Category Archives: Reviews

“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

Last Call for Blackford Oakes, by William F. Buckley

It’s been longer than I thought since I’ve read a Blackford Oakes novel. Stuff has happened in Blackie’s life that I wasn’t aware of, and I fear some of the information I gained in Last Call for Blackford Oakes will take away some of the suspense when I read the ones I’ve missed.

On the other hand, I’ll probably forget.

I wrote a few days back that the late William F. Buckley’s novels are a quiet pleasure for me. The Oakes books are my favorites in that group. It’s nice to read about a spy who knows which side he’s on, and isn’t tortured by doubts about whether democracy or a police state are superior systems. And instead of shadowy puppetmasters in darkened rooms, Oakes’ bosses are the actual, historical people who ran the CIA. A number of other historical figures also make appearances.

Chief among these are the British defector Kim Philby, about whose character Buckley (and Oakes) is/are in no doubt. There is no romance in Buckley’s portrait of Philby.

In this final book of the series, Oakes is a senior agent, something of a legend in the CIA. In the first chapter, in December, 1987, he’s called in to meet with President Ronald Reagan. There are rumors of an attempt to assassinate Soviet Prime Minister Gorbachev, and Reagan wants Oakes to look into it. Continue reading Last Call for Blackford Oakes, by William F. Buckley

Nuremberg: The Reckoning, by William F. Buckley

William F. Buckley’s novels have always been a quiet, minor pleasure, at least for me. Buckley wasn’t a great novelist. He was a fine writer, and his books are well-researched and informative. But they lack strong characters, and everybody in them talks like William F. Buckley. Not a bad thing in itself, but it plays hob with T.W.S.O.D.*

I learned interesting things about the Nuremberg Tribunals in the reading, but I never worked up a whole lot of personal concern for the characters.

The main character in Nuremberg: The Reckoning is Sebastian Reinhard, a young German-born American. The book opens with a prequel, showing Sebastian’s father, an architect, as he works desperately to get his wife and son out of Germany. He succeeds, but fails to escape himself. Some time later he is reported dead.

Sebastian reaches draft age just as the war is winding down. Instead of seeing combat, he is assigned to serve as an interpreter in Nuremberg, assisting in the prosecution of a fictional war criminal named Gen. Amadeus. Through Sebastian’s eyes we are able to observe the struggles of life in postwar Germany, and the complicated legal and diplomatic maneuvers involved in conducting a series of trials for which there was no historic precedent. Most of the cast of characters are people who actually lived, and there is much to learn for those who (like me) hadn’t studied the trials (or even seen the movie).

Yet somehow, when it was done, it felt unfinished to me. Perhaps that was Buckley’s intention, in view of the moral ambivalencies of the whole project, the impossibility of making the criminals suffer proportionately to the sufferings they’d inflicted; the hypocrisy of allowing the Soviets to sit in gleeful judgment on monsters not appreciably worse than themselves.

But one way or another, there wasn’t a whole lot of satisfaction here.

*The Willing Suspension of Disbelief.

Review: So Brave, Young, and Handsome, by Leif Enger

From what I’ve seen of readers’ reactions to So Brave, Young, and Handsome, Leif Enger’s second novel, I think most people liked it, but found it a little less wonderful than his first book, Peace Like a River.

It seems to me it should be noted that trying to write a better book than Peace Like a River is a little like trying to produce a better flavor than milk chocolate.

If Peace had never been written, I think readers would hail this book as the work of a masterful new novelist, and it would immediately go on many favorites lists.

It’s not so much a fantasy as Peace was. I think there are fantasy elements, but they’re buried, running beneath the surface like secret rivers. There’s symbolism in plenty, and the gospel permeates every chapter.

Intriguingly, the second book question is really central to the story. I think Enger’s use of it in the narrative enriches the whole project. Continue reading Review: So Brave, Young, and Handsome, by Leif Enger

Auralia’s Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet

With the sequel to Auralia’s Colors coming in mid-September, I will post an overdue review of Overstreet’s first book. I keep thinking I should give a plot summary up to a point, but I won’t. I’ll give you my original loop the loop review. Perhaps you will find it readable, if not enlightening.

Many will remember that the Bible states “the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil,” but the sacred text goes further than that. “Some by longing for [money] have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6:10). Change that warning to the love of colorful things, and you have a fair summary of Jeffrey Overstreet’s debut fantasy, Auralia’s Colors.

The people of Abascar live in browns and grays. Many years ago they gave up every bit of color they had to please the Queen, whose idea was to collect and mature the beauty of the kingdom before returning it to the people, royally blessed by her. In this way, the whole kingdom would be glorified over the other kingdoms of the Expanse. But the Queen never returned the promised honor to her people, so anyone making or finding something beautiful is required to give it to the king for storing in the vast royal vault.

Enter an orphan with enchanting spirit and eyes for nature’s color. Continue reading Auralia’s Colors by Jeffrey Overstreet

Review: Viking Norway, by Torgrim Titlestad

I wouldn’t ordinarily review a book that can’t be purchased in this country (though you can get it through this web site, if you’re willing to pay the freight and can pick your way through the Norwegian), but I think this book is genuinely important in its field—and not merely because it has a picture of one of my novels on page 296.

