‘Thread of Danger,’ by Jeff Shelby

Thread of Danger

I was almost surprised there was a new installment in Jeff Shelby’s Thread series. Thread of Danger is a well done, exciting book, though it seems to me the series is looking to find a new direction.

Years ago, Joe Tyler’s daughter Elizabeth was kidnapped. He left his job as a Coronado, California policeman and devoted himself to hunting for her, financing his existence by searching for other missing children as well. He succeeded well (except, for a long time, with his own daughter), but his marriage fell apart.

Over the course of several books, he finally located Elizabeth, and managed to bring her home and reestablish a relationship. Now he’s adrift in life, not looking for work, caring about little except his daughter, who – he can hardly bear to think about it – will be going to college soon.

So he gives in when she asks him to help him look for her boyfriend. The boy went camping in the mountains with a friend, and now the friend says he’s disappeared. Without enthusiasm, Joe drives to the camp site and starts searching with the two young people – and soon discovers something that puts them all in imminent peril.

Thread of Danger is a well done novel, like all Jeff Shelby’s books. Joe’s scenes with Elizabeth are especially memorable and poignant. But Shelby is either going to have to find a new direction for the series, or leave his characters in peace. A new character who appears in this installment may provide a way for him to do that.

I recommend Thread of Danger (though you ought to read the series in sequence. Don’t start with this one). Very little objectionable content.

‘Mine,’ by Brett Battles

Mine

I’m fond of Brett Battles’ Jonathan Quinn novels, so I bought Mine. It wasn’t what I expected – I think of Battles as a thriller writer. But this is a science fiction/coming of age story. Nevertheless, I read it to the end and enjoyed it.

One night years ago, seven teenagers took an illicit forest hike, away from their summer camp. Only three came back, and they were changed. Joel and Leah were suddenly off-the-charts intelligent, sucking up knowledge like vacuum cleaners. They also became stronger and faster than normal people. The third camper, Mike – well, he adjusted less well than the others, who made efforts to disguise their unusual gifts. Each of them forgot most of the events of that awful night, even one another’s names.

But Leah, now a young woman, discovers a clue, which leads her, eventually, to Joel. But Joel doesn’t want to remember what happened. He wants to drop out of sight and live in obscurity. They gradually realize, however, that they’re not alone in their own heads – someone or something is using them. And they finally agree that the only way to get their freedom is to return to the place where it all started.

Mine was tightly written, well charactered, and compelling. I recommend it. I don’t recall much in the way of objectionable material.

My only quibble is an epilogue the author felt it necessary to include. Such epilogues show up again and again in SF stories, and they’re all the same and totally predictable. I wish he’d done something else.

But that’s a small thing.

The Realism of “The Witch”

I’ve read that the historical accuracy of this year’s powerful horror film The Witch is very strong, not just in the setting and costuming, but also in the roots of the story. A New England family isolates themselves in an effort to maintain their purity and in doing so imperil themselves. They aren’t entirely innocent victims of Satan’s disciples, but they cannot foresee the repercussions of what we might consider accusable sins.

Jeffrey Overstreet writes:

The realism of the film is also powerful because of how spiritual evil only seems to grow more and more persuasively present the more closely we attend to the real-world details, and the farther we travel through this time warp into the 17th Century. That has bothered some critics — that Eggers “literalizes” the evil forces that people believed in back then.

That’s a complaint from people who would snicker at the suggestion that the devil is an actual person, not a symbol of human ugliness or a boogeyman for our enemies. But you can’t literalize what is real.

Video review: ‘The Last Kingdom’

The Last Kingdom
Note the back scabbard. Also the inauthentic two-handed grip on the sword.

Someone on Facebook told me The Last Kingdom, the BBC TV adaptation of Bernard Cornwell’s series of novels about the days of Alfred the Great, was really good. So I watched one episode. Then someone else on Facebook said that it was all right, but Cornwell’s antipathy toward the Christian church was implicit throughout. So I decided I wouldn’t watch any more.

But that won’t stop me reviewing what I saw.

First of all, it seemed to me superior, from a historical perspective, to the execrable Vikings series on the History Channel. Cornwell is a serious historical novelist, and so the story bears some recognizable resemblance to real events and conditions. The picture of the Danes in England follows reality to an extent.

