‘The African Connection,’ by Mark W. Sasse

The African Connection

Mark Sasse’s bizarre “Forgotten Child” series continues with The African Connection. An unconventional fantasy in an unconventional trilogy. I got a free review copy from author Sasse.

The first book in the series, A Man Too Old For a Place Too Far (which I reviewed previously) told the story of Francis Frick, the original Nasty McNasty, you might say. Rich, powerful, greedy, cruel to his employees and to his daughter, he seems irredeemable. Until he is awakened one night by “Bee,” a fairy-like creature who hovers over his bed eating a pomegranate. She transports him to strange places and past times, where he gradually learns to empathize with others, and finally saves a child from the Cambodian holocaust. He also finds a cause – destroying Heinrich Ulrich, an amoral arms dealer with whom he formerly did business. But there are repercussions on the spiritual level – Bee is not following the rules for spiritual beings. Disaster follows, in a cliff-hanging climax.

In The African Connection, we find Francis in FBI custody, frustrating the agents with his nonchalance. Meanwhile Hatty Parker, a young woman, a new character in the story, steals a document linking her boss to Heinrich Ulrich. Arrested by the FBI as well, she ends up accompanying Francis on a series of hops through space and time, in which they grow attached to one another and he learns shocking things about his own origins. And gradually their support from Bee diminishes, as she finds herself under pressure from other spiritual beings, and in danger of losing her protector, the powerful Ash.

The African Connection is a strange read – I still haven’t made up my mind whether it’s quirkily brilliant or just naïve. It can be very funny and very poignant in turns. There are a few instances of mistaken word use – “extolling” for “exhorting” – that sort of thing. Still, I’m interested in finding out how it all turns out.

No cautions that I can recall for language or objectionable adult themes. Recommended.

Cover Those Strings, Lord of the Rings

Cover music abounds in the age of YouTube. A few people will the right tech can distribute the skills of musicians who would otherwise have only their family, church, or community stage to perform in.

Here’s Lukasz Kapuscinski from Poland bringing you guitar medley of Howard Shore’s compositions for The Lord of the Rings, which I hope Tolkien would have enjoyed even if he hated the movies.

And here we have Cremaine Booker (That Cello Guy) from Dallas with an arrangement of “Chevaliers de Sangreal” from the movie Da Vinci Code.

‘Pretty Girl Gone,’ by David Housewright

Pretty Girl Gone

Her smile was bright, but brittle. You could smash it with a word.

There is a town of Victoria, Minnesota. It’s a northwest suburb of the Twin Cities, and I was there for a community festival just a few weeks ago. However, in David Housewright’s third Mac McKenzie mystery, Pretty Girl Gone, the town (or at least its name) is transported to southwestern Minnesota. That’s where Jack Barrett, fictional governor of the state, grew up. He launched his career there as one of the “Victoria Seven,” a Cinderella basketball team that famously won the state championship.

Barrett’s wife is named Lindsay, and she comes from St. Paul where she was once the girlfriend of our hero, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie, pro bono private eye. She meets with Mac and asks him to go to Victoria to investigate a nasty rumor that’s going around – that Jack murdered his high school sweetheart, who died the night before the big game.

Of course Mac goes to check it out. He will turn over a lot of old rocks, and tangle with some local thugs, before he manages to discover the shocking truth.

So far so good. I’m enjoying this series. The politics sometimes seem to lean left, but there are interesting exceptions (as when Mac makes fun of Minnesota’s concealed carry law, and then carries his piece past a “Firearms Forbidden” sign anyway). One thing I like is that author Housewright seems to have a pretty balanced view of small town and lower-middle-class people, who tend to get treated pretty badly by liberal writers.

Pretty good. Recommended, with the usual cautions.

Hostfest postmortem

Another Høstfest is høstory now (the 41st, they tell me). Everything went swimmingly. I sold all the books I brought (wish I’d ordered more). Had some interesting conversations, and met some interesting people (including a professional storyteller from Yorkshire and an elderly lady from Ringerike who showed me pictures of Halvdan the Black’s grave mound). No drama this year – everybody seemed to get along fine. Which suits me just fine.

Here’s a shot of our “Viking Village.”

Viking Village 2018

And here’s a shot of my set-up. There was actually no Viking Bar, but I was next door to the Big Lost Meadery booth. I will neither confirm nor deny accepting the daily samples they shared with Vikings. Being next to the mead was good for business in any case.

