Archive for the ‘Book Reviews’ Category


Merry Christmas!

I haven’t posted nearly as much this year as I would have liked, and especially not since I promised more Star Trek-related thoughts (way back in September). Those are coming as soon as I have the time to sit down and compile lists and reviews of my favourite episodes.

But before then, I wanted to share about one of my Christmas presents this year. Well, I call it a present but of course I bought it for myself. Over two years ago. And I’ve been waiting for it to be finished ever since. Beginning life as a Kickstarter project which raised about a million dollars more than expected, then delayed by the desire to make the final product better, delivery finally came this month. My own package arrived on Friday and I’ve been salivating over it ever since.

It’s called Bibliotheca. Book designer Adam Lewis Greene conceived of the project as a response to what he, and many others, feel is an intimidating and unhelpful presentation of the Bible. Bibliotheca (named after the Latin word for “library”) is an edition of the Bible which removes chapters, verses, cross references, double columns, and all the usual apparatus we’re accustomed to seeing when we open a Biblical tome. Adam Greene chose the American Standard Version as a base text, planning to remove the old-fashioned thees and thous, then decided to split the Scriptural canon into separate volumes to eliminate the need for thin and transparent paper; he then designed the typefaces, page layout, and the cover concept. When Kickstarter furnished him with an incredibly robust financial backing, he was able to hire a team of scholars to produce a new revision of the ASV as well as professional proofreaders. It also meant the books could be manufactured in Europe by some of the finest bookbinders and paper mills in the world.

In the wake of Bibliotheca, other translations have appeared in their own versions of the same reader-friendly format. But after finally holding Bibliotheca in my hands, opening its pages, and poring over the words…I can safely say this is a landmark in the history of Bible publishing. Greene’s determination to see the project through is to be commended, and he deserves our profound thanks.

I made an unboxing video, recording my impressions and giving a “tour” of this new edition of the Bible. You can watch it here:

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The best way of finding new books is to go browsing through shelves that are not yours; in the bookstore if you have some extra funds, the library if you don’t. Fortunately I found myself in the former position a few weeks ago and picked up two titles that have more in common than their covers might give away.


Woman With A Blue Pencil, Gordon McAlpine

Woman With A Blue PencilNot quite a mystery, not quite surrealism, but hard to describe except by giving it both those labels. Sam Sumida is a Japanese-American living in Los Angeles on the eve of World War II. His wife has been murdered and the police have given up the case. But in an instant, Sam’s world changes dramatically and it seems he’s never existed. The detective novel of which he was supposed to be the main character is being rewritten — and he’s been deleted by a New York editor who, as every author knows, is the ultimate femme fatale.

History is literature just like any other genre. And sometimes the term “marginalized people” has an appropriate sting to it when we talk about the past. McAlpine succeeds in giving each layer of storytelling its own unique voice, but not quite seamlessly. He uses the device of excerpts from longer texts, but doesn’t give the feeling of anything missing. The premise, however, is page-turning and compelling, so if you’re looking for something unique in a genre full of cliches be sure to give this a try.


Lovecraft Country, Matt Ruff

Lovecraft CountryI have to confess that I think I liked this novel better than the other. While also dealing with themes of marginalized minorities in American society, it more sharply draws us into a strange world, with parallels between a pseudo-Lovecraftian horror and Jim Crow segregation. Monsters are as likely to have sheriff’s badges as oozing tentacles. And while the villains may be an occult brotherhood, plenty of more ordinary evils get highlighted.

The main strength of the story is its wide cast of protagonists, all of whom prove sympathetic if complicated. The novel’s structure helps quite a bit since it turns out to be more a series of shorter tales that intertwine and ultimately collide at the climax. This gives each character a unique experience and point of view even without first person writing. I could point out some of the more creative moments of storytelling, but that would be giving away too many secrets. And like a haunted house, this is best experienced if you don’t know all the mysteries. I had never heard of Matt Ruff before but judging from the blurbs of some of his other novels, I’d be surprised if I didn’t pick up at least one of them before the year’s end.

