Category Archives: Reviews

The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

I picked up The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, not because I was eager to read it, but because I’d run out of reading material one weekend and didn’t want to make a run to the bookstore, and it was there in the grocery store rack. I expected to hate it, as the result of an elementary chain of reasoning—it was written by a Swede. Swedes, generally, are Socialists and atheists. Therefore, anything written by a Swede is likely to offend me. When I saw that it was a mystery involving a family of industrialists, that conclusion seemed self-evident.

I stated in the Comments on Andrew Klavan’s review (he didn’t like it a lot) that I had a bet with myself that the most conservative, religious character in the book would prove to be the murderer.

I don’t think it’s a spoiler to say that I was wrong. I feel morally obligated to post that for the record. Continue reading The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, by Stieg Larsson

Black Widow, by Randy Wayne Wright

I’ve been making the mistake recently of occasionally looking at reader reviews on Amazon when I set up the links for my blog reviews. Because of one of these lamentable lapses, I see tonight that reviews of Randy Wayne White’s Black Widow are decidedly mixed—and widely polarized. Some readers loved it. Others thought it signaled the demise of the “Doc Ford” series.

List me with the people who loved it. Approaching it as a pure escapist novel, I thought it was one of the best I’ve read recently.

I was particularly impressed with the opening. It’s a platitude (and becoming a cliché) that authors (thriller authors especially) need to grab the reader at the very beginning and keep things so tense that they can’t lose him.

In a single day and night in the first few chapters of Black Widow, Doc Ford (marine biologist and occasional government black ops agent) flies to Aruba to make a blackmail payoff on behalf of his goddaughter, Shay Money, who was guilty of certain excesses on a pre-wedding Caribbean holiday with three of her friends. Shay is engaged to an extremely wealthy and influential young man, and can’t afford a scandal. Then, instead of going to bed, he takes his boat, along with his hippie friend Tomlinson, to rescue a woman whose transmission they pick up on a short wave radio, who claims that she and her family are being attacked by sharks. This ends up involving an encounter (in the water) with hammerhead sharks. Then, again before he can get to bed, he’s attacked by a man with a gun in his own house. After handling this guy, Doc gets a call telling him that Shay has been in an auto accident, and one of her friends has attempted suicide. Then, after a hospital visit, he goes to bed with a different friend of hers.

And the next day he’s scheduled for a performance evaluation session with his government employers.

That got my attention.

The blackmailers come back for more of course, and Doc makes a trip to a very exclusive Caribbean island retreat, where a voodoo cult operates a health spa and resort which is actually a blackmail factory. He teams up with a too-good-to-be-true retired English secret agent. He gets drugged, gets beat up and imprisoned, and then kicks serious butt.

It was a lot of fun. Plenty of sex, but not explicit. Not up to the Klavan or Hunter standard, but perfect summer beach reading, in my opinion. It’s still warm down in the Bahamas, even in September.

Perilous Realms, by Marjorie Burns

Regular readers here are already aware that I’m a man of many prejudices, so it won’t surprise you to know that I approached Marjorie Burns’ Perilous Realms: Celtic and Norse in Tolkien’s Middle-earth with suspicion. I fully expect any book written by a female academic to be tailored for the Women’s Studies Department—full of anger at men and contempt for the Christian religion.

So I’m delighted to report that this book, written by a female English professor at Portland State University, was a very pleasant surprise in almost every way.

Burns notes that many scholars have traced the Norse and Anglo-Saxon themes in The Lord of the Rings. But she is convinced that Tolkien also drew (less openly, because of the fashions of his day) on Celtic myth and folklore as well. She examines all of Tolkien’s fantastic works (not only The Hobbit and the Trilogy, but the Silmarillion and the later gathered works) and points out (quite convincingly, it seems to me as a non-expert) Celtic parallels that may be nearly as important as the Norse. (Tolkien, she explains, loved Wales but did not care for Ireland. Also, there was a general opinion that Celtic matters were in some sense effeminate, lacking the practicality and fatalism of the Viking world-view. [Reviewer’s note: When you think of it, Tolkien and Lewis were an odd pair of friends—a Catholic Englishman and a Protestant Irishman.])