My setup 2018

And this is me looking epic in my personal space. The crowds did overwhelm me at times, but I managed to avoid going berserk.

Lars Walker Hostfest 18

Rode in and out with a friend. Stayed (for the third time) with one of the neatest couples I’ve ever met – people of great hospitality and excellent taste in Viking books.

Thanks to all participants.

Clinch by Zachary Bartels

“How many Marilyns do you know who go to our church?” she asked, “because I only know one.”

“This is none of our business, Judith.”

“And that’s her car,” she said, pointing at a battered old Lumina with a Clinch Rock Wrestling bumper sticker. She looked over to Trent. “Marilyn Fisher.”

“Look, we shouldn’t have been eavesdropping in there. Just let my Dad deal with this, okay?”

“But he can’t now. Don’t you see? Confidentiality, the confessional and all that stuff. He can’t go the cop route. He’s stuck. But I’m not.”

At the start of this summer, Zachary Bartels released the half of the script of his podcast of fiction and not-fiction. It was the fiction half called Clinch. The story follows a couple teenagers who start at a Christian summer camp and just about end up there. Trent is the son of the small town’s chief of police who is transitioning to full-time pastor. His long-time friend, Judith, is also very close to his dad, who treats her like the daughter he never had.

Their close relationship is tested in part by the bad guys, because this is a YA thriller, and in part by a book called, Insane Faith: A Guide to Extreme Christianity for the Truly Faithful. It’s a book that urges readers to give 120% of everything for everything.

“Jesus never said no to anyone who asked for his help,” the book teaches. “When we say no to an opportunity to exercise insane faith, we’re refusing to be like Jesus.”

Such a mindset pushes Trent’s dad into full-time ministry, challenges Trent’s perspective of his fairly average life, and inspires Judith to take up a superhero mantle. Because despite the real world setting, big city bullies, teen antics, and cool Goonies-level mystery, Clinch is essentially the story of a girl who sees corruption in her town and works to oppose it. With an ox goad.

I loved it. I listened to the whole podcast series and enjoyed all of the not-fiction parts too. If that’s not quite your thing, you can pick it up as an ebook or paperback.

362 Cases of Innocent People Convicted of Crimes

Since we review so many crime novels on BwB, I occasionally think about posting something on true crime. I discovered a site today for the Innocence Project, a group seeking to “exonerate the wrongly convicted through DNA testing and reform the criminal justice system to prevent future injustice.” Their site summarizes the stories of 362 people like Joseph Abbitt, who served 14 years for a sexual assault he did not commit. Even though he was at work at the time of the attack and his employer backed him up, he could not produce a time card for the day four years prior. The two victims were sure Abbitt was the man who attacked them, so he was convicted. But DNA testing was able to rule him out several years later.

It’s chilling to think law enforcers would want to wrap up a case plausibly, even if it isn’t true. But that’s human perspective for you. I hope this Innocence Project is doing good work and not just bending plausibility in another direction.

Finding Truth, Finding Hope

Elizabeth Garn is finding truth in fantasy.

Good fantasy challenges us to think about the world differently. Something about wading through the darkness and uncertainty in a made-up world makes confronting both in our own that much easier. And confront it we shall, for the courage to do so is tucked in the pages of stories like this.

… [Quoting Chesterton] “Exactly what the fairy tale does is this: it accustoms him for a series of clear pictures to the idea that these limitless terrors had a limit, that these shapeless enemies have enemies in the knights of God …”

Karen Swallow Prior is finding hope after an apocalypse. 

[In McCarthy’s The Road] Hope is characterized by “quiet confidence,” a quality the man embodies throughout the story. When the novel opens, the two have already set out toward a warmer clime and the sea, not knowing what might lie before them there or anywhere else. They travel for months along burned-out highways, sleeping in woods or abandoned homes. They seem to be alone in the world. Yet, the man promises the boy, “There are people. There are people and we’ll find them. You’ll see.”

Photo by Rodion Kutsaev on Unsplash

The Almost Christian Theme of Luke Cage 2

Isn’t it hard to hear the truth come from a hateful, abusive mouth? It can sound like a lie just from the context of who speaks it.

In the first few episodes of Netflix and Marvel’s Luke Cage season two, the most Christian things spoken came from Luke’s abusive father, James Lucas.  We had heard in the first season how Rev. Lucas mistreated his wife, committed adultery, and favored the son of the other woman over Luke. He was a minister of self-righteousness, who beat people with the Bible and knew nothing of its power.

