Category Archives: Reviews

(Long review) Schulz and Peanuts, by David Michaelis

I’ve told you already that I found this book utterly gripping and compelling. I might add that it also made me feel as if I were being beaten repeatedly with a rubber hose.

I shall explain in due course.

Warning: I will say some hard things about Charles Schulz in the course of this review. Please understand that this doesn’t spring from malice. In fact, it rises from a scary level of personal identification. As I shall explain, etc.

Back in those days I’ve been reminiscing about in my last couple posts (the early ’70s), when I was working with a Christian musical group and we were in the midst of the “Jesus Movement,” there was no celebrity Christian about whom we were more smug than Charles M. Schulz. Everybody loved “Sparky” Schulz. He was the most successful cartoonist, not only in the world, but in history. Art galleries displayed his original panels. He said things in his wonderful little strip that made us feel as if this guy really understood us, shared our fears and insecurities, and sympathized. Continue reading (Long review) Schulz and Peanuts, by David Michaelis

Scarlet, by Stephen Lawhead

Stephen Lawhead’s Scarlet, a sequel to his novel, Hood, begins with Will Scatlock (otherwise known as Will Scarlet), the narrator of much of the book, lying wounded on a pallet in a prison cell, awaiting a date with the hangman. A Norman priest has been assigned to write down his “confession,” and Will tells his story.

The action takes place in “The March,” a border region between England and Wales, and the time is the reign of King William Rufus, successor to William the Conqueror. As we learned in the previous volume, King Bran, the rightful king of Elfael, has been displaced by the Normans and has taken refuge in the forest with other victims of their tyranny. The Welsh call him Rhi Bran y Hud (King Bran [or Raven] the Enchanter), but the Normans tend to call him Riban Hood. Will is a displaced Englishman who has traveled west to join King Bran.

The outlaws he finds are not quite the “merry men” of legend. They are a pretty desperate and miserable bunch, living a life of subsistence in a forest hideaway where food is always scarce. A number of women and children are also with them, and among them Will finds a woman he wants to marry. But their wedding is delayed repeatedly, because King Bran has discovered a conspiracy that reaches to the very top of the Norman English government, and his attempts to turn what he learns to his advantage lead to desperate risks and Will’s capture and imprisonment. Continue reading Scarlet, by Stephen Lawhead

The 47th Samurai, by Stephen Hunter

“It’s a war thing. I’m a war guy, he’s a war guy. His dad, my dad, war guys. Us war guys, we’re all connected. So I picked up an obligation. It’s something ancient and forgotten and not in existence no more. Lost and gone, a joke, something from those silly sword-fight movies. Something samurai.”

The 47th Samurai, Stephen Hunter’s latest Bob Lee Swagger novel, centers on probably the most ridiculous premise I’ve ever encountered in a thriller.

I loved it.

I think this may be my favorite Bob Lee Swagger book in the whole series. Which is saying a lot.

What do you do if you’re out working in your meadow, and a car approaches, and out comes a Japanese gentleman, a military veteran, who informs you that, judging from the records, your father probably killed his father at Iwo Jima? And he asks your help in locating his father’s military sword, which disappeared at the same time?

Well, if you’re Bob Lee Swagger, you start rooting through your father’s effects, and then make a series of phone calls and visits, until you’ve located the thing. And you carry it back to Japan personally, as a surprise for your new friend.

And what do you do if your new friend and his family are then brutally murdered?

You go to the crime scene, make a spectacle of yourself trying to give information to the police, and get yourself expelled from the country.

Then you hole up for a while, watching old samurai movies and reading everything you can find about Japanese tradition. You go back again with a false passport. And you learn to use a sword. Continue reading The 47th Samurai, by Stephen Hunter

The Dead Whisper On, by T. L. Hines

This is the second published novel by T. L. Hines. It’s a stand-alone, not a sequel to his previous book, Waking Lazarus, which I reviewed a few days ago.

The hero of The Dead Whisper On is Candace “Canada” MacHugh, of Butte, Montana. The product of a broken home, embittered by the early death of her beloved father, estranged from her mother, she worked first (like her father) in Butte’s mines, before they shut down. Now she’s a garbage collector. She lives a packrat life in her late father’s trailer, and drives his old car. She’s aimless and depressed.

And then, one day, from out of the shadows, she hears her father’s voice speaking to her. He wants her to make contact with certain people, who will recruit her into a secret organization. That organization, he says, is devoted to fighting evil and to saving humanity from a terrible threat.