I was mostly troubled by the design of the production – the kind of muddy look that is so characteristic of the Vikings series. Everybody dresses dull, in browns and grays. In fact, the Vikings (as well as the Anglo-Saxons) loved bright colors, and chose them whenever they could afford them.

And the armor. Mostly leather armor, and helmets that seem inspired by real Viking stuff, but are oddly… vestigial. As if manufactured for Wal Mart. Where are the bright corselets, the gilded shields, the boar-crested helms of Beowulf (a roughly contemporary poem)?

And back scabbards. I am so sick of back scabbards. The Vikings didn’t use them, the English didn’t use them. The only way to make a back scabbard work is to strap it real tight, so it doesn’t shift around, and that will chafe you very efficiently after a few hours’ march, believe you me.

The Danes’ hall wasn’t bad, except for the upper gallery, which has no archaeological warrant. But I could forgive that, I guess.

Still, all and all, The Last Kingdom wasn’t appealing enough to persuade me to endure the ecclesiophobia of the overall production.

‘White Bone,’ by Ridley Pearson

White Bone

I’m a fan of Ridley Pearson’s Lou Boldt police procedurals. But he seems to be easing off on Lou these days, which is understandable considering Lou’s age. Instead he’s moving into the currently hotter genre of the international thriller, with his Risk Agent novels starring John Knox and Grace Chu. They are contractors who do occasional work for Rutherford Risk, a private agency specializing in hostage negotiation and extraction. I liked the first book, so I bought this second one, White Bone.

The title is a reference to elephant ivory. In this story, Grace, a talented computer technician, is sent to Kenya to look into the records behind a spectacular – and cruel – crime, where precious vaccine was stolen and replaced with a dangerous substitute, resulting in many deaths. Suddenly she drops off the grid altogether, and John Knox – somewhat to his own surprise – is concerned enough to leave his mentally disabled brother, his only family and the center of his life, at home while he goes to Africa to search for her, clashing both with the police and with ruthless animal poachers.

What follows is a white knuckle adventure story. While John runs down slender leads with increasing desperation, Grace is forced to revert to her most primitive instincts in order to survive in a suddenly prehistoric environment.

The book delivered on its promises of suspense and adventure. I wasn’t enamored of it, myself, because wilderness survival stories aren’t a flavor of literature for which I have a lot of taste. But people who like that sort of thing will find Grace’s survival story riveting. I’ll admit I was also troubled a little by some of the other story elements. The book is pretty solidly in favor of shooting poachers on sight, an idea that bothers me because it puts animals before humans (though I probably wouldn’t be as troubled by Old West ranchers hanging rustlers, so that may be prejudice on my part). Also, there is a minor subplot involving a group of hostages, and no sympathy whatever is expended on them.

But White Bone is a well done, exciting thriller that will probably please many readers more than it pleased me. And I’ll read the next book in the series. Cautions for the sorts of things you’d expect.

How Politically Diverse Are Christian Colleges?

Historian Thomas Kidd says he’s long had a theory about Christian colleges and universities. He thinks they “may be the best educational institutions today for fostering real political diversity.”

My theory is that if Christ is the center of a Christian university, that commitment can open the door for a real range of views on politics, because politics becomes a second-order priority. (Traditional seminaries, I would argue, are a different matter— there you must have stricter theological standards that tend to produce more uniformity in all areas of life and thought.)

He offered this theory to historian Molly Oshatz, who has written about hypersensitivity to differing points of view in elite colleges. She attested to the truth of this theory, citing experience at Florida State.

… my classes there included many students with strong faith commitments who were able to bring their perspective to the classroom in appropriate ways. Perhaps even more importantly, their fellow students responded to these contributions with respect and civility. A politically, religiously, and ­ideologically diverse student body, as well as a faculty that did not see their job as one of indoctrination, made for an excellent teaching environment.

Big Sandwich Theory

Tonight on my way home from work, I stopped at a sandwich shop (not a chain) that I like, and ordered their submarine sandwich. The girl who took my order was a cute Asian teenager.

As I sat and waited for a few minutes, there was a fellow employee there with her. He was tall, and fat, and bespectacled. About her age. He was earnestly trying to explain to her the wonders of a particular video game.

It could have been a scene from a TV comedy.

“My brother,” I said silently, “no joy will come of this.”

Can Poetry Be Popular, Fun Again?

No one has perfected a method to restore poetry’s place in public culture. It is unlikely that the art will ever return to the central position it once held. But is it unreasonable to hope that poetry can acquire some additional vitality or that the audience can be increased? Isn’t it silly to assume that current practices represent the best way to sustain the art into the future? There are surely opportunities for innovation, renovation, and improvement. Literary culture needs new ideas.

Poet Dana Gioia learned “students actually liked poetry once they took it off the page.” He recommends exploring new ways to revive the place of poems in our lives.

Hatin’ on Poetry

Ben Lerner’s elegant, amusing essay turns on a distinction between Poetry and poems. Poetry is Caedmon’s dream, a virtual ideal that actual poems can’t live up to. “The fatal problem with poetry,” Lerner writes, is “poems.” Every poet is, inevitably, “a tragic figure.”

Peter J. Leithart reviews Lerner’s 96 page essay on the aspirations and failures of poetry. “Poetry isn’t hard,” Lerner says, “it’s impossible.”

Speaking of the impossible: Wendy Cope.

He tells her that the earth is flat —
He knows the facts and that is that.

Read the rest of Cope’s poem.

‘The Officers’ Club,’ by Ralph Peters

The Officers' Club

I could have listed a hundred things I liked about her and valued in her. But I knew I would never love her. The Newtonian universe doesn’t seek justice, only equilibrium.

I’ve come to admire Ralph Peters as a top-flight novelist, but I’m just too shell-shocked, after reading Hell to Richmond (reviewed down the page), to try another of his big Civil War novels. So I thought I’d try a smaller book, The Officers’ Club. This is another fine story, but it left me with questions.

Lt. Roy Banks is an officer with Military Intelligence in 1981. But he’s not exactly in the center of the action. He’s drafting training exercises at Fort Huachaca, Arizona. This is the end of the Carter era, and the country’s malaise is even worse in the Army. Bored, undertrained, and undersupplied soldiers fake their work, and party hard after hours. Roy is part of a small group wryly called “The Officer’s Club,” an alternative to the bland pleasures of the real facility on base. They like to run down to Mexico, drink themselves sick, have lots of sex, and sometimes do some drugs. Worse things go on too, but Roy tries to keep clear of that. He’s also having an affair with a married female fellow officer.

Then Jessie Lamoureaux is murdered. There’s no shortage of suspects. Beautiful, seductive, and devious, Lt. Lamoureaux worked her way through most of the males in Roy’s circle – except for Roy himself. For some reason he found her repellant.

Very little of this book is devoted to the mystery of Jessie’s murder. Most of it traces the course of events that led up to the crime. The plot reminded me of nothing so much as one of those cable miniseries where soap opera combines with sex and violence. However, Peters’ writing is on a much higher plane. Aside from his elegant prose, he creates well-rounded characters who (in many cases) surprise you.

I’m not sure I entirely understood The Officers’ Club. I think there’s a metanarrative here, related to conditions in the Carter era, that I never quite grasped. And a couple plot details never got resolved – I wonder if the answers were hidden and I just missed them.

I should caution you that the voice of morality in this book is a sympathetic homosexual record store owner whom Roy befriends. And one of the few cardboard characters is a born-again Christian (this is a little surprising, coming from the author who created the Abel Jones novels).

But I still enjoyed The Officers’ Club immensely, and got entirely caught up in it. Recommended, if you don’t mind a lot of profanity, sex, and a certain amount of violence.

Babel Was Not a Model for Segregation

Segregation Signs

Last month, the Presbyterian Church in America officially repented of its members’ involvement in racial discord in the Civil Rights era and beyond, including “the segregation of worshipers by race; the exclusion of persons from Church membership on the basis of race; the exclusion of churches, or elders, from membership in the Presbyteries on the basis of race; the teaching that the Bible sanctions racial segregation and discourages inter-racial marriage; the participation in and defense of white supremacist organizations; and the failure to live out the gospel imperative that ‘love does no wrong to a neighbor’ (Romans 13:10).”

Jemar Tisby, who is the director of the African American Leadership Initiative and Special Assistant to the Chancellor at Reformed Theological Seminary in Jackson, Mississippi, explains what encourages him about the PCA’s resolution.

