Everyday Prayer with John Calvin by Donald K. McKim: A helpful, but not overly-interesting devotional

Everyday Prayer with John Calvin

Everyday Prayer with John Calvin

by Donald K. McKim

Hardcover, 117 pg.
P&R Publishing, 2019

Read: March 1-8, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

Let’s get this out of the way at the beginning: I do not like devotionals. Morning and Evening, Our Daily Bread, Ligonier’s Tabletalk…or any number of other daily helps that millions find helpful. They’re too brief, too…I don’t want to say shallow, but introductory, I guess. The instant they get near depth, they have to wrap up because they’re about to get too long for the format. And I understand why, but I just find them frustrating.

Which is just to say that I should never have bought this book. And so you know that my lack of enthusiasm isn’t necessarily a criticism. This was never going to be a book I really liked.

The term devotional shows up nowhere in the blurb, title, anywhere—”Everyday” was the only clue I overlooked (but I thought the term suggested “ordinary,” “regular,” non-pulpit prayer).

Prayer is central to the Christian life, which is why John Calvin spends more time on prayer than on any other topic in his Institutes of the Christian Religion.

Drawing from the Institutes and Calvin’s Old and New Testament commentaries, Donald K. McKim comments on Calvin’s biblical insights on prayer and intersperses his short readings with Calvin’s own prayers. Reflection questions and prayer points help you to meditate on Scripture, understand Calvin’s teaching, and strengthen your own prayer life.

The ninety readings start with a scripture reference, give a paragraph or so of introduction to the topic, a quotation from one of Calvin’s commentaries or the Institutes—the quotation will be a sentence fragment to a paragraph or so—then some application, a reflection question or a particular thing to pray about. There was nothing wrong in the readings, but they….lacked any real depth or insight. I think it could be helpful for some people, or maybe a useful review of some ideas.

These readings are separated by the occasional longer prayer from a commentary. which are just great—the best part of the book.

It’s based on Calvin—there’s good stuff throughout. But you’re better off reading the source material (the section from the Institutes on Prayer alone is better than this book, never mind the helpful things referred to in the commentaries). If you like devotionals, you may find this of some help. At the least, it’s worth a look.

3 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Avenge the Dead by Jackie Baldwin: Past Mistakes and Crimes Come Back to Haunt Dumfries

Avenge the Dead

Avenge the Dead

by Jackie Baldwin
Series: DI Frank Farrel, #3

eARC, 310 pg.
One More Chapter, 2020

Read: March 4-5, 2020

Okay, I literally just finished this book—it’s been one of those weeks—about 30 minutes after my self-imposed “you have to start writing at this point” rule. So you’re getting pipin’ hot opinions here, fresh from the oven. I haven’t had a chance to reflect too much on the book as a whole, but I think I can find a thing or two to say. Because of my time crunch, I’ll leave the synopsis bit of this post to the Book Spotlight that I posted—it’s brief, but it does the trick:

DI Frank Farrell and DS McLeod are tasked with investigating the brutal murder of a defence solicitor’s wife in Dumfries.

It’s been over a year since they left the town after an investigation robbed them of a dear friend. But now they’re back and must find a way to move on.

When the son of another defence solicitor is murdered, a strange tattoo etched on his body, the case takes them into darker, more disturbing territory.

It leads them back into the past – to a horrific fire in a cottage that took a woman’s life, to four friends harbouring dark secrets – and finally to a killer waiting patiently for revenge.

Like many other police procedurals from the other side of the Atlantic despite being called the DI Frank Farrell series, it’s about several characters—most of the investigative team. Honestly, I’d rather read about Mhairi McLeod or a couple other minor characters than Farrell—she seems more complex and interesting than he does. That’s more of a commentary on her than him (and I think if I’d been around for the whole series, I’d appreciate him more). But you spend enough with the team as a whole, that it’s simple enough to get your fill with all the characters.

