All posts by jbair

The Steel Wave – Review

Jeff Shaara. The Steel Wave. New York: Ballantine, 2008. Print.

Though his father’s The Killer Angels on the Battle of Gettysburg won the Pulitzer and may be the best known of the Shaaras’ historical novels, this reviewer believes that son Jeff is as good a writer as his father, if not better. The method started by Shaara senior works well for Shaara junior.

The Steel Wave describes the events surrounding D-Day. Featured in particular are Generals Eisenhower, Gavin, Bradley, Patton, and Rommel. We are reminded that in an unplanned stroke of historical irony, Rommel was on leave back home in Württemberg when the invasion began.

We get scenes and scenarios leading up to the invasion—lots of politics, both Army-Government and Intra-Army types. It appears that Eisenhower and Churchill got along well, but certain military and political leaders seemed to cause problems for others. That was just as true for the Germans, as by 1944 Hitler was micromanaging the war far from the battle lines.

The Steel Wave also gives us a perspective of the enlisted men, the “grunts,” the guys actually doing the fighting. Fictional characters include a paratrooper who is dropped behind the lines and a soldier who is among the first on Omaha Beach. There is plenty of horror to go around.

The beach assaults were brutal. Especially, as it turned out, on Omaha Beach, which one of the best veteran German units was defending. Parachute drops rarely go quite as planned, so we get a sense of what the paratroopers endured as well. The invasion also included many gliders (“flying coffins”) going behind enemy lines. Many of them crashed, but they also carried necessary supplies, weapons, ordnance, and even jeeps.

What looked like checkerboard farm fields from the reconnaissance photos turned out to be bocage—a network of small fields, each separated by twelve feet of dense hedge. This slowed things down for the Allies once they got beyond the beaches, but also hindered the Germans and forced their vehicles out into the open more.

Some things succeeded well. The Allies had Patton command a nonexistent battalion in England and had double agents convince the German command that they were going to attack at Calais. The D-Day attack was truly a surprise attack, and the Germans did not have the supplies and troops along the Normandy beaches as they could have. Even after the invasion began, the Germans were slow to move their forces from Calais because they still believed a second wave was going to attack there.

Some things, at least from an Allied perspective, did not go well. A number of Americans including a general were killed by friendly fire when British planes bombed the wrong area. Patton and Bradley had the main German Panzer group in Northern France nearly surrounded and could have probably finished them off, but Eisenhower told them to hold off so that Montgomery could catch up. Montgomery did not move. Patton watched thousands of German troops and many tanks escape east through a gap that he could have plugged but was not permitted to in order to keep Montgomery happy. (I should note that in the book Killing Patton< /em>, General Patton is repeatedly frustrated by orders telling him to wait.)

While this is a fictional account, it is based on interviews, diaries, memoirs—many first person accounts. The story, then, comes across as realistic. Eisenhower and Churchill could have had the conversations in this book even if they actually did not. Here is one great quotation from Churchill to Eisenhower explaining why Patton was in hot water with politicians in both England and America:

Your General Patton caused a big d___d row, all over the place. His crime? He said we were destined to rule the world, you, me, and the Russians. B___y gigantic mistake. Not because he was wrong. His crime was he told the truth. Stupid bastard.” (114, emphasis in original)

If Killing Patton is true, that famous frankness may have gotten Patton killed.

The Steel Wave also quotes one of the paratroopers after the war. While Jesse Adams is a fictional character, it takes little imagination to understand a D-Day paratrooper saying something like what he said. Perhaps one of Shaara’s interviewees or memoir writers did.

I’m not a hero. I just like to jump out of airplanes. It didn’t matter much along the way I had to kill Germans. They shot at me, and missed. I shot back. And didn’t. (491)

Shaara’s last book of his original Civil War trilogy, The Last Full Measure, ends with the death of Jeb Stuart, a key Confederate leader who could not be replaced. Ditto with the second book in the trilogy, Gods and Generals, which ends with the death of Stonewall Jackson, another Confederate general whose tactics are often credited for the CSA’s army’s early successes. So The Steel Wave concludes with the death of Erwin Rommel, the Desert Fox, who understood what the Allies were doing but was unable to get the high command to listen to him.

The account of Rommel’s death is different from what I remember being told in junior high school, but Shaara assures us in an afterword that it is based on “the most reliable and the most oft-quoted perspective on the extraordinary drama of [Rommel’s] death.” (487) Shaara presents both Jackson and Rommel having doubts about their cause, but not about the loyalty and duty of the soldier.

On Such a Full Sea – Review

Chang-Rae Lee. On Such a Full Sea. New York: Penguin, 2014. Print.

A little over five years ago I read and reviewed Native Speaker by Chang-Rae Lee. I loved it, and recently came across this title by the same author.

All I can say is that On Such a Full Sea is very different. Lee is an original. It is even difficult to see that this book was written by the same writer as Native Speaker. So, did Chang-Rae Lee jump on the post-apocalyptic bandwagon?

Fan is in her late teens and lives in B-Mor, formerly known as Baltimore. It is not really clear if there was a worldwide disaster or simply that the world is now ruled by a hierarchy similar to that of Brave New World. It sounds as if most of the cities were destroyed or nearly so, and survivors settled in different areas. There are some allusions to “originals” as opposed to later settlers.

The disaster may have been biological, at least part of the disaster. Everyone is concerned about hereditary diseases, and it sounds as if most people have them. Whether these were mutations caused by something like nuclear fallout or simply the effect of time, it is not clear. What is clear is that treating these diseases is a major undertaking.

The world is divided into three classes, defined by where they live and their relative access to civilization. There are the Charters. These people live in protected communities and are the movers and shakers. They earn and spend the bulk of the world’s wealth. They are educated and have the kind of jobs that the wealthy have today—as song goes, “doctors and lawyers and business executives.”

Fan is from the middle group. These are the inhabitants of the cities. They are known as Facilities because each city is known for its product or related products. In B-Mor the people mostly work in aquaculture, what we would call farm-raising fish. There is a certain amount of regular agriculture also, but under very controlled conditions. Apparently much of the earth’s soil is no longer healthy for growing things people eat.

