Book Review: Some Kind of Peace

Book Review: Some Kind of Peace by Camilla Grebe & Asa Traff

Disclosure:  I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Some Kind of Peace by Camilla Greve & Asa Traff

 

Siri Bergman is a Stockholm psychologist who is suffering from the loss of her husband, their unborn child and a crippling fear of darkness.  So it’s perhaps understandable that she wonders if she’s going round the bend when it appears she’s being stalked.  Then one of her patients turns up dead in her backyard, an apparent suicide.  It quickly becomes apparent that her stalker is very real–and very deadly.

Some Kind of Peace is another in the recent fad of imported Scandinavian thrillers.  This one is much more on the psychological thriller side than a mystery, which makes the choice of protagonist appropriate.  The day to day business side of psychology is written plausibly; not surprising given one of the sister authors is herself a psychologist.

The authors give a game try at making the thriller cliche of the distressed woman who does everything possible to make her situation worse from a safety standpoint and doesn’t spot important clues plausible.  The stalker isn’t a diabolical mastermind (in scenes told from their point of view, the stalker frequently makes mistakes) but Siri is just that messed up.  Still, it gets a bit over the top and if this were a movie, the audience would be shouting at the screen.

A bit I liked was that the timeframe of the story moves from a seemingly idyllic summer through the chilling fall and climaxes in darkest winter as Siri becomes more aware of the danger she’s in.

Trigger warnings: rape, abuse and abortion are discussed.

If you don’t mind that the story would have been half as long if the protagonist wasn’t so self-sabotaging, Some Kind of Peace is a good example of the thriller genre.

Book Review: Every Hill and Mountain

Book Review: Every Hill and Mountain by Deborah Heal

Disclaimer:  I received this book in a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it.  This review will contain heavy spoilers.

Every Hill and Mountain by Deborah Heal

This is the third in a trilogy about Abby Thomas, a denominational college student on a summer service project to be a tutor to economically disadvantaged eleven-year-old Merri.  They discover that Beautiful House, a program on Merri’s computer, allows them to view (and experience!) past events in old buildings.  They soon draw in a young man named John Roberts, who starts a romantic relationship with Abby while helping them explore the history of Merri’s house, once a station on the Underground Railroad.

In this volume, Abby’s revealing of this information to her college roommate backfires when said roommate, Kate Greenfield, shows up with her fiance Ryan Turner in tow.  It seems Kate has run into a brick wall in her family research.  An ancestor named Ned Greenfield was born at Hickory Hill in Equality, Illinois–but that’s all she can find on him or his parentage.  She asks Abby to help her using the Beautiful House program.

Equality, once a thriving salt mining town, seems friendly enough at first.  But the townspeople become considerably less welcoming once the subject of Hickory Hill comes up.  Abby and her friends soon discover some painful truths about the past.  But God is in the business of redemption, and makes all things new.

This book is aimed at the Christian young adult market, so there is quite a bit of God-talk.  An exact age range is a little harder to pin down.  The topics of rape, torture and the cost of human lives of slavery may be a bit heavy for younger teens, while the sexual prudishness of the protagonists will probably have older teens, particularly ones not raised in more conservative Christian communities, rolling their eyes.  Conservative Christian parents, on the other hand, are likely to approve of Abby and John’s chaste relationship.

There is a brief cameo by real-life evangelist D.L. Moody, the author of The Overcoming Life which I review here: http://www.skjam.com/2014/01/26/book-review-the-overcoming-life/ .

The book has some serious flaws, which I will talk about in the spoilers section below.  I can only recommend it as an introduction to the history of slavery in Illinois–there’s a list of  further reading books in the back that are more to the point on the subject.

SPOILERS

The biggest problem I have with this book is the villain of the modern section, Ryan.  Abby takes an immediate dislike to him on first meeting and it’s easy to see why.  The man is a horrible excuse for a human being, consistently putting his worst foot forward.  He has zero appealing personality traits.  Which would be okay if this were a different kind of story, one where the villain is mostly offstage so that the stalwart heroes only see him when he’s opposing them.