Baldwin’s prose is pretty bare and straight-forward, making it easy to read this. Things keep moving smoothly, and the juggling of the many witnesses, potential victims, personal lives and investigative lines doesn’t feel too much like juggling. However, particularly at larger moments—pivotal scenes—I think she drifts toward over-writing in the way she works to emphasize how important the scenes are. I’m not sure how well the story is actually served with the Prologue, set ten years before the action kicks off, I think it distracted me, as I kept waiting for elements discussed in it to be brought up later (much later, it turns out)—and I can’t help but wonder if just starting after it would’ve been better.

This is the third in a series, and it’s pretty clear that the first two installments were pretty eventful. Baldwin does an adequate job of catching the new reader up to where they need to be, but I think she could’ve given us a little more. This can be read as a stand-alone just fine, but to fully appreciate everything, you’re going to have to go back and read the first two, I think.

Overall this is a satisfying read with enough twists and turns to keep you guessing, a handful of characters I’d like to get to know better. Avenge the Dead sucked me in , deeper than I’d have guessed with the characters—can’t complain about that. I’d gladly read others in this series or by this author, and I bet you would, too.

3 Stars

My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including a copy of the novel) they provided.

Shadow of the Batgirl by Sarah Kuhn, Nicole Goux: A Fun & Compelling Refreshed Origin Story

Shadow of the Batgirl

Shadow of the Batgirl

by Sarah Kuhn, Nicole Goux

Paperback, 193 pg.
DC Comics, 2020

Read: February 18, 2019

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore!

Cassandra Cain has intrigued me for quite a while now, but as I’ve limited my comic reading (for financial and time considerations), I haven’t read nearly enough about her to satisfy my curiosity.

Enter Sarah Kuhn and her YA graphic novel to take care of that. It was a brilliant idea to have Kuhn write this—as she explains herself in the introduction, Cain is exactly the kind of super-hero that Kuhn writes.

This retelling of Cain’s origin story from the moment she decides to leave the life of crime she’d been born into and trained for (not that she knew that’s what she’d been doing), through her meeting Barbara Gordon and (a new character for this telling) Jackie, and into her first steps as Batgirl.

Jackie is an elderly Asian Aunt figure who provides emotional security for Cassandra while Barbara is helping with intellectual stimulation (there’s also a boy she meets at the library, but Jackie and Barbara are the foci).

I really enjoyed watching Cain make connections with people, learning how to redefine herself—it’s an atypical origin story and exactly the kind of thing we need to see more of.

Goux’s art wasn’t the style I expected—I expected something darker, more angular, with a lot of shadows. Instead, we get something almost playful and joyful, while not detracting from the serious story. Goux’s art fits Kuhn’s voice (both here and in other works) perfectly and won me over right away.

This was a fun read, establishing Cain as a person and as a hero while telling a compelling story. I recommend this and would eagerly read any follow-ups that might come along (like the upcoming The Oracle Code.)

3 Stars

2020 Library Love Challenge
This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Burn the Dark by S. A. Hunt: Like and Subscribe to Watch Her Gank Witches

Burn the Dark

Burn the Dark

by S. A. Hunt
Series: Malus Domestica, #1

Paperback, 368 pg.
Tor Books, 2020

Read: February 5-7, 2019

Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore! Or, on audio through Libro.fm!

I’m struggling to not over-share here, so I’m just going to cite the official book blurb to explain the set-up for this novel:

Chilling Adventures of Sabrina meets Stranger Things in award-winning author S. A. Hunt’s Burn the Dark, first in the Malus Domestica horror action-adventure series about a punk YouTuber on a mission to bring down witches, one vid at a time.

Robin is a YouTube celebrity gone-viral with her intensely-realistic witch hunter series. But even her millions of followers don’t know the truth: her series isn’t fiction.

Her ultimate goal is to seek revenge against the coven of witches who wronged her mother long ago. Returning home to the rural town of Blackfield, Robin meets friends new and old on her quest for justice. But then, a mysterious threat known as the Red Lord interferes with her plans….

I really love the concept for this book/series. No matter what I may end up saying below, I just want to say that Hunt deserves all sorts of kudos for coming up with it and executing the idea so well.

The Sabrina bit mentioned above comes from Robin, a childhood friend and someone new to town she meets when she returns. The Strange Things bit comes from a kid who has just moved to town (and into Robin’s old house—old bedroom) and the neighborhood kids he’s become friends with. Either group could probably be the focus of a book, the two of them together is what really works. I thought all the characters were well-drawn and interesting, and I would like to spend time with them all (except the witches, I think they could be developed a bit more—but that risks making them less threatening).

The magic system in this book is fantastic. Hunt gives us enough to understand it (and to see that it’s well-developed), but doesn’t drown us in the details that govern it. There’s something very raw, very rooted, almost tangible about it.

Hunt’s writing could be described the same way. It’s almost impossible not to see everything she’s describing; when she writes a tense scene, you feel it; and it’s engrossing.

Compelling writing, strong characters, a killer hook, and fast-moving plot with a great magic system—S. this is basically a recipe for a book that I’ll celebrate. But the entire time I read it, I kept thinking “I just don’t like this.” I kept reading because it’s precisely the kind of book I should rave about and I kept waiting for the switch to flip. But it’s just not my thing.

It’s not often I have this reaction, but it made me feel like Wendig’s Miriam Black books, Kadrey’s Sandman Slim, or Stross’s Laundry Files. In theory, each of those series is exactly my cup of tea. And I didn’t enjoy any of them (and I’ve read multiple volumes in two of those series). It’s an odd phenomenon, and I wish I understood it.

Still, it’s so well done that I can’t rate it lower than 3 Stars. I didn’t like it, but I respect it enough to recognize that it deserves at least that.

Eh, what do I know? Go read a post by someone who really dug this book instead.

3 Stars

2020 Library Love Challenge

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

San Diego Dead by Mark Nolan: A Modern-Day Privateer (and his dog) takes on a Powerful Drug Cartel

San Diego Dead

San Diego Dead

by Mark Nolan
Series: Jake Wolfe, #4

Kindle Edition, 348 pg.

Read: January 30-February 3, 2020

Jake Wolfe is a former photojournalist, ex-Marine, ex-CIA asset, lawyer, Mafia “Made Man” and modern-day privateer. He recently saved the life of the new First Lady (before the election), and is on a first-name basis with her (and her husband). Men (who don’t want to kill him) admire him, women (who don’t want to kill him) swoon over him. But for Wolfe, none of that matters, as much as spending time with Cody, who is another Marine vet. Cody shares in most of Wolfe’s accomplishments—and gets the same reaction from men and women. The significant difference between the two is that Wolfe comes from Irish and Italian roots, and Cody is a yellow Labrador and Golden Retriever mix.

Together these two make a seemingly unstoppable force for truth, justice, and the American way. Apart they are capable but diminished, distracted, and less emotionally whole. Wolfe considers Cody a partner and makes it clear to any and all that they’re a package deal.

While on assignment for the Secret Service, the pair assassinates a man who provides boats for a Mexican Drug Cartel to smuggle drugs into the U.S. Around the same time a dear friend and fellow Vet crosses the same cartel, putting both men (and Jake’s girlfriend) in the cross-hairs pg of the leader of that cartel.

The cartel cuts a deadly and destructive swath from Mexico to L.A. attempting to eliminate these two, pushing the pair until they retaliate.

Most of the book is told from Wolfe’s point-of-view, with dips into the POV of his girlfriend or Cartel members. There are a couple of noteworthy sections told from Cody’s perspective—he’s closer to Crais’ Maggie than Quinn’s Chet in these, but he’s more thoughtful (and more human thinking) than Maggie. I wish we had a few more segments from Cody’s POV.