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The Explorers GuildA few novels in recent days are taking a different approach to storytelling. Perhaps the most high-profile example is S. — a project conceived by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst which takes the form of a library book filled with handwritten notes of two people who pass the book back and forth, talking to each other in the margins. In effect it becomes an artifact from a story rather than the story itself.

The Explorers Guild (subtitled A Passage To Shambhala and teasingly numbered “Volume One”) isn’t quite as experimental, but it does manage to forge its own path. In the process it seems as adventurous and bold as the characters it describes. The story is told in a mixture of prose and comics, with the occasional full-colour plate evocative of the work by famous illustrator N.C. Wyeth.

I went into the book knowing very little about the plot or the people inside, and I feel that maybe this is the best way for anyone to experience it. I could name some of the main characters or at least tell you what they start to get up to and then cut off at the most cliffhanging moment to engage your interest. But even the briefest review summary or premise somewhat takes away the mystery. And there is a strong flavour of mystery throughout the story, so much so that even at the end you wonder if all the questions were really answered. I choose to say no more except what’s evident from the publisher’s blurb. This story is a heavy nostalgia trip for fans of turn of the century Boy’s Own Adventures. The recipe of H. Rider Haggard, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, and a touch of Jules Verne should give you the general idea. It’s set during World War I and involves a quest to find the city of Shambhala from Buddhist mythology.

I’m firmly in this novel’s target audience. I grew up on a steady diet of Tintin, Tolkien, and Star Trek. Words like “adventure”, “exploration”, and “mystery” stir my imagination like almost nothing else. This means that I’m far from able to give a purely objective analysis. Any book like this starts out with my five-star rating, and that only goes down if it makes serious missteps. If you’re anything like me and you share that love of pulp then I can assure you The Explorers Guild delivers on all it promises in spades.

That being said, not everything was perfect. If the novel has a main flaw it might be in its labyrinthine complexity. There’s a wide cast of characters, most of whom are crucial threads in the tapestry. But it’s a lot to keep track of and once or twice I found my memory of events was a little muddled. Fortunately the writers (and to judge from the Acknowledgments it was a team effort) seem aware of this and do provide a helping hand when necessary. The complexity of character relationships and plot also makes the book feel a tad long at times, but the variety of pace is welcome; without pauses to breathe the action would be wearisome and meaningless. Overall the novel’s strengths — atmosphere, suspense, and rounded characters — outweighed its weaknesses, at least for me.

The unique format was as exciting as the story itself. Switching from prose to comics to prose is done without any apparent effort or loss of momentum. The writing will comment on action in the panels while panels will sometimes illustrate the writing. Each does its part to carry the story forward and they seamlessly feed into one another. This fluidity results in a kind of symbiosis so that if you were to remove either medium the whole would fall apart. To my knowledge nothing like this has been tried before on this scale, so there’s an equal sense of experimentation here as well. On one page the text tells one part of the story, while running along the bottom are four comic panels with a scene from a different plotline. Maybe none of this makes sense to you, and indeed it’s difficult to describe; it has to be experienced to be understood.

The Explorers Guild is a voyage into the unknown, a strange quest to fill in the blank spaces of the map. It charts new territory in the way you tell and read a story. And for that boldness if nothing else it deserves respect. I had a rollicking good time between its covers and by now you’ll know whether or not you will too.

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Yes, summer seems like a very long time ago. But since I haven’t posted any book reviews in a while, there’s a fair amount of accumulation. I keep a reading journal to record notes. Let’s take a look.


The Islanders

The Islanders, Christopher Priest

Extremely difficult to classify the genre. Written as a guide to the islands of the Dream Archipelago, it is somehow whole yet also in pieces. Another example of a canon, almost. Occasionally it’s more a traditional short story style, but I liked it best when he was writing description or in the first-person. Mysteries aren’t always resolved and threads aren’t always tied together; even when they are it’s usually obliquely. Worth re-reading at some point.


The Stand

The Stand, Stephen King

King’s first doorstopper back in 1978 was revisited in 1990 and became more of a cement-truck-stopper. He goes for the slow burn in this one, gradually building up tension as the world succumbs to a deadly virus that kills almost everyone. The survivors find themselves choosing sides in a battle between God and the Devil. Not to give too much away, but it’s quite a lengthy buildup for a showdown that never really happens. So many plot threads don’t end up anywhere; they just stop abruptly, often with someone’s death. When I reached the last page I was more than ready for the end.