At the beginning of the second season, we heard him practicing a sermon that asks whether Cage serves the Lord or himself. When he runs into Luke on the street, he just wants to tie a leash around his neck, demanding the respect due a father though he has undermined that relationship for many years. Luke tells his girlfriend Claire he cannot reconcile with his father because he blamed Luke for his mother’s illness and death. He didn’t believe Luke was innocent of the crime that sent him to prison. He seemed to hate his great strength now. Luke has too many wounds to heal to return.

This sets up a character theme for these men–forgiveness. I just wish it had gone another step further.

When the violence escalates, Luke and the Rev come together out of necessity and finally share their sins. The Rev owns up to at least some of his past and Luke does his part as well. They forgive each other, but the Christian language disappears. Their forgiveness stays on a human level. Even with a prayer for safety at the beginning of a night of hiding, talk of faith seems to be watered down so as not upset the science-fiction. The Rev speaks of “science, magic, God” as if to blur each those things together.

It would have been so easy to have the Rev see the truth that sets us free in that Bible he professes to love and put a few words of real redemption in his mouth.

(Image of Luke Cage from IMDb.com)

Love Yourself Above All Else

Aimee Byrd based her book No Little Women on the charge that Christian women were being led astray by shallow or false teachers who wrote books and studies for a churched female audience. Prime examples of this threat come in the form of charming, intelligent authors who use Christianized batons to beat the drums of self love.

Writer Alisa Childers reviews a new book by one such author, Rachel Harris, entitled, Girl, Wash Your Face: Stop Believing the Lies About Who You Are so You Can Become Who You Were Meant to Be. Naturally, it’s a New York Times bestseller (hopefully by honest sales) and currently #3 in three Amazon.com categories. Childers notes how much she likes Harris’s style and some of her stories, but despite the Christian words here and there, the themes do not point to Jesus. She preaches loving yourself above all else.

“You are meant to be the hero of your own story.”
“You, and only you, are ultimately responsible for who you become and how happy you are.”
“You should be the very first of your priorities.”

The answer is always something like picking yourself up by your bootstraps and striving and trying . . . Anything but surrendering your life to Jesus and placing your trust in him alone.

Self love is big message for Christian women today. You can see it everywhere, and of course it has its place. But Jesus never talked like this. He urged us to seek His Kingdom before ourselves and to remember we are blessed when we have nothing but our Lord to rely on. If we could tune those drums up a bit, we might be able to hear a message of loving yourself enough to love Jesus most.

‘The View From What Used to Be the Library’

I have a new column published at the Intercollegiate Review site today, in which I meditate on the place (if any) of the library in today’s educational institutions.

But mostly I play it for laughs.

Here’s where it would be easy to launch into a screed against this newfangled digital information age. Shelby Foote once said, “A university is just a group of buildings centered around a library.” This was, of course, pure idealism. I doubt any institution of higher learning has literally prioritized the library since that one in Alexandria burned down.

And who am I to complain? If digital media are the enemy, I’m Benedict Arnold.

Who Are We or Is Self an Actual Thing?

Alan Jacobs has written a moving essay on the self, pulling together a few stories of people pushing against cultural influences on them. He begins describing a podcast that intends to show “the invisible forces that shape human behavior.” People in different situations remark on how certain cultural norms are deeply ingrained in them, even those contrary to their chosen beliefs.

The really interesting and important point here is this: It never occurs to anyone associated with the podcast that smoking is as much a “cultural norm” as disapproval of smoking, or that a commitment to multiculturalism and anti-racism emerges from “cultural messages” just as surely as does racism. And the really interesting and important question that follows is: Why not? How is it possible that a point so blindingly obvious could utterly escape the notice of people making a podcast about “the invisible forces that shape human behavior”?

Jacobs presses on with something of a take-down of secularism, an appeal to Nietzsche, and the blinding light of man’s hopelessness with God. “We will, it seems, do almost anything, construct almost any story, to avoid the recognition that something is deeply wrong with all of us.”

Our selves, in other words, are real things, not blank slates being written upon by outside forces, but ugly blocks of mud, both corrupt and corrupting. We are not chemical reactions or autonomous individuals. We are people born into families with history in a changing culture. Yes, that culture influences us. We can resist to a point and influence others in response, but we do as corrupt souls incapable of purifying ourselves.

