Thursday, May 3, 2018

Guest review from the book club!

The Life of Martyn Lloyd-Jones 1899-1981, by Iain H. Murray
Reviewed by Jason U.


Although this is Iain Murray’s shorter biography of the great Welch and English preacher of the early 1900s, it does not disappoint. Lloyd-Jones began life as a rising star among London’s medical elites, only to be saved by God in his early twenties and called to a ministry of shepherding and evangelism in a difficult mining town in Wales. He would later be called to London’s Westminster Chapel where he would pastor his congregation for over thirty years. It was in London that his influence would grow not only because of his powerful preaching but also because of his influence among other pastors and ministries. Although many viewed his critiques of ecumenical movements as divisive, it was really a love for the inerrancy of the Bible and the purity of gospel fellowship that he called many to repent of their sinful convictions and associations. Toward the end of his life he presciently realized that producing books would be the only way to have a lasting impact on the Kingdom once he was gone - he was right! Encouragingly, he ended well. In his final days when he was unable to even talk he wrote on a paper to his family, “Do not pray for healing. Do not hold me back from glory!”� The testimonies of how “the Doctor” affected individual people are worth the price of the book. The town drunk who was saved after being invited to a Sunday evening service, the spinster sisters who were reminded of their Bridegroom the evening before they died in a London bombing run, and his refusing to work with a compromised Billy Graham ecumenical project are just some of the great stories Murray recalls. There are a few slower spots in the books, but even those spots help set the context for just how impactful ML-J’s life was given the climate at the time.

Wednesday, March 21, 2018

Guest Reviews from the Book Club!

Discerning the Voice of God, by Priscilla Shirer. Reviewed by Paul D.

Initially, my wife started this Bible study with her church group. I’m going through a time of wanting to grow, while also going through difficulties with my work and was trying to seek direction from the Lord.

This Bible study was incredible. I realize that I never really knew what it meant to hear from the Lord. This daily study challenged me and helped me grow tremendously. Through each week, it seemed that every day was relevant to what I was facing.

I’d highly recommend it!

The Bruised Reed, by Richard Sibbes. Reviewed by Noah M.

Published almost 400 years ago, Richard Sibbes brings comfort and biblical truth to Christians even now. No matter what point in your Christian walk you are in, this book is sure to encourage and strengthen.

On the Incarnation, by Athanasius. Reviewed by Noah M.

It's amazing to get the viewpoint of someone so much closer to the events in the Bible than we are now. The last chapter especially left a big impression on me. Athanasius goes step by step to prove that Christ is God incarnate and refute the arguments from the time which are still relevant today.

Wednesday, February 21, 2018

2017 The Others

Here are the other books I read in 2017, some real winners here.

The Elementals, by Michael McDowell. Avon books 1981.
The Elementals are weird...things that inhabit some beach houses in the south. They've been linked to a well-off family for generations and they move in the sand. Inevitably the well-off family returns to their haunted summer home. Why? They just do. Which makes perfect sense in this slow-burner. The local charms color the novel in a great way that keeps the pages turning while the dread mounts. 

The Ruins, by Scott Smith. Alfred A. Knopf 2006

The Ruins, like the Elementals, was listed by...some website as one of the top 100 horror novels. It didn't disappoint like the movie adaptation did. The monster vines that inhabit an ancient...Aztec? Mayan? ruin are frightening, but the flawed characters that are trapped are the real delight. Facing the monsters, we are truthful with ourselves, and this yarn by Scott Smith is no exception. These characters are just bad enough for you to pass up on them as irl friends, but not bad enough to cheer for their horrible and apparently eminent deaths. No boringly black and white characters here, just red-blooded humans, which is certainly verified once the vines start snacking.