Seriously Dangerous Religion

Seriously Dangerous Religion: What The Old Testament Really Says And Why It Matters, Iain Provan

Following his first volume Convenient Myths (see my last review post), Provan now goes on to explain the worldview of the Bible, specifically of the Old Testament. Taking a close look at the opening stories of the book we call Genesis, he constructs a thorough and detailed picture of what the Bible believes about God, the universe, and humans’ place within it. At the end of each chapter he takes what he’s discussed and compares it with other religions and worldviews. The result is a finely honed account of the Bible’s story — and a sober argument that, whatever you believe, this ancient text is still relevant to our modern world, and must be reckoned with seriously.


Go Set A WatchmanGo Set A Watchman, Harper Lee

Lee’s first draft version of To Kill A Mockingbird generated some controversy this year, but I was looking forward to it. You can tell it’s a first draft. By a very talented writer, of course, but a first draft. I can see immediately why her editor wanted it rewritten to focus on Scout’s childhood; the extended flashback of Scout, Jem, and Dill playing “stories” is the best part of the book — and hilarious at that. I wish it had stayed in. This is a more adult story than it would later become, about disillusionment with childhood rather than about growing into maturity. Ultimately, I appreciated the opportunity to see this early idea that would be molded into one of the best novels in American literature.


The Chinatown Death Cloud PerilThe Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, Paul Malmont

Not only following in the tradition of the pulps, but also about pulp writers. Walter Gibson, creator of The Shadow, and Lester Dent of Doc Savage fame star in this atmospheric and page-turning mystery. The fog creeps in, but without drowning out a sense of humour. A sequel titled The Astounding, The Amazing, And The Unknown is set during World War II and focuses on the rise of science fiction with characters like Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and L. Ron Hubbard.



The Man Who Was Thursday

The Man Who Was Thursday, G.K. Chesterton

Still not quite sure what to make of it. Starts off being one thing, ends up being quite another. Absurdities abound, including an elephant running down the streets of London. In the end it’s a lot like a Charles Williams novel (and there may have been some influence on those). It’s going to take a re-reading, preferably in a more annotated edition, to fully plumb the depths. And I look forward to reading more from Chesterton. He has something about him unlike anyone else.

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WonderbookI thought I was done writing lengthy book reviews. Small, one-paragraph capsule opinions were going to replace full-blown analyses. But I recently read a book that I want more people to know about, and that means a longer review.

Writing manuals aren’t things I read much of. Maybe it shows in my writing. But I’ve always chafed at the idea that there are hard and fast rules to this craft. We often talk about it as if it’s carpentry or architecture, jobs where math and formulae are essential to building structures with foundations that hold together.  Surely writing, being an art, needs to play a little looser with the rules, pushing boundaries when that’s what’s needed to make a story work. Most manuals are aimed at making the creative process regimented, direct, and clear-cut, when the hard truth is that it’s rarely any of those things. Fortunately, I stumbled across a writing manual that may be the best one I’ve ever read.

Jeff VanderMeer’s Wonderbook: The Illustrated Guide To Creating Imaginative Fiction sounds at first like it’s going to be the kind of thing I dread, and far too focused on a single genre to be of any general help. Neither is the case. Instead of laying down laws VanderMeer dispenses well-informed advice. He asks you to try something out in your writing and if it doesn’t work there are five other options to fall back on.

Most guides to writing begin with teaching mechanics, but VanderMeer opts to set the reader off with an entire chapter on inspiration; how important it is to play imaginatively, no matter what kind of fiction you’re writing. Throughout the book he uses examples from Dostoevsky, Fitzgerald, Nabokov, and Joyce Carol Oates to demonstrate that even though the cover art features a whale with a city on its back, the art of writing good fiction isn’t limited by the marketing tool of genre.

