Saturday, December 31, 2011

MOCKINGJAY by Suzanne Collins

Mockingjay is a 2010 young-adult science fiction novel by Suzanne Collins, and the final book in the Hunger Games trilogy. Here, Katniss has become the face of the rebellion’s propaganda campaign.

Mockingjay is often grimmer than the previous books, and Collins makes a couple of somewhat bold plot decisions (for the YA genre). However, while Collins knows how to keep the reader turning the pages, the story itself often lacks focus. Much of the book features Katniss involved in events of only peripheral importance, and a number of important story elements are not well developed, even if they are resolved satisfactorily.

In Mockingjay, Collins attempts to draw a contrast between Gale’s embrace of no-holds-barred warfare and Katniss’s reservations. Yet her attitude is inconsistent with her actions in all three books, and it rings distinctly false.

In the context of street warfare, the Capitol’s Games-style booby traps feel silly and impractical. And the book’s ending, in addition to fizzling abruptly, feels somewhat contrived and arbitrary. A very deliberate suspension of belief is required in a number of places.

Collins finally gives Katniss some substantial emotional reflection and explores just how damaged she is. However, this self-examination is focused on what Katniss has lost and almost completely ignores what she has done, which may make the reader feel that Katniss has not learned anything (especially the messages Collins seems to be trying to present to the reader) nor evolved substantially as a character. But Collins lowered the bar for herself in this regard in the previous books, and it’s better than nothing.

In the end, Mockingjay is an under-developed but reasonably entertaining and generally satisfying conclusion to the series, held back by the telling rather than the story.


Saturday, December 10, 2011


Green Goblin: A Lighter Shade of Green (2011) collects Marvel Comics’ Green Goblin #1-13 as well as Amazing Scarlet Spider #2 and large portions of Web of Spider-Man #125 and Spectacular Spider-Man #225, all of which were published in 1995 and 1996. The majority of this material was written by Tom DeFalco and penciled by Scott McDaniel. Taking place in the midst of Spider-Man’s notorious Clone Saga, this collection contains all Phil Urich’s appearances as the Green Goblin.

Here, Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich’s teenage nephew Phil stumbles upon a cache of Harry Osborn’s old Green Goblin equipment, accidentally gets covered in Goblin Serum, and decides to take the gear and become a superhero (sort of). He runs into some standard Marvel villains, including the Rhino, the Hobgoblin, and a Sentinel, as well as some original villains who aren’t particularly memorable; he also has encounters with the Scarlet Spider, the Thing, Daredevil, and Spider-Man.

DeFalco’s writing here is good, if unspectacular. Phil is something of a slacker, and the prominent theme running through the work is personal responsibility. It’s kind of an interesting counterpoint to Spider-Man’s massive guilt-driven responsibility, although Phil is prone to vacillation, which leads a little more farting around than benefits the story, since slackers, by nature, don’t tend to do a whole lot, and Phil may be slower to come around than some readers will like.

Green Goblin bears something of a debt to The Mask, which DeFalco readily acknowledges. There’s plenty of dated dialogue here, written by a middle-aged person clearly only guessing at what was hip and edgy (or maybe basing it on what he’d seen on TV), as well as a load of even more dated pop culture references. This is jarring in part because of the writing, but also because of how far technology has come in fifteen years. In any case, DeFalco would go on to far greater teen-centered superhero works with Spider-Girl.

The Spider-Man comics included here don’t really relate to the rest of the work – the Green Goblin doesn’t do a whole lot in them – and they don’t add much to Phil’s story. But for the completionists, this volume contains every appearance of Phil as the Green Goblin.

Scott McDaniel draws most of the issues, and his art is good, although there’s a general lack of detail. The muddy colors don’t help matters either. But McDaniel’s style fits the Green Goblin perfectly.

This is a self-contained story arc, and it ends at a good place to leave Phil before, under the direction of other writers, he goes on to crazier, more villainous things (this collection was put together in 2011 after Phil became a new evil Hobgoblin – nothing in this volume even hints at that).

On the whole, Green Goblin: A Lighter Shade of Green is a solid read, and will be accessible to those with a basic familiarity with 1990s Spider-Man.


Monday, December 5, 2011

MIRACLE ON SOUTHWEST BOULEVARD by Cindi Hemm with Katie Hemm Kinder

Miracle on Southwest Boulevard is a 2011 book by Cindi Hemm (with her daughter, Katie Hemm Kinder), about high-poverty, urban Eugene Field Elementary School in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

When Cindi Hemm took over as principal of Eugene Field in 2003, it was in atrocious condition and had the worst test scores in the state. Within a few years, test scores were in the top ten percent for the state, enrollment increased, problems decreased, and the school became a service-oriented community hub. It’s an amazing story. It’s the sort of thing Hollywood makes feel-good movies about.

These changes occurred because of reforms Hemm instituted within the school (requiring uniforms, teaching to the test, and so forth), but much more because of Hemm’s active recruitment of outside help. While some volunteered, Hemm enlisted the help of churches, businesses, and individuals to invest time and money in the school and in its children. This is the inspiring part of the story: how the greater Tulsa community turned Eugene Field into a place that could, in turn, serve its community.

Hemm’s leadership, resourcefulness, and dedication are impressive. She credits faith in God for much of what takes place, yet at the same time she celebrates how she frequently circumvents school administration to do what she wants – she calls this “positive deviance” – and recommends this practice to other educators. Whether the reader agrees with this or not, Hemm certainly seems like an interesting person. (As an aside, the reader may feel that in this book, Hemm is tooting her own horn; that’s fair, but it really doesn’t feel intentional.)  

Hemm’s writing is highly informal; it’s beyond conversational, somewhere on the level of a personal email. It reads almost like a novel, although it’s often stilted and sometimes doesn’t flow well. Also, Hemm. Emphasizes. Points. Like. This. She tells her story anecdotally and thematically rather than chronologically, and in any given chapter, it can frequently be difficult to determine at what point in the process a particular thing occurred. The book (which was self-published through Thomas Nelson) is horrifically mispunctuated and filled with typos (even on the back cover). It looks like it received zero copy-editing. Yet for all its flaws, the book never fails to be interesting, although you definitely expect a better-written book from a professional educator.

Eugene Field Elementary School’s turnaround is a great story, and as such, Miracle on Southwest Boulevard is worth a read. But the school’s story deserves a better book than this.


Friday, December 2, 2011

CATCHING FIRE by Suzanne Collins

Catching Fire is a 2009 young-adult science fiction novel by Suzanne Collins, and the second book in the Hunger Games trilogy. Here, the events of the first novel have stirred up unrest in the Districts, and the totalitarian Capitol threatens nearly everyone Katniss knows with death.

The Hunger Games was a page-turning affair; Catching Fire is too, mostly. Collins has a lot of creative ideas here, many of which work well, especially in the middle third of the book. It’s notably impressive that she can keep a second Hunger Games event reasonably fresh, although its abbreviated length certainly helps.

And yet here also Katniss spends page after page mentally whining, absorbed in her own problems, feeling sorry about her situation (that she’s moping about her loved ones’ fates rather than her own doesn’t make it less tiresome). Katniss is also painfully slow on the uptake throughout the book, and is often a hindrance to other people who are trying to get things accomplished. For numerous reasons, she just isn’t as sympathetic here as she was in the first book.

The real star of Catching Fire is the supporting cast. Whereas Katniss is usually content to take a blunt-instrument approach to her plight, many of the other characters are crafty, creative, and noble, and the reader roots for them. It’s too bad the first-person narrative restricts the book to Katniss’s perspective, because a great deal of what they’re up to is quite a bit more interesting than much of what Katniss has going on.

Collins’ writing feels somewhat less solid here than in the first book. The story itself is fine, but Collins at times seems more interested in setting up the third book than telling this book’s story. Much of the key action in the book is given in summary. The ending is a particularly glaring example, where the reader is given a glossed-over page of twists and revelations without even a proper scene. Additionally, the love triangle featuring two upstanding, devoted young men who don’t care how annoying the girl can be is boilerplate for female-fronted young-adult fiction.

For all the setup of the first book, Collins still doesn’t have anything interesting to say on any of her issues. She still hammers the totalitarian-government-is-bad point, but that government and its leader are never more than one-dimensional villains. Collins again ignores the moral issues of the Hunger Games; indeed, Katniss, who hopes that somebody else kills the people she likes so she won’t have to, is nearly all hardened killer here. (The seeds are here to make a point about fighting evil with evil, but Collins doesn’t seem the slightest bit inclined in that direction.)

Catching Fire is a page-turner. But because of its flaws, it feels shallow, and a page-turner is about all it is. Ultimately, that’s just enough to make it worthwhile.


Saturday, November 26, 2011

PAUL by Dibelius and Kümmel

Paul is a 1953 book about the life, background, and thought of Paul of Tarsus by German theologian Martin Dibelius. It was completed by his protégé Werner Georg Kümmel after Dibelius’s death and later translated into English by Frank Clarke.

Dibelius ascribes to Paul authorship of nine biblical epistles: Romans, 1 and 2 Corinthians, Galatians, Philippians, Colossians, 1 and 2 Thessalonians, and Philemon. Using these plus Acts as a secondary source, Dibelius traces a biography of Paul, with a particular focus on the historical and cultural factors that shaped Paul’s mission.

This is not an overly long book (it’s about 150 pages), and so Dibelius’s strokes tend to be necessarily broad. He focuses, naturally, on the pair of characteristics that made Paul uniquely qualified to take the Gospel to the Gentiles: his formal training in the Law and his rooting in Hellenistic Judaism. In Paul, Dibelius also discusses the influences on Paul’s thinking, and in doing so covers not only what Paul thought but also what he didn’t think (the sorts of things modern audiences typically think he thought).

The reader may feel, and reasonably so, that Dibelius is a little too liberal theologically, particularly early on in the book, where he seems at times not to leave room for divine inspiration, for the work of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s life. Yet this is not the effect the work as a whole has on the reader. And, in fairness, Dibelius does take the time to explain why he thinks Ephesians, Titus, and 1 and 2 Timothy were not written by Paul (whether the reader agrees with his reasoning is, of course, another matter).

The last three chapters of this book were completed by Kümmel. As the writing throughout the book tends to be academic in nature, there’s no substantial difference in style between the two authors, although Kümmel perhaps leaves more room for the work of the Holy Spirit in Paul’s life.

While Paul is a largely academic work, it is by no means inaccessible to a layperson equipped with a working knowledge of the subject matter. And, as such, it may serve well as an introductory- to intermediate-level exploration of Saint Paul’s life and mission.


Thursday, November 10, 2011

GALAXY QUEST: GLOBAL WARNING! by Scott Lobdell and Ilias Kyriazis

Galaxy Quest: Global Warning! (2009) collects the 2008 five-issue miniseries of the same name, which was written by Scott Lobdell and illustrated by Ilias Kyriazis, and which features the characters from the excellent 1999 Galaxy Quest film.

Lobdell, best known for his work on Marvel’s X-Men titles, mishandles the Galaxy Quest characters and world from beginning to end. In sharp contrast to the film, this comic takes itself so seriously; compounding matters, the dialogue is cheesy, and it isn’t funny at all. The characters are, to varying degrees, moronic caricatures; it’s a good thing Lobdell copies and pastes so much dialogue from the movie, or you’d hardly know you were supposed to be familiar with these people. The story isn’t any better; it spends too much time unnecessarily filling in blanks that anyone who’s seen the movie and has a basic familiarity with science fiction can figure out, what little plot there is doesn’t get going until two-thirds of the way through, and the resolution is feeble and asinine.

Kyriazis’s artwork is also a problem. His most egregious offense is his faces: they’re generic and so inconsistent from page to page that the reader really has to work to tell who’s who. There’s little attention to detail, either: the colonel wears general’s stars, and the Army helicopter says “Navy” on the side. Kyriazis’s loose style only exacerbates these problems.

If you’re not a Galaxy Quest fan, there’s really no reason for you to read Galaxy Quest: Global Warning! (it certainly isn’t going to make you a fan); if you already are a fan, you’re going to be disappointed. Either way, don’t waste your time.


Wednesday, October 19, 2011

A SHEPHERD LOOKS AT PSALM 23 by Phillip Keller

A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 (1970) is a devotional commentary on David’s Psalm 23 by Phillip Keller (also known as W. Phillip Keller), who was many things, not least a sheep rancher.

Psalm 23 is a short psalm, and this is a short book – even so, Keller devotes two chapters to each verse. Keller provides shepherding context for each part of the psalm, explaining David’s perspective on the subject matter and adding his own. The reader will learn as much or more about caring for sheep as about the Christian life, and much of this material is interesting in its own right. Spiritual matters are generally addressed at the devotional level (that is, not particularly in-depth), but Keller’s insights provide a fuller understanding of the psalm and food for thought.  

Keller’s writing is conversational and accessible, and the book is easy to read. Overall, Keller’s application of David’s thought to the Christian life is solid, although he makes some biblically valid points that are certainly not what David had in mind (Chapter 9 in particular feels like a reach). The only other complaint with the writing is Keller’s constant incorrect use of the word “literally.”

A Shepherd Looks at Psalm 23 is, on the whole, a worthwhile and illuminating treatment of Psalm 23.


Monday, October 10, 2011

THE MASK OF CTHULHU by August Derleth

The Mask of Cthulhu is a 1958 collection of six horror stories by August Derleth. These include “The Return of Hastur,” “The Whippoorwills in the Hills,” “Something in Wood,” “The Sandwin Compact,” “The House in the Valley,” and “The Seal of R’lyeh.”

All six stories are part of the Cthulhu Mythos originated by H. P. Lovecraft – “The Return of Hastur” is based on Lovecraft’s notes. Derleth says in the introduction to this book that these stories are a tribute to Lovecraft, and that they came about from Lovecraft urging his friends to expand the mythos.

Derleth is no Lovecraft. The elements that made Lovecraft’s stories so effective – atmosphere, tone, mystery – Derleth fails at. His stories are obvious, predictable, and melodramatic – Lovecraft’s lurking horrors don’t lurk here; you can’t go down to the basement without tripping over one. Compounding the problem, these stories have far too much in common with one another. If you’ve read one, you’ve pretty much read all six.

The Mask of Cthulhu might appeal to those enamored with the Cthulhu Mythos, but it just isn’t good horror.


Wednesday, October 5, 2011


Surviving Your Serengeti: 7 Skills to Master Business and Life is a motivational business fable by real estate expert Stefan Swanepoel. Billed as “a fable of self-discovery,” the book follows a married American couple’s learning experiences over two days in the Serengeti.

Swanepoel covers seven skills for life and business: endurance, strategy, enterprise, efficiency, grace, willingness to take calculated risks, and communication. Each of these he associates with an animal indigenous to the Serengeti.

Most of the information in the book is contained in several-page summaries at the end of each chapter. On the whole, Swanepoel’s message is good, if general. But Swanepoel is a businessman, not a writer, and it shows here. The storytelling is amateurish, the dialogue stilted and expository. There’s not much at all going on in the “story.” I’m not entirely sure why this book was written as a business fable instead of a conventional skills book – perhaps because it simply wouldn’t be book-length otherwise.

Surviving Your Serengeti has as much (or more) to say about Africa as it does about business; it’s obvious that Swanepoel loves the savannah. And there are some interesting tidbits on the subject here. Unfortunately, Swanepoel’s parallels between the animals and business feel forced nearly as often as they work.

Whoever edited this book deserves some criticism as well. Whenever a character’s monologue goes more than one paragraph, the second paragraph of dialogue has no opening quotes (the rule is that the first paragraph doesn’t need closing quotes). This can be confusing.

The end of the book makes something of a big deal about figuring out “what animal you are” – there’s even a website where you can take a quiz – which seems to undermine the book’s previous point, that you should apply as many skills as you can to your life and business.

If you’re looking for business and life skills, Surviving Your Serengeti has about thirty pages of solid material. If you’re interested in Africa, get a book about Africa. While there’s certainly some good stuff here, Surviving Your Serengeti feels too general, amateurish, and shallow, and the union of business and story just doesn’t work well here. You might check it out at the library and just read the summary sections.


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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Friday, September 30, 2011

THE HUNGER GAMES by Suzanne Collins

The Hunger Games is a 2008 young-adult science fiction novel by Suzanne Collins, and the first in a trilogy. In a post-apocalyptic dystopian totalitarian state, children are selected to fight to the death on live television.

This is hardly an original idea; it’s most strongly reminiscent of Koushun Takami’s Battle Royale and, to a lesser extent, Stephen King’s The Long Walk and The Running Man (the movie more so than the novella). Yet Collins manages to keep the setting and the games themselves reasonably fresh. And, after something of a slow start, the book becomes an entertaining, page-turning affair.

Like far too many recent young-adult novels, The Hunger Games is written in the first-person present tense. I don’t know if this is an attempt to engage teens perceived to have short attention spans or what, but it’s obnoxious, and it provides no benefit over conventional past tense (one eventually gets used to it, fortunately).  