The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel. Bantam 1980

Jean Auel's classic tale of a human woman raised by neanderthals is best for its setting, though the main character certainly stands on her own. The prose on the other hand leaves on wanting. Part of the problem is justified in the neanderthals form of sign-language communication, in which telling is necessary over showing. Still, the prose was merely a means to an end, and not good enough to be transparent. The overall arc of the story too wasn't fantastic, but I did enjoy spending time with a group of neanderthals raising a human girl, and I have thought about reading the sequel from time to time when that nostalgia kicks in. If you like strong-female protagonists and/or mammoth hunts, this could be for you.

Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson. Solaris 2015

The universe traveling story continues with the same gloomy characters and gleaming prose (though perhaps not quite as spectacular as in the first volume). Book 2 of this series also suffers from a set of expectations, whereas in the first book one of the pleasures was to try to figure out what the heck is going on. Actually, there's plenty of that in this volume as well, perhaps too much, as a good, thick multi-verse is fleshed out for the rest of the series. Perhaps I felt the growing pains reading this one, still I find the series an exciting and unique read. Unfortunately I don't read books quick enough or in this case, close enough together to really remember the intricacies of what is going on. Still, I plan on re-visiting the dystopian societies for more eccentric adventures...someday.

Sunday, June 11, 2017

The Winner of the 2016 Shelf of Very Good award is...

Senlin Ascends,  Josiah Bancroft, CreateSpace Independent Publishing Platform, 2013.

One of the first self-published books I've ever read, and it didn't disappoint. My thoughts on self-published books were that while there were probably good ones, it would be too difficult to find the needles in the haystack. With publishers, much of the disqualifyingly bad writing is removed, though there are plenty of poor or just plain meh novels that get published. Senlin went under the radar for a few years before being discovered (though just barely) during the 2016 Self-Published Fantasy Blog-off, hosted by Mark Lawrence (read all his books). The way that works in that 10 bloggers each weed through 30 self-published titles, and champion one. The top ten are read and reviewed by all, then rated, an aggregate determines the winner. Senlin Ascends was a near-finalist, but got the attention of Mark Lawrence and some other key reviewers, and the rest is history. But enough of the non-review, here's my review!

Senlin is a provincial schoolmaster, who, along with his wife is honeymooning at the Tower of Babel. Not a great idea, as they become separated in the market outside the tower, and Senlin spends the next few volumes looking for her. The writing is very good. As you may know by now, faithful reader, very good writing goes a long way here at the Shelf of Very Good. Okay writing often gets a participation trophy, which isn't bad, I only finish a handful of novels each year, and I quit reading if they aren't worth it. Senlin Ascends was one of those rare titles that I finished and immediately read the sequel, which was even better than the first, though not noticeably, it flowed pretty seamlessly. Great fun with airships, oppression, local strongmen and a man learning a lot about himself on a simple quest, to find his wife and take her home. Side characters are good as well, nobody is boringly noble or perfectly evil. Good stuff, and I'm waiting for the announcement for the third.

Only Runner-Up:

 The Dragon's Path, Daniel Abraham, Orbit 2011.

I think Daniel Abraham is the most underrated writer in mainstream SFF. Perhaps better known as 'one-half of James S.A. Corey', the collaborative pseudonym he shares with Ty Franck as the author of The Expanse series, Abraham is like that financial planning commercial that shows a batter consistently hitting line drives. I bet if I read all of this guy's books I'd give them all 5 stars, but not list any of them among my favorites. I hope that proves wrong, because I really enjoyed the Dragon's Path (I also really enjoyed Leviathan's Wake a few years ago).

In January I had thought to call it a tie between these two titles, but letting it stew in my mind, I found Senlin Ascends the more memorable story, but that doesn't take away from this first installment in the Dagger and Coin series. Great fantasy worldbuilding with multiple sentient races, complex religious and social loyalties and, again, complex characters. Stuff doesn't work out for our characters the way they may want, but they adapt. Some characters are so gray I can't tell if they're good guys or bad guys. Satisfying conclusion, and I've already ordered the sequel EVEN THOUGH it wasn't on an e-sale!

Sunday, January 8, 2017

2016 Very Good Awards nominees

AKA books I finished in 2016.

