Category Archives: Book Review

The Gygax Biography

I knew Empire of Imagination: Gary Gygax and the Birth of Dungeons & Dragons, by Michael Witwer, would be a must-have as soon as I saw it in Barnes & Noble. I put it on my Christmas wish list—and my family came through!

The book is the well-told tale of Gary Gygax’s life, from his Chicago boyhood, through his rise and fall with TSR and the most innovative game design of all time, to his final acknowledgement by the mainstream as a visionary entertainer. He did have a great vision for interactive story telling that had never been presented in such a way before, but as far as business sense…not so much.

If we were to craft a novel in the mold of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales and include The Gary Gygax Story, that chapter could be called ‘The Dungeon Master’s Tale’. In fact, Witwer uses a device that I thought was imaginative, but irritated many reviewers at Goodreads. Witwer organizes his book into sections called ‘Levels’. Each chapter is then a ‘+’ in the Level. Each level is introduced with a role playing narrative with a dungeon master and a player named Egary…obviously Gygax. Level One introduces us to Page Egary, and then each chapter is +1, +2, +3 and so forth until Egary Levels Up to Squire, then Sir, then Lord Egary. I liked it. I thought it caught the D&D flavor perfectly.

Another aspect that bothered some other reviewers but that I thought made it a stronger book was the apparently free use of quotes and narratives. Empire of Imagination is not structured or styled as an academic treatise. It was obviously written to be read by laypeople. Your average every day reader likes reading narrative and dialogue, not pages upon pages of exposition. Witwer provides narrative and dialogue, almost to the point of damaging his credibility. At several points as I was reading, even I found myself asking “He put this in quotes. How could Witwer have known what was actually said here?” Without fail, there would be a superscript at the end of the passage, directing me to an end-note that would say something like “this scene is based upon details from an interview with Ernie Gygax…”, or “quoted from a Gary interview…” with a well referenced source. I think Witwer does a great job of blending a fiction writing style with a well-documented biography. It should be heavily sourced…this book began as Witwer’s master’s thesis at the University of Chicago.

Empire of Imagination is obviously Gary-centric in its telling. Witwer does point out Gary’s flaws that led to the road he traveled up and down with TSR, but it still winds up being kind of a one sided story. I really would like to hear more from the foibles in the story, especially Dave Arneson, and Brian and Kevin Blume, to understand the complete story. I think there is more to the D&D story to tell.

In all, I loved this book and would recommend it to anybody interested in learning more about The Dungeon Master’s Tale.


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Holiness, Grace, and Jerry Bridges

In 1978, The Navigators published a book written by a Navigators staff member named Jerry Bridges. That book was called The Pursuit of Holiness , and it became a blockbuster in Christian publishing. The book was intended as an encouragement for Christians to take personal holiness seriously. It spoke to the church in a special way. After the permissive Sixties and early Seventies, there was a need to remind Christians that ‘If it feels good, do it’ was not a particularly Christian mantra.

I first encountered The Pursuit of Holiness in the early ‘90s. This was the first book I had read that quoted seriously from the Puritans, especially John Owen. I say ‘quoted seriously’ because I had seen Puritans quoted before, but only to mock their attitudes and opinions. Jerry Bridges discovered that the Puritans seemed to take the Scriptures more seriously than our culture did…even Christian culture. The Bible speaks a lot of holiness, and the Puritans applied that to their daily lives, and we did not typically see that same sort of diligence towards personal holiness in the groups I affiliated with. The challenge was real to live up to the holiness laid out before us in the words of Scripture.

There was one potential stumbling block to this call to holiness. If a person has a flawed view of grace and how grace works, it would be easy distort a legitimate call to holiness. This is how Pharisees are made. A person could believe that by successfully living a holy life, he or she could actually become good enough to meet God’s approval on the basis of his or her personal holiness.