The problem with not having an explicit statement repudiating racism, especially during the Civil Rights Movement, as a Southern Presbyterian denomination is that African Americans and other ethnic minorities will always wonder, “Are these folks still cool with racism?” That’s putting it bluntly, but there’s truth to it. As a black person in an overwhelmingly white branch of the church, I have to constantly evaluate whether I’m truly welcome here or not. A strong statement repenting, not just of racism generally, but the more recent lack of vocal support for racial equality during the Civil Rights Movement, is necessary because silence about the matter tacitly communicates either support or indifference.

One charge related to the PCA is the view by some founders and members that racial segregation is a biblical directive.  Continue reading Babel Was Not a Model for Segregation

Individuality: a fresh concept

Sometimes, when reading very old books, you come upon a moment in history where a corner is turned. And your own presuppositions make it difficult to see what’s going on.

Last night I was reading the Book of Ezekiel (that’s in the Bible, for our younger readers) before bed. And I was suddenly struck by what was going on in Chapter 18.

The word of the LORD came to me: “What do you mean by repeating this proverb concerning the land of Israel, ‘The fathers have eaten sour grapes, and the children’s teeth are set on edge?’ As I live, declares the Lord GOD, this proverb shall no more be used by you in Israel. Behold, all souls are mine, the soul of the father as well as the soul of the son is mine: the soul who sins shall die.

This is stuff that seems self-evident to us. No surprises here. It’s what we expect from God. But the significant thing – to me – is later in the chapter:

“Yet you say, ‘The way of the Lord is not just.’ Hear now, O house of Israel: Is my way not just? Is it not your ways that are not just?” (Verse 25).

You see what’s going on here? The prophet’s audience, the Jews of the Babylonian exile, find it hard to understand how anyone – let alone God – would not want to punish a son for his father’s wrongdoing. And vice versa. Acting in any other way seems to them not only stupid, but positively unjust. What we see happening here is a major cultural shift. A brand new idea in human history, imported from outside our world.

The “normal” human point of view (historically speaking) has been to see human beings in terms of the groups to which they belong. Their families. Their races. Their nations. We recognize today that it’s unjust to say, “All those [insert group name here] are the same.” But such thinking is instinctual. Statistically normal in the world. Prejudice of this sort is born into us. We need to be educated to think otherwise. Continue reading Individuality: a fresh concept

‘Hell or Richmond,’ by Ralph Peters

Hell or Richmond

For all his concerns, his heart leapt at the prospect of fighting again. Lee smelled powder the way a horse smelled oats. There were things he dared not discuss with other men, matters he preferred not to think on too much himself. He loved war, that was the wicked truth. God forgive him, he loved it. Worse, this army had become his greatest love. It was a terrible thing for a man of faith, or any man, to recognize.

I wonder if it’s possible for a novel to be too successful. Not in the marketing sense – though there are certain authors whose success, in my opinion, is unmerited – but in the artistic sense. A novel that does such a good job of fulfilling its creative goals that the experience becomes nearly unendurable for the reader. Due to the subject matter.

That was my problem with Ralph Peters’ Hell or Richmond, a fantastically successful attempt to bring to life the experience of the 1864 Overland Campaign, during the American Civil War. Like his earlier novel, Cain at Gettysburg (which I admired greatly and reviewed here), it resurrects the historical events on both the macro and the micro level. Peters is a marvelous prose stylist, and succeeds in conveying not only the sights and sounds, but especially the sensations – the weariness, the thirst, the pervasive discomforts from an infantryman’s poison ivy to an officer’s inflamed feet, to Robert E. Lee’s digestive ailments. And the suffering goes on and on, far worse than Gettysburg, which seemed bad enough – through the Wilderness and Spotsylvania Courthouse to Cold Harbor, all of them famous slaughters. Continue reading ‘Hell or Richmond,’ by Ralph Peters

In Which Sin Is Like Smoke

Imagine a world in which sin is visible,” writes Hannah Beckerman in her review of Dan Vyleta’s fantasy novel, Smoke.

In which anger, lust, envy and avarice erupt in plumes of smoke and the clothes of the sinful are stained in dark soot. In which London is a city of vice, inhabited only by degenerates, its air polluted not with diesel but with transgression, its sewers running with the soot of sinners.

Book Reviews, Creative Culture