Families are not exactly obsolete, but the people in the Facilities tend to live in clans, often with many individuals to a single house or apartment. While people do identify with their clans, there is not a whole lot of traditional family respect or love, little fraternal or filial affection.

There are also the Counties. These are the people who live outside of the urban Facilities and the villages of the Charters. They are outside the law, often forming gangs or living alone or in some kind of tribal system. This is slightly reminiscent of John and the Indians in Brave New World. The lifestyle might be reminiscent of hillbillies from a hundred years ago.

The Counties have no access to medical care or any organized justice system. At one point Fan meets Quig, a former Charter veterinarian who becomes a kind of hero to many in the Counties and even some Charters because he provides medical care and saves the lives and limbs of a number of people. He is able to create a compound of loyal followers that serves to protect these County people from marauders.

These classes are not completely closed. Not only do some people from the Charters and the Facilities end up in the Counties because of legal or financial problems, but a few in the Facilities may be promoted to the Charters. All twelve-year-olds take an aptitude test, and those who finish at the top (usually the top two percent, but it can be smaller) have a chance to join the Charters to further their education.

Those in the Counties for the most part have no education. Those in the Facilities have enough to continue the work of the facilities. Those in the Charters can go on to high schools, colleges, and universities. Those who join the Charters from a lower caste must leave their clans behind and be fostered by a Charter family willing to take them in.

Some people from the Counties and the Facilities are taken on as helpers, family workers for wealthy Charters. In some cases they are paid; in others, it more like slavery. Among the Charters, helpers can be traded or sold by their employers.

Fan has a job described admirably by Lee. She is a diver in one of the aquaculture facilities. She inspects and cleans the large aquariums and fish that live in them. She can hold her breath for over three minutes and, of course, swims with great facility (sorry, I could not help it).

Fan is not fated to stay in B-Mor, however. The economy goes south, and her boyfriend Reg disappears. She seems to think he just left B-Mor to go into the Counties. However, many people in the town think there is something more. Everyone has their DNA tested, and Reg is shown to be C-free, free of any of the hereditary diseases that everyone else in the world seems to be carrying.

Clearly, Lee has created a new world into which Fan has adventures. She leaves B-Mor ostensibly to look for Reg. They are in love, and she is, in fact, carrying his child.

For that reason, this reviewer also thought of Longfellow’s Evangeline and Manzoni’s The Betrothed (a.k.a. I Promessi Sposi). Both of those stories are about women searching North America or Italy looking for their true loves. In Evangeline they are separated because of the expulsion of the Acadians (a.k.a. Cajuns) from Nova Scotia. In The Betrothed, they are separated by war.

In the back of her mind Fan also thinks of an older brother she never met. He was one of the fortunate few to excel on the exam and leave B-Mor for a Charter village somewhere. Possibly she may find out about him as well.

There is a lot to the story. It takes a little while to get into. The narrator is a resident of B-Mor who is trying to put the story together. His or her voice comes through, but he/she notes that no one reads any more. The style reflects that. One obvious example is that the narrator does not punctuate dialogue. There are no quotation marks or dashes or even guillemets (« ») pointing out spoken words.

The reader will get used to the style, but it does take a while. The world Lee creates should be interesting enough for most readers that they will probably say that the slog was worth it even if, compared to Native Speaker, the narrator is more detached.

Tom Clancy: Power and Empire – Review

Marc Cameron. Tom Clancy: Power and Empire. New York: Putnam, 2017. Print.

The Tom Clancy estate keeps cranking out the Jack Ryan novels, and this reviewer still enjoys them. Power and Empire, I am happy to say, has a little bit of Coast Guard action at the beginning of the story. Like many Clancy novels there are actors in its plot from all over: Indonesian pirates, Chinese politicians and triads, Mexican white slavers, and even an African terrorist.

It appears as though someone is trying to get a rise out of President Ryan and his administration with respect to China. It is hard to tell whether these perceived hostilities originate with Premier Zhao (who does resemble Premier Xi in many ways), other Chinese, the Taiwanese, or Islamists who disrespect both parties.

A Chinese super container ship catches fire in a mysterious manner while off the Washington coast in the Straits of Juan de Fuca. A Taiwanese with a Chinese passport (or is he really Chinese pretending to be Taiwanese?) seems to appear in a number of unusual places where trouble is happening. He may be connected with that disaster at sea as well as an attempt by Indonesian pirates to rob an American yacht and torpedo an American naval vessel that tries to rescue the yacht.

He also shows up in Texas where he seems to have a connection with some procurers and human traffickers. Then he is in Argentina at the time and near the place where a bomb has killed treasury secretaries of four different countries. The Chinese treasury secretary is injured in the blast but survives.

Jack Ryan, Jr., and his co-workers from the Campus (a.k.a. Hendley Associates) encounter him in South Texas where he seems to have more than a casual connection with some procurers, smugglers, and prostitutes in that area. He likes prostitutes who are underage.

Got all of that?

This story moves fast in the Clancy tradition. It flips back and forth to the different people and locations, and it keeps the reader turning its pages.

Longtime Clancy fans may recall Debt of Honor. It was an outlier in the Clancy canon. It focuses on a personal vendetta carried out by the mysterious John Clark against people who raped and murdered a friend of his. It is far and away the most violent of the Clancy tales and had little to do with either technology or politics. It was no technothriller.

Parts of Power and Empire share some of those graphically violent traits. There are few scenes that can only be described as cruel. We are introduced to people from the FBI who track children who have been sold into slavery. Many such young prostitutes of both sexes often end up in the United States where they can make more money. We do sympathize with Agent Callahan of the FBI who tracks down such people. The reader may ask, “Who does such things?” Alas, plenty of people do.

As an aside, one of this reviewer’s first encounters with an openly homosexual adult, the wealthy businessman boasted how he was connected to a ring that brought boys from Central America to homosexuals in the United States. Cameron would have us see that things have not changed in forty years.