Aside from this, Collins’ writing is solid (although the copy editing on this book is rather poor – not her fault). Katniss is a satisfactorily sympathetic character: she’s impulsive but self-sacrificing, and clever, resourceful, and self-sufficient without being deal-breakingly sassy or annoying. The book has a couple of convenient plot coincidences, but nothing unforgivable.

As young-adult books go, The Hunger Games might be as dark and violent as they come. And the novel stumbles here because it doesn’t seem to have much to say about its subject matter (beyond “the government making kids kill each other is bad”). The protagonist is forced to kill other children to survive (most of them, like her, are in this situation through no fault of their own) – you would think that this scenario would lend itself to some psychological self-exploration, but Collins punts on this issue, as Katniss, with only superficial reflection, is implausibly businesslike on the subject – she never thinks much about the people she’s killed, even during her many quiet times. This suggests a disturbing degree of amorality. It’s as though all these kids get dumped into the arena already in full-on Lord of the Flies mode. Collins herself seems much more interested in 1984-style criticism of totalitarian government, which is the subject she’s set herself up to address in the sequel. All of this may put off certain readers, and not unreasonably. In short, Collins’ treatment of moral issues is a legitimate concern, and a missed opportunity – her scenario, unlike, say, The Running Man, doesn’t lend itself well to action movie-style morality.

On the whole, The Hunger Games, while hardly a perfect book, is suspenseful and entertaining, which always overcomes a lot of flaws. It’s recommended to readers who like this sort of thing – if you can acknowledge the moral issues.  


Friday, September 16, 2011


The Subversive Copy Editor: Advice from Chicago is a 2009 book on editing by Carol Fisher Saller, a senior manuscript editor at the University of Chicago Press. The book’s subtitle is How to Negotiate Good Relationships with Your Writers, Your Colleagues, and Yourself, and this is Saller’s primary focus.

The Subversive Copy Editor is divided into two sections: one on dealing with the writer and working on behalf of the reader, and the other on working with colleagues. Saller’s advice, generally, is to take a common-sense and courteous approach to dealing with anyone and everyone. Her insight into the dynamics of the copy editor’s working relationships is probably the most valuable part of the book.

Much of the book seems geared toward new editors, and there’s a lot of basic, getting-started information here. On the whole, though, it isn’t very subversive – unless remaining calm and not killing yourself stressing out over minutiae is subversive.

Saller’s writing style is light and clever, and it makes this book generally enjoyable to read. Saller is also quick to discuss her own mistakes, which certainly helps the reader relate. Even if much of what she has to say isn’t profound, it’s nice to hear it from somebody who’s experienced and credible.

This is quite a short book, but the pace feels a little too leisurely at times, particularly as Saller seems to try to hit a number of disparate targets. Not everything in the book is for every copy editor, and few if any editors will find every chapter relevant or helpful. That said, though, most any editor can get something out of this book.

There’s nothing particularly groundbreaking here, but if you’re looking for an easy, common-sense book on copy editing, The Subversive Copy Editor is a winner.


Thursday, June 16, 2011

THE SERAPH SEAL by Leonard Sweet and Lori Wagner

The Seraph Seal is a 2011 science fiction novel by Leonard Sweet and Lori Wagner. In 2048, a history professor finds clues about the impending end of the world, and must race against the evil president of USAmerica (seriously) to keep him from usurping control of the new and coming world.

The Seraph Seal is an obvious mash-up of religious- and apocalyptic-themed stories and pseudosciences, including The Omen, The Omega Code, The Da Vinci Code, numerology, and Mayan doomsday theory. The theology in this book, particularly the eschatology, is also a nonsensical hodge-podge, although the Christian bits float on the top.

The writing in The Seraph Seal is indefensibly amateurish. The story has some solid geopolitical foundation (the authors have clearly done quite a bit of research), but the storytelling is just awful. The preposterous plot turns on a string of convenient coincidences, and the story jumps continually from one-page scene to one-page scene. Beyond the fact that there about three times as many storylines as the authors can handle (a second American civil war gets about three pages and doesn’t matter anyway), there is no opportunity for any real degree of character development, nor any chance for the reader to invest or engage in what’s going on.

The authors employ a large cast of boring, flat, characters, all of whom are brilliant, good-looking, gifted, and so on – and none of whom receive any character development whatsoever beyond the main protagonist, and him only slightly. And there are other problems. The story’s made-up “lost” scriptures are laughable. The ending, should the reader be diligent enough to make it that far, may make the reader wonder whether there was any point to the book at all. I could go on.

The authors call The Seraph Seal “engaged fiction” – they go out of their way to point out, at least to their minds, how realistic it is. The novel is prefaced by a non-fiction essay, and the last twenty percent of the book is speculation on the future of science, politics, and morality – this is a muddle of current events and “reports” from the fictional world of 2048. Given the shoddy quality of the purely fictional portion of the book, this material isn’t compelling, although it’s more interesting than the novel itself.

The Seraph Seal is a chore to get through, even skimming. In terms of storytelling, it fails abjectly. It’s astounding that Thomas Nelson would publish a book in this state.


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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Wednesday, June 1, 2011

FLATLAND by Edwin A. Abbott

Flatland: A Romance of Many Dimensions is an 1884 novella written and illustrated by Edwin A. Abbott. Here, a square that lives in a two-dimensional world relates his experiences there along with his travels in one- and three-dimensional worlds.

The social classes of the country of Flatland are described in such a way as to lampoon the Victorian social hierarchy. Every inhabitant of Flatland is devoted to climbing the social ladder; order is prized more than liberty; women belong to a lower class of their own. Abbott here is not particularly subtle in his criticisms, and one must imagine that the narrow thinkers that accused Abbott of misogyny really must not have been paying very close attention (these are the nineteenth-century analogs of people who think Stephen Colbert is really a conservative).