Gender issues are certainly in Burns’ mind as she examines the accusation that Tolkien’s work, with its vast majority of active males and small minority of (generally) passive females, is a mark of misogyny. But she stands up for him in what I’d call a courageous way. For one thing, she thinks that Tolkien (based on the prejudice mentioned above) had the Celts in mind, and therefore a sort of vital femininity, in his portrayal of the Elves. She also makes much of the manner in which males frequently assume traditionally feminine roles in the books—cooking, nurturing, housekeeping, nursing, etc.

She also spends much time refuting the accusation that Tolkien’s characters are cardboard, either all good or all evil. She not only points to the weaknesses, frailties and near runs with temptation that the good characters display. She also notes the way Tolkien “doubles” his characters—each good character being matched with an evil one. Thus, while Gandalf clearly embodies many of the more positive characteristics of the Norse god Odin, Sauron (who, like Odin, has one eye) displays the god’s wicked traits.

Burns ends the book with a short chapter outlining three questions about the books, and giving her own answers. These answers are blessedly free of radical feminism or condescension towards Tolkien’s Christian faith. In fact, she seems to appreciate the significance of the doctrine of the Incarnation.

So I enjoyed the book very much, and recommend it.

Abandoned book review: Viking: Odinn’s Child, by Tim Severin

There was a time when I made it a point of honor to finish every book of fiction I started. As I’ve aged I’ve grown more surly and impatient, and nowadays if a book bores or offends me, I toss it away. Life’s too short. I’ve got stuff I need to read.

So I’m going to do a new thing here. I’m going to post a biased review of a book to which I may not have given a fair chance.

I’d had Tim Severin’s Viking trilogy recommended to me, and I do try to keep up, to some degree, with my competition in the Viking novels field. I looked forward to the book. Severin is the author of The Brendan Voyage, an account of his own Atlantic voyage in a leather coracle, in emulation of St. Brendan, a book I read, enjoyed, and profited from.

But I got up to page 74 of Viking: Odinn’s Child and just couldn’t take it any further. There were two reasons, stylistic and ideological. I’ll start with the stylistic, so that anyone who doesn’t care about my religious views can just read this part and drop the review, as I dropped the book. Continue reading Abandoned book review: Viking: Odinn’s Child, by Tim Severin

The End of Secularism, by Hunter Baker

Our friend Hunter Baker’s new book, The End of Secularism, reminds me more than anything in my own experience of the work of Francis Schaeffer (though Baker criticizes Schaeffer in certain areas). It’s a dense book, heavily footnoted, presenting a lot of information in a relatively short (194 pages) format. You’ll want to keep a highlighter in hand as you read it, and if you’re like me, you’ll have to stop and contemplate what you’re reading from time to time.

Baker begins with several chapters of historical overview, tracing the history of the Christian church, then explaining how secularism as a world-view and ideology burgeoned in a world increasingly weary of religious conflict and war. Secularism—the view that religion (if tolerated at all) must be cordoned off from public life, so that even someone whose politics are formed by faith must find secular public arguments for it in order to participate in the process—was originally marketed, and continues to be marketed today, as the only rational and impartial alternative to the passions and intolerance of believers.

Baker then applies to this claim of rationality and impartiality the same kind of analysis that secularists like to use on religion. He finds secularism greatly wanting, and fatally blind to its own unexamined presuppositions. It’s strange to find postmodern thinkers presented positively in a Christian book, but Baker takes particular note of recent deconstructions of secularism by younger thinkers. These postmoderns note that secularists are not, as they imagine, impartial referees in the world of thought, but partisans holding a distinct ideology, and that their efforts to silence religious ideas in the public square are simply a new example of an elite class attempting to muzzle heretics. Baker also marshals historical facts to demonstrate that secularism has no better record of tolerance and the prevention of conflict than Christianity had. He devotes a later chapter specifically to the “legend” of the incompatibility of religion and science. In the final chapter he examines an interesting situation from recent history where politicians explicitly appealed to religion in a controversy in a southern state, and the secularists made no complaint at all—because in that case, religion was being marshaled in the service of a liberal cause.