It is also clear that the USA-China relationship matters a lot to the story. The two countries respect and mistrust each other at the same time. I recall my time in China as a teacher being told, “Chinese-American friendship has a long history and will endure a long time,” but also being asked, “Why are our two countries always enemies?” That curious ambiguity of the relationship between what are becoming the world’s two main superpowers drives this story as well—from both the American and Chinese perspectives.

Power and Empire is the first Jack Ryan novel by Marc Cameron, author of the Jericho Quinn novels. He channels Clancy’s style very well. Cameron’s background is with the U.S. Marshals’ Service. His description of human trafficking is new to the “Clancy” novels but no doubt reflects his own knowledge and experience of the subject. It is disturbing, but perhaps such things ought to disturb us.

Border Town – Review

Shen Congwen. Border Town. Trans. Jeffrey C. Kinkley. New York: Harper, 2009. Print.

If Shen Congwen were an Italian or Italian-American, he would probably be called a paisan. It is often translated “peasant,” but in the vernacular it has a sense of honor—one of the guys, but one who is a friend.

The translator’s introduction suggests that Shen was the Orson Bean of Chinese writers. Americans may remember Orson Bean as an actor and comedian. He was blacklisted in the fifties because he had been a Communist. Some time around 1960 he had a change of heart and by 1964 was supporting Goldwater. That did not fly in Hollywood either, so he was informally blacklisted again. He did many commercial voice-overs but probably never had the career he could have had he not been attacked by both right and left.

Though Shen Congwen did not apparently change his views as Bean did, his sympathy for the simple rural people (call them peasants if you like) made the Nationalists suspicious of him. Although not evident in this novel, we are told Shen was skeptical of Chinese tradition, especially Daoism. That may have added to the disdain of the Guomindang sympathizers.

The river town of Chadong, where Border Town is set, is a fairly harmonious place. The people all seem to work together, drink together, and understand one another. There is no class conflict. Indeed, Cuicui (“Tsway-Tsway”), who lives with her ferryman grandfather by the ferry landing of a small river, is courted by the sons of her father’s supervisor and one of the most prominent men in town. There is no class conflict or peasant oppression here. So Shen’s work was banned by the Communists until some time after Mao’s death.

We also learn that Shen had been chosen to receive the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988. We know that some Chinese who were so honored were not allowed by the government to accept the prize. We do not know whether that would have been the case with Shen because he died before the official announcement was made, and Nobels only go to living people.

So much for the translator’s introduction. Border Town is really a touching and understanding look into the life of ordinary rural Chinese. Westerners, especially Americans, can see from this story how Chinese take the long view. They have been around for some three thousand years, likely even in the same villages. This is the way they do and always will do things. There is a sense of timelessness in Border Town.

We are very much aware of generations. The teenaged Cuicui and her grandfather live on a small river near the Hunan-Guizhou border. The river flows and sometimes overflows. They go to town, especially to celebrate the annual Dragon Boat Festival. They are devoted to each other. Western readers are reminded that the parent-child relationship and respect for ancestors are much more important than the husband-wife relationship to the Chinese.

Cuicui is courted by two of the wealthiest and best-looking young men in town, brothers. She, though, acts relatively indifferent to them. What is more important to her is the sweet and gentle relationship with her grandfather and the daily rhythms of the ferry and the annual rhythms of the seasons.

We see a number of traditional customs. These are simply the way things are done. Cuicui can wait and observe. Life goes on till it no longer does.

This village is far enough from the more densely populated Eastern regions of China that there are not only hills but mountains. Living in the higher elevations are the newcomers—the army garrison and its descendants—who apparently arrived during the Manchu (Qing) reign. Along with them in the higher elevations, very typical of the hillier regions to the West, are the minority people, in this case the Miao, who moved to higher elevations when the Chinese settled the river valley a millennium or two ago. They all get along because they all are trying to make a living and to survive and, yes, to help one another.

This is no Shangri-La. Nature presents her challenges. A few people cannot be trusted, though everyone knows who they are. Some are snobs. Overall, though, there is a sense of harmony. It is a simple book about simple lives. Thoreau would have loved it—not because of any pantheism but because of the emphasis on simplicity and being in touch with the natural world.

One small part of Border Town reminded this reader of Finding God in Ancient China. While there are some mentions of a few Buddhist myths and Daoist rites, the God they really talk about and seem to believe in is the King of Heaven (Shang Di?) who resides in the West, and to whom Chinese Emperors offered sacrifices for millennia. Pray for the peace of Jerusalem, indeed. (Psalm 122:6)

Quietus – Review

Vivian Schilling. Quietus. 2002; Fayetteville AR: Hannover House, 2018. Print.

This book got my attention because of its title. The word quietus would have likely disappeared from the English lexicon if it had not been for Shakespeare’s Hamlet. In his famous “To Be or Not To Be” soliloquy, Hamlet says, “When he himself might his quietus make with a bare bodkin…” In other words, “When he could make his exit with an unsheathed dagger.” It is the half-mad (or is he really mad?) Hamlet thinking of suicide.

Quietus Cover

I had read Infinite Jest for a similar reason, that its title alluded to Hamlet. That book I enjoyed thoroughly, and it had numerous allusions to Hamlet. Quietus does not appear to have any such direct allusions to Shakespeare; however, it does have at its core a similar question of madness and some speculation about death, “that undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveler returns.”

Kylie O’Rourke and her husband Jack survive a plane crash in the White Mountains of New Hampshire. Of the dozen people aboard, five survive. Kylie is the most badly injured of the five and does not regain consciousness for three weeks. But weird things are happening.

Before the crash she had seen a raven perched on the wing of the plane. Though when she is rescued she is found buckled to her seat, she remembers going to a cottage with some of the other people in the plane, some who survived and some who did not, as well as with some helpful strangers.

