A review of Stant Litore’s “Lives of Unstoppable Hope.”

This is a beautiful and powerful little book.  The writer has a pre-school daughter, Inara who struggles with a rare form of epilepsy.  Although Inara has made a lot of hopeful progress, her infancy was full of inexplicable and violent rolling seizures that left her parents shaken and frightened.  The father sat long vigils by her hospital bed, which inspired these reflections on the Beatitudes of Jesus.

Stant Litore has a love of and has studied languages, including the Greek of the New Testament.  He brings this learning to bear in this book in a powerful way, really getting to the inner life and power of Jesus’s words that a lot of translations have left obscured.

This, together with his poetic and imaginative understanding of God, humanity, joy and suffering make this a book that has the potential to push you out of your comfort zones and live lives of “unstoppable hope,” making a real difference to the world.

I am not new to Stant Litore, I belong to the Paetron crowd-funding scheme that supports his work, having read and greatly enjoyed and appreciated a lot of his stuff.  This includes a series called the “Zombie Bible,” that takes the stories of the Bible and fuses them with …the undead.  Stant’s reading of spiritual hunger with the zombie plagues he describes is an illuminating and enriching one.  I have also enjoyed his “Ansible” series that describe telepathic space travel and demonic creatures of pure mind, real Lovecraftian horrors.

Common to also his writing is a fiercely humanistic Christian faith.  I find it powerfully authentic.  So look up his work, and if you are so moved, support him and his family through Paetron.  I write through powerfully selfish reasons, I simply want to read more of his stuff.

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A review of Carlo Rovelli’s “Seven Brief Lessons on Physics.”

This short book (79 pages) by an Italian Theoretical Physicist has been lauded for the skill and poetry with which it communicates very complex ideas of theoretical physics.

It does have that merit.  It is an engaging short read and the compression of big and complicated ideas into seven short chapters is like one of those theoretical compressions of matter that lie at the heart of black holes.  The image of the Universe, space, as a vast rippling sea, I loved that.

So the chapters cover Einstein’s theories of relativity, Quantum mechanics, the structure of the Universe, particle physics, probability, time, heat, black holes, and, most portentously, “ourselves.”

One review I read said the book draws from a wide range of philosophy, arts, and literature.  Not really.  There’s a glancing reference to Shakespeare here, a mention of a symphony there, a few quotes from Lucretius here.  On the whole this is a short work of scientific materialism with the odd poetic turn of phrase.  And like much of modern science, with its panic to exclude anything that does not exist within its worldview, it falls back on  frantic attempts to generate “wonder.”  So isn’t this all ‘ooooh,’ and  ‘aaaahhh,’ and ‘wow.’

For in the end this short book says that many of the theories it expounds are clunky, there is much that is unknown, but don’t worry, there’s enough to be sure that we are the result of reducible processes, nothing more.  It’s arrogant reductionist thinking dressed up with a few oooh’s and ahhh’s. The closing chapter isn’t even original thinking, it repeats much of what Richard Dawkins says in the chapter “The Mother of all Burkas” in “The God Delusion.”

Worth reading as a primer on some interesting scientific theories and ideas, and also on the limits of those same theories, but arrogant and unconvincing in its conclusions

 

A review of Timothy Keller’s “My Rock My Refuge: A Year of Daily Devotions in the Psalms.”

My walk as a Christian is a very faltering one indeed.  Therefore a daily devotional reading, I reason, is helpful in keeping my steps on more or less the right path.  ‘More or less’ the right path.  What a typically British thing to say.  As if to say”keep my feet on the right path” was too definite and impolite.  But no.  As I said, my walk is faltering, and as a flawed human being I know that rather than some angelic Roman road, I’ll be weaving in a zig-zagging, inebriated fashion.

Anyway.

I bought this book as a daily devotional to help me for the above reason, and also because the Psalms are the amongst the most the human and relatable writings in the Bible.  Cries of hatred and rage, deep wails of despair, and dialogues of depression that sound like the speaker is having to tear the words from their throat, sit alongside jubilant songs of praise, wonder and gratitude.

I have read C S Lewis’s excellent “Reflection on the Psalms,” which is a helpful book, packed with wisdom and insight.

In this you get a Psalm, or sections of a longer Psalm (related in their Biblical order) along with a short commentary and prayer.  That’s the format, day in, day out.  The translation used is that of the NIV.

Just a word on the writers.  Tim Keller is an American Pastor, theologian, writer and apologist.  He is Pastor of Redeemer Presbyterian Church, New York City.  This is a large and influential Church with a congregation drawn from mainly NY young professionals.  So far so US Conservative mega-church?  Not so, according to Tim Keller, who says that the Church defines itself less on an oppositional, hostile take to the Secular world but more that of one of neighbourliness, focusing strongly on the person and mission of Jesus Christ.  Tim’s wife, Kathy, is the book’s other writer.

Nevertheless, the theology in the book has a strongly Conservative taste to it.  I don’t mean that as a criticism.  What is more of a criticism is that there is little in this book that seems to be taking risks, really breaking into the Psalms and making them bleed into our daily lives.   There is little history or grappling with the language or translation issues.  It lacks that kind of kick-start energy that inspires you and has you thinking on the train into work.

The book is peppered with references, although most of them draw on a commentary of the Psalms from someone called Derek Kidner.  Then there’s some references to traditional hymns, a few references to the poetry of George Herbert, and more eclectically, one relating to Superman Returns, the movie, and another to Tolkien’s  The Two Towers.  But on the whole the references are not very varied, and add to the conservative feel of the book.

What is interesting is that, in an Afterword to the book, Kathy Keller states that the early manuscripts of the books were scrapped for being far too dense and complex.  It looks like they went too far the other way.

But look, this book has kept me company all year, it has given me some focus and brought me back to the Psalms, and for that I’m grateful.  It may well work better for others, it’s not a bad book at all.  It has integrity and sincerity of purpose.  But personally I wanted more.

A review of Lindsay Buroker’s “Star Nomad:Fallen Empire, Book 1.”

This was brought to my attention by the excellent ‘BookBub’ which is a service that notifies of time limited free and bargain priced e-books, or I doubt I would have come across it.

I’m glad I did as it’s good, cheering, unpretentious escapist fun.  The writing is clear and delivers on a briskly paced, character driven space opera that sets us up for a wider saga, but is nevertheless a cracking self contained adventure in and of itself.

As the blurb says, it’s reminiscent of the ‘Firefly’ template of disparate characters bonded by camaraderie and adventure crewing a distinctive ship that itself has a strong identity.

It neatly sets up our heroes first meeting as pilot Alice Marchenko, surviving soldier from a recent Alliance / Empire War (guess which are the nominal ‘bad’ guts), salvages her Mother’s freight ship from an intergalactic junkyard only to find a veteran from the Empire, a Cyborg, stowed on the ship.  Compelled to keep him as a passenger, she builds a crew willing to pay passage off the planet to her home world of Perun where she hopes to be re-united with her daughter.  So enter a soldier fleeing from mafia entanglements, a priest-caste figure with ties to the Empire, a kooky female farmer joining Marhcenko and  her already trusted, cynical mechanic, as they take to the skies en route to an asteroid that the Cyborg has ‘requested’ they detour to.  There begins an adventure with pirates, more cyborgs,  a mysterious orb, chases and cinematic action set-pieces. The crew appears to bond, but some may be harbouring agendas of their own..

If all this sounds familiar, that’s because it is.  But no matter.  If the writing is good these well worn tropes can be wrapped around you like a duvet on a cold Winter’s night, reassuring when all around is unfamiliar, threatening and uncertain, which has been this week, basically.

So I recommend this, it does what it should, and should you want to spend longer in world of Alice Marchenko and friends a further five instalments await

A review of the Podcast “Chop Bard”

I have loved Shakespeare primarily since I looked in depth at “King Lear” and “Anthony and Cleopatra” for my A-Levels under the tutelage of the fantastically named and fantastically gifted “Ms Powers.”

Reading critical commentaries, seeing performances, and grappling with the texts hooked me on Shakespeare’s vivid explorations of the human experience.

