Monday, December 10, 2018

Reality Sinks In

I try to remember when the reality of what had happened to us finally sunk in. I had a glimpse when I saw thousands camped out at the hospital, praying for Mike’s survival. And on the plane to London, I saw the looks of deference as we walked through the cabin to greet passengers. But I knew for sure when we walked into the terminal at Heathrow, with the archbishop and the prime minister waiting for us, almost surrounded by television, flash cameras, and mobiles held high to get a shot of the new royal family.


Sarah Kent-Hughes, Dancing King

Photo: British Airways plane at Heathrow Airport.

"Kingdom of the Blind" by Louise Penny

Armand Gamache, former head of the Surete du Quebec, receives a letter from a notary, asking him to come to a farmhouse about 20 minutes from Gamache’s village of Three Pines. Once there, he discovers that Myrna Landers, owner of the bookstore in the village, has received the same letter. As has a young man from Montreal, a building contractor. The notary explains that they have been asked to be executors of a will of a woman known as “the Baroness.”

The Baroness has left millions in capital and real estate to her three children. The problem is that the Baroness was a cleaning lady, who had not amassed anything close to the sizeable fortune cited in the will. Her three adult children have heard the stories – a family feud buried under longstanding litigation that goes back to 19thcentury Vienna and has somehow survived the collapse of the Habsburg Empire and the confiscation by the Nazis. The litigation is still ongoing, but is there any fortune left?

Then the Baroness’s oldest son is found dead. What at first appears to be an accident turns out to be murder, and Gamache and his son-in-law (and chief of homicide) Jean-Guy Beauvoir find themselves investigating financial management firms, old Austrian wills, and what looks to be a very contemporary case of fraud.

Gamache has another issue on his hands. A dead form of fentanyl is about to hit the streets of Montreal. It is the drug supply that Gamache has allowed into the country in the previous novel, Glass Houses, to break up a huge drug supply ring. But some of the drugs disappeared, and the Surete is undertaking an internal investigation of Gamache with the end of destroying him. Gamache has to find the drugs before a disaster of death hits the streets.

Louise Penny
Kingdom of the Blind by Canadian mystery writer Louise Penny is the 14thin the Armand Gamache series, and it maintains Penny’s consistently high quality of work. The reader is hooked into the story from the outset, and the story just won’t let go.

Penny is a master of characterization. She helps us crawl inside her characters’ heads, and it is from there that we watch each new development unfold. And the regular cast of characters from Three Pines make their contributions to the story (and the case being investigated), especially crazy poet Ruth Zardo, artist Clara Morrow, and Ruth’s duck Rosa. At the center of the drug case is Amelia Choquet, the former prostitute and all-around bad girl that Gamache recruited for the police academy and who’s been dismissed (and almost arrested) for drug possession.

And it wouldn’t be a Gamache novel without snow. A lot of snow.

Kingdom of the Blind has a kind of valedictory feel to it. Penny explains in an afterword that she didn’t think she would write another Gamache novel after the death of her husband. The way the novel ends, it could be the last, if Penny so decides.

Or perhaps not. We hope.


Top photograph: A scene in Freleighsburg, Quebec, a village not unlike Three Pines.

Sunday, December 9, 2018

The eagle

After Psalm 61

I watched it circle
in front of the sun,
the heat searing.

I watched it flying
high, swooping low,
soaring and descending,
coming closer to my form
in the sand.

The sun was darkened
as it flew closer, so close
I could hear feathers
and wings pushing 
against the wind, so close
I smelled the scent
of heated feathers, so close
I was wrapped in shade,
the shelter of wings,
and I thought
the eagle had landed.

Photograph by Mathew Schwartz vis Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, December 8, 2018

Saturday Good Reads

Sir Alfred Munnings (1878-1959) was a well-known artist in Britain, particularly famous for his paintings of horses. Lord Beaverbrook (friend of Winston Churchill) commissioned Munnings for the Canadian War Memorials Fund to paint pictures of the Canadian Cavalry Brigade and the Canadian Forestry Corps in World War I. Munnings painted some 40 paintings, which have not been seen together in a century. Until now, at the National Army Museum in London.

