The Society, by Micheal Palmer M.D.

The Society

Unraveling the Mystery section, part 2.

A gritty crime procedural set in Chicago, this book is all about a new character, Willard “Will” Grant. He’s nice, he’s caring, he’s the face of the anti-insurance-company movement in Chicago, and he’s the suspect in a serial killer case: a killer who targets head health executives. The plot is extremely complicated, to the point that even the back cover summary is somewhat misleading. The main point to remember: the author is out to make managed care look bad, in every way, so don’t expect any sympathy for the insurance bureaucracy that has to deal with all the laws and legal ramifications.

The good: from a writing perspective, this book is the best yet (and its #5 that I’ve *started* reading. The rest were put down before page 10, in case you were wondering where all those reviews are). The romantic relationship is at least acknowledged to be full of mistakes, and there are few major plot holes. The pacing and action are right one track, with enough humor and clues mixed in to make each scene worth its page space. The details are handled deftly but subtly, and even the gristly parts are toned down enough that you need a good imagination to get anywhere bad.

The Bad: I have a good imagination, for one thing. For another , Mr. Savage is a really liberal person, and the worldview gets annoying to hear about after awhile. The man can really write well, and its easy while reading to skip over these inappropriate parts at first, but as you will see, it really adds up. A sprinkle of foul language (largely contextually understandable), two torture scenes, six detailed deaths, three or so detailed planned deaths, countless ugly surgical procedures gone wrong, heart rending stories of death by bureaucracy, four extra martial affairs (not detailed but still), and seven instances of leering/harassment. By the end, the cumulative effect made me sit back in surprise at how much foul content I had just ingested.

Skip Micheal Savage. Its a real let down at the end. Anyone know of a good medical/big city mystery writer? I’m coming up real short on this series….

Double Shot, by Diane Mott Davidson

Double Shot

Unraveling the Mystery section, part 1

Ever been to one of those bookstores with shelves all the way to the ceiling? The used ones, with so many kinds of books and so many authors, it makes your head spin? Well, I was in one last week, and got overwhelmed. So I grabbed five books off a shelf at random, and decided to unravel the mystery section. Good books will get the author on the seek list, bad ones on the skip list, and any other reveiwer’s are welcome to add to the series.

In the good news section, this book is all about good food. Most of the jokes involve food, and all the recipes mentioned are given in the back (very fun idea). The main character/female detective is a caterer, so amid investigating her ex-husband’s murder, she’s baking up all these food things that inspire you to try your own hand in the kitchen. The plot involves a lot of fun twists and turns, but mostly the main detective goes from food event to food event with inspiring ideas and collecting clues with her cop husband and gossip-queen girlfriend.

In the bad news department, Davidson has a very appalling sense of place and timing. Several scenes take place in all-too-detailed backgrounds, like a gross-out kitchen or sleazy “men’s club,” all peopled by completely unacceptably described shlubs. While a lot of food comments and quips take some sting out of it, the fact is, a good five pages need to be ripped out of this copy before its acceptable reading. I skimmed a lot of the detecting parts because of these locational problems, about 100 pages worth.

Overall, Davidson goes on my skip-list. Anyone disagree? In the mystery world, are nasty locations fair play, and if so, are there limits on how they should be handled? Or should the author be able to describe what happened, without setting the book in places where offensive material is a given?

John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portrait, by William J. Bouwsma

John Calvin: A Sixteenth Century Portraitr

This book purports to be an overview of John Calvin’s life from a fresh perspective, taking into account Calvin’s historical and theological influence on the modern world. Unfortunately, the book lives up to neither expectation. I’m working on finding a good in-depth Calvin biography. This is the worst sample I’ve found.

The good: Good explanation of some of he errors that histroians of Calvin’s life have been prone to, that introduction. Accurate overview of the events in his life, part of the first chapter. And blatantly secular humanist worldview is (while claimed to be neutral), open and obvious. Otherwise, um, the writing style is nice?