There are two paragraphs in which a ghost appears and saves the day. These two paragraphs have had me thinking far too much about them in contrast to the rest of the novel. They’re proverbial sore thumbs sticking out from the rest—but they also worked better than you’d think.

Recently, listening to interviews with Lee Goldberg, I was reminded of a genre that’s not really out anymore (and I’d totally forgotten about)—”Men of Action” or “Men’s Adventure.” These used to be at grocery stores, convenience stores and the like offering easy-to-read adventures featuring manly men doing manly (frequently super-patriotic) deeds, and deadly (and incredibly attractive) women. Years ago, Goldberg wrote a few of this type under the pen name Ian Ludlow—and now Goldberg’s protagonist of the same name writes that kind of book. See also: Mack Bolan, the Executioner; Remo Williams; and the like. Thanks to that reminder, I was able to see San Diego Dead for the return to that kind of story-telling and enjoy it for what it is. If not for that reminder, I’d have been annoyed, bothered, underwhelmed by the book. But realizing the inherent goals of this kind of writing, I was able to ignore that annoyance and channel it into reuniting such entertaining tropes/themes for contemporary audiences. It’s silly, cheesy fun—which is all it tries to be.

Would much of this work better if you’d read the previous novels? Probably. Does it work fine as a stand-alone? Yes. I’m not going to say that this is for everyone—it’s not (but what is?). If you (or someone you know) need a break from intense, serious, deliberate thrillers and could use solid action that places the emphasis on entertainment factor over all other considerations, give yourself a treat and check out Mark Nolan’s Jake Wolfe.

3 Stars

My thanks to damppebbles blog tours for the invitation to participate in this tour and the materials (including a copy of the novel) they provided.

The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon by Dana Schwartz, Jason Adam Katzenstein (Illustrator): A Guide to White Male Writers for White Male Writers (or those who want to be one)

The White Man's Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon

The White Man’s Guide to White Male Writers of the Western Canon

by Dana Schwartz, Jason Adam Katzenstein (Illustrator)

Paperback, 241 pg.
Harper Perennial, 2019

Read: January 7-30, 2020
Grab a copy from your local indie bookstore (I did)!

If you want to be a writer, you should attend an Ivy League university, where you roommate happens to be the nephew of a senior editor at Knopf, and you should go on to get a summer internship in New York City. This internship will not be paid, and unfortunately you will have to suffer the indignity of living in an apartment that your parents pay for. But soon, your struggles will pay off, and you will be accepted at one of the nation’s most prestigious MFA programs.

If you can’t do all of that, I hate to say it, but it sounds like you won’t have the commitment and discipline necessary to make it as a writer.

Nice guy, the narrator of this book, right? I didn’t know this when I picked it up, but this is a book inspired by a parody Twitter account Schwartz runs @GuyInYourMFA, I wish I knew that going in—it might have helped me appreciate the book more. Probably not, really, the book speaks for itself, but it the humor in it screams Twitter. Anyway, that account is the voice behind this book.

This is a guide to:

teach you everything you need to know to become the chain-smokin, coffee-drinking, Proust-quoting, award-winning writer you’ve always known you should be…

Not a white man? Not to worry. The White Male Writer isn’t a hard-and-fast demographic; it’s a state of mind…

There’s a brief discussion of topics like how to dress like a writer, what the Western Canon is, how to identify “Chick Lit” (the last identifier is “By Jennifer Weiner”, which is a pretty good clue, you have to admit), and ends with a nice reading list of White Male Writers.

The heart of the book consists of thirty-two 6(+/-) page profiles of the greatest White Male Writers that make up the Western Canon. These consist of a brief biography, a discussion of some major works (“Works You Need to Know”), and some lessons from the work or life of the Writer that should be applied by the reader in their effort to become a Writer (drink recipes, how to respond to a rejection letter, how to write a love letter like James Joyce, etc.).