She cannot let these things go. A hospital psychiatrist explains that her account it not unusual for someone with a near death experience (NDE). One tidbit this doctor tosses to the reader is that a Gallup poll indicated that a significant number of people have had some kind of NDE. But how does that explain the raven? Or that one of the people in the cottage seems to have come to Boston where she lives and is stalking her?

So was this an NDE? Was it something like the infamous “incident at Exeter,” also in New Hampshire, that purported to be aliens? Is she hallucinating? Is she lying? Or, perhaps, is someone gaslighting her?

There are at least three issues which Hamlet raises that come up in this novel. King Hamlet’s ghost appears twice in the first act of the play, but it is seen by a number of people. Since there are at least three witnesses to the same thing, it is no hallucination.

However, later in the play, the ghost appears again when Hamlet is talking to his mother the queen. This time only Hamlet sees it. Is he gone mad? Is his mother in denial? We do not really know for sure, but Hamlet is not acting completely sane.

So it is in Quietus. Jack says that he sees the raven on the plane also. But when Kylie sees a man from her apparent NDE in Boston, no one else does. She asks the owner of a shop where she saw him if he recalls the man, but he does not. When she says his name was Robert Petrie, the shopkeeper chuckles and points to a TV set where a re-run of The Dick Van Dyke Show is on. Van Dyke played a character named Robert Petrie.

Later she encounters this Petrie in a near-empty subway car late at night. He attempts to rape her, but the one other passenger in the car just sits there as though nothing is happening. Is she imagining all this?

When she confesses this to Jack, he tells her to report him to the police. His brother Dillon, a successful Boston surgeon, has a connection with a police detective, so she tells her story to him. The police have her look at mug shots. She sees a photo exactly like the man who has been stalking her from 1974. He was executed a few years later for murder. Even if he were still alive, he would be a lot older. (The book does tell us that it is set in the twenty-first century.)

One of the subplots of Hamlet is a fraternal rivalry. We learn that Claudius becomes King of Denmark by murdering his brother King Hamlet, Prince Hamlet’s father. We also know that Claudius marries the king’s widow, not so much for the political advantage but because he loves her, too.

So in Quietus we learn that Jack’s brother, who helps save their lives after the plane crash, also carries a torch for Kylie. Dillon’s girlfriend confesses that while she and Dillon have a very good relationship and he treats her very well, she will never have his heart because it belongs to someone else.

Hamlet himself confesses that he has not gotten over the death of his father. He is still mourning when it seems everyone else has moved on. Hamlet admits that the ghost “could be a devil” who “abuses me” because “of my weakness and melancholy.”

Not only might Kylie be suffering from PTSD, we learn that she has never really gotten over the death of her mother and little brother in a car accident some dozen or fifteen years before. Was her own experience in a near fatal wreck leaving her open to deceiving spirits as Hamlet feared he might be?

(Also, some people wonder if Hamlet and Ophelia were having an affair. Since brother Tucker was fourteen years younger than Kylie, and she confesses that she “mothered” him, is it possible that he was really her son and the brother story was just a pretense to cover a youthful indiscretion?)

The “answer” to such questions in Hamlet’s tragedy is an orthodox Christian one. The ghost is probably demonic as the Bible says Samuel’s ghost was (see my post on this subject). Quietus is more ambiguous. There is a suggestion of oriental or new age mysticism along with traditional Catholicism in the book’s exploration of “the undiscovered country,” but it could be something else such as a simple romantic death wish.

What is going on? Is Kylie experiencing PTSD, not uncommon after such a terrible plane crash? Is there something supernatural going on? Is it aliens who can go as fast as an airplane and disguise themselves as a raven? Is a jealous husband, envious brother-in-law, or a creepy stalker gaslighting her?

While most of the tale takes place in Boston—which the author knows well—some of it is also set in Savannah, Georgia, another East Coast city with a strong colonial heritage like Boston. It is the location of the bestseller Midnight in the Garden and Good and Evil. If you, the reader, liked that book, then you will probably enjoy Quietus.

N.B. This reader grew up in the Boston area, still visits the area a couple of times of year, and has led tours of Boston. Most of Ms. Schilling’s descriptions of Boston and its streets were spot on. I was puzzled, though, when she named a prison adjacent to Massachusetts General Hospital. In a note at the end of the book, she says that she moved the prison next to the hospital for the sake of the story. Poetic license makes the story a little more interesting.

Supergifted – Review

Gordon Korman. Supergifted. New York: Harper, 2018. Print.

That is right! It is only February, and already we are reviewing a book that just came out this year. Of course, it is not just any book, but a new on by our favorite Young Adult (YA) author, Gordon Korman.

Supergifted is a sequel to Ungifted, one of the funniest of all Korman’s stories. Supergifted does not disappoint in that regard. Another reader who read this and I are both amazed at how Korman keeps coming up with crazy ideas that make us laugh.

Towards the end of his Swindle series, Korman was getting repetitive, but then he stopped writing those books, which was just as fine. For the most part, though, he gets original ideas.

Supergifted continues the story of Donovan Curtis, now back in Hardcastle Middle School where he fits in academically. Readers will do fine without having read Ungifted, though they will probably want to read it after reading this book.

As Korman has done in a number of his novels, his chapters have different narrators. Donovan’s family life has changed as his sister Katie and Marine brother-in-law Brad have moved in while Brad awaits redeployment. They now have a baby daughter, Tina. Brad has named the Curtis’s new puppy Khandahar in memory of the province in Afghanistan where he served.

Noah Youkilis, the smartest kid at the gifted academy (I.Q. 206), has decided that even his advanced school is too boring. He wants to find challenges as an ordinary middle schooler, so he transfers to Hardcastle M. S. His goal is to take a class in a subject where he needs remedial classes.

The problem is that Noah is the stereotypical nerd. He is short, very skinny, and talks over the heads of most of his fellow eighth graders. Donovan calls him a wedgie waiting to happen. Because he knew him from the academy, Donovan feels a duty to do what he can to protect him from bullying.

