‘Holy Ghost,’ by John Sandford

Holy Ghost

John Sandford’s Virgil Flowers novels take a different approach from his more famous “Prey” novels starring Lucas Davenport. Virgil investigates in small town and rural Minnesota, and he generally handles less horrific crimes than Davenport. But that makes the stories no less interesting, and the puzzles in Holy Ghost are plenty challenging for any reader, I’d say.

Wheatfield, Minnesota was a moribund little town until the young mayor and a friend come up with a questionable scheme for reviving the economy. It involves a series of apparitions of the Virgin Mary in the local Catholic church. They mean no harm, though they certainly profit from the situation. Pretty much everyone is happy with how things are going (including a skeptical visiting priest), until somebody starts shooting at visitors.

Virgil Flowers, former lady’s man (he’s now in an exclusive – though unmarried – relationship), and part-time outdoor writer, goes to Wheatfield in his capacity as an agent of the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension. He meets a series of colorful characters (described pretty much without condescension), and pokes into everybody’s business in his low-key style. These are simple people, but the mystery is not simple at all.

I liked Holy Ghost the best, perhaps, of any of the books in this series. And that’s in spite of the depiction of a religious hoax, which is handled more casually than I approve of. But I liked the treatment of small-town people, and the dialogue was often quite funny.

Cautions for language, dirty jokes, violence, sexual references, and lighthearted handling of religious matters.

What to Do When a Popular Author Plagiarizes

I hate to ask this, but apparently many are. Is Ann Voskamp a serial plagiarist?

World News Group’s Emily Belz writes, “The short answer is ‘No,’ but a couple of examples of minor plagiarism should give authors and publishers new determination to take great care in attributing stories and wordings to their creators.”

She notes that an anecdote in Voskamp’s The Broken Way reads almost exactly as it was written in social media by Cynthia Occelli, so all sides acknowledged the copying, but this passage did not throw a flag when run through the publishing industry’s plagiarism detector.  That puts the responsibility for writing your own words back on the author.

Stanley: Make the Church Irresistible Again

Andy Stanley wants to make the church Irresistible again (maybe he should get ball caps printed). He explains the problems he sees in the American church in his new book, released last month, and according to Marvin Olasky, gets several things right.

Stanley notes rightly that “skinny jeans and moving lights” won’t keep many young people from abandoning Christianity. But he argues that the way to hold them, and win others who say they’re “spiritual,” is to abandon the hard things in the Bible and emphasize a smiling Jesus. C.S. Lewis brought us Mere Christianity. Pastor Stanley brings us Mere Sponge Cake.

Stanley says he knows “All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness,” but seriously people, “the Ten Commandments have no authority over you.” I don’t think Jesus would sign off on that. The new covenant is the fulfillment of the old covenant. The law given to us by Moses still reveals the state of our sin and our need for salvation. When Jesus preached his Sermon on the Mount, he essentially told us if we thought we knew what the law required, we didn’t know the half of it.

I don’t doubt Stanley has a pretty good point somewhere at the beginning of his line of thought, but where he runs with that line is straight heresy. I love what Steven Graydanus said about Stanley’s solution, published in an interview this summer.  Stanley said, “Without the OT, we can make a better case for Jesus,” to which Graydanus replies, “As *what*? Go into the Sistine Chapel and paint over everything except the figures of Yahweh on the central ceiling panel and Jesus on the west wall. At that point, what on earth are you looking *at*?”

‘The Forbidden Door,’ by Dean Koontz

The Forbidden Door

I’ll read pretty much anything Dean Koontz writes these days, and the Jane Hawk series definitely has an intriguing concept. But frankly, I think The Forbidden Door is an unnecessary book.

We continue the saga of Jane Hawk, former FBI agent who is all that stands between civilization and The Arcadians, a high-level conspiracy of elites who are gradually taking the country over through implanting nanomachines in people’s brains, turning them into slaves without free will. The Arcadians have already murdered her husband, and now they’ve turned Jane into the FBI’s most wanted criminal. Legal and extralegal resources are being marshaled to capture her. She hid her son Travis with friends, but now that hiding place has been discovered, and Travis is now staying with the most unlikely protector in the world – a brilliant agoraphobe who lives in a hidden bunker. If the Arcadians capture him, they’ll use him to bring Jane in.

I was interested to read The Forbidden Door, but I found it hard to read. Jane actually doesn’t do much in this story. Most of our time is spent either with her vile enemies, or with their victims or potential victims. The level of unease is high, and it’s not relieved as often as I would have liked.

I have a suspicion (probably wrong) that Koontz sketched this series out as a trilogy, and the publishers persuaded him to pad the story with one extra volume, to increase revenue. This book mostly represents that padding.

So I don’t recommend it highly, except in the sense that if you’re reading the whole series – which is worthwhile – you’ll probably need to read this one.

Cautions for language, violence, and disturbing themes.

Amazon Prime film review: ‘The Hunter’s Prayer’

The Hunter's Prayer

Some time back I reviewed Kevin Wignall’s novel, The Hunter’s Prayer. I like Wignall’s work, and judging by my review, it was an interesting story that took a somewhat shopworn premise in unexpected directions. We’re used to stories about hit men who have a crisis of conscience and decide to save a target. In this book, a hit man saves a young girl, but then their paths diverge, going in surprising – and shocking – directions.

The movie version, which I watched on Amazon Prime the other night, does not follow the book very closely. It starts right – a teenaged girl in a private school in Switzerland (Ella Hatto, played by Odeya Rush) is attacked in a nightclub along with her date, but they are suddenly rescued by an efficient professional killer, Stephen Lucas (Sam Worthington). They go on the run, but contrary to the book the boy soon bails out. And the story after that runs along conventional action movie lines. The climax, though featuring plenty of violence and shooting, is pretty predictable.

My own judgment, as a storyteller only peripherally connected to the movie industry, is that the filmmakers had the choice of being faithful to the book and doing something dangerous and unconventional, or sticking to tried and true patterns. They chose the safe route, and came out with an adequate action film that no one will remember much a few hours after it’s over.

Cautions for language, violence, and adult themes.

Happy Leif Day

Leif Eriksson
Stupid Leif Eriksson statue at Minnesota State Capitol

Leif Eriksson Day 2018. A day America pauses to… pretty much do nothing. Various Scandinavian groups have small celebrations sometime around the date (I’ll be speaking at one on Saturday, and it’s a good one) but the Leif Eriksson parades are few, and nobody gets a school day off.

However, as Christopher Columbus rapidly becomes an Unperson and an Enemy of the People, Leif seems to be gaining ground. Not by winning, but by losing less. For now.

I’m frankly a little embarrassed by most of the comparisons between Leif and Chris. It was fun when Columbus was riding high, and Scandinavians could pretend to be unfairly overlooked. Now it’s just kind of like kicking a guy when he’s down.

So here’s a moment of respect for Cristóbol Colón, who did not intend to genocide anyone. He intended to spread the Kingdom of God, and to save Europe from economic strangulation by the Islamic world. He was successful at both – at least until recently.

Big men do big things. Columbus did pretty big stuff. You can spit at the castle your grandfather built, but knocking it down will take some work. And it will leave you poorer.

Drink History from the Fountainhead

They say history is written by the winners, which is obvious because they are the ones still living. History is also written by people who implicitly swear to us they are telling the truth, that they have upturned the facts and have built the most complete picture they can of their subject.

Justin Taylor writes about Stanford professor Sam Wineburg’s book Why Learn History (When It’s Already on Your Phone) and draws out one example of a popular historian who has violated his oath. Howard Zinn urges us to believe the US dropped the bomb on Japan because we had the biggest hammer and we were going to use it. But the proof for this assertion crumbles when we start following citations.

“Zinn did not consult the documentary record to find the original cable. Instead, he relied on a secondary source,” who also relied on a secondary source.

In a related post on the same blog, Thomas Kidd describes how we can avoid sharing fake or falsely attributed quotations. Google Books is a great resources.

That reminds me a quote I’ve looked up without resolution. It’s attributed to Calvin, but I can’t find where he may have written it. “False teaching is easily identified by the fact that it is willingly received by all and is to everyone’s liking.”

It could be that I haven’t found the right translation, but it’s likely in this new age of free quotation someone made it up.

Writing in the past

Pen
Photo credit Trey Gibson

In an editorial decision that surprises me, the editors of Writer’s Digest magazine decided to make their November/December issue “the throwback issue.” They’re discussing old school writing approaches and techniques that might be useful even to what, in library school, they used to call “digital natives.” People who grew up in the digital world and take to it naturally, who’ve never struggled with a typewriter ribbon – or a dot matrix printer ribbon, for that matter.

In an article titled “The Pen Is Mightier (Than the Word Processor)” author Elizabeth Sims reports on her experiment in writing her way chronologically through writing technology. She started out trying to write with a reed pen (not very satisfactory), and then worked her way up through quills and steel pens and on to the manual typewriter. She was amazed to find that writing with a steel dip pen was very satisfying and conducive to creativity.

She may not know it, but C. S. Lewis held exactly the same view. He refused to use a typewriter, or even a fountain pen. He felt (and Sims echoes this) that the rhythm of periodically dipping one’s pen in the ink well imparts a quiet rhythm to the writing process, helping the ideas to flow. Continue reading Writing in the past

Will the Real Frederick Douglass Please Stand?

