Monday, April 29, 2013

SAINT GEORGE AND THE DRAGON by Margaret Hodges and Trina Schart Hyman

Saint George and the Dragon is a 1984 children’s book adapted from Edmund Spenser’s Faerie Queene by Margaret Hodges and illustrated by Trina Schart Hyman. It received the Caldecott Medal for illustration. Here, the princess Una recruits the Red Cross Knight to battle the dragon that threatens her country.

This is a surprisingly wordy little book, although this is in all likelihood by necessity given the level of faithfulness to the source material (Hodges also includes a couple of lines directly from Spenser). Hodges tells the story with ample description and impressive drama; while this helps make it compelling, the book may be too advanced and too intense for small children who are attracted by its short length and big, colorful pictures (there’s also a not-insignificant amount of blood illustrated).

The unequivocal highlight of this book is Hyman’s art. She has illuminated the pages, using the margins both to supplement the distinctly English setting and for storytelling. Her illustrations are thoroughly wonderful: her characters, faces, her use of color and shading, her sense of setting, her inclusion of native English plants, her attention to detail – they’re all fantastic, and every inch of every page is worthy of attention.

On the whole, Saint George and the Dragon is a very satisfactory telling of the legend, and one of the most gorgeous children’s books you’ll ever find.


Monday, April 22, 2013

20,000 DAYS AND COUNTING by Robert D. Smith

20,000 Days and Counting: The Crash Course for Mastering Life Right Now is a 2013 Christian motivational book by Robert D. Smith.

Smith takes, from a Christian worldview, a memento mori, live-each-day-as-if-it-were-your-last approach to living life with greater purpose, which includes the pursuit of personal goals, the appreciation of personal relationships, and the dedication of life to God. Smith also offers advice on conquering rejection, taking a proactive approach to self-improvement, and working through a lack of motivation.

This book is extremely short (it’s designed to be read in an hour), and while Smith offers some planning exercises and steps the reader can take to live life with more purpose, it nonetheless feels rather general. Some of Smith’s suggestions are concrete and feasible (for example, his “ten things you can do now”), but others, like, “Draft your life’s story, then live it,” may strike the reader as too broad and sentimental to actually sit down and do.

What Smith has to say is generally quite good, even if it’s nothing new; it’s just that he’s one of those super-intense, jump-out-of-bed-and-go types that the rest of us can find off-putting – it’s not so easy, after all, to get from here to there, or else we’d all be like that. In other words, while it’s relatively easy for the reader to accept Smith’s life principles and try to remember and implement them, it’s somewhat less likely that the average reader will run down the field with Smith’s exercises.  

In short, then, 20,000 Days and Counting is a helpful but general book; ultimately, how useful it is to you is going to depend almost entirely on how much you’re willing to put into it.  


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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.”

Monday, April 15, 2013


The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is a 2012 book on Christianity by Timothy Keller. Here, Keller uses 1 Corinthians 3:21-4:7 as the basis to explain what it means to be a “gospel-humble” person.

In the above passage, Saint Paul tells the Corinthians that he does not care how they judge him, for he does not even care to judge himself; he only allows God to judge him. This level of “self-forgetfulness,” as Keller puts it, frees a person from both pride and insecurity. Neither sins nor accomplishments are connected to identity; identity and self-worth are instead based entirely on the righteousness imputed to the believer by Christ.

Keller’s message is, quite frankly, a hard teaching, and one that seems to be of particular difficulty to the modern West, which tends to be so comparison-based and self-focused. Indeed, the biblical position on self-esteem presented here seems to be alien to many believers.

This is an extremely short work (less than 50 pages); it’s not much more than an expanded sermon. As such, there’s plenty of room for expansion in a number of areas, including and especially as to how the reader goes about becoming “gospel-humble.”

The Freedom of Self-Forgetfulness is, in short, an excellent introduction to an important aspect of the Christian life; however, it is little more than an introduction.


Monday, April 8, 2013

ATROPHY by Sean Danker-Smith

Atrophy is a 2012 mystery novel by Sean Danker-Smith. It is an indirect prequel to his previous novel, Harbinger, and peripherally features the protagonist from that work. Here, a social worker with a mysterious paramilitary past searches for a missing colleague.

Atrophy’s biggest strengths are its atmosphere and setting: the city of Silver Bay is almost a character unto itself. This provides the reader with a vital level of immersion and contributes to the hard-boiled, slightly Chandleresque feel the book often has.

The protagonist is something of a curious character. Velvet isn’t an unreliable narrator, as least as far as events are concerned (mostly), but she’s prone to extensive introspection and self-evaluation, and she’s rather terrible at it. Yet she periodically compels herself to act according to who she thinks she is or should be rather than who she wants to be or actually is. This is an interesting choice by Danker-Smith, as by the end of the book, she’s become a somewhat less sympathetic character. The ending, which isn’t completely satisfying (a not-insignificant amount of resolution is left for future books), also feels markedly wrong – at least at first glance – as it involves Velvet taking some extreme actions without being self-critical afterward. Yet this can also be construed as a major evolutionary step for her character of which she may not be aware. This turning point of hers is potentially quite interesting, and warrants the further development that it does not receive here in future novels.

Atrophy is the sort of story where characters show up and phone calls are received, promptly and as needed, to move the plot along. I can’t fuss about that too much, though, as this has been a tried-and-true mystery storytelling method for decades, and Danker-Smith makes the pace more than brisk enough to prevent any serious complaint, even if the story mostly seems to just coast along. But it always generates plenty of mystery, if not a good deal of suspense.

Atrophy was originally written as a serial for the web, and some of the seams are still showing, although it’s been tightened up tremendously since then. There are a number of good story elements here, but they don’t always play well together. Some scenes and elements feel out of place altogether; some seem to be there only to tie into other books in what is intended to be a rather lengthy series. I can’t attest to their real-life accuracy, but most of Velvet’s conversations with the psychiatrist are jarring, as are many of the pop culture references.

In the end, though, in spite of some flaws, Atrophy is, for the most part, an entertaining, page-turning mystery.


*More Sean Danker-Smith at 

Monday, April 1, 2013


How to Tell If Your Cat Is Plotting to Kill You is a 2012 collection of cat-themed comics by Matthew Inman from his website, The Oatmeal ( It features a large number of comics from the site, plus a few new ones.

At their best, Inman’s comics are offbeat, manic, vulgar, and over the top, and under any circumstances, they aren’t for the easily offended. On the whole, the comics collected here are quite enjoyable, if perhaps not quite up to the level of funniness Inman has generated in the past. Several comics are little more than whimsically put-together observations of cat behavior. There are a couple of classics here, though, including “How to Pet a Kitty” and “Cat VS Internet.”

The book itself is high quality, with thick, glossy pages, and most of the comics are in color. This is a decent-sized book – 130 pages – but it’s an extremely quick read, as many of the pages only feature one panel each. Half the book (literally) is comprised of “The Bobcats” and “Cat VS Internet” – this latter has been stretched out to 21 pages. Obviously, Inman has to adapt his comics to the dimensions of the printed page, but caveat emptor.  

Cat-loving Oatmeal fans should get plenty of mileage out of this book; fans of only one or the other will probably get substantially less.