Donovan does enlist the aid of the “two Daniels,” bullies who Donovan has become friendly with, to act as Noah’s bodyguards in school. While this does limit somewhat Noah’s torment at school, they cannot be everywhere. Noah still gets de-pantsed in gym class among other things.

As the plot develops, it more than just a funny fish out of water story. Total klutz that Noah is, he decides to join the cheerleaders. Never mind that he is male and cannot even do a somersault. The teacher advisor admires Noah’s school spirit and lets him join, to the great chagrin of captain Megan Mercury who has been dreaming about a state championship cheerleading squad.

The biggest, meanest jerk at school, Hash Taggart (Hashtag for short), has decided that Noah is just made for him to tease. Once, outside of school, when Donovan acts to defend Noah from Hashtag, the other Curtis dog Beatrice (Khandahar’s mother) bites Hashtag on the arm in defense of Donovan. Hashtag’s parents are both lawyers and threaten to sue the Curtises and have Beatrice euthanized unless they keep the dog out of their neighborhood.

All this happens before the story gets complicated. Yes. Donovan is a typical impulsive eighth grade boy. Noah is not typical at all. He one contact with the “real world” is YouTube. He watches WWE wrestlers on YouTube and thinks he can take down Hashtag by dressing like Hulk Hogan and wielding a folding chair.

Noah does not have boots, so he paints a pair of long johns from the knees down and heads off to Hashtag’s neighborhood on a Saturday morning. Donovan realizes what Noah is attempting while he is walking the dogs and hurries to the Taggarts’ street to head Donovan off. (Interesting, two different meanings of “head off” in two sentences.) Donovan knows he could be in hot water if he is seen in Hashtag’s neighborhood, but what is he to do?

What happens then is unbelievable, hilarious, and makes for a wild story.

Though Donovan is back at the regular middle school where he belongs, he still meets weekly with the robotics team from the gifted academy. He was the only one there with much video game experience, so he could handle the controller of the school’s robot better than any of the other kids, programmers and engineers they may have been.

As the plot concerning Noah and Donovan (and Hashtag and the cheerleaders and the dogs) thickens, the robot starts behaving erratically. This reader was able to discern why long before the revelation at the end. The fish is still out of water. I give no clues, only to see if other readers pick up on it. (Hey, I did not figure out who the murderer was in the last book I reviewed, let me be glad for connecting a few dots in this one.) Well, one clue: Even the governor of the state gets involved before the end of the story.

Few writers are as consistently funny as Gordon Korman. Supergifted is another hoot.

Telling Lies – Review

L. A. Dobbs. Telling Lies. Leighann Dobbs Publishing, 2017. E-book.

Telling Lies is written by a prolific mystery writer known for her cozies, mysteries with a minimum of blood and violence. With Telling Lies, the author goes slightly outside the cozy comfort zone. There is still very little blood or violence, but the main character is a police chief. Usually cozy mysteries focus on amateur sleuths à la Murder She Wrote.

Chief Sam Mason oversees the White Rock, New Hampshire, Police Department. There is currently one other full time police officer in the town, Jo, a younger woman who keeps things to herself. There are also the part-timer Kevin, a kind of intern who may not be too serious about police work as a career, and the secretary/dispatcher Reese. White Rock is a small town near the Canadian border. Nothing much happens there except when it does.

A third policeman, Tyler, had recently been shot to death while making an apparently routine traffic stop. While the mystery of Tyler’s death floats in the background, Telling Lies is about another mystery.

Seven young software engineers, men and women, were camping near White Rock. They had all been partying in town and then at their campsite. The next morning, one of them, Lynn Palmer, turns up dead, having floated several hundred yards down a river that runs through the campground.

Telling Lies is written in a classic mystery form. Sam and Jo investigate with the help of a stray dog they call Lucy. Lucy provides a little comic relief as she seems to be able to escape fairly easily from the town’s dog pound. The six remaining campers all have stories that make it sound like they are shocked that anyone would want to kill Lynn, yet it is clear from the evidence that her death was not an accident.

The group had just arrived the day before, so Sam and Jo backtrack to investigate everyone’s whereabouts during the day. Lynn’s cell phone is missing, so they lose out on one piece of evidence that could provide clues. Lynn was found just wearing her underclothes. Her other clothes were piled neatly upstream as though she had gone in for a dip and drowned or lost her footing.

While everyone from the small software company is excited about a new game they are developing, there turns out to be some messy relationship histories among them. So and so used to go with him but now he likes someone else. It almost takes a diagram to sort that stuff out. Besides, Lynn was actually a founding partner of the company with CEO Noah, and there is a provision that if either dies, the other gets the deceased’s share of the company.

It also sounds that as the campers were exploring the town of White Rock earlier in the day, Lynn separated herself from all the others for an hour or two.

A very alert reader might be able to figure out whodunit. Not this reviewer. The ending, though, was very satisfying. Like many Agatha Christie mysteries or the television show Death in Paradise, Sam gathers all the suspects together for “one last meeting” before the campers leave town. He and Jo are able to show in front of everyone who the guilty party is. No, nothing deep, nothing literary, but Telling Lies is a lot of fun with a satisfying conclusion.

The Return of the King’s Message to the Men of the West

The Return of the King’s Message to the Men of the West

In the previous post I mentioned an article that was posted on a now-defunct online magazine. Here is that essay. It originally came out in July 2004.

In the climactic scene of the Academy Award sweeping film The Return of the King, the final installment of The Lord of Rings trilogy based on J.R.R. Tolkien’s classic fantasy novel, the returning king Aragorn exhorts his troops as they are about to face the much larger force of Mordor. My high school students call this rousing speech “the Braveheart speech” from its similarity to a speech given before the Battle of Stirling Bridge in Mel Gibson’s Braveheart film.

The men of Middle Earth are in a life and death struggle with the forces of Sauron, Lord of Mordor. Sauron is an unseen, satanic leader of Mordor, the land “where the shadows lie.” It is a smoky, hellish wasteland whose principal occupants are the ghoulish, semi- human Orcs. Sauron’s goal is to take over Middle Earth, destroy or enslave mankind (and related creatures like Hobbits, Dwarves, and Elves), and bring the lawless autocracy of evil to the known world.