She does what he asks. Why wouldn’t she do what her father wants? But as she learns her new duties, she has trouble making sense of her assignments. And she learns that she’s being pursued, hunted—by a strange, man-like thing that cannot be killed, a monster of Jewish folklore called a golem. In confronting that supernatural antagonist, she will learn secrets that may save—or destroy—her home city.

I was, frankly, a little disappointed with this book. I had hoped to see more growth in Hines’ technique. All in all I rate this book slightly lower than Waking Lazarus. There’s only one fully developed character in The Dead Whisper On—Canada herself. Everybody else seemed pretty sketchy to me. In the later part of the novel Hines brings on a collection of Butte miners who are intended to be colorful. But colorful in itself isn’t enough. You need to establish the characters in the readers’ minds. They all kind of coalesced in my memory, and Hines didn’t help me by offering a lot of differentiation.

The final action centers on a plan by Canada to save the city through a fairly elaborate operation involving explosives and mining technology. For all I know, the plan may be realistic and based on solid engineering principles, but it seemed kind of out there to me, reading as a layman. Maybe other, more knowledgeable, readers had less trouble with that.

My guess (and such guesses are frequently wrong) is that Hines wrote this novel under a fair amount of time pressure from his publisher, and wasn’t able to develop his concept as well as he’d have liked. (Been in those parts myself.)

I still recommend it, especially for those looking for a G-Rated alternative to Dean Koontz. But I hope Hines develops the promise of the first novel a little more in the next one.

Waking Lazarus, by T. L. Hines

First of all, thanks to Phil for sending me this book.

Waking Lazarus is the story of a man who calls himself Ron Gress, a school janitor in the town of Red Lodge, Montana. He lives alone, and is socially isolated, partly by his own choice (although, as we learn later, he has a young son in town, living with his mother, with whom Ron had a one-night stand a few years ago) and partly by plain fear.

His isolation is mostly a result of the fact that he is not, in fact, Ron Gress. His real name is Jude Allman, and he used to be famous. He used to be known as The Boy Who Died Three Times. Three times he fell victim to fatal accidents, and three times he came back to life, to the confusion of doctors. He was on television and radio, and he wrote a book. The trouble was, everything he told the world about what he’d learned “on the other side” was a lie. He got sick of the lying, and so disappeared and took on a new identity.

But he can’t hide forever. There’s a mysterious woman in town who recognizes him and knows too much about his past. And there’s a serial killer loose, a predator of children. Jude will soon find himself forced to choose between his anonymity and his son’s life. In order to unmask the murderer Jude will have to face up to his own past, and his own grudge against God.

As someone who suffers from a shyness disorder myself, I was extremely impressed by the author’s portrayal of what it’s like to live with that kind of social phobia. As a matter of fact, I found the book somewhat uncomfortable at times and had to put it down for a while. I don’t think normal people will have the same difficulty.

I believe that any reader familiar with Dean Koontz will realize almost immediately that author T. L. Hines is plowing much the same ground here. I think he does it creditably. His characters and dialogue are very good. The plotting could be stronger, and there are some holes. But if you like the sort of thing Dean Koontz does, but would prefer something without obscene language, something with less violence on stage, T. L. Hines will probably please you very much. He pleased me, and I’m glad I have a second book of his to read, thanks again to Phil.

Died He For Me, by Mark A. Marinella, MD, FACP

Full disclosure: This book is published by my own new publisher, Nordskog Publishing, Incorporated. I am prejudiced in favor of Nordskog’s success.

The experience of reading Died He For Me, by Mark A. Marinella, MD, FACP, is not unlike that of watching Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ, and it covers much of the same material.

For Christians, the crucifixion of Jesus Christ is one of the central matters of the Faith. We’ve all seen images of the event, portrayed in various degrees of historical authenticity. For the Christian who wants to understand more clearly what the process of crucifixion entailed, Died He For Me is an excellent guide.

It’s a harrowing book. I’ve done some reading on the subject, and had a fair grasp of the essentials. Even so, the sheer brutality overwhelmed me. Simply on the basis of Dr. Marinella’s explanation of the process of preliminary scourging, along with its probable physical consequences, it’s hard to imagine how anybody managed to survive more than a few hours afterwards. Yet, he informs us, many victims lasted three or four days on crosses.

Marinella blends historical research on Roman crucifixion practices, along with contemporary reports, with his own physician’s knowledge of trauma and the body’s responses to it. This necessarily involves some speculation, but Marinella clearly labels his personal judgments as such.

My mental picture of the crucifixion needs revision. The picture is not only one of pain at its extreme, but of severe physical trauma and shock. Crucified people should be imagined as sweating, shivering, convulsing and vomiting blood as they died by inches.

Marinella does not subscribe to the theory, often referenced by preachers, that Christ “died of a broken heart” (myocardial rupture). That kind of death is possible, he admits, but generally takes a longer period of time than the six hours that Jesus suffered. He thinks Jesus probably died of multiple causes.

For the Christian, it must be said (though it’s one of the divine mysteries) that the physical horrors of crucifixion were the least of Christ’s sufferings. Thousands or hundreds of thousands of people (it’s impossible to comprehend) died on crosses, most of them suffering longer in temporal terms than He did. We believe that Christ bore the blast of God’s anger itself, setting His body like a shield between us and the fire of Hell. Such suffering cannot be analyzed or described, and so the full story of Christ’s Passion must remain forever incomplete.

But what we can know is enough to sober our minds and turn us to humility and repentance.

I recommend Died He For Me for pastors, and for adults who are looking for a serious, scientific, non-sensationalist examination of the crucifixion of Christ.

Update: I should have made a connection to the recent (and generally ignored) development of Hamas bringing back the penalty of crucifixion in its enlightened, peace-loving domain.

Tip: The Thinklings.

A couple reviews

I read a couple books over the holiday, but I don’t think they’re really worth separate reviews. I’ll take a few superficial swipes and move along.

Strangers by Dean Koontz appears to me to be a transitional work for the author. First published in 1986, it shows considerable improvement in character development and dialogue from much of his other early work.

It follows the adventures of a group of people, scattered all over the country, who begin to have similar anxiety symptoms (but not identical symptoms—there are interesting variations and contradictions). Most of them are suffering nightmares. Some of them develop obsessions. The moon, in particular, becomes the focus of more than one. Continue reading A couple reviews

Frankenstein: Prodigal Son and City of Night, by Dean Koontz, Kevin J. Anderson and Ed Gorman

A few years back, as Dean Koontz explains in an introduction to the first book of this series, Frankenstein: Prodigal Son, he made a deal with the USA Network to write a contemporary television series based on the characters of the old Frankenstein book. One assumes that the network execs either misunderstood his script, or understood it all too well, since both parties agreed to go their own ways in the end, each party producing a Frankenstein after their own heart.

The conceit in this series of books is that, although Mary Shelley’s famous novel is based on fact, she got the ending wrong. The monster did not kill Dr. Frankenstein, nor did he die himself. Instead, endowed with extremely long life through being struck by lightning during his creation, he has lived on, mostly in hiding because of a facial injury, gradually learning to control his rage. At the start of Prodigal Son he is residing in a Tibetan monastery. He does not yet know that Dr. Frankenstein has survived the last two centuries as well, his life extended through a series of self-designed surgeries. When he does learn this, the monster leaves the monastery and travels to New Orleans, where Dr. Frankenstein now lives the life of a biotech millionaire and VIP, under a new name. Continue reading Frankenstein: Prodigal Son and City of Night, by Dean Koontz, Kevin J. Anderson and Ed Gorman

The Second Saladin, by Stephen Hunter

It’s late in the day, but to all you veterans, thank you for your service. Slackers like me owe you big.

The Second Saladin, it appears to me, marks a milepost on author Stephen Hunter’s journey toward finding his niche as a novelist. Some of the elements that will make his Bob/Earl Swagger books so compelling are already there, but he hasn’t yet shaken off a tendency to demonstrate his realism through grim pessimism.

Nevertheless, I found it a compelling book. Though published in 1982 and set in that same time period, the centrality of Kurdistan to the plot makes the whole business remarkably relevant more than two decades later. Continue reading The Second Saladin, by Stephen Hunter

The Darkest Evening of the Year, by Dean Koontz

I feel the need to say something political on this last evening before the election.

But I can’t think of anything that hasn’t already been said. And since I know for a fact that our readers are a smart, erudite segment of the population, I’m pretty sure you’ve already made up your own minds.

So I’ll do a book review. It must be days since I’ve reviewed a Dean Koontz novel.

Koontz’ latest in paperback is The Darkest Evening of the Year. On a purely technical level I can make a lot of criticisms.

Since the death of his beloved Golden Retriever, Trixie, Koontz seems to be writing out his grief, with occasionally uneven results. The dogs in his books have gotten wiser and more mystical. In this book he cries havoc and lets slip the dogs of transcendence completely, coming close to caninolatry (if there is such a word. Of course there is! I just made it up!). That “Dog is God spelled backwards” palindrome that so impressed Annie Hall is almost (almost) at work here. Continue reading The Darkest Evening of the Year, by Dean Koontz

Nice review

Thanks to frequent commenter Loren Eaton for this review of Erling’s Word on his blog, I Saw Lightning Fall.

I wish you’d have bought The Year of the Warrior instead, though, Loren. It’s a double volume, incorporating Erling’s Word entirely, in a slightly improved version. When you buy it, you don’t need to buy EW.

Dark of the Moon, by John Sandford

I’ve been a fan of John Sandford’s for a few years now. He writes a gripping, fast-moving story, with interesting characters and lots of verisimilitude. It also doesn’t hurt that he’s a Minnesotan (he’s really the journalist John Camp) and sets most of his stories in our (his and my) state. (I have this odd delusion that places aren’t really important until there are stories about them. The places I enjoy visiting, or want to visit, are generally places where stories I like took place.)

But I’d gotten a little disillusioned with Sandford’s recent work. Lucas Davenport, hero of the Prey series, started out as a fascinating madman, a borderline psychopath cop (who also happened to be a video game millionaire) so passionate about hunting down serial killers that he often crossed the line into “judge, jury and executioner” territory.

The problem was, it was clear Davenport couldn’t go on like that indefinitely. If he kept doing his police work in that manner, eventually he’d either get caught or lose his mind entirely. So Sandford, discovering he had a hit series on his hands, took the rational course of finding Davenport a good woman, getting him married, and settling him down.

The downside of that was that Davenport got a little dull. Sandford appears to have compensated for that by making the crimes more appalling; adding an increased level of horror to his stories. It works to an extent, but I don’t like the series as much as I used to.

So I’m happy to report that Dark of the Moon, starring the spin-off character Virgil Flowers, is much less edgy. Its main appeal comes from fully realized characters and an intriguing mystery. Continue reading Dark of the Moon, by John Sandford

“The Wish,” by Johann Sigurjonsson

While I was at Dale Nelson’s house on Sunday, he lent me an English translation of an Icelandic play, “The Wish,” by Jóhann Sigurjónsson, and asked for my reaction. Here’s a link to the text, in the same Einar Haugen translation I’ve got.

It’s a strange play, with considerable numinous power, even in this somewhat clumsy translation (Haugen wrote the textbook from which I learned Norwegian, but he’s no English stylist). It’s a sort of Icelandic Faust story, about a young man obsessed with obtaining knowledge—not for the sake of wisdom, but for the sake of power. He believes that if he obtains access to a certain “Red Book,” which a long-dead bishop took with him to his grave, he’ll obtain total power, not only on earth but in the spiritual realm. Continue reading “The Wish,” by Johann Sigurjonsson

Havana, by Stephen Hunter

Stephen Hunter’s most popular books are the two series about Earl and Bob Lee Swagger, father and son. It started with Point of Impact, in which he introduced Bob Lee Swagger, a decorated sniper from the Vietnam War whose highway patrolman daddy had been murdered in his childhood. Then Hunter started giving Daddy Earl stories of his own. This creates continuity problems, as Hunter attempts to shoehorn incredible adventures (I suspect he may like Earl as a character even better than Bob Lee) into the short lifespan decreed by the first book. Sometimes continuity breaks down, and a new book contradicts a previous one. Hunter cheerfully admits this fact in the Acknowledgements, but he makes no apologies. Each book, it would appear, exists in its own alternate universe.

Hunter is very canny in writing his thrillers. His politics (or so I heard him say in a radio interview) are libertarian/conservative, but he makes sure to be evenhanded with his heroes and villains. The Swaggers seem to be pretty conservative (they’re certainly NRA members), but the villains of this book are the thuggish police of Batista’s Cuba, and cynical CIA agents.

Havana begins in the year 1953. The CIA is looking for a sniper to assassinate a dangerous revolutionary in Cuba. (Several U.S. corporations and the mob are also concerned.) At the suggestion of a young agent named Walter “Frenchy” Short (whom we know from the novel Hot Springs), they select Marine veteran and Medal of Honor winner Earl Swagger, persuading him to travel to Cuba as a bodyguard for a goatish Arkansas Congressman.

This is Batista’s Havana, a year-round Carnivale for Americans with money to spend, and there’s plenty of opportunity for humor as the upright Earl, a solidly reformed alcoholic and relentlessly faithful husband, observes it all but keeps his distance. Continue reading Havana, by Stephen Hunter