Into the Book


Posts by Corey Poff

  1. To begin with, here’s wishing you a merry Christmas.

    And if you’re wondering why I wished you a merry Christmas, or why Christmas is worth being merry about in the first place, then you’re in luck: there’s a book for that.

    In God Rest Ye Merry, Douglas Wilson seeks to rekindle the Christian’s understanding of why Christmas really is “the foundation for everything.” He tears down false reasons for the season (and false objections to it); reflects upon the oddness and beauty of the Incarnation; explains why the first Christmas was “a political event of the first order”; shows us how to celebrate like true Puritans; and examines the theology behind gift-giving. All in less than one hundred fifty pages.

    He’s efficient, this Wilson is.

    I’ve got gifts to wrap and halls to deck, so I’ll just cut to the chase: God Rest Ye Merry is a terrific book. I loved it. You should read it. Better yet, you and your family should read it. (The Advent meditations included at the back of the book are perfectly suited to family devotions.) Here are a few standout passages to whet your appetite.

    From Lesson Two, The Politics of Christmas:

    The message of Christmas is politically incendiary, when you think about it, and it is not for nothing that secularists are trying to get us to forget Jesus with their C.E. (Common Era) and B.C.E. (Before Common Era), and seasonal conifers instead of Christmas trees. Nice try, but we aren’t buying any…

    The Anti-Christian Liberties Union (ACLU) knows that getting Christmas trees off public property is well worth fighting for. This is why we as Christians have to learn that saying “merry Christmas” is an act of insurrection. How do we define our lives? More than this, how do we define our lives as a people? Far from retreating into a minimalist celebration, or no celebration at all, we as Christians must take far greater advantage of the opportunity we have in all of this. Now the Lord Jesus is on His throne. And His government will continue to increase. But He works through instruments, and one of His central instruments for establishing His kingdom on earth is the faith of His people. Why is it that Christians shopping at WalMart are being reminded over the loudspeakers that “He comes to make His blessings flow, far as the curse is found.” Why are they telling us this? It’s our religion. Why don’t we believe it? But if you believe it, then say merry Christmas to somebody. (pp. 59, 61)

    From Lesson Three, Celebrating Like A Puritan:

    Some may object to the fact that the suffix -mass is still in the name. But the objectionable doctrine of transubstantiation was not codified by the roman church until the thirteenth century (A.D. 1215) at the Fourth Lateran Council. The word mass originally came from the fact that in the ancient church catechumens were dismissed from the service before the Lord’s Supper was observed. “Ite, missa est,” which roughly translated means  that “you may go now.” We see it still in our word dismissed. (p. 92-93)

    From Daily Meditations for Advent, Day Twelve:

    We forget that Rachel weeping for her slaughtered children is very much a part of the Christmas story – as much a part of it as the shepherds, and the angels, and the star, and the wise men. This is a story of the infants who were butchered by a tyrannical king, and the one infant who was spared in order to grow up and die for the sins of His people.

    This story has death woven through it – the backdrop is death, and sin, and tyranny. We celebrate at this time, not because we live in a sentimentalist paradise where there has never been any evil, but only gently falling snow and the sound of sleigh bells in the distance. We celebrate the birth of the one who overthrew the principalities and powers. This is not a holiday that commemorates the essential sweetness and goodness of man. It is a holiday that commemorates the beginning of the story of how it came about that death finally was killed, and how the Warrior who did this great thing was spared in His infancy.

    This is why the continued celebration of Christmas is a standing threat to the secularists who want to remove every vestige of it from the public square. I dare say they do. They understand it better than we do. Merry Christmas really means tyranny is dead. (p. 126)

    – Corey P.

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  2. It’s been over a year since Aubrey Hansen published her first novel. Now she’s back, just like Ah-nuld. And she’s stepping up her game.

    Peter’s Angel is historical fiction with a twist. It takes place in the aftermath of a lost War for Independence, following young Lord Peter Jameson as he struggles to protect the small patriot state of Rhode Island from the greedy hands of New Britain.

    This is alternate history at its most intriguing, and for the most part, Aubrey pulls it off beautifully. Against this backdrop, she sets in motion an invasion, a kidnapping, a rescue, and a love story. And that’s only the beginning.

