Category Archives: Reviews

Gorgeous Life, Hope in Cyndere’s Midnight

Cyndere's Midnight by Jeffrey OverstreetIf a reader wonders why the second in the Auralia’s Colors series is titled “Cyndere’s Midnight,” Overstreet wastes no time answering him. Heiress to the Bel Amican throne, Cyndere, is grieving the loss of her father and brother, thinking she would not throw herself into the sea that day, when she hears of the death of her husband, Deuneroi. In time, she goes to an outpost named Tilianpurth to mourn, but many around her don’t know how to help, and being royalty, she will not take difficult counsel easily.

Elsewhere, a band of four beastmen roam the wilderness, killing children and traders. The beastmen are monsters, men mixed with many other animal forms. They were cursed long ago by wicked strangers with unknown motives. One them, Jordam, has stumbled onto a supernatural, dragon-like monster called The Keeper, and in a way it has shocked him into new life. Jordam was physically and emotionally broken when he ran from The Keeper. Those wounds and Auralia’s artwork began to heal him.

The hope of redemption is a major theme in this adventure. Cyndere and Deuneroi hope to overcome the curse of the beastmen. The ale boy has earned the name Rescue by the people he has given his life to save. Auralia, though only a background character in this story, continues her influence on many people with her infectious love of life and endurance of her artwork.

But it isn’t as if Auralia is the one light of goodness in a dark world. Overstreet’s fantastic setting teems with life as if created by a wild and loving god. Colors found everywhere and the pure water of the deep well depicted on the cover give an enchanted life to those who absorb them. It’s part of the magical fiber threaded throughout. It’s one of many things I love about this series, which I believe deserves a place on your bookself.

Klavan on “Inglorious”

Today Andrew Klavan reports his response to the movie Inglorious Basterds. It would be a misstatement to say he wasn’t impressed. He was impressed, in the sense that repulsion is an impression.

But for Tarantino, no matter how talented, to address the issues inherent in the event as pure fodder for storytelling, to think his squirrelly man-on-man torture fantasies or his video geek understanding of life provide an adequate moral response to that level of history – I don’t know, man – it just felt to me like he was molding toy soldiers out of the ashes of the dead.  Even real Jews torturing real German soldiers would not provide a profound or even interesting resolution, but this stuff?

I can’t think offhand of any Tarantino movie I’ve watched, so I’m speculating when I wonder if the director would even be able to comprehend the words Klavan is using. As I understand it, Tarantino makes meta-movies, movies about movies, movies that mirror not the real world, but the kind of world you’d have come to know if you’d spent your life tied to a seat in a movie theater. I suppose that makes him kin to all the contemporary fantasy writers whose inspiration comes, not from myth or history, but from reading a lot of Tolkien and Rowling. The work may be brilliant in its way. It may be scintillating in its dialogue and groundbreaking in its technique, but it’s also hollow and weightless. It’s pure refined sugar—food without nutritional content.

I’m not saying there’s no place for such work. But it’s a different thing; a new thing in the world. It should be kept on a separate shelf from material that rises out of human experience and the wisdom our fathers.

Dull, Uninteresting, Disappointing, But I Won’t Say It’s Boring

The editor, writer, and I’m sure very delightful Jennifer Schuessler writes how book reviewers don’t label books boring very often.

Boring people can, paradoxically, prove interesting. As they prattle on, you step back mentally and start to catalog the irritating timbre of the offending voice, the reliance on cliché, the almost comic repetitiousness — in short, you begin constructing a story. But a boring book, especially a boring novel, is just boring. A library is an enormous repository of information, entertainment, the best that has been thought and said. It is also probably the densest concentration of potential boredom on earth.

The Culture Alliance

The Culture Alliance can be found here.

The Culture Alliance is based on the awareness that social reform and cultural renewal cannot be achieved through politics alone. Politics rules, but culture shapes politics. People’s basic assumptions come from cultural institutions—the education system, entertainment outlets, the art world, and media—currently dominated by those on the ideological Left. People who embrace classical liberal ideas have largely abdicated these institutions, thus those ideas cannot penetrate the public’s basic assumptions.

