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Friday, August 26, 2016

Jesus Before the Gospels

Someone at one of my book clubs pressed Jesus Before the Gospels (#590) by Bart D. Ehrman on me and told me I had to read it.  Of course, she didn't warn me that her copy was filled with her own underlining and notes, so to me, it was totally unreadable.  The first few pages I skimmed were interesting enough that I did get a clean copy from the library.

Dr. Ehrman has subtitled his book How the Earliest Christians Remembered, Changed, and Invented Their Stories of the Savior, which pretty much tells you what this book is about.  Being relatively new to this kind of study myself, I have often wondered why it took so long to write down stories about Jesus - it took at least forty years before any records by his followers were committed to writing.  That's an awfully long time to remember things so precisely.  Have you ever, as a child, played the game of Gossip where everyone sits in a circle?  The first player whispers a sentence to the person next to him or her, who in turn passes it on the next person in the circle, until finally the last person hears it and recites aloud what he has heard to the original player.  Hilarity generally ensued, the message being so distorted by the time it arrived at its final destination.  If that can happen in just a few minutes delay with a limited number of players all in the same room, what then was changed before Jesus' stories were copied down?  How much of what we know of His story is in fact "Gospel Truth"?

Dr. Ehrman cites a number of interesting studies in making his points.  The book is easy to read for laypersons, but I must admit that about halfway through, I began to find it repetitious.  Although he provides much food for thought here, I was also taken aback when at about that same point in the book, he casually mentions as he is making a point, that he used to be a "committed Christian".  What does that make him today, and what is his motivation for writing this book?  As the James A. Gray Distinguished Professor of Religious Studies at the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill, perhaps it's a situation of "publish or perish".  His book does offer insights into why and how people remember what they do, but I still came away from reading this with reservations.

Monday, August 22, 2016

A Murder in Time

Each time a reader opens a work of fiction, he or she is asked to suspend belief in the real world and enter the universe the author has created.  That's the case in Julie McElwain's crime novel, A Murder in Time (#589).  It's an enjoyable journey.

Twenty-first century FBI profiler Kendra Donovan is on a joint task force to apprehend an arms dealer who trades in chemical weapons.  Kendra has tracked him down to a meet in New York City that could net them an even bigger fish - Sir Jeremy Greene.  The raid goes south, thanks to an FBI mole on the team.  Kendra barely survives the carnage.  She spends her recovery plotting how exactly to deal with Greene when she is physically able; the only problem is that the US Government won't sanction her actions, so she goes rogue.

During a costume ball at the ancient British Aldridge Castle where she is taken on to play the role of a ladies' maid, Kendra must flee, using a secret passageway.  When she emerges at the other end, she has been transported to 1815.  Her ladies' maid disguise helps her conceal where she has come from as she tries to deal with her translocation in time.  Since the Castle is hosting a house party, she is able to join the staff as temporary help.  When a picnic by a lake is disturbed by the discovery of a young girl's body, brutally murdered, Kendra applies her serial killer profiling skills to tracking down the murderer.  The Duke of Aldridge is much taken by her analysis, and his nephew, Alec reluctantly comes to agree as other bodies are found.  The killer is amongst them, but can they stop him before he murders again?

This is a hard-boiled (language!) detective novel grafted onto a Regency romance, yet somehow it all works.  One small nitpick - when Kendra is assigned to a single young lady at the 1815 house party as her temporary maid, her charge's name migrates from Georgette to Georgina, and never goes back.  Sloppy editing!

My major nitpick with this book is the cover.  I know, I know.  I haven't said anything about covers in a long time, but this one is so wrong.  It features a black and white photo of a castle (which looks French to me, but what do I know?), and an upside down black and white photo of the New York skyline.  So far, so good.  The middle portion that grabs your eye is a misty back view of a young woman running away from the viewer in a voluminous white dress totally wrong for the time period. 
They could easily have found the proper silhouette, but they've already lost the battle for male readers.  I kept telling my husband that he would enjoy this book, like Alex Kava's profiling series, but he wouldn't be seen dead holding such a "chick" book.  Too bad for Julie McElwain that her publishers decided to limit her market appeal.

I stayed up late to finish this one, so check it out if you're looking for something a little bit different.

Thursday, August 18, 2016

The Illustrated A Brief History of Time

Now here's a review I never thought I'd post:  Stephen Hawking's The Illustrated A Brief History of Time (#588).  Probably like most people since this book first appeared in 1988, I've had it on my "To Read" list, but somehow I could never quite actually picture myself reading a text book about physics!  So what got me off the couch and into the library?  Stephen Hawking's series earlier this year on PBS - Genius.  Each of the six episodes featured three ordinary folks who are given a topic and sets of materials to create experiments to explore that topic - time travel, the distances between the planets, etc.  These proved to be so interesting and enlightening that for the first time, I felt I could grasp some of the concepts that always seemed to be beyond my reach before.  So I decided it was time to read Professor Hawking's book.

Although the original, A Brief History of Time came out in 1988, our library had a copy of The Illustrated A Brief History of Time.  It came out in 1996, and is amended and updated to reflect changes and discoveries that had occurred following the publication of the first edition.  If you're not a scientist yourself, I would highly recommend sticking to this updated version.  As Professor Hawking himself noted in the book, even if you just look at the illustrations and photos, and read the captions, you'll have a grasp of what the book explains.  (Besides, I showed my husband some of the illustrations and they reminded us both strongly of pieces by glass artist Dale Chihuly, one of our favorites!)

