‘Birthday Girl,’ by Matthew Iden

There are books I approach knowing they’ll fascinate me, but also with a certain fear. Because I know they’ll push my personal buttons. Birthday Girl, by Matthew Iden, is that kind of book.

Amy Scowcroft is a woman with nothing in her life but a quest. A recovered drug addict, she lost custody of her daughter Lacey, who then – disappeared. Without a trace. People searched, the police investigated, but the girl had vanished.

One compassionate policeman gives her a suggestion… reluctantly. He knows a guy, a former forensic psychologist, who was pretty good at figuring out motives and identifying criminals. His name is Elliott Nash. The problem is, Elliott’s a homeless bum now. He too had had his child kidnapped. And murdered. But there’s a place he might be found.

Amy goes and finds him. At first he resists helping her. He can’t even help himself.

But then he changes his mind. This penniless woman and this homeless man, with no more resources than an unreliable car and a very few bucks between them, start tracing down a few facts. Old facts. Questionable facts. But they have nothing to lose, and are willing to go to whatever lengths they have to, to find Lacey.

Alternating with the plot thread of Amy and Elliott is the thread that tells us what’s happening to Lacey. Because she is alive. But she’s in the hands of a deeply troubled and dangerous person, one who keeps several children in a remote house. That person has a script and a plan for each of the children’s lives… and deaths.

Birthday Girl is compelling and heart-wrenching, with a ticking clock plot and a neat twist at the end. Also inspirational, in a spiritually generic way.

Birthday Girl grabbed me by the backbone and shook me up. It was painful to read, for personal reasons, but I couldn’t put it down.

Highly recommended, with cautions for intense material.

The Tale of Erling and Eindridi

A knarr, such as Eindridi would have sailed.

No book to review tonight. No great thoughts bubbling in my mind. What shall I post about?

Well, I’ve been reading the Flatey Book in the Norwegian translation, and I came on a little-known story about Erling Skjalgsson (it wasn’t new to me; I’d seen it before). To the best of my knowledge, it’s the only surviving story about Erling not also told in Heimskringla. I’ll be working it into a novel eventually, but there’s no harm telling it to you now. No doubt I’ll fiddle with it in my version, as is my wont.

It involves a young man named Eindridi, who was the son of Einar Tambarskjelvar (Gut-Shaker). Einar was a great chieftain in the Trondelag. If you’ve read The Elder King, you may recall him as a character in that timeless work. In TEK, he and Erling are good friends. In The Tale of Erling and Eindridi, things get a little touchy.

Erling had a daughter named Sigrid, whom he’d fostered out to the steward at Avaldsnes, the royal farm on Karmøy Island.

When (Saint) Olaf Haraldsson came in and started reorganizing the country, he took that stewardship away from Erling’s friend and gave it to a freedman named Tore the Seal (they also appear in TEK). He demoted Erling’s friend and sent him up to a less important farm further north. Sigrid went along with him, but chafed at being separated so far from her family.

One day a merchant ship docked near their farm, on its way south. Sigrid went to chat with the crew, and found that it was the ship of Eindridi, son of Einar Gut-Shaker. She asked him if she could hitch a ride south to her home at Sola. Eindridi was preoccupied, and let her join them without really registering whose daughter she was. Once they were under way, he realized he’d made a mistake (because she was supposed to be in her foster-father’s care, I think). But they had a fair wind, and there was nothing to do about it.

On the way south a storm blew up, and they had to run into an island, taking shelter in a fishermen’s shack. It was cold and wet, and the girl slept beside Eindridi, though they had no contact beyond a kiss. (At least that was their story.)

When they finally arrived at Sola, Erling was not at home. Eindridi was given a loft room to sleep in, and Sigrid came to join him, but he sent her away. Just then Erling Skjalgsson burst in, accusing Eindridi of dishonoring his daughter.

Eindridi fiercely denied touching the girl (beyond that kiss), and offered to go through the iron ordeal to prove his honor. Erling agreed to this, and Eindridi passed the trial with flying colors, carrying the glowing iron nine steps, and then having his burns examined after three days. Verdict: innocent. Erling then wished to be reconciled and offered him gifts, but Eindridi was deeply offended and prepared to sail home.

Erling’s son Skjalg went to him and told him he needed to make peace with Eindridi, because they couldn’t do without his father Einar’s support in their political struggle with Olaf. “What can I do?” Erling asked. “I’ve offered him gifts.”

“You need to offer a greater gift,” said Skjalg. “You need to offer him Sigrid as a wife.”

Erling hesitated at this. “A man of my rank,” he said, “does not offer his daughter to other men. Other men come and bid for his daughter.”

“And that’s why Eindridi will agree,” Skjalg answered. He did not say that it would be interpreted as an apology, something Erling couldn’t make in so many words. And – perhaps – he’d noticed that the two young people liked each other.

Erling sent Skjalg to make that offer, and Einar – realizing its significance – happily agreed. He was indeed taken with Sigrid, and she with him.

Sailing home, Eindridi met his father, who’d gotten word of events and was prepared to challenge Erling for his son’s honor. But when Eindridi explained the marriage offer, Einar immediately understood, and was pleased.

So Eindridi and Sigrid were married. (Though other sources name a different woman as Eindridi’s wife, so it’s not unlikely she died young.)

Not an exciting Viking story. But it is interesting in that it illustrates the kind of social limitations honor culture placed on even powerful men, and how they were able find ways of working around them.

‘Nightmare City,’ by Andrew Klavan

Though I am not least among Andrew Klavan’s fanboys, I’m not a huge fan of Young Adult fiction, being a serious grownup and stuff. So I skipped Nightmare City when it came out. Now I find it on sale on Kindle, so I gave it a shot. I’ve got to say, it’s some ride.

Tom Jordan is a high school student, a reporter on his school paper. Along with his mother he’s still mourning the death of his brother, who died in service in the Middle East.

Then one morning he awakens to a world right out of a horror movie. His home is empty, his mother has disappeared, and the house is surrounded by a strange white fog, in which malevolent, zombie-like creatures wander. They attack Tom when he goes outside, but seem to be restrained from entering his house – at first.

A message from Tom’s dead brother is broadcast from a television set. There’s something he’s supposed to do, but he doesn’t understand. Then his girlfriend appears, urging him to go to an old ruined monastery above the town. There’s also a voice he hears from time to time, which he learns – almost at the cost of his life – not to trust.

His searching will take him out into the fog, to his school, and to the old monastery. Along the way he’ll realize that he’s dreaming – but it’s a serious dream. The choices he makes here will have life and death consequences. There’s a story to be reported, and only Tom can report it.

I wasn’t sure what to think of Nightmare City at first. The beginning read like a standard teenagers vs. zombies movie script – lots of scares and chases and gore, not a lot of substance. But that was just the hook. The story got deeper and deeper as it proceeded, and in the end it was profound and deeply moving.

Reviewers compare Nightmare City to Stephen King, but I’d say it’s more like Dean Koontz. And that’s a good thing. I highly recommend Nightmare City, for teens and adults both.

‘The Innocent and the Dead,’ by Robert McNeill

There are two novels in the DI Jack Knox police procedural series to date. However, this first volume, The Innocent and the Dead, also includes a prequel novella, Labyrinth.

DI Jack Knox, the hero, is an Edinburgh, Scotland detective. He’s divorced, and his wife and daughter have emigrated to Australia. He is now dating a female subordinate, which is technically out of bounds but nobody seems very concerned about it.

The first story, Labyrinth, involves an attractive young woman found strangled near a tourist landmark. She is found to have been working as a prostitute, though she also seems to have been a practicing evangelical Christian. The investigation is complicated, but gets wrapped up relatively quickly.

In The Innocent and the Dead, a wealthy distiller’s college-age daughter has been kidnapped. After initially cooperating with the police, her father opts to follow the kidnapper’s instructions and keep the detectives in the dark about the ransom drop. This makes it hard for the cops, trying to keep tabs on the father as he attempts to avoid them – it appears at times they would have done better to let him alone. And when the payoff is missed, and a girl is found murdered, it all looks very bad….

This is a new mystery series, and the characters are still not entirely in focus. I found the stories competently written and entertaining, though not highly memorable. At a couple points, I thought the narrative was veering into church-bashing, but the author avoided that.

Moderately recommended. Cautions for mild adult stuff. I might read the second novel.

The power of paper

Photo credit: Annie Spratt @ anniesprat

Okay, I’ve got another thing to write about Hans Nielsen Hauge (look a few inches down for my first post on him. It’s the one with the Sissel song), the Norwegian lay revivalist of the early 19th Century. (I’m doing my article for the Spectator too, but this is extra.) As was noted by the lecturer I talked to last week, Hauge is a hero both to the right and to the left in Norway – to the right for his religious influence, and to the left for being one of the founders of their movement.

Because in those days of yore, liberalism had little or nothing to do with socialism. It had nothing to do with sexual practices or the size of government.

Liberalism was about whether the common people should be allowed to participate fully in society. To move out of the social classes they were born into, and aspire to higher ambitions. Even to politics.

One thing our speaker mentioned that I hadn’t appreciated before was Hauge’s sideline in manufacturing paper.

I’d known that he established a paper mill, called the Eker Paper Mill. In it he employed unemployables – the blind, the crippled, amputees – allowing them to live productive lives and contribute to the community. I thought that a very nice thing.

What I didn’t realize was the significance of the paper mill itself.

Cheap paper was a new thing in those days. Paper use had formerly been limited to the elite, and the paper they had was often of poor quality. But new manufacturing techniques involving paper pulp permitted a larger public to get hold of the stuff.

Hauge immediately recognized the wider significance of cheap paper.

It was usual in those days for the common people to be able to read. They had to be able to read to finish “Confirmation,” the Lutheran process that gave young men and women access to the Bible and the Catechism, in order to be full church members.

But those people generally could not write. (I’d never thought about this, but writing is a very different skill. Only the upper classes [and not all of them] could write in those days.)

Hauge had a vision of “awakened” (his term) Christians corresponding with each other all over the country. They could share inspiration, news, and practical information, forming what we’d call today a Haugean “network.”

In order to make that happen, he did two things. One, he built a paper mill (perhaps more than one; I’m not sure), and he organized classes to teach people to write.

This, by the way, was alarming to the authorities. They saw no reason why people should have any regular contacts outside their home parishes. Revolution was abroad in Europe, after all; you never knew what those peasants might get up to. This accounts for some of the hostility Hauge encountered, leading to his ten year incarceration.

But his followers kept writing on Hauge’s paper. Eventually they started newspapers and publishing houses. And today he is a hero of literacy and liberal politics in Norway.

‘Jesus, I Long For Thy Blessed Communion’

I was surprised to find this hymn on YouTube. It’s a classic hymn for the Haugeans (the Lutheran “sect” I grew up in. Though we never actually sang this one much in my church), and it’s sung my none other than the divine Sissel Kyrkjebo. I didn’t even know she’d done it.

The two verses she sings are translated thus:

1 Jesus, I long for Thy blessed communion,
Yearning for Thee fills my heart and my mind;
Draw me from all that would hinder our union,
May I to Thee, my beginning, be joined;
Show me more clearly my hopeless condition;
Show me the depth of corruption in me,
So that my nature may die in contrition,
And that my spirit may live unto Thee!

7 Merciful Jesus, now hear how I bind Thee
To the sure pledge of Thy covenant word:
“Ask, and receive: when ye seek, ye shall find me;”
Thus have Thy lips, ever faithful, averred.
I with the woman of Canaan unresting,
Cry after Thee till my longing is stilled,
Till Thou shalt add, my petitions attesting,
“Amen, yea, amen: it be as thou wilt!”

Hans Nielsen Hauge, the Norwegian lay revivalist I’ve written about here before, was singing this song as he plowed his father’s field on a day in 1796. Suddenly, he said, he was overwhelmed with the glory of God, and felt himself filled with love for God and all his neighbors, and called to serve them with his whole life. After that he started preaching to small groups — which was illegal. Eventually he would spend ten years in prison for this activity. But by the time he died, he was a national hero, respected by nearly everyone, high and low.

I attended a meeting yesterday where we heard a lecture from a Norwegian scholar, a woman, who’s been studying Hauge’s life and work for years. Her subject was the effect of Hauge’s ministry on public literacy in Norway — because that was one of his many achievements — getting the common people reading (and even writing).

In the midst of this, I came to a new realization about the “liberal” origins of evangelicalism — a subject that fascinates me. As people are no doubt weary of me telling them, early liberalism (late 18th and early 19th Century liberalism) had nothing to do with socialism, or sexual identity, or the size of government. It was simply about whether the common people would be allowed to participate in governing themselves.

I’ll be writing more about this — but probably for the American Spectator Online. Because they pay me, after all.

‘The Bitter Fields,’ by Matthew Iden

Marty Singer, retired cop and occasional private detective, is invited down to Virginia’s horse and wine country, along with his girlfriend Julie Atwater, by her friend Ruth Colvin, who runs a boarding stable. They’re expecting a relaxing vacation. But Ruth has a reason for asking them. Her farm is in trouble. Someone has been sabotaging her operation – knocking down fences so the horses can get loose. In the competitive world of horse people, only a little doubt about the safety of her facilities could ruin her. That’s how The Bitter Fields begins.

Then murder intervenes. One of Ruth’s employees, a charming polo player named Freddie Farrar, is shot to death. Marty can’t help but suspect there’s a connection between the crimes. Who could hate Ruth so much? There are suspects – a bigoted old lady who wants some of her land for a burial plot, a rich young woman who’d been having an affair with Freddie, and that woman’s husband – who has been arrested, but whose guilt Marty doubts.

All this is played out against the backdrop of the changing south, where history is a living presence, opinions are in transition, and people often cover up their real thoughts. One thing I liked about this book was that although it seemed at first to involve a lot of tired southern stereotypes, those characters were treated sympathetically and allowed to have their say – and to change. It all got kind of heart-warming in the end. Except for the killing, of course.

Recommended. Cautions for the usual, particularly sexual matters, but not bad.

The importance of being Urnes

The Urnes Stave Church, by I. C. Dahl

Dendrodating indicates that part of Urnes Stave Church, which was estimated built before 1100, was constructed using timber from 1069 and 1070. The slightly younger part of Urnes is dated to 1129-1130.

For the sake of clarity: dendrochronology can date the year a tree was felled for the stave churches. The likelihood is that the felling year was also when the construction began.

Recently I’ve given a couple lectures about the conversion of Norway to the Christian faith. In those lectures I argue for a “revisionist” view (based on the arguments of Bishop Fridtjof Birkeli) that questions the traditional narrative, which credits two violent 11th Century missionary kings with the conversion. The view I’ve adopted holds that the conversion was a gradual, centuries-long process, and mostly a peaceful one. Much of the credit for that process arguably belongs to the 10th Century king Haakon the Good, whom the sagas tend to dismiss as a missionary failure.

That view gained a little credibility recently, when results of new research on the famous Norwegian stave churches was released by the Norwegian Directorate for Cultural Heritage. New findings push the dates for some of the oldest stave churches back several decades. As stated above, wood in the Urnes stave church, previously dated to just before 1100, has now been re-dated to about 1069. That’s three years after King Harald Hardrada died – within spitting distance of the Viking era.