Over time, Bridges saw how this mistake could be made, so he wrote another book called Transforming Grace . Chapter One of that book, titled ‘The Performance Treadmill’, spelled out the problem that this flawed view of holiness and grace could cause. The key Scripture for that chapter was Galatians 3:3: “Are you so foolish? After beginning with the Spirit, are you now trying to attain your goal by human effort?” Bridges established a beautiful analogy in that chapter that proved very helpful for me to understand how grace works. Believe it or not, Bridges used two chapters of the US federal bankruptcy code as illustrations. Bridges uses these two types of bankruptcy to illustrate two ways in which grace is understood: one wrong, and one right. Bridges says:

Chapter 11 deals with what we could call a temporary bankruptcy. This option is chosen by a basically healthy company that, given time, can work through its financial problems.

Chapter 7 is for a company that has reached the end of its financial rope. It is not only deeply in debt, it has no future as a viable business. It is forced to liquidate its assets and pay off its creditors, often by as little as ten cents on the dollar. The company is finished. It’s all over. Transforming Grace, p. 14-15

Most Christians know that the type of spiritual bankruptcy we would need to declare from that analogy is Chapter 7. Most would say they have. However, when ‘pursuit of holiness’ steps in, it is easy for us to slip over into a Chapter 11 model. Bridges says “Having trusted in Christ alone for our salvation, we have subtly and unconsciously reverted to a works relationship with God in our Christian lives. We recognize that even our best efforts cannot get us into heaven, but we do think they earn us God’s blessings in our daily lives.”

This concept was monumental in the development of my Christian growth. This Chapter 11 thinking had been there in me all along. As Bridges said, it had been unconscious, but it was there nevertheless. I realized that as much as I had thought I had known about grace before had only scratched the surface. Grace is surely bigger and better and more radical than I had ever imagined. This was a significant waypoint on my road to Reformed theology. Bridges wrote one more important book in this same vein. The Discipline of Grace: God’s Role and Our Role in the Pursuit of Holiness further advances the topic and synthesizes what he said in the previous two books. Bridges writes:

After Transforming Grace was published, many people asked me how it related to The Pursuit of Holiness. The question always seemed to carry the suggestion that grace and the pursuit of holiness are incompatible. One lady even went so far as to wonder how the same person who wrote the book on holiness could possibly have written the book on grace.

Grace and the personal discipline required to pursue holiness, however, are not opposed to one another. In fact, they go hand in hand. An understanding of how grace and personal, vigorous effort work together is essential for a lifelong pursuit of holiness. Yet many believers do not understand what it means to live by grace in their daily lives, and they certainly don’t understand the relationship of grace to personal discipline.

Discipline of Grace, p. 13

Bridges then gives us examples of two very different types of days you might have. The first goes great for you. You get up early and have your devotional. You really do live out your holiness on this day. You control your temper all day. You have opportunities to be a blessing to others. The second day doesn’t go so well. You oversleep and miss your devotions. You are late to work and have a little road rage flare up on the way. This puts you in a ‘bad mood’ all day. At the end of each of those days, you have an opportunity to witness to an unbeliever. Bridges says:

Would you enter those two witnessing opportunities with a different degree of confidence? Would you be less confident on the bad day than on the good day? Would you find it difficult to believe that God would bless you and use you in the midst of a rather bad spiritual day?

If you answered yes to those questions, you have lots of company among believers. I’ve described these two scenarios to a number of audiences and asked, “Would you respond differently?” Invariably, about 80 percent indicate that they would. They would be less confident of God’s blessing while sharing Christ at the end of the bad day than they would after the good one. Is such thinking justified? Does God work that way? The answer to both questions is no, because God’s blessing does not depend on our performance.

The Discipline of Grace, p. 14

Does that last statement shock you? It would shock many Christians. However, God does not bless us because of what we do, but because of who He is. Think about it.

Transforming Grace and The Discipline of Grace are two books that I cannot recommend too highly to new believers, or to mature believers seeking to better understand the miracle of grace. I guarantee that grace is bigger, better, and more radical than anything you have ever imagined.


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Coming Home

Coming Home

Coming Home is a military thriller by Howard Kirkpatrick, published in 2013. It is about Lt. Kevin Nicholas, a US Navy reconnaissance pilot whose plane goes down over the Soviet Union in the height of the Cold War. Lt. Nicholas then has to evade capture, escape the Soviet Union, and make his way back home to the United States.

