Book Review: Summerhill by Kevin Frane

About two months ago I went to a convention in Atlanta and saw a vendor selling Summerhill. It has a dog wearing a suit on the front, which is interesting in itself, but I recognized it as having been written by the guy who led a writers’ workshop a few months back. I’d not read any of his work before, so since it was there I thought it was worth a try.

As a general rule, I avoid furry literature for a number of reasons. I like more “human” characters, dislike the amateurish feel so many have, and especially don’t want to read erotica, which I get the impression there is far too much of in furry.

So I was not sure what to expect.

As it turns out, not only is Summerhill the best furry work I have read so far, it is the first book in years that I have read and thoroughly enjoyed reading. Frane includes no shortage of creative chaos in this book, which he handles quite well although it took some getting used to in the first couple chapters. (This reminds me, the chapters are not always numbered sequentially. It took a little while to be convinced this was not an error, but there is a reason for it which I won’t say.) You don’t know anything the protagonist doesn’t know, and trust me, there isn’t much. You discover his world and his life along with him.

Not only is the plot complex, but so is the protagonist. Summerhill doesn’t really know who he is or what he’s looking for, and only has a fragment of information to go on. He’s also more than a little clueless and selfish at the beginning. It is pleasing to watch him develop a greater understanding of the world he is in and his place in it, as well as discovering that there are consequences for all his actions.

There’s also some romance and rivalry to move the plot along. There’s Tek, a likable male otter he has a strong fondness for and a very brief intimate encounter with – which causes a crisis for him early on. There’s also Katherine, a rival, partner, and primary obsession for Summerhill throughout. Stay with her and it’ll work out, but staying with her is not an easy task.

Summerhill is an engaging book with a complex plot, interesting characters, and very little objectionable content (mild profanity and a tastefully-portrayed intimate encounter). It’s definitely worth the read if you have the time and inclination.

The Conspiracy

I read quite a few webcomics. Around twenty, at the current count. One of them is The Conspiracy, which is written by my friend timmiboi. What follows is a review, of sorts.

Most consider video games to be harmless fun, an escape from the reality that drones on around you. But what if there was something more sinister behind game development?

Enter The Conspiracy.

For years, government officials have been looking for a way to cut costs in training its elite soldiers. They found it in VirtuaTech. VirtuaTech was privately funding its own training program, relying on virtual technology to create simulations, shortening training time, lowering expenses and preventing injuries. The officials approved and began funding the program.

For a while, the arrangement worked well. Training time was shortened, and the soldiers coming from the program were more highly skilled than their regularly-trained peers. Because of the controversial nature of the program, all subjects were assigned to a black ops group, kept hidden from the public eye.

But as time went on, problems arose. As the desired technology changed, fewer and fewer subjects were able to keep up. With poor results, VirtuaTech was in danger of losing funding.

VirtuaTech could not risk this. They had partnerships with governments around the world, and they had begun putting their programming into all sorts of games. And they chose to lower their moral standards. They wanted to create killing machines.

Now, new recruits are given the dirtiest of jobs with minimal information. But what happens when a recruit rebels? What if this recruit has a conscience?

The Conspiracy is, at its surface, the story about a young dog named Todd who has found himself in a bad situation. After bravely defending his friends from thieves during a bank hold up, he is approached by a mysterious party that wants to employ his skill with weapons. Oh, and they threaten him with death if he doesn’t comply.

He becomes a hit man. As the comic progresses, he is given various assignments, all resulting in the death of the target. But with each scenario, the pain builds. He was not created to murder. But where can he go? Surely he can’t tell anyone, and if he tries to escape, death is certain.

Todd leads a double life, keeping his darkest secret from his family and best friends. One day, though, the truth will be revealed, and what will be the reaction?

From a moral standpoint, the story is frequently disappointing. I suppose I shouldn’t expect a hit man to be a saint, but his chronic failure grates after a while. Under the tutelage of Lycan, the leader of his team, he chooses the way of the coward and kills an unarmed target. He hesitates, I will give him that, but in the end, he chooses darkness over light. He knows he is doing wrong.

However, recent events in the story indicate that we may be seeing a change in Todd’s character soon. I have been reading the comic hoping for this change, and it will be welcome when (if) it comes.

Very little has been seen of Josie, Todd’s girlfriend, to date, but her brief appearances suggest her to be the backbone of Todd’s conscience and moral compass. I will be looking forward to see what role she plays in the future.

The comic contains some language and considerable violence and is suitable for older teens. It can be found here.

(image drawn by timmiboi, initial text from his site)

Review–Do Hard Things

Do Hard Things is a component of Brett and Alex Harris’ “Rebelution,” challenges its teen audience to rebel against the low expectations our society at large has for this age group and to “reach higher, dream bigger, grow stronger, love and honor God, live with more joy—and quit wasting their lives.”

This is excellent. The book discusses the “Myth of Adolescence” and comes out on top. Our society’s invention of the teenage years has discouraged teenagers from pursuing excellence and offered a different route: settle for less. Just do the best you can. Don’t push yourself. So a distressing number of teenagers swallow the lie and accomplish little of value in what the Harris brothers term the most crucial years.

The Harris brothers, on the other hand, promote a better way. They encourage the readers to engage in five different types of “hard things”: acting outside one’s comfort zone, going beyond what is required, organizing and accomplishing projects that are too big to do alone, things that don’t have immediate payoff, and making choices at odds with the current culture. Scattered throughout the book are literally dozens of examples of teenagers doing big things. These testimonies are exciting examples of what teenagers can do to glorify God, and they are all great to read.

But there are two brief but major errors which make me unable to recommend the book.

On page 101, in the midst of their talk about exceeding expectations and pursuing excellence, they correctly identify that God has called us to be holy as He is holy. “God’s standard is not for us to be our teacher’s best helper, but to be a ‘servant of all.’”

Wonderful.

Then they say this: “God set His standards this high so that we won’t make the mistake of aiming low. He made them unreachable so that we would never have an excuse to stop growing.”

Wait. Weren’t they just talking about exceeding expectations? Aiming for excellence and being holy? So why throw that in there?

Yes, I think I know what they mean. God’s standards are very high, and we can’t make the mistake of aiming low. But unreachable? Never!

Did God not say through Moses, “For this commandment which I command you today is not too difficult for you, nor is it out of reach. It is not in heaven, that you should say, ‘Who will go up to heaven for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ Nor is it beyond the sea, that you should say, ‘Who will cross the sea for us to get it for us and make us hear it, that we may observe it?’ But the word is very near you, in your mouth and in your heart, that you may observe it.” (Deut. 30:11-14, NASB)

God told the nation of Israel that all the law He commanded was not unreachable. He said it was not too difficult for them. It was, in fact, so close that they could observe it.

So why do the Harris brothers contradict the Bible and say that it’s impossible? That in itself is enough to keep me from recommending the book.

Then, on page 126, they say, “Even good, solid, sincere Christians are sinful and imperfect.”

Troubling. 1 John says the opposite: “Little children, make sure no one deceives you; the one who practices righteousness is righteous, just as He is righteous; the one who practices sin is of the devil; for the devil has sinned from the beginning. The Son of God appeared for this purpose, to destroy the works of the devil. No one who is born of God practices sin, because His seed abides in him; and he cannot sin, because he is born of God.” (1 John 3:7-9, NASB)

In all their challenges to the reader, the most important one — living a holy life — is not just ignored. It is flatly denied. And it’s baffling, too. Did they not quote 1 Peter 1:16, where we are told to be holy as God is holy? They acknowledge His command but turn around and state that no one can obey Him. How many will be led astray by this?

So, while I would love to promote this book as a much-needed response to the problem of apathy in my generation, I can’t. As much as they encourage their readers to make a difference in the world, they fail in the most important areas. Readers could do amazing things but remain trapped in sin, not knowing they could be set free. They would remain condemned.

Remove the two offending sections, and I will readily promote it.