Going on to study Shakespeare as part of my English Literature Degree, I was again blessed with gifted tutors, and my reading of the plays, critics and commentators, and knowledge and experience of productions increased.  Amongst other things I thrilled to the dark psychology and politics of Coriolanus, empathised with Hamlet’s tortured over-thinking, and thrilled to the young King Harry finding his Royal identity as warrior King.  I was introduced to the BBC Shakespeare canon of the 1970’s and 1980’s and found them, and still do, wonderful.  As a leaving present for a past job I was presented with a dvd box-set of these productions in their entirety.  I have never been more thrilled with such a gift in my life.

How wonderful then, 20 years after my studies, to come across this podcast.  It is fantastic.  It’s hosted by Ehren Ziegler, a Graphic Artist in New York who has a theatre background.  Taking a Shakespeare play, it will then over a course of weeks, and here I can do no worse than quote the website, “passionately pick apart the plays of William Shakespeare, scene by scene, line by line, in search of entertainment and understanding.” Mr Ziegler is a passionate and insightful commentator, his knowledge and learning on the plays is formidable, and judging from his reading of the lines, he is no slouch as an actor.  He draws from a range of sources, on the literary history of the texts including the ‘folio’ vs. ‘quarto’ controversies, literary and dramatic criticism, various productions on theatre and screen, and more. His unpacking of the relevance and dramatic power of the works on the human psyche, what it means to be human,  the impact of our choices and actions on each other, and our capacity for great good and good evil, in an an accessible and clear way, is second to none.  Now with me he is pushing at an open door admittedly.  I am not one who has ever, as an adult, struggled with Shakespeare.  But I can see how this podcast will engender that love of Shakespeare that was kindled in me for others who see barriers to the plays in such things as their historicity and language.  And the fact they may have been put off by bad teaching at school (or teaching that did not work for them).

For a full list of the plays the podcast has covered see the website.  Currently we’re into “The Winter’s Tale,” having just taken on “King Lear.”

The podcast draws on the talents of other actors to help expound the scenes sometimes.

So far my podcast of the year .  Brilliant.

A review of Iain Rob Wright’s “The Gates: An Apocalyptic Horror Novel (Hell on Earth Book 1)”

All over the world mysterious black stones appear.  They begin to pulsate, shimmer and then project a shimmering arch, through which surge hordes of demons, intent on world conquest.

The story is told through multiple viewpoints:  Mina Magar, photojournalists in London, Rick Bastion, a faded alcoholic one hit wonder rock star in the UK South West, Tony Cross, a Staff Sergeant on the Iraq/Syria border, and Guy Granger, a US Coastguard off the coast of a besieged New York.  All of them are close to a stone when it becomes a Gate, and all of them are in the front-line in this new war against Hell.

The monsters break down into 4 main groups; giant fallen angels, complete with loincloths and frazzled wings; badly burnt humanoids, ape like creatures with razor sharp talons, and possessed humans.  The humanoids are talkative but their conversation is generally unpleasant, forever calling people “maggot” and “worm,” and threatening to variously disembowel people or defecate in their skull.  All have a beef with humanity and generally want it gone so they can take over the world and desecrate God’s creation and make Him appear so they can make Him vulnerable and attack Him.  Or something.

This book is stark, staring bonkers.  Even by the standards of apocalyptic horror, it’s out there.  It makes like your average zombie novel read like common sense.  It has an effective build up and when the demons first appear I was intrigued.  The multiple plot-lines / viewpoints were an interesting juxtaposition and you waited for some kind of narrative cohesion that would help you to buy into this world.  That does not appear.  There are a lot of set pieces, some effective shocks and Game of Thrones-esque offing of a major characters (although one is rescued by a pretty gob-smacking Deus ex machina) but there’s a lot of laboured exposition and info-dumping, as demons taunt their prey and explain the plot in a way the villains used to do on bad tv.

The theology is cartoonish in its depiction and understanding of Hell and it’s hierarchies.

And yet, I did enjoy the book, and it rattled along at a good old rate.  There is enough skill in evidence to keep you flipping teh pages and immersed in this utterly daft pulp horror.

The audio version is read by Nigel Patterson who does a good job of characterisation, clarity and pacing