Coming Home started off reminding me of a Louis L’Amour novel, Last of the Breed. In L’Amour’s novel, the American pilot was a Native American who had been taught essential survival skills by his Apache grandfather. L’Amour’s novel then becomes a cat and mouse game between the Native American in the Siberian wilderness and the Siberian native attempting to track him and bring him in.

The similarities end after Lt. Nicholas’ plane goes down, and Kirkpatrick’s hero takes a totally different and unique approach to evading capture and finding his way back home. Kirkpatrick’s characters ring true in the unusual circumstances in which they find themselves. The carrier aviation scenes seem authentic to me, a non-military non-pilot with an avid interest in aviation.

The only flaw I found in the book was that the ending seemed rushed. Kirkpatrick had been doing a fine job of spinning his story, but the last several chapters read like a summary of events rather than a novel. A lot happens in these pages that I really wanted to see play out. If the last thirty pages had been fleshed out as well as the first ninety-five pages, Coming Home could have been three times as long and would have been a first rate novel.

The Kindle version is available here .

I hope that Howard Kirkpatrick is working on another book. I would love to see where he could take us next.

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Posted by on June 10, 2015 in Book Review



A Locally Flavored Mystery

Due for Discard

A while ago, I was reading one of Sue Grafton’s ‘Alphabet Mysteries’ and was impressed with the manner in which Grafton fictionalized a real but small SoCal town as the setting of her series. I have really come to love the California town I live near, Redding, and I became convinced that Redding would make a good setting for a novel series.

Sharon St. George has done it.

Due for Discard is St. George’s debut mystery novel, and it is set in the town of Timbergate, California. Timbergate is the largest town between Sacramento and the Oregon border. Timbergate is on the Sacramento River. Timbergate has very hot summers, and a suburb to the east with llama ranches. Sounds like Redding. Looks like Redding.

And this is a good thing.

Due for Discard begins on the first day of a new job for Aimee Machado. Aimee is a Timbergate native recently home from college armed with a library science degree from a Connecticut university. Aimee has been hired by a local hospital to be its pioneer ‘forensic librarian’. Trouble starts from Aimee’s first day. An influential local woman has gone missing over the weekend. A ‘missing person’ case turns to homicide when the missing woman’s body is discovered. The situation turns personal for Aimee when her brother is named as the prime suspect.

Due for Discard is a well-paced, entertaining novel with interesting and believable characters. It touches on contemporary race issues. Aimee Machado is of Portuguese and Chinese ancestry, and even though she is a Timbergate native, sometimes she is still treated as an outsider in the predominantly white community. I look forward to seeing how St. George develops this theme over the series.

I had the most fun with this novel trying to imagine what the real world counterparts might be to St. George’s fictional locations. I think I was able to identify many of them. For instance, two characters traveled from Point A (a local hospital) to Point B (lunch by the river) and they went to a fast food drive thru while getting from A to B. I could tell what drive thru they had to have used! Not all of the fictional places have real world counterparts, however. Timbergate is Sharon’s town, after all.

Due for Discard is outside of my typical reading tastes. It is a mystery, which I do read, with a touch of romance, which I don’t. Fashion descriptions are no so nearly complete in books I normally read as they are in Due for Discard…but that’s okay. It fits here, and works well. The mystery and the local setting kept me turning pages to the end. I also tend to be a reading polygamist, juggling several books at once and eventually working my way through them all. It was easy to stay true to Due for Discard for the duration, and I finished the book wanting more. I am looking forward to the rest of the series.

Visit Sharon St. George’s website for information on upcoming books in the series.

Aimee Machado Mysteries

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Posted by on June 8, 2015 in Book Review


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Favorite Christian Book of 2014

Calvin and the Christian Life: Glorifying and Enjoying God Forever
Michael Horton

John Calvin is one of the most fascinating and yet most widely misunderstood figures in Christian history. The most common image of Calvin is that of a fire breathing tyrant whose mission in life was to suck the most pleasure and joy out of people that he possibly could. He is commonly associated with the doctrine of predestination, but what he actually believed, taught, and wrote on predestination is not what most of his detractors attribute to him.