This dated aspect of the tale may not have particular relevance for a modern audience, but Flatland still has plenty of value. Abbott’s one- and two-dimensional worlds are impressively imaginative and quite well thought-out. Flatland is immersive, and along the way, Abbott manages to work in a number of profound thoughts on existence.

Flatland’s lasting legacy is its discussion of dimensions. Just as Abbott takes the reader through the two-dimensional square’s travails in comprehending a third dimension, so the reader is challenged to imagine a fourth. And Abbott does an excellent job of this, whether one considers this fourth dimension as time (as per general relativity) or an extra aspect of space (this is quite a bit harder to imagine). It also works if you consider the tale an allegory for God and the spiritual realm (Abbott was a rather prodigious theologian), which is not by any means a stretch given the “preaching” done in the story. In any case, it’s marvelously thought-provoking.

On the whole, Flatland is a well-imagined, well-reasoned, stimulating work.


Tuesday, May 24, 2011

THE FIGHT OF OUR LIVES by William J. Bennett and Seth Leibsohn

The Fight of Our Lives: Knowing the Enemy, Speaking the Truth & Choosing to Win the War Against Radical Islam is a 2011 book by William J. Bennett and Seth Leibsohn. Here, the authors, in criticism of  the use of what they call “soft” tactics in the war against terrorism, advocate a clearer identification of and stronger opposition to America’s enemies.

One of the highlights of The Fight of Our Lives is the authors’ excellent and savage attack on the media and the government’s fixation on political correctness. Much of the politically correct language used concerning the fight against terrorists has, as the authors say, blurred the issues and muddied the waters. And the authors are correct that this seems to be a form of appeasement, and that it would be better to be firm, to be resolute. The authors’ analysis of radical Muslims in the United States who slipped under the radar because of this focus on political correctness is eye-opening.

That said, the book as a whole oversimplifies matters to an alarming degree. The conflict is framed here, completely black and white, as America, the secular nation, versus (radical) Islam, the religion. And while the authors rightly condemn the tactics of the terrorists, America is at liberty, they say, to do whatever is necessary to defend itself – thus at the same time that the authors criticize terrorists for killing civilians, they defend America’s bombings of civilian centers and use of torture (which they actually deny happened). Here, America seems to be the end-all of human achievement and is, in fact, in no way to blame for anything. The entire book rings profoundly hypocritical.

The authors push their fearmongering ultra-right wing hawk agenda at every turn, and the tone of this book is simply awful. The authors are deliberately pejorative, beyond what is useful, to any and everyone with whom they disagree, whether it’s radical Muslims, President Obama, or his administration. It’s one thing to be anti-appeasement; that’s fine. But theirs is a gospel of retaliation without accountability, and they don’t seem to think particularly much of either the Constitution or diplomacy.

Coming from the publisher Thomas Nelson, the reader might expect this book to consider the conflict from a Christian perspective; it doesn’t. Far from it. There’s about a page here glossing over the concept of Christian “just war,” and outside of Chapter 7, “False Peace and True Peace,” in which the authors rebut the argument that Christianity and Judaism are more violent religions than Islam, there’s really no other mention of Christianity, and certainly nothing in the book is considered from a Christian point of view. This is not in and of itself a condemnation of the book, but it may helpful for the reader to know what he’s getting into.

The authors’ treatment of faith is one of the book’s major problems. The authors seem to have no real respect for faith or its accompanying tenets, for Islam or any religion. This is shown most clearly in their laughable “solution” to the whole mess – to “fix” Islam. Islam, the authors say, needs reform, which means that its theology and doctrine must be adapted and brought in line with secular America’s modern sensibilities. “Moderate” Muslims, say the authors, are the ones who will be willing to do that. The authors are, in essence, looking for the Muslim equivalents of reformed Jews and non-practicing Catholics. And best of luck with that.  

While it is neither without merit nor valid points, The Fight of Our Lives is, on the whole, an oversimplified and fearmongering response to real and serious issues.


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Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Friday, April 22, 2011

THE MOON POOL by Abraham Merritt

The Moon Pool is a 1919 “lost world” fantasy novel by Abraham Merritt based on two of his short stories. Here, a scientist leads a small band beneath the surface of the Earth in pursuit of others abducted by an evil entity called “the Shining One,” whereupon they discover a lost civilization on the brink of war.  

Merritt’s writing is wonderfully imaginative and extraordinarily detailed. His ideas, his places, his devices, and his underground world are enthralling. The Moon Pool does have a certain charm. And yet the writing has a lot of problems.

Pacing is the most egregious issue. The book crawls in many places, and for long stretches. This shouldn’t be; there’s plenty happening in the story, but Merritt’s writing ranges between verbose and extremely verbose. The storytelling is further hampered by a cast of flattish characters spouting corny dialogue, a great deal of which neither develops the characters in meaningful ways nor moves the story along.

Merritt devotes paragraph upon paragraph to his vivid descriptions of subterranean wonders, and yet the reader’s sense of place is often poor, as Merritt can scarcely ever be bothered to tell the reader where, specifically, his characters are, or where that might be in relation to the other places he’s depicted.

There are other issues. It’s painfully convenient how quickly all the characters learn the subterranean language. Much of the mystery of the underground world isn’t resolved until much too late in the book, and then by way of a massive expository dump. The book’s climax, an epic clash between warring factions, should be exciting, but the resolutions are clichéd and predictable.

The Moon Pool has been cited as an influence on Lovecraft’s “Call of Cthulhu.” As far as horrific creatures emerging from lost cities beneath the sea to ravage humanity go, that seems reasonable. Beyond some basic thematic similarities, however, there’s really no comparison.

Merritt isn’t read a great deal these days, and now you know why. On the whole, The Moon Pool feels like a missed opportunity, and it’s too bad. As it is, there are no doubt plenty of better books in the genre. And yet…The Moon Pool would probably make a pretty good film.