The battle is on two fronts. There is the spiritual or mental front, represented by the so-called Ring of Power, which the Hobbits Frodo and Sam are trying to bring to the volcano Mt. Doom in Mordor so it can be destroyed. If Sauron gets the Ring of Power, he will have power to bend anyone to his will. The challenge faced by the two Hobbits is to take the Ring to Mt. Doom undetected by Mordor security forces.

Then there is the more typical battle. Orcs have invaded and taken over various parts of Middle Earth. The men, mostly of the western lands of Rohan and Gondor, are making a last-ditch effort to fight off the waves of Orcs sent to them. A detachment led by Aragorn, the unrecognized but rightful heir to the throne of Gondor, has reached the gates of Mordor. They are vastly outnumbered. They can sense the evil presence of Sauron and his allies. But they also realize that they must fight. If they lose, not only are they killed, but their whole way of life will be obliterated and the civilization of Western Middle Earth will be for naught.

The film portrays the showdown in front of the gates of Mordor differently from the novel. The difference is due to the theatrical medium. Like Shakespeare’s Henry V before Agincourt or Gibson’s William Wallace before Stirling Bridge, the troops are rallied by a speech:

Hold your ground—hold your ground! Sons of Gondor—of Rohan, my brothers! I see in your eyes the same fear that would take the heart of me. The day may come when the courage of men fails, when we forsake our friends and break all bands of fellowship—but it is not this day! An hour of wolves and shattered shields, when the Age of Man comes crashing down—but it is not this day! This day we fight! By all that you hold dear in this good earth—I bid you stand! Men of the West! (Walsh et al.)

Even as late as October 2003, the month before the film’s release, the director and screenwriter Peter Jackson was tinkering with the film. This speech almost certainly was written for us men of the West—in Europe, the Americas, even postcolonial Africa and Australasia—with September 11 in mind.

Although the actual modern Islamist attacks may have started with the assassination of Robert Kennedy in 1968 or Meir Kahane in 1990, or the 1993 World Trade Center attempts, or any of a number of other incidents; we were made clearly aware of the Islamists’ intentions on September 11, 2001. We began to understand that they hated us and wanted to destroy us.

We learned that the name Osama had become the second most popular name for Arab boys (Muhammad is still number one). (Simon) We saw celebrations in Palestine, Egypt, Afghanistan, and even among some Muslims in the United States.

We were made aware that the battle we have become engaged in is not like any war the West has been actively engaged in since World War II. Like the war between West Middle Earth and Mordor, it is a battle for the future of civilization. If we had lost World War II, the world would have been plunged into barbarism and lawlessness. So will it be if the Men of the West do not stand up to the Medieval Islamists raging against us today.

While the focus of the Islamists is on the United States and Israel, we know that they are attacking the West everywhere they can. The last real Crusade ended in 1291. Western culture has moved on. The culture of the Islamists has not.

A good illustration is what happened in France. Until the recent headscarf controversy, France had been very tolerant, even fearful, of its Muslim minority. It had supported Libya and Iraq. Still, in 1994 Al Qaeda attempted to hijack an airliner and fly it into the Eiffel Tower. Why France? France was an imperial power in the Near East and North Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth century. But even more than that, France under Charlemagne put a stop to the Moorish expansion into Europe in A.D. 778.

The Spanish may think they are safe since they voted for a party less supportive of the War on Terror. They are deceiving themselves. Spain has been a bone in the craw of Muslims for six centuries. It is a major civilized nation that was once Muslim and now is not. The “moderate,” Westernized Muslim writer Akbar S. Ahmed tells us a South Asian Muslim character in a 1973 Pakistani novel says, “All I can remember is that I was leaving Grenada…I’ve been uprooted.” (Islam Today, 229) Here is a character half a world away with no ethnic or even historical connection to Spain or Moors—but he mourns the loss of Grenada, ruled by a tiny Muslim minority until 1492.

Osama’s “message to the world” was on September 11. Why that date? September 11 was an important date in the Habsburg-Ottoman War of 1683-1697. In 1683 the Ottoman army with Arab, Tartar, African, and Asian Muslim allies would penetrate into Europe, into the West, to the farthest extent in history. The army laid siege to Vienna, outnumbering its defenders about four to one. September 11, 1683, marked the “high water mark” of the Muslim penetration into Eastern Europe. On September 12, the Turks and their allies were attacked by the Poles and driven back.

The war continued with the Ottomans gradually losing ground. The last battle of the war, the Battle of Zenta, was won by Austrian allies on September 11, 1697. After that, the Turks sued for peace, and a treaty was signed two years later. September 11 is a significant date. (We should likewise declare that September 11, 2001, will be the farthest penetration of Islam into the Americas…)

We know that virtually all Muslim states are authoritarian. Osama’s goal is to restore the Caliphate of Baghdad—the medieval monarchy ruled by ruthless Muslim law and made famous by The Arabian Nights. Mordor in The Lord of the Rings is a caricature of the totalitarian state. The armies of Orcs as they assemble and march in the film are meant to echo Fascists. Indeed, Tolkien began work on the trilogy during World War II. Jackson’s depiction of Mordor with echoes of fascism also takes some images from Islam—especially Modor’s towers with two points at the top which resemble minarets with crescents.

The concepts of justice and human rights which form the basis of many Western governments are alien to most Muslim cultures. At best, non-Muslims are Dhimmi, second-class citizens with few rights. The same “moderate,” Westernized author of Islam Today complains for pages when Muslims are disrespected but then justifies Islamic governments and customs that imprison and execute Muslims who convert to other religions.

Columnist Dennis Prager calls the current extremist movements—whether Ba’athist, Shi’ite, or Waha’abi—“Islamic fascism.” Indeed, that is what it appears to be. Perhaps they hate the West because it refused to be conquered, because it has prospered materially, or because since the Middle Ages it has overshadowed the lands of their religion. Perhaps they are offended because of weakening Western morality. This I grant them, though such things as honor killings, abductions and forced marriages of Dhimmi women, kidnappings, killing all prisoners, polygamy, and special treatment of Muslims under the law all appear immoral to most Westerners.

