‘Debris Line,’ by Matthew FitzSimmons

A quarter mile from the Faro Airport, the old hotel seemed like a last-ditch option for those on a budget holiday. It rose out of the ground and sloped sleepily to one side. Jenn felt sure that if God reached down, he’d be able to wiggle the hotel back and forth like a loose tooth.

Another installment in Matthew FitzSimmons’s interesting Gibson Vaughn series of thrillers, which I’m enjoying. My only problem (and it’s not confined to this series) is that the books come out slowly enough that I have to get reacquainted with the characters each time around. (Yes, I know –physician heal thyself.)

Gibson Vaughn started the series as a kind of a loner. As a boy, he was arrested for hacking into a prominent senator’s computer. Soon after that his father, who worked for the senator, was found hanged to death – supposedly suicide, but it wasn’t. Vaughn avoided prison thanks to a kindly judge who got him enlisted in the military instead, and he ended up a trained commando with hacking skills. Since then, over the course of the books, he’s gotten attached to a disparate group of dangerous people – George, a Japanese man who used to be their boss, when he still had a company. Daniel, a middle-aged, black former cop. And Jenn, a kick-butt operative with whom Gibson carries on an on-and-off relationship.

As Debris Line begins, the group is in hiding from federal authorities. They’re hiding in the Algarve, the Riviera of Portugal. Their host and protector is an old friend of George’s, the “godfather” of the Algarve. When drugs were legalized in Portugal some years back, this man consolidated organized crime in his region, making it a way station for Mexican cartel drug shipments, and establishing peace in his own bailiwick.

But now the godfather wants a favor in return for his hospitality. Someone has electronically “hijacked” a shipment of drugs, and he needs it freed up before the deadline for delivery to the Mexicans. Gibson’s skills are needed to retrieve the shipment. Gibson has no desire to help, but mobsters are still mobsters, and pressure is applied. Gibson agrees, reluctantly, to help. Then he discovers a horrific secret – and the job becomes a mission of mercy and rescue – and justice.

What’s particularly nice about Debris Line is that there’s no predictability here. Decisions and actions come out of left and right field, and it’s hard to tell what anyone will do. When you think you’ve got a character figured out, they surprise you – though their behavior makes perfect sense once it’s explained.

I enjoyed Debris Line. Cautions for language and disturbing content, but recommended.

“Jeg Er Saa Glad Hver Julekveld”

Here’s Sissel singing the most famous Norwegian Christmas carol — Jeg Er Saa Glad Hver Julekveld. Generations of Norwegian-American kids have learned it by rote and sung it for church programs. As did I.

The art here is not really appropriate. It’s not a Santa song. It uses the lighting of the Christmas tree to meditate on the wonder of the Incarnation of Christ. The child sings that he/she loves Christmas because of Jesus.

Here’s the words in English

New Collection of Epstein Essays

Following up on yesterday’s post about expanding book coverage of a likely political nature, we have word of a new collection of essays from Joseph Epstein: The Ideal of Culture. Jonathan Leaf praises it and the man who created it.

Epstein is very much of the opinion that possession of Culture—with the capital C—is a lifelong endeavor that enriches daily life and reflects both inculcation and determined striving.

. . . Nonetheless, the book’s publication is unlikely to be noted in the most celebrated organs of commentary. That is because, in today’s thought-policed intellectual world, Epstein is probably best known for having defied the politically correct authorities.

Who’s organizing the raising of a monument for this man?

Literature Is More than Politics

The Columbia Journalism Review asks, “What’s behind a recent rise in books coverage?The New York Times and other publications are growing (perhaps only on the digital side) and may have expanded their book coverage as a result. It doesn’t quite explain what’s behind the rise other than to say readers want it.

Micah Mattix observes the strongest themes in the reviews that come from these organizations are political. Book coverage may be contextualize short-form reports, but as Mattix says, “If you’re interested in literature primarily for its politics, you’re not interested in literature. And book coverage that always keys reviews to political concerns is a very philistine sort of coverage.”

New Letter from C.S. Lewis Reveals Intolerance of Unexamined Convention

We know C. S. Lewis wrote a lot of correspondence to readers, strangers, children, and women’s study groups. To that last group, a previously unpublished letter offers an example of one of things that could set the author off.

“Dear Ladies,” Lewis wrote, “Who told you that Christians must not go to the theatre, dance, play cards, drink, or smoke?”

Who these ladies were is unknown and they apparently annoyed Lewis with their letter, but he wouldn’t ignore it. He responded to it with a duty few of us share today.

Stephanie Derrick, author of The Fame of C.S. Lewis: A Controversialist’s Reception in Britain and America, explains some of what we do about this letter and our favorite Oxford don’s habits of correspondence.

First, it appears they parroted some tired, theologically unsound notions about Christian behavior—i.e., good Christians don’t drink, smoke, or otherwise enjoy themselves—and if Lewis had intolerance for anything it was the touting of unexamined tenets. This was partly a matter of personality—Lewis once described himself as “by temperament, an extreme anarchist”—but it was also an effect of his training in logic and philosophy. And he was particularly irked by the addition of perfunctory requirements to the Christian faith, once saying, for example, “How little I approve of compulsion in religion may be gauged from a recent letter of mine to the Spectator protesting against the intolerable tyranny of compulsory church parades for the Home Guard.” Lewis hated to see the joy of hope and faith—or of everyday living, for that matter—diminished by dogmas that were shaped more by social convention than sound religion.

Yule be sorry

Christmas tree
Photo credit: Tj Holowaychuk@tjholowaychuk

What a weird season this is turning out to be. I enjoy what I’m doing for a living, but working part-time, from home, turns out to leave me less free time than I had when I was an upstanding cog in the system.

I usually put up my Christmas tree right after Thanksgiving, and I start writing my Christmas letter around the same time. Now it’s the 5th of December, and I’ve done nothing! Nothing!

I have failed as a Norwegian. Christmas is one of the things we do. My ancestors are ashamed of me.

But tonight I’ve put in six hours already, and I have a little latitude on the deadline, and I’ve made a personal commitment to starting the Christmas letter this evening.

Heaven knows I have a lot to write about. Mostly about my new semi-career, the schedule for which is the reason the letter will be late.

My Christmas letter is kind of an annual epic production. First I write it in English, then I translate it to Norwegian, for the recipients over there. Those letters have to go out first, because of postal transit time.

And there was something else, wasn’t there? … Oh yeah, the tree.

Well, the actual old tradition was to decorate and light it on Christmas eve. I may end up being traditional this year.

‘Immoral,’ by Brian Freeman

Immoral

Brian Freeman is a new novelist to me, and I almost loved his novel, Immoral. Almost.

The hero of Immoral, police Lt. Jonathan Stride, works in Duluth, Minnesota. Fourteen months ago, a local teenaged girl disappeared, leaving no trace. That’s not impossible in a place surrounded by the north woods, but it’s frustrating for Jonathan – and unbearable for her parents – that the crime hasn’t been solved. Now another young girl has gone missing – Rachel Deese. Rachel was the most beautiful girl in the local high school – seductive, promiscuous, manipulative. Was she murdered – perhaps by the predator who (probably) murdered the first girl? Or did she disappear on her own initiative? But if that’s true, she sure did an expert job of framing her stepfather for murder before lighting out for the territories.

In the course of his investigation, which will take three years to wrap up, Jonathan will puzzle over Rachel’s parents’ bizarre relationship, probe the broken hearts she left behind, meet a woman he wants to marry, travel to Las Vegas, and then meet a woman he wants to marry more. The final truth, once discovered, will be extremely complex and morally mystifying. The final judgment on Rachel – and on Jonathan – will be difficult to make.

I liked the writing in Immoral. I liked the characters too. Brian Freeman is a good writer – with one jarring exception. He takes the sex scenes way too far (in my opinion), making bedroom behavior unnecessarily explicit. There’s also a hypocritical pastor, but – oddly – the author doesn’t seem particularly outraged by the hypocrisy. Also he pushes the modern view of marriage, which holds that it is not legitimate unless there’s romantic passion. This, in my view, justifies a lot of cruelty and betrayal.

I’m not sure what to say about Immoral in the end. I found the conclusion problematic, but understandable. I’d almost be eager to read more of Freeman’s work, but the combination of near-pornographic sections, the questionable resolution, and the handling of marriage put me off a little. You might like it better than I do. There are a lot worse books out there.

‘When It Grows Dark,’ by Jorn Lier Horst

When It Grows Dark

I’ll just briefly review this book by Jørn Lier Horst. I enjoy the William Wisting series of police procedurals, and I enjoyed this one, When It Grows Dark. I think it must have been released recently in Kindle format, because I’m pretty sure I’d have read it before if it had been available.

In this episode, Larvik (Norway) detective William Wisting calls on some students in the police academy to help him solve a very cold case. The case involves the disappearance of what we’d call a limousine driver, back in the 1980s. Wisting has recently discovered what he thinks is the missing man’s car, abandoned in a disused barn. But that barn also seems to be connected to an even older crime, going back to the 1920s.

And so we enter into a prolonged flashback, in which we observe young William Wisting, then a uniformed policeman, as he follows up some clues on his own time and sets out on the path that will make him a detective.

A cold case story, and William Wisting. That’s a winning combination for me. Wisting is – as far as I know – unique in Scandinavian crime literature. He’s not suicidal; not even especially depressed (though he has his sorrows). He’s not an alcoholic, or a drug addict, or a sex addict. He’s not a Communist, as far as I can tell. He’s just a decent man and a conscientious cop. He seems to have what my friend Gene Edward Veith would call “a sense of vocation.”

My only real complaint with When It Grows Dark is that the translation is weak in places. Otherwise, highly recommended, as is the whole Wisting series.

Itinerations of a Norwegian

As Steve Martin used to sing, “I’m a ramblin’ man.” Though I think rambling a while and coming home again wasn’t quite what he had in mind. To and fro, hither and yon. And back.

This past weekend I went down to Iowa to attend the annual Jul celebration at the Vesterheim Norwegian-American Museum. Jul, as you must know if you’ve read my books, is what Norwegians call Christmas. Some family members who live down there were curious to attend the event, and invited me along. Note: It’s a one-day event.

If you live in these parts, you know what happened next. A massive ice storm glazed most of southern Minnesota and northern Iowa. Nobody was going anyplace. Instead of visiting Vesterheim, we vegged out at their house, watching Netflix. Then I drove home yesterday night. I got free food and lodging — who am I to complain?

Today I had another ramble to do. My translating boss has asked me to do some research for a book to tie in with “Atlantic Crossing.” I’d made an appointment with the archivist at the Norwegian-American Historical Association in Northfield, Minnesota. It’s not a long drive from the Cities.

The drive went OK. The problem was finding my way around St. Olaf College, where NAHA makes its home. Parking is hard to come by at Holy Oley, and I ended up parked in a remote outpost. I found my way to the proper address with the help of my GPS (I swear all the St. O. buildings look the same), and learned after asking around that NAHA is located down the stairs, down the hall, and then down another stairway.

I found it at last. The archivist and the director were both very gracious and helpful. I spent the proverbial day flipping through dusty files – which is kind of fun. Found some things I hope will be useful to my Norwegian masters. Then I went out in the cold and searched about 20 minutes for my parking lot – it was the third one I checked. Then home. It was rush hour when I got back, but miraculously the traffic ran fairly smoothly.

And that’s where I’ve been. No grass grows under my feet. Especially in December.

For your Spectation…

I have a column up at The American Spectator Online today. It seems a little tin-foil-hat even to me, and yet it also makes perfect sense to me. Either I am mad, or the world is.

On my mental timeline, that conversation marks a watershed (I’m always seeing watersheds everywhere; probably a sign of OCD). It seems to me to mark a realignment on the Left. The feminists and the hippies were never really compatible, but they made an alliance, like Churchill and Stalin, during the Wars of Aquarius. The alliance was doomed, of course. Feminists have always been essentially Victorian. The last thing they want to see is anyone letting it all hang out.

‘The Pretender: Saving Luke,’ by Steven Long Mitchell & Craig W. Van Sickle

The Pretender: Saving Luke

I reviewed the first novel in the “rebooted” Pretender series a few days ago. Now I’ve read the second, and I’m equally – or more – disappointed.

The old Pretender TV series (which I loved) concerned Jarod, a young man, a genius able to absorb knowledge fast enough to become anything he wishes very quickly. He was raised in a scientific laboratory where he was used to test out scenarios for various customers, some of them pretty evil. Then he escaped. Now he was going around looking for cases of cruelty and injustice, and setting up the bad guys for exposure and punishment (usually the legal kind).

The literary reboot, written by the series’ two head writers, alters that formula a tad. Jarod is the same, and his chief opponents – Sydney, the closest thing he has to a father, and Miss Parker, a miniskirted attack dog who’s half in love with him – are pretty much the same. But Jarod is taking on bigger challenges now.

In the first book, Jarod helped a few people incidentally, in service of his greater goal, rescuing a kidnapped boy named Luke. Luke was taken by terrorists in order to pressure his father, an engineer, into committing a major act of terrorism (I’m not sure it’s ever explained what the terrorists’ actual political or financial goal is). Luke was not rescued at the end of the last book, so The Pretender: Saving Luke finishes that story.

I liked spending time with Jarod, although this Jarod is a little more coldblooded than the TV one. He does some pretty cruel things to people in pursuit of his goals. Granted, they’re bad people, but that kind of ruthlessness does not build reader empathy, unless the reader is a psychopath. Also, the plot is (to my mind) just too big. A big terrorist plot, a ticking clock, and heroics that frankly pass credibility. This is a superhero story, kind of like Batman. I don’t go to The Pretender for a superhero.

