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Category Archives: Book Review

A Koontz Kwicky

dark rivers of the heartYeah, I know. Another long period with no writing. And I’m sorry. Again. But let’s move on, shall we?

I just finished another Dean Koontz book, “Dark Rivers of the Heart,” (1994, Alfred A. Knopf, Inc.) True, not one of his newest (or, to be honest, one of his best), but with the amount of books Koontz has written sometimes you need to go back to his earlier works just because. In this case, his theme deals with what’s happening with this country’s government and how, as it gets bigger, its ethics and morals shrink. Still relevant today, no?

Of course, being Koontz, it’s also about the nature of evil. Sorry, no supernatural elements in this book, but he makes up for that by including not one but two serial killers. Combine that with political intrigue, an urgent search, a desperate flight from the authorities and a terrifying encounter with this nation’s property seizure laws and you’ve got vintage Koontz.

Stop me if you’ve heard this one, but a man walks into a bar and meets a cocktail waitress. Spencer and Valerie (not their real names) strike up a conversation, get along and he goes back in the next night to see her again. But she never shows up for her shift. Now he KNOWS this isn’t because of him, so he goes to her place to make sure she’s alright. Bad move. Someone else is looking for her as well, someone named Roy. Roy is a chief operative of a rogue government agency that pretty much does whatever it wants to whoever it wants. Like this waitress and this guy.

Well, Roy and his boys blow the living you-know-what out of her place with the guy barely escaping with his life. And the chase is on! And being Koontz, there’s plenty going on here. But the main thing in this book is the examination of different kinds of evil: ideological, institutional and stand alone evil.

Let’s start with Roy, the government operative we met above. He’s the first of the serial killers we meet. You see, Roy is a believer in Utopia and the perfectibility of the human race – by a select group of superior humans. He being one of them, of course. Those who can’t fit in to the perfect world need to be compassionately dealt with. With carefully placed bullets. Heck, sometimes people just having a bad day need compassion too. Or those with disabilities. The need is never-ending and Roy is a very compassionate person. And since there is no god but the State, he can make up the rules as he goes.

Not as dramatically horrifying as Roy, but more overwhelmingly oppressive, is the institutional evil of a too-powerful State. You see, Roy isn’t ALWAYS compassionate. Sometimes he’s a bit thin-skinned and gets pissy. Then, instead of showing compassion, he just makes life miserable for his target. Like the unfortunate LAPD captain, Harris Descoteaux. He made the mistake of saying that, “No one’s more dangerous than a man who’s convinced of his own moral superiority,” to Roy. Who, naturally, is convinced of his own moral superiority. Roy considers killing him, but then decides that “Greater punishments than death were within his power to bestow.” Like introducing Harris to our country’s asset-forfeiture laws. Current as of 1994, the laws and government powers Koontz illustrates are scary beyond belief. To think that our own country has this ability and actually uses it against its citizens is chilling.

Finally, we meet the second serial killer, Steven. Steven is the real deal, a serial killer refined and distilled to its essence. He tortures his victims horrendously before inflicting a slow death and then using their bodies for his “artwork.” He has contempt for Roy and mocks him mercilessly: ” . . . you should hear Roy rant on about compassion, about the poor quality of life that so many people live and shouldn’t have to, about reducing population by ninety percent to save the environment. He loves everybody. He understands their suffering. He weeps for them. And when he has a chance, he’ll blow them to kingdom come to make society a little nicer.” So what is Roy doing wrong? Why doesn’t Steven give him the approval and validation he craves? Simple: “Roy doesn’t understand that these things have to be done for fun. Only for fun. Otherwise, it’s insane, it really is, to do it for some noble purpose. . . . He’s the least prejudiced, most egalitarian, foaming-at-the-mouth lunatic who ever lived.” Like I said, stand alone evil. Pure, dark nihilism. And, of course, Steven is right. All Roy’s wonderful “motives” are personal rationalizations.

I won’t give away how all these strains of evil play out in this novel. There are plenty of twists and turns to enjoy, and Koontz’ characters are marvelous as usual. But spend some time meditating on the nature of evil as Koontz lays it out here, and you will realize that there are things afoot in our world and our country that we had better pay attention to.

 

 
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Posted by on September 7, 2015 in Book Review

 

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The Lord and the Vampire Queen

Anne Rice has certainly got range. Long before vampires became angst-ridden teen icons, Ms Rice gave us vampires that were complex, powerful and truly frightening. The vampire Lestat is a character for the ages and “Interview With the Vampire” will be around long after the “Twilight” series has faded from memory. Then she gave us a family of witches from New Orleans and an entity that gave new meaning to the term “willies.” But wait, there’s more! She also has done grand scale historical novels as well as adult erotica based on fairy tales.