Prager writes:

From our founding we [Americans] have believed that we have a mission to better the world. And for this we are hated. We are not hated for our power; we are hated for our values and our sense of chosenness—just as the never-powerful Jews have long been hated for their values and their chosenness. (Prager)

It is interesting that anti-Western Arab propaganda from whatever sources uses the terms Zionist and Crusader. Bin Laden has even used the term Zionist Crusader—a ridiculous oxymoron in the light of history. There is no Crusade; there is a jihad. And the West is the target.

A spokesman for Al Qaeda says they have the right to kill four million Americans. (Graham) What kind of system derives those kinds of “rights”? There is nothing those “rights” have in common with the rights mentioned in the American Declaration of Independence. If they think their God grants them this right, then they indeed are invoking a very different God from the God that the signers of the Declaration invoked. Theirs is a very different way of life. What are we going to do, Men of the West?

Our way of life is at stake. We may not win every battle. Terrorists may try to do more. There is a lawless horde eager to destroy us and our way of life. The week of the terrorist attacks, Yossef Bodansky, author of Bin Laden: The Man Who Declared War on America, was one of the few people in America who had written anything about Bin Laden. He was interviewed by National Public Radio. His interviewer asked him, “Is there anything the West can do to satisfy Bin Laden?”

He replied, “Pack up and move to another planet.” (Simon)

Osama himself said that his goal is to cause the “disappearance” of “the infidel West.” (Zuckerman) We have already seen that “infidel” means not only American or Israeli, but Filipino, Greek, Korean, Buddhist, Hindu, whoever they think is in their way. As Zuckerman writes:

This is not simply a war against America. These killings are not about the Abu Ghraib prison scandal or American actions in Iraq and Afghanistan—they’re not even about Israel. They are a tactic in a war to claim the world for a perverted version of Islam. It is not what we do, but who we are—and we are in the way as these misguided men seek to restore a new unified Muslim umma (community), ruled by a new caliphate, governed by Islamic law, and organized to wage jihad against the rest of the world.

This is a lot like what Sauron was trying to do with the Orcs of Mordor. The men of Middle Earth were in their way. What would the men of Middle Earth do? What will we do? Are we going to give up this day? Are we going to dissolve our relationships, our laws, our lands? Let us declare with Aragorn that this will not be the day!

Osama is not that different from Sauron. The question is simply like the one Aragorn posed to his troops at the gates of Mordor—do we have the resolve? Will we hold our ground? Will we appreciate the things we hold dear? Aragorn and Peter Jackson were not just speaking to Gondor and Rohan; they were speaking to us—the Men of the West.


Ahmed, Akbar S. Islam Today: A Short Introduction to the Muslim World. New York: I. B. Tauris, 1999. Print. [Note: The quotation is from the revised edition. I believe I originally read the first edition. It is possible there are differences.]

Graham, Alison. “Nuclear Terrorism Poses the Greatest Threat Today.” Wall Street Journal 14 July 2003: A10. Print.

Prager, Dennis. “Dear American Soldier in Iraq.” American Legion Magazine March 2004. Print. Reprinted at

Simon, Scott. “Bin Laden Bio.” Weekend Edition Saturday 15 September 2001. Web.

Walsh, Fran et al. Return of the King. Screenplay. Los Angeles: New Line Productions, 2003. Print. Posted at

Zuckerman, Mortimer J. “Looking Evil Right in the Eye.” U.S. News and World Report 26 July 2004: 84. Print. Reprinted at

Messiah Comes to Middle Earth – Review

Philip Ryken. Messiah Comes to Middle Earth. Downers Grove IL: Inter-Varsity P, 2017. Print.

Ursula LeGuin, may she rest in peace, complained that critics usually treated science fiction and fantasy works far less seriously than other types of fiction. Indeed, this reviewer recognized the literary quality of a novel by Philip K. Dick, and some of Heinlein’s and Jules Verne’s works are classics of literature. The earliest sci-fi like that of Swift and Cyrano were political satires. Some of the greatest works in world literature are truly fantasy; think of Homer or Vergil or many of the King Arthur tales.

This reviewer confesses, however, that even though I once taught The Hobbit in an English literature class, I fell into that view LeGuin disdained regarding The Lord of the Rings trilogy (LOTR). I have enjoyed the series immensely; they are the only novels apart from ones that I have taught that I have read three times in my lifetime. Still, I never considered looking at them as a literary critic or even as an English teacher. The closest I probably came was when I helped a team from my school win a trivia contest which included a number of questions from LOTR.

Messiah Comes to Middle Earth stunned me. This is an excellent book, full of examples and quotation from LOTR and familiar with Tolkien’s other writings and letters as well as what others have said about his work. This is truly literary criticism as much as anything by Harold Bloom. Of course, Tolkien was a college professor and author of various scholarly works in addition to his Middle Earth stories.

The book is pretty straightforward. Tolkien admitted that he did not intend to write a specifically Christian story, unlike, say, Lewis’s The Chronicles of Narnia where Aslan clearly symbolizes Christ. Ryken does point out that Tolkien admitted that, as a Christian, he wrote from a Christian worldview, even if it was not consciously so.

LOTR entertains, but it can also inspire and motivate. I once had an article published in a now-defunct webzine on Aragorn’s “Men of the West” speech before Mordor after the 9-11 terrorist attacks. Ryken shows one way it can both inspire and motivate.

No, there is no Aslan figure in LOTR. Gandalf does seem to come back from the dead—his apparent death saving the rest of the Fellowship from the Balrog—but Ryken makes a case that Gandalf is more of a prophet than a savior.

That is where the title comes in. The words Messiah and Christ both mean “anointed.” In ancient Israel three offices were often formally anointed: prophets, priests, and kings. So Jesus as Messiah is traditionally seen as having all three offices, as did Moses and, possibly, Samuel in the Hebrew Scriptures.