    W. Somerset Maugham once said that “only a mediocre writer is always at his best,” and I think it’s safe to say that Aubrey’s style have improved since her debut. Make no mistake: I think Red Rain is a great read. But I also think Peter’s Angel blows it right out of the water.

    For one thing, it’s more ambitious. You could say the stakes have been raised. There’s a boldness to the characters, a thematic and dramatic depth to the story, which clearly marks Aubrey’s growth as a storyteller. There are a couple of places where the story drags, but the plotting is generally tight, and the large cast is well-managed. The main characters – particularly Peter, Nathan, and Mark – are more complex than you might initially think. If book one is any indication, I’m willing to bet on some fascinating character development as the rest of the series runs its course.

    That’s right, I said “series.” Peter’s Angel is the first book in a proposed trilogy. As such, I think it will be even stronger when considered alongside its sequels. There’s room for growth here, because the story isn’t over. Aubrey has started something big, and I’m eager to see where she goes with it.

    There were some things about the writing which bugged me – nothing major, just little quirks that stood out to me. For instance, I didn’t care for the repeated use of “what if” paragraphs (silly name, I know, but I’m not sure what else to call them). Example:

    Were the soldiers prepared for battle? What if the British outnumbered them? What if Peter didn’t get the message to pull back? What if the they wouldn’t accept Stephen’s plea for a ceasefire?

    That kind of internal monologuing is fine in moderation, but it appears more frequently in the story than I would’ve liked.

    Thankfully, the good far outweighs the bad here. Peter’s Angel gets an enthusiastic recommendation from me. It’s a promising start to a potentially epic series, and I’m keeping my fingers crossed for part two.

    – Corey P.

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  3. The next best thing to writing is reading about writing. And if I were to gather my favorite writing books and pile them on the floor, I imagine it would look like this:

    Somewhere near bottom would be Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It’s not that I don’t appreciate this book – remember, it’s still in my favorites pile – but I don’t love it the way others do. I see as it essential reading, but I don’t see it as the Holy Writ of writing guides.

    Next up would be William Zinsser’s On Writing Well and Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir. The first is sharp, winsome, and delightful (I reviewed it here). The second is a gritty, unvarnished look at one man’s journey as a writer. After reading it, I had a deeper appreciation for King’s work and the life behind it.

    At the top of my favorites pile would be Wordsmithy by Douglas Wilson. Though not a memoir, it is similar to King’s book in that it addresses not just writing, but the writing life. What sets the two apart is how they approach the subject. King has a treasure trove of wise and insightful observations, but his outlook is pagan, atheistic, and often pretty bleak. Wilson’s is staunchly Christian to the core.

    I don’t care if you plan to make a career of writing, or merely have a passing interest in it – this book should be on your shelf. It’s an immensely rewarding read for those who want to “sling ink” full time, but most of the tips are such that anybody can profit from them.

    The book is short – a mere 120 pages – but I think Wilson has inherited Lewis’ ability to pack into one sentence what most writers pack into three or four. He lays out and explains “a veritable Russian doll of writing tips”: seven exhortations for people who wish to cultivate the wordriht life.

    1. Know something about the world
    2. Read
    3. Read mechanical helps
    4. Stretch your routines
    5. Be at peace with being lousy for awhile
    6. Learn other languages
    7. Keep a commonplace book

    My favorite tip would have to be the first one: know something about the world.

    By this I mean the world outside of books. This might require joining the Marines, or working on an oil rig or as a hashslinger at a truck stop in Kentucky. Know what things smell like out there. If everything you write smells like a library, then your prospective audience will be limited to those who smell like libraries. (p. 10)

    An apt reminder for those of us who are tempted to think that the writer’s life happens almost exclusively behind closed doors with a stack of paper and a stack of books. As Thoreau put it, “How vain it is to sit down to write when you have not stood up to live.”

    – Corey P.

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  4. I’ve read a number of writing books over the past several years, and the two which have taught me the most are Douglas Wilson’s Wordsmithy and Stephen King’s A Memoir. If you take the whole writing business seriously, I can’t recommend those books highly enough. But there’s another book you should have on your shelf, too – On Writing Well by William Zinsser. I only just discovered it myself, but it already holds a place among my favorites.

    This self-proclaimed “informal guide to writing non-fiction” is exactly that – informal. It’s not a textbook, and it doesn’t want to be, which is one the many reasons I enjoyed it so much. Zinsser’s style is warm and honest, his passion for words contagious. Sure, he gets a little cranky now and then (at one point, he calls Ben-Hur “junk”), but it’s clear that he loves writing, and he wants us to love it, too.