As you can see in the drawing above by artist I. C. Dahl, the Urnes church is far from the most beautiful of the stave churches – a fair amount of remodeling has gotten done on it over time, smoothing out some of the distinctive features. But the wall panel you can see has caused the “Urnes” name to be given to a whole era of Viking art – an elegant fusion of Norse and Celtic styles which I consider delightful.

Dendochronology has been an important and invaluable scientific tool for archaeologists for a while now. By identifying patterns in tree rings (a little like fingerprints) they’re able to date ancient wood to the exact year when the tree was cut. But to make dendochronological comparisons, you need to either be able to examine the end of the log, or to do a bore sample – and obviously nobody wants to drill a sample hole in a stave church pillar. The new technology of Photodendrometry allows scientists to examine the rings without destruction to the material – and to do it more accurately.

You can count on me to keep you updated on advances in Viking scholarship – whenever they confirm my own prejudices.

November on my mind

Photo credit: Beliaikin @ belart84

November is a juvenile delinquent, hanging out on a street corner, looking tough. Not one of those innocent, baby-faced delinquents who’ve only made a few mistakes and can still be salvaged, but a tough, street-smart young thug on his way to incarceration and/or an early death. Soon he’ll grow into December, and then he’ll be a made man.

November is, in poetic perspective, a season of death. The midlife crisis of fall is declining into a slow old age. I went to a sort of a wake tonight. There were three deaths in my life last month, and this was the only one involving a gathering I was able to attend. It wasn’t a drunken wake in the classic tradition, nor a religious wake in the Christian tradition. Just some people gathering to support a family which had lost its central heart.

Yesterday was cold and rainy. Today, bright and cool. It kind of works out the same either way, though, because the night falls early now and makes itself at home.

The only good thing I have to say about November is that it’s not quite winter yet.

Does Free Speech Protect a Book for Hitmen?

This would have been a great topic for Banned Books Week, but, alas, I’ve had a long, sad year with a variety of responsibilities I haven’t wanted to work through. But now is as good a time as any to talk about the extent of free speech and the free press, isn’t it?

A 1983 book called Hit Man by Rex Feral purports to be a manual for contract killers with practical instructions on how to eliminate your targets without getting caught. The author says it is for entertainment purposes only, and you can see from GoodReads many contemporary readers think the book is too simple, dated, and even silly.

But things have changed a bit over 35 years.

In 1993 James Perry snuck into a Maryland home and murdered a disabled eight-year-old, his nurse, and his mother, following many of the details recommended in this book. A podcast from iHeart Radio and Hit Home Media, also called Hit Man, opens with an exploration of this murder and the man who hired Perry to carry it out. Later the families of the victims filed a lawsuit against the publisher, claiming the book was intended to be real-world advice that could be acted upon by anyone wanting to murder someone for a fee, and in doing so the publisher aided and abetted in murder.

The publisher argued that it did not intend for anyone to murder or be murdered based on what they read and that it has the freedom to publish whatever it wants.

In a style that may be a bit over-earnest, Hit Man the podcast tells the stories of the murder, this lawsuit, other crimes connected to the book, the identity of the pseudonymous author, and the possible inspiration for the book.

Should our country allow a book like this (and others like it which are still in print)? Is this the kind of abhorrent speech we say we would argue against but fight for the rights of others to use? You would need to know what’s in the book to make that decision; the podcast offers some details, and you can read the whole book by searching for the text file. It’s possible it doesn’t say anymore about pulling off contract killing than many other books, fiction and non.

The bulk of the legal argument against it was about intent. Is the book what it claims to be, “a technical manual for independent contractors,” or is it an imaginative book on crime? I think there should be a line that we don’t cross, but ours is a society originally suited for a religious people who actively submit to the governor of the universe, so that line will have to be a moral one. If we live with a morality that is only defined by the law, then we will not live happily for long.