Calvin Miller (1936-2012) was a pastor, theologian, writer, and poet. Timothy Bartel at The Imaginative Conservative remembers Miller for his largely forgotten epic Christian poemThe Singer. It was part of a trilogy, and I can remember seeing it in Christian bookstores in the 1980s. (While you’re at The Imaginative Conservative, you can read T.S. Eliot’s poem, “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees.”)

Did you know that there was a book C.S. Lewis was dying to write? Dan DeWitt at The Gospel Coalition has the story. John Pletcher at the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics tells us how much J.R.R. Tolkien loved Christmas. And Hannah Long at The Weekly Standard has a story about the steward of Middle-earth, Tolkien’s son Christopher. (The Weekly Standard gives you a three-day pass; this story is worth using it.)

More Good Reads

Writing and Literature

The Political Thought of Edgar Allan Poe – Robert Merry at The Imaginative Conservative.

C. S. Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, and the Power of Storytelling – Warren Cole Smith at The Rabbit Room.

Art and Photography

Doubloons – Tim Good at Pixels. 


Dear Mom – Doug Spurling at Spurling Silver.

5 Questions to Ask Before Using Video Venue Preaching – Steve Kroeker at The Gospel Coalition.


Rusted Chain – Stephen Haven at Image Journal.

Wish List – Kelly Belmonte at All Nine.

Quietly, Quietly: An Advent Reflection – Chris Yokel at The Rabbit Room.

British Stuff

Historical Feminism – Barb Drummond at Curious Histories.

Life and Culture

Hollywood is a Sex-Grooming Gang – Kyle Smith at National Review.

Thoughts on Combatting Fake News – Zak Schmoll at Entering the Public Square.

Chris Tomlin’s Noel – Featuring Lauren Daigle

Painting: Lucie Esnault reading a book, oil on canvas (1900-1905) by Jacques-Emile Blanche.

Friday, December 7, 2018

Best Books I'm Not Recommending for Christmas

I’ve been not recommending books for Christmas for some years now, and I thought I’d make a change this year.

I’m still not recommending books – I’ve always believed that the books one reads are so personal that you yourself are the best judge of what you’d like to read. But it’s a good thing to look back over the year to see what books I’ve read. Books have always been an important part of my life (ask my wife), and for that I can credit (or blame) my mother. I still remember her reading Grimm’s Fairy Tales to me, using an oversized edition published by Platt & Munk in the 1920s (I still have the book). 

So each year I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve posted a list of the best books I’ve read during the year – best fiction, non-fiction, poetry, mysteries, and more. This year, I decided to do something different, and note only the books I considered the very best, with a few honorable mentions.

In looking over the more than 200 books I’ve read in 2018, I’m not surprised at how much poetry I read – it’s what comes when you write a weekly post for an online poetry journal like Tweetspeak Poetry. I was (a bit) surprised by how many British books I read – fiction, plays, history, non-fiction, and mysteries. My reading definitely has a British accent.

Here are my best books I read that I’m not recommending, based on my reading in 2018. Note that some were not published in 2018; I read old novels, classics, and old history books.


It was a good year for poetry. Highlights for me included The Chance for Home by Mark Burrows, The Fall of Gondolin by J.R. R. Tolkien, Transplant, Transport, Transubstantiation by Marjorie Maddox, and The Bell and the Blackbird by David Whyte. 

The collection that left me rather stunned, however, and gets my “best of 2018” nod is The Hanging God by James Matthew Wilson. I reviewed it this Tuesday at Tweetspeak Poetry. This sums up the review: “I’ve been impressed by many poetry collections, but only a tiny handful have left me feeling undone. The Hanging God is one of them.”