The End of Secularism will challenge the Christian reader, and will raise some Christian hackles—Baker gives short shrift to those who claim that America was founded as a Christian nation, for instance. (Update: Hunter points out to me that he criticizes those who claim a secularist founding as well, which is a fair point.) But Christians should read it, for the mental exercise, and for the hope it presents that the long cultural dominance of secularism may finally be coming to the beginning of its end. Secularists should read it for an education.

Highly recommended.

“Souls on Ice”

Anthony Sacramone reviews the movie “Souls on Ice” at Filmwell. As he sees it, a promising concept, disappointingly delivered.

Alas, Cold Souls’s parts are greater than its whole, and sounds funnier than it is. It fails to cohere in part because the central conceit—Paul Giamatti playing Paul Giamatti—serves no great purpose. After all, Giamatti, however ill at ease and sad-sackish he may appear, is a successful and respected actor. If we are to believe that he is nevertheless experiencing a soul-shifting crisis, a deep-seated desire to, as Vanya says, “live the rest of his life in a different way,” those scenes must have been left on the cutting-room floor or on Barthes’ laptop.

The Brass Verdict, by Michael Connelly

The Brass Verdict is Michael Connelly’s second novel about his new character, lawyer Mickey Haller. I wasn’t too sure whether I liked Mickey much when I read the first one, The Lincoln Lawyer, but this book definitely warmed me to him.

Mickey Haller is a defense attorney. He’s just coming off a one-year hiatus when he gets the news that an old friend, another defense lawyer named Jerry Vincent, has been murdered, and has left his stable of clients to him. One of them is a “franchise case,” a big-paycheck, high-profile case involving Walter Elliott, a Hollywood movie mogul.

There are problems with defense lawyers as heroes of stories. We all know that in the real world they’re not Perry Mason. They defend the worst people in the world, and if they’re good they get very rich off it. What makes Mickey Haller sympathetic is that he feels that moral tension, on a deep level. It probably had a lot to do with the cocaine-and-alcohol habit that destroyed his marriage, alienated his daughter, and nearly cost him his life.

On moving into Jerry’s office, Mickey finds two policeman going through the case files—illegally. He kicks them out, but oddly finds himself drawn to one of them, who turns out to be Harry Bosch, the hero of the majority of Michael Connelly’s novels. This is an excellent strategy on the author’s part, and helped me settle into the story.

Harry asks questions—who had Jerry Vincent bribed? How was the FBI involved? Mickey doesn’t know the answers. Harry doesn’t believe him. But they will still be drawn together into the double mystery of Jerry’s murder and the Elliott trial, which turn out to be linked. And the killing isn’t over.

A good story by a master storyteller. Connelly did telegraph one surprise though, at least in my case. He generally keeps politics out of his books (for which I’m eternally grateful), but here he did mention one character’s conservative affiliations. I immediately thought, “I’ll bet this character turns out to be a villain.” And behold, it was so.

Maybe Connelly’s done the same thing with liberal characters in the past, but I never noticed it. (Then again, I probably wouldn’t.)

But storytellers, be warned—we know your poker tells.

Frankenstein: Dead and Alive, by Dean Koontz

If I were actually the kind of industry insider I pretend to be as an author/blogger, I would have been aware that Dean Koontz’ long-awaited final volume in his Frankenstein trilogy was coming out at last. (He delayed it, he has reported, because New Orleans, the setting of the books, had suffered enough after Hurricane Katrina, and deserved a break. I’d been very worried the story would go forever unfinished.)

Koontz dedicates Frankenstein: Dead and Alive to “the late Mr. Lewis, who long ago realized that science was being politicized….” It would appear that C. S. Lewis’ That Hideous Strength was an inspiration for this book and for the whole trilogy. That gives me particular satisfaction, as I did an homage of my own in Wolf Time.