TCA has been founded to address this crucial need. Certainly, there are numerous fine organizations attempting to influence culture, but they are a separate and dispersed lot. Our objective is bring people who understand and appreciate the nation’s founding values into the cultural influence professions and create a grand narrative of cultural renewal, to make a case for the development of a Culture of Liberty in the United States today. The Culture Alliance is designed to build synergy and connection among groups and individuals, resulting in an impact, through cooperation and outreach, which is greater than the sum of its parts.

You can sign up for their Weekly Update, which includes what they call Fiction Friday. Rumor has it that a certain good-looking author of Viking fantasies will be featured this week.

Mini-review: Final Victim, Stephen J. Cannell

This will be a mini-review. I’ve reviewed one of Stephen J. Cannell’s novels already, and will doubtless review more (I’ve become a fan). Final Victim isn’t a world-changing novel, but I thought it very well crafted, and I just wanted to meditate on its virtues.

Cannell, as you likely know, is one of the most successful television producers in the industry. He’s also a prolific script writer (though, interestingly, he’s dyslexic). As a professional, he knows how to tell a story, seizing the viewer’s (or reader’s) attention with a wrestler’s grip, and never letting go. Continue reading Mini-review: Final Victim, Stephen J. Cannell

Flying Dutch, by Tom Holt

A couple of my friends are Tom Holt fiends, and they’ve contrived to place in my hands three of his best novels (I reviewed the other two here). Flying Dutch is another offering in his original idiom (to quote, appropriately, Sir Lancelot in “Monty Python and the Holy Grail”), the legend-based farce. (He’s moved into actual historical fiction with his more recent novel Meadowlands, a story of Vikings in America which I haven’t read yet.)

As you may have guessed, this is the story of the Flying Dutchman. In legend, the Flying Dutchman is a sea captain who cursed God, and so was condemned to sail the seas forever, allowed to visit shore only once every seven years, until some condition (true love, in Wagner’s opera) is fulfilled.

Holt’s version is slightly different. The Dutchman, Cornelius Vanderdecker, is indeed immortal, along with his crew, and only gets shore leave once in seven years, but the reason is somewhat more prosaic (I won’t spoil it for you). His story gets entwined with that of Jane Doland, an English accountant who stumbles onto the financial complications that naturally result from owning a still-in-force, three century old insurance policy.

As she investigates, and eventually gets to know the Dutchman herself, the true story is gradually revealed. We encounter among other elements alchemy, an immortal cat, and the meddling of a television producer who has figured in other Holt novels.

Once again, I felt that Holt’s writing resembled nothing so much as P.G. Wodehouse’s. Holt isn’t as great a genius as The Master, but he can be very funny, and the plots are similar—a colorful cast of characters, many of them none too bright, meaning well and crossing one another in multiple boneheaded ways. There’s a hint of politics, with some mild criticism of the United States, and the conventional assumption that nuclear power is purely evil, but you’re not intended to take any of it seriously. The ending is satisfying, if off-center.

No offensive elements that I recall. Recommended, if you can find a copy (it’s out of print, sadly).

Rachel Motte reviews Introverts in the Church

Over at Evangelical Outpost, Rachel Motte reviews a book called Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture. Looks fascinating, and (in my humble opinion) it’s long overdue.

I probably don’t need to mention that this is an issue of considerable interest to me (though to call myself an introvert is a gross understatement). I’ve heard of churches where every single member is required, as a condition of membership, to do house-to-house visitation. It seems to me that that kind of one-size-fits-all Christianity is entirely false to the true nature of the church. As the apostle Paul says in 1 Corinthians 12:14-20, “Now the body is not made up of one part but of many. If the foot should say, ‘Because I am not a hand, I do not belong to the body,’ it would not for that reason cease to be part of the body…. But in fact God has arranged the parts in the body, every one of them, just as he wanted them to be. If they were all one part, where would the body be? As it is, there are many parts, but one body.”