1. The Dragon's Path, by Daniel Abraham. Orbit 2011

2. The Elementals, by Michael McDowell. Avon books 1981

3. The Ruins, by Scott Smith. Alfred A. Knopf 2006

4. The Clan of the Cave Bear, by Jean Auel. Bantam 1980

5. Europe at Midnight, by Dave Hutchinson. Solaris 2015

6. Senlin Ascends, by Josiah Bancroft. Create Space independent publishing platform 2013

And congrats to all six books I finished in 2016! Each was a legit 4+ stars (I'll probably soon post about the books I didn't finish in 2016, that's another story). Interesting additions to this list include two horror novels, and a novel that is more often considered historical fiction than fantasy. Hey! There's also a self-published novel, something that hasn't shown up because a lot of editors are too gentle with writers anyway, so how could I possibly tolerate a self-edited work? But it was great. As you'll be able to read more about when I feel like writing about it.

Tuesday, December 20, 2016

The Participation Trophy winners

And now, since 2016 is just about finished and I want to write about what I've read in the past 12 months, I'll close out 2015 with the books that I deemed finishable, though not much more than that. Still, with my fickleness, finishable ranks higher than 'blurb was good enough for me to throw $4 at it'. With that, here are the two novels I finished in 2015 that I haven't covered yet. 

Gemini Cell, Myke Cole (Ace, 2015) 
X-Men meets Black Hawk Down, says the blurb, though I'm not sure that many today remember what Black Hawk Down is. I enjoyed this book, though the protagonist's heavy reflections tended to rob him of some agency. I'm sure the author was also trying to convey what a strong female character the protagonist's wife was, but in doing so, again, I feel like we were almost dealing with two main characters but maybe not really? Especially when the two characters' agendas don't always line up. Might have been a bigger problem for me than it is for you. Still, pulse-pounding action, and a great machine-gun wielding Frankenstein character made the story worth finishing, even if barely. 

The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, N.K. Jemisin (Orbit, 2010)
The daughter of a wayward noble and small tribe prince is thrust into the capital to compete for heir of the throne (of, you guessed it, the Hundred Thousand Kingdoms). Enough vicious politics keep her confused, while a closeted pantheon of ignored minor gods hope to use her as a ticket back to the big show. In true Heroic fashion, she creates her own path. The writing is very good. But, ya, the story was kind of a slog getting places. Again, the heavy reflective nature and romance-pacing is a bit of a turn-off for me. This worked better for a lot of people, still, I finished it, but I won't finish the series. I felt the gap between the gods and our protagonist was a little too conveniently bridged. I found that disappointing. Unfortunately, I'm sure that conflicting worldviews got in the way (like if an atheist was uncomfortable with the propitiatory death and resurrection of Aslan), the author is a communist-feminist, and while I have enjoyed books, by...well just communists, I guess, I couldn't cross the hurdle in this particular volume. I might try Jemisin again, I heard her newer stuff is better. But (spoiler alert) don't expect to see her getting a participation trophy here in the 2016.

Sunday, October 30, 2016

The Winner of the 2015 Shelf of Very Good Award is...

The Winner

Europe in Autumn, by David Hutchinson (2014, Solaris)

Here's the blurb...

Europe in Autumn is a thriller of espionage and the future which reads like the love child of John le Carré and Franz Kafka.

Rudi is a cook in a Kraków restaurant, but when his boss asks Rudi to help a cousin escape from the country he’s trapped in, a new career - partspy, part people-smuggler - begins. 

Following multiple economic crises and a devastating flu pandemic, Europe has fractured into countless tiny nations, duchies, polities and republics. Recruited by the shadowy organisation Les Coureurs des Bois, Rudi is schooled in espionage, but when a training mission to The Line, a sovereign nation consisting of a trans-Europe railway line, goes wrong, he is arrested, beaten and Coureur Central must attempt a rescue. 