Jesus prophesied during his earthly ministry, both in the sense of speaking God’s words and predicting future events. He is also credited in Ephesians 4:11 with giving prophets to the church.

Similarly, as Jesus died on the cross, the veil of the Temple was torn (an event confirmed in the Talmud) symbolizing access to God for all. So today Jesus is said to continually intercede for His people as a priest was supposed to do (Hebrews 7:25) and He is compared to the ancient priest Melchizidek. (Hebrews 6:20; Psalm 110:4)

Jesus is also described as a king. He was welcomed as a king in fulfillment of prophecy (See, for example, John 12:12-15). He is described as a king, sitting on God’s right hand (Mark 16:19), and coming in the future to literally rule the earth. (See many verses such as Matthew 25:34 or Revelation 19:16)

So Ryken shows though many quotations from LOTR that Gandalf is the prophet of the stories. Not only does he look like the traditional images of the prophet (long beard and a robe), but he shares wisdom and guidance to others and performs an occasional miracle like Moses, Elijah, or Elisha. This becomes a powerful description in Ryken’s hands, so much so that this reader was put under some conviction. I believe the Lord was using this to encourage me to be more direct about my beliefs.

Frodo, Sam, and the other Hobbits in particular are compared to priests: Not priests in the formal or Hebrew sense, but in the post-Resurrection New Testament sense. Peter and John both say that all Christian believers are now priests. (See I Peter 2:9 and Revelation 1:6) The Reformers along with Ryken call this the priesthood of all believers.

So Frodo and Sam in particular find courage they did not know they had in order to save Middle Earth. It is really based on loyalty—both to each other and to their homeland of the Shire. They were acting on behalf of the rest of Middle Earth. The character sketches in this section of Messiah Comes to Middle Earth are especially moving. Sam and Frodo believe that they will die in Mordor, but that is OK because their people will be OK if they complete their quest.

Of course, Aragorn is the king. Like Jesus, he is not always recognized as such. The experiences he has as Strider the Ranger, as Isildur’s heir in the Paths of the Dead, and as a military leader prepare him. (As I write this I note a parallel with Jesus as the itinerant rabbi, dying and descending to the place of the dead, and coming back someday as a conquering king). Aragorn’s return has been prophesied by many, but many others are skeptical. Ultimately, he does prove himself. Like a righteous king, he also recognizes the contributions of many others. He is able to form alliances even at great risk. Yes, he is political, but in the most noble manner.

There is a lot to this little book. It has made me think that perhaps it will soon be time to read LOTR once again. My thanks to the colleague who gave me a copy of this book.

In the Father’s Hands – Review

J. E. Solinski. In the Father’s Hands. AMOC Publications, 2017. Print.

In the Father’s Hands is a sequel to A Matter of Control. It is a standalone story, however. It is not necessary to have read the first book to understand this one. Still, if readers related to any of the characters in the first one, they would learn about some of them fifteen years later.

Last time we read about a high school in a tough Detroit neighborhood. This is set in the same high school only fifteen years later. The biggest change in those years seems to be that many of the people have cell phones. Also some students can earn money after school tutoring other students.

Two returning characters are Martha Richards and Travis Johnson. English teacher Mrs. Richards is planning on retiring at the end of the school year. Mr. Johnson is now the principal of Montgomery High School, his alma mater. The first day of school he takes four freshmen wearing the same jacket into his office to warn them about gang activity. He wants to nip any such threat in the bud. One boy who appears to be their leader has knife in his sock which Mr. Johnson confiscates.

What the principal does not know is that this boy, Gabriel, is homeless. His drug addict mother has disappeared, and Gabriel took his eight year old sister into an abandoned apartment building where they are living with little to keep them warm or fed. Contemporary Detroit, alas, has many such abandoned buildings.

No one knows about Gabriel’s problems except for one bitter Montgomery junior named Claire, and she does not know Gabriel personally at all. Claire has her own problems. She was attending an exclusive school for the arts in Los Angeles. Her father left her mother who had to move back to her mother in Detroit. She went from sophisticated film classes with Hollywood connections to a ghetto high school that the school board is considering closing.

Mrs. Richards soon gets a sense of what Claire’s English class is like and encourages Claire to keep up her filming. Soon Claire decides to make a documentary about her new high school and happens to come across Gabriel picking food out of trash cans in an alley.

Destiny is one of a small group of Christians on campus. She and three friends make it point to befriend students who seem to be on the outs such as those sitting by themselves at lunch. Destiny becomes friends with Claire after some tentativeness on Claire’s part. Soon their roles would be nearly reversed.

Destiny is a state-champion cross-country runner. She is even closing in on a high school record for the state. Also a junior, colleges are beginning to notice her. Then, as she is finishing a race, she ruptures an Achilles tendon. That might very well be the end of her track career and hopes for an athletic scholarship. Having seen her possible future vanish, Claire can identify with Destiny’s moroseness, but can she help?

As judging from the title, a big question throughout this book is the simple “Where is God?” Broken homes, broken families, broken dreams—doesn’t He care? A hard question, a tough city, but God does not mind either hard questions or tough cities. Still, Solinski effectively gets across the idea that there are not necessarily easy answers, either. Still, Solinski reminds us that God’s people are his hands and feet on earth these days.

Anyone reading this would at the very least care about Gabriel. He is misunderstood. He really needed that knife for survival, not for gang fights. He is doing his best to stay away from gangs and keep his sister safe. But what can he do? School gives him some hope, earns a little money as a tutor there, but when some adults from the school discover his abode, he retreats. For the sake of keeping him and his sister together does not return to school. What can he do?

This reviewer could not help but make one small observation. The principal has a picture with a Bible verse on his desk at school. Perhaps the Detroit School District is more tolerant than those in my state. Even smaller indications of religion have gotten teachers fired here. Let us hope that is a sign that our educational system will become more inclusive and less intolerant. Make that one a prayer.