The Fall by R.J. Pineiro

Every now and then, I like to take a chance on a book that I haven’t heard anything about. I’ll admit that cover shopping can play a big part of this. It’s probably what made me pick up R. J. Piniero’s The Fall. That and the tagline that read something like: “A man takes a jump from a weather balloon only to end up on another Earth where he’s been dead for five years.” Ok, probably not the premise of high brow literature, but hey, it does sound like fun.

I don’t know if it’s me, but I keep pulling up parallel dimensional travel books a lot lately. It’s definitely in vogue right now. And where it used to be confined mainly to space stories involving intergalactic anomalies like ST:TNG’s “Yesterday’s Enterprise,” now it seems like they happen in science fiction more and more on Earth. This probably says something about how self-absorbed we are with ourselves, or maybe it’s just to tell stories that are relatable. Either way, the dimensional travel aspect of this book is fairly basic and is really just a so-so plot device to create tension.

Jack Taylor, ex-Navy SEAL, is one of those “I can do anything” military MacGyver supermen that parade through throw-away action novels. He’s got some relationship troubles (so he’s not actually Superman); but all in all, he does whatever he wants however he wants. When confronted with his alternate Earth, he’s momentarily confused that this America uses the metric system, but ultimately he adapts in about a half hour to his surroundings. His brilliant wife – who happens to be part hacker, part biker chick while actually the lead scientist on big NASA projects – has her own adventures against a power obsessed general who is basically a one man Illuminati. Together this typical American couple has to try to get Jack back to his own Earth and real timeline.

I know suspension of belief is necessary for the rollercoaster rides of today’s action genre, but even though I thought I was in with the “balloon jump” premise mentioned above, this cliché-ridden construct was ultimately too much schlock for me. I don’t want to impugn Clive Cussler by saying this is Clive Cussler-lite, but that’s what I felt while reading this. If unstoppable heroes in pseudo-science stories are what you’re looking for – and you don’t want to travel to Mars with John Carter – then The Fall is the book for you.

4 stars out of 10

photo: jamesbrittin.com

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Alone (The Second World War: Book 2) by Winston Churchill

The second volume in Winston Churchill’s history of World War II focuses on the time period after France had fallen to the German invasion until the entrance of the United States into the conflict. It was a hard time for the British people. Their nation was the only free European country actively opposing Hitler’s scheme of domination. For this, Germany turned its full strength upon the island and brought Britain to its darkest hour. This volume is a testimony to the unconquerable spirit the British had in the face of a merciless enemy.

In a few short years, Germany had gone from a struggling bankrupt nation into a war machine that controlled nearly half of all Europe. After all the missteps that the European leaders took – which Churchill relates in Milestones to Disaster – the British army finds themselves in Occupied France facing complete destruction. Alone begins with the account of the unbelievable escape accomplished at Dunkirk – the largest marine transportation event in the history of the world at that point. Thousands of ships, many civilian, saved the lives of hundreds of thousands of men.

After this miraculous feat of logistics and sheer will, Britain is isolated on their little island home. They know that Hitler will come to destroy his final opposition. Churchill, in amazing detail and frankness, reveals how England steeled themselves for the onslaught. Massive defense measures of every town went into action. Every port was mined and patrolled. Every able bodied citizen was assigned a war duty task such as fire watch, food supply, child care. The Royal Air Force was called upon to keep constant vigil in the air while the Royal Navy swept the seas and harbors. At no time has there been a country more single-minded in its effort for defense. The delightful shores of Albion became a bulwark.

Through this and the Battle of Britain to come, Churchill rallied the people with his speeches. Never for a minute was surrender considered an option. Optimism and perseverance was always the tone. The strength of this history is the resolve of the people of Britain to overcome. Hardships came in droves, but they survived. A fictional account would only ring hollow. This true story gives the reader iron in his spirit to face the evil of their own time.

In the end, we know they came through. With dreadful losses, England lasted until the world could rally. Their determination probably saved the future of freedom. You should read of the debt we owe to this brave people whose lives shone in what was “their finest hour.”

7.5 stars out of 10

photo: archives.gov  – London, 1940

14 by Peter Clines

Ok, so I’m a little late to the party, but I finally got here right?

14 by Peter Clines has been on the top of Top 10 Books lists (that I see) since it came out a couple years ago. Every time I’m looking for a new science fiction novel to read, it just waves its little hand and says, “Still here, pick me.” No, I’m looking for that “hidden” gem. If everyone likes it, it can’t be that good. Well after two years or so, I guess I can check out what all the fuss is about. Oh…the fuss is that this is a good book. It’s going on my top ten list – just a few years late.

The story starts innocently enough with Nate. He’s a regular guy that can’t find what to do with his life, has a crappy job, and is looking for cheaper rent. Someone recommends to him an older apartment building with too good to believe fixed prices. The place and the tenants seem nice enough at first blush – even if things do feel just a little odd. Well, after seeing that green cockroach, maybe things are more than a little strange. Some of the neighbors have noticed the “quirks” of the building. Nate assembles a small crew to discover what’s going on, but their amateur prying uncovers more than they bargain for.

The sheer genius of this book is its originality. The dialogue at the beginning is a little campy, but it grows on you. Something like – and this is intentional – a Scooby-Doo mystery. The reader wonders what they’ve gotten themselves into, but by the end, feel like they’re part of the gang. I thought at the start that I was getting a straight down the alley haunted house story. What I got in return was maybe the most original plot that I’ve read in the last 100 books or so. Science fiction is crowded with the same conceits: time travel, trans-dimensional travel, first contacts, interplanetary war. How ’bout something new? Now don’t get me wrong, there’s plenty of the familiar in this book; where Peter Clines excels, is that he uses the old ideas with a fresh vision. And I’m thinking he may have the right kind of insight.

There will be no spoilers in this review besides what I’ve already said. (I’m already worried the black vans may pull up any second now.) Just read it. Don’t wait the years to try it. It’s fun. Let me know if it makes your top 10.

8.5 stars out of 10

George Whitefield by Arnold Dallimore

There may be no person who spoke directly in person to more people in the history of the world as George Whitefield. If just for this single fact, a biography of his would be a must read. However, during the 40 years of his preaching ministry, the western world (and by its effects the entire globe) changed immensely during the movement known now as the Great Awakening. This period has wide ranging effects including the establishment of major denominations, the push for the abolishment of slavery, the development of media, the rise of democracy, and the establishment of the United States. The central figure of this time was George Whitefield.

This volume by Arnold Dallimore is an abridgment of his much longer comprehensive biography of Whitefield. I highly encourage you to read the unabridged version if you want a full perspective on the evangelist’s life. But, if you need a quick yet substantive overview of the man’s life, this book will fill your needs perfectly.

Whitefield was converted in his early college years, and from a short time afterwards, he began preaching evangelistic messages in England. His eloquence and power displayed in his sermons quickly had many flocking to hear him. Seeking to maximize hearers for the gospel of Christ, he turned to “field preaching” in London parks. Tens of thousands began to turn out to hear his messages. There may never have been larger crowds that have ever been able to hear a single man unamplified. The force of his message to turn to Jesus and to follow His will quickly began to have great effects in reforming London society. But only after a few weeks, Whitefield left on his first of 13 Atlantic crossings to take the good news to America.

His life is filled with many ups and downs. The love of America for him, his support of orphans, the influence he had on British nobility contrasted with his constant illness, his skewering by the press, his troubles with the Wesleys. Through it all, he kept a singlemindedness that nothing could make him stop from extending the invitation of Christ’s love for sinners. The relating of his climbing out of bed to preach from a balcony to eager listeners the night of his death shows the power Whitefield had 40 years after he spoke for the first time.

Revival literature should encourage and strengthen the seeking heart. This book does both. Whitefield’s life is a testimony of God’s keeping grace even in light of extremely difficult pressure. If men thought he was too proud, he humbled himself further; if others wanted control, he submitted to them; if though completely spent of all strength a one would ask for a word about the Living God, he would share and not rest. He talked to millions 300 years ago. A man used by God can change the world, and George Whitefield is the proof.

7.5 stars out of 10

photo: National Black Robe Regiment

Firefight by Brandon Sanderson (The Reckoners: Book 2) with Mitosis (Book 1.5)

There’s no spoilers for Firefight, but if you haven’t read Steelheart yet, then you’ll probably want to skip this.

The second book of the Reckoners series takes the action and the plot to another level but it leaves some of the dialogue charm of the first one behind. This is probably due to the tension inherent in the David/Megan relationship and the switch to another Reckoner cell. However, on a whole, Sanderson has expanded the Reckoner universe in a good way. He gives depth to the characters that have been a little thin up till now. More understanding is brought to the Epics dealing with their powers and the source of them. The ante is raised going from Newcago to Babylon Restored (Manhattan) ruled by the enigmatic Regalia. All in all, Firefight survives the sophomore slump with a strong sense of its own identity.

Following Steelheart’s overthrow in Newcago the Reckoners, led by Jonathan Phaedras, find themselves drawn by clues to Babylon Restored – the mostly underwater remnants of Manhattan island. There Prof and David (now increasingly known as Steelslayer) must figure out Regalia’s plans to keep the city and its many inhabitants from being destroyed. Of course along the way, David wants to find Megan and save her from the corruption of Epic powers. He believes that together she may be able to overcome Firefight. The local Reckoner cell doesn’t make it easy for David to fit in, but they’re all working on the same side….right?