Although it’s not necessary to read the first two books before reading Dead and Alive, I would recommend it. It’s a pity there was such a long lag between books, because, in my opinion, this book works best as the capstone to the trilogy experience. Continue reading Frankenstein: Dead and Alive, by Dean Koontz

Your Jesus Is Too Safe, by Jared C. Wilson

Your Jesus Is Too Safe, by Jared C. WilsonThe title of Jared’s first book, Your Jesus Is Too Safe: Outgrowing a Drive-Thru, Feel-Good Savior, brings to mind J.B. Phillips’ classic book, Your God Is Too Small: Miracle Grow for Your Puny Religious Imagination (OK, I made up that subtitle, and Phillips would not have thought it funny). What I remember most of Phillips’ book is the first part, the destructive part, in which he tears down inadequate views of the Almighty. I expected to find Jared’s book similarly organized, but it isn’t. He doesn’t spend much time describing poor views of Jesus, like Hippie Jesus or the inhuman Flannel-graph Jesus. He touches on them in the context of healthy views on Jesus’ role as a shepherd, a judge, a prophet, a king, and many others.

Something Jared says while discussing one role puts a finger on his approach to the whole book. “In contemplating Jesus as Shepherd, I’m most tempted to make a short list of things shepherds do—the shepherd’s responsibilities chart—and cram Jesus into and see how he fits. Some books actually take this tack. I believe this is a backward way to go about things—sort of getting the cart before the horse . . . or sheep, I guess.” Jesus—the real, historic, biblical Jesus—is the focus on the book. If a reader finds it unfamiliar or oddly lacking in application, then I suggest they question whether they may be influenced by preaching and reading that presents the Christian life as a pattern of moral behaviors, who Jesus is not being nearly as important as what he supposedly wants us to do. Your Jesus Is Too Safe is a Christian Living book, but not a book with 40 ways to have a victorious Christian life. Just to iron out any possible subtly here, the latter book is the safe one; this book isn’t safe.

It isn’t too dangerous either. Even though Jared jokes about making readers angry when talking about Jesus’ humanity, (he says people in some circles get riled at the suggestion that Jesus may have relieved his bowels at some point during his life) he does not draw excessive lines in the sand and call out the heretics lurking in every church. He is very charitable, while presenting sound, biblical portraits of Jesus. I appreciate how he reasons deeply from the Scripture and does not fill each chapter with personal stories or extra-biblical illustrations. It’s a darn good book, in other words.

One outstanding point of interest for readers of Brandywine Books Continue reading Your Jesus Is Too Safe, by Jared C. Wilson

Catalina’s Riddle, by Steven Saylor

I picked up a couple of Steven Saylor’s Rome Sub Rosa novels because James Lileks praises them highly, and I have a high opinion of James’ taste. Unfortunately, I find I can’t share his enthusiasm.

Not to say the two I’ve read have been bad books. Catilina’s Riddle, which I just finished, and The Venus Throw, which I reviewed a while ago, are well-researched and well-written mysteries centered on the political conflicts that convulsed the Roman republic during the ascendancy of Cicero and the rise of Julius Caesar.

This story starts in 63 B.C. Gordianus the Finder, the detective hero of the series, has settled down on a farm in Etruria, some distance north of Rome, which he inherited from a friend. His new farm is entirely surrounded by the properties of his late friend’s siblings, and they (with one exception) do not welcome him. But Gordianus has had his belly full of Rome and its intrigues. The simple life of a gentleman farmer looks very good to him.

Neverthless, his past—in the person of an agent of his old patron, Cicero—intrudes. Cicero has an odd request. He wants Gordianus to play host to (and to spy on) Cicero’s own greatest political enemy, the charismatic young politician Catilina. Gordianus is sick of Cicero, and initially refuses. But he changes his mind after a headless body shows up in one of his barns. He interprets this as a threat, and begins to realize that you can flee Rome, but Rome will always follow you. Thus he gets more and more enmeshed in the plots and counter-plots of Cicero and Catilina. As in The Venus Throw, the actual murder mystery—the question of the headless body, along with two more that follow—turns out to be a footnote to the great events that overtake them all by the end of the story. Continue reading Catalina’s Riddle, by Steven Saylor

West Oversea, by Lars Walker

I’m hesitating a bit on how to review Lars’ latest adventure. You’ve seen several other reviews both light and heavy on details, so a straight-forward review like the last one I wrote isn’t appropriate. It would not advance the storyline, as it were. I’m also tempted to write something very silly such as a long-winded ramble about my daily life, barely touching on the book itself, or a review promising full spoilers and offering none. I don’t care to write either of those.

West Oversea by Lars Walker If you are not already convinced by reading it yourself, Lars has written a darn good story in “Westward Ho” (see, I can barely stop myself). It begins strong; the conflict which prompts Erling Skjalgsson to sail west comes upfront. New problems emerge along the way, both small and large, and just when you start to wonder if the heroes will ever return home, the battle flames hot again. But this is what you already know. Let me write about other things, making this a review supplemental (though you already got some of that in the Q&A we posted before).

West Oversea is written within a beautifully rich framework. It is like an actor who does not break his character, even when everyone else goes off-script. Several decisions the characters make are not fully explained to the modern reader, making the story more believable and less of a teaching tool. So many Christian works of fiction seem to want to teach more than tell stories, but if they were to follow Shakespeare’s example, much as West Oversea does, their stories would be better and their readers may have more to talk about. I’m thinking of how Hamlet dies at the end of his play, not because it’s more dramatic for him to bite it along with the others, but for the sake of justice. He had murdered Polonius, therefore his life was justly forfeit—a life for a life unjustly taken, the essence of capital punishment. Does Shakespeare ever spell that out to us? No. Continue reading West Oversea, by Lars Walker

Crossing the Lines by Richard Doster

Crossing the Line by Richard DosterSports reporter Jack Hall didn’t see any problem with black athletes, especially if they were good, but he didn’t want his friends to think he was chummy with them or any Negro person. That would be crossing the line. His friends felt the same way. Playing baseball was fine. It’s not like those people were sitting in the same classroom or dancing with our children.

And Jack and Rose Marie Hall had a personal interest in avoiding desegregation issues. In the previous year, 1954, their home had been bombed by someone who didn’t like Jack’s public stand in favor of the Negro player on the local team. Now, the Halls have moved to Atlanta, and Jack’s new boss, Ralph McGill, wants to look into the Montgomery, Alabama, bus boycott inspired by Rosa Parks. Jack is the only reporter at a meeting of community leaders who choose then-unknown-preacher Martin L. King to lead the boycott. That frontline position gets King’s house bombed within a few months, and the Halls feel a new link to a family they would rather not befriend.

Crossing the Lines is loaded with historical detail, even some casual references from the characters which are not explained to the reader. It lead me to wonder if certain characters I took as wholly fictional creations were actually based on living people. Continue reading Crossing the Lines by Richard Doster

Tell No One, by Harlan Coben

Notice of personal appearance: I’ll be at the Norway Day celebration in Minnehaha Park, Minneapolis, with the Vikings on Sunday, from about 11:00 to 4:00 or so. They say the weather will be nice.

I appreciated Gone for Good so much
that I immediately launched into reading Tell No One, which Harlan Coben wrote just before it. I suppose it was inevitable that I’d be a little let down. There’s nothing at all wrong with Tell No One. It’s a gripping, fast-paced thriller with engaging characters and plenty of surprises. But for some reason (perhaps just a subjective identification with one main character over another), I didn’t like it quite as much.

There are actually a lot of similarities in the set-ups of both stories. Gone for Good’s hero was a gentle do-gooder, a volunteer who works with the homeless, whose girlfriend disappears and who soon comes under the suspicion of federal investigators. In Tell No One, the hero is Dr. David Beck, a young physician who has voluntarily chosen to work with charity cases in Manhattan. Three years ago, he was gravely injured when his wife, Elizabeth, was abducted and murdered by a serial killer. But now he starts getting e-mail messages that seem to be coming from Elizabeth herself. Meanwhile, the FBI has suddenly decided that he must have murdered Elizabeth, and they’ve got a warrant for his arrest. But David has an appointment to meet with Elizabeth—or whoever’s pretending to be her—this afternoon, and there’s no way he’s going to be sitting in a cell when that happens. So he runs.

Very good story. I’ve got no complaints. The language is not bad for the genre; the violence (some of it quite horrifying) is mostly off camera. There is a lesbian couple with a child who are highly sympathetic characters, so you might (or might not) want to be warned of that.

I liked it, and I’ve got no legitimate complaint.