But instead he’s a tag-along for the group, in most scenes, repeatedly failing to show any redeeming characterization.  By the time of his “sudden but inevitable betrayal” Kate looks less like an impulsive young woman in love, and more like someone who’s really, really stupid and needs it spelled out to her in large letters that Ryan is bad news.  Tellingly, the one time Kate mentions what, specifically, she likes about Ryan, we aren’t allowed to hear it.

Ryan would have been a much better character if he were allowed to show positive character traits, reasons why Kate might have chosen to be his fiancee or special skills that made him valuable to the group.  Even having him make valid criticisms of the protagonists’ actions might have helped.  In this way, his final betrayal would have seemed less inevitable and more of a heartbreaking experience.

Looking at it another way, some in-story evidence suggests that Ryan may be either brain-damaged or not actually from Earth’s culture.  (Seriously, a college student who is unfamiliar with libraries?)  If this is the case, he’s less villainous than pitiable.   And his reasoning for having sex with Kate shows the perils of abstinence-only sex ed and purity culture–a more streetwise woman than Kate would have noticed how bogus the logic was.

A more excusable flaw is that the protagonists don’t really follow logic chains.  They know from repeated experience that Beautiful Home only works when it (or possibly God) wants to, and only shows them what it (or God) thinks they need to see.  Yet they constantly worry about the program being abused or falling into the wrong hands.  If God is showing Ryan women in their pajamas, then there is obviously some reason why God wants Ryan to see women in their pajamas, and you shouldn’t fault Ryan for that.

But hey, people are illogical like that in real life.

I’m also a little skeptical about exploring the issue of slavery and its ill effects from the point of view of privileged white people (Merri considerably less privileged, of course.)  It worries me that the protagonists are surprised by an integrated church in the 21st Century, and that John has never seen a church that allows black people and white people to worship together before.

I see this book was self-published–the author may need a stricter editor to work out some of these problems with.

Book Review: There Are Doors

Book Review: There Are Doors by Gene Wolfe

There Are Doors by Gene WolfeMr. Green has hooked up with Lara, a woman he knows almost nothing about.  After a week, she disappears, leaving only a note explaining that “there are doors” and that he must not go through them.  Mr. Green promptly manages to stumble through such a door and finds himself in what appears to be an alternate Earth.  An Earth where Lara is a goddess, and men die if they have sex.

Mr. Green is an unreliable viewpoint character–even if he isn’t delusional or suffering from hallucinations, there’s plenty of evidence that he’s mentally ill.  It takes him a frustratingly long time to realize he isn’t on his Earth because he honestly can’t trust his own memories as to what is real.  The reader is not helped in determining how much is real and how much is madness by the fact that several characters are transparently based on the classic Joe Palooka comic strip.  (Readers born after 1980 or so might not have this problem.)

Such plot as there is is doled out sparingly, with long sections of “nothing happening” as Mr. Green gets his bearings or goes through the motions of his workaday life in what passes for the real world.  While the book comes down pretty solidly on the side of science fiction by the end, it can also be argued that Mr. Green has just had a final psychotic break from reality.

It’s an interesting change from the sort of science fiction I normally read, but I would only recommend it to readers with patience and a willingness to guess at what isn’t said.

Book Review: Zorro

Book Review: Zorro by Isabel Allende

Johnston McCulley wrote the first Zorro story, “The Curse of Capistrano” way back in 1919.  Set in Spanish California, it told the tale of Don Diego (de la) Vega, a foppish young nobleman who in secret was Zorro, the fox, masked protector of justice.  It was a modest success, but Douglas Fairbanks, Sr. read the story and loved it so much he got his movie studio to buy the rights so he could appear in the film version.