A lot of good mysteries are being published and re-published. I read several of the British Library Crime Classics this year, and they were all good (the series has been going on for several years now, and there are more 100 old mysteries on the list). This was also the year I discovered Israeli noir – D.A. Mishani and Jonathan Dunsky (Dunsky’s Ten Years After is a great read). Guy Fraser-Sampson published A Whiff of Cyanide (which I’ve read) and The House on Downshire Hill (which just came out last week), in his Hampstead Murders series. And Damian Boyd published another Dick Nixon novel, with Dead Lock. I read several Shetland novels by Ann Cleeves and two Inspector Gamache novels by Louise Penny – and they’re two of the best mystery writers out there.

My best read of the year in a tough, crowded category is William Brodrick’s The Day of the Lie. It was published a few years ago, and it is still a riveting book. This one could have gone in the general fiction category as well – it’s rare to find a book that plumbs the depths of the “banality of evil” like this one does.

Children’s / Young Adult Fiction

Some really wood writing is happening in the children’s and YA genres. Not surprisingly, a lot of adults read in the YA genre to escape the gratuitous sex and violence so commonplace in adult fiction. The Boy in the Striped Pajamas by John Boyne is observing a tenth anniversary this year; I’m not sure I would place this story of Auschwitz in the YA category, but there it is. The Charlatan’s Boy by Jonathan Rogers could go in adult or YA fiction. Shawn Smucker’s The Edge of Over There is a wonder.

A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness is an outstanding book about a boy’s fears of his mother’s cancer. His world is fast disappearing, and the only way he has to deal with it is his imagination. And there’s this monster, who wants to tell him three stories.

Historical Fiction

This was the year I started reading, in earnest, historical fiction written by contemporary writers. I read two by Andrew Taylor, The Silent Boy (French Revolution) and The Ashes of London The Fire of 1666) that were both outstanding. The Letters of Ivor Punch by Colin MacIntyre is set in the 19thcentury and based on a true story; The Essex Serpent by Sarah Perry is also set in the 19thcentury. Dark Territory by Jeffrey Hunter is set in 17thcentury Britain and America. I Iolo by Gareth Thomas is a biographical novel about a Welsh poet – and forger – in the Romantic era. The Radio Signal by Friedhelm Rudandt is set in World War II and is likely more non-fiction than fiction. Stephen Kiernan’s The Baker’s Secret is also set in World War II, but in Normandy, a mile from the D-Day invasion site.

My “best of the best” goes to Glass Island by Gareth Griffith. It’s set 100 or more years after Britain abandons Britain. It’s infused with research and context. And it tells a good story about a fateful battle – what led up to it, and what happened after it.

Christian Fiction

Some, perhaps most, Christian fiction is formulaic. A lot is not well written. But some good fiction, some really good fiction, is being published. It’s books like Can You See Anything Now? by Katherine James. And The Unveiling by Suzanne Wolfe. And Hurt Road by Bruce Stewart. And Send Down the Rainby Charles Martin (I could read anything by Martin).

Any of those could have been my “best of the best.” But I settled on Lights on the Mountain by Cheryl Anne Tuggle. It’s about the lingering of the past, the dynamics within families, the endurance of everyday life. A beautiful, moving novel.


If you want to read how Mark Twain helped publish Ulysses Grant’s memoirs as the general was dying from throat cancer, Grant and Twain by Mark Perry tells a great story. Tyndale by David Teems explains the man who printed the first English Bible – and paid for it, while God’s Secretaries by Adam Nicolson focuses on the men who translated the King James Version of the Bible. Tolkien: Maker of Middle-earth, edited by Catherine McIlwaine, is a blockbuster of a companion book for the Oxford and Morgan Library exhibition of the same name. John Garth’s Tolkien and the Great War describes how World War I shaped Tolkien and his writings.

Best of the best is War Poet: Alan Seeger and His Rendezvous with Death by Michael Hill. This study of an American who joined the French Foreign Legion to fight for France on the Western Front in World War I tells you much about war poetry, America, and the war.


