The Vorrh by Brian Catling

There is a dark place in the world.

Essentially this place has been captured by Brian Catling in his novel The Vorrh, an alternative history of a soul sucking forest in the midst of Africa in the early 20th century. I finished this somewhat plotless book that reads more as a descent into madness than a traditional novel while questioning myself the whole time, “Why are you going on?” In the end, I probably shouldn’t have, and you probably shouldn’t either.

There seems to be a lot to explain as to why I would not recommend you reading a book that for most purposes was well written and, at least if you believe the reviews, well received. I’ll try my hand a some key points.

Have you ever had a friend that thinks that he is so clever when he turns a phrase? Maybe like a non-sequitur or a simple play on words that gives his sentence an unintended, but to him, serendipitous meaning. Now imagine having to read a book full of these crafted sentences. Sure maybe one in five come off with some power, but honestly, it becomes a slog rather than the occasional moments of delight like they can be. The author is trying too hard to get a little nod of the hat with each phrase. Some may see this as lyrical, but hundreds of pages worth makes you long for the spartan description of Hemingway.

Now let’s talk about description or world-building or character development or anything else besides, say, a plot. This is what Mr. Catling offers to you in this tome – which is supposedly the first of a trilogy. I couldn’t tell you what the next volume could be about because I’m not sure I could tell you what the story of this one is. There are a bunch of fleshed-out characters and the world of The Vorrh is elaborately assembled with such dark intention that makes the reader ready to escape. A story, such as it is, more or less develops just because the characters kind of bump into each other – not because there is any direction to the tale. Several long “side” stories have virtually no relation to the main characters or the Vorrh at all. It’s almost as if separate stories were just cobbled into this novel because they exhibited the same mood as the others and it would thicken the book. I love world-building and character development, but there seems to be a sad tendency – especially in the fantasy genre – to substitute worlds with stories. I’m sorry, but give me an O. Henry short story every day that has a plot than 500 pages of an immaculate world with no point. It is like many modern authors are trying to be Tolkein but missing the point.

Finally I need to mention the evil. The Vorrh is a dark place. It turns everyone that goes into it a hollow shell of a person. Make no mistake: this is the intention of this book to those who read it. Every single character is a dark, twisted caricature of a person. There are no heroes, no good guys, no noble purposes. The one character who should be a bright spot is a woman who receives back her sight after being born blind. In such a gloomy, oppressive world, surely this one would find joy in her sight. Almost purposefully as soon as the reader thinks this, the author spends the time to show the ugliness of the sight of flowers in this character’s mind. The gift of sight is actually a curse – for really to all the people that inhabit this world, life is a curse. I rarely psychoanalyze authors, but Mr. Catling has presented a worldview that sees corruption and evil in all things. I don’t know if I know anyone who I think would like this book, and if I did, I would be scared to give it to them because it might sink them beyond hope.

I usually don’t bring up the Bible in non-Christian works, but the author has taken perverse pleasure at bringing up many illustrations of it and making them horrible. In Phillipians, Paul says “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things.” I cannot think of a better antithesis to that statement than this book. It is a mire of thought. Avoid it.

2 stars out of 10

Photo: Antoine Beauvillain

Parallel by Anthony Vicino

Sometimes it’s fun to just randomly pick out a new story to read from out of the ether. I did that this week when I picked up this little SF novella Parallel by Anthony Vicino. He’s the author of a blog I check out from time to time: One Lazy Robot. This is the first work of his that I’ve read, and it was a lot of fun!

Parallel is a nice bundle of clever science fiction ideas all thrown together in one short tale. It starts when two friends open a rift into a parallel dimension linking Earth to a much bigger cosmos (cosmi?) than they personally bargained for. I don’t want to give away too much, but to say it’s an explosive and entertaining story that will leave you wanting much more of this world and the culture it brings with it. I don’t know if Mr. Vicino has plans to develop the worlds of the Alliance more in any future work, but the fragments given here do tantalize.

All in all the pacing of the story is quick. The dialogue between the friends Hari and Gerald is corny enough to have the ring of truth between guys, and it helps the reader engage. There is a lot here from plot lines to just scene dynamics that could use fleshing out. The writing is a little unpolished, but its charisma goes a long way. You have the time to check this out. It’s worth it.

Parallel on Amazon

5 stars out of 10

Milestones to Disaster (The Second World War: Book 1) by Winston Churchill 

Winston Churchill by any account must be one of the most amazing statesmen of the 20th century. His unparalleled position at the highest levels of government through both World Wars puts him in a unique position to reveal the forces at work in the interregnum between the two. In Milestones to Disaster, he does just that – not as he says as a “history” – but as an eyewitness account to be used by future historians. The fact that he is himself a masterful writer helps one not wait for some future analysis. This work is not only accessible, but it is a very enjoyable if unsettling glimpse into the European political shake-ups of the 1920’s and 1930’s.

I was given Churchill’s six volume history of World War II by my great uncle who had the privilege to meet the then Prime Minister at Harvard. Churchill spoke to the Navy officers that were being barracked there during the U.S.’s initial involvements in the war. This work is actually an abridgment of the first volume of that set The Gathering Storm. Churchill did the trimming himself for this work, but it has been pleasant to peruse the unabridged work to see what has been removed. Mainly it is coordinating documents that help to strengthen the assertions made by the author. It also contains several appendices that contain correspondence between Churchill and other world leaders and politicians. Both the full length and edited versions are readily accessible online and make worthy additions to any library.

