Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu

Book Review: The Book of Cthulhu edited by Ross E Lockhart

Fantasy and horror author H.P. Lovecraft wasn’t a big seller during his lifetime, but the loose setting he created of the Cthulhu Mythos, where humans are only the most recent inhabitants of a cold and chaotic universe, and many of the previous inhabitants are effectively gods, has become one of the most popular sub-genres of horror literature.  The twenty-seven stories in this volume are by second- and third-generation Lovecraftian writers.

The Book of Cthulhu

There’s an encouraging variety of protagonists; professors and prostitutes, hitmen and clergymen.  Some of them are from ethnic groups HPL would never have made the heroes of his stories.  There’s a variety of tones as well.  Of course there’s a number that are straight up creepy horror, but there’s also noir-ish crime fiction and deadpan penny dreadful humor.

The volume opens with “Andromeda Among the Stones” by Caitlín R. Kiernan.  A family guards a gate off the Northern California coast; but only one of them was truly born for the job.  I found the story rather slight, and one of the weaker ones in the collection.

The closing story is “The Men from Porlock” by Laird Barron.  Seven lumberjacks go hunting in the Pacific Northwest.  Not all of them are going to be returning.  This one makes good use of escalating creepiness, culminating in a scene where a monster makes its menace particularly personal.

Oldest story honors go to Ramsey Campbell’s “The Tugging” from 1976.  An art critic in a small British city is having disturbing dreams about Atlantis, which may tie into a comet with unusual gravitation behavior.  I’ve read this one before, and it’s interesting as an unintentional period piece.  I remember in my youth paging through great bound volumes of yellowing newsprint as the protagonist does here, instead of scrolling through microfilm, or today’s scanned files.

“Black Man with a Horn” by T.E.D. Klein is one of the editor’s favorites, according to the introduction (which is perhaps a little too generous to Lovecraft’s writing skills.)  An elderly writer who was a friend of HPL in his youth meets a missionary returning from Malaysia.  Over the course of time, the writer learns that at least one thing written by Lovecraft may be uncomfortably close to reality.  It is a good story, told well.

I also particularly enjoyed “Lord of the Land” by Gene Wolfe.  A Nebraskan teacher is collecting oral history in the Appalachian region.  An old man tells him about seeing the “soul sucker”, which seems like a tall tale at first…but it’s actually a warning.  This one held my attention fast.

Overall, this is a strong collection with many creepy stories and some marquee writers like Elizabeth Bear, Joe R. Lansdale and David Drake.  I should mention that one story features incest and marital rape.  Recommended to fans of the Lovecraftian type of horror.

Book Review: In the South Dakota Country

Book Review: In the South Dakota Country by Effie Florence Putney

This is a history of South Dakota written for grade school children in the 1920s, when the frontier days were still in living memory.  (Indeed, my mother was educated in a one-room schoolhouse some years later.)  This was before Mount Rushmore and Wall Drug, so the emphasis is somewhat different than a current history book might cover.

State Seal of South Dakota
State Seal of South Dakota

In the introduction, Ms. Putney explains that she’s tried to write the book in “stories” to make it easier for children to read, but never past the point of it not being good history.  The majority of the story is or intersects with Native American history, and the author tries to be evenhanded.  The war between the Ree (who were in the territory first) and the Dakota (a.k.a. Sioux) is covered in separate tales for each side.  However, there’s a lot of use of words like “savage” and “rude” (meaning crude, without craftsmanship) to refer to the native peoples.

Many of the short chapters are not so much about South Dakota as they are about people who passed through South Dakota on their voyages, such as Lewis & Clark.

The efforts of missionaries and others to “Christianize” and “civilize” the Native Americans are depicted entirely positively, and when the various difficulties between the races are brought up it’s always phrased that the Indians thought that the whites had broken treaties, rather than just admitting that the treaties had indeed been broken.

Towards the end of the book, there’s a chapter on the political shenanigans around the choosing of the state capital, with two major railroads offering free rides to encourage the citizens to vote for that railroad’s favorite.  (It wound up being Pierre.)  The last chapter is about the activity of the South Dakota Volunteers in the Philippine insurrection.  Their heroism is emphasized, though it is mentioned that the Filipinos thought they had been ill-used when the U.S. refused to let them be independent after the Spanish-American War.