Peter Ackroyd is continuing his History of England series. I read Revolution, which takes you from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 through Napoleon. Dominion, next in the series, covers the 19thcentury. Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby looked at some very recent history – starting with the Brexit vote in 2016 – and asked how the country could go forward in Reimagining Britain. Eleanor Parker’s Dragon Lords looks at the Vikings.

These are all British writers, and the British do history well. This was a tough one, but I finally settled on Mercia: The Rise and Fall of a Kingdom by Annie Whitehead. She does some incredible detective work to tease out the story of an important Anglo-Saxon kingdom.

General Fiction

The Boy Made of Blocks by Keith Stuart, on how a family copes with a child who has autism, would fall in the “popular fiction” category, as would The Light of the Fireflies by Paul Pen. More literary works are Autumn by Ali Smith, Beast by Paul Kingsnorth, and Havergey by John Burnside.

It’s British writer Mark Haddon’s The Pier Falls that gets my best of the best nod. A collection of short stories, it has a title story that is a gripping, almost minute-by-minute account of the collapse of a seaside pier. You won’t stop reading it. And Haddon’s novel The Red House tells the story of a family spending a week in the countryside, and it’s just as good as The Pier Falls.

Top photograph by Jaredd Craig via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, December 6, 2018

Crisis at the Hospital

Scott knelt before Sarah in the emergency room.

“Sarah,” he said, “Michael’s going into surgery. It’s likely to take a long time. His injuries are serious but he’s hanging on. And I’m not going to mislead you. It’s bad. He’s been shot near his heart and in his shoulder, near where it joins with his arm. His left lung collapsed, and they almost caught it too late. But they caught it. He’s lost a lot of blood.”

“Scott,” Sarah said to her brother, “please save Mike.” She began to cry in great sobbing breaths.

-      FromA Light Shining

Photograph by Piron Guillaume via Unsplash. Used with permission.

"Bats in the Belfry" by E.C.R. Lorac

It begins with an after-funeral gathering at a home in Regent’s Park in London. Bruce Attleton, an author whose literary promise seems to have petered out after his first two novels, and his actress wife Sybilla are the hosts. The funeral was for Attleton’s Australian cousin, killed in an automobile accident. The guests include a stockbroker, some friends, Attleton’s ward, and a former journalist who’s keen to marry the ward. The discussion turns to theoretical murder, and how one might accomplish it and not get caught.

A few days later, Attleton leaves for Paris on business and his wife heads to parts unknown, perhaps for some plastic surgery. But it turns out that he never reached Paris; in fact, he never left England, and he has disappeared without a trace. Inspector Macdonald of Scotland Yard is called in, and he soon discovers that no one knows Mrs. Attleton’s whereabouts, either. A mysterious stranger is implicated, and he’s traced to an old ruin of a place in Notting Hill. Then he disappears as well, Macdonald finds a body sealed up in the house (just like what was suggested at the gathering), and everyone involved appears to have a motive in wanting Attleton dead.

Bats in the Belfry: A London Mystery was first published in 1937 by E.C.R. Lorac and has been republished in the British Library Crime Classics series. And a London mystery it is indeed, with the action occurring in Notting Hill, Mayfair, Fleet Street, Scotland Yard, and other parts of the city.

E.C.R. Lorac
Lorac (1894-1958) is relatively unknown today, but she was one of the lights of the Golden Age of Mystery in Great Britain and a member of the Detection Club, which included such mystery writers as Agatha Christie, Dorothy Sayers, and G.K. Chesterton (Chesterton was the first president). Her real name was Edith Caroline Rivett, and she was one prolific writer. She published some 49 mystery novels under the Lorac pen name (most of them Chief Inspector Macdonald mysteries) and 23 under the pen name of Carol Carnac.

The story is full of twists and turns. Macdonald slowly comes to understand that the solution to the mystery (and the deaths) lies buried deep in the past. Slowly he closes in on the suspect he knows to be the killer.

Bats in the Belfry is a notable addition to the Crime Classics series, with a solid introduction by mystery writer Martin Edwards. It will have you looking over your shoulder. 


Top photograph: Fleet Street, London, in the 1930s, via The Londonist.