A church, as I understand it, isn’t meant to look at its membership and say, “Where can we find people to do this and this and this?” It shouldn’t try to shoehorn members into pre-defined roles. Instead, the leadership ought to understand that God has already given them the parts He intends, for the sort of ministry He has in mind. They should get to know their fellow members, and prayerfully try to set each one to work doing what God has gifted him (or her) to do.

That’s not to say that a certain amount of personal growth isn’t necessary, or that people can’t learn to do things they’ve never thought of before. But I think many churches are in the position of the man who looks at himself in a mirror, decides he’s too short, and resolutely sets about finding a way to be taller. God (one assumes) made him the height he is for a reason.

As I mention in my comment to Rachel’s review, I attended a church years back (in Florida) whose pastor was also an introvert. He preached extremely well, and many people came to listen to him. But he himself admitted that he was poor at the one-on-one aspects of the ministry. He was blessed with an understanding board of elders, who were willing to back him up by finding others, both assistant pastors and laity, to take much of that burden off him. That church was dynamic and growing, one of the most exciting churches I’ve ever been involved in.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union, by Michael Chabon

Michael Chabon is a brilliant writer, and The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a masterful, scintillating book. It’s lyrical as a poem, funny as a Shecky Greene monologue, and engaging as a crossword puzzle. It’s the kind of book that makes lesser authors (like me) want to throw their laptops through the window and take up careers in online marketing.

And yet I don’t recommend it.

The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is a hard-boiled police novel, set in an alternate universe in which the state of Israel failed in 1948. The homeless Jews were (grudgingly) offered a home in the Alaska panhandle, around Sitka. There they have lived for almost 60 years (the book is set in 2007), but next year the mandate runs out, and the land is scheduled to be returned to the Tlinkit Indians (that’s pronounced “Clinkit,” by the way. You probably didn’t know that. I know it because I spent a summer in the Shumagin Islands, long ago).

It’s in this climate of insecurity and futility that police detective Meyer Landsman is taken to view the body of a gunshot victim in the seedy hotel where he’s lived since his divorce. The body turns out to be that of a once-famous young man, a chess prodigy, rabbi’s son and miracle worker who many thought would be the Messiah. Depressed, self-destructive, alcoholic, Det. Landsman sets about solving the mystery, sometimes helped and sometimes hindered by his half-Tlinkit partner and his ex-wife, who is now his boss.

Be warned—the rest of this review includes spoilers. Not spoilers about the plot, but about the meaning of the book. Of course, I may have misunderstood the meaning altogether, as ordinary chess players in this novel are baffled by the moves of the great masters. But I’ll tell you what I got out of it, for whatever that’s worth.

The lesson of The Yiddish Policemen’s Union is that the real danger in the world comes from the devout, whatever their religion. Chabon has cleverly, in his alternate universe, created a world without Islamic terrorism (because we all know there’d be no Islamic terrorism if there were no Israel). But there is terrorism nevertheless, coming out of those famously vicious groups, orthodox Jews and Christian evangelicals.

This book, it appears to me, is the heart-cry of the assimilated, secular, self-hating Jew. When the Muslim terrorist says it’s all the Jews’ fault, Chabon (it would appear) hangs his head and says, “It’s true. But it’s not my fault. It’s the fault of those black hats. They’re just crazy.”

So the book saddened me. I should also mention that I read it to the end, though—something which I rarely do with books that offend me deeply. This one was just too good to put down, even when I thought it morally perverse and dangerous.

Cautions for language apply—not only obscenity and cursing, but actual blasphemy. Also a lot of jokes about Jews that no Gentile could get away with.

Read at your own risk.

The Tin Collectors, by Stephen J. Cannell

I picked up my first novel by Stephen J. Cannell with some misgivings. Cannell is, of course, one of television’s biggest producers and writers, responsible for some great shows (like The Rockford Files and The Commish) and some I consider less noteworthy (like The A Team, which strained credibility farther than I was willing to tolerate).

But being able to put together a successful TV show doesn’t necessarily qualify someone to craft a decent novel. There’s overlap in the two occupations, but big differences as well. And, like any literary snob, I suppose I looked down my nose at the TV connection.

But now I’m convinced. The Tin Collectors was a very good mystery—well written, hard to put down and graced with vivid, sympathetic characters.

Shane Scully is a Los Angeles police detective. As the story opens, he’s awakened from sleep by a call from Barbara Molar, a former girlfriend who is now married to his ex-partner, Ray. Ray has come home mad, she tells him, and he’s trying to kill her. Continue reading The Tin Collectors, by Stephen J. Cannell

Tuck, by Stephen R. Lawhead

Among evangelical Christian fantasy writers today, I consider Stephen Lawhead perhaps the best. When he hit his stride, with the Song of Albion trilogy and his Arthur books, I thought he might be poised to produce genuine classics.

And yet, like a swimmer poised on the edge of a pond, hesitating, afraid that the water’s too cold or too shallow, he never seems to make that perfect dive.

Tuck is another very good book from his pen, head and shoulders above the rank and file of CBA fiction.

But I can’t help feeling it could—and should—have been better.

Tuck finishes off Lawhead’s King Raven trilogy, his version of the Robin Hood story. In Lawhead’s imagining, Robin Hood was not a Yorkshireman, but a Welsh petty king, in the days of King William Rufus, the son of William the Conqueror. When his father was murdered and their kingdom taken by Normans, young prince Bran fled and became Rhi Bran y Hud, King Raven, the fearful and magical forest outlaw.

In this book, Bran has once again been cheated by the Normans. He has saved the king from a conspiracy, but once again all he’s gotten in return is a slap in the face. He makes the decision then to drive the Normans out of his lands by main force, calling on his kinsman kings for help. But although victorious in the field, he is frustrated at every turn. His heroics go for naught, and those he looks to for help give him none, even after (in one case) he rescues a king from captivity.

And yet, where he looks for it least, forces are moving to help him.

The story is told from the point of view of Friar Tuck, a decent, brave and unassuming monk (if you like my Father Ailill, you’ll very probably like Tuck). Tuck serves as a check on Bran’s rashness, and a spiritual guide (though the spiritual leader of Robin’s band is actually Angharad, a Celtic wise woman, an element that doesn’t please me particularly). Tuck is an engaging narrator and an attractive character.

It should be noted that, in spite of Lawhead’s reputation as a fantasist, the King Raven books are essentially historical fiction. There’s a minor mystical element, but not enough for these books to be classified as fantasy. Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

I won’t say the ending is a disappointment. It’s satisfying and in keeping with story, and harmonious with Christian morality. It surprised me personally, because the true story of King William Rufus offers an obvious climax that, I would have thought, would be too good to resist. But resist it Lawhead did, which shows (I guess) a certain narrative self-control.

But the book didn’t soar. I was looking for a climax that carried me away, that sent a Tolkienesque shiver up my spine, and that wasn’t on offer here.

I can recommend the book without reservation, for teens and up.

But I can’t deny a small degree of disappointment.

On Combat, by Grossman and Christensen

It’s considered prudent of late to announce it when the book you’re reviewing is one you’ve gotten for free. I’ll not only admit, but brag, that I got Lt. Col. Dave Grossman’s and Loren W. Christensen’s On Combat as a gift. Col. Grossman (whose Two-Space War books I’ve reviewed here and here) sent it to me in response to a question I asked him about Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder.

A book like this will be of no interest to some of you, and I think the authors would be the first to admit that if you’re one of them, it very likely speaks well of you. But for those involved with violence, whether as soldiers or police officers, or those who love them, or just armchair storytellers like me, this study is both valuable and fascinating.

The art of war has been studied since before history was written. Societies have learned, and passed on, the training and coping techniques necessary to help the warrior to conquer and survive. It’s only recently, as technology has altered the face of warfare in ways unimaginable to our ancestors, that it has become possible—and necessary—to figure out precisely what happens to people in a deadly fight, and what can be done to help them overcome one of the most traumatic experiences of life. Continue reading On Combat, by Grossman and Christensen

Brief post, by an invalid

“I struck the board, and said, ‘No more!'”