Also, the writing hasn’t improved: awkward sentence structure, confusion of words – imminent/eminent, rappel/repel. The book really, really needed a copy editor.

I’m not sorry I read The Pretender: Saving Luke, but it missed the bullseye for me.

Also, there seemed to be more transsexualism and lesbianism than strictly necessary.

Cautions for a little rough language and sexual situations.

I Know Death Has No Sting, But Still

Last week, a great teacher in our church, adjunct at Covenant College, and godly resource for the global church passed away suddenly. I went to Twitter and became a bit irritated that no one was talking about him. But why would they? Maybe twenty years from now men like this would resonate online at the right frequency to vibrate whatever social networks people would be using then. But last week with all the talk of how important this or that thing should be, I was irritated by the thought I couldn’t say something about the most important person in my mind at the moment.

Tonight another man I know from church, a little older and not a teacher in the same way, has passed away. The last I’d heard about him was of his successful surgery and hospital release. I wasn’t prepared for the news of his death. I’m not prepared for missing him in the hallways and all of the other places I might have seen him.

I know that these are astonishing moments for both men and that both of them awoke on the other side as if they had been asleep their entire lives. I know that “this perishable body must put on the imperishable,” because Christ Jesus has put death in its own grave. Its sting is blunted; its victory made void.

But still.

As One Who Has Slept

This is John Tavener’s arrangement of a Holy Saturday liturgy from the Orthodox Church:

“As one who has slept the Lord has risen
And rising he has saved us. Alleluia.”

‘Bats In the Belfry,’ by E.C.R. Lorac

Bats In the Belfry

A while back one of our kind commenters recommended books published by Poisoned Pen Press, which is reprinting old British mysteries. Working at random, as none of the authors were familiar to me, I settled on Bats In the Belfry by E.C.R. Lorac (a pseudonym).

The book opens appropriately, with a drawing room party of cultured Londoners in the 1930s. There’s a once-famous novelist, his actress wife, a playwright, his minor female ward, and a young man who’s in love with her. The conversation wanders into the subject of murder fiction, with the various characters discussing good ways to dispose of a body. The young man also asks to marry the girl, and her guardian refuses to permit it.

Then the novelist leaves town and disappears completely. The young man, looking for clues to his whereabouts, searches an abandoned artist’s studio, where he finds the novelist’s suitcase.

At that point Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard takes up the investigation. He has as much trouble keeping the missing man’s friends from muddying up the case as in figuring out what actually happened.

Bats in the Belfry is a “fair play” mystery, in which all the necessary information is placed before the reader. This is the kind of classic “cozy” mystery that nearly defined the genre for a century. “Cozies” aren’t really my thing – I prefer the more character-driven hard-boiled variety of mystery. I think it’s a personality thing – the cozy provides many people with a fun intellectual challenge that entertains them. If you’re that kind of reader, you may enjoy Bats in the Belfry, and other classic offerings from this publisher.

No reader’s cautions necessary.

Watch for ‘Atlantic Crossing’

1944: Olav and Martha in America
In 1944: Left to Right: Crown Prince Olav, Princess Juliana of the Netherlands, Eleanor Roosevelt, Crown Princess Martha, and Thomas J. Watson.

I don’t know how many readers of this blog are not also my friends on Facebook. If you’re one of those, you’ve gotten this news already. But if you’re not, I now have clearance to tell you about one of the translation projects I’ve been working on. It’s a miniseries called Atlantic Crossing, and shooting begins in December. Here’s a fresh article from Variety, announcing the casting of Kyle MacLachlan as President Franklin D. Roosevelt.

The story is about the Norwegian royal family during World War II, focusing primarily on Crown Princess Martha, who was married to the future King Olav V of Norway, and mother to the current king, Harald.

After the German invasion, Crown Prince Olav and his father, King Haakon, fled into exile in England. Martha took the children to neutral Sweden, her native country, where her uncle was king. But the machinations of the Nazis there led her to make the “Atlantic crossing” to the U.S. There she was welcomed by President Roosevelt, already a friend. Roosevelt enjoyed her company very much – which gave her the opportunity influence him to assist the Allies while the U.S. was still neutral. Much of the drama of the series involves the way Martha, a shy woman, moved out of her “comfort zone” to champion the Allied cause.

The issue that will probably raise the most public interest, though, is the question of Martha’s exact relationship with FDR. Franklin and Eleanor Roosevelt’s marriage was well known to have been in name only, and Franklin loved the company of women. There are many rumors about affairs, and Martha is the subject of some of them. Continue reading Watch for ‘Atlantic Crossing’

Book Reviews, Creative Culture