This book is primarily of local interest to South Dakotans, but may also be instructive to students of history who want to see how it was taught to children in the early 20th Century.  Parents of younger readers will want to discuss the history of Native Americans as we now understand it, and how prejudice can distort our images of those who are different.  This volume was reprinted in 2010, so you may be able to find a reasonably-priced copy.

Book Review: The Beauty of Grace

Book Review: The Beauty of Grace edited by Dawn Camp

Disclaimer:  I received this book through a Goodreads giveaway in the expectation that I would read and review it.

The Beauty of Grace

God’s love is a wonderful thing.  It is not dependent on our earning it, it comes to us free of charge and all we have to do is accept it.  But sometimes it can be hard to feel that love, trapped in our own circumstances and beset with difficulties–or sometimes too much luxury distracts us from what’s important.

This book is a collection of short essays and personal stories about grace, and the writers’ relationships with God. They are divided by general themes:  purpose, trust, hope and encouragement, etc.  It’s firmly in the Christian inspirational genre, so will be most useful to those who already believe.  Most of the writers are women, with one token man, most are mothers and many are bloggers.

There is of course some sameness of topics, and you may have to look at the author’s name to see if it is a different person from a previous essay or not.  Thankfully, there is little glurge, and most of the essays are at least readable.

My personal favorite of the essays is “When God Says ‘Stop,’ He Doesn’t Always Mean ‘Quit'” by Rachel Anne Ridge.  It’s about a traffic sign that seems misplaced and useless where it is, but go on a bit further and the meaning becomes more obvious.  A parallel is drawn to roadblocks in our lives; they may not be meant to be permanent obstacles to our goals, but a way of telling us about hazards ahead.

“And So We Are Carried Along” by Amanda Williams is a powerful piece about her family’s time on food stamps.  “When Giving Up Is the Right Thing to Do” by Kristen Strong is about learning to accept when something is impossible and moving on.

Dawn Camp, the editor, also contributed several pieces, and the photographs throughout the book.  I think a bit more care could have been used to pick photos that look “right” in black and white; several of these lose something without color.

There’s an author bio section in the back if any of the essays intrigue you and you want to check out their blogs.

Overall, a decent book that will introduce you to many writers in the Christian inspirational field you may not have heard of before, and a nice gift for, say, Mother’s Day.

And speaking of grace, let’s have a video.  If you have never heard Sacred Harp singing before, give it a short while–the beauty will be there.

Book Review: An Accidental Abduction

Book Review: An Accidental Abduction by Roderick Cyr

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

An Accidental Abduction

Katy Byrd is from small-town Minnesota, and seeking a deeper relationship with Jesus and her Christian faith.  She accompanies her father on a (“non-denominational” but later specified as evangelical) mission trip to Morocco to help out a struggling local church community.  She get separated from her group and is kidnapped by terrorists.

Azir Ahmed was turned on to radicalized Islam in college, and has joined AQIM.  Despite his admiration for some of their goals, he’s really not down with the terrorism part of being in a terrorist organization, and is becoming increasingly uncomfortable with their violent actions.  When a foolish AQIM hanger-on kidnaps an American, Azir is assigned to guard the prisoner until the organization can figure out to capitalize on the situation.

While this book was self-published, the subject matter and treatment indicate that it’s meant for the Christian young adult market.  The writer for this market faces difficulties beyond the normal ones facing a YA writer, since certain topics are off limits or required to be presented in a specified way–without, one hopes, turning off or boring the young readers who are the target market.  Not everyone can handle this balance.  I regret to say that this is not a very good book.

The positive:  The basic plot idea is a good one; I like that the abduction is not planned, but a bungle by someone who only has a job in AQIM because his big-shot cousin was required to take him in.

I like that it’s not an “insta-conversion” story with the Sinner’s Prayer and an altar call, and a minor atheist character is not depicted as a sneering villain.  And if you wish, you can read it as non-supernatural, with the placebo effect of prayer, and some amazing coincidences.