Zorro

“The Mark of Zorro” was a huge success, which inspired McCulley to write a sequel to his novel, and the rest is history.  But McCulley died some time back, and the folks who now own the Zorro trademark were worried that with no new print version, it might fall into obscurity.  So they asked Chilean author Isabel Allende to write an authorized book about the masked rider.

And so what we have here is an official Zorro fanfic.  Ms. Allende takes up the story of just how Diego came to be Zorro, from the improbable meeting of his parents, through the many circumstances that taught him the skills he’d need, to the origin of the Zorro name.  This all takes place prior to the timeframe of the first novel, where Diego was already working as Zorro with little said about his past.

It’s an interesting look at what might be necessary for Zorro to learn all the tricks he has, and expands greatly on the role of Bernardo, Diego’s mute servant and sometime Zorro decoy.  I was amused to see that Ms. Allende couldn’t resist putting in a self-insert character, a young woman who can see right through Diego’s foppish facade, and tellingly named Isabel.

There are numerous infodumps, which slow the story down and may irritate some readers who don’t care about the background of Jean Lafitte or the city of Barcelona.  I’m also told that this book is in a different style than most of Ms. Allende’s writing, so is non-indicative of her work.  Something that definitely comes from her is the moments of “magical realism”, with a certain amount of unreliable telepathy and a “Gypsy” fortuneteller who can really foresee the future.

It is good for what it is, but those seeking the full-fledged Zorro may want to return to the original books and stories.

Book Review: Redshirts

Book Review: Redshirts by John Scalzi

I’ve been avoiding reviews of this book, so this may be very redundant of other things you’ve read about Redshirts.

redshirts

The Universal Union capital ship Intrepid has a problem.  Or rather, the crew does.  Especially the lower-ranked members.  It seems that every time one of the senior officers or the astrogator go on an away mission with a lower-ranked crewmember, that crewmember dies, frequently in improbable ways.  Seriously, ice sharks?  Yet the senior officers always survive.

New crew member Ensign Andrew Dahl isn’t just going to try to avoid the issue, like many of the other lower ranks.  He’s going to investigate with the help of a handful of other people in harm’s way.  But what he finds may be more than even someone trained in esoteric philosophy can handle.

This is a very metatextual novel, and a funny one.  The parallels to classic Star Trek are deliberate and pointed out in the story itself.  It’s difficult to explain further without getting into serious spoiler territory.

After the main story, there are three codas involving minor characters and how the events of the story affect their lives.  The first is a little weak, but the other two hold up nicely.

I recommend this book for science fiction fans in general and Star Trek fans in particular, and those who enjoy metatextual fiction.

Book Review: City of Nets

Book Review: City of Nets: A Portrait of Hollywood in the 1940s by Otto Friedrich

The book’s title comes from a Bertolt Brecht opera, “The Rise and Fall of the City of Mahagonny.” Brecht had not yet come to Hollywood at the time, but “like a net set for edible birds” is a plausible description of the town.

City of Nets

“City of Nets” has little original research in it, being more a collection of anecdotes combed from more specific books. It’s arranged by year, from 1939 to 1950, with stories flashing back and forward as people are introduced when their movies are important. I think the closest comparison I can make to a movie is “That’s Entertainment!” It skips from person to person, story to story, never really settling down and examining one story in detail.

Still, it’s interesting for seeing the larger picture of what the trends were in Hollywood year by year, and what was happening at the same time. The serious scholar will be more interested in the extensive bibliography and footnotes suggesting further lines of research. Since the book was written during the Reagan years, the postscript is dated, and most of the people mentioned (including Reagan) have passed on.

I picked up my copy very cheaply used; I recommend you do the same.

Book Review: Come and See: Acts & Letters

Book Review: Come and See: Acts and Letters by Joseph L. Ponessa

Disclosure: This is a book received from the Firstreads program, on the premise that I would review it. Also, I should mention here that I am a Christian, although not Catholic, so my reaction to this is necessarily different from what it would be if I were a devout Catholic, or a non-Christian.

Come and See: Acts and Letters

As a Bible study guide, Come and See: Acts and Letters is not a stand-alone book; you’ll need both a Bible (preferably a Catholic one with all the books) and a catechism for full effect. Likewise, the fact that I read this solo is not in keeping with its true calling as a group activity. That said, let us begin the actual review.

Unlike some bible study courses I’ve seen in the past, there are not separate leader’s and student’s books. Thus the first section of the book is a “how to use this course” guide, with helpful instructions on setting up the study groups and organization. I found this section very helpful, but there were a couple of moments where the authors’ assumptions glared–most notably a blind spot about the possibility of men taking turns helping with childcare too.

The main text covers Acts and the Pauline letters, arranged in roughly chronological order. (Thus bits of Acts are split up between the letters.) I should mention here that the publisher is Emmaus Road, a reference to Paul’s conversion, and it’s clear that the authors favor Paul.

In addition to covering the content of the text, there are explanations of how these words fit into Catholic theology, some outside information on the history of the early Church, and plenty of quotations from Catholic theologians, especially John Paul II and Pope Benedict. A fair amount of time is spent on fitting pieces together, explaining how seemingly contradictory information is brought together as a whole.

Each short study section is followed by a quiz section, referring to other books of the Bible and the catechism to help bring the material into perspective. There’s also suggestions for social interaction outside the formal study.

Optional study materials include videotaped lectures by the author if there is no one in the group comfortable with that function–these did not come with my book. What did was an issue of “Lay Witness” magazine, which had some fine articles on witnessing from a lay Catholic perspective.

Overall, I found this an excellent work of its type; I do not agree with all its theology, but it is clear and consistent.

Peace be with you and yours.

Book Review: Where the Cherry Tree Grew

Book Review: Where the Cherry Tree Grew by Phillip Levy

George

Full Disclosure: I received this book as a Goodreads giveaway, on the premise that I would review it.

This is something a little different for me, a geographical “biography” that traces the history of a particular place. In this case, the piece of land that became known as Ferry Farm, where George Washington lived during his boyhood years. The title alludes to the infamous Parson Weems story in which young George takes a hatchet to his father’s favorite cherry tree and owns up to it.

The history begins with the first written accounts of the area, back when the Rappahannock was a wild river, where the West began. It mentions the first person to put a house on this particular tract, Maurice Clark, and a bit about his structure (traces of which were found by the author’s archaeological team.)

There’s a fair bit on the Washington years, some from actual records and other pieces extrapolated from what was dug up there. At the time, the Washingtons were an unremarkable family, planters and slaveowners like most of the local gentry. Some difficulty over the land (which George inherited, but not without strings) meant that young George Washington had to make his own way in the world, with the results most readers will be familiar with.

One notable thing here is that the original Washington house vanished bit by bit over the years–when Washington surveyed the land shortly before selling it off, he didn’t mention its location at all. And at the time, the people of Fredericksburg weren’t much interested in memorializing Washington, even after he became president of the United States.

Interest in the farm perked up, however, after it was visited by Parson Weems, who claimed that he had interviewed many of the older locals and learned of George Washington’s childhood. It is evident now that many of his stories were made up, though at one time there had been cherry trees on the property.

After Weems came a string of promoters and farmers who tried to make something out of Ferry Farm’s connection to the first president, interrupted by the Civil War and the near destruction of Fredericksburg and everything in the vicinity. Even the Washington Bicentennial (1932) failed to get Ferry Farm off the ground as a viable historic site. Only the threat of Wal-Mart paving the whole place over as a parking lot finally got enough money and interest flowing.

Chapter Nine is an abrupt shift from third person to first person, as it details the author’s archaeological dig and how they finally found the foundations of the Washington house. i found the shift offputting, and it might have been better left in third person.

The book wraps up with a meditation on what Ferry Farm meant to Washington, and what the cherry tree story, however fabulous, has to teach us today. There are black and white photographs in the center of the book, copious footnotes, and a complete index.

I’d recommend this book to the Washington completist, American history buffs, and the geography student looking for something different to read.

Book Review: Aim High

Book Review: Aim High by Joseph A. West

Cover of Aim High by Joseph A. West

If you’ve been around the small-press horror magazine scene for a while, you may already be familiar with the work of Joseph A. West.  His distinctive primitive art style, heavy on sloping foreheads, large noses and jutting jaws, has graced many a magazine.  He also is a poet and filled spots with prose where needed.

‘Ol Uncle Joe is 91 as of this writing, and a collected volume of his work has finally been published by Witch Tower Press of Minneapolis.  I happened to attend one of his readings at Dreamhaven Books (won’t get the chance again, I figured) and picked up the book there.

It’s arranged by category of work (with drawings throughout), Verse, Tales, Nonfiction, Random Musings and Illustrations.  The strongest sections are the first and the last.  Mr. West’s earthy and sometimes macabre  sense of humor works best in his poems, and his art is what he’s most known for.  The middle sections have generally good stuff, but there’s a lot of repetition as the same subjects and jokes come up several times.

Literary horror fans may be most interested in the accounts of H.P Lovecraft’s house, and a visit with August Derleth.  I do wish there were more nonfiction pieces aoout Mr. West’s experiences as a small press artist.  I bet there would be some juicy tales there!

I would primarily recommend this book to fans of small press horror who may have fond memories of Mr. West’s work, and those interested in the history of the field.

 

Book Review: The Devil–With Wings

Book Review: The Devil–With Wings by L. Ron Hubbard

Full Disclosure: I received this book from a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would review it. Presumably this was influenced by my review of an earlier book in the series, “If I Were You.”

The Devil--with Wings

This volume is part of the “Golden Age Stories” reprints of L. Ron Hubbard’s pulp writing. A lot of effort has been put into making the book physically attractive, and the appearance is of very high quality. I wish some other authors got the same treatment!

The short novel within is set in 1930s Manchukuo, a part of northeastern China set up as a puppet state by the Japanese invaders. The Japanese are being battled by a man they call “Akuma no Hane”, which the author translates as “the devil with wings.” (A closer translation would be “The Devil’s Feather.” Most of the names of Japanese people are likewise suspect.) This mysterious black-clad aviator has been harrying their troops for the last three years.

But now it seems Akuma no Hane has gone too far, killing the American civil engineer Robert Weston. Now, not only is Captain Ito Shinohari of Japanese Intelligence after the aviator, but Bob’s sister Patricia is also out for blood. Now the pilot and his faithful sidekick Ching must race to discover the truth and head off a Russian-japanese war!

This is an exciting pulp story, foll of action and gunplay. The centerpiece is a fierce dogfight told from Patricia’s confused viewpoint in the back of Akuma no Hane’s plane. The period racism is toned down considerably; Shinohari isn’t evil because he’s Japanese, but because he cares more about his own advancement than the good of his country. The Japanese in general are in the wrong, but that’s because they’re invaders, not the color of their skin.

The story does less well with Patricia, whose bravery and determination are emphasized in her first confrontation with Akuma no Hane, And then…she accomplishes absolutely nothing in the story, becoming a tagalong for the Devil. There’s a romance angle, but it’s badly shoehorned in towards the end. A woman with agency Patricia is not. If that sort of thing bothers you, take off a point.

The volume comes with a glossary, which will be helpful for readers who are unfamiliar with 1930s history, plus the same introduction and potted hagiography of L. Ron Hubbard that comes with every volume in the series, plus a several page preview of “The Green God,” another volume in the series.

This is a very quick read, and with the recycled material, I cannot recommend paying full price for this one. If you enjoy daring tales of aviation and the Far East, check to see if you can get The Devil–with wings from your library, or wait until it shows up used.

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