Sounds like Anne is the perfect choice to write a modern, fictionalized version of the life of Christ the Lord, right? Well, yes, of course she is. And she has. Twice. “Christ the Lord: Out of Egypt,” and “Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana.” I read the first one several years ago and enjoyed it immensely. I’ve finally come across the second one and I must say I’m impressed with this as well. But why would the modern queen of the vampires write a life of Christ? It’s a fascinating story actually. Briefly, she left the Roman Catholic Church and then returned. As a result she started writing “Christian” stories, including a very short-lived series about a guardian angel. But another time for that.

My concern here is with “Christ the Lord: The Road to Cana.” As the title implies, the novel takes place just before Yeshua (Jesus) is baptized by his cousin John and performs the initial sign of his ministry. The first half of the book explores his life in Nazareth with his extended family and friends. Rice continues to let Yeshua speak for himself in a first person narrative as she did in “Out of Egypt.” This is a bold approach by a confident, gifted writer and she succeeds wonderfully. Although it may seem presumptuous, who hasn’t wondered what Yeshua’s thoughts were as he approached his “introduction” to the world? Was he aware of who he was? What did he think of his family? Did he have friends?

Ms. Rice gives us a kind, soft-spoken Yeshua. A Yeshua who slips away to a private spot  to pray and meditate. A Yeshua who loves his family but is perfectly willing to disagree with and stand up to any of them should he feel it necessary. Yes, he loves a young girl, Avigail, and though he loves her he realizes he can never marry her. He (and his extended family) knows the stories told of him by his mother and step father, about the angelic visitations, his birth and the attending signs. Some of his friends and family even call him “Sinless One.” This is a very human, self-aware Yeshua, who just before his ministry begins and the world is sent reeling, thinks to himself:

And will I look back on these days, these long exhausting days, will I look back on them ever from someplace else, very far away from here, and think, Ah, these were blessed days? Will they be so tenderly remembered?

The event that prompts this poignant thought is the coming out of the wilderness of John bar Zechariah, Yeshua’s cousin, also known to us as John the Baptist. John begins baptizing at the Jordan and people flock to him, including Yeshua and his family. It takes a while to get to this point (chapter 18) but once reached the story takes off, mainly because from here we know what is coming. And it comes rapidly in Rice’s deft handling. In the last 115 pages of the novel we see the baptism of Yeshua, the temptation in the wilderness, the calling of the first disciples, including Matthew, the wedding at Cana (they were his friends) and the turning of water into wine.

The centerpiece of this final whirlwind, indeed of the whole book, is chapter 22, Yeshua’s confrontation in the desert with Satan. It is classic Anne Rice, a meeting of Good and evil as only she can render it. Appearing as a richly-dressed duplicate of Yeshua himself, Satan uses his celestial lore to try to lure the Savior of the world into his service. The dialog is crisp and quick, like this exchange:

“You know nothing of me. You have no idea! I was the firstborn of the Lord you claim as your father, you miserable beggar.”

“Careful,” I said. “If you become too angry you may dissolve in a puff of smoke.”

“This is no jest, you fledgling prophet,” he said. “I don’t come and go at whim.”

“Go at a whim,” I said. “That will be sufficient.”

The wedding at Cana is also a treat, with Rice showing us how Mary actually convinced Yeshua to turn the water into wine. (It was worthy of Jewish and Roman Catholic mothers around the world.)

The book ends with an unexpected but well deserved healing, and the promising final line: “And we started for the road.” Unfortunately, that promise will likely never be realized because Ms. Rice has again left the Church, and it’s doubtful her series “Christ, the Lord” will ever be finished. I hope I’m wrong, because this book was a wonderfully realized and well researched imagining of the Lord’s ministry at its beginning. It would be sad for it to end here.

As they say, “mysterious ways” and all that. We can pray.

 
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Posted by on June 9, 2015 in Book Review

 

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Le Morte d’ Danny

I know, I know. I haven’t been writing for quite a while. I’m really sorry. Honest. It’s just that my family has been going through some trials the past few months. Trials dealing mainly with the nanny state. I’ll leave it there for now because I have no desire to recall even the tiniest bit of having to deal with bureaucrats with no common sense.