Less good:  This book desperately needs an editor.  The  prose is clunky, there are spellchecker typos, and there is a lot of extra verbiage dedicated to telling, not showing.  This is especially evident in the first chapter, which is a prime example of what TV Tropes calls “character shilling.”  A secondary character spends most of the chapter extolling the virtues of the main character in order to impress the reader as to why they should like Katy.  (Pro tip: starting by listing all the superlative qualities your heroine lacks does not make it not character shilling.)

It takes about a third of the book to get to the main plotline, and the early chapters feel padded.  For example, there’s an attempt to build suspense with an untrustworthy-looking bus driver that goes absolutely nowhere–there’s not even a sigh of relief that he turns out not to be untrustworthy.

There’s also a weird political digression where the president of the United States is depicted as not being willing to help Katy because her father might possibly have voted against him in the last election, and only publicly identifying as Christian for political purposes.  The book is very careful not to mention the president’s name or skin color, but since the story is set in 2015, the odds are slim it’s Joe Biden.  (Shades of the “secret Muslim” canard.)

It’s also kind of weird that a cute white girl being kidnapped by terrorists somehow doesn’t cause a feeding frenzy by the American media–in real life, the parents would have been constantly harassed by opportunistic reporters and paparazzi.   Here, only the local media are interested, and then only after Katy is partially rescued.

Fatal:  Azir, a fervent Muslim, is gobsmacked by the concept of a merciful god that forgives sin.  He’s never heard of such a thing before!   This would seem to indicate that he has never read the Koran, the first verse of which describes God as merciful, and which goes on to describe God’s mercifulness and forgiveness of sins several times.  Nor has he ever seen a list of the ninety-nine names of God, which include “the Merciful.”

Slightly less untenable is the treatment of Allah and the Christian God as two separate entities; from the Muslim point of view, they’re the same being, the Christians are just worshiping Him wrong.  This should be even more evident as Azir and Katy are conversing in French,   In that language, the word for both “God” and “Allah” is “Dieu.”

It’s also notable that Katy, who’s been spending her spare time studying the Bible, seems never to have read Job or Ecclesiastes, with their perspectives on the problem of suffering.  Another odd bit is when her pastor uses his Christmas sermon to talk about how Jesus’ birth should influence lives in the present day, and this is treated as unusual, when it’s a standard pastoral topic that comes up every Christmas in most churches.

(There’s also a bit of gender essentialism when it’s just assumed that men going on a mission trip will be doing construction work while the women cook and clean, without checking to see if their skill sets lend themselves to that.)

So, no, I cannot recommend this book.  It needs a total rewrite with a good editor to bring out the good book that is buried in there.

Book Review: Wounded Tiger

Book Review: Wounded Tiger by T. Martin Bennett

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

Wounded Tiger

Mitsuo Fuchida was the flight leader in the attack on Pearl Harbor.  Jacob DeShazer was a bombardier who participated in the Doolittle Raid on Tokyo.  The Covell family were missionaries.  This book weaves together their stories.  The author bills this as “a nonfiction novel,” recreating conversations and thoughts as much as possible from the real life records and memories of those involved.

As a top pilot for the Japanese Navy, and later a leading officer, Fuchida participated in many important events of the Pacific Theater of World War Two.   But the reason this book is about him is that after the war, he learned of a Christian’s forgiveness and service even though she had every reason to seek vengeance instead.  Fuchida was shocked and intrigued by this news, and eventually converted to Christianity.

Jake DeShazer spent most of the war in Japanese prisoner of war camps after the raid on Tokyo.  He was severely mistreated and some of his fellow prisoners were killed.  But in the darkness of his cell, the Bible came to Jake and he fully embraced religion, Christ’s words of forgiveness and mercy.

The Covells were missionaries in Japan until the government made that unhealthy, then moved to the Philippines to teach, while their daughter Peggy went to college in America.  When the Japanese invaded the Philippines, they eventually hunted down and killed the older Covells as supposed spies.  But Peggy did not let this crush her or her faith, and worked to help Japanese POWs, the news of which eventually reached Fuchida.

The author originally wrote this material as a screenplay, and this shows in the very short chapters, and scene-setting date and place “intertitles.”   There are scattered footnotes explaining some foreign words (or in some cases revealing the Japanese phrase translated in the text.)  They’re inconsistently used, and i spotted a couple of typos.

There’s no bibliography as such, but the acknowledgements do mention published works of people the author consulted.

As the majority of this story takes place during a war, there is some disturbing subject matter, particularly in Jake’s prison experiences and the chapters on Hiroshima.  As a result, I recommend parents review the book before giving it to junior high or younger teens to read.  The book also touches on racism between the Japanese and Americans, which was exacerbated by the run-up to the war.

Real life is messier than we like, and some sins are more difficult to make a good story out of than others.  Fuchida’s long-term marital infidelity is only mentioned in the chapter in which he ends it, which means that his mistress and their child are shuffled off the stage immediately after we learn they exist, with no explanation of how this happened or what became of them.  One suspects that if the movie ever gets made, this is one of the scenes that will be cut.

The writing is okay, but some of the dialogue looks a bit “cleaned up” from how soldiers and sailors normally talk.

I’d recommend this book to World War Two buffs interested in the Japanese side of the conflict, and those interested in reading the life stories of Christian converts.

Comic Book Review: Boxers & Saints

Comic Book Review: Boxers & Saints by Gene Luen Yang

Disclaimer:  I received this boxed set as a Goodreads giveaway on the premise that I would review it.

Boxers

Little Bao is a farm boy who loves the Chinese operas performed at the spring festivals every year.  But one year a foreign devil, a missionary, appears and disrupts the festival, destroying the image of the Earth god that protects the village.  Disaster follows soon thereafter, both for the village and for Bao’s family.

Bao comes to hate the Christian missionaries and their foreign backers, as well as the “secondary devils”, Chinese who have converted to the Christian faith.  The government is in the pocket of the foreigners, but eventually Bao becomes part of a liberation movement, the Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fist.

Saints

Four-Girl is an unwanted child, a fourth daughter who is so unwelcomed by her own family that they don’t even give her an actual name.  Called a “devil”, she resolves to become the best devil she can be–and this leads her to Christianity.   In that community, she finds things she never had before:  cookies, compassion, acceptance, and the ability to choose her own name (Vibiana) and purpose in life.

It’s too bad that the Boxers are going around killing all the Christians.

This pair of graphic novels by Gene Luen Yang, creator of American Born Chinese, are set during the Boxer Rebellion (primarily 1899-1901)  and are reflections of each other.  Both Bao and Vibiana find themselves unable to accept their circumstances, and rebel in different ways.  These counterpart viewpoints cross over during their stories, showing that events have more than one interpretation, and the cruel ironies of incomplete information.

Bao and Vibiana also both have spiritual experiences,  Bao channels Ch’in Shih-huang, the first Emperor of China, who turns out to be a very demanding ghost.  Vibiana has visions of Joan of Arc, who encourages the young woman to seek her own path, but whose final fate foreshadows the ending of both stories.

As these books are fictional versions for the young adult audience, historical events have been simplified somewhat. to fit into the narrative.   No side ends up the “good guys” however.  The Harmonious Fist has high principles, but not everyone in their group keeps all of them, and even Bao finds himself committing atrocities.  Father Bey, an antagonist in Boxers, is a more sympathetic character in Saints, but his judgmental nature and bluntness cause more than one  bad outcome.

Trigger Warning:  Bao’s brothers bully him initially, though they come to respect him later.  Four-Girl goes through years of emotional abuse, ending in a cold-blooded act of physical abuse that drives Vibiana away from her family forever.

These graphic novels cover a period of history that most Westerners are likely unfamiliar with beyond a brief mention in World History or the Yellow Peril literature of the early Twentieth Century.  They are best read back-to-back, and now come in a boxed set for that purpose.  Parents should consider reading these with their young adults to discuss some of the more difficult subject matter, and checking out the Further Reading in the back which lists more scholarly looks at the history.

Overall:  Very good, and well worth a look.

 

 

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