The bad: Bouwsma spends the entire introduction talking about how many historians have ignored or abused John Calvin’s memory in favor of their own agendas. Then he spends the entire book making Calvin out to be a caricature worthy of modern political cartoons. To this author, Calvin might as well have been Erasmus’s long lost twin brother who went off his meds and spent his life depressed, craving a father figure he never found in the papacy. The level of scholarship is pretty sad: both of the author’s main contentions fall flat.

The first contention of “A Sixteenth Century Portrait” argues John Calvin was a humanist, and that he agreed with Erasmus on every point (“Erasmus this” and “Erasmus that” gets really old by chapter two. The title really should have been “Erasmus, a 16th Century Portrait”). The logic behind this accusation is Calvin’s practical applications in his sermons. Applying the gospel to everyday life does not a humanist make. John Calvin’s practical streak was entirely bent on bringing the light of G_d’s Word to the people where they were, not on some academic plane but at home or in the marketplace.

Second, the author tries to argue that Calvin’s theological bent was a result of severe depression. The evidence cited is Calvin’s letters to a close freind back home, which are full of sorrows and complaints about his life in Geneva. No doubt, Geneva was a trial for John Calvin, and his calling there brought him little worldly pleasure. Its entirely possible to complain and rant about trials in one’s life and still be a very happy personality. Many college students, for example, feel called to complete their degree and use it in a career for G_d’s glory: this doesn’t preclude them from arguing about the high cost of textbooks, or complaining when a professor is perpetually late. Calvin may have been a weak vessel, but theological works and venting to friends are not evidence for a depressed soul.

Finally, its worth noting that the author also tries to make passing psychological evaluations of Calvin, his need for a father figure in G_d driving his break with Rome, etc. These are superficially made and unfair to Calvin as a person, historical importance aside.

Overall: You know you’ve hit rock bottom as a writer when your entire set up for the character of your book is based on someone else. Calvin was a complex but important historical figure who deserves more than a broadly stroked comparison: I was sorely disappointed by this book.

For a short but accurate overview of John Calvin’s life from a theological perspective, see “Five Leading Reformers”, by Christopher Catherwood. It includes Calvin, Luther, Zwingli, Cranmer, and Knox.

Why We’re Not Emergent, By Two Guys Who Should Be, by Kevin DeYoung and Ted Kluck

Why We're Not Emergent

If you haven’t heard of the emergent movement, chances are you know a college student who has. If you want to understand young christian college students, the general spirit is very well conveyed in this work. As one of the aforesaid, I was pleasantly surprised by how much the book spoke to me (an a non-emergent), and its accuracy in describing my emergent friends.

“Why We’re Not Emergent” spends about half its 200 pages unraveling the confusion around emergent theology or lack thereof. My emergent friends could be best described as Unitarian liberals with postmodern leanings, which is about as specific as I can get without quoting the authors verbatim. If you want to understand if further, read this book, or at least watch one of the authors duke it out with emergents here:

The authors take turns writing the books’ chapters. Kevin’s are more in depth, and inspired a lot of reflective moments for me. He goes through the theological underpinnings of the emergent movement, explaining step by step their pagan/Unitarian similarities and why its important to believe that Jesus was about more than doing good and caring for the environment. Ted’s, I admit, were more interesting. He relates a lot of things to movies and obscure pop culture references, but by and large he taps into my generation’s psyche in a meaningful way. Both make great use of footnotes to entertain, so be sure to read those too.

Overall, read this book.

Management: Meeting and Exceeding Customer Expectations, 9th ed. by Warren R. Plunkett, Raymond F. Attner, Gemmy S. Allen

Management: Meeting and Exceeding Customer Expectations

I had to use this textbook for a principles of management class. Bought it for the term, sold it at a profit, and will be buying another copy for the next management class of my own volition. My expectations for textbooks, especially business ones, are pretty low. This one met,and actually exceeded those as a textbook. Its well worth it for either a beginning class (ie, required textbook, so you’re going to buy it regardless of what I say), or or a high level class requiring case studies (yes, I said that: I’m voluntarily buying the thing next term). The telecourse guide is helpful, the website blah, the videos double blah.

