Monday, September 29, 2008

Everybody Wanted Room 623, by Cecil Murphey (Heartsong)

(Click cover for more information)

Well, I hadn’t planned on doing this. When I first thought to post book reviews, my intention was to focus on a breadth of authors; share the wealth, so to speak. I didn’t intend to review a single author more than once.

Butchya know? Sometimes ya just hafta changeyer plans.

I reviewed Everybody Loved Roger Harden, by Cecil Murphey, earlier this month. Everybody Wanted Room 623 is the second in his cozy mystery series. It is an absolute gem. As with Roger Harden, Jeannie and I read it aloud in the evenings before bedtime. We barely made it through the first chapter, with all the giggling fits it prompted. I’m sorry…did I say giggling? Jeannie giggled; I chuckled. Guys don’t giggle.

But I digress. (Guys do digress.)

Our heroes from Roger Harden—Julie West and James Burton—return in another murder mystery. This one takes place at the quaint Cartledge Inn, situated in the beautiful countryside near Stone Mountain, Georgia. A mutual acquaintance of theirs is found shot in his room (which, incidentally, is a particularly painful place to get shot)—Room 623, of course. Police detective Oliver Viktor (coincidentally, a former college pal of Burton’s) is on the scene conducting the investigation. The three pool their skills and resources into sorting out just what must have happened in Room 623. Several characters related in various ways to the victim drop in and out, adding their pieces to the puzzle of who committed the murder, and why. Of course, Mr. Murphey does another great job of concealing the murderer’s identity until the last minute.

So, why all the giggling—and chuckling? A couple of reasons:

First, Mr. Murphey assigns his characters (save Julie and Burton) names of real-life authors, agents or publishers. For example, the murder victim is one Stefan Lauber (a name those in the Christian writing industry will recognize as a take-off on Steve Laube, a well known and highly respected Christian literary agent). In a delightful e-mail exchange I had with the author after my earlier review, he shared, “I love killing off my friends.” Indeed, Mr. Lauber didn’t survive the first sentence of the book. Appearances by characters such as Deedra Knight and Terrance Waylin (Diedre Knight and Terry Whalin – also highly regarