Category Archives: Reviews

Disney’s A Christmas Carol

I went to see Disney’s new A Christmas Carol on Sunday. I didn’t like it as much as Ted Baehr and Michael Medved, whose glowing reviews persuaded me to see it in the first place, did. But I did like it, and I suspect it may grow on me, and the DVD will end up on my Christmas Carol shelf, along with the Sim, Scott and Finney versions, which I watch liturgically every Yuletide.

One bit of good news is that the familiar computer animation technique, which director Robert Zemeckis seems to have infinite faith in, has improved considerably. The eye problem, especially—the way all the characters in Beowulf seemed to be blind, because they couldn’t track the objects they were observing—has been solved. Facial expressions are also much better. Still, I find the animated people—almost human-looking but not quite, and mostly with slightly enlarged heads—a little off-putting. On the plus side, Tiny Tim (with whom I’ve never been very happy ) is much less irritating than usual here, and only spends a short time onscreen.

The animation technique brings one big, solid advantage. Here, at long last, we have a Scrooge who looks like Scrooge, a Scrooge who looks like the man I imagined when I first read the story (and I’ll bet you did too, if you’ve ever read it. Which is worth the trouble). Sim, Scott and Finney, for all their excellences (and they had many) didn’t really look like Scrooge. Their noses and chins weren’t long enough, and did not incline toward one another. Jim Carrey doesn’t look like Scrooge either, but the magic of CGI changes that (he also looks like the ghosts of Christmas Past, Present and Yet to Come, as he plays all those roles. There’s a very odd scene where Christmas Past, along with Old Scrooge, is watching Young Scrooge, so you actually have a Carrey watching a Carrey watching a Carrey). Continue reading Disney’s A Christmas Carol

Your Heart Belongs to Me, by Dean Koontz

Some people might not care for this book (the Amazon reviews support that contention), because it’s different from Dean Koontz’ other work. But if you’ve been paying attention, you’ll have noticed that Koontz frequently changes genres, and mixes and matches genres within a story. He doesn’t like to do the same thing twice (with the exception of the Odd Thomas and Frankenstein books, which just prove that he refuses to be predictable even in his unpredictability). With Your Heart Belongs to Me he has (in my opinion), not only broken new genre ground, but produced his best writing to date.

This book sings. Again and again, I paused in my reading just to savor how beautifully the author had expressed himself. The usual pattern for a popular writer, as far as I’ve observed, is to start out really good, with a book he’s probably labored over for years, and then to become increasingly sloppy, as his publisher’s demands for several books a year force him to churn stuff out and send it away in the rough. But Koontz is an infinitely better writer today than he was when he started, and the best of his recent work reaches (I think) the level of literary fiction. That’s certainly true of Your Heart Belongs to Me.

The blurb on the back told me that this was the story of Ryan Perry, an internet social networking billionaire who’s had a heart transplant and starts getting threatening messages from someone telling him, “You’re heart belongs to me.”

But in fact, Koontz takes more than half of the book to set that situation up. We see Ryan as a rich, healthy, happy young man who lives the American dream. He has an enormous house, surfs whenever he wants to, and is dating a gorgeous young woman. Then he starts experiencing physical symptoms which turn out to indicate, not a heart attack, but a congenital cardiac enlargement condition. He begins to be suspicious (the condition might have been caused by poisoning). He employs a security company to investigate various people who might want him dead. On a whim, he takes his business from the cardiologist he’s been seeing, and switches to a more famous, more expensive specialist. And along the way he has occasional visions—or hallucinations—that seem to be communicating a message. But it’s a message he can’t understand.

Finally his name comes up on the international transplant waiting list he’s on, and he gets his surgery. His recovery is good. But his girlfriend breaks up with him. (She says he knows why, but he can’t figure it out.) Then the messages start appearing—a bag of candy hearts, all with the same message, left on his pillow in a room that ought to be locked and secure. A heart-shaped pendant left on his pillow. A sudden knife attack, accompanied by a whispered threat.

It isn’t until he’s kidnapped and threatened with death that Ryan begins to acknowledge the things he’s been purposely overlooking, and to understand the meaning of the warnings he’s had. “It’s all about the subtext,” his girlfriend, a writer, once told him.

The ending is different from that of any Koontz novel I recall. But it was a good ending, entirely satisfying in its way.

I recommend Your Heart Belongs to Me highly. You’ll find yourself searching your own heart.

Stuart M. Kaminsky: Toby Peters books: An appreciation

Last night I noted, belatedly, the passing of author Stuart M. Kaminsky last month. Purely by happenstance, I was reading several of his Toby Peters mysteries at the time, and was already planning to post about them.

The hero of the series, Toby Peters, is a shabby, distinctly down-market private eye working in Los Angeles in the late ’30s and the ’40s. Despite the fact that he can’t afford any better office than a closet in a dentist’s office, lives in a seedy boarding house overseen by a batty landlady, drives a tiny old Crosley automobile, and can never find a clean shirt to wear, he continually takes cases involving prominent personalities, especially movie stars.

It has occurred to me that Kaminsky was having a joke on us, and that the real secret of Toby Peters is that he was delusional.

But when I look past that bit of spontaneous deconstruction, I find the Peters mysteries simply a lot of fun. Peters is no Philip Marlowe. Although he can handle himself in a fight (he used to box and his face shows it), he injured his back doing bodyguard work for Mickey Rooney a while ago, and has to sleep on a mattress on the floor. He doesn’t drink at all, and his favorite food is cold cereal. He has an ex-wife whom he loves, but she won’t go out with him because he’s immature. He has a brother who’s a cop, and who generally seems to hate him (he gave him his first broken nose), but who usually comes through for him in a pinch. When he needs help with his cases, he can sometimes hire an old cop or security guard, but most of the time he ends up enlisting his friends—Gunther, his next-door neighbor, who is a three-foot-tall Swiss translator, Sheldon, the fat and unhygienic dentist from whom he rents his office, and Jeremy, the retired wrestler and poet who owns the office building. The result often resembles a Keystone Kops chase more than the elegant “payoff” in a William Powell movie.

The books I’ve read in this spree were Down for the Count (concerning Joe Louis), Think Fast, Mr. Peters (concerning Peter Lorre, a splendid opportunity for some Sam Spade dialogue), Buried Caesars (Gen. Douglas MacArthur) and Tomorrow is Another Day (Clark Gable).

They were fast reads. They didn’t offend me (though there’s a little rough language and implied sex). They were often very funny, and always well-written.

Recommended.

The Two-Space War, by Dave Grossman and Leo Frankowski

Not a flawless book, The Two-Space War has the definite feel of the debut of a series still finding its sea-legs.

Nevertheless, it’s a voyage worth completing, and I enjoyed it increasingly as I went on.

The set-up is kind of complicated, which slows down the action at the start. This is a standard problem in stories set in unfamiliar worlds, but I thought the authors did as good a job as anyone in weaving the info dumps into the narrative.

The premise is that humans have learned to travel to distant galaxies, by traveling through “Two-Space,” the second dimension. The trade-off is that all but the simplest early Industrial Revolution technology rapidly deteriorates in Two-Space. So the ships by which people travel there have to be wooden ships, similar to those of the Napoleonic era, with interesting differences.

As the story opens, Lt. Thomas Melville and a landing party are stranded on a distant planet, battling thirst and suicidal, ape-like monsters. They await rescue by their mother ship. They were recently attacked by a ship of the evil Guldur Empire, and their captain’s death has left him acting commander.

Through skill and military discipline, he manages to save his landing party from the apes. Shortly thereafter they are picked up by their mother ship, only to learn that the ship (their ships are sentient) is dying, and that the Guldur are coming in fast.

Lt. Melville determines not to take refuge on the primitive planet, but to employ a bold strategy against the Guldur ship. So begins a story that steadily builds in dramatic tension, and draws the reader both through suspense and with interesting, likeable, growing characters.

In some ways I found the world-building a little self-indulgent, by my personal reckoning. The universe Lt. Melville and his crew explore is notable for planets containing elves and planets containing dwarfs, and so (in this narrative) J.R.R. Tolkien is considered an actual prophet. His books are venerated as if they were Scripture. There are also numerous references to the “classic” writers of the 20th Century—such as Heinlein, Weber and Pratchitt. In this version of the future, Science Fiction is considered the highest literary form. Elements of Tolkien, Patrick O’Brien, and (perhaps) Kenneth Roberts rub together in this universe, not always seamlessly (in my opinion), but in the end the authors make it work.

I’m not sure what to say about religious matters (the future seems to be vaguely Christian, in a syncretist sort of way), or the issue of women in combat, which is addressed so eccentrically that it’s hard to draw a conclusion what the authors think.

But the real heart of this book is the battle scenes. Lt. Col. Dave Grossman (full disclosure: he sent me a free review copy) is a retired officer of the Army Rangers, a former professor of Psychology at West Point, and a recognized authority on the physiological and psychological effects of combat on human beings. His descriptions of the experience of battle are as authentic as any you’ll ever come across, and they in themselves make The Two-Space War a moving and unforgettable read. I’m serious about this. The combat scenes are worth the price of the book all by themselves.

Once I got acclimated I was riveted. I recommend the book highly, and hope there’s a sequel.

Vampires, Burial, and Death by Paul Barber

I made some comments about vampires in this space a while back, and a friend lent me a copy of Paul Barber’s Vampires, Burial, and Death: Folklore and Reality so I could have the real skinny.

I know much more now. I’m not sure I’m happier for it.

And—especially for the sake of those of you with weak stomachs—I’ll pass the gist of it on to you, so you won’t have to read this often entertaining, but generally depressing and unappetizing, book. Continue reading Vampires, Burial, and Death by Paul Barber

True Detectives, by Jonathan Kellerman

Writing a successful series character can (or so they tell me) be a trial (albeit a profitable one) for an author. There’s an inherent problem with series characters. Generally in fiction, one of an author’s chief purposes is to dramatize personal change. A character grows through his experiences in the story. He makes difficult and costly choices and grows a bit as a human being. This gives the story a point, and satisfies the reader.

But series characters can’t have life-changing experiences with every story. Nobody changes that much in their lifetime, and if they did, they’d soon cease to be the characters readers have fallen in love with.

So series authors like to stretch themselves now and then. Sometimes they’ll write one-offs. And sometimes they’ll create new series characters.

Jonathan Kellerman, author of the Alex Delaware psychological mysteries, has chosen the second course with his latest in paperback, True Detectives. He’s taken two characters he introduced in his last Alex Delaware book and given them their own story. In my opinion, they’re worth the trouble. Continue reading True Detectives, by Jonathan Kellerman

“Goddess Unmasked”

Remember what they told you in college about the Mother Goddess, and how all the ancient religions worshiped her, and how modern wiccans are actually carrying on her timeless cult? Remember those eminent theologians who complained that the Christian church had covered up the essential femininity of God?

Balderdash, says Philip G. Davis, in the new book, Goddess Unmasked, reviewed here at The American Spectator Online by the always readable Hal G. P. Colebatch.

(Colebatch, by the way, is an e-mail friend of mine. He’s co-written a book for Baen Books, and allowed me to read the beginning of an unfinished mystery he’s working on. I really look forward to reading the whole thing in print someday.)

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.