There were several things that surprised me about this book: firstly, it is written in such a way that I could understand the concepts and how they should work, both theoretically and already proven.  Secondly,Hawking doesn't leave God out of the discussion - in fact there's even a photo of Hawking meeting Pope John Paul II after delivering a paper at a Vatican-convened conference of experts.  Most people in the scientific community these days seem determined to bar God from any equation.  Thirdly, this book made me laugh out loud several times.  That, I never expected! 

So many of the terms explained in this book have come into the language during my adult lifetime. The progress in the field has been so rapid, these terms have become ubiquitous in films, science fiction, and television - singularity, space time, event horizon, quarks, just to name a few.  We use them all the time without really being fully aware of what they actually mean.  I was watching an Olympic soccer match yesterday, and the announcer likened two opposing players to "black holes" and talked about the "gravitational force" of one player's kicks.  But trust me, I won't be laughing at the "in" jokes on Dr. Sheldon Cooper's white boards on The Big Bang Theory anytime soon!

This turned out to be an easy task to cross off my bucket list, and I feel smarter for having done it.  I'm just sorry I waited so long.

Thursday, August 11, 2016

At the Stroke of Madness

I first encountered FBI agent Maggie O'Dell in more recent book by Alex Kava, where Maggie joins up with search and rescue dog handler Ryder Creed in Silent Creed.  (See my post of 4/27/16.)  It was such a good partnership, I've gone back to catch up with some of Maggie's earlier cases, starting with At the Stoke of Madness (#587).

This time Maggie heads to Connecticut to follow up on a missing patient for her friend and FBI consultant Dr. Gwen Palmer.  Joan Begley left a message for Dr. Palmer asking for her advice about a man she's met while in Connecticut arranging for her grandmother's funeral.  The problem is, she hasn't been heard from since that voice mail - she never checked out of her room or boarded her flight home to D.C.   Since Maggie can't seem to bring herself to take a proper vacation, she decides to head to Connecticut to check out Joan Begley and to follow up on some personal business.  She walks right into a police investigation of a grisly discovery in a local rock quarry.  Could the first body found stuffed into a barrel there be the missing Joan Begley? 

My husband particularly liked this one because of the Connecticut setting, not too far from where he grew up.  I liked it because of all the red herrings Ms. Kava plants.  Just when you think you've figured out who the killer is, she points you in the direction of a new possible suspect.  I also got a kick out of the fact that she named the local undertaker Jacob Marley, yet avoided the obvious jokes about the character's name.  It takes real restraint to do that!  Anyway, I enjoyed this book, too, so it will be fun to catch up on the rest of this series.

Monday, August 8, 2016

The Transatlantic Conspiracy

Meet Rosalind Wallace, heroine of G.D. Falksen's new novel The Transatlantic Conspiracy (#586).  Her father has just ordered her to represent the family on the  maiden crossing of his new underwater railroad connecting Germany to New York City.  Rosalind is not happy to oblige, since she has been enjoying the whirl of the London Season as a guest in the home of her friend, Cecily de Vere, of the Exham de Veres.  After all, it is 1908, and Rosalind is an ardent suffragette who feels she has a right to govern her own life.  To her dismay, Cecily and her brother Charles jump on the chance to accompany Rosalind on such a thrilling adventure.  Although the opening is attended by the Kaiser himself, people seem to be watching their small party and Charles has vanished when the girls are ready to board.  When Cecily and her maid fall victim to a violent crime, it is left to Rosalind to determine who the murderer is before she is targeted herself.

This is a quick, easy read.  Think Murder on the Orient Express meets Steampunk.  It is very much of a Young Adult novel, though.  Rosalind's parents are awful; life revolves around which young man to allow to court her; social distinctions and class are bad things when she's on the receiving end, or when she pities the plight of the poor second class passengers even though she herself lives a life of privilege.  Still, the story moves right along, and I found myself at the end hoping that this is not the last we see of Rosalind Wallace. 

Although the art work was not final in the prepublication copy I won on Good Reads, if you're into the coloring craze, you can spend some extra time coloring the illustrations here, a nice bonus!

Wednesday, August 3, 2016

The Fall of Moscow Station

Can you ever read too many spy novels?  Mark Henshaw's The Fall of Moscow Station (#585) is an excellent title to add to your pile of CIA operative tales.  In this case, a traitor among the CIA ranks sets in motion a deadly purge of Russian assets, and the expulsion of all American personnel suspected of espionage from Russian soil, destroying yeas of painstaking work.  Alden Maines expected when he agreed to a meet with his Russian contact that he would be richly rewarded for his information, not that bodies would turn up in a German lake, and that he would find himself on the wrong side of the interrogator's table.

The plot moves along briskly, enhanced by the insider knowledge Mark Henshaw brings to his writing craft.  Even better, the true action hero of the piece is Kyra Stryker, a CIA analyst with a personal connection to both Alden Maines, and her CIA partner Jonathan Burke, wounded and captured by the GRU while exploring an abandoned base outside Belin.  What are the GRU even doing there?  Some covert operation is going on, and Kyra is determined to get to the bottom of things so Jon will not have sacrificed himself in vain.

I must admit, I did stay up until the wee hours of the morning to finish this one!  So glad Mark Henshaw has a few previous books out there to catch up with.