Fortunately, I have continued reading. Indeed, reading is one of the things that has kept me somewhat sane amidst the lunacy. Reading something good is especially helpful. Reading John Steinbeck can be life renewing. It can also be just plain fun. So I picked up a collection of Steinbeck’s short novels and started reading “Tortilla Flat,” which I hadn’t read before. It’s a pretty easy read and, at a mere 207 pages, a pretty fast one too. But what got me interested in this particular novel was its background.

Now here’s something most people don’t know. To really appreciate “Tortilla Flat” you need to be familiar with the Arthurian legends, particularly Sir Thomas Malory’s Le Morte d’Arthur. It seems that Steinbeck was a big fan of Malory’s book. He even claimed that his love for the English language came from reading it. In the preface to “Tortilla Flat” Steinbeck comes right out and tells the reader that “Danny’s house was not unlike the Round Table, and Danny’s friends were not unlike the knights of it,” Danny, of course, being the stand-in for Arthur here.

“Tortilla Flat” is more a series of misadventures than a sustained tale, and that works very well for illustrating the vagaries of human nature as Steinbeck does here. We begin when Danny gets out of the army and returns home to find he has inherited two small houses from his grandfather on Tortilla Flat, a small district just above Monterey, California. At first he’s happy about it. Danny moves into the larger house and his friend, Pilon, moves into the smaller one. Over the course of the book several more friends move in with Pilon and eventually with Danny. These are the “knights” of Danny’s Round Table.

Of course, these friends are not knights. They’re not even British. They’re what Steinbeck calls “paisanos” which he defines as being “a mixture of Spanish, Indian, Mexican, and assorted Caucasian bloods.” They aren’t saints either. Quite the opposite, as Steinbeck makes clear throughout. But neither are they completely devoid of good. As the book’s episodes illustrate, good and evil in human actions and motivations are rarely well delineated. Indeed, they are usually jumbled together and can change from one moment to the next. Steinbeck puts it this way: “It is astounding to find that the belly of every black and evil thing is as white as snow. And it is saddening to discover how the concealed parts of angels are leprous.” Yes, he does have a way with words.

The other theme that parallels these tales of good dancing with evil has to do with what causes so much of both: material possessions. Danny, who had little of such, at first enjoys being a man of property and shares his good fortune with his friends. But over the course of the book the weight of ownership and the responsibility it brings are too much for Danny. Even small possessions can be like chains.

How Danny gets free from them I’ll leave for you to discover when you read this wonderful book. And you should read (or re-read) it. This is an American classic by one of our best writers.

 

 
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Posted by on May 18, 2015 in Book Review, Old Books

 

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A New Year

But I’m not promising anything. I mean, a few months back I wrote here that I was going to be more regular about posting reviews, especially about young people’s books. I really meant it too. But everyone knows how to make God laugh, right? Just tell Him your plans. Sure enough, after my promise to write more, life threw me two hard, inside sliders followed by a slow, rainbow curve on the outside corner. Whiff-City, folks!

So why haven’t I been writing? Can’t really say in this forum. Personal family-type stuff.

I haven’t stopped reading though. Reading is one of the few things that has kept me somewhat sane the past few months. I did finish Susan Cooper’s The Dark is Rising series of books. My opinion? Read the first two books and leave the other three. It’s not that they’re awful really. They just don’t match the quality of the first two. Cooper tries to introduce all sorts of Celtic legend and myth in too short of a time period and it gets rather confusing, especially in the last book, “Silver on the Tree.” For a series finale, it lacks that certain punch I was hoping for. Stick with the first two.

I’m currently reading Sir Walter Scott’s “Ivanhoe” at the request of an old friend. Halfway in and still interested in spite of the Ye Olde English language used at the time. I’ll let you know how it finishes, though I won’t promise you when.

Well, that’s about all for now. I have a few other thoughts and ideas rattling about in my skull but those will have to wait for another post. Hopefully that won’t be too far away. In the meantime, watch out for those slow curves!

 
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Posted by on January 4, 2015 in Book Review, Uncategorized, What I'm Reading

 

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The Dark is Rising

The Dark is Rising is the second novel in Susan Cooper’s five book The Dark is Rising sequence. After the almost leisurely adventure in Over

This is the second book of a five book sequence.

This is the second book of a five book sequence.

Sea, Under Stone, Ms Cooper kicks the conflict between the Light and the Dark into high gear in this book.

Instead of a seaside village in Cornwall, this tale begins in the English countryside at the home of a large family, the Stantons. A real large family. Mom, Dad, seven boys and three girls. The story centers on the youngest, Will, who is about to turn eleven, three days before Christmas. But he won’t just be turning eleven. He will be coming of age, so to speak, as an Old One. Actually, Will is the last of the Old Ones.

