Friday, July 29, 2016

Great Expectations, by Charles Dickens

Is Charles Dickens one of the greatest novelists in the English language?  That is probably not even debatable.  Is Great Expectations one of his great novels?  I wouldn't think so.  This is the story of Pip, an orphan "raised by hand" by his older sister.  He is learning the blacksmith trade from his brother-in-law, but receives the means to be a gentleman from a mysterious, anonymous benefactor.  He thinks his patron is a reclusive elderly lady in town, and that she is grooming him to marry her adopted daughter, the beautiful but distant Estella.

Of course things are not as they seem.  Pip enjoys his new riches a bit too much, ends up deep in debt, and then learns the true identity of his benefactor.  It's not who he thought, and he's plunged into moral dilemmas he had never imagined.  Dickens has some moral lessons here, some of them admirable.  But one lesson seems to be that you're better off sticking with your lot in life. . . . In the stratified culture of 19th century England, movement between classes was limited.  Great Expectations colorfully illustrates the class system of the era and the dangers of living outside your class.

Dickens writes great characters, but in this case I wasn't that enamored with the story.  It seemed wordy and overlong.  It seems like I've heard that Dickens published his stories serially in magazines, paid by the word, which would explain a lot.  In spite of my ambivalence about his style, I did enjoy Pip and his life and times.

2016 Reading Challenge: A book by or about Charles Dickens

Wednesday, July 27, 2016

Machinations, by Haley Stone

The machines have taken over, and they have decided that humans must be eliminated.  Such is the world of Haley Stone's debut novel, Machinations.  The machines have, for the most part, accomplished their goal of eliminating all humans, but a few holdouts resist and fight back.  Rhona Long has arisen as a leader among humans.  When she dies in battle, it seems the machines have taken out the resistance leader.  But she made arrangements to return--in the form of a clone of herself.  Rhona battles those who doubt her ability to lead, her former lover who struggles to accept her as Rhona, and her own doubts and struggles to remember her former life.

By focusing on Rhona's experiences and perspective, Stone gives a limited view of the Machinations and the current state of humanity.  Through Rhona, we learn the extent of destruction as well as the hope for a human future.  She revisits familiar sci-fi themes; the concept of robots taking over the world is not unknown to readers of sci-fi or viewers of sci-fi movies and TV shows.  Stone pays homage to the stories that have influenced her with frequent cultural references.  But while some of the themes and archetypes may be familiar, Stone's story is fresh and original and her writing is solid.  I'm already looking forward to reading the sequel!

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, July 25, 2016

Getting to Know the Church Fathers, by Bryan Litfin

For many evangelicals today, church history looks something like this: the Bible . . . the Reformation . . . my denomination's founding . . . my church's founding.  Or it might be more like this: the Bible . . . something something something . . . my church's founding (within the last couple of decades).  In my experience, lots of churches express a desire to have a biblical church or first-century church but have little regard for two millennia of history between then and now.  (To be clear, I am writing as a conservative evangelical in the U.S., and acknowledge my own limited experience.)

Bryan Litfin definitely writes from a quintessential American Evangelical perspective.  His father, Duane Litfin, taught at Dallas Theological Seminary and was a long-time president of Wheaton College.  Bryan Litfin went to DTS and now teaches at Moody Bible Institute.  Even with that pedigree, Litfin holds the early church, including the Church Fathers of the first several centuries of church history, in high regard.  In Getting to Know the Church Fathers: An Evangelical Introduction, Litfin invites his fellow evangelicals to appreciate the importance of these early shapers of the faith we share.

For Getting to Know, Litfin selects his "top ten list" of early Christians whose writing, leadership, and theology shaped the church.  His list includes obvious choices like Origen, Augustine, and Justin Martyr, but also includes a "church mother," Perpetua of Carthage, and  Patrick of Ireland, who (I don't think) is not typically counted among the church fathers.

Litfin's selections include biographical information, a discussion of each church father's writings and theological importance, and their impact on the formation of the church, as well as a selection from their own writings.  Unsurprisingly, each of them come across as evangelical.  More than a reflection of Litfin's theological perspective, Litfin reveals the genuine, passionate faith these early leaders of the church shared.  To our detriment, evangelicals "are being robbed of their ancient heritage precisely because they have equated the word 'catholic' with being 'Roman Catholic.'"  Litfin shows that "all the centuries of Christian history are our [every Christian's] rightful possession."

While not comprehensive, and while written from a decidedly evangelical perspective, Litton's book is a great resource.  He reminds us of the vibrant faith of the early church, and the importance of these fathers and others in preserving the right teachings of Jesus and pointing the church in the right direction for the benefit of future generations of Christians.  Our 21st century faith was built on the founding centuries of Christians.  "We are small figures inevitably carried forward by the weight of the holy catholic church, whose sails are filled by the mighty wind of the Holy Spirit."

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Sunday, July 24, 2016

Bat Dad, by Blake Wilson

Do you have a computer with an internet connection?  Google "Bat Dad."  Watch the videos.  You'll laugh, maybe until you cry, especially if you have kids.  Blake Wilson bought a Batman mask and started making videos around the house.  Most of them have him in the corner, selfie style, with his wife or kids in the background.  He provides hilarious commentary in his fake Batman voice.  Wilson is a funny guy, and his wife and kids are perfect foils.  I especially like the ones in which he surprises his wife (JEN!!) or when he catches the kids "in the act."