Sunday, March 20, 2011

CEREBUS by Dave Sim

Cerebus (1987) collects the first twenty-five issues of Dave Sim’s independent comic Cerebus the Aardvark, which were originally published from 1977 to 1981. These comics are, fundamentally, Conan parodies starring a bad-tempered, drunkard, anthropomorphic aardvark mercenary.

Cerebus begins with what are more or less straightforward Conan-type sword and sorcery stories with comic elements thrown in. These silly characters and gags don’t always mix well with the more serious/traditional ones, and the earliest issues are fair to middling.

Yet Sim’s storytelling evolves with impressive speed. By the second half of the volume, he is telling multi-issue stories filled with interesting supporting characters. These stories are not only quite entertaining (mostly), but they also begin to contain some political and social commentary.

Sim’s artwork also changes drastically over the course of these issues, especially his depiction of Cerebus. But these changes are for the better, as Sim finds and becomes comfortable with his own style. His art ends up being pretty solid – his faces and expressions are particularly good. He also does an impressive job with shading and backgrounds given the black and white medium. If there’s a nitpick, it’s with his lettering: his P’s often look confusingly like D’s.

On the whole, Cerebus is worthwhile for anyone into Conan stories, and it’s particularly interesting to watch Sim evolve as a storyteller and artist.


Wednesday, March 2, 2011

OF THEE I SING by Barack Obama

Of Thee I Sing: A Letter to My Daughters is a 2010 children’s book by Barack Obama, illustrated by Loren Long. Here, Obama affirms his children’s positive attributes while paying tribute to thirteen influential Americans.

The book reads like Obama talks; you can hear him in your head without trying too hard. And the text is a lot like a speech: it extols, in a somewhat general way, virtue, hard work, bravery, and the like, without getting into anything terribly substantial. But for what this book is trying to do, that’s fine.

Long’s art is the highlight of the book. Beginning with representations of Obama’s two daughters, on each left-facing page, Long adds a child version of the notable American spotlighted on the opposite page. By the end of the book, there is a mass of diverse humanity.

Sitting Bull, who made war against the federal government, is, shall we say, an interesting choice here, particularly since he’s saluted as a healer. I wouldn’t say it’s an inappropriate choice, necessarily, but Obama is certainly trying to get the reader to look at American history from multiple points of view.

Regardless of what you think of Obama or his policies, Of Thee I Sing is a lovely little book that celebrates the best about America and the people who made her great. Read it to your kids.


Tuesday, March 1, 2011


5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth (And Other Useful Guides) (2011) is a collection of comics by Matthew Inman from his website, The Oatmeal ( It features a large number of comics from the site plus 27 new ones.

Inman’s comics, in both the art and captions, feature his offbeat and manic sense of humor. He is creative, vulgar, and frequently hilarious, and his work is usually better the more over the top it goes (if you don’t like this book, “I hope a large meteor finds its way across the universe and smashes directly into your crotch while you sleep,” Inman says in the introduction). It’s not for everyone, though; the faint of heart, the squeamish, and the uptight may want to stick with Garfield. For me, Inman’s one of the few comic authors whose work is still funny after multiple reads.

The book itself is pretty high quality, with thick, glossy pages. Not all the comics are in color, but most are. And they aren’t all gems, but the entertainment level here is quite high. If there’s a knock on this book, it’s that some of the best Oatmeal comics aren’t here. Where’s the Gayroller?

The Oatmeal definitely isn’t for everybody, but if you like Inman’s work and style, 5 Very Good Reasons to Punch a Dolphin in the Mouth is a great collection.


Thursday, February 17, 2011


The Wookiee Storybook is a 1979 Star Wars children’s book featuring characters and events from the infamous 1978 Star Wars Holiday Special. The book is illustrated by Patricia Wynne; no author is credited. Here, Chewbacca returns to his home world for his two-hundredth birthday while his son “Lumpy” gets lost in the swamp.

This is, basically, a story you’ve heard before, told in a completely pedestrian manner, only Star Wars-ified: a kid wants to be a hero, disobeys his mother and goes into danger, gets rescued, and learns that “Even when you were afraid, you kept trying. That is what makes a hero.” Whatever. It’s also weird to see Wookiees speaking intelligible dialogue.

The only “real” Star Wars characters here are Chewbacca and Han Solo, and Han doesn’t have much to do (although there is a brief but interesting mention of how they met and became partners). But is it canon? Who cares? (Okay, it’s probably not, what with the Wookiee telepathy and the Millennium Falcon’s rocket shuttle and convenient “super-sensitive tracking camera.”)

Wynne’s full-color artwork is quite good. She does an excellent job with the characters, and her attention to detail in the backgrounds is particularly impressive, as is her vision of Kashyyyk. Her art is the highlight of the book.

I love Star Wars, love Chewbacca, love Han Solo, but The Wookiee Storybook is really for collectors only.


Wednesday, February 16, 2011



The Last Battle (1956) is a children’s fantasy novel, the seventh and final in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. It won the 1956 Carnegie Medal. Almost single-handedly, Tirian, the last king of Narnia, must deal with the rise of a false Aslan and a surprise Calormene invasion.

The Last Battle is a grim and bleak tale unlike any other in the series, as things start badly and get progressively worse in a hurry. Lewis handles this well, particularly by capturing the feelings of his characters, particularly their despair, and as a result, the book is suspenseful and gripping. The book’s finale, both as part of this story and the series as a whole, is nothing short of magnificent: it is an emotionally and spiritually powerful finish. The book’s final paragraph, which captures the heart of the true hope of Christianity, may bring tears to the eyes.