Helping him in this endeavor is the one character from the first book to appear here; Merriman Lyon, AKA Great-Uncle Merry to Barney, Jane and Simon. If you’ve read the first book, you know Merriman is far from ordinary, and he makes no pretense of being some distant relative or family friend here. Will gets to know him as he really is, an Old One of exceptional power. Indeed, Merriman is a wizard of Gandalf-like stature, sharing many of the Tolkien character’s mannerisms, habits and speaking patterns. It’s hard not to think that Ms Cooper patterned Merriman on Gandalf. But, of course, he is not. He is the appearance of perhaps the most famous wizard of western lore: Merlin. Cooper never comes right out and tells us this, though she came close at the end of Over Sea, Under Stone.

Will’s becoming an Old One involves a large amount of learning and, naturally, a quest. The quest here is for a set of six signs of power that must be brought together, or “joined.” The signs are circles quartered by a cross and are made of wood, bronze, iron, water, fire and stone, respectively. Oh, and not all of them are present in Will’s own time. The Dark must prevent Will from gathering these signs, for they have the power to stop the Dark from ascending to dominate the world.

The plot in The Dark is Rising moves forward briskly, with nicely placed twists and turns. Along the way, Cooper exposes young minds to some important ideas, including the notion that humans are free to choose between good and evil, the nature of time and history, and the cleverness of the Dark in using people’s good emotions to accomplish evil. Even better, in this book the author sets loose the forces of magic to wonderful effect. Unlike some modern fantasy authors, Ms Cooper has respect for the magic and doesn’t use it as a sideshow. It is integral to the story she is telling. And it’s a good thing that Merriman and Will have some powerful magic available to them because in The Dark is Rising, the forces of the Dark are immensely more ominous and threatening than in the first book. In fact, as book races to its finish the sense of evil’s relentlessness is conveyed very effectively.

While this book is a good read on its own, it’s clear that Ms Cooper is still putting things in place for the rest of the series. I’m looking forward to seeing where she goes with it. Next up, Greenwitch.

__________

Here are some reasons I consider this one of the “good stories:”

          – Positive depiction of a large family and its interactions.

          – Accurate portrayal of Anglican church service. Church shown as positive aspect of family life.

          – Examines serious and important ideas about life, including free will, and the nature of good and evil.

          – Imparts a sense of wonder about the world.

          – Shows the virtues of hope and faith in the face of dire circumstances.

 
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Posted by on September 1, 2014 in Book Review, Children's Books, What I'm Reading

 

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Another Wardrobe, A New Adventure

If you’ve read my previous post, you know that I’ve begun reading a new fantasy series called The Dark is Rising Sequence, written by Susan Over Sea, Under StoneCooper. The sequence consists of five books: “Over Sea, Under Stone,” “The Dark is Rising,” “Greenwitch,” “The Grey King,” and “Silver on the Tree.” The first book was published in 1965 and the last in 1977. So many fantasy book publishers these days try to claim their novels are in the tradition of Tolkien, but this lady is the real deal, having gone to Oxford and attended lectures by both Tolkien and Lewis.

“Over Sea, Under Stone,” starts out with a well-paid homage to C.S. Lewis’ “The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe.” Barney, Jane and Simon Drew arrive in the quaint seaside village of Trewissick, in Cornwall, for a vacation with their parents. The highlight for them isn’t so much the location but the person who’ll be staying with them: their Great-Uncle Merry. “Gumerry,” as they affectionately call him, has arranged for them to stay in a sea captain’s residence called the Grey House, a tall, dark-grey structure high on a steep hill overlooking the harbor. The day after they arrive it begins to rain and the children are, of course, bored. They decide to play at explorers and explore the house. Beginning to sound a tad familiar? In the boys’ bedroom there’s an alcove with a wardrobe in it. No, they don’t open it and crawl in. They pull it away from the wall and find a hidden door covered in dust. Behind the door there’s a stairway that leads up into the attic and to their adventure.

Nicely done, Ms. Cooper.

While the children don’t wind up in a parallel world such as Narnia, they do find that the world they live in has changed unalterably. In the attic, they find some kind of ancient map or chart with strange writing, Latin perhaps, on it. Simon, the oldest, claims it is a treasure map, but Barney, the youngest (and perhaps the smartest!) points out it’s not so much a map as a puzzle with lots of clues to be deciphered. And the challenge begins! Not just to find the treasure – and what a treasure! – but to keep this ancient document out of the hands of others who want it also.