“That’s all I can stands, I can’t stands no more!”

It’s the last straw, the one that gave the camel hay fever.

Tomorrow I see the doctor. It takes a lot to drive me to such an extremity, but I’ve had my fill of this cold, or grippe, or malaise, or whatever you call it.

No Christmas cards got finished last night. Tonight, God willing.

Thanks to Joel Leggett at Southern Appeal, for this glowing review of West Oversea. I appreciate it very much, as does my publisher.

You really need to buy it as a Christmas gift, by the way. Seriously.

Expecting Someone Taller and Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? by Tom Holt

A friend lent me his copies of Expecting Someone Taller and Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? I’m glad he did. I enjoyed reading them very much.

English writer Tom Holt has mastered (perhaps invented; I’m not sure) a form of contemporary, humorous fantasy in which mythical or historical characters mix with the modern world (kind of like some of my works, or Neil Gaiman’s, but funny). A critical blurb on the cover of EST says the book “recalls Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings and Twain’s Connecticut Yankee….” I’d say the writing is more reminiscent of Wodehouse’s, at least some of the time (which is high praise indeed).

Take this passage from EST:

[Alberich] was a businessman, and businessmen have to travel on aircraft. Since there seemed to be no prospect of progress in his quest for the Ring, he had thought it would be as well if he went back to Germany for a week to see what sort of a mess his partners were making of his mining consultancy. He had no interest in the work itself, but it provided his bread and butter; if it did not exactly keep the wolf from the door, it had enabled him to have a wolf-flap fitted so that the beast could come in and out without disturbing people.

Continue reading Expecting Someone Taller and Who’s Afraid of Beowulf? by Tom Holt

The Man-Kzin Wars X: The Wunder War, by Hal Colebatch

The fact that I haven’t read the previous books in this series (created by Larry Niven) probably disqualifies me from making intelligent comments on Man-Kzin Wars X: The Wunder War, but I picked it up because Hal Colebatch is an e-mail friend, and a wise and perceptive writer over at the American Spectator (also a lawyer and sometime government functionary in Australia).

Full disclosure: I did not get my copy for free as a reviewer. I sprung for it out of my own money.

The premise of the Man-Kzin Wars series, as I understand it, begins with the assumption that space-traveling cultures are generally peaceful cultures. Warfare is too much of a scientific and economic drain for warlike civilizations to get far in interstellar exploration and commerce.

However, there is an exception—the Kzin, a race of tiger-like (but larger and stronger) bipeds who sweep across the galaxy like Romans on the march, conquering and enslaving (often devouring) peaceful civilizations as they go. When they first approach a human colony, the paradisaical planet called Wunderland, it looks like more of the same. The humans there have put warfare so far behind them that the study of it is next to illegal, and curious scholars are at a loss to understand the functions of weapons, or what military ranks indicate. Continue reading The Man-Kzin Wars X: The Wunder War, by Hal Colebatch

The Guns of Two-Space, by Dave Grossman and Bob Hudson

The Guns of Two-Space (available here, either as an e-book or a print-on-demand) is the sequel to The Two-Space War, by Dave Grossman and Leo Frankowski, which I recently reviewed). Alas, Lt. Col. Grossman lost his friend in science fiction publishing when Jim Baen of Baen Books died, and this volume (written with a different co-author and privately published), although excellent in many ways, does suffer for want of a professional editor.

The Two-Space War told how Lt. Thomas Melville assumed command of his ship’s crew on the death of his captain, and captured an enemy ship which he named the Fang. Through inspired leadership and flexibility in adopting new weapons and strategies, he managed to thwart (or at least delay) an attempt by the evil Guldur Empire to conquer planets friendly to earth and humans. Acclaimed as a hero and a savior by alien governments, Melville was less appreciated by the appeasement-minded Westerness (human) government, and at the end of the book was dispatched to patrol and deliver mail between the most distant colony planets. Continue reading The Guns of Two-Space, by Dave Grossman and Bob Hudson