Indie Book Radar: Hemlock

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I don’t usually have the patience for all the page-views and mouse-clicking that goes into reading webcomics, but I devoured Josceline Fenton’s Hemlock.

The series follows Lumi, a witch who spends her days hawking spells to townspeople, travelling through the land in the shell of a giant snail, and brewing up poisons to keep her monstrous husband in a soporific stupor. Lumi is a dry and plucky protagonist, and I so enjoyed learning about her entanglements with blood magic, Baba Yaga’s dynasty of witch-prince sons, and the ne’er do wells of the witching world. Every new character introduced into the story is beautifully dressed, morally ambiguous, and full of secrets, which is just how I like them, and the 19th century setting in the forests and icy wastes of Scandinavia is absolutely enchanting.

I read all four volumes of Hemlock in two days, and now I’m addicted. The bad news is that the comic remains unfinished, since Fenton is holding down a day job as a cartoonist and animator, but she does update regularly.

The great news is that if you hate squinting at your computer screen during the nail-biting bits of your favorite comics, you can purchase bound copies of all four existing volumes of Hemlock. This is a must-read for fairy tale enthusiasts and fans of Catherynne Valente’s Deathless.

Got any favorite fairy tale inspired books? Tell me about them so I can add them to my TBR!

Spirituality Review: Still Evangelical?

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Title: Still Evangelical? Ten Insiders Reconsider Political, Social, and Theological Meaning. Edited by Mark Labberton
Genre: Essay Anthology/Christian Nonfiction
Rating: ★★★★ (4/5)

The evangelical movement is in crisis. After the missions boom of the seventies, rise of the right-wing Moral Majority in the eighties, decline in cultural influence in the nineties, and the fracturing of the movement after the 2016 presidential election in which 81% of white evangelicals voted for a man widely considered to not demonstrate Christian virtues, journalists are sounding evangelicalism’s death knell. In light of this crises, ten influential voices in evangelism have come together to unpack the election, talk social justice and spiritual renewal, and debate whether or not the label “evangelical” can truly be redeemed.

Full disclosure: I came of age in churches shaped by the evangelical movement, and remained evangelical for much of my life before being received into the Episcopal church in my first year of seminary. My feelings towards the evangelical movement are complex, and obviously, I had reasons for leaving. Despite this, I have close personal and professional ties with many in the evangelical church, and I’m interested in keeping my finger on the pulse of evangelicalism, especially in light of the huge sway it has held in the American church in the last fifty years.

I was worried this book might devolve into defensive protection of evangelicalism’s interests. But after reading the prologue, which incisively recounted the movement’s rise to power and subsequent decline after disastrous political collusion and the twilight of many of its central personalities, I was put more at ease. This is a book that intimately understands not only what is at stake for the evangelical movement, but the diversity of values within the movement and the innumerable wrongs the movement has been tied to theologically, politically, and socially.

There are traditional and progressive evangelicals here, and plenty of authors much harder to categorize. Jim Daly, president of the highly conservative Focus on the Family, is present, but so is Shawn Claiborne, a neo-monastic inspired by Christ to speak against war and the death penalty, and Lisa Sharon Harper, a black woman theologian with a passion for racial reconciliation. Together, the ten authors featured put forward a program that renounces political partisanship while upping political engagement, elevates the voices of minority and Majority World evangelicals, and sets aside church models predicated on stadium worship and cults of personalities. I didn’t agree with every opinion within the book, but I think that’s what made it for me: voices were held in tension without sacrificing their varying convictions or allowing ideological extremism to flourish. The presence of more women would have been welcome, but perhaps the lack of female writers represents the general trend evangelicalism has towards being a “boys’ club”.

Ultimately, the book urges readers to stick with the evangelical mission despite the loss of evangelical credibility in the eyes of most Americans. I can’t advocate for this choice either way, but I recommend this book to anyone interested in what went so wrong in evangelism and what evangelicals are doing to try and become better. It didn’t send me running home to the movement that raised me, but it did give me hope.

I received an advance review copy of Still Evangelical? from Intervarsity Press in exchange for an honest review. Still Evangelical? is set to drop in January 2018 and can be pre-ordered directly from Intervarsity Press or purchased on Amazon.

Spirituality Review: Tantric Jesus

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Title: Tantric Jesus: The Erotic Heart of Early Christianity by James Hughes Reho
Genre: Spirituality/Christianity/Yoga
Rating: ★★★★ (4/5)

I went into Tantric Jesus not knowing what to expect and fearing the book might be full of poorly reasoned new age platitudes, but I was pleasantly surprised. The book was beautifully written, accessible, and genuinely thought-provoking. As someone who is always looking for the next big title in emergent spirituality or postmodern Christianity, Tantric Jesus was a treat.

Dr. James Hughes Reho is an Episcopalian priest, yoga instructor, and spiritual director who holds a PhD from Princeton University. Tantric Jesus is the obvious fruit of hard work, personal devotion, and painstaking research. The book seeks to uncover the mystical, body-positive roots of early Christianity and bring them into conversation with the ancient tradition of tantric yoga. For those who think tantra is all about libertine sex acts and spooky rituals, don’t be alarmed. Reho presents tantra as a radically matter-positive worldview that celebrates the divine face of the feminine, connects us on a deep level to creation and the Creator through intentional embodied practices, and taps into the truly erotic (here meaning not just sexual, but holy and deeply rooted) desires of our heart.

Reho shares anecdotes about his travels to monasteries, ashrams, temples, and churches, and about his personal tantic practice as well as his devotion to Christ. He blends these anecdotes with theology about Jesus, the physical embodiment of God who participated in the world by breaking societal taboos, re-invigorating the spirituality around him, and urging his disciples towards greater deification or Christ-likeness. Instructions for spiritual practices are included at the end of most chapters, so the reader can experience the deep indwelling of the divine through foot-washing, breath-work, icon-gazing, or sacred sex with a covenanted partner.