Hit Man is a real banned book, by the way, so I hope it makes the big list one of these years.

Photo by Skitterphoto from Pexels

‘Alter Ego,’ by Brian Freeman

After borrowing this book from the public library, I found that I’d already read and reviewed an earlier novel in the Jonathan Stride mystery series. I said I found it well written, but I didn’t love it. That’s pretty much my reaction to Alter Ego, Brian Freeman’s ninth in the series. But I read it free, so why complain?

Jonathan Stride is a police detective in Duluth, Minnesota. His two chief subordinates are an Asian-American woman and his wife. Both, needless to say, are gorgeous. As is also his teenaged adopted daughter, a former prostitute whom he and his wife more or less rescued, and who is beginning to reintegrate her life.

It’s big news when a Hollywood film company comes to Duluth to make a movie. Jonathan is less happy than most of the locals, because it’s a fictionalized dramatization of one of his own cases. He is being played by Dean Casperson, one of Hollywood’s major players, but the whole business makes him uncomfortable.

Then a man dies in a freak collision with a deer on a snow-covered highway. His ID turns out to be bogus, and a gun is found in the car. Shortly after that, a local college girl who hung around with the movie people is reported missing. Putting two and two together, the police start searching the area near the auto accident, and sure enough – the young woman’s body is found in the snow, a bullet in her head.

And then she turns out to have been using an assumed identity too.

It’s all confusing, and it’s not about to get simpler. On top of the murder mystery, there are questions about certain behaviors on the movie set, behaviors no one will talk to the police about. Stride and his co-workers (along with author Freeman’s other series character, Florida PI Cab Bolton, who shows up for his own reasons) will have to move fast and smart to prevent very ugly history from repeating itself, not on film but in real life.

As stipulated above, I find Brian Freeman a good writer, and I can find no fault with his storytelling. I’m not sure why his books leave me kind of cold, except for a certain political correctness I sense in their construction. Most of the cops in this story are women, and they’re all beautiful. I don’t know for sure, but I’d wager that is not a statistically accurate portrayal of the Duluth police department.

Ah, but I’m probably just jaundiced. I note that my review of the previous Jonathan Stride book complained about excessively explicit sex scenes. I’m happy to report he seems to have toned that down.

I might even read another book in the series – if I can borrow it from the library.

‘Behold a Host, Arrayed in White

Above is a traditional Scandinavian hymn by the Danish hymnwriter Hans Adolf Brorson. The music was arranged, I believe, by Edvard Grieg. If you’re patient, you’ll hear the English words.

It’s a hymn about the blessed saints in Heaven, based on a passage from Revelation. It’s particularly suited to All Saints Day, which is today. It was also a favorite of my father’s. Gene Edward Veith, at his Cranach blog, laments how this festival day, devoted to eternal life, has come to be overshadowed by celebrations of death and horror.

After a month which (for me) has been full of genuine death, it’s good to contemplate our eternal hope.

Yes, But Spurgeon Didn’t Say That

“The Word of God is like a lion. You don’t have to defend a lion. All you have to do is let the lion loose, and the lion will defend itself.”

Many places attribute this quotation to C. H. Spurgeon, and the great preacher did say something like it, but not this exactly. The Spurgeon Center has this and five other quotations in a post on things Spurgeon did not say. What he said was that we might imagine a caged lion and soldiers who have gathered to defend him. Why are they fighting for this powerful cat when the best approach is to let him out of his cage? “And the best ‘apology’ for the gospel is to let the gospel out.”

Also, “A lie travels around the globe while the truth is putting on its shoes.” That’s something Spurgeon said in an 1855 sermon, describing it as an old proverb. Other men, including Jonathan Swift, said it first, and it could have been a common saying when Spurgeon got around to it.

Did he say, “I have learned to kiss the wave that throws me against the Rock of Ages”? Did he say, “I take my text and make a beeline to the cross”? Take a look.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture