Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Image and Imagination: Review

Last week, a number of bloggers posted in commemoration of C. S. Lewis’s death 50 year ago. (In particular, you might like the posts by Lars Walker and Rebecca LuElla Miller.) While I grew up reading Lewis’s Narnia series and have since read a large group of his other works, I don’t have anything profound to add to their thoughts. Over the past week, however, I have been reading a new collection of Lewis’s essays, Image and Imagination, released last Friday.
It would be fair to start by asking why yet another collection of Lewis essays? We already have his fiction, dozens of his essays, and volumes of his letters, so why the need for another book? The simple answer is that this book is a collection of Lewis’s academic writing. The challenge is that Image and Imagination is largely a book about literature and the analysis and study of literature, though a more mixed collection than The Allegory of Love or The Discarded Image.

Image and Imagination takes its title from an unpublished essay Lewis wrote, describing his thoughts on the link between reality and imagination. The rest of the book contain a variety of reviews, a handful of prefaces and introductions Lewis wrote for other books, and four out-of-print essays. Two of these, “The idea of an ‘English School’” and “Our English syllabus,” describe how Lewis viewed Oxford’s undergraduate English program. (Rather like Dorothy Sayer’s The Lost Tools of Learning , Lewis explains in these essays his thoughts on higher education's purpose and methods.)

As always, Lewis’s writing is excellent, and his essays are thought provoking, as far as their topics allow. I enjoyed the essays on the English program, if only because Lewis includes an argument about the true origins of English literature (Anglo-Saxon, of course, not Greco-Roman), while “Image and Imagination” takes on the old argument about the how readers understand literature from a different angle.

At the same time, Image and Imagination is a highly academic book. Just reading through some of the book reviews, I was struck by the absurdity of reading anyone’s assessment of a long-forgotten book—one which I’ve never read, am barely interested in for its own sake, and will likely never read. I suspect most Lewis fans, unless they happen to be literary scholars as well, will reach the same conclusion.

For Lewis fans reading Image and Imagination, the main value might be gleaning the various references to old Inklings friends, such as the set of essays on books by Owen Barfield, Charles Williams, and Tolkien. That, and the rare gem—as when Lewis writes in “Image and Imagination” on the impossibility of separating fiction from fact, of creating a world entirely in the author’s mind, without reference to the real world:

“To get a single blade of grass growing in that imaginary world you must make a world indeed—a real universe, self-sufficing in space and time. But only one author can do that sort of stage-set. On this view only God can tell stories.”

So, if you desperately need something new to read, or you need a Christmas present for your Lewis-loving English professor, you might find Image and Imagination interesting. Parts of it are certainly worth thinking about. Otherwise, you'll probably find his fiction or his other essays a lot more worthwhile.

[My thanks to NetGalley and Cambridge University Press for sending me a Kindle copy of Image and Imagination, in exchange for my honest opinion of the book.]

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Burning Sky: Review

This month has been busy, between NaNoWriMo, learning Python programming, and general busyness, but I’ve still had time to read a couple books. One of them was Burning Sky by Lori Benton—and it was a very good read…

Captive, daughter, wife, mother—Willa Obenchain has spent half her life among the Mohawk Indians. That life has ended for her, and she’s ready now to return to the life she had before, but that life has changed also. In the years since she left, the American Revolution has divided the country and the pioneer community she grew up in.

Burning Sky

The war might be over, but the country is definitely not at peace. Old feuds still divide the patriots and suspected loyalists, and especially the settlers and the Iroquois tribes that they perceive as ruthless savages. While most people are glad to welcome Willa back, they can’t forget their old bitterness against the Mohawks, nor can they believe that she might have found love and happiness among her captors.

Willa, for her own part, wants to shut out the pain of her past—almost as much as she wants to shut out the people that can’t possibly understand that pain.

Willa would prefer to hide her pain alone, inside her parents’ old cabin, but she is slowly forced to open the cabin to other refugees in need of shelter. One of these refugees is the injured botanist she found unconscious at the borders of her father’s land, with his own scars from the war and unsettled past.

Burning Sky is Benton’s first novel, though it doesn’t read like a debut story. It’s a story about the chaos of history, as well as grief and love. From the moment Willa steps back onto her father’s land, she has to face both the present dangers—the risk of losing her land, the anger of settlers still upset about the Indian raids—as well as her own inner turmoil. And for my part, I enjoyed the story, and I enjoyed the writing, the characters, and the vividness equally well.

As a side note—part of my interest in Burning Sky initial came from my attempt years ago to write a captivity narrative similar to Willa’s life among the Mohawks. Benton’s story takes an entirely different approach, dealing with Willa’s story after her return, but knowing some of the challenges involved, I found Burning Sky to be an incredibly well-told story (and much better than mine could have been).

I would also add a caution for younger readers—this is a story I would like to recommend for all readers, but since the story follows closely after the American Revolution, there are a number of references to the war-time attacks, as well as some innuendo and an attack against Willa herself.

Apart from that, though, I would recommend Burning Sky for anyone who likes history with a touch of romance, or just a good book in general.

If you are interested, you can find out more about Burning Sky from the info page, including an excerpt from the first chapter, at WaterBrook Press.

[My thanks to WaterBrook Press for sending me a review copy of Burning Sky, in exchange for my honest opinion of the book.]

Friday, November 15, 2013

Words == Power?

A couple weeks ago, I learned how to draw a line.
To be more specific, I'm taking an online programming class. In addition to NaNoWriMo. And a couple weeks ago, I learned how to write a line of programming code that displayed a line on an otherwise. That was fun.
This week’s project? Well, the class has gotten a little more complicated over the past couple of weeks. Instead of typing out simple lines like canvas.draw_circle(…), we’re getting to create trees of if/elif statements and “for loops.”
Sounds like fun, right?
The problem is, programming means getting the right words into the right place. Most writers can get by without being very specific. We can talk about “a dog,” if we want, and not bother about German Shepherds unless we’re dog-fans. But in programming, if it’s a German Shepherd, you have to say it’s a German Shepherd. Otherwise, you get a blank stare. If it’s a circle you want, you have to say “circle,” not “a round-shaped” object. No "round shaped" tires here, please!

Then there’s the matter of getting the words in the right place.
I spent about twice as long as I should have on this week’s project (creating the card game Memory, complete with code to “turn” cards over and match the pairs of cards as a player finds them). One of my problems was making sure that all of the code had the proper indentation. 
You see, when a program runs, it runs straight down the code. But, if there is an “if” clause, the program has to detour and check out all the code under the “if”, before it can go back to the rest of the program. And the way it knows whether something is part of the “if” clause is based on how much the code is indented. Once the indentation ends, the program assumes things can go on as they were before. (And you thought indenting only mattered in English 101.)
Then there was that problem with trying to talk about that German Shepherd before the program knew what a German Shepherd was. My challenge was that the line of code I needed would send everything into a downward "for loop" if I wasn't careful, but I thought was inescapable, since I could only talk about my German Shepherd once I introduced him to the program—in the "for loop".
Eventually, with some help, I found that I didn’t have to talk about the German Shepherd at all in that case—I could talk about a Poodle instead, since the Poodle had the same value as the German Shepherd, at least as far as telling the program what I meant. Makes sense, right? 
That’s about as intuitive as using a cookbook to find books in the library instead of the library catalogue.

And then, I can make things fancy, by inserting images:

Now, when I see flashing electronic signs or cash registers, I can’t help thinking about all the if/elifs and "for loops" that went into making that piece of machinery function correctly.
And yes, words are very powerful. If I create a line on a blank canvas, and then change one small word, I can change the color of the line from “Red” to “White.” Pictures, on computers at least, really are made up of a thousand words (more or less). Change one, change the picture.
Just think what words can change in a story or a conversation.

Thursday, November 7, 2013

Strait of Hormuz: Bonus Info

As a bonus post to my review earlier this week, here's a short follow-up Q & A with Davis Bunn for Strait of Hormuz. These are my favorites out of the provided questions, so I hope you enjoy these insights into Bunn's story and writing too. And, as a double-bonus, check out Bunn's Pinterest page with some of scenery from Strait of Hormuz, as well as quick peeks at the main characters:

Q & A with Davis Bunn

Q: This story includes two special components from your early life. Tell us about them.

Davis Bunn: My mother worked as an antiques dealer. In truth, ‘work’ was not really the correct term, because this was a passion she inherited from her mother. They bonded while my mom was still a child, going to small eastern Carolina towns and hunting around junk stores for the sort of bargains that don’t exist anymore.

Their first love was early Americana, a type of colonial furniture known as Jacobean that predated America’s nationhood. I never really shared this passion, but in two previous books I came to respect and admire those who do.

And so I knew a great delight in re-entering this world in Strait of Hormuz, only this time at the very highest end. Strait takes place in the rarified world of multi-million dollar art, where the richest of collectors vie with museums and galleries for items that are no longer classed as antiques, but rather as treasures

The second special component was the location. I lived in Switzerland for almost five years, and many of the venues were places where I worked, and walked, and came to discover myself as an author.

Q: In what way is the setting important to this book?

DB: The Strait of Hormuz is one of the world’s most critical waterways. Stretching between Iran and the Gulf States, the strait is home to two US fleets. More than a third of all the oil consumed worldwide pass through these waters. But the story actually begins in Switzerland, before traveling to the Sinai and then into the hotly-contested Strait of Hormuz.

Q: What drew you to the missionary church movement as a theme? 

DB: I came to faith in a missionary church. I was working as a consultant based in Germany. The year I accepted Christ, the Southern Baptist Mission Board founded a missionary church in Dusseldorf. I attended the church, I grew in the church, I studied under two amazing pastors, and one of them returned to Europe to marry us.

It was also where I learned to write. Two weeks after coming to faith, I felt called to writing. I wrote for nine years and completed seven books before my first was accepted for publication. The church, its members, and the elders all played a critical role in bringing me to where I am now. I am living testimony to the vital role played by the missionary church.
Sweepstakes Reminder!
Remember that Bunn is offering a giveaway to celebrate the publication of “Strait of Hormuz.” The grand prize is His & Hers Luxury Swiss Watches, while another winner will receive a $150 Amazon Gift Card! Follow the link to enter, and get more entries by sharing the contest on Facebook and Twitter:
You can also find out more about Bunn on his website and Facebook page.

Monday, November 4, 2013

Strait of Hormuz: Review

Everyone has a friend who needs help occasionally. Marc Royce’s friend just happens to be Ambassador Walton, a very old friend and a top intelligence official.

It also just happens that Marc’s friend needs help with a very serious problem. The US was tracking a shipment from North Korea to Pakistan when nine containers on the shipment disappeared. US officials believe the containers are headed to Iran, with the missile parts that could increase Iran’s firing range to reach the US. Within a week, the containers will have time to reach Iran, and meanwhile, the US’s best solution is also the worst—to stop ships entering the Strait of Hormuz and search them for the containers. Doing so may stop the attack, or it may give Iran an excuse to declare war.

Marc’s role is to find a way out—specifically, he’s supposed to track the money and find out what really is going on. Unfortunately, his first search effort uncovers a booby-trap instead.

And then Kitra, the Israeli nurse Marc met in Rare Earth, walks onto the scene.

In the background, waits a shadowy, but intriguing, cast. There’s the wealthy backers who can send agents anywhere in the world or to any five-star hotel at a moment’s notice, as well as the underground house-church with members from enemy cultures and a mission to protect believers in hostile countries.

Bunn started the Lion of Babylon series in 2011, introducing freelance intelligence operative Marc Royce. The middle novel, Rare Earth (which I reviewed last summer), won this year’s 2013 Christie Award for Suspense Fiction. And now, Strait of Hormuz marks the end of the series.

Even as the last book in the series, Strait of Hormuz stands on its own, telling Marc’s latest adventure separate from his previous missions. As with Rare Earth, I would have no problem picking up the action from the first few pages. At the same time, this being the second book I’ve read from the series, I noticed more that Bunn doesn’t spend a lot of time on character-development. I was able to connect fairly well with Marc and Kitra, but part of that was from having met them before.

I’m not sure whether I would classify Strait of Hormuz as a slow-paced spy story or a fast-paced romance. It has elements of both—Bunn balances a race to save the world fairly well against Marc and Kitra’s struggle to understand their emotions and their relationship.

Bunn does well at both, but I found the background characters with their range of motives and backstories to be the best part of the story. They were also, in some way, easier for me to connect to than the story from Rare Earth. So, while Strait of Hormuz ranks 4 out of 5, I liked it better overall than Rare Earth, and I’m not sure I was ready for the series to end.

If Strait of Hormuz sounds interesting, you can read the first three chapters here, or check out…

The Grand Prize Sweepstakes:

To celebrate Strait of Hormuz's release, Davis Bunn is offering a Grand Prize giveaway—the winner will receive a grand prize of 'His & Hers' Luxury Swiss Watches, while a runner-up will receive a $150 Amazon Gift Card. You enter by following the link, and gain more entries by sharing the contest on Facebook and Twitter:
The winner will be announced November 30, on Bunn's blog.

Until then, you can find out more about Bunn and his writing through his blog or his Facebook page. And remember that the first book in the series, Lion of Babylon, is available for Kindle free during November.
[My thanks to Bethany House Publishers for providing me with a free review copy of Strait of Hormuz, in exchange for my honest opinion of the book.]