Friday, August 20, 2021

"Me, Myself, and Bob," by Phil Vischer


In the late 1990s, my family met Phil Vischer and his company, Big Idea, through Veggie Tales, The children’s ministry at our church was putting together a performance, and my youngest son, then about eight years old, had to learn the following line:

“I’m sorry that I scared you when you saw me on TV.”

I’m not sure, but I THINK he was picked to say that line because he has always been the biggest kid in his class, and his role was that of Frankencelery, aka Phil Winklestein of Toledo, Ohio. So: big character should be played by a big kid. 

It did not go to my son’s strengths.

Still, we rehearsed the line over and over, and when the time came for him to pop up and speak, he had a smile on his face. And nobody threw stones.

Next thing you know, we were all marching around the house, singing “God is Bigger than the Boogie Man!” to the dog; and, we were happy with that. We bought the videos, we bought the cassette tapes, and we learned the words to Silly Songs. We even performed one of them at a family reunion. In fact, I adapted “The Water Buffalo Song” to introduce my middle school to the concept of student conflict managers.

“Everybody’s got a peace-keeping crew
To help you when you’re feeling blue,
When you don’t know just what to do
Everybody’s got a peace-keeping crew!”

Time passed, and life went on. My kids sort of aged-out of Veggie Tales videos, but we were always happy when the characters popped up again. When “Jonah” hit the big screen, I was delighted, and we went to see it, but I wasn’t really FOLLOWING what was happening with Big Idea.

And so, I was taken by surprise, when I read a May 2004 article in Christianity Today titled “Running Out of Miracles.” I discovered that Big Idea had over-expanded in developing “Jonah,” and as a result, the company collapsed. The part of the article that stayed with me was the last bit, in which Phil Vischer explains to his son the significance of the collapse of Big Idea. The article ends with the statement of hope “There are a million ways to do it” (tell people about God).  
What I retained, though, perhaps because my youngest son was not much older than Phil’s, was the emotional gut-punch of telling your child that your dream, your creation, was just gone.

And that part of my life crawled off into a cave, and whimpered.

17 years later: one of my oldest friends tells me of this podcast he has discovered, taking very seriously  some terrific challenges facing the Christian church. It turns out that it’s none other than: PHIL VISCHER! I start listening, and quickly become FASCINATED with the combination of humor and deep theology. Eventually, I discover Vischer has written THIS book. So, I get it, and read it, and that whimpering part of me comes out of the cave. 

Yes, the book DOES provide interesting bits about Phil’s background, including his amazing forebears, and how he got in trouble in Bible college. It also describes the way technology and talent combined to permit the birth of Veggie Tales. However, the part of the book that has greatest value, to me personally, AND to anyone who wants to turn creativity into a career, is his detailed analysis of how it all went wrong. In brutally simplest terms, it was a conflict of vision with marketing, and a lack of management over all.

It’s a very poignant story. Like the article in Christianity Today, it ends with hope. HOWEVER! It also ends 15 years ago. That was long before he started the podcast I’ve been immersed in for the past couple of months, and it doesn’t reference a number of creative products he has put forward since then. Not all of them worked! Know this, though: Phil Vischer is still plugging away on one or more of the million ways to tell people about God.

Peace be on your household.

Thursday, August 19, 2021

When Thoughts and Prayers Aren't Enough, by Taylor Schumann

This is an Amazon Associates link; if you click on it, and buy something, I get a few pennies.

Taylor Schumann took advantage of the opportunities that came her way. She had earned a degree in social work, was deeply involved in her church, and was one day away from her bridal shower.

The buckshot that mangled her hand and entered her chest changed those opportunities forever.  The day was Friday, April 12, 2013. It was the last morning she would ever wake up without physical pain.

Her book is not really about the shooting, and it’s not about the shooter.  If you are looking for some methodological police procedural, look elsewhere. True crime junkies will not fawn over this book; neither will those who are rabidly anti- OR pro-gun. That’s because this book presents us with a closely observed experience of a person who saved her own life (literally) by hiding in an unlocked closet, and then was (figuratively) forced to save her life again by fighting her way out of locked closet she was placed in against her will.