The writers are male, white, and largely published in the Twentieth Century (Shakespeare, Milton, Samuel Johnson, Goethe, Lord Byron, Dickens, Thoreau, and Tolstoy would be the exceptions). I can virtually guarantee that you’ve heard to them all—not that you’ve read them all, however. And in between the snark and intentionally sexist lessons, there’s some decent information to be gleaned. That isn’t the point of the book, the point is the snark, sexism, and general parodying the idea of the young, pretentious, white male would-be literary genius.

Every chapter includes at least 3 lines that should bring some level of amusement to the reader (some will have many more)—which is a pretty decent and consistent number. Sadly, all the jokes are around a theme, and so can get repetitive. If you don’t read cover to cover, if you only read a 2-3 chapters at a time, and bear in mind that all the jokes will be similar, you can have a lot of fun with this book. If you neglect any of that, it can get tiresome. Once I figured that out (it didn’t take long, thankfully, before I recognized the symptoms), I had a lot of fun with this book.

The illustrations are wonderful—each chapter (except the Pynchon chapter) features a great caricature of the artist, and a handful of other illustrations that do a wonderful job of augmenting the text.

This is not the subtlest of books I’ll read this year (it doesn’t try), but it is insightful, amusing and (accidentally?) informative. All of which makes it a fun, book-nerdy, read. Give it a shot, you’ll probably be glad you did.

3 Stars

This post contains an affiliate link. If you purchase from it, I will get a small commission at no additional cost to you. As always, opinions are my own.

Junkyard Cats by Faith Hunter, Khristine Hvam: Hunter tries SF with Predictably Entertaining Results

Junkyard Cats

Junkyard Cats

by Faith Hunter, Khristine Hvam (Narrator)

Audiobook, 5 hrs., 2 min.
Audible Original, 2020

Read: January 3-6, 2020

Faith Hunter dips her toe into SF with this Audible Original, and leaves quite an impression. The distinctive Hutner-flair is there, with science-y stuff replacing the magic stuff. It works pretty well.

Shining Smith is a veteran, of a handful of things, really. This takes place in the near-future, following a World War and another one (called the Final War in an act of aspirational nomenclature, I assume). She lives in/runs a scrapyard left to her by her father with a few cats and another vet recovering from trauma.

Shining deals on both sides of the law through intermediaries—no one knows her or who she is beyond those. It’s a perfectly safe environment.

Not a nice one, not a fulfilling one, but a safe one. And in her world, that’s asking a lot.

Until one day, one of her intermediaries shows up at her scrapyard dead. And then a very strong suspect for killing him shows up. And things get worse from there.

The action scenes are cool—filled with all the kinds of things that the best SF action scenes are filled with. The future-tech is cool, completely foreign to reality, yet it seems like the kind of thing that would emerge from our current tech.

I liked Shining, we don’t get to know her much. She’s such the riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma, that it’s hard to get a real handle on her—but we get enough to root for her and want to know her better. Her compatriots are intriguing—as well-rounded as characters can get in this limited space where everyone is lying to each other about who and what they are.

There were a couple of SF-brand/tech names (like The Tyrell Corporation or tricorder) that I really couldn’t understand what Hvam was saying. Against the spirit of an “Audible Original,” but I’d like to read this so I could get a handle on those things. Which isn’t saying that Hvam didn’t do a great job—as per usual, her narration is top-notch.

My only complaint (outside of the tech words I couldn’t decipher), is the brevity, we get the good story, but we don’t get any depth—it’s like it’s designed to make you want more. Hey, wait a second . . .

A fun action-packed story that’ll whet your appetite for more. This is a glimpse into a cool world and I love what Hunter has created here. Yeah, I’m only going with 3 Stars for this. There’s a lot of potential in this world and with these characters—if Hunter returns to this? I can easily see this becoming a favorite series. It’s fine as a stand-alone, and it doesn’t demand a series/sequel but I think to really appreciate everything she set-up here, we need a little more. I’m not sure that makes sense, but…it’s what I can do.

3 Stars