It’s obvious that Reho has done his research, both into the philosophy and practices of Tantra and into the writings of the early church fathers and mothers. That’s one of the reasons the book is so compelling; every time I quirked an eyebrow at an idea that seemed a little far-fetched, Reho provided supporting sources. He’s really plumbed the depths of Christian mysticism and early Christian writings to cast new light on Christianity both as a religious identifier and a state of being. His theology is strong, though those with a very high Christology might be put off by his middle one, and those who recoil at the first blush of syncretism will probably not enjoy his integrated east/west Christian framework either.

As with any religious work that draws upon the practices of a variety of worldviews, the temptation to cultural appropriation is there, and though Reho seems to deeply understand and honor his subject matter, I’m not sure it’s advisable to a reader to pick up this book and jump right into yogic practices without reading up more on the culture and religious philosophy of India. However, Reho is a temperate and wise guide who urges moderation and discernment in all things, and I do believe that is what makes such a risky topic fruitful and worth exploring.

Disclaimer: I received a copy of Tantric Jesus in exchange for writing an unbiased, honest review of its 

Top 5 Spooky Books for Halloween

Even though Spooktober is well upon us, I wanted to share my favorite scary books for anyone looking to squeeze in a few more frights before Halloween. They run the gamut from pleasantly autumnal to deeply unsettling; so the Halloween homebody and horror aficionado alike should be able to find something suited to their tastes.

The Monstrumologist by Rick Yancey

This historical horror follows the gory adventures of Pellinore Warthrop, esteemed professor of “monstrumology”, and his eleven year old apprentice, Will Henry. The pair travel through the graveyards and basements of nineteenth-century New England in search of a brutal night beast. The book is presented as a series of diary entries discovered long after Will Henry’s death, and ruminations on Will Henry’s relationship with his demanding mentor accompany the accounts of autopsies and gunfights.

Although The Monstrumologist received the 2010 Michael L. Printz Honor Award for excellence in young adult literature, it remains fairly unknown in YA circles. This might be due to the book’s overall darkness, or it’s proclivity to wax nihilistic on the culpability of God in the face of evil. These factors, of course, only contributed to my love of the novel, and I’m pleased to say the entire four book series seriously delivers on scares, character development, and heart wrenching revelations.

House of Leaves by Mark Z. Danielewski

This postmodern magnum opus layers the narratives of a photographer who documents the rooms which appear in his home without reason, the recently deceased man who left behind hundreds of pages of academic analysis on this event ten years later, and the troubled tattoo artist who slowly loses touch with reality while trying to piece together his disordered essay pages. The book is rife with footnotes, photographs, and appendixes, and as the story progresses, squares of text go missing, shocks of black assault the eyes, and words run backwards.

To make things even weirder, the various texts within don’t just cross reference each other, but real celebrities, poems, and events. You’re sent rushing to the internet to confirm that something you’ve always thought was real is indeed so, or to become very, very unsettled when you realize it actually isn’t. While an undertaking, the book draws in even the most impatient reader and refuses to let go until you’re tangled up in the unpleasant landscapes inside of your own head.

The Halloween Tree by Ray Bradbury

This charming adventure for “ages 11 and up” takes place on Halloween night in the American heartland. The costumed carousing of eight young boys leads them to the eccentric and ancient Mr. Moundshroud and an enormous “Halloween tree” bedecked with jack-o-lanterns. When something rises out of the shadows to snag the most beloved of the gang, Pipkin, Moundshroud leads the boys on a journey through Halloweens past in the hopes of rescuing him.

The Halloween Tree offers up the best of Bradbury, from his gleeful menage of metaphors and onamonapia to his strong thematic sense. Though the story is simple and the page-count a modest 145, the book explores the history of Halloween, the indissoluble bonds of childhood friendship, and the way humans have always dealt with the passing of  life into death. You’ve heard of the true meaning of Christmas; The Halloween Tree serves up the true meaning of Halloween with glee.

 The Casebook of Victor Frankenstein by Peter Ackroyd

This adult novel is my favorite re-telling of the Frankenstein story, one that imagines Victor Frankenstein as the troubled college friend of Percy Bysshe Shelly. Revolutionary, atheistic Percy goads the obsessively religious Victor into pushing deep into his creative potential, with disastrous results. The book features pitch-perfect guest appearances from the graverobbing Doomsday Men, hedonistic celebrity poet Lord Byron, and Mary Shelly herself. As Victor’s faith and sanity begin to unravel, the narrative hurdles towards tragedy with a sharp eloquence and gothic sensibilities that would make the staunchest Shellyphile proud.

Best read in one feverish sitting if possible, the novel eschews the supernatural for a more psychological approach to its scares, and has an absolutely wild twist ending that still satisfies.

The Haunting of Alaizabel Cray by Chris Wooding

This steampunky YA fantasy takes place in an alternative Victorian England split in halves by the Prussian war and ravaged by awful beasts referred to as wych-kin. Teenage wych-hunter Thaniel Fox uses a potent blend of magic and technology to keep the city safe. He teams up with Alaizabel Cray, a half-crazed girl who has been turned into a magnet for wych-kin by a high society cult. Together, the two must unravel esoteric conspiracies and evade the grisly serial killer whose story runs parallel to theirs.

There’s a lot going on in this book, but it’s all served up with substance and style in a slick, fast-paced package that really works for me. Wooding brings his eye for memorable, mature characters and immersive sensory detail to the novel, putting it a cut above many other YA offerings.