Now, if you don't have an internet connection, check out Wilson's book, Bat Dad: A Parody.  In this book, he takes stills from his online video, adds a line of text (which may or may not be the same as what is in the actual video), and calls it good.  I don't have a problem with his putting his Bat Dad idea in book form.  Books have a permanence and accessibility that a web site does not.  But so much is lost in translation to the printed page. . . .  I would compare it to those movie books that have stills from the movie and truncated dialogue, giving a general idea of the movie but are only about 1/100th as enjoyable as the movie itself.

Bottom line: I'm a big fan of Bat Dad, the man, the website, the superhero dad.  I'm not such a big fan of Bat Dad, the book.

Thanks to Blogging for Books and the publisher for the complimentary review copy!

Friday, July 22, 2016

This is What I Want, by Craig Lancaster

In This is What I Want, Craig Lancaster departs from his usual setting of Billings, Montana, to the far western edge of the state.  The little town of Grandview is going through some changes and growing pains, as the Bakken shale oil boom brings high-paying jobs--and the young, rough, transient oil workers with cash in their pockets--to the area.  Those changes, along with changes in the lives of Grandview's citizens, come to a head on the weekend of Jamboree, the town's annual festival.

This is What I Want centers on Sam Kelvig and his family during Jamboree weekend.  Sam is head of Jamboree.  His son Samuel reluctantly comes home from California, where he has come out of the closet and is using a different first name.  His wife Patricia supports her family but struggles with her infatuation with Grandview's famous hometown author, home for his annual Jamboree appearance.  Sam's brother, angry over what he sees as a slight by Sam, is going off the rails.  And holding them all together is Sam's long-suffering mother.

Lancaster juggles these and many more characters, crisscrossing their stories into one eventful weekend.  A lot happens in little Grandview over the few days of the story, really too much to seem real.  But hey, it's fiction.  I especially liked the new sheriff in town.  As an outsider who, by virtue of her position, has quick access to Grandview insiders, her perspective sheds light on some of the unspoken mores and cultural relationships of the little town.  The powerful, long-serving, yet somewhat despicable mayor never gets what's coming to him; maybe his type never will.

This is What I Want is a slice of life of Grandview, with no big central plot, but a bunch of sub-plots woven together.  When the weekend is over, many characters' lives have changed, particularly in the Kelvig family.  Lancaster writes with a strong sense of place and creates memorable characters.  I'll probably never get to Grandview, or whatever little Montana town that could be a model for it, but Lancaster makes the town real and relate-able.  He captures the problems they face with the decline of small towns and the rise of the oil boom (however temporary it may be).   Pick up This is What I Want and enjoy a memorable Jamboree weekend in Grandview.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

The Hard Way, by Lee Child

Lee Child's Jack Reacher books are addicting.  My latest fix: The Hard Way.  If you've read any Reacher books, you know that sometimes he just ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time.  Or the right place and time.  Somehow he manages to get hooked up with bad folks, but in the interest of doing the right thing.  In The Hard Way, he somewhat randomly comes to be employed by a wealthy military contractor in an effort to recover his wife and stepdaughter, who apparently have been kidnapped.

Of course, the contractor turns out to be a really bad dude.  Reacher is, of course, smarter and wilier than the bad dude and his henchmen.  He also meets up with the bad dude's sister-in-law from his first marriage, which ended with, of course, the mysterious disappearance of his wife.  This all turns out to be a bit convoluted, but Reacher, as always, has good luck and good timing on his side.  This is a rare Reacher book where I figured out what was going on, i.e. the true kidnapper, long before Jack did.  That's OK, it was still fun to wait on Jack to catch up to me.

Reacher has become a favorite character for me (and millions of others, of course!).  The Hard Way is a fun, violent read for Reacher fans.  The bad guys get their due, Reacher gets the girl, if only for a while.  As usual, he has no luggage or anything to tie him down, and disappears in the end.  I wouldn't want to be him, but I like him and his unconventional ethics.  Thumbs up for The Hard Way.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

Fallout, by Harry Turtledove

In Bombs Away, Book 1 of Harry Turtledove's The Hot War series, gives the Korean War a tragic twist with the introduction of nuclear weapons.  The Cold War turned quickly hot, as the Communists and the U.S start bombing the heck out of each other.  The mutual bombing continues in Fallout: The Hot War.

Just as he did in Bombs Away, Turtledove gives readers of Fallout a wide scope, focusing on  common people and on leaders of both sides.  The attacks continue, the ground war in Europe continues, people's lives continue as they live and love and try to figure out how to move on.  Turtledove's realism and detail in the character's lives is impressive and convincing.

One thing about Fallout that I didn't like as well as Bombs Away was that the more time passed, the further the timeline diverged from reality, the less interested I became.  Bombs Away really worked because it took a point of divergence from actual history.  Fallout continues the story along that new timeline, with many of the same characters.  Their stories are interesting, to a point, but the overall narrative was lacking.

These books together show the futility of nuclear war, and anticipate even worse conflicts.  As President Truman contemplates retaliation after the Russians nuke several U.S. cities, Turtledove writes, "Where did it end?  Did it, could it, end anywhere except with both sides too battered and devastated to throw any more haymakers, as if two weary pugs in the ring knocked each other over at the same time?"

The stories in Fallout offer some home, as the characters rebuild their lives after nuclear attacks.  But the hope is dimmed by the superpowers insistence on answering blow for blow.  Fallout ends as Bombs Away did, with an open-ended anticipation of what might happen next.  If Turtledove continues The Hot War series, each volume is bound to be even more bleak than this one.  Thank God it's only fiction--for now.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!