No writing manual has as much artwork in it, either, something VanderMeer points out in the introduction. Clever diagrams and metaphors for techniques abound, especially in the chapter on plot, where I finally found new ways to map out the structure of a story beyond the Freytag pyramid. Which of course opens up new avenues to think about how a story should be told. My favourite aspect to VanderMeer’s teaching style, though, is that he’s clearly poured his imagination into this book. The metaphors he uses to conceptualize techniques and ideas stick long after you’re done reading. My favourite is the recurring motif of the story as a living creature, with various systems and parts all working together in a complicated biosystem – dialogue interacting with setting interacting with point of view to keep an organism alive and functioning.

Small prompts and challenges are scattered throughout the book, and an appendix has longer exercises to put you and your imagination through your paces. I need to carve out some time and work on them. It’s safe for me to say that no book about writing has given me more inspiration or gotten me more excited to put pen to paper. It reminds me why I wanted to start doing it in the first place, and that’s just what I needed right now.

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Another round of capsule reviews, covering the two months since my last post.


Trigger WarningTrigger Warning: Short Fictions And Disturbances, Neil Gaiman

It’s safe to say that this was my most anticipated read of the year. It’s been quite awhile since Gaiman published a short story collection; his last, Fragile Things, is one of my favourite books. This collection inevitably doesn’t quite live up to my excitement, but it’s still excellent. And surprisingly varied in both subject matter and form. “Orange” is written entirely as a girl’s answers to an official questionnaire; “The Sleeper And The Spindle” wonderfully meshes fairy tales; and “Nothing O’Clock” is a Doctor Who story. But what they all have in common is that they are all at least a little bit disturbing. A wintery collection of wintery tales and poems. Fantastic.


The Singing BowlThe Singing Bowl, Malcolm Guite

Malcolm Guite is a motorcycle rider, a songwriter, an academic, and all sorts of things you don’t expect an Anglican priest to be — but he is also that. I first heard of him last May when I took a course on theology and the arts. His villanelle “On being told my poetry was found in a broken photo-copier” remains the highlight of this collection, but they’re all clearly well-considered and carefully put together.



House of SunsHouse of Suns, Alastair Reynolds

I’m known as a science fiction nut, but strangely I don’t read a lot of science fiction. One author I do like, though, is Alastair Reynolds. He never gets bogged down in explaining physics and instead does his best to tell a good story. This, like most of his novels, has an enormous scale even for a space opera. But the most interesting thing is how Reynolds uses point of view; each of the first-person narrators is a clone (“shatterling”) of Abigail Gentian, who herself narrates at the beginning of each part division. It’s the tension between viewpoints that are both separate and the same that gets me. The technique works beautifully. Though the plot does slow down a bit in the middle, everything else about the novel is amazing.


Masters of AtlantisMasters of Atlantis, Charles Portis

Charles Portis has only written five novels. No more are known to be forthcoming. I have read four. But this and the more famous True Grit (adapted twice into film) are, I confess, the only ones I’ve liked. The plot is leisurely, but the characters are interesting even when they’re not likeable. Actually a true plot is hard to find. The novel basically just charts the rise and fall of a distinctly unsinister secret society. There isn’t much of a dramatic climax; if anything it feels like the story (along with the people) grows old and retires to spend its days staring at the sunset. But along the way there are quite a few laughs to be had and the writing was good, making the read worth it.


Convenient MythsConvenient Myths: The Axial Age, Dark Green Religion, And The World That Never Was, Iain Provan

Provan, a Biblical scholar and professor at Regent College, was writing a book when he realized the opening chapters needed to be longer than the book could accommodate. The result was that they split off and became their own volume. Provan’s thesis is that our society has been influenced by two false myths about the past. One is of an era called the “axial age”, when large parts of human thought and religion supposedly evolved; the other idealizes an even more distant past when humans supposedly lived in deeper communion with nature and more peacefully than now. Provan argues that both of these myths aren’t supported by empirical evidence about past cultures, and that harm is done when we seek to advance good intentions on the back of falsehoods. His discussion of the “axial age” necessarily involves some abstractions and I found it a little hard to follow certain points. But his chapters on “dark green religion” were much more concrete. I’m looking forward to reading his follow-up, Seriously Dangerous Religion.