It turns out that Great-Uncle Merry has been looking for it too. But that’s alright. He is, after all, one of the good guys. The rest of the players the kids encounter? Well, that’s part of the fun of this novel. Trying to figure out who the bad ones are. Some are obvious, some are not. But the kids have to weave their way around these characters on their quest to figure out what and where their treasure is. They are helped along by Great-Uncle Merry, who isn’t their uncle at all but a family friend of long-standing. The most intriguing character in this novel, Merry’s full name is Merriman Lyon and he’s described as being “old as the hills.” He’s also quite striking: “He was tall, and straight, with a lot of very thick, wild, white hair. In his grim brown face the nose curved fiercely, like a bent bow, and the eyes were deep-set and dark.” He helps the children by talking with them and pointing them in the right direction, but doesn’t always accompany them in their exploits. In fact, he tends to wander off periodically to see to other matters. Kind of like another tall, white-haired character we know from Middle-Earth. No, it’s not really him. A distant cousin, maybe.

Cooper has a real talent for letting us see things through the children’s eyes. As they put the clues together and grow bolder in their searching, their confidence grows. There are encounters with the dark forces, but Cooper shows us that evil doesn’t always display itself in overtly threatening ways. We also never know exactly what the ultimate goal of the dark is, which actually adds to the sense of mystery. There are touches of the supernatural in the story, but the author is wise enough to keep it brief and not overwhelming. The centerpiece of the story is the children’s quest, not someone’s magical powers. Indeed, Barney, Jane and Simon use their own wits and moxy to attain their goal. And courage. In the final chapter, Barney and Simon have theirs seriously tested in a harrowing sequence in a cave beneath some cliffs facing the sea. With the tide coming in. And matches running out. And . . . well, you’re just going to have to read this yourself.

It won’t be a spoiler to tell you that the Drew kids are successful in their quest. They find the treasure before the bad guys, but the bad guys aren’t defeated either. They disappear with the implied promise of return. But hasn’t that been the pattern for millenia? There’s also a nice surprise at the end, though perhaps not a big one for astute readers. The big surprise for me is that a story showing young people using their minds and courage to face up to evil and coming out on top isn’t more widely read.

______

As a guide, here are a few reasons I consider this one of the “good stories” for young people:

          – It shows young people using their brains and taking the initiative to solve problems.

          – It displays the virtue of courage.

          – It acknowledges the existence of evil and the need to oppose it.

          – Clever plot and likable characters.

          – Introduces young ones to aspects of the Arthurian legend and some of its themes.

 
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Posted by on August 12, 2014 in Book Review

 

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From a Little House to a Big Farm

At the end of “Little House on the Prairie,” the second of the classic nine-book series by Laura Ingalls Wilder, Laura and her family were Farmer Boysetting out from their home for parts unknown. In “Farmer Boy,” the third book, we start out a long way from the prairie. We find ourselves in New York State at the very large farm of the Wilder family, home of Laura’s future husband, Almanzo. And again, as in the first two books, we are allowed an enthralling glimpse into American life in the late 19th century.

Instead of the adventurous wanderings of a pioneer family, this time we see the equally challenging existence of an American farm family. Trust me, it could be nearly as harrowing as life on the frontier. From cutting blocks of ice from the nearby “pond,” to hauling wood in sleds over treacherous, snowy roads, to a race to save a corn crop from freezing in the pre-dawn hours, farming was a physically taxing and emotionally stressful occupation which required a person’s complete commitment. Much like it is today, I would guess, except without all the technology.

Fortunately for Almanzo, and the reader, life on a large farm with a big family had many joys as well. For one thing, Mother’s cooking. That woman could cook! And could that Almanzo eat: “Almanzo ate four large helpings of apples’ n’ onions fried together. He ate roast beef and brown gravy, and mashed potatoes and creamed carrots and boiled turnips, and countless slices of buttered bread with crab-apple jelly.” Think he was done? After all that, Mother “put a thick slice of birds’-nest pudding on his bare plate, and handed him the pitcher of sweetened cream speckled with nutmeg . . . Almanzo took up his spoon and ate every bit.” Not a book to read while you’re hungry.

As in the previous books, there really isn’t a plot as such, more of an examination of life at that time and place in America. More important than a story line, though, are the virtues Laura Ingalls Wilder allows us to witness in these books. We see the love and loyalty of close families, the respect of children for their parents (though not always obedience!), as well as hard work, dedication, perseverance, courage, duty, honesty and kindness. These are the true building blocks of American civilization and we forget about them today at our nation’s peril.

That’s a pretty good reason to make sure today’s children are exposed to these books.

 

 
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Posted by on April 16, 2014 in Book Review, Children's Books, History

 

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