    Now don’t get the wrong idea: this isn’t a book for “softies”. Mincing words is not Zinsser’s forte, and when he takes a swing at something he considers silly, he usually hits hard (and with stinging accuracy). According to his way of thinking, it’s not enough for you to want to write – you must also want to write well.

    This book can help you do just that.

    Instead of throwing myself into a detailed explanation of how it can help you – and why you should let it – I think I’ll just step aside and let the author speak for himself. If that doesn’t convince you of the book’s worth, I don’t know what will.

    From chapter two, Simplicity:

    Clutter is the disease of American writing. We are a society strangling in unnecessary words, circular constructions, pompous frills and meaningless jargon… Our national tendency is to inflate and thereby sound important. The airline pilot who announces that he is presently anticipating considerable precipitation wouldn’t dream of saying that it may rain. The sentence is too simple – there must be something wrong with it. (p. 7)

    Writing is hard work. A clear sentence is no accident. Very few sentences come out right the first time, or even the third time. Remember this as a consolation in moments of despair. If you find that writing is hard, it’s because it is hard. It’s one of the hardest things people do. (p. 13)

    From chapter five, The Audience:

    In terms of craft, there’s no excuse for losing the reader through sloppy workmanship. If he drowses off in the middle of your article because you have been careless about a technical detail, the fault is yours. But on the larger issue of whether the reader likes you, or likes what you are saying or how you are saying it, or agrees with it, or feels an affinity for your sense of humor or your vision of life, don’t give him a moment’s worry. You are who you are, he is who he is, and either you will get along or you won’t. (p. 28)

    From chapter six, Words:

    Also bear in mind, when you are choosing words and stringing them together, how they sound. This may seem absurd: readers read with their eyes. But actually they hear what they are reading – in their inner ear – far more than you realize. Therefore such matters as rhythm and alliteration are vital to every sentence. (p. 38)

    From chapter eleven, The Ending:

    The perfect ending should take your readers slightly by surprise and yet seem exactly right. They didn’t expect the article to end so soon, or so abruptly, or to say what it said. But they know it when they see it. Like a good lead, it works. It’s like the curtain line in a theatrical comedy. We are in the middle of a scene (we think) when suddenly one of the actors says something funny, or outrageous, and the lights go out. We are momentarily startled to find the scene over, and then delighted by the aptness of how it ended. What delights us, subconsciously, is the playwright’s perfect control. (p. 76-77)

    From chapter thirteen, Writing About a Place:

    The other big trap [in travel writing] is style. Nowhere else in nonfiction do writers use such syrupy words and groaning platitudes. Adjectives that you would squirm to use in conversation – “roseate,” “wondrous,” “fabled,” “scudding,” – are common currency. Half the sights seen in a day’s sightseeing are “quaint,” especially windmills and covered bridges. They are certified for quaintness. (p. 95)

    From chapter fourteen, Bits & Pieces:

    Again and again in careless writing, strong verbs are weakened by redundant adverbs. So are countless adjectives and other parts of speech: “effortlessly easy,” “slightly spartan,” “totally flabbergasted.” The beauty of “flabbergasted” is that it implies an astonishment that is total; I can’t picture someone being partly flabbergasted. If an action is so easy as to be effortless, use “effortless.” And what is “slightly spartan”? Perhaps a monk’s cell with wall-to-wall carpeting. Don’t use adverbs unless they do necessary work. Spare us the news that the losing athlete moped dejectedly and the winner grinned widely. (p. 109-110)

    Among good writers it is the short sentence that predominates, and don’t tell me about Norman Mailer – he’s a genius. If you want to write long sentences, be a genius. Or at least make sure that the sentence is under control from beginning to end, in syntax and punctuation, so that the reader knows where he is at every step if the winding trail. (p. 112)

    Many of us were taught that no sentence should begin with “but.” If that’s what you learned, unlearn it – there’s no stronger word at the start. It announces total contrast with what has gone before, and the reader is primed for the change. If you need relief from too many sentences beginning with “but,” switch to “however.” It is, however, a weaker word and therefore needs careful placement. Don’t start a sentence with “however” – it hangs there like a wet dishrag. And don’t end with “however” – by that time it has lost its howeverness. Put it as early as you reasonably can – as I did three sentences ago. It’s abruptness then becomes a virtue. (p. 114)

    From chapter eighteen, Criticism:

    Every writer wants at some time to be a critic. Small-town reporters dream of the moment when their editor will summon them to cover the Russian ballet troupe, the concert pianist, the touring repertory company that has been booked into the local auditorium. Then they will trot out the hard-won awards of their college education – “intuit” and “sensibility” and “Kafkaesque” – and show the whole country that they know a glissando from an entrechat. They will discern more symbolism in Ibsen than Ibsen ever thought of. (p. 172)

    From chapter twenty three, Write As Well As You Can:

    My favorite definition of a careful writer comes from Joe DiMaggio, though he didn’t know that’s what he was defining. DiMaggio was the greatest player I ever saw, and nobody looked more relaxed. He covered vast distances in the outfield, moving in graceful strides, always arriving ahead of the ball, making the hardest catch look routine, and even when he was at the bat, hitting the ball with tremendous power, he didn’t appear to be exerting himself. I marveled at how effortless he looked because what he did could only be achieved by great daily effort. A reporter once asked him how he managed to play so well so consistently, and he said: “I always thought that there was at least one person in the stands who had never seen me play, and I didn’t want to let him down.” (p. 273)

    – Corey P.

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  5. Protect the diamonds. Survive the clubs. Dig deep through the spades. Feel the hearts. I am the messenger.

    Ed Kennedy is a loser – a scruffy, 19-year-old cabdriver with no prospects and no motivation. He stinks at playing cards, is hopelessly in love with his best friend, Audrey, and is entirely devoted to his dog, the Doorman (who drinks coffee and “stinks a kind of stink that’s impossible to rid him of”). Ed’s life is one of dull routine and incompetence – until he singlehandedly foils a bank robbery.


  6. The historians can’t seem to settle whether to call this one “The Third Space War” (or the fourth), or whether “The First Interstellar War” fits it better. We just call it “The Bug War.” Everything up to then and still later were “incidents,” “patrols,” or “police actions.” However, you are just as dead if you buy the farm in an “incident” as you are if you buy it in a declared war…

    In Starship Troopers, Jaun “Johnnie” Rico signs up with the Federal Service and struggles through the toughest bootcamp in the Universe, determined to make it as a cap trooper with the Terran Mobile Infantry. But the hardest part is yet to come – when he’s thrown into battle against an enemy unlike anything mankind has faced before.

    Looking for futuristic weaponry, space soldiers, and nasty aliens? This is the book for you. Looking for a mental workout to get the old lemon throbbing? This is also the book for you. Or to put it another way: are you a sci-fi enthusiast with a taste for politics and moral philosophy? Read Starship Troopers. It has both in equal measure.

    Much has been made of Heinlein’s “elegantly drawn battle scenes,” but for my money, the most exciting scenes take place in the classroom. The discussions there are just as riveting as anything that happens in combat, if not more so. The story is swiftly paced and gripping, but it’s clear from the get-go that Heinlein is less concerned with entertaining us than he is with making us stop and think.

    He succeeds. Wildly.

    The society of the future, as imagined here, is one where full citizenship – and most importantly, the right to vote – can only gained through military service. Signing up isn’t mandatory, and those who won’t (or can’t) serve are free to pursue their lives as they see fit. But they aren’t allowed to meddle in politics. Only those who have paid the price for liberty are allowed to wield the power it begets, for they alone know its great and terrible value.

    That is Heinlein’s contention anyway. His arguments are cogent and understandable; whether I agree with them is another matter altogether. Nor am I convinced that his militaristic society would actually work. Like most utopias, it seems feasible within the confines of the novel – I just doubt it would play out the same way in real life.

    Heinlein also explores what it means to be a soldier: a free man who has sacrificed his own freedom to preserve the freedom of others. We see the fear, the pain, the brotherhood, the pride. We see the difference between true leaders and men who merely have higher rank. One of Heinlein’s central assertions is that authority and responsibility must be appropriately balanced, yin-yang style – or else. In the words of Robert E. Lee: “I cannot trust a man to control others who cannot control himself.”

    The Bugs themselves are symbolic of the communist political structure which was on the rise during the Cold War. Interestingly enough, one of the characters points out the the Bugs’ “communism” only works because the species is biologically adapted to it.

    The Bugs are not like us. The Pseudo-Arachnids aren’t even like spiders. They are arthropods who happen to look like a madman’s conception of a giant, intelligent spider, but their organization, psychological and economic, is more like that of ants or termites; they are communal entities, the ultimate dictatorship of the hive. (p. 142)

    Every time we killed a thousand Bugs at a cost of one M.I. it was a net victory for the Bugs. We were learning, expensively, just how efficient a total communism can be when used by a people actually adapted to it by evolution; the Bug commisars didn’t care any more about expending soldiers than we cared about expending ammo. (pp. 161)

    Heinlein’s contempt for communism is well-known (and well-warranted). As he wrote in 1949: “Let me go on record that I regard communism as expressed by the U.S.S.R. and its friends here and elsewhere as a grisly horror, a tyranny maintained by force and terror, utterly subversive of human liberty, freedom of thought, and dignity. I regard it as Red fascism, distinguishable from black and brown fascism by differences of no importance to me nor to its victims.”

    I’ve barely scratched the surface of what this novel has to offer, and if you’re up for an intellectual wrestling match, I’d encourage you to pick it up for yourself. I’ll simply make one more observation: the trooper suits are awesome.

    A suit isn’t a space suit – although it can serve as one. It is not primarily armor – although the Knights of the Round Table were not armored as well as we are. It isn’t a tank – but a single M.I. private could take on a squadron of those things and knock them off unassisted if anybody was silly enough to put tanks against M.I. A suit is not a ship but it can fly, a little – on the other hand neither spaceships nor atmosphere craft can fight against a man in a suit except by saturation bombing of the area he’s in (like burning down a house to get one flea!). Contrariwise we can do many things that no ship – air, submersible, or space – can do.

    There are a dozen different ways of delivering destruction in impersonal wholesale, via ships and missiles of one sort or another, catastrophes so widespread, so unselective, that the war is over because that planet or nation has ceased to exist. What we do is entirely different. We make war as personal as a punch in the nose. We can be selective, applying precisely the required amount of pressure at the specified point as a designated time – we’ve never been told to go down and kill or capture all left-handed redheads in a particular area, but if the tell us to, we can. We will.

    Suited up, you look like a big steel gorilla, armed with gorilla-sized weapons. But the suits are considerably stronger than a gorilla. If an M.I. in a suit swapped hugs with a gorilla, the gorilla would be dead, crushed; the M.I. and the suit wouldn’t be mussed. (pp. 104-105)

    I want one of those things for Christmas.

    – Corey P.

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  7. After two decades in Britian, Bill Bryson decided it was time to return to the U.S. This was partly because he wanted his wife and children to experience life in his homeland, and partly because he had read that 3.7 million Americans believed they had been abducted by aliens at one time or another. “It was clear that my people needed me,” he says.

    Before leaving, though, Bryson resolved to take a grand farewell tour of the island that had so long been his home – the goal being to take stock of the place and figure out what it was he loved so much about a country that had produced Shakespeare, cricket, Windsor Great Park, double-decker buses, and village names like Farleigh Wallop.

    Want to know what he found?

    Suddenly, in the space of a moment, I realized what it was that I loved about Britain – which is to say, all of it. Every last bit of it, good and bad – old churches, country lanes, people saying ‘Mustn’t grumble’ and ‘I’m terribly sorry but,’ people apologizing to me when I conk them with a careless elbow, milk in bottles, beans on toast, haymaking in June, seaside piers, Ordnance Survey maps, tea and crumpets, summer showers and foggy winter evenings – every bit of it. (p. 316)

    If you’re worried I just spoiled everything for you, don’t be. The joy of reading this book is in the journey itself, whether you know the destination or not. In Notes, we have an example of travel writing at its finest and funniest, and any reader looking for a jolly yet informative portrait of Britain should buy a copy at once. It’s the next best thing to packing a suitcase and going there yourself.

    That recommendation does come with a caveat, however, as Bryson’s humor sometimes veers into the profane. A handful of tasteless jokes are cracked, and strong language is used. Having said that, I think most readers will still find the ride is an enjoyable one, despite the bumps.

    If you’re avoiding this book because you expect it to be a dull travel guide, have no fear. This book is no travel guide, and it isn’t intended to be. Mere agglomeration of facts is not Bryson’s style. He is first and foremost a storyteller, and though facts and details are present, they are not an end unto themselves. Notes is an educational read, no doubt, but it’s a dashed entertaining one, too.

    What I most enjoyed was watching Bryson find a grin in the strangest of places. Whether he’s recounting a conversation he had with one of the “natives,” or making an utterly random observation about this or that landmark, the guy seldom fails at being funny.

    I returned to the car and spent some time experimenting with the controls and thinking how much I hated these things. Some people are made for cars and some people aren’t. It’s as simple as that. I hate driving cars and I hate thinking about cars and I hate talking about cars. I especially hate it when you get a new car and go into the pub, because someone will always start quizzing you about it, which I dread because I don’t even understand the questions. 

    “See you’ve got a new car,” they’ll say. “How’s it drive?” 

    I’m lost already. “Well, like a car. Why, have you never been in one?” 

    And then they start peppering you with questions. “What sort of mileage you get? How many liters is the engine? What’s the torque? Got twin overhead cams or double-barreled alternator cum carburetor with a full pike and a double-twist dismount?” I can’t for the life of me understand why anyone would want to know all this about a machine. You don’t take that kind of interest in anything else. I’ve been waiting years for somebody in a pub to tell me he’s got a new refrigerator so I can say, “Oh, really? Hoe many gallons of freon does that baby hold? What’s its BTU rating? How’s it cool?” (pp. 140-141)

    – Corey P.

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  8. 1 For it came to pass that the world was grown wicked, and men had taken war into their hearts, and committed great defilements upon every living thing, so that the world was as a dream of death;

    2 And God looked upon His creation with great sadness, for His spirit no longer abided with mankind.  

    3 And the Lord said: As in the days of Noah, a great deluge shall sweep over the earth; and this shall be a deluge of blood. The monsters of men’s hearts shall be made flesh, devouring all in their path. And they shall be called Virals.

    So begins The Twelve, the second book in Justin Cronin’s trilogy of the apocolypse. Book one, The Passage, plunged us headlong into the fiendish aftermath of a government experiment gone terribly wrong. “It happened fast. Thirty-two minutes for one world to die, another to be born.” Now Cronin continues the story: because the end of the world was really just the beginning.
    The first part of the book takes us back to Year Zero, when all hell breaks loose. New characters are introduced, old ones are developed, and more light is shed upon the circumstances surrounding the first Viral outbreak. Meanwhile, Cronin gradually brings us back to the current time, 97 AV – five years after the end of The Passage. Mankind’s fight for survival goes on, but the rules have changed. The enemy is evolving… and the future may hold something far worse than the extinction of the human race.
    You could say the stakes are high, and you’d be right. In more ways than one. This is, after all, a novel about vampires. Get it? Stakes… vampires… oh, never mind.
    The first question we must ask of The Twelve is this: did it live up to its predecessor? And to that I answer, yea and nay. The Passage is still the stronger of the two, by my reckoning – grander in scope, more tightly plotted, and with greater emotional heft. That being said, this sequel is no slacker. Even with its shortcomings, it towers high above the majority of modern fiction, and is, on the whole, a worthy addition to Cronin’s saga.
    And speaking of Cronin, the guy is still at the top of his game as a storyteller. His writing is terrific, and he once again exhibits a tremendous (indeed, Clancy-esque) talent for handling large casts of characters. The story itself is a bona fide epic – a sprawling and majestically gritty tale of blood, survival, sacrifice, and adventure. Some have said it can be read as a stand alone novel, but I couldn’t disagree more. This is a sequel, in the truest sense of the word, and the core of its power lies in its connection to the first book. Reading The Twelve without reading The Passage is like reading The Two Towers without reading The Fellowship. In a word: pointless.
    I said this was a novel about vampires, but that’s only half true. Vampires (or Virals) do play a significant role, but Cronin’s story is ultimately about the human race and those who fight for its survival. Like AMC’s The Walking Dead, The Twelve is less about the dead than it is about the living, and its pages are scattered with thought-provoking questions and ideas. You’ll find thrills, and more than a few chills, but you’ll also find quite a bit to think about.
    As far as objectionable content goes, The Twelve isn’t much different its predecessor. There’s plenty of violence, a fair amount of strong language, and some mature sexual material. Be sure to take that into account when deciding if you want this book on your shelf (or your child’s shelf). Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
    The City of Mirrors is the final book of the trilogy, and from what I hear, it’s scheduled for release in 2014. I look forward to seeing what Cronin has in store for us. In the meantime…
    “All eyes.”
    – Corey P.

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  9. A word of advice from Stephen King: “Read sometimes for the story: don’t be like the book-snobs who won’t do that. Read sometimes for the words – the language. Don’t be like the play-it-safers who won’t do that. But when you find a book that has both a good story and good words, treasure that book.”

    Cloud Atlas is a book to be treasured.

    Combining old-fashioned adventure, an eye for puzzles, and a taste for the bizarre, author David Mitchell has written a delightfully original piece of fiction. I can honestly say I’ve never read anything like it before. It is a novel of novellas, one big story comprised of several smaller ones (six, to be exact). Each of these stories is set in a different time and place. Each is written in a different style of prose. And each is broken off midway and concluded in the second half of the book.

    The Pacific Journel of Adam Ewing takes place circa 1850, and chronicles the adventures of a shipwrecked American notary from San Francisco. You may want to keep a dictionary close by as you read this one, as Mitchell draws on a formidable vocabulary. I, for one, had fun with it, but if you’re allergic to words like “scrimshandered” and “tatterdemalion”, you may find yourself giving up before you’ve even started. Don’t. The reward is well-worth the effort.

    Letters From Zedelghem follows the young Robert Frobisher, a scoundrelly English musician who finds work as an amanuensis to a famous composer in Belgium, 1931. The story takes several dark and sordid turns, dealing with themes of adultery, betrayal, greed, and arrogance. A tragedy, in many ways, but Mitchell’s knack for textured characters is nowhere more evident.

    Half-Lives: The First Luisa Rey Mystery jumps to Buenas Yerbas, CA in 1975. Miss Rey is an investigative journalist determined to uncover the shady events surrounding a new nuclear power plant. I’d love to see Mitchell do more noir – if this story is any indication, he’d be darn good at it.

    The Ghastly Ordeal of Timothy Cavendish is far and away my favorite part of the book, recounting the misadventures of a vanity press publisher in the early 21st century UK. It’s clever and frequently hilarious, and the flavor is distinctly Wodehousian at times. Dashed good stuff, what?

    An Orison of Sonmi~451 is dystopian science fiction set in Korea. The story takes place in flashback, during the interrogation of a genetically-engineered fabricant, or clone. It’s a bizarre and thought-provoking story, and reminded me of something Asimov (or possibly P.K. Dick) might have come up with. Part of me wishes some of the science had been explained further; the other part can understand why it wasn’t.

    Sloosha’s Crossin’ an’ Ev’rythin’ After takes place in post-apocalyptic Hawaii, where the tribesman Zachry is visited by “Meronym”, one of the last surviving members of technologically-advanced civilization. Inventive though it is, this story is my least favorite, primarily because of its strange and slangy prose. Appropriate within the context, no doubt, but a chore to decipher.

    I won’t tell you how all these tales come together – that would spoil one of the chief joys of reading this book – but they do come together. Every piece has a place in the grand, kaleidoscopic tapestry of Mitchell’s world. Watching him dance from genre to genre, and then tie everything up in the end, makes for one of the most entertaining head-trips I’ve had in awhile.

    While I’m sure expounding all the symbolism and thematic material would be a fascinating task, I’ve decided not to bother with that here. I would, however, like to point out that the overarching theme is, in many ways, a Christian one: we all have a part to play in a story bigger than we could ever imagine. No one lives in a vacuum. The choices we make, the lives we touch, are not without meaning or consequence. We may not be able to understand the part we play in the God’s cosmic epic, but rest assured, we do play a part.

    As N.D. Wilson says,

    Do not resent your place in the story. Do not imagine yourself elsewhere. Do not close your eyes and picture a world without thorns, without shadows, without hawks. Change this world. Use your body like a tool meant to be used up, discarded, and replaced. Better every life you touch. We will reach the final chapter. When we have eyes that can stare into the sun, eyes that only squint for the Shenikah, then we will see laughing children pulling cobras by their tails, and hawks and rabbits playing tag. 

    This isn’t meant to imply that Mitchell, or his novel, embrace a distinctly Christian worldview, but we can value this reminder all the same. It is an important one.

    At the end of Ewing’s journal, he resolves to work at shaping his world for the better. He also imagines his father-in-law’s scorn upon hearing such a resolution:

    He who would do battle with the multi-headed hydra of human nature must pay a world of pain & and his family must pay it along with him! & only as you gasp your dying breath shall you understand, your life amounted to no more than one drop in a limitless ocean!

    Ewing’s response: “Yet what is any ocean but a multitude of drops?”

    – Corey P.

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  10. The year itself has come and gone, but Orwell’s book is still with us. And it’s as terrifying as ever.

    The premise is so well known that there’s little need for an in-depth explanation on my part. 1984 is the story of Winston Smith, a poor stiff who pursues an illicit love affair in a world of constant war, omnipresent government surveillance, and public manipulation and deception. Life in this futuristic hell might be summed up in five simple words:
    I have yet to compile my top ten list for fiction read this year; but I can guarantee you this book will be on it. As political fiction and dystopian sci-fi, it is almost without peer – a brilliantly written and thoroughly nightmarish vision of “negative utopia” even more relevant today than when it was written.
    Some have called it a satire as well, but that strikes me as rather misleading. Satire is generally humorous, or at the very least, amusing. 1984 is neither. I’ve also heard people interpret it is merely as another indictment of Stalinist savagery. How pitiful. They do not see that it is a warning to us, too.
    There is so much discussion-worthy material here that I hardly know where to begin. It’s a book you could write books about. In Orwell’s world,
    I saw individuality crushed in favor of mindless dependency on the state.
    I saw perpetual war and desensitization to violence.
    I saw the indoctrination of young minds, the turning of children against parents.
    I saw the rape of language and the destruction of words.
    I saw a heavy emphasis on “statistics” and the reduction of man to a number.
    I saw the distortion of marriage and the degradation of sex.
    I saw the falsification of the past, the disarmament of the people.
    I saw worship of the state replace worship of God.
    In short, I saw a world that began and ended with man. Where there was nothing outside of man. Where man made his own truth. It really was one hell of a world.

    Power is in inflicting pain and humiliation. Power is in tearing human minds to pieces and putting them together again in new shapes of your own choosing. Do you begin to see, then, what kind of a world we are creating? It is the exact opposite of the stupid hedonistic Utopias that the old reformers imagined. A world of fear and treachery and torment, a world of trampling and being trampled upon, a world which will not grow less but more merciless as it refines itself. Progress in our world will be toward more pain. The old civilizations claimed that they were founded on love and justice. Ours is founded upon hatred. In our world there will be no emotions except fear, rage, triumph, and self-abasement. Everything else we shall destroy – everything. Already we are breaking down the habits of thought which have survived from before the Revolution. We have cut the links between child and parent, and between man and man, and between man and woman, No one dares trust a wife or a child or a friend any longer. But in the future there will be no wives and no friends. Children will be taken from their mothers at birth, as one takes eggs from a hen. The sex instinct will be eradicated. Procreation will be an annual formality like the renewal of a ration card. We shall abolish the orgasm. Our neurologists are at work upon it now. There will be no loyalty, except loyalty toward the Party. There will be no love, except the love of Big Brother. There will be no laughter, except the laugh of triumph over a defeated enemy. There will be no art, no literature, no science. When we are omnipotent we shall have no more need of science. There will be no distinction between beauty and ugliness. There will be no curiosity, no enjoyment of the process of life. All competing pleasures will be destroyed. But always – do not forget this, Winston – always there will be the intoxication of power, constantly increasing and constantly growing subtler. Always, at every moment, there will be the thrill of victory, the sensation of trampling on an enemy who is helpless. If you want a picture of the future, imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever. (pp. 266-267)

    And through all of this, the words of Chesterton kept running through my head:

    Once abolish God, and the Government becomes God. Wherever the people do not believe in something beyond the world, they will worship the world. But, above all, they will worship the strongest thing in the world.

    From the opening sentence to final four words, 1984 is disturbing and believable. It is disturbing because it is believable. As I read it, I thought, Thank God I’m a Calvinist. What comfort to know that no matter what happens, no matter how badly we mess things up, God still sits upon His holy throne, sovereign and immovable. William Law said it well: “There is no foundation for comfort in the enjoyments of this life, but in the assurance that a wise and good God governeth the world.”
    – Corey P.

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