Viking Norway, by Torgrim Titlestad (Professor of History at the University of Stavanger) is important because, to the best of my knowledge, it’s the first English-language book aimed at presenting to a popular audience some “new” theories about Norway and the Viking Age that are being debated in Scandinavia today.

The book attempts to refute two views that have been standard up till now, and offers a new theory about Viking Age Norwegian politics. Continue reading Review: Viking Norway, by Torgrim Titlestad

Repost: Hunting Down Amanda, by Andrew Klavan

(And another Klavan review recycled tonight. Have a good weekend. I’ll be playing Viking for a Sons of Norway youth event at Danebo Hall in Minneapolis on Saturday. I’ll let you know how it goes, if I live.)

Hunting Down Amanda is a masterful book. It’s fascinating in its own right, as a brilliantly crafted, smart, moving thriller.

It’s also fascinating to the Christian reader as an artifact of the conversion process. Because Klavan, who was not a Christian when he wrote it, was clearly on the way, and his growing interest in matters eternal informs the whole product.

The Amanda of the title is Amanda Dodson, a five-year-old girl who, when the story begins, witnesses a terrible air crash. She wanders to the crash site, and is carried out by a man. Her mother, who has been searching for her, sees this and says, “Oh God. Oh God. Now they’ll come after her.” Continue reading Repost: Hunting Down Amanda, by Andrew Klavan

Finding Atlantis, by David King

People always seem surprised to discover that institutions of higher learning tend to be raging battlegrounds of clashing egos on an epic scale.

The common stereotype of the professor is of a vague, mild-mannered oldster in an incorrectly buttoned sweater, blinking vaguely as he searches for the glasses that sit perched atop his forehead. In fact, scholars tend to be people who have all their lives been the smartest people in the room, suddenly thrust together into a single institution with a bunch of other people who’ve also always been the smartest people in the room, and resenting it. Add to this the fact that really smart people tend to grow up too busy with their interior worlds to bother with mundane exercises of basic interpersonal skills, and you’ve got the ingredients of gunpowder.

Finding Atlantis: A True Story of Genius, Madness, and an Extraordinary Quest for a Lost World tells the story of a man of extraordinary intellect and achievement who grew so enamored of his revolutionary theories that he failed in humility, university politics, and the judgment of posterity.

Olof Rudbeck (1630-1702) was a Swede, the son of Gustavus Adolphus’ personal chaplain. As a young medical student he dissected a calf, in order to discover the source of a milky substance he saw in the carcass. The result was the discovery of the lymphatic system (although there is controversy as to who identified it first), and Rudbeck became a scientific celebrity. Appointed to the University of Uppsala, he oversaw the construction of a large dissection theater and a botanical garden (botany was another of his specialties). He was also much admired as a musician and singer. Continue reading Finding Atlantis, by David King

Repost: Damnation Street, by Andrew Klavan

(Tonight, another reposted Klavan review.)

One-line review of Andrew Klavan’s Damnation Street: “Woo-hoo!”

I got a Barnes & Noble gift certificate for Christmas, and Damnation Street was one of the books I chose to get with it. I don’t generally buy hardbacks, but I felt this was a special case.

It was, in fact, a more special case than I knew. Because it appears that Klavan’s Weiss and Bishop books (the previous ones are Dynamite Road and Shotgun Alley) are not going to be an ongoing series, but a trilogy (unless I read the ending wrong). Continue reading Repost: Damnation Street, by Andrew Klavan

Nothing But the Blood

I watched I am Legend tonight. I enjoyed it. It will make a great discussion film for those of us who enjoy talking philosophy and such after seeing a film. The gospel is in this movie, and I suspect some reviewers saw it and hated it.

The darkness hates the light to a degree.

If you don’t know the story, I’ll brief it for you. An air-born and contact virus breaks out in New York City and spreads across the world. 90% die; 9.9% become dark-seekers. The remaining are immune to the virus somehow. Robert Neville is the lone man on Manhattan island, what he calls Ground Zero. He believes he can stop the virus by staying there and working out vaccine.

Neville believes he is one man against a world turned bad, and in that role he plays a type of Christ. “God didn’t do this,” he says, “We did.” We made the world a hellish place. We turned ourselves into monsters—seekers of darkness.

And what does God care? He sits in his heaven, and all is right with the world as far as he’s concerned. But God is not absent. He still has a voice, directing, moving. Why he’s whispering may be a good question, but does it matter how he speaks if we refuse to listen? “The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.”

The cure for humanity is in the blood. Whose blood? That’s the final question.

When I got to the end of the story, I wondered how many bad ideas have some of us dressed up in biblical language. We need redemption. The closing song in this movie said we could find that redemption only in ourselves. That’s the human struggle, isn’t it? Can we save ourselves? Are we the hope we’ve been looking for?

If we saw ourselves as dark-seekers, we’d know there is no hope in us.