My gift-from-God, happily-ever-after trophy wife Vanessa, the elegant, foxy, praying black grandmother of Woodstock, GA, is a trained birth doula. She comes alongside expectant mothers, and guides them through the complications associated with giving birth in the antiseptic, and potentially hostile, conditions found in many hospitals. Time and again, as I was reading Taylor’s story, I wished she had an analogue of a birth doula at her side, to explain to her what was happening, what she could expect, what the outcomes might be, and mostly, to explain her choices to her. Actually, at SOME steps of the process, she had people to fill that role. She commends the police investigators, and representatives of the victim’s assistance program, for guiding her through some of the rough spots in the immediate aftermath. At other times, she was able to rely on family members to help her with procedures and paperwork that were required due to her injuries. 

Those just covered specific points in her recovery, however. Vanessa sits with the expectant mother, all through the process; she attends birthday parties afterward. And over and over, I wished Taylor had a Vanessa to sit with her, providing comfort, support, knowledge and advice; most of all, someone who understood what Taylor was going through.

Behold, I shall hide nothing from you: I own firearms. I am a Life Member of the NRA. Taylor and I are not alike in many ways. However. HOWEVER. However, Taylor’s story touched a part of me that I wasn’t aware existed. It’s not the universe leading up to her shooting that has changed my mind and heart; it’s the universe that exists afterward.

You see, except for the immediate aftermath, Taylor was ignored by too many of the people who meant the most to her. Her background is one that could be described as firearm-friendly, not firearm-hostile. I find myself unable to describe it, other than solidly Southern middle class. People didn’t carry a gun to the dinner table, but there could very well be hunting rifles in a gun cabinet and perhaps a pistol in the drawer of the bedside table. It wasn’t a big part of the lives of her friends and family, but everyone believed in the Second Amendment. 

And because of that, when Taylor got shot, too many of those she cared for simply didn’t know what to do with that. SO, she got ignored. And so, she suffered another loss, in addition to the physical loss of the use of her hand.

That is the figurative closet she was locked into, against her will. 

This book is the story of how she saved her life, a second time. It is also a story in progress.

Taylor offers some action steps, for those who hear her story. Will you understand me if I tell you that there is NO WAY that some of those steps work for me? However, I am compelled to take action to assist those who, like Taylor, had their opportunities limited because someone shot them. I’m open to anything God leads me to do in this respect, but until I get directed in a different direction, I will be donating money to benefit gunshot victims. I’ve already started the process, and will refine it as I get more light.

Peace be on your household.

Friday, July 23, 2021

Book review: "Other Rhodes," by Sarah A. Hoyt

I’m slow. I get there eventually, but I’m slow.

The cover of “Other Rhodes” CLEARLY designates this as “Rhodes 1.” You’d think that I would know that this is first of a series, right? And yet, somewhere after the first half of the novel, I’m doing a frantic-bookworm plea: “Oh, this would make for a WONDERFUL series! I hope she has a series set up! This HAS to be a series!”

Well, duh. It’s first in a series. Therefore, always assuming that the Beautiful-But-Evil Space Princess doesn’t turn her hand to some other endeavor, we have delight ahead.

Delight, that is, for those who enjoy such delicacies as the Hard-Boiled Detective,  Nero Wolfe, Mickey Spillane, Sherlock Holmes, Damon Runyon, and Robert Parker. You know; like that, but different. Because, all that IN S-P-A-A-C-E!!!

A Professor of Literature who read the above paragraph would immediately foam at the mouth, exclaiming “THOSE ARE ALL DIFFERENT! You  can’t lump them into one category!” Well, I just did, and the category was “Written Stuff I Enjoy.” So there.

A silly/dumb/gorgeous secretary. Except she’s NOT silly or dumb (she is gorgeous); except she IS silly and dumb (or, at least ignorant) in the beginning. She’s a hothouse flower, you see. You’ve heard of gilding the lily, meaning that you put needless decoration on something that doesn’t need it? Well, her maiden name is Lilly Gilding. By her own admission, her early education taught her how to dance and look pretty. In that condition, she married Joe Aster (thus acquiring ANOTHER flower name), a private investigator totally unsuitable for a young lady of her status. Her super-wealthy father responded by cutting her off from support, perhaps hoping to bring her to her senses. 

It actually worked, though not in a way Daddy had anticipated, and not in a way Lilly recognized. Forced into the world of work, Lilly became part of Joe’s investigative operation. Silly and dumb people can’t do what she did, and I can only suppose it was because she had never been allowed to overcome challenges that she fails to appreciate all she accomplishes: “merely” a receptionist, she masters typing and accounting, and gets her Investigator license. She becomes an integral part of Joe’s work. All of that, without realizing that she has become far more than ornamental.

That’s the ignorance that is her greatest limitation.

Joe has patterned his practice on a popular series of detective stories. Even their home base/space ship is christened “West 35th Street,” after the locale of the stories. These are presented as immersive experiences (“mersi”) featuring fictional and flawed detective Nick Rhodes and drop-dead-gorgeous partner Stella D’Or. 

Joe loves them; Lilly does not. However, when Joe shows up transformed and incapacitated, the silly/dumb Lilly realizes that the solution lies in the mersi story. 

And she takes appropriate action. Excitement and intrigue ensue. The foundation for a series is laid!

Apropos of nothing, the real West 35th Street in New York is home of the Church of the Incarnation, celebrating the appearance of the Divine in another form. But that is a topic for the Professor of Literature.

Don’t ignore the glorious cover art. It’s almost photo-realism, and would make a GREAT wall poster.

Peace be on your household.

Thursday, June 3, 2021

"We Dare: Semper Paratus "Edited by Jamie Ibson & Chris Kennedy

All of these stories take place after The End Of The World As We Know It (TEOTWAWKI; I think I got that acronym right). No particular cause was stipulated for the writers, so we get a blend: some are from futures already established, such as Chris Woods’ “This Fallen World” universe; while others are brand new disasters. However, fear not; these cloudy worlds all come with some semblance of a silver lining.

THE DAUGHTER, by Chris Kennedy. Set in “This Fallen World.” One of the distinguishing marks of TFW is that the technology existed, prior to the fall, to imprint an entire personality onto/into a subject. While the imprinted subject may need to develop some muscles, all of the reflexes and knowledge that were in the imprint are transferred over. However, only one personality can be dominant at a time. That means that as long as the imprint is in control, the original is (more or less) dormant. The plot, characterization, action of this story are well-developed. However, we are given something else to think about, and we might be thinking about it for a long time: what are the ethics of keeping a subordinate from suffering?

RESPAWN, by Robert E. Hampson. Any right-thinking resident of the South knows that Waffle Houses are rightly the center of culture and goodness, and may very well be the center of the universe. Well, portals, at least; or, they are in this story, even if given an alternative title. When an active playing character gets killed, they are returned to existence in these blessed locations, where there is always a refill for your coffee. Everything else in the universe might vary, though. So be careful.

BOB, FROM LOS ANGELES, by Brent Roeder. Soren Kierkegaard wrote “Purity of heart is to will one thing.” If that is true, then Bob, from Los Angeles, has the purest heart imaginable. Don’t expect him to engage in much idle chatter, but if a job needs to be done? Bob is your man.  

NOR WAR’S QUICK FIRE, by Rob Howell. A person with great wealth arranges to have a small contingent of employees be evacuated to the fledgling colony on Mars, just as war spasms on Earth. It’s amazing how many different perspectives can be held in a group of intelligent people. What’s more amazing is that some perspectives are subject to change.

WHY 2K, by Jon R. Osborne. Now, THIS is the apocalypse we were promised! What if the prep to eliminate the fallout from using only two digits to record the year hadn’t worked, and all the doom and gloom about Y2K had been realized? That’s what THIS story is about; it’s about time!

THE FALLOW FIELDS, PART I, by Jason Cordova, and THE FALLOW FIELDS, PART II, by Christopher L Smith. Confession: I was so caught up in the story, that I kept reading, and didn’t realize until NOW that parts I & II were written by different authors. I suppose an accomplished reviewer would notice the stylistic changes, and have something clever to say about that, but THIS reviewer was simply engrossed in the adventure. 
I don’t know how much chaos reigned in the land that became the Soviet Union during consolidation after the Bolshevik revolution, but I do know that the US military was involved in two separate campaigns, North Russia and Siberia, in the post WWI period. To that chaos, add a zombie apocalypse, and then follow the crew of a tank as they fight their way through the worst that can come at them.

THE RESERVOIR, by Kevin Fritz Fotovich. First Contact didn’t go so well, and big rocks got dropped on our heads. It didn’t take much to disrupt nearly everything. Still, a determined people can rebuild, particularly when the former enemies can lend help. Other people are determined as well, though.

WARLORD, by Christopher Woods. Books have been written about the exploits of Matthew Kade, deservedly so. The imprinting of personalities went somewhat wrong with him, in the same sense that the Atlantic Ocean is somewhat damp. Somehow, he has managed to find a way that all of his many personalities can get along. He really hates people who keep slaves. And he is always on the lookout for new talent.

TEN BREATHS, by Marisa Wolf. Don’t think that magic will prevent the world from ending. It will just end in a different way, with different options. Still, resolute people can fight back. In this universe, the darkness is on the way, and the people must prepare to fight, and to endure.

MOMENTS, by Kevin Ikenberry. It’s bad enough that the world ends. However, when the world ends just after the worst night of your life, you don’t get an opportunity to make up for a momentary failure. And that turns what SHOULD be a moment, into an eternity.  Maybe another moment will come; but don’t bet on it. Just try to keep doing the next right thing.

YOU HAVE TO GO OUT, by Philip Wohlrab. Here’s the deal: in the Army, you can catch your breath during peacetime. Yes, there is still training, and it is demanding, and people can die in accidents, but at least, in peacetime, nobody is actually shooting at you. So, there’s that. HOWEVER, in the Cast Guard, the enemy is the sea, and the sea NEVER is willing to sign a peace treaty. And it doesn’t make any difference to the Coast Guard if people are shooting at you or not; they still have to do their job, and that means going out.

EIGHT OUNCES A DAY, by Kevin Steverson. In the aftermath of an engineered extinction event, protein is hard to come by; the terrorists did their sums wrong, and killed the animals as well as the people. Still, some survive, including a janitor at Kennesaw State University. Too bad their mascot is an owl; a turkey would have been more convenient.

WRAITH, by Marie Whittaker. Fairly soon after the wraiths appear and start eating people, June Bug discovers that salt will kill them dead. It’s not until much later that things get really weird.

DUST TO DUST, by Jamie Ibson. The most intriguing aspect (among the many delights) of this story is that the reason for the apocalypse is not revealed, until it shows up as a part of the Final Answer. Until then, we start with a near-standard tale of the Old West, with a pleasing young lady from Back East arriving to take ownership of the family estate.  However, she is no tinhorn, not a shrinking violet who must rely on the protection of strong-but-silent, etc. From Western, we shift to a mystery, complete with strangers acting strange, and clues to be found. It’s really a great story, and one that could easily fill the pages of a novel.

The collection is packed solid with great stories, and it’s worth multiple re-reads.

Peace be on your household.

Saturday, May 29, 2021

Doctor Inferno, by Pam Uphoff

I would have gotten this book, just because it’s written by one of the Masters of Prolificity, Pam Uphoff. Once you start reading her work, you will never finish (at least, not as long as you are trying to do other things with your life); but what a great way to go!

However, there was another reason for picking this volume, and that is that the person on the front cover looks A LOT like me, with some few differences; my hairline hasn’t receded that far back, yet. I was delighted to find that this represents a super-villain, and more so to discover that he’s about three hundred years older than I. So, I have a while to work on the hairline.

Alas, William N. Furnace (Dr. Inferno) and I appear to have at least one other thing in common: we forget things. He forgets what senior activities he has signed up for; I forget to review books I’ve gotten. This particular item was picked up on March 11; today is May 29. 