‘Tin City,’ by David Householder

Tin City

I felt as if I were committing four of the seven deadly sins just by walking with her.

I’m sticking with Rushmore McKenzie, private eye character created by Minnesota author David Householder, even in spite of the liberal virtue-signaling he seems compelled to inject into his stories. So far the stories have been worth the annoyance. So far.

In Tin City, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie, gets a request for help from a friend. That’s what Mac does, after all. He came into a lot of money and no longer needs to work as a cop. So he helps friends. This friend is his late father’s best friend, a man who helped to raise him. Mr. Mosley is a beekeeper out northwest of Minneapolis, and he wants Mac to help him find out why his bees are dying off. It’s not the usual kind of mystery Mac investigates. It certainly doesn’t look to be very dangerous. But he wants to help Mr. Mosley.

Little does he know. Soon people are shooting at people, and people are getting raped and kidnapped and killed, and Mac finds himself in the center of converging whirlwinds of criminal and law enforcement plans and plots. And the price to be paid will be high indeed.

One thing I like about the McKenzie novels is that author Householder generally avoids the common trope of the Great Secret Conspiracy. He understands that big conspiracies don’t work very well in the real world, and what looks like some master plan generally turns out to be half-ignorant people making assumptions and stumbling against each other in the dark.

Cautions for language, violence, and mature themes. There’s a church and a pastor in the book, and they get treated pretty well.

‘A Hard Ticket Home,’ by David Housewright

A Hard Ticket Home

After Minneapolis author David Housewright wrapped up his Holland Taylor detective series (temporarily, as it turned out) he moved on to create another Minneapolis PI with a slightly more Travis McGee flavor – Rushmore McKenzie, former St. Paul police detective. “Mac” didn’t leave the force because of a traumatic experience or a principled conflict with the brass. He recovered several millions of embezzled money, and the insurance company paid him a 50% finder’s fee – but only after he’d resigned. Now he lives in a big house and, like Travis McGee, just “does favors for friends.” Unlike McGee, he doesn’t care about being paid. Hard Ticket Home is the first book in the series.

The Carlson family of Grand Rapids, Minnesota needs a favor. Their youngest daughter is dying of leukemia and has to have a bone marrow transplant. They think their older daughter Jamie might be a compatible donor – but Jamie ran away several years ago. Mac agrees to try to find her.

This leads him to walk into – and partly set off – a murderous crime spree involving some of the most successful people in Minnesota – people hiding a very dark secret. They have dangerous associates who don’t like private eyes snooping around, and some of them have no scruples about killing Mac – or the people he cares about.

I enjoy Housewright’s stories very much, and I always relish a Twin Cities setting. My only concern is that as he goes on he comments more and more on politics. He’s fairly mainstream, but I think he hits the right harder than the left.

But he hasn’t lost me yet. Cautions for language, very ugly violence, and mature themes.

A peg-legged legend

Long John Silver

It be our fashion to honor “Talk Like a Pirate Day” here at Brandywine Books, and I’d be a Dutchman if I failed in my bounden duties in that regard. So here’s a tale for ye, mateys, from a book called The Pirates, by Douglas Botting, published in 1978 by Time-Life Books:

The lead-up: In August 1720, an East Indiaman called the Cassandra (an ill-fated name if ever I heard one) was set upon by two pirate vessels commanded by Edward England and John Taylor, off the island of Johanna near Madagascar. The Cassandra’s skipper was James Macrae. Macrae ran his ship aground to escape the attackers, and after ten days in hiding returned to try to negotiate with the freebooters. The pirates were divided in their opinions as to whether to kill the captain or to spare him on account of his bravery.

At a critical moment a fierce-looking, heavily whiskered pirate seaman, with a wooden leg and a belt stuffed with pistols, stomped up the deck swearing like a parrot; taking Macrae by the hand he swore that he knew the captain, he had sailed with him once, and was very glad to see him. “Shew me the man that offers to hurt Captain Macrae,” he roared, “and I’ll stand to him, for an honester fellow I never sailed with.” This unnamed member of Taylor’s crew was to gain immortality many years later as the inspiration for Treasure Island’s Long John Silver.

The pirates allowed Macrae to go free….

Captain Macrae’s savior, however, was not the sole inspiration for “Barbecue” Silver (who used a crutch, not a wooden leg). Author Robert Louis Stevenson told the poet and editor William Ernest Henley, author of “Invictus” (who had one leg), that he was the original.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture