‘Raven Black,’ by Ann Cleeves

Raven Black

I’ve been watching the latest series of the BBC dramatizations of Ann Cleeves’ Shetland mysteries, starring the character of Inspector Jimmy Perez. So I thought I’d check out the first novel in the series, Raven Black.

My verdict: I’m not sure.

First thing I noticed: The real Jimmy Perez in the books looks nothing like the guy who plays him on TV. In the book his appearance mirrors his exotic name (he’s a descendant of a sailor of the Spanish Armada, shipwrecked in Shetland). The guy on the show looks like he could be Norwegian. Or any kind of northern European.

Anyway, the story starts when a single mother living in the town of Lerwick discovers the body of a teenaged girl, strangled in the snow. Suspicion quickly falls on a man living nearby, a mentally retarded oldster who was once accused, but not convicted, of killing a little girl.

Inspector Perez is not convinced of the old man’s guilt. Eventually he learns that the girl was filming a documentary about life in the Shetlands, and a number of people didn’t like the direction her project seemed to be taking.

I’ve always been leery of women mystery writers, even (or especially) when they give us male protagonists. I didn’t dislike Raven Black, but I found it a little dull. In what seems to me the common fashion among female authors, the emphasis is more on relationships than action (even though the book is advertised as a thriller). I like relationships and personalities in my mysteries – in fact I insist on them – but I prefer the mix to be a little stronger on the danger side.

I may read more books in the series, or I may not. Not sure yet. I like the setting; it’s interesting to me for its own sake. Jimmy Perez, though, seems to me kind of a stick.

The Cross in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

The third season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. came to a close this month on an interesting Christological note. I’ve been a fan of the show since the beginning and never had the complaints I read from others that it was too slow, didn’t have enough super powers, and whatever else. It’s a good show, and it didn’t get canceled like Agent Carter did (which is another good show, great show even, and it stinks that it’s cancelled.) The most recent season of Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D. focuses on a vision one of the agents has of someone’s death, and central to that vision is a cross pendant.

I doubt I can keep from spoilers.

The season opens with the vision. A ship in space, the arc of the earth through the cockpit windshield, the cross pendant and necklace suspended in air, and a S.H.I.E.L.D. logo on a sleeve. No face or identifiers of who, if anyone, might be in that aircraft. We learn after a few shows that an Inhuman (a substitutionary word for “mutant” with its own extraterrestrial history) has the ability to foresee details of a death when he touches someone. This ability brings him into contact with Daisy Johnson (Chloe Bennet), the Inhuman agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. who is working on putting together an Inhuman tactical team, and when they touch each other, they see the vision of the cross on a ship in space.

“I’ve seen the future,” she tells her team, “and one of us is going to die.”  Continue reading The Cross in Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D.

Wanting to Be Smarter Than God

Sunrise

God in his grace also provides the solution: the God-man, the Word made flesh bore the sins of people of all nations in his body on the tree. We see him pinned there by our foolish pride. Our pride that thought it could build a tower bigger and better than God. That God that spoke us into existence with a word made his Word become flesh (Jn. 1:14) and that flesh was put to death on our behalf to save us from our wicked desire to be smarter than him.

Pastor Sean Nolan repents of his desire to be clever.

Did Bradbury Foresee a Bright or Dark Future?

Ray Bradbury is well known in two differing ways, as one of the bards of the dystopia to come and as an advocate for a great, big, beautiful tomorrow. Patrick West describes the difference.

We see the former in The Martian Chronicles.

‘We Earth Men have a talent for ruining big, beautiful things’, says one trooper in the story ‘And the Moon be Still as Bright’: ‘The only reason we didn’t set up hot-dog stands in the midst of the Egyptian temple of Karnak is because it was out of the way and served no large commercial purpose.’ Man can leave his own planet, but he can never escape himself.

We saw the latter in the newspapers.

In real life, however, Ray Bradbury was a well-known and vocal advocate of the liberating potential of space exploration. Alongside Arthur C Clarke and Isaac Asimov, he has been hailed by NASA historians as a visionary without whom the space programme would not have been possible.

(via Prufrock)

space travel is boring.

‘The Resurrection,’ by Mike Duran

The Resurrection

Occasionally I pick up a work of contemporary fantasy, especially if I have some acquaintance with the author. I know Mike Duran, author of The Resurrection, slightly through Facebook. He’s a writer who shows promise.

The Resurrection centers on a small, struggling church in a little California coastal town. The pastor is having a crisis of faith, and the elders are divided and contentious.

Ruby Case, one of a trio of faithful church members who’ve never quit praying for their congregation, attends the funeral of a teenage boy. To her amazement, a miracle happens, through her, and overnight she becomes the focus of a media frenzy, and her family is brought under stress, and even into danger. Meanwhile the pastor is being led, by an apostate seminary professor, into dangerous spiritual byways.

Author Duran has genuine gifts as a storyteller. There were moments in The Resurrection when I was authentically moved. The book reminded me, to be honest, of nothing more than my own novel Wolf Time (which is not to suggest in any way that it’s borrowed. It’s just the same kind of tale).

The author does need to work on the tools of his craft, though. He sometimes selects the wrong word, and he often throws verbiage at a passage when he would have done better to pare the words back and find the exact ones he wants for his desired effect.

But I read it all the way through, which I can’t say about a lot of Christian fantasy books, and as I told you it gave me some genuine thrills. So I recommend it. Suitable for most readers.

What Good Is a Small Church?

ChurchPastor Joe Thorn said he’s seen many small churches, some being the salt of the earth, some needing a smack upside the head. Last year, he wrote a four part series on what small churches can do in their communities.

  1. “As I have seen several churches in my area continue to dwindle in size I have watched the leadership of many of these churches settle into into one of three dangerous mentalities: elitism, defeatism, and survivalism. These are mentalities I know well as they have characterized my ministry at one time or another.”
  2. “Many smaller churches feel extremely limited by their size,” but they don’t have to compete with other churches for market share or apologize to anyone for their size.
  3. “Smaller churches are no less hindered from doing what God has called his people to do than are larger churches. Having more people does not maker it easier.”
  4. “My wife and I once attended a Reformed Baptist Church that fits my current definition of a “small” church. There was no worship leader. No choir. No instruments. No overhead projection. No cool lights. The building was plain-Jane. Yet their gathering was powerful. Why?”

Thorn has a “three-book series on the confession, nature, and expression of the Church” coming out this fall from Moody, which will likely cover these themes and much more.

Skenandoa

I got to thinking about the old song, “Oh Shenandoah,” this weekend, for no important reason. It’s one of The Divine Sissel’s favorite numbers (as witness the video above). She says she learned it from a Norwegian sea captain, which is no surprise, since one of its many permutations over the years has been its service as a sea shanty. It’s certainly one of America’s most beautiful native songs, and also one of its most versatile and mysterious.

In fact, one has to ask, “What in Burl Ives’ name is the song about, anyway?” It addresses Shenandoah, which we all know to be a river and a valley in Virginia, but then it talks about “the wide Missouri,” thousands of miles away. This is the question I set out to answer, sparing no expense in consulting a sophisticated new technology called Wikipedia.

Well. Turns out it’s not about the Shenandoah Valley (or river) at all. There was a guy named Shenandoah. Continue reading Skenandoa

‘The Wicked Flee,’ by Matthew Iden

The Wicked Flee

One last Marty Singer novel for now. A new one’s coming out at the end of the month, but you’ll have to wait breathlessly for my review of that one.

The Wicked Flee starts with our hero sick in bed, not with the colon cancer he’s been fighting, but with the flu. But when his friend, undercover cop Chuck Rhee, shows up at his door saying his teenage sister has disappeared, Marty gets up and joins him in the hunt.

This installment differs from the previous books in jumping between points of view. Part of the time we’re with Marty and Chuck in their desperate hunt, part of the time we follow a couple sociopathic human traffickers, and much of the book is seen through the eyes of Sarah Haynesworth, a Maryland state police officer. In fact, Marty is kind of a secondary character this time around.

But the writing is excellent, and the tension ratchets up effectively. Recommended. Not too much graphic stuff.

‘The Spike,’ by Matthew Iden

The Spike

Another Marty Singer novel by Matthew Iden. I liked this one particularly, since it revisited some themes from the first and best novel in the series, A Reason to Live.

At the beginning of The Spike, Marty is a witness to the murder of a businesswoman in a DC Metro station. He tries and fails to chase the murderer down, but the victim’s family hires him to find the killer. Prospects of success seem slim. The woman worked in real estate and seemed to have no particular enemies.

But as he investigates, Marty learns more than he wants to know about the seedy side of Washington real estate, a world of sweetheart deals where politicians and developers profit and poor people lose their homes. It gets increasingly difficult to tell the good guys from the bad guys.

What I liked best about The Spike was that the themes of Marty’s cancer treatment and his relationships return to play a larger part than in the last couple stories. The theme of politics shows up this time around, which worried me (author Iten doesn’t say much about politics but I suspect his are to the left of mine), but I think it was handled pretty evenhandedly. The only corrupt politician whose party is mentioned is Republican, but on the other hand the majority of the political sleazebags are Washington, DC civic officials – and we all know what party those people would be.

So I happily recommend The Spike to the reader. Cautions for the usual.

Damning Praise for Alexander Herzen

Tolstoy thought Herzen (1812-70) was one of the finest prose writers of his time, and so did Turgenev and Dostoyevsky. He was also an editor, a political activist and a scathing and ironical polemicist, castigating equally the Russian despots in Petersburg and his fellow socialists in exile in London, Geneva and Paris. In the years between the European-wide revolutions of 1848 and the czar’s brutal suppression of the Polish insurrection of 1863, he was one of the most provocative revolutionary minds of his time. When he was buried at Père Lachaise in Paris in 1870, a mourner exclaimed: “To the Voltaire of the 19th century!” That is not how he has been remembered.

Michael Ignatieff reviews a book on Herzen that offers reasons for remembering the old Russian author in more welcoming terms than someone whom Lenin praised. (via Arts & Letters Daily)

Book Reviews, Creative Culture