Sorry, Pam.

He’s long since retired, and been forgotten by the world. That’s what permits him to live undisturbed in a senior facility, close enough to the bright lights of Las Vegas to permit monthly field trips. Undisturbed, despite the fact that one of his fellow residents is a former agent who had pursued him during his days of active mischief. Time has healed those wounds, however, and now they have a bond formed by the fact that they are both inactive, due to being more than three centuries old. They expect that even their advanced, and manipulated, DNA will give out eventually, though, as it has already shown signs of doing.

But, don’t touch that dial! A comeback awaits!

A combination of irascibility, luck, and general refusal to accept fate without fighting back puts our aged ex-villain back into action. Backed with resources accumulated by his long-active AI, Dr Inferno emerges, just in time to threaten/save the world, one more time.

Uphoff’s ability to make you feel the characters she produces is enough to cause one to be just a bit suspicious. Does she actually KNOW a near-senescent super-villain? Is that why she is able to make this character come to life so thoroughly?

Alas. I fear that it’s merely a case of her being able to write characters that we want to be, ourselves. Is there anyone who WOULDN’T like to rise above the wheelchair and adult diapers, and shake the world to its’ foundations again? 

Maybe it’s just because the cover image and I resemble each other, but I think not. I would have liked to read this when I was 12 years old. I was, of course, a confirmed FAN by that time. And, while the technology referenced in the story would have been far advanced for 1965, the true nature of the adventure lies in the determination of the characters to Get The Job Done. And, as long as she is writing about that, not private relationships with super-villains are necessary.

I’m not ruling them out, though. She does, after all, live in Texas.

Peace be on your household.

Thursday, May 27, 2021

"Night Mage" (Academic Magic Book 2), by Becky R. Jones

The “Academic Magic” series, of which this is the second installment, delightfully mixes the savagery of battles in the halls of higher education with the more civilized conflicts found in the world of magic. An evil mage will merely seek your death, and subordination of the world to their will; the wicked academic, on the other hand, will seek to sabotage your research, have you assigned to a windowless cubicle without access to a copier, and try to make you grovel in order to obtain the golden apple that is TENURE. There truly can be no question as to where the greater peril will be found.

The team which bonded to prevent a demon from destroying the Philadelphia area in the first book has returned, and a few characters are added in the course of the story. For the opposing team, casualties attendant upon their loss have reduced their number, and the influence those that remain are able to bring to bear is significantly reduced.  Dr. Zoe O’Brien, a recent addition to the history faculty and our protagonist, has the vain hope that this will bring a period of peace and tranquility to the campus in general, and her life in particular. Alas, Nature abhors a vacuum, and the depleted forces of the plotters are supplemented by new hires and new powers.

If that were not enough, Zoe’s mentor in things academic as well as magical has been tapped to cover certain administrative tasks for the college, previously managed by one of the vanquished. Thus, he has essentially abandoned his role as her trainer, in favor of meeting the demands of his new position. 

On the other hand, she has cats; cats who can not only talk to humans, but also communicate with other animals (the Watchers) who are sensitive to magical influences. As long as she meets their demands for food and cuddles, they will provide her with the support they think she needs to be successful. The operative term, as anyone who is a servant of cats will understand, is that the advice will be provided according to the CAT’S schedule, not the human’s.

The new crisis is revealed when a previously undiscovered source of magical influence, in the form of ley lines, is reported to Zoe by a Watcher.

As she is a quite recent initiate to the world of magic, and her own powers, she has no way of evaluating the significance or impact of the discovery. Therefore, at first she doesn’t really know whether the message the Watcher has brought her is cause for great alarm, or not, although she suspects the former. Her confusion is compounded by frustrations with the way the experienced magic users are able to pass along the benefits of their wisdom. 

As the main plot moves along, little threads are planted that will (surely) have future payoffs. The powers of student Declan, his relationship with his djinn father, and mixed messages with his academic and magical advisor suggest development at some later date. In addition, Zoe is able to break out some information from her mother about her own parentage, and the bizarre behavior of her absent father. A third point that does directly affect the main story line is the revelation that not all magical agents can be said to be firmly in either camp, enemy or ally. 