Lewis’s prominent theme here is the danger of false religion, and he deals with it from the points of view of the unbelieving perpetrators as well as the unwitting victims. The biblical imagery is strong here (for those who have a deep familiarity with the contents of the Bible, it may be the strongest in the series). The false Aslan’s politics and dealings evoke any number of biblical images, ranging from Old Testament prophets to Revelation imagery. Certainly The Last Battle is the most philosophically and theologically interesting book in the series (which is why it’s also the most controversial).

The book is not without a couple of small problems. Lewis’s involved narrator sometimes feels out of place given the direness of the story. Lewis also skips over a little more of the story’s behind-the-scenes developments than he might have – we do go from a lone crafty ape to a full-blown Calormene invasion rather quickly. But these are minor issues that do not detract from the story significantly.

Some readers have complained that in The Last Battle, Lewis “undoes” all his previous stories. This could not be more wrong (do you “undo” a game when you finish it and put the pieces back in the box?). Rather, Lewis brings them all full circle: The Last Battle culminates with the fulfillment and consummation of Narnia and all its stories.

As with The Horse and His Boy, some readers have also alleged racism here. While the dark-skinned, “Arab” Calormen are the villains of the piece, they are never portrayed as inherently evil (as in The Horse and His Boy, some are good and some are bad). Similarly, Lewis has been accused of being anti-Islam in his writing, for no other reason that I can see except that Islam is the religion of many Arabs. Certainly the Calormene religion bears no resemblance to Islam to the very limited extent to which Lewis goes into it; with its bloody god Tash and its human sacrifice, it’s far more reminiscent of the ancient worship of Chemosh or Molech. Anyone seriously maintaining these accusations is inferring quite a bit more than Lewis has put into the text.

The Last Battle is a triumph, a phenomenal story, and a beautiful conclusion to the series.


The audio version of The Last Battle is performed by Patrick Stewart. Anyone familiar with Stewart’s work, whether on Star Trek or elsewhere, knows he has a powerful voice, and so expectations will rightly be high. But while Stewart generally does a good job, he doesn’t quite meet these lofty expectations. Some of his voices are simply off; his sort of Cockney accent for the Calormenes seems flat-out wrong. And from time to time during his performance, his voices run into his narration. On the whole, it’s a good but not great performance.

Tuesday, February 15, 2011


The Magician’s Nephew (1955) is a children’s fantasy novel, the sixth in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Decades before the events of the other books in the series, two children (one of whom is Professor Digory Kirke from The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe) travel to magical worlds, inadvertently free the witch Jadis, and witness the creation of Narnia.

The Magician’s Nephew often has a lighter feel than the other books in the series. Lewis, who draws to a great extent upon his own childhood, is involved in the narrative in a more playful way than we’ve seen since The Voyage of the Dawn Treader. And while Jadis is an imposing and terrible figure, her attempts to conquer London are more comical than anything; Lewis does a good job striking a balance with her and not making the character ever seem silly, in spite of what’s happening.

Lewis’s imagination has free rein in a number of places in the story, most notably the Wood between the Worlds, the dead city of Charn, and the birth of Narnia. And with references to fairies, Atlantis, Arthurian legend, and the like, this book has something of the feel of a traditional fairy tale. The total effect is that for the most part, The Magician’s Nephew is refreshingly different from the other books in the series.

In addition to Lewis’s nostalgia for the Edwardian days and bygone social mores (the good and the bad), there are other moral themes at work here. The one that Digory is faced with time and again throughout the novel is integrity. And as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe contained strong parallels to Christ’s Passion, The Magician’s Nephew parallels the biblical account of Creation and the Garden of Eden.

It has been the fashion recently to read The Magician’s Nephew as the first in the series (since it is, after all, chronologically first). This is fine, I guess, but to my mind it works better after the reader has finished The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and the “Caspian trilogy.” Here, Lewis assumes that the reader already has a familiarity with Narnia, and while that isn’t mandatory to enjoy the book, there are a lot of little moments that the reader will not fully appreciate if he or she hasn’t read the other books first.

The Magician’s Nephew is a fun, imaginative story. But don’t read it first.


Friday, February 4, 2011


The Horse and His Boy (1954) is a children’s fantasy novel, the fifth in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Here, an adopted lower-class boy, a young, independent girl, and two Narnian talking horses attempt to flee from Calormen into Narnia; on the way, they get caught up in international political intrigue.

While Lewis wrote this book fifth, it takes place during the original reign of the Pevensies during the last chapter of The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. The only reason for this chronological decision is so that Lewis can bring the Pevensies back in supporting roles, which he does (plus Mr. Tumnus). And it is nice to see them as adults, more mature but still distinctly the same characters.

I trust it will not be too great an affront to Lewis to say that this story reads like The Prince and the Pauper by way of Arabian Nights. Not that there’s anything wrong with the story; it’s well-told, but it doesn’t feel particularly imaginative, and that’s what separates the good Narnia stories from the great ones. The Horse and His Boy feels too much like Lewis took a number of trusty old story elements and gave them the Narnia treatment.

This is the only book in the series where children from Earth are not prominent characters (there’s not much time spent in Narnia, either), and that alone gives The Horse and His Boy a different feel from the rest. But this isn’t Lewis’s best set of characters. Shasta is decent enough, but I feel like we’ve seen him before, in Twain and elsewhere. While the horses have their own personalities, they don’t add much to the story. A highlight is Aravis (another character we’ve seen before), in whom Lewis has the strongest female character in the series. (Aslan, as usual, steals most of his scenes.)

Lewis offers lessons to be learned, of course. The most obvious theme is pride: the Calormenes are a prideful people in general, and several of the book’s prominent characters have to learn to practice humility. Another is divine providence, which, thanks to Aslan, is present in all the books in a general way, but here is much more pronounced, culminating in Aslan explaining to Shasta how he has been present and involved at every key moment of the boy’s life.

Some critics have pointed to The Horse and His Boy (as well as to The Last Battle) and cried “racism.” In a book where most of the people who are good and right are light-skinned and the warmongering villains are dark-skinned, that’s understandable, but, I think, taking it too far. Certainly Lewis has populated his other Narnia books with light-skinned enemies, and, while he has done Calormen in the style of the medieval Arab world and set this culture up as a rival to Narnia, there is nothing egregiously antagonistic on Lewis’s part here, particularly since he portrays Aravis so sympathetically.

In short, while not Lewis’s best, The Horse and His Boy is another quality adventure.


Tuesday, February 1, 2011


The Silver Chair (1953) is a children’s fantasy novel, the fourth in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. The reformed Eustace, along with his classmate Jill, are summoned to Narnia to rescue the now-aged King Caspian’s only son.

The Silver Chair is a solid adventure, and, with its structure and content (giants, caverns, witches and such), is reminiscent of traditional fairy tales. On the downside, the story turns on a couple of rather predictable twists (they may be predictable even to children, at least to children who have, as Lewis might say, “read the right sort of books”), and there really isn’t much of a climax.

Lewis always has moral themes going on, but here, they’re particularly good. Eustace and Jill have to learn hard lessons in accountability and personal responsibility. The related theme of faithful obedience in the face of death is powerfully done: Eustace and Jill struggle the whole time, in sharp contrast to Prince Rilian, whose faith is summed up when he says, “Aslan will be our good lord, whether he means us to live or die. And all’s one, for that.” Lewis also continues to take shots at “modern” values by setting up his “Experiment House” school and then blasting it mercilessly; this assault is unapologetically obvious.

The characters are well done here: Eustace continues his struggle toward maturity. Jill, in contrast to the always positive but not particularly capable Lucy, is (and becomes) a competent and practical character. Puddleglum, the wettest of all blankets, is a nice supporting character (thankfully Lewis doesn’t overdo it with him). And Rilian’s simple but unshakeable faith is impressive.

The Silver Chair is a solid entry in the series, even if the moral themes pack more punch than the story itself.


Saturday, January 29, 2011


The Voyage of the Dawn Treader (1952) is a children’s fantasy novel, the third in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Here, Edmund and Lucy, along with their insufferable cousin Eustace, are pulled into Narnia to aid Caspian in his search for seven missing Narnian lords.

There isn’t much of an overarching plot here as there are in Lewis’s prior novels; it’s much more episodic, as the Dawn Treader sails to one island after another, and to one adventure after another. And this is why the novel works so well: Lewis has given himself complete narrative freedom to do whatever he wants, and he uses the full measure of his wondrous imagination. The unexpected is here in a way unlike the previous stories, and The Voyage of the Dawn Treader has throughout it the full and free spirit of fantasy adventure.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is a more charming read than either of Lewis’s previous books in the series, and the primary reason is that Lewis, as narrator, has gotten himself rather more playfully involved, making humorous observations here and witty comments there, in a way reminiscent of J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Hobbit. Lewis’s characters’ dialogue is also sharp and clever, certainly more so than in previous books. My general impression is that with this book, Lewis really got a handle on his Narnian storytelling.

As is usual for him, Lewis has a number of moral themes at work here: most obviously, he addresses greed on a number of occasions – greed for wealth, for status, and for beauty. Through Eustace, Lewis extols the virtues of being well-mannered and considerate of others, but he also attacks the notion that “modern values” are inherently superior.

Christian themes are not as prominent here as in some other works (except, of course, Christian virtue), but they can be found in some depth in Reepicheep’s quest for Aslan’s Country – his quest, as it were, for afterlife and the Kingdom of God. And this is an area of the story where Lewis excels. He does a fine job of balancing childish wonderment and mature gravity in his characters as they approach the end of the world, and Lewis’s fleeting glimpses of what might lie beyond fire the spirit and the imagination.

The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is an outstanding adventure novel; it might be my favorite book in the series.



The audio version of The Voyage of the Dawn Treader is performed by Derek Jacobi, and he absolutely crushes it. He does a simply masterful job. Jacobi does a wonderful range of voices, and he juggles them without a hiccup. He fills the story with life and energy, and sweeps the listener up in it. This is one of the best performances of an audio book I’ve ever heard, and it’s highly recommended.

Friday, January 28, 2011


Prince Caspian, or, Prince Caspian: The Return to Narnia (1951) is a children’s fantasy novel, the second in C. S. Lewis’s Chronicles of Narnia. Here, Peter, Susan, Edmund and Lucy are drawn back to Narnia, where hundreds of years have passed, and must work to overthrow a usurper and put the rightful king on the throne.

The story itself is rather straightforward: the Pevensies are in Narnia to do a job and get out. It’s all business, and the spirit of adventure the reader finds in the best books of the series is mostly absent here; it doesn’t help that the story follows the same basic structure as The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, only without most of that book’s epic feel and emotional power. And yet the world of magical characters and Lewis’s own wit and sprinkling of profound Christian principles carry the story and make it an enjoyable read in spite of its flaws.

A prominent theme in Prince Caspian is the virtue of faith and belief; some of the children experience degrees of doubt in Aslan, and many of the Narnians have lost faith in him altogether. Other themes include chivalry and, as is always the case with Aslan, grace.

Prince Caspian suffers from some storytelling issues. The novel starts with the Pevensie children, follows them briefly, and then jumps to Prince Caspian’s backstory, which takes up nearly half the novel. When the story returns to the Pevensies, they spend most of their time doing little more trudging through the woods. Prince Caspian almost certainly would have worked better if Lewis had written the whole thing from the point of view of Caspian himself (along the lines of what he did with Tirian in The Last Battle), although this would only further highlight the fact that the Pevensies have very little to do throughout most of the novel (and half of what they do is squabble).

On the whole, Prince Caspian is probably the weakest book in the Chronicles of Narnia, but even so, it’s still worthwhile.