Repost: Shotgun Alley, by Andrew Klavan

(Mark this down as a good day. I got an e-mail from somebody I’d been waiting to hear from, who’s sending me a FREE BOOK ABOUT VIKINGS [more information on that later]. I got going on a project I’ve been putting off in the library, and actually found it engrossing. Time flew. Also my doctor told me I could go off the iron supplement she’s had me on, which means I ought to have a lot less heartburn in my life. Below is another Klavan review, this one from October, 2006.)



Hard-boiled detective stories are one of my favorite genres.
So it was good news for me when I learned that Andrew Klavan, my favorite contemporary author, had begun a detective series (I love series! It’s almost like having real friends!).

And I wasn’t disappointed. If Klavan’s Weiss and Bishop series isn’t moving Hard-boiled into fertile new territory, it’s at least discovering new treasures in the old fields.

You gotcher tough-guy protagonist. You gotcher smart-guy protagonist. You gotcher psycho killers and your dangerous dames. You gotcher dead bodies and threats and violence. You gotcher subtextual deconstruction of postmodern philosophy. What’s not to like? Continue reading Repost: Shotgun Alley, by Andrew Klavan

Repost: The Uncanny, by Andrew Klavan

An Israeli newspaper somehow obtained the slip of paper that Barack Obama slipped into a crack in the Wailing Wall during his recent visit, according to this report. It’s traditional for visitors to leave such slips with prayers written on them. The newspaper printed the text of the prayer today.

I have very little time for the Democratic candidate, but that’s just beyond the pale. Shame on them.

Yesterday I panned Andrew Klavan’s The Animal Hour. Today I shall soften the blow to his ego (since I’m sure he follows this blog) by praising his horror novel, The Uncanny.

I kept thinking as I read The Uncanny, “This book is almost perfect. I wish I’d written it.”

I’d like to see it done as a movie, but only if they respected the text. Obsequiously. Because this book is like a fine Swiss watch, all its parts rotating and ratcheting together, making a small, regular “tick-tick” sound (which, by the way, is a recurring theme in the book).

The book begins with a short story called “Black Annie,” a note-perfect pastiche of a Gothic horror tale. The reader then discovers that it is being read aloud by Richard Storm, a Hollywood producer who has made a pile of money with a series of horror flicks, but has moved to England due to a personal setback.

He reads it at a London party, and when he finishes it a woman drops a glass. That brings about Storm’s first sight of Sophia Endering, a lovely, lonely, emotionally damaged heiress and art-gallery owner, with whom he falls immediately in love.

But Sophia has other things on her mind. A man spoke to her one night in the street, imploring her to watch to see who will buy a certain obscure painting at an auction. The man who buys it, he says, is the devil. He can’t do it himself, he says, because he’s going to be murdered. Which prediction comes true.

And Sophia is deeply troubled, because her own father has instructed her to buy the painting for him. “At any price.”

Richard is advised in his assault on Sophia’s romantic defenses by Harper Albright, the proprietress of a magazine devoted to supernatural phenomena. Harper is an interesting character, a resolute skeptic whose life is centered on a kind of affirmation of faith.

As he gets embroiled in Sophia’s perils, Richard finds that his own dreams—even his movies—seem to be entwined with the diabolical plot he uncovers, bit by bit. Other old stories, a ballad, and a memoir punctuate the story, and it all comes together in a climax worthy of Hollywood (as Richard can’t help noticing).

It’s a thriller and it’s a parable (a Christian book, I think, though there are no Christian characters). Women will enjoy the love story; guys will enjoy the adventure and thrills. I loved it.

Repost: The Animal Hour, by Andrew Klavan

(I’m bummed tonight. I stopped for groceries, and not only has my usual store rearranged the sections again [for the sole purpose, I’m convinced, of trying to get us to look at stuff we’ve already decided we don’t want to buy], but Banquet TV Dinners appears to have discontinued their Yankee Pot Roast meal. The things that made the Yankee Pot Roast irreplaceable were not only that it tasted surprisingly good, but it was only 210 calories. Oh yeah, and it was cheap. I’ll never stay on my diet now, and it’ll be all Banquet’s fault.

(Another Klavan review, this one from June, 2006. It has the distinction of being the only book of his that I’ve panned. It’s a stinker.)

I’ve been gushing over the books of Andrew Klavan recently (found one I hadn’t read in the store tonight—hurrah!). However, I feel obligated to warn you about one of them.

I finished The Animal Hour the other day. It’s one of Klavan’s earlier books, and I get the impression it was a kind of an experiment.

In my opinion, the experiment didn’t succeed.

It starts out with a great hook. A young woman in New York City goes in to her job and starts to settle down at her desk, when another woman comes into her office and asks her what she’s doing there. The conversation becomes a confrontation, and soon a number of employees have gathered. It quickly becomes clear that no one there has ever seen her before.

That’s a terrific start. Unfortunately, at least to my taste, the rest of the book doesn’t live up to it.

The mechanics of a great thriller are all there. Suspense mounts, and mysteries abound.

The problem is with an element that’s usually Klavan’s strong suit—the characters. There were very few characters in this book who raised my sympathy much. Most of them were creepy in one or several ways.

Also the gore level was high.

Also Christianity didn’t come off looking very good.

I’d skip this one.