And always remember: food service on campus usually provides dismal meals, but they DO make a good burger. 

Peace be on your household.

Wednesday, May 26, 2021

"Responsibility of the Crown," by G. Scott Huggins

 I have read a lot of  Scott Huggins’ work over the years, with delight. This was not one of those experiences.

On a world dominated by a great ocean, three different cultures are brought into conflict: The Consortium, a technologically advanced, expansionist civilization, with both land and sea power; the Grove, a merchant nation with massive trading ships, that journey for decades between stops at the home port; and, Evenmarch, which blends dragon and human citizens with reliance on supernatural forces. These are not the only forces at play, but they form the background  against which the characters play out their own drama.

I found two bizarrely disruptive changes from what I have come to expect of this author: first, there are huge gaps in the narrative; second, the protagonist has an irritatingly lumpy progression in her character arc.

The first gap in the narrative comes at the very beginning. Without ANY preparation, we are tossed into an action scene involving Responsibility and Zhad. We are clued in to the fact that Zhad is blind, by the statement that his eyes are white, and his demand that Responsibility tell him what she sees, but we are given NOTHING to tell us about who, or what, or even where Responsibility is, or the significance of her name.  In the “Acknowledgments” section, the author mentions two prior works involving the character, and perhaps all the necessary back-story is contained there. However, none of that was available to me, and I had to collect the history in minute amounts as it was doled out in the narrative. Had this been an author I was not familiar with, or less favorably inclined toward, I would not have bothered. 

There is a similar gap, although not as severe, in the narrative between chapters 7 and 8. At the end of Chapter 7, Responsibility, now known by her true name of Azriyqam, has just faced a death duel, and has been given significant instruction on  aspects of loyalty and unity. In the very next page, with no transition given at all, we read that she is drowning, followed by a confusing narrative about her instruction in the supernatural arts. I found this to be utterly disorienting; it took me entirely out of the story.

The second significant glitch I encountered was the  inconsistent progress that the protagonist makes during the story. Admittedly, there is much she has to adjust to;  initially, she is a much abused and neglected prisoner, always fearing for her life. Very early in the book, however, she discovers that she is the daughter of the ruler of a powerful kingdom.  The whole of the book deals with her spiritual journey to accept and emerge into her new role. 

However, she is both poorly instructed, in some cases, and then often resistant to what instruction she is given. For example, we learn that she is unable to to pronounce certain phrases of power correctly, as long as she clings to her learned accent. However, if she intentionally mimics the speech of one of her antagonistic characters, her pronunciation is perfect. Despite learning this trick, however, she refuses to implement it.
She seems to shift back and forth, from acceptance to rejection, at random. 
Her stubborn refusal to accept the need to adapt is mirrored perfectly in another character, who is forced by circumstances to become an ally. In her case, though, she has her intransigent behavior stuffed into her face:

“Are you going to keep underestimating us, Captain? Or will you consider that you may have something to learn?” (Huggins, G. Scott. Responsibility of the Crown . New Mythology Press. Kindle Edition.)

And, who is the wiser person who forces this realization? None other than Responsibility/Azriyqam. So, if she preach it, why can’t she live it out?

I really liked the culture clashes possible with the three distinct civilizations. The great world-spanning oceans might be exactly what permits each grouping to go its’ own way, with civilizations based on water at a technological disadvantage to those with access to mineral resources on land. The story of the Lost Princess/Prince is a good one, and can be enjoyed in many permutations. I also appreciate the various aspects of sufficiently advanced technology being indistinguishable from magic being used in the story; at one point, radio is explained by one character to another as sorcery, because the tech is too confusing. 

Although much of the main storyline is resolved, there are many threads that can be followed in the future. I hope that in those theoretical future volumes, the author will provide the reader with enough history to prevent the disorientation that I experienced. I certainly remain a fan of his work, and hope to see more on the way.

Peace be on your household