In Milestones, the period after the Treaty of Versailles is examined with a brutal eye to all the failings made by the then world powers to keep Germany in check. One misstep after another is frighteningly unfolded for the reader. Even though, we all know where this story leads, it gives one a knot in the gut to see how it all may have been avoided. Churchill reveals how, to his thinking, the overwhelming liberal policies of socialism and disarmament weakened the victorious nations to a point where the defeated Germany could rise under Hitler’s cult of personality. By backing off in the critical moments again and again and capitulating to appease the Führer, the European governments doomed the world to repeat on a larger scale the slaughter of the first World War.

Mr. Churchill is definitely not afraid to point out the mistakes of others. While I’m sure that the facts that are being recorded are all trustworthy, he has gone a fair way to frame them to cast a better light on his position during this time. Churchill was consistently sounding the warning of Germany’s re-armament, and he takes great pride in his un-involvement of the policies that allowed this to happen. He doesn’t sweep his own personal misjudgments under the rug, but he shines a hard light on the British administrations that he sees as failing to protect the world from the German threat. He believes the playing out of Hitler’s conquest of central Europe is a vindication of his viewpoints, and he perceives his rise as an appointment of destiny.

If you’re not familiar with how Germany came a mere twenty years after being completely despoiled to conquering the Rhineland, Austria, Czechoslovakia, Poland, Denmark, Norway, Belgium, and Holland with virtually no resistance, this is the book to read. It’s a tragic tale, but one that needs to be understood if but for the hope that it will not be repeated. Churchill truly is one of the great twentieth century writers, and you will not be disappointed by his recollection.

7 stars out of 10

The Awakening in Wales by Jessie Penn-Lewis

Revival literature is a genre all its own. Surely it resembles other Christian writings in its main focus on Jesus and His work in the earth. However, no author – no matter how hard they try – can capture the tone that an eyewitness of a great moving of God can relate. It’s simply because the experience of seeing revival firsthand turns knowledge into understanding. Thankfully, Jessie Penn-Lewis was an eyewitness to the Wales Revival of 1904 and 1905. This little treatise on the movings of the Spirit is a well documented ledger of the awakenings that took place all over this small country. She is able to spread just a little ember of that fire that burned so brightly there; and maybe, this flame of hers will reignite again.

I have a special place in my heart for stories of revival. Maybe it’s because I’m looking for one for the world, or maybe it’s because I need one so badly for myself. Either way, to read tales of how Christ moved with power among the world bringing honor to Himself is glorious. I love missionary tales too (you’ll probably notice plenty on this site as time goes on), but seeing the church on a mountain top is always a precious encouragement. There’s a reason why we read Nathan Cole’s George Whitefield Comes to Middletown every October. We’re looking for fresh fire to fall from heaven.

This tract is a relatively basic overview of places, times, and events. There’s a short description of the call of Evan Roberts to the position of primary evangelist for this time. Christian conferences and town prayer-meetings are described. The words she uses are plain, but there is an authority in them. God’s Spirit moves in among the humdrum recollections of this and that. What a lesson for Christian writers who try to write an intriguing yarn or catch readers with a salacious hook. The simple truth is good enough. Penn-Lewis knows that and delivers it without decoration.

It is hard now a hundred and ten years later to see all the fruit that came from this shaking of Wales. The most obvious are the songs. The 1905 Wales revival is known as a “singing revival”. Many of the Welsh tunes are still with us today. They capture the pre-eminence of the message of Calvary and being filled with the Holy Spirit.

Dyma Gariad

Here is Love, vast as the ocean

Loving kindness as the flood,

When the Price of Life our ransom

Shed for us His precious blood;

Who His love will not remember?

Who can cease to sing His praise?

He can never be forgotten

Through Heaven’s eternal days.

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On the Mount of Crucifixion

Fountains opened deep and wide;

Through the floodgates of God’s mercy

Flowed a vast and gracious tide;

Grace and love, like mighty rivers,

Poured incessant from above,

And heaven’s peace and perfect justice

Kissed a guilty world in love.

7.5 stars out of 10

Childhood’s End by Arthur C. Clarke

To cut to the chase, I was going to give this 6 stars (out of 10) as I was approaching the end of the story. Clarke put together so many solid sci-fi ideas in this novel, but the connection with characters just wasn’t there. However, this novel finished strong. The resolution made the emotional impact of all the science-y plot lines hit home. It may be some of the best “what if” writing – and it was written more than 60 years ago. Childhood’s End gets a solid seven stars (a strong recommendation).

 
The book starts when aliens make first contact with Earth. Mankind has to bow under the recognition of a superior race that has mastered the stars. The result may be a typical sci-fi utopia, but Clarke wrestles with the societal impact such peace and prosperity have. Again, he only semi-succeeds in this. Without revealing more, it’s only at the titular “end” that he reaches beyond the standard fare of speculative fiction. How would we today respond having all worldly troubles removed? Is that the dawn of a new age or merely a move to cultural stagnation? Clarke does his best to make the reader contemplate these issues.

 
His future “repudiates both optimism and pessimism.” There’s actually a poignancy that he finds here that sticks with you. It reminds me of how I felt toward the close of Simmons’ Hyperion Cantos. Maybe there’s a loss when humanity progresses past its inherent foibles. Many consider this to be Clarke’s best work. I’m not sure that I enjoyed it more than Rendezvous with Rama, but it definitely has deeper insight. A Top 100 Sci-Fi Book List that I’ve been reading through has this listed as #19 of all time. It may not be my #19, but I’m not going to quibble with this ranking. A solid book to add to your library.

 

7 stars out of 10