With so many nations to work in, and identities to assume, Rudi is kept busy travelling across Europe. But when he is sent to smuggle someone out of Berlin and finds a severed head inside a locker instead, a conspiracy begins to wind itself around him. 

With kidnapping, double-crosses and a map that constantly re-draws, Rudi begins to realise that underneath his daily round of plot and counter plot, behind the conflicting territories, another entirely different reality might be pulling the strings...

My take

5 Stars on the sites for which those affect sales, something like a 4.6 stars on a personal scale. 

This is a pretty confusing book. Set in near future Europe, which is made of lots of fractured states, our hero goes from cook to espionage...kind of? He joins an unaffiliated super-smuggling group, and stumbles upon something that would be spoilerish if I were to go into it. The story actually reads like a set of short stories that we know are connected, and the reader is expected to be smart enough to, if not follow completely, hang on. Here's the thing, the prose is so great that it doesn't really matter if you feel lost most of the time. Then by the time you find out what's going on, you've gone through a series of 'hey, that's a cool idea!' moments that make science fiction fun. Expect to read about the sequel in my 2016 reviews. 

The First Runner-up

Gardens of the Moon, by Steven Erikson (2004, Tor)

Here's the blurb...

The Malazan Empire simmers with discontent, bled dry by interminable warfare, bitter infighting and bloody confrontations. Even the imperial legions, long inured to the bloodshed, yearn for some respite. Yet Empress Laseen's rule remains absolute, enforced by her dread Claw assassins.
For Sergeant Whiskeyjack and his squad of Bridgeburners, and for Tattersail, surviving cadre mage of the Second Legion, the aftermath of the siege of Pale should have been a time to mourn the many dead. But Darujhistan, last of the Free Cities of Genabackis, yet holds out. It is to this ancient citadel that Laseen turns her predatory gaze.
However, it would appear that the Empire is not alone in this great game. Sinister, shadowbound forces are gathering as the gods themselves prepare to play their hand . . .
Conceived and written on a panoramic scale, Gardens of the Moon is epic fantasy of the highest order--an enthralling adventure by an outstanding new voice.

My Take

But maybe 4.5 stars on my own personal scale.

This book is set in a world developed for pen and paper role playing games designed by the author and Cameron Esselmont, who also writes in the shared universe. It is amazingly well done, some of the build-up takes time but the last 20% or so of the book is a real slobber-knocker. There are some highly memorable characters and fantasy concepts that are super cool. The reason I didn't put it at the top of the list is that it can feel kinda dry and if you're not totally absorbed in it it could take you awhile to read. Like it actually took me like 4 years to read, but part of that has to do with moving between countries and not having my copy visible. 

Second runner up

Grave Peril, by Jim Butcher (2001, Roc)

Here's the blurb...

n all his years of supernatural sleuthing, Harry Dresden has never faced anything like this: the spirit world's gone postal. These ghosts are tormented, violent, and deadly. Someone-or something-is purposely stirring them up to wreak unearthly havoc. But why? If Harry doesn't figure it out soon, he could wind up a ghost himself.

My Take

But my personal rating is kinda unsure...4.49? Obviously it lost to 4.5, right?

Notice the difference in the blurb sizes? The first two books ask the reader to internalize quite a few concepts, and offer a high payoff for readers that do so. Jim Butcher? He's like the Indiana Jones of science fiction. You can check out his live journal for tips on how to write novels, then read the Dresden files (Grave peril is book 3) and you'll see that he follows his own advice. He makes you care about the protagonist and he keeps the pages turning. Also, through the first three books we see growth and change in Harry Dresden and his relationship with the crazy world that is supernaturally infested Chicago. Butcher has written 15 books and fans agree he keeps up his end of the bargain. The Dresden Files are a very safe series to read if you don't want to hyper focus and just enjoy a good story.

Next blog post I'll briefly go over the books that were on the eligible list (I finished them in 2015) and let you know why I gave them less than 5 stars on goodreads and/or Amazon, but also why they were good enough for me to finish reading them.