Douglass’s story was unique among slave narratives of the period, not because it followed one man’s path from ignorant bondage to literate freedom, but because his depiction of this journey insisted, more than any other before or since, on the connection between literacy and wisdom, between man’s physical freedom and his liberty to think for himself. In Douglass we watch not only the liberation of an American slave, but also the formation of an American consciousness.

One cannot look for a better guide through Douglass than Blighthimself a master orator and one of Yale’s last great lecturerswho is equally attuned to the beauty of Douglass’s language and the depth of his thought. Blight seeks to balance “the narrative of his life with analyses of his evolving mind, to give his ideas a central place in his unforgettable story.”

‘The Eyrbyggja Saga and the Story of the Heath-slayings,’ trans. by William Morris

Eyrbyggja Saga

And therewithal Bardi nameth witnesses, and gives forth that he putteth from him Gudrun, Biorn’s daughter “and for this cause,” says Bardi, “that thou art by a great deal too much of a miser for any doughty man to put up with having thee for a father-in-law; nor shalt thou ever have back from me either dower or jointure.”

I figured it was time to read the Eyrbyggja Saga again, and that was before I even knew I’d be speaking to the Icelanders in a week. I like Laxdaela Saga a little better, because it has stronger characters, but the two sagas are often paired, as they share a general locality and several major players.

The big problem with reading any saga is keeping the actors straight. Every saga volume should include a detachable card with a list of characters on it (this is a particular problem with ebooks). And since about 2/3 of the characters have names that start with “Thor,” the struggle is real. I’ll confess that, supposed expert that I am, I lost track of who was who much of the time, and only guessed the teams by who they were fighting against.

Eybyggja means “the Eyr builders,” or the people who settled at Eyr. Eyr is a locality in northwest Iceland, and I visited the area on my one Icelandic trip. The gist of the narrative is that proud men tend to step on each others’ toes, and in an honor culture that leads to bloodshed. Accident leads to insult, and insult leads to blows or seizure of property, and then honor is offended and the killing starts. This continues unabated until the death of the mighty chieftain Arnkel. With him out of the way, his rival Snorri the Chieftain (or Priest, a character who appears in my novel West Oversea) gains power. Snorri is clearly not regarded as highly as Arnkel by his neighbors (or by the saga writer), but it must admitted his sometimes devious schemes tended to promote peace, and the area finally gets some rest from killing under his influence.

The really fascinating thing about Eyrbyggja Saga is its fantastic elements. There are a lot of ghosts in this story – the Norse kind of ghost, which is corporeal like a zombie (but does not, it should be noted, eat brains). Nevertheless these ghosts have a malign influence wherever they walk, and people tend to sicken and die – or even be assaulted – when they encounter them. There’s Thorolf Halt-foot, a malicious and greedy old man whose body must at last be burned to stop him walking. There’s Thorgunna the rich widow (who appears in West Oversea while still alive). There’s Thorir Wooden-Leg and his crew, who also appear in West Oversea. They provide the saga with a somber flavor that makes it unforgettable.

Appended to this edition (William Morris’s translation) is also The Story of the Heath-Slayings, a fragmentary saga which features (again) some of the same characters, at least in bit parts. The section we have largely involves a raid by northern farmers against southern farmers (for revenge, of course). The story advances by choreographed stages (reminding me, for some reason, of The Magnificent Seven), and also leaves a strong impression on the reader (or at least on this reader).

I’m not sure I recommend William Morris’s version. His intentions were good, if I understand them correctly – to use a lot of antique diction and obscure words to give an impression of the flavor of the Icelandic originals. But frankly, the sagas are hard enough to follow as they are, without all those obsolete words. Eyrbyggja is not the greatest of the sagas, but it’s one the saga fan will not want to miss.

Iceland run, revisited

Althing
Artist’s conception of me addressing the Icelanders

It’s always nice to be asked back, even when you’re a semi-agoraphobic. So I was pleased to be asked to speak for the second year in a row at the annual “Icelandic Leifur Eiriksson Cod Dinner,” in Bloomington, Minnesota. This gala event (some of the best cod I’ve ever enjoyed) will be held at the Bloomington Event Center, 1114 American Blvd., Bloomington on Saturday, Oct. 13, at 5:30 p.m.

The deadline for reservations was Sept. 30, so maybe it’s too late to get in, unless you’re a popular celebrity like me. But you could contact Steingrimur Steinolfson at sicelander@aol.com and check.

It’s a cool opportunity to plug Viking Legacy, which concerns the Icelandic sagas sufficiently that it ought to interest the audience.

I’m moving a lot of copies of this book. It seems to be very well received.

‘The African Connection,’ by Mark W. Sasse

The African Connection

Mark Sasse’s bizarre “Forgotten Child” series continues with The African Connection. An unconventional fantasy in an unconventional trilogy. I got a free review copy from author Sasse.

The first book in the series, A Man Too Old For a Place Too Far (which I reviewed previously) told the story of Francis Frick, the original Nasty McNasty, you might say. Rich, powerful, greedy, cruel to his employees and to his daughter, he seems irredeemable. Until he is awakened one night by “Bee,” a fairy-like creature who hovers over his bed eating a pomegranate. She transports him to strange places and past times, where he gradually learns to empathize with others, and finally saves a child from the Cambodian holocaust. He also finds a cause – destroying Heinrich Ulrich, an amoral arms dealer with whom he formerly did business. But there are repercussions on the spiritual level – Bee is not following the rules for spiritual beings. Disaster follows, in a cliff-hanging climax.

In The African Connection, we find Francis in FBI custody, frustrating the agents with his nonchalance. Meanwhile Hatty Parker, a young woman, a new character in the story, steals a document linking her boss to Heinrich Ulrich. Arrested by the FBI as well, she ends up accompanying Francis on a series of hops through space and time, in which they grow attached to one another and he learns shocking things about his own origins. And gradually their support from Bee diminishes, as she finds herself under pressure from other spiritual beings, and in danger of losing her protector, the powerful Ash.

The African Connection is a strange read – I still haven’t made up my mind whether it’s quirkily brilliant or just naïve. It can be very funny and very poignant in turns. There are a few instances of mistaken word use – “extolling” for “exhorting” – that sort of thing. Still, I’m interested in finding out how it all turns out.

No cautions that I can recall for language or objectionable adult themes. Recommended.

Cover Those Strings, Lord of the Rings

Cover music abounds in the age of YouTube. A few people will the right tech can distribute the skills of musicians who would otherwise have only their family, church, or community stage to perform in.

Here’s Lukasz Kapuscinski from Poland bringing you guitar medley of Howard Shore’s compositions for The Lord of the Rings, which I hope Tolkien would have enjoyed even if he hated the movies.

And here we have Cremaine Booker (That Cello Guy) from Dallas with an arrangement of “Chevaliers de Sangreal” from the movie Da Vinci Code.

‘Pretty Girl Gone,’ by David Housewright

Pretty Girl Gone

Her smile was bright, but brittle. You could smash it with a word.

There is a town of Victoria, Minnesota. It’s a northwest suburb of the Twin Cities, and I was there for a community festival just a few weeks ago. However, in David Housewright’s third Mac McKenzie mystery, Pretty Girl Gone, the town (or at least its name) is transported to southwestern Minnesota. That’s where Jack Barrett, fictional governor of the state, grew up. He launched his career there as one of the “Victoria Seven,” a Cinderella basketball team that famously won the state championship.

Barrett’s wife is named Lindsay, and she comes from St. Paul where she was once the girlfriend of our hero, Rushmore “Mac” McKenzie, pro bono private eye. She meets with Mac and asks him to go to Victoria to investigate a nasty rumor that’s going around – that Jack murdered his high school sweetheart, who died the night before the big game.

Of course Mac goes to check it out. He will turn over a lot of old rocks, and tangle with some local thugs, before he manages to discover the shocking truth.

So far so good. I’m enjoying this series. The politics sometimes seem to lean left, but there are interesting exceptions (as when Mac makes fun of Minnesota’s concealed carry law, and then carries his piece past a “Firearms Forbidden” sign anyway). One thing I like is that author Housewright seems to have a pretty balanced view of small town and lower-middle-class people, who tend to get treated pretty badly by liberal writers.

Pretty good. Recommended, with the usual cautions.

Hostfest postmortem

Another Høstfest is høstory now (the 41st, they tell me). Everything went swimmingly. I sold all the books I brought (wish I’d ordered more). Had some interesting conversations, and met some interesting people (including a professional storyteller from Yorkshire and an elderly lady from Ringerike who showed me pictures of Halvdan the Black’s grave mound). No drama this year – everybody seemed to get along fine. Which suits me just fine.

Here’s a shot of our “Viking Village.”

Viking Village 2018

And here’s a shot of my set-up. There was actually no Viking Bar, but I was next door to the Big Lost Meadery booth. I will neither confirm nor deny accepting the daily samples they shared with Vikings. Being next to the mead was good for business in any case.

My setup 2018

And this is me looking epic in my personal space. The crowds did overwhelm me at times, but I managed to avoid going berserk.

Lars Walker Hostfest 18

Rode in and out with a friend. Stayed (for the third time) with one of the neatest couples I’ve ever met – people of great hospitality and excellent taste in Viking books.

Thanks to all participants.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture