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Archive for the category “books”

Theology, science, alternative history, literature

In our literary coffee klatch this month we discussed a fairly wide range of books, some of which I have blogged about separately in a discussion of teaching theology and literature in a Bible college or seminary.

David Levey had been reading nonfiction for a change and kicked off with a book about Galileo, science and religion, written by a Wits professor of astronomy, God and Galileo by David L. Block. It was based on an old letter in the Vatican archives that few people had looked at, and threw new light on debates about science and religion.

I too have been reading nonfiction — currently The Electric Kool-Aid Acid Test by Tom Wolfe. I should have read it 50 years ago, but only saw it in the library this week. I had always thought it was fiction, and indeed it was in the fiction shelves of the library, but I then discovered that Tom Wolfe had written his first fiction work about 20 years later, and this was in fact a kind of journalistic look at the hippie drug scene of the late 1960s. The other nonfiction book I am reading is Die Derde Oorlog teen Mapoch, from which I have been learning a great deal. I’ll comment more on these when I’ve finished reading them. We had discussed Die Derde Oorlog teen Mapoch at one of our earlier gatherings, and David mentioned another book that dealt with lives of sharecroppers in South Africa. These books throw a lot of light on current debates about land.

Val has been re-reading historical novels, especially ones by C.J. Sansom, dealing with the period of the English Reformation and the reign of King Henry VIII. The first of the series is called Dissolution, and deals with the dissolution of the monasteries (my review here)..Sansom wrote a series featuring hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, but has also written historical novels set in other periods, such as the Spanish Civil War, and also, in a slightly different  genre, Alternative History, or the historical might have beens, Dominion, predicated on a successful German invasion of Britain in World War II (my review here)..

While discussing the alternative history genre David mentioned SS-GB by Len Deighton, and we had both recently read Philip Pullman’s La Belle Sauvage, which we had both found disappointing (my review here). David said that the second volume of that series was coming out soon, and promised better things. It is The Secret Commonwealth. We mentioned other books where sequels had proved disappointing, like the Thomas Covenant series by Stephen Donaldson, and William Horwood’s Duncton series, where everything after the first book was disappointing. That one, and many of the others, seemed like cases of a publisher pushing a reluctant author who had run out of inspiration. And for those who like Alternative History, David recommended the What might have been series by Gregory Benford.

For the rest of what we discussed, see here.

 

Not The Shack

Waking LazarusWaking Lazarus by T.L. Hines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

When I saw this book in the library the blurb looked quite interesting and I was in a hurry so I grabbed it. When I got home and began to read it, I began to have misgivings. A “Christian” book about abducted children from an evangelical publisher… was it going to be a re-run of The Shack. To my relief, it wasn’t. I found The Shack utterly twee and cringeworthy, a novel, ostensibly for adults, written in the style of Enid Blyton.

But it turned out to be quite readable, with some nice plot twists, a whodunit that keep the reader guessing, and with some strong elements of fantasy, and not too preachy. .

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Ghost stories by authors surnamed James

The House on Cold Hill (House on Cold Hill, #1)The House on Cold Hill by Peter James
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I recently read a book of ghost stories by Henry James (see my review here) and was somewhat less than impressed. I had previously read one of the stories, “The Turn of the Screw”, and found the style convoluted and almost unreadable. It wasn’t improved on a second reading. I was in the library looking for ghost stories by Montague James, whose stories are said to be better, but they didn’t have any, but next to Henry James on the shelf was Peter James, and so I took out The House on Cold Hill.

I know Peter James primarily as a writer of detective stories featuring detective Roy Grace in Brighton in the south of England. I’d read a couple of Peter James’s non-detective stories before, and had not been very impressed. I thought he would do better to stick to crime fiction. But The House on Cold Hill is different. And I was not disappointed. When it comes to authors surnamed “James”, Peter undoubtedly writes better ghost stories than Henry. For a start they are written in plain English, where you don’t have to read every sentence three times to try to puzzle out the author’s meaning.

I suppose they could also be classified as horror. Not all ghost stories are scary. Some are meant to be scary but fail; this one succeeds. I was reminded of Phil Rickman, who began writing stories in the supernatural horror genre and gradually shifted to writing crime stories. Perhaps Peter James is on the opposite route — having started writing whodunits, he is now writing ghost stories like the early Phil Rickman. I’ll be looking out for more like this. I won’t say that Peter James is the new Phil Rickman, but perhaps he’s the old one revived, like an old ghost.

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The Müller-Fokker Effect

The Müller-Fokker EffectThe Müller-Fokker Effect by John Sladek

A couple of weeks ago I read Singularity, which is about a hypotheitcal moment when computers surpass human intelligence and human consciousness. That reminded me of this book, which I read 45 years ago, since it is also about digitising human consciousness. So I thought I would re-read this one to remind me what it was about, and to compare it with the kind of things people are saying about “the Singularity”

In this book Bob Shairp works for National Arsenamid, and is transferred to a different branch where his new task is to be the guinea-pig in an experiment to see if it is possible to back up a human being on tape. The recording process is under way when some white supremacists break into the lab, convinced that it is an attempt to transplant a nigger brain into a white man, so they kill Bob, and the tapes are dispersed. One of them falls into the hands of an evangelist, who captures himself on it and programs an android to preach for him when he is ill or would rather be doing something else. Another falls into the hands of the military.

Bob’s son, Spot, is sent to a military school where he is desperately unhappy, and his mother goes into advertising, where she meets a salesman for a process of freezing people. Bob Shairp has a series of bizarre adventures in his taped form, as do most of the other characters, though for the most part in their actual bodies rather than on tape.

It’s an extended satire on 1970s America, sending up manufacturing, advertising, the military and militarism, journalism (notably Playboy), politics and ideologies, especially white supremacy and fanatical anti-communist conspiracy theorists.

Concerning the last, one can read it as a send-up of The Da Vinci Code, as the conspiracy theorists decipher codes that are more and more complex. A nice touch, satirising a book before it is published. Of course it’s not the only one to have done that. Umberto Eco, the author of Foucault’s Pendulum, insisted that Dan Brown, the author of The Da Vinci code, was a character in one of his novels.  In that respect it anticipates several books. It also predicts that Ronald Reagan would become US president (Nixon was president at the time it was written).

After 45 years I’d forgotten how funny it was (in parts, anyway), and in retrospect it also throws light on some subsequent developments, technical (the Singularity), cultural and political.

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Inklings on the Internet

One of my interests is the English literary group of the 1920s to 1940s that called themselves “The Inklings”, and as a number of other people share this interest I’ve tried at various times to find ways of using the Internet to make and maintain contact with such people and share thoughts and opinions and so on.

One way of doing this is through blog posts, many bloggers announce new posts on Twitter. I also discovered a web site called paper.li that produced a digest of tweets on various topics. Some of them seem to be devoted to hash tags, and I succeeded in creating one for missiology (another interest of mine), There were several created by other people on various topics that interested me — on literature, genealogy, family history and more. There’s one for children’s literature, which some of the Inklings wrote,

But there was no such digest devoted to the #inklings hashtag.

So I thought that if I could create one for #missiology, I could create one for #inklings.

Too late. The people at paper.li had stopped doing that very useful thing. Whenever i tried to do it, they created something called “The Steve Hayes Daily”, and I already had one of those. But eventually they fiddled with it to turn it into The Inklings Daily.

The only trouble is that it doesn’t seem to work. Either people are not using the #inklings hashtag, or else when they do use it, The Inklings Daily simply isn’t picking it up. All I see on it most days is either a message that there is no content, or a couple of irrelevant photos. So as a way of following blog posts about the Inklings it has turned out to be pretty useless.

The last straw was when the owners of YahooGroups announced that they were closing that service, and there were a couple of Inklings forums there that would be affected by the closure, and so it was important to let people know, and I blogged about that. But in spite of using the #inklings #hashtag paper.li failed to pick it up in The Inklings Daily.

So I’ll give it a couple more weeks, and see if The Inklings Daily picks up this article, and any others on the Inklings, and if there’s no improvement, I’ll delete The Inklings Daily, as it will obviously be serving no purpose. I’ll rely on my blogroll for picking up who is blogging about the Inklings. And if you’d like to know more about the new Inklings forum, see Inklings Forum Revived, or go directly to Inklings on groups.io.

For what it’s worth, the main members of the Inklings were:

Singularity

Singularity (The Jevin Banks Experience, #2)Singularity by Steven James
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Three years ago I heard Izak Potgieter speak at TGIF about The Singularity. According to him,  The Singularity is a milestone in the foreseeable future where technology, or non-biological intelligenc-
e, will reach the ability of its human creators, themselves largely non-biological by that point, and then transcend it at a rate that “will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed”.

I had previously heard of singularities as some kind of mathematical thing relating to the topological characteristics of Mobius strips, but Izak assured us that this was not just any old singularity, but The Singularity. And he described himself as a Singularitarian,.

So when we went to TGIF last week, and I saw a book with the title Singularity, I was moved by curiosity to buy it.

What is it about?

A mysterious death, mysterious semi-government research institutes where some dodgy research is going on, hints of connections with organised crime and bent cops — mix those ingredients and you can be sure that the protagonist and those he loves will be getting deeper into danger as the story progresses.

The protagonist is Jevin Banks, a stage musician who performs in Las Vegas, and his associates Charlene Antioch and Xavier Wray. Xavier Wray, like Izak Potgieter, is a Singularitarian.

The “singularity” of the title concerns the development of Artificial Intelligence and the point at which it overtakes human intelligence, and the book raises several questions about that. But these questions are not new, and I recall reading books published more than 50 years ago on the same topic. And some of the elements were also found in speculative fiction, in novels like The Müller-Fokker Effect, which spoke of capturing someone’s consciousness and storing it as digital data.

And over the years I’ve often used that as an analogy for the Christian doctrine of the resurrection of the body — that when we die God has us all backed up on tape somewhere, and when the last day comes he’ll restore it in new and improved hardware and reboot us.

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Stranger in a strange land

Stranger in a Strange LandStranger in a Strange Land by Robert A. Heinlein
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I bought this book and had read about two-thirds of this original uncut version when I left it on a bus. I thought of buying another copy to see what happened in the end, but I didn’t think it was all that good, so I left it. Then when I saw a copy in the library I thought it was my chance to find out what happened, so I took it out and re-read it from the beginning because after 27 years I’d forgotten too much to just pick it up where I left off. And having reached the end, my verdict is unchanged. It’s not really worth paying good money for.The first half is OK, and I’d give it 3 stars on the GoodReads Scale. The second half is excruciatingly boring and preachy, and would get 1 star from me, so 2 stars for the whole thing.

The story concerns the first manned expedition to Mars, which disappears without trace. The second expedition finds there was a survivor — a child of two of the crew members who was born on Mars and named Michael Alexander Smith, and was brought up by Martians after his parents died. The second expedition brought him, now a young adult, back to earth, where he suffers from culture shock, and is perceived as a threat by vested interests on earth, and so is kept incommunicado by the government.

The book was at least partly responsible for starting a New Religious Movement (NRM), the Church of All Worlds, and perhaps the best comment on that comes from Drawing Down the Moon by Diane Adler:

The Church of All Worlds has been called everything from ‘a sub-culture science-fiction Grok-flock’ to ‘a bunch of crazy hippie freaks.’ But the real origins of CAW lead back to a small group of friends who, along with untold numbers of middle-class high school and college students in the late 1950s and early 1960s, became infatuated with the romantic, heroic, compelling right-wing ideas of Ayn Rand. It is a sign of the peculiarity of North American consciousness that thousands of young students, at one time or another, have become possessed by her novels – Atlas shrugged, The Fountainhead, and Anthem. Jerome Tucille, in his witty, tongue-in-cheek tour of the libertarian right, It usually begins with Ayn Rand, could not have been more precise in his choice of title. He noted that Rand’s works were particularly appealing ‘to those in the process of escaping a regimented religious background.’ Despite the author’s rigid philosophy of Objectivism, she stirred a libertarian impulse, and Atlas shrugged became a ‘New Marxism of the Right’.

And the second half of Stranger in a Strange Land is like nothing so much as John Galt’s speech from Atlas Shrugged, only about three times as long.

It was written in the late 1950s, and is stamped with American culture of that period, including their vision of the future. This included future technology — flying cars, yes, but no personal computers, no cell phones, no digital photography. It is also full of the male chauvinist piggery of the period, though some of the language seems strange for a novel set in the USA — lots of “chaps” and “blokes” around. I didn’t know there were so many of those in the US, either back in the 1950s or now.

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Novel writing and genealogy

What do novel writing and genealogy have in common?

One could think of several links, but now I’m thinking of using genealogy software to keep track of the characters in the novel you are writing.

For about 40 years now genealogists have been using computer software to keep track of their family history. Genealogy is quite a popular pastime, and computers are a good way of keeping track of your relatives, and there are lots of programs available for doing so.

But the same software can also be used for keeping track of the characters in a novel.

The software allows you to enter basic details of a person — dates of birth, marriage and death. Names of parents, and also siblings children and cousins.

It also allows you to enter information about a character: height, weight, colour and texture of skin, hair, eye colour and so on.

This is particularly useful if you write several novels involving the same character. Crime novels, for example, often feature detectives whose careers span 30 years or more. It’s embarrassing if you have them talking to a spouse when they were divorced three years earlier, or if their child who was a pop idol three years ago is still at school in the current novel.

You mention that your character learnt a certain skill in the British army during the Falklands War, but after a publication a reader points out that the character was only 10 years old at the time.

Your characters may be fictional, but the chronology needs to be consistent, even if your plot involves time travel.

And it’s not only writing. I’ve even used family history software to keep track of the characters in books I’ve been reading. One such book was The Book and the Brotherhood by Iris Murdoch, where the characters’ relationships were difficult to keep[ track of.

So what is this genealogy software and where do you get it?

There are at least two genealogy programs for Windows that offer free versions. They are RootsMagic and Legacy Family Tree. Yes, just click on the links and download and install the program. It’s that simple.

For keeping track of characters in a novel I prefer RootsMagic, as it loads in about half the time of Legacy Family Tree. Once you’ve tried them, you might also want to use these programs to keep track of your own family tree, but that’s beyond the scope of this article. If you want to know what other programs are available, see here.

Once you’ve downloaded and installed your chosen program, open the program and begin by entering details of your protagonist. Name, nicknames, date of birth, place of birth, spouses and children if any. Parents too. Even if the parents don’t feature in your novel now, they might crop up in another volume. Aunts and uncles too — your character might inherit something from them. Enter events in the life of your protagonist. In RootsMagic this is “Add a fact”. Schools they attended, jobs they held — how much detail is up to you.

Most fields allow you to enter notes. In the main person name field, you can include in a note a physical description and a potted biography in as much or as little detail as you like. In notes for the Facts/Events fields you can include, for schools attended, for example, best friend, favourite teacher, worst enemy (who may appear as the principal villain in volume 3 of your trilogy), sporting achievements and so on.

Then, when you are writing, you can print an “Individual Summary” for each character in your current chapter, so you’ve got the facts about them at your fingertips. When you are revising your first draft, you can use the same “Individual Summary” sheets for checking consistency.

Do be careful what you do and don’t tell the reader. In the first volume of the Harry Potter stories, the reader doesn’t need to know that Ron Weasley will become Harry Potter’s brother-in-law, but the author needs to keep track of such things. On the other hand, do remember that if you’ve recorded such a relationship in a genealogy program, the reader doesn’t know that until you explicitly tell them.

 

An obsessive search for erasure

The ZahirThe Zahir by Paulo Coelho
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I can’t decide whether this is a profound book or a superficial one.

The protagonist is a novelist living in Paris, rather like the author himself, whose wife disappears without a trace, and he becomes obsessed, not so much with finding her as with discovering why she left him. This leads him to some deep (or shallow) philosophical reflection, from which he concludes that in order to discover himself as a person he needs to forget and erase his personal history.

Since the protagonist is a writer and in many ways resembles the author, I found parts of it gave me an incentive to work on things that I myself am writing. Those bits made me want to give it four stars. But part of his personal history, which he wants to erase, is that his wife was the one who inspired him to write in the first place, and when he goes on about that, in a rather banal and boring way, I want to give it one or two stars. In the end I compromised and gave it three stars.

One thing that gave the book a bit more interest is that part of the search took him to Kazakhstan in Central Asia, which has cropped up in other books I’ve been reading recently.

Another puzzling aspect of the story is that the protagonist (also like author Paulo Coelho himself) had been on a pilgrimage to St James’s Cathedral at Compostela, which had been a life-changing experience, and had written a book about it. Yet this, too, was apparently part of his personal history to be erased and forgotten. And if that is the case, why should anyone buy and read his book about it?

I suppose that one reason for my inability to sympathise with this particular aspect of the story is that I rather enjoy rereading my journals of 10, 20, 30, 40, 50 and 60 years ago each morning. I think of people I knew then, some I am still in touch with, others not, and I wonder what has happened to them. Even if I don’t know what has happened to them, I don’t think they can simply be erased. Their fate may not be known to me, but it is known to God, who values them, and perhaps if nothing else, I can offer a short prayer for them, wherever they may be. And if they have died, pray that their memory may be eternal. That is the opposite of forgetting.

 

 

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Best fantasy books

I saw this list of best fantasy books from Reddit.

Top 100 Best Fantasy books:

This is a list of the best fantasy books. If you want to find good fantasy books to read, this list is a safe bet.

The list was created by parsing comments on the r/books subreddit, and takes into account both number of mentions and the comment scores.

The fantasy genre is the most popular genre in the data we have.

Since the list is created by parsing user comments, it represents the most popular fantasy books, or at least which fantasy books most reddit users have been reading.

The data used in this list is from 2018 and 2019. As we get more data the list may change and will hopefully become a list of the best fantasy books of all time.

I don’t frequent Reddit, and don’t agree with the list. I suspect that the list is a bit misleading. It might be more accurate to say that it is a list of the most-discussed books on Reddit, or perhaps the most popular among Reddit readers. I’ll certainly use the list to look for books I haven’t read — I’ve read 20 of the books on the list — and I would also order them differently.

Here’s my list of favourites among the ones I’ve read:

  1. That hideous strength Lewis, C.S.
  2. The place of the lion Williams, Charles.
  3. The weirdstone of Brisingamen Garner, Alan.
  4. The greater trumps Williams, Charles.
  5. The moon of Gomrath Garner, Alan.
  6. War in heaven Williams, Charles.
  7. Elidor Garner, Alan.
  8. The Annotated Alice: Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland and Through the Looking-Glass Carroll, Lewis.
  9. Lord of the Rings Tolkien, J.R.R.
  10. The lion, the witch and the wardrobe Lewis, C.S.
  11. Many dimensions Williams, Charles.
  12. Gulliver’s travels Swift, Jonathan.
  13. The hobbit Tolkien, J.R.R.
  14. The voyage of the Dawn Treader Lewis, C.S.
  15. Prince Caspian Lewis, C.S.
  16. Harry Potter and the chamber of secrets Rowling, J.K.
  17. Dracula Stoker, Bram.
  18. The trial Kafka, Franz.
  19. The silver chair Lewis, C.S.
  20. The wine of angels Rickman, Phil.
  21. The shadow of the wind Zaf¢n, Carlos Ruiz.
  22. Pet sematary King, Stephen.
  23. Harry Potter and the philosopher’s stone Rowling, J.K.
  24. Descent into Hell Williams, Charles.
  25. Animal Farm Orwell, George.
  26. Watership Down Adams, Richard.
  27. The Book of Lost Things Connolly, John.
  28. The last battle Lewis, C.S.
  29. Candlenight Rickman, Phil.
  30. Harry Potter and the prisoner of Azkaban Rowling, J.K.
  31. Harry Potter and the half-blood prince Rowling, J.K.
  32. All Hallows’ Eve Williams, Charles.
  33. The man who was Thursday: a nightmare Chesterton, G.K.
  34. The Eyre affair fforde, Jasper.
  35. The historian Kostova, Elizabeth.
  36. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Rowling, J.K.
  37. The chalice Rickman, Phil.
  38. The secrets of pain Rickman, Phil.
  39. Lost in a good book fforde, Jasper.
  40. Needful things King, Stephen.
  41. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix Rowling, J.K.
  42. Midwinter of the Spirit Rickman, Phil.
  43. The owl service Garner, Alan.
  44. The princess and the goblin MacDonald, George.
  45. The subtle knife Pullman, Philip.
  46. All of a winter’s night Rickman, Phil.
  47. Crybbe Rickman, Phil.
  48. A Game of Thrones Martin, George R.R.
  49. The man in the moss Crybbe Rickman, Phil.
  50. The cure of souls Rickman, Phil.
  51. My life in the bush of ghosts Tutuola, Amos.
  52. The vision of Stephen Burford, Lola.
  53. Heartsease Dickinson, Peter.
  54. The well of lost plots Fforde, Jasper.
  55. Sophie’s world Gaarder, Jostein.
  56. A wrinkle in time l’Engle, Madeleine.
  57. Harry Potter and the goblet of fire Rowling, J.K.
  58. Shadows of ecstasy Williams, Charles.
  59. The talisman King, Stephen Straub, Peter.
  60. A wind in the door l’Engle, Madeleine.
  61. Duncton Wood Horwood, William.
  62. Black House King, Stephen Straub, Peter.
  63. The Phoenix and the Carpet Nesbit, E.
  64. Northern Lights Pullman, Philip.
  65. The devil rides out Wheatley, Dennis.
  66. Faerie tale Feist, Raymond E.
  67. Finn family Moomintroll Jansson, Tove.
  68. Desperation King, Stephen.
  69. The horse and his boy Lewis, C.S.
  70. Timecatcher Fitzpatrick, Marie-Louise.
  71. Neverwhere Gaiman, Neil.
  72. Mythago wood Holdstock, Robert.
  73. House on Falling Star Hill Molloy, Michael.
  74. The Long Price: Book One — Shadow and Betrayal Abraham, Daniel.
  75. The hunger games Collins, Suzanne.
  76. Lord Foul’s bane Donaldson, Stephen.
  77. The giant under the snow Gordon, John.
  78. The fetch Holdstock, Robert.
  79. Firestarter King, Stephen.
  80. The wood beyond the world Morris, William.
  81. Good Omens Pratchett, Terry and Gaiman, Neil.
  82. Mr X Straub, Peter.
  83. The shadow guests Aiken, Joan.
  84. The Earthsea Trilogy le Guin, Ursula.
  85. American gods Gaiman, Neil.
  86. Salem’s Lot King, Stephen.
  87. Her fearful symmetry Niffenegger, Audrey.
  88. Mockingjay Collins, Suzanne.
  89. First among sequels fforde, Jasper.
  90. Duncton quest Horwood, William.
  91. The wounded land Donaldson, Stephen.
  92. The astonishing stereoscope Langton, Jane.
  93. The Earthsea quartet le Guin, Ursula.
  94. The End of the World Murakami, Haruki.
  95. The family tree Tepper, Sheri S.
  96. The King of Elfland’s daughter Dunsany, Lord.
  97. The Wrath of Angels Connolly, John.
  98. The One Tree Donaldson, Stephen.
  99. The dark half King, Stephen.
  100. Macabre Laws, Stephen.

I’m sure most of those reading this will disagree with my ordering, but I’d be interested in recommendations of books not on either or both lists.

There’s also the problem of which books belong to which genre. C.S. Lewis’s Cosmic Trilogy, for example, straddles the border between science fiction and fantasy. There are some published as combined volumes that could be listed separately, for example Ursula le Guin’s Earthsea Trilogy. I also found it difficult to rate them. On the first reading I liked the second book, The Tombs of Atuan the best, but on the third reading it was the one I liked least of the three, and my rating of each had probably dropped about 10 points (out of 100). By then the trilogy had become a quartet, and the fourth book, Tehanu was the worst of the lot.

I’m prejudiced, of course. My favourite fantasy authors are the Inklings, Charles Williams, C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Roger Lancelyn Green, et al, who generally had the presuppositions of a Christian worldview, and I think they write better fantasy than most. But so did Alan Garner, whose work does not have such presuppositions, and some Christian fantasy authors, like Frank Peretti and Stephen Lawhead, wrote rather bad fantasy, at least in my view.

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