Monday, September 17, 2007

Now That's Good Reading

I have been very remiss in not posting book reviews lately. Wanting to writing something complete and worthy of these books, I've been holding off until I had time to do them justice. I am just so darned busy that I think I'd better do something incomplete to point you in the direction of these finds ...

TERRITORY by Emma Bull
If I hadn't read this recommendation from Maureen at Aliens in This World, I'd surely have scoffed at the premise. Set in Tombstone, Arizona, when the Earps and Clantons and inexorably heading toward that famous showdown at the OK Corral, Emma Bull tosses in some sorcery into the mix as an underlying source of tension. Told from the point of view of typesetter Mildred Benjamin and drifter Jesse Fox, this story puts a new twist on the Western genre. As odd as the combination of Western and magic sounds, Bull has a subtle touch that reminds me of Connie Willis or Barbara Hambly at their best. Strong on personality and sense of place, Bull tosses us into the action in midstream so we have to pick up what's going on from the characters' mind which just makes it all the more intriguing. Highly recommended.

AURALIA'S COLORS by Jeffrey Overstreet
Another one that's difficult to explain, this was a complete surprise. A queen is jealous of the other three great Houses of the land. She convinces the king that to make their House they must collect all art, and indeed everything containing color, to themselves. The people are relegated to giving up their treasures and wearing only whites, grays, and browns, with badges of honor for their sacrifices being the only color in their lives. An orphan girl, found as an infant in the wilderness by outlaws, has a talent for crafting colors that do more than look beautiful. This innate talent unsettles the imposed order and sets in train a violent change for the king and his people.

There is no way I can adequately describe this book except to say that what sounds like most outrageous fantasy is actually grounded in the underlying hard reality of those "truths" recognized by all great storytellers. I am loathe to say too much for fear of deriving readers of the pleasure of discovering these underlying themes for themselves. I read this book in three days because every time I picked it up I simply could not put it down.

Author Jeffrey Overstreet gives credit to many recognized great authors for being his inspiration but I think it is fair to say that this is not derivative. He has crafted something completely new that shows us those old realities of which we all need to be reminded through art. Probably my highest tribute is to say that this book can be enjoyed by everyone, whether simply lovers of fiction or those who look for, as Overstreet says, "a glimmer of his [the Great Artist] glory in these pages." I eagerly look forward to the next installment of this trilogy.

By the way, Overstreet is a film critic for Christianity Today and one whose vision in viewing movies I trust implicitly. His nonfiction Through a Screen Darkly is highly recommended also.

THE MYSTERY OF HARRY POTTER by Nancy Brown
The best tribute I can give this book is to say that I don't need to be convinced that it is ok for kids to read Harry Potter ... and yet I read the entire book, with interest. I originally picked it up thinking that I could look it over with a mind to recommending it to friends that are wary, as are many Christians, of the magic found in the stories.

Brown has many sensible recommendations to ease parents' fears and to help them evaluate whether the books and motives are right for their children. Perhaps the greatest accomplishment is that she has written a passionate defense of the necessity of fantasy for both children and adults. It is that depth that makes this book much more than a single subject "Harry Potter" book. Moreover, she manages to go beyond quoting the "usual suspects" of C.S. Lewis and G.K. Chesterton. She has done her homework. For those who are leery of Harry Potter and his gung-ho supporters, I must add that Brown comes from the stance of one who was equally leery and forbade her children the books ... until she began investigating them, which in itself is an interesting and instructive tale.

Easy to read, this book is also a bit addictive as I kept picking it up after long absences due to the distraction of other books. I thought I would only glance through it, and then would find myself sucked in to read yet more. Highly recommended even if you don't have any problems with the Harry Potter books.

A CATHOLIC BOOK OF HOURS AND OTHER DEVOTIONS by William Storey
This is a wonderful little handbook that should make life easier for those who wish to pray the office of the hours or would like a resource for other devotions such as the Eucharist, Holy Name of Jesus, Sacred Blood of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Seven Joys and Seven Sorrows of Mary. There are some introductory sections but these are succinct and the book is mostly devoted to the prayers in text that is large enough to be read in dim light (which can be especially helpful during Adoration or in other such situations). My one problem with this book is that Storey seems to assume everyone automatically knows what the "five hours" of prayer are. He refers constantly to them but never says what they are. Or if he does, it is impossible to find them as I have scoured the book looking. At any rate, that is a minor problem compared to the resource that this book is and I recommend it.

THE GENIUS OF JOHN PAUL II: The Great Pope's Moral Wisdom by Richard A. Spinello
This is a comprehensive look at Pope John Paul II's moral vision set against the moral relativism of the modern world. This is a dense book, which is why it has taken me a very long time to work my way through it. However, it is well worth if for anyone who wants to better understand just how well the late pope's views stand up to criticisms of prominent dissenters. More than anything we are reminded that JPII's continual focus on the dignity of the human person is the basis for not only his writings but, at the most basic level, it is also a reflection of the basis of our Catholic faith. This book deserves a much more in-depth review. As I said, I have put off writing and finally posted this because I just can't make the time I need to do it justice. Read Jeff Miller's Amazon review for a more thorough treatment of the book. Highly recommended.

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