Lords of the Earth by Don Richardson

Lords of the Earth is a gripping account of Christian missionaries, Stanley Dale and Bruno de Leeuw, and their first contact with the Yali tribes-people of the high mountains of Irian Jaya (Dutch New Guinea). The Yali were a hard-edged warrior dominated society that eked out a primitive existence in the steep walled valleys that protected them from civilization. These occasional cannibals had their world and cosmology utter shaken by the appearance of the two RBMU (Regions Beyond Missionary Union) missionaries and native guides that trekked into their valleys in 1961. Over the next decade, these people saw their warring sectarianism replaced by a loving peace taught by the Christian gospel.

Stan Dale is the main protagonist of this hard-to-believe true story. Starting from very humble beginnings in Australia, he fought his way into becoming a smart, strong, but often equally brash soldier. His conversion to Christianity was followed shortly by a call to the mission fields of Papua New Guinea. However, his sternness and treatment of others led him to being let go from not one but two different missionary societies. But when in his third stint on the island he went to the Yali people, he finally found the field God had prepared him for.

This account is filled with some absolutely cringe-filled moments as Stan charges into situations that he had no understanding of the underlying context. The greatest lesson this book imparts is that God can use anyone and their foibles for His work. Richardson’s portrayal of him – drawn from many firsthand accounts and his own acquaintance – paint a fair picture of the man. Sometimes this is to his detriment, but also the reader sees how he was uniquely suited for this challenging assignment. His supporting cast of missionaries and native tribesmen are impressive in their resolve to break the power of spirit worship. I don’t want to spoil the story, but it truly is amazing from where it starts to where it ends.

The thing I loved most was the view into this primitive people’s lives. Their beliefs, their thoughts, the way the villages are arranged appeal deeply to my anthropological curiosities. These black pygmy cliff dwellers reveal their humanity even in the most uncivilized ways. The reader feels drawn to them in the same way the missionaries were.

The book on a whole isn’t as strong as Richardson’s autobiographical account in his book Peace Child, but those who love to read compelling stories of Christ’s work will enjoy this. The events in this story are barely fifty years old. They should be an inspiration to many.

7 stars out of 10

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An Irish County Doctor by Patrick Taylor

I picked up the first book in the Irish Country series because I was looking for a peaceful read, and this little novel appeared to offer it. I am happy to say it did. The author himself is a medical doctor from Ireland, and this fictional narrative has heart and belief behind it. There’s not much to raise the pulse, but the plot is just right to pull you through this idyll. 

Dr. Barry Laverty is fresh out of medical school and heads to the country town of Ballybucklebo in hopes of being an assistant to the current town’s doctor, Fingal O’Reilly. The quaint town outside of Belfast is full of delightful characters who constantly need guidance – far beyond just the physical – from the two doctors. Barry gets a helping hand from the world-wise and gruff Fingal, and their burgeoning friendship is a delight to follow. The minor escapades of the novel resolve without too much issue, but An Irish Country Doctor is less about plot and more a glimpse into a world we all want to live in. 

If you’re looking for a charming vacation and light reading than this book would probably fit the bill. It deserves to mention the similar and superior James Herriot books. This tale does not quite have the ultimate charm of All Creatures Great and Small, but if you have already acquainted yourself with those, give this a go. 

My one caveat is the language. It’s pretty strong in the beginning. It grows milder as the book progresses, but it took away from the story for me. Whether it’s there for reality’s sake or for some other reason, I felt like it hurt the idyllic feel of the novel. Of course, I think cursing is lazy in real life or in fiction, but it’s worth noting. 

Taylor’s story made me want to go find a peaceful village and enjoy the one I live in more. I may not continue to the next one in the series right away, but I know there’s something for another rainy day. 

6.5 stars out of 10

Harpist in the Wind (Riddle-Master Trilogy: Book 3) by Patricia McKillip

The conclusion of the Riddle-Master series finds Morgon and Raederle struggling to find the mysterious High One and the reason for the war that has spread across the realm. The quest begins simply enough as they head for the ancient wizard’s city of Lungold. This book, like the other two, has almost all of its action take place on the way to destinations instead of at them. Morgon and his bride-to-be struggle on the journey and have their characters developed. They fall into traps, escape, get to Lungold, where they fall into a trap, escape, head to another destination, fall into a trap, escape…I think you get the idea. The main riddles of the book, if not the series, are who is the High One, who are the Earth Masters, and what does one have to do with the other? These questions have needed to be answered for a long time, and when they finally are, it almost really doesn’t matter.