Dr. Michael Horton, Professor of Systematic Theology and Apologetics at Westminster Seminary California, has written the latest book of several over the last few years that corrects our understanding of what John Calvin was all about. Several recent predecessors that I have read are John Calvin: Pilgrim and Pastor by W. Robert Godfrey; The Expository Genius of John Calvin by Steven J. Lawson; John Calvin: A Heart for Devotion, Doctrine, and Doxology, edited by Burk Parsons; and Given For You: Reclaiming Calvin’s Doctrine of the Lord’s Supper by Keith A. Mathison.

Horton’s contribution focuses on Calvin’s personal piety and practical theology. ‘Personal piety’ these days is frequently interpreted to mean ‘holier than thou’, but this is not the case with Calvin. For Calvin, this simply meant the way a person lives out the Christian life. From Horton’s introduction:

“Piety” (pietas), not spirituality, is the Reformer’s all-encompassing term for Christian faith and practice. Even this term has lost its value in modernity. We’ve learned to draw a line between doctrine and life, with “piety” (like “spirituality”) falling on the “life” side of the ledger. The ancient church saw it differently: eusebia encompassed doctrine and life. It could be translated “piety” or “orthodoxy” without any confusion. Calvin assumed this overarching horizon. Doctrine, worship, and life are all of one piece. The doctrine is always practically oriented, and practice is always to be grounded in true doctrine. In fact, “justification by faith…is the sum of all piety.” The root of piety is faith in the gospel. Love is the yardstick for all duties, and God’s moral law in both testaments stipulates the character of this love on the ground, comprehending “piety toward God” and “charity toward men.” Calvin even defended his Institutes as “a sum of Christian piety.” (p. 17)

Horton quotes extensively from Calvin’s own works. Predominant among these is Calvin’s monumental work, Institutes of the Christian Religion. Calvin intended his Institutes to be used to train pastors in sound doctrine, and it is there that I find Calvin’s thoughts most clearly explained in the most detail. Calvin’s Catechism, his sermons on the Scriptures, and his correspondence round out the source material from which Horton mines Calvin’s views of how a Christian ought to live, guided by the Scriptures and a proper understanding of the gospel.

Far from being a tyrant, Calvin was one of the church’s strongest defenders of Christian liberty. Christian liberty is the idea that anything not specifically prohibited in the Scriptures is lawful for a Christian to do. For instance, dancing, smoking, and going to movies activities frequently forbidden in Western churches, but these are not activities specifically prohibited in the scriptures. Therefore, despite what many evangelical churches have tried to teach over the centuries, Calvin teaches that Christians have the freedom to pursue these activities if they wish. Calvin once got into trouble with the city of Geneva’s leaders for bowling on the Sabbath. That doesn’t sound like a kill-joy tyrant to me. Horton sums up Calvin’s point on Christian liberty by saying “Of what use is a doctrine of justification if we do not actually experience God’s liberality toward us in our daily lives?” (p. 181)

Calvin explicitly defends Christian liberty against the Pharisees of legalism, and he defends it often and loudly. Calvin takes special aim at the legalists among us who try to hide their legalism behind the argument of ‘not stumbling the weaker brother’. Horton says, “Restricting the church’s authority in doctrine, worship, and life to that which God has clearly commanded in his word, Calvin is the enemy of legalism.” (p. 182)

Calvin speaks to many issues confronting us in today’s world, as well. The compassionate way Calvin provided for refugees in the city of Geneva lead me to believe he would not be on the Republican side of our own immigration issue.

Horton takes us through Calvin’s thoughts on grace, worship service, and prayer. He explains Calvin’s views on a Christian’s relation to the government, a Christian’s vocation, and a Christian’s future hope. Horton does much of this with Calvin’s own words. Horton’s book could almost be read as a thinking Christian’s devotional. I highly recommend it!


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Favorite Book Series of 2014

I discovered this series by reading a National Public Radio review of the third volume, Acceptance, when it was released in September. Jason Sheehan, the NPR reviewer, had the same problem that I have…how to tell you enough about these books to want to read them without giving anything away. I know…that is a problem with every review, but it is a problem that usually has an easy work around. Not so with Jeff VanderMeer’s Southern Reach series.

Something Strange is happening in the coastal wilderness of the United States’ Eastern seaboard. We are never given an exact location. I always thought it was South Carolina, but it could just as well be northern Florida or Georgia. These Strange Things started happening decades ago, and have caused the government to quarantine the area now known as Area X. The only people allowed into Area X are government research teams. The first book, Annihilation, begins with the insertion of the twelfth such team. After sending in eleven teams already…nobody still knows anything about Area X. The twelfth team is a party of four women; a psychologist, a biologist, an anthropologist, and a surveyor. Why all women?

And that’s about all I can give you. (Ain’t I a tease? 😉 )

OK…I can tell you the story involves a mysterious lighthouse. And a tower. Or is it a tunnel? And who wrote those words on the walls of the tower/tunnel?

OK. That’s all I can give you. Honest.

One reviewer said that this series is ‘genre-blending’. That is true. Is it an espionage thriller? A horror story? Science fiction? All of the above. And each book has a slightly different tone and perspective.

I think Jason Sheehan summed it up exactly in that first NPR review that I read when he said “If the guys who wrote Lost had brought H.P. Lovecraft into the room as a script doctor in the first season, the Southern Reach trilogy is what they would have come up with.”

If this book series had been a role playing game, then several of the player characters had to make sanity rolls…and failed. Or did they?

This series is so-o-o-o-o delicious! And that is why The Southern Reach Trilogy is my favorite book series of 2014.

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Posted by on December 30, 2014 in Book Review, Books


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Favorite Book of 2014

This book was actually written in 2012, and I bought it around Christmas time in 2013. Patsy and I were at Barnes & Noble in Redding and I just happened to walk past a stack of these out on a book table. The cover looked interesting. The title, implying a video game reference, caught my attention. I read the back cover and decided to get it for our sixteen year old son Joshua for Christmas.

I think he finished reading it by dawn on December 26. It jumped into his ‘Favorite Book’ slot, and being a video game and Rush fan, he couldn’t say enough good things about it. I finally picked it up and read it a couple of months later.

Josh was right!

Ready Player One by Ernest Cline takes place in a future world in which virtual reality has become commonplace. On-line gaming has grown to the point that the virtual world has become the predominant form of society’s entertainment. Even school is accomplished virtually. A basic virtual immersion rig is part of every school kid’s supplies. Actually, it’s the only school supply. Everything else that is needed is found and saved on-line. Most kids go to the free Government virtual school. Kids from richer families can afford better virtual immersion rigs, and can afford the ‘pay-as-you-play’ format of being able to explore away from your free basic school world.

James Halliday, the creator of the virtual universe, has died without heirs. He has left his entire fortune to the first person to crack the Easter eggs he has planted throughout his virtual universe. His fortune is so huge that even multi-national corporations dedicate corporate divisions to solving these Easter eggs, but nobody has even solved the first one yet. Halliday grew up in the 1980s, and the virtual universe and the Easter eggs are a treasure trove of ‘80s pop and geek culture. Enter poor but uber-geeky teenager Wade Watts, and the race is on!

One sci-fi writer has referred to Ready Player One as a ‘nerdgasm’. Apt.

Reviewers at Amazon have given Ready Player One 3,184 5-star ratings, as of December 26, 2014. Ninety reviewers have given it one star. I think some of the comments on the poor reviews might be right. The one stars were probably given by dementors, trying to suck all of the fun and joy out of life.

Unlike Josh, I would not say this is my favorite book of all, but it was definitely my favorite read of 2014.
Ernest Cline’s next book, Armada, is due out summer of 2015. I’ll be looking for it!

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Posted by on December 29, 2014 in Book Review, Books


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