The issue with stories where key characters are getting corrupted by some force is how to keep the characters true during their corruption phase. I felt like Sanderson walked the line with this in Firefight. Prof and Megan’s struggles seemed to sometimes be no big deal and at other times almost without hope. I’m sure this is to keep the tension high in the struggle, but it came off as forced and somewhat arbitrary. Again, I think that this is an issue with first person perspective – trying to reveal the heart of other characters while stuck in the head of the protagonist. But, kudos to Sanderson for at least wrestling with humanity as opposed to just having superheroes with issues. That is what mainstream media keeps offering up as depth.

Like all middle books, there’s still plenty of more answers to be solved. If the third book was already out I’m sure that I would go ahead and read it, but this isn’t the type of series where the months of waiting are going to be taxing…looking at you Patrick Rothfuss. If you like superhero stories or just fun action, these will please.

Mitosis

Mitosis is the short story interlude between Steelheart and Firefight. The main purpose is as a post script to the story in Newcago after Steelheart is slain. It follows the pursuit and destruction of another Epic named Mitosis. The story helps draw the two novels together in a continuous flow. It’s not necessary, but it does bridge the gap well. The reason for mentioning it here is that Mitosis’ story is alluded to several times in Firefight. So much so, that it might do you well to read this brief intertestamental tale. It’s worth the hour of your time.

Firefight – 6.5 stars out of 10

Mitosis – thumbs up

photo: youtube

Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson (The Reckoners: Book 1)

No author has been more recommended to me – either by friends or computer generated algorithims – than Brandon Sanderson. Apparently he fits so strongly into that science fiction/fantasy wheelhouse that he’s become a must read. I haven’t picked up a book of his until I decided to finally take a flyer on Steelheart. This is probably not the book that would have been suggested for me to start with, but it did its job. I finished it wanting more of the series. As a young adult series (which I didn’t know until after I started), it’s not as deep as some stories out there, but he does a good enough job with character development and unique concepts to pull the reader through.

Times are hard in Newcago – what Chicago became after the Epic Steelheart transmutated the entire metropolis into steel. Epics are humans that have developed superpowers; the downside is that they all are evil. With their enhanced powers, they subjugate the populace for their own pleasure with Steelheart running the show. David was there the day Steelheart came to power. He saw the Epic kill his dad, but not before he saw the seemingly invulnerable Steelheart bleed. Now he holds the secret to bringing Steelheart’s reign to an end. To do this, he must somehow join with the Reckoners, an underground team of Epic hunters, and convince them to help take down the strongest Epic of all.

Steelheart is a fairly fast paced book. Told in first person from David’s perspective, there is a lot of inner monologue from the near-twentysomething, but Sanderson doesn’t get bogged down with the hero’s vengeance or angst over his life. He allows David to continually act. This draws the reader down a story that could have stalled out, but the action keeps it alive. The concept of power corrupting is not a new one, but to introduce it to a superhero world where it corrupts all superheroes into villains is an excellent conceit to generate plenty of fun storylines. In essence, this becomes a dystopia-lite. Sure the Epics run the world, but none of the characters in the book have any more than just a hint of the brokenness that slavery in actuality brings. It’s meant to be a fun soft action book, and it succeeds.

First person books are a pet peeve of mine. They rarely succeed as the author continually has to throw in semi-third person vantages to get the full story across. And they can get too much into the inner life of the hero. Insight is good, a constant monologue is mind numbing. Sanderson does a decent job keeping it light without needing much objectivity thrown in. I know it’s to try to get young readers to put themselves in David’s place, but being passable is not the same as being preferable.

Check it out if your looking for a fun quick “superhero” read. I’ll probably need to get some of Sanderson’s other work to get a full exposure to his style.

5.5 stars out of 10

photo: amazon.com

Invasion of Wales by the Holy Spirit through Evan Roberts by James A. Stewart

I recently read The Awakening of Wales by Jessie Penn-Lewis who was an eyewitness of the Welsh Revival of 1904 and 1905. After talking to some friends about that account, they loaned me James Stewart’s attempt to document the times from a perspective of a couple of decades. For the most part, Stewart succeeds in capturing the essence of God’s work in Wales by compiling many firsthand anecdotes and including more personal information about Evan Roberts than he allowed in his lifetime. While not as fresh as Penn-Lewis’ recounting, this short book still has the life of the revival on it.

The book concentrates on the preparation that had been done in the country through many prayer groups in the years leading up to the outpouring. There were numerous groups of three or four people whose hearts burned for a moving of God among the people. When it finally came, the society was transformed. Sports and entertainment lost their appeal. Businessmen and tradesmen alike found their way to the packed meetings. The young and the old would remain at worship until well past midnight. Stewart documents not only how rapidly the country transformed but how peacefully it did as well. All things were in order.

A great benefit to this book is the transcription of one of Evan Roberts’ actual sermons. This gives the reader a vivid picture of what was being taught more than a hundred years ago in Wales. While not to be emulated without the life that the Spirit had given the man, the salient points of the life of the cross and complete reliance upon God are lessons for all ages. The prayer to Jesus was always being made – “Bend the church. Save the world!”

5.5 stars out of 10