THE GOOD: It covers every imaginable phrase, concept, and topic within the realm of basic management. Every word you could possibly need for a degree is covered in here with encyclopedic precision. Every theory gets its own table or illustration or graph. The student may get very little on the reality of business (memos, financial statements, and other real-life applications are not the point here), but the theories are solidly packed in: this may be boring, but its what you need for an intro business class. And lets face it, the book is designed to be an encyclopedia for future classes. One extremely useful insert: the case study that fronts every chapter, usually on some well known brand. Each chapter then refers back to that company in all its examples. This really drives the plethora of words home, and helps keep all those facts straight. Also, the book comes with a telecourse guide that can be useful to review for a multiple choice test: itself-tests were invaluable.

THE BAD: The book doesn’t stop with a plethora of words (which we do need): it goes on to a plethora of media. This book comes with a telecourse guide, website, and videos. While I always take notes for my own memory benefit, read the telecourse guide before exams and you’re good. Works for the test, not for remembering anything later (again, as an 01 class, where the point is to teach you these words for long-term use in other classes, this is a bad thing). In addition to the telecourse guide, the book offers a website with more tests (the answer key is screwy), and a series of videos to go with the chapter readings. Said videos had little redeeming value, being poorly done, formulaic, unrealistic, and teaching nothing new while pratting on about this or that wonderful brand, The videos were also over two hours a week of time. Taken together, this is waaay too much time to be spending on one class. Its just over the top.

Also, it has these politically correct inserts every so often about ethics and including women and the environment and all that jazz. These inserts are boring and entirely irrelevant to real life or the theories. I’ll happily overlook thsoe for the quality explanations and definitions, let alone the really good case studies.

THE LOWDOWN: All in all, great book. If you’re taking a higher level class and need some help with terms or case studies, its well worth the investment. I’ll be taking my own advice on this one in the next term. for the record. The telecourse guide is worth buying if you don’t want to take notes, and as a review in print of the tests. The website, skip. The videos, skip. The book, buy on Amazon (about $30 used international edition).

101 Years’ Entertainment, Edited by Ellery Queen (Part 6 of 6)

101 Years' Entertainment: The Great Detective Stories of Over A Century

Part 6 of 6

I’m not big on short stories, mysteries excepted. After reading this book, my horizons have been broadened, and I’m going to go find some more fun short stories to check out. Unfortunately, this anthology includes a selection of “mystery” stories that are more like horror, or fairy-tales gone amok; so I can’t recommend the whole batch of 50. That said, there are too many stories for one review: this is review 6 of 6, the (more than ten) short stories which are clearly NOT mysteries; with few exceptions, horror stories.
• The Clock, by A.E.W. Mason
• The Silver Mask, by High Walpole
• Suspicion, by Dorothy L. Sayers
• Treasure Trove, by F. Tennyson Jesse
• Philomel Cottage, by Agatha Christie, p. 2
• The Mad Tea Party, by Ellery Queen, p. 4
• The S. S., M.P. Shiel, Prince Zaleski.
• The Two Bottles of Relish, by Lord Dunsay, Mr. Linely
• The Most Dangerous Game, by Richard Connell
• Faith, Hope, and Charity, by Irvin S. Cobb

I’m not bothering to recap these, because they are, by and large, that type of horror story that makes you shiver but is so stupid that, the second your brain kicks in, you start shaking with uncontrollable laughter. Three were reviewed in other sections anyway. And with that we wrap up a review of 101 Year’s Entertainment. I didn’t like it overall, but there were some good things to recommend, and an interesting lesson in history to be drawn.

The volume as a whole has several strengths. First, the historical aspect of each story is mentioned in some way, either in the story itself (set during 1800s England or what have you) or the editorial comments. The different genres within detective stories and mysteries are all given their turn, and the eras of each are evident by the context. Also, the different writing styles create a genre-within-a genre effect; the colorful language of the 1920s contrasting vividly with the refined philosophy of the 1840s. Most interesting of all, variety. There are all kinds of stories here, from the philosophical (The Problem of Cell 13) to the probing (The Criminologists’ Club) and the downright problematic (The Mad Tea Party).

It’s the problematic variety (mainly the stories above) that get to you after a couple hundred pages. Yes, there are some fine stories, and they are interesting to read in comparison to the other stories. Really, though, what is entertaining about justified mass murder (The S.S.), or torturous deaths (The Silver Mask and, more variously but still equally gruesome, Faith, Hope, and Charity)? Can’t we have variety and quality? The editor obviously thought so, but then, the editor’s taste leans toward the macabre (note, his own story gets into the “Criminals Win” and “Non-Mystery” categories); and therein lies the biggest problem with an anthology like this. Its totally up to the editor’s tastes as to what does and does not get included. And this editor, sadly, falls into his own category of “Doyle-imitators”; a mystery writer wannabe whose style is not entirely without merit, yet also without talent (and often without even that first qualifier, “mystery.”)

I don’t recommend the book, though if variety is the spice you want in your reading life, some of the short stories mentioned hereto would be a good place to start (I suggest parts 2, 3, or 5 of this review for a list: the stories above are, as I mentioned, more in the realm of terrifying stupidity than of stupefying mystery). Overall, however, the idea behind the book has led me to broaden my horizons in the short story realm. That bit of wisdom, however, can be easily shared without having to trudge through (all) the above. 🙂

Henry II, by W. L. Warren

Henry II

Note: This book is out of print, so find a good used copy. Most book websites told me I could get a new one, but what they meant was… special order a printing. Verrry expensive, and its already not a cheap book.

The life of one of England’s least-well known kings, by a college professor, at 636 pages; you’re already asleep, right? I picked this book up at the library on a school research project, and was so engrossed, I had to buy it. The details just kind of pop out the page and start create a courtly atmosphere right there on the page. Beware, if you buy it online, the picture is deciving: 636 pages of size ten single spaced typing. Its not a weekend read. But, as I will hopefully convince you below, its worth every minute.

PLOT: Henry II, successful invader at 14, married to the queen of France by 19, and king of a disorderly lawless kingdom that’d been in civil war for over 20 years by the age of 21. He held together an empire that spanned England, Wales, and half of modern France, gave birth to three kings in the Angevian line, and set many of the precedents of English law that we hold dear today. Henry was an enigma in his day: military genius, family failure, strong governmental control in an era when local barons had held sway for generations, staunch traditionalist, patron of the church, and reviled by prominent churchmen (namely Thomas Becket). The end of his life was ignomius, mainly because he didn’t discipline his children or fully destroy the villain of Europe at the time (the king of France). Overall, his influence led to many things including the flowering of chivalry and the development of the rule of law.

CON: Henry II is not the ideal role model. He was so indifferent to public opinion that he allowed scandalous rumors to go unquenched (creating the myth of Thomas Becket, who I never liked). His choice of wife was politically motivated (not uncommon), and his failure to have a strong relationship with her led to many problems. They didn’t have a picturesque marriage: the kids were divided between his and hers favorites, and eventually she led the lot of them into open rebellion against their father; not once but twice. The author is relatively discreet about all the killing that results, but even so, the bloody nature of the era can’t be entirely hidden.

PRO: W. L. Warren has an amazing prose style. His words ebb and flow in eloquent sentences that bring the era to life. Better still, its in words that the average person can understand (and if you don’t, just hang on: whole chapters are devoted to explaining unusal concepts and words from the era. Plus, there’s a glossary with page references). And the historical significance of this king cannot be minimized.

“Henry II’s consolidation and defense of his authority rested upon his mastery of the art of warfare, which in turn rested upon his ability to turn his capital resources into available wealth. Henry’s technique for enhancing his wealth was not conquest and plunder but efficient management. Of course, if this had been all, Henry II might have been remembered merely as an efficient exploiter; but it was not all, for it was Henry’s genius was to make efficient management synonymous with sound government.”

OVERALL: Highly recommended, especially to those interested in the era of knights in shining armor.