‘Conan the Barbarian,’ by Robert E. Howard

Conan the Barbarian

Is it possible to be a great writer without being a good writer? I guess it depends on what you mean by great and good.

I consider Robert E. Howard one of the great fantasy writers, on a level lower than Tolkien but higher than most of the others. And yet his writing has many, many weaknesses. The whole, however, is greater than the sum of the parts.

Like most Baby Boomer Howard fans, I first discovered Conan – warrior, thief, pirate, mercenary, and king – through the old Lancer series of paperbacks, most of them with amazing Frazetta covers. That series printed all the Conan stories in what the editors considered proper biographical order. What purists don’t like about them is that the publishers, sensing a cash cow, padded the series out. Unfinished Conan stories were “completed.” Non-Conan Howard stories that could be wedged into the timeline were rewritten to make them Conan stories. And they added pure pastiches done by the editors.

This present collection, Conan the Barbarian, takes a bibliographical approach. All the Conan stories published in Howard’s lifetime are here, in the order published. That means that we begin with two stories of Conan at his pinnacle, as king of Aquilonia, then turn aside to a number of stories about his earlier adventures, and finally conclude with the novel The Hour of the Dragon, a last tale of King Conan (and in my opinion the best Conan story). The collection concludes with Howard’s essay, “The Hyborian Age,” in which he explains the rise and fall of the imaginary prehistoric world in which Conan lived, loved, and slew. Continue reading ‘Conan the Barbarian,’ by Robert E. Howard

‘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

‘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 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.

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