Patricia McKillip’s writing is quite good. She describes details and emotions with a power to draw the reader into imagery. The effect is such that – like the illusion that the wizards of this book so often create – there is an illusion that this story has more of a plot than it actually does. Thankfully, in the final third of Harpist, the main plot is finally revealed, and yet when it is, there’s not really any more to it than what one kind of expects. The motivations behind the final reveal and what all the characters are fighting about are basically left to the idea that power corrupts. It’s vague, but at least the writing was nice.

There are moments of real emotion in the book. Raederle’s character is continually the touchstone for any strength this series has found. I have read many reviews that claim that this is that reader’s all time favorite series. My only conclusion is that they have connected with these characters in their brief moments of genuine insight. Each of them, especially Deth the harpist, have the potential to be major fantasy characters, but at the end of the day, plot helps flesh characters out, and these books were lacking in it. Florid prose does not a series make.

The Riddle-Master Trilogy had many good ideas and characters – even though their fullness didn’t quite pan out. There was enough here that I would be willing to try more from this author. If you read this series, you may not be disappointed, but there’s also plenty of other fantasy out there you should hit first.

5.5 out of 10 stars

The Riddle-Master Trilogy

4.5 out of 10 stars

Heir of Sea and Fire (Riddle-Master Trilogy: Book 2) by Patricia McKillip

The continuation of the Riddle-Master trilogy, Heir of Sea and Fire, gets going with a little more steam than the first book of the series did. That selection, The Riddle-Master of Hed, just seems to lag from the beginning and only developed a decent pace more than halfway through. This was not the case with this book. The pace starts steady and builds throughout to not a dramatic conclusion, but at least, a fitting one.

The heir mentioned in the title is Raederle, the promised bride of Morgon, the aforementioned Riddle-Master. The story follows her and an unlikely group of girls as they quest toward Erlenstar Mountain to find Morgon. Whether it’s because the protagonist of this tale is female or she has a better understanding of where she’s going with the story, the author seems to develop the characters in a more relatable way. Raederle becomes the first person that you care about. You understand what motivates her and how she’s torn between love of family and love of her promised Morgon. Her personal battles drive the story. Her inner world is more interesting than the world she’s moving through.

Unfortunately for the series, the unknowns about the motivations of the evil Ghistestlwchlohm (say that three times fast!) are hindering the real immediacy of the plot. Two books into a trilogy, the reader should have more of an idea about why the bad guy is bad. There is more innuendo about what is happening to the world than actual understanding. Yes, the characters have developed, the plot is still weak.

I’m far enough in that I will read the conclusion Harpist in the Wind, but the resolution to this series needs to reveal much more than it has until now.

5.5 stars out of 10

The Riddle-Master of Hed (Riddle-Master Trilogy: Book 1) by Patricia McKillip

I was on the hunt for new books to read recently – as opposed to just reading more of some of my favorite authors works. Along the way, I came across the Riddle-Master Trilogy by Patricia McKillip. This is one of those fantasy series that has been around for a while that I would see in the random library’s fantasy section. I have never taken the time to pick it up though. After reading several reviews announcing this as the best fantasy series that particular person had ever read, I thought it was time to give it a shot.

The story follows Morgon of Hed as he gets swept up into a quest to discover his destiny and save the world. Morgon, however, does not want the mantle of hero thrust upon him and continually tries to deny his fate. This is harder than it seems as he time and time again gets turned toward the mountain of the High One. He is faithfully accompanied by Deth, the High One’s harpist, who has a mysterious agenda of his own.

I have lived for over a thousand years and can recognize the smell of Doom.” –Deth

Initially, the quest has a natural draw to the reader as the intrigue of riddles make one long for answers. Unfortunately, right as the tale picks up steam, it gets sidetracked into some worldbuilding, that while important, becomes a little ponderous (like this sentence). Dreams are jumped in and out of several times throughout the book without warning. While this adds to the mystery and riddles, it can feel overplayed. However, once it breaks though this inertia, Morgon’s story moves with a rhythm that keeps the reader committed to the journey. Then the story ends. Done.

There is an ending to the book, and it has importance, but it feels like the author said, “OK, book two now.” I love book series of all lengths, yet I prefer it when the individual books have self-contained stories. I’ll have a better sense when I finish the whole trilogy (yes, I’ll finish it), but my impression is that the trilogy is really one story that got divided into three parts. I know that’s a minor point, but it’s good to know before you get into a series.

Riddles, shape changers, destiny and doom. This story checks many boxes in the fantasy want-list. A steady, if not always perfect, intro into what promises to be an intriguing tale. Stay tuned for the review of the continuation Heir of Sea and Fire.

4.5 stars out of 10

Tracks by Robyn Davidson

Continuing in a nonfiction frame of mind, my latest read is a remarkable true story of a young Australian’s journey across the Outback alone save for her four camels. Ms. Davidson’s story took place over thirty year ago and this book has been in print since then. Somehow, even though I have read plenty of solo travel stories, I missed out on this one until I saw the trailer for the new movie of the same name. 

The story is not a story of adventure but one of becoming. Initially Robyn rails against the racism and misogyny of 1970’s Australia, but she continually reveals her own hypocrisy in her jaded treatment of others. She pushes everyone away and is unlikeable. Yet what draws the reader forward is her direct honesty and perspective of her situations. Few memoirs I have read have been able to capture such a level of understanding – even in hindsight. She sees her faults and is able to progress past. Not to never repeat them, but with a constant struggle to best her faults. An admirable pursuit and one that says, “Anyone can overcome with effort.” 

Davidson spends years learning the camel trade even though she had no prior experience. She draws together resources and equipment while being flat broke. She allows herself to be followed by National Geographic even though she is a commited loner. These are barriers to be conquered head on. While there is no real peril in the book, even during her walk through the desert, the consistent effort she exerts is a force that makes nature submit to her will. She may say that she submitted to nature’s will. 

The animals are worth a mention. They are the underlying heart of the story. Recalcitrant, imposing, yet reliable and faithful, the four camels are the real muscle and sinew that make the walk possible. They are fascinating – whether because they’re portrayed as human or because of their idiosyncrasies. They make an American glad to have horses yet envious of their imperviousness to wearing down. Diggity, Robyn’s dog, is presented as the heart of the tale, but this rings a little untrue. She may be Robyn’s heart, but she plays a key foil of devotion to Robyn’s exclusion. 

It seems almost not right to reveal much about the aboriginal characters in the story except to say that they possess a humanity that one aches for. 

The film, based on the National Geographic pictures that accompanied the initial article, is a visual delight. Unlike many films, it did not drum up adventures to make it more appealing. It left the story unvarnished. Even if it didn’t capture the essence of Ms. Davidson’s writing, it is beautiful. 

Check out the trailer here: Tracks (trailer)

7.5 out of 10 stars

A History of the American People by Paul Johnson

For Christmas 2013, I received an excellent gift from my brother and sister-in-law – a homemade book club. The club consisted of receiving an audiobook of their choosing about once every other month. This was a great present, not only because I read a lot, but because the books that they sent were not ones that I would typically pick for myself. This helped break me out of a groove (really a rut…or trench…or anyway) of a LOT of Sci-fi. Their selections were all enjoyable and yet for the most part – brief. However, their last selection has made up for the lack of listening hours handsomely.

A History of the American People by Paul Johnson apparently was a textbook that summaries were read out of in one of my brother-in-law’s classes in college. Yes, a textbook. But thankfully, it does not read as a standard dry methodical recitation of times and places. In his 42 hours (much longer than all previous 5 selections together), Mr. Johnson opens up the American country with the lively vantage of a Brit who is enamored with our, at least historically, unparalleled nation. It is a completely engrossing survey. Essentially beginning with the Puritans and working non-stop to the Clinton years, the political, economic, and interpersonal stories of individuals are opened up with a keen insight. Mr. Johnson’s enthusiasm is contagious, and the reader can’t wait to see what happens next.

His heights are his explorations of the Presidents which he basically uses as windows to the soul of America. Washington, Jefferson, Jackson, Lincoln come to life as he connects the cultural dots to the decisions that these men made. His seemingly inexhaustible optimism is set off brilliantly by the surprising vitriol he has for FDR, Kennedy, and Johnson – the men he views as ruining American ideals. In each case, the reader wants to know more about the subjects not less. While maybe not right away, I want to dig deeper into Lincoln, Coolidge, John Phillip Sousa, Eisenhower.

One caveat: there is plenty of editorializing in this book. This makes for some of its strongest sections and its weakest. The author fesses up to his opinions early in the book so the reader isn’t surprised, but sometimes they can be off-putting. It’s clear Mr. Johnson is something like a free market individualist with a social heart. Sometimes he could easily offend conservatives and other times stomp on liberal’s toes – more often the latter. His last hundred pages of commentary after the strict chronology is done were my least enjoyable. However one of its main points, which I can agree with, is that modern Americans are losing (maybe giving up to political correctness) their rights to assert their opinions. He does and with gusto. I can at least applaud his conviction.

Granted my interests usually lie in the quadrivium, but the amount of Americana trivia I’ve been spouting recently reveals that I like the stuff. I probably would have never chosen a thick survey of American history for myself, but I’m glad I read it. A wonderful gift, and one I highly recommend.

9 stars out of 10