A Book of One's OwnA Book of One’s Own: People And Their Diaries, Thomas Mallon

A survey of diaries and the people who kept them, famous and otherwise. Why do people keep them? What do they write about? Do they truly teach us about the diarist or are they only apologia? Mallon explores these and other questions as he reads and comments on diaries from all walks of life and times. The book was written in the 80s, so no mention is made of blogs or online journals. But I’ve always been more interested in the paper kind anyway, and reading this has me thinking about why I keep my diary and what exactly I put in it.

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Capsule Reviews: January

One of the things I’d like to do this year is put a little more life back into my blog. To help me accomplish this, I’m introducing a new dynamic to my book reviews. Every month I’ll post some of the highlights from last month’s books, along with notes from my reading journal. Here are January’s notable reads.


The Legend of Sigurd And GudrúnThe Legend of Sigurd And Gudrún, J.R.R. Tolkien

Sometime before he wrote The Hobbit, Tolkien composed two epic poems, or Lays, based on Norse mythology. The Lays were written in modern English but use an Old Norse alliterative meter. Tolkien is actually one of my favourite poets, and now it seems he was a master of verse in every form. The sentences look small and choppy on the page, but flow smoothly. I appreciated Christopher Tolkien’s introduction to set the two Lays in the context of the original mythology, but some of his commentary was pretty dry so I skimmed through it. A pronunciation guide for the names would have been nice.


The Complete Making of Indiana JonesThe Complete Making of Indiana Jones, J.W. Rinzler

I’m a big geek of the filmmaking arts and love behind-the-scenes accounts from my favourite movies. So I’m sorry to say that this volume doesn’t quite satisfy, especially after the author’s splendid books on the original Stars Wars trilogy. The main mistake of this one is trying to cram all four Indy films into one volume instead of giving each movie its own. It starts strong with four whole chapters on Raiders of The Lost Ark, but gradually covers less and less detail with each sequel, until Kingdom of The Crystal Skull feels more like a press release with fewer on-set stories and anecdotes. The end result is that the book doesn’t feel complete or definitive despite the title. What’s here is good, but there could have been more.


22824The Star Wars, J.W. Rinzler (Art by Mike Mayhew)

A fascinating comic book rendering of George Lucas’ rough draft screenplay for his sci-fi epic — but it is very rough. The plot is a bit overstuffed and the dialogue somewhat stiff. The characterization is also kind of cheesy (when it’s there at all). But that’s not why this comic was made. This is Star Wars as it first emerged, and makes for a cool read when you consider it from the right perspective. It’s a glimpse into Lucas’ creative process and so much is in place already; character archetypes, settings, plot elements, themes. Some of the concepts wouldn’t find their final form until the prequel trilogy. It just needed a nudge or two. That’s what rough drafts are for.


TemplarTemplar, Jordan Mechner (Art by LeUyen Pham & Alex Puvilland)

Legends and supernatural conspiracies surround the Knights Templar in popular imagination today, but this comic is couched in real history. A rollicking adventure set during the heresy trial of the entire Templar order, when the king of France conspired to bring down the heroes of the Crusades. But an unlikely band of mavericks cook up a conspiracy of their own: to steal the famous Templar treasure hoard. Tension abounds not only in the heist story, but also in the political intrigue of the inquisition. Plenty of lighter moments throughout, but there’s a hero to genuinely care about and root for, and even very poignant moments which I won’t spoil. If there was a weak spot it was the lack of exploration into the motives behind the antagonists. The main villain isn’t given the chance to reveal his point of view and what drives him until fairly late, although it’s less conventional than your typical moustache-twirling speech. Teasing hints of characters’ backstories make me long for prequels or spinoffs (given what happens in the plot, a direct sequel is unlikely and probably wouldn’t be interesting). One of my favourite quotes is a joke from a monk: “I’ve spent my entire life around every kind of Christian there is: ordained, consecrated, cloistered. Each one holier than the next. And out of all of them, the converted ones are the most insufferable.”


I’m already reading some great books in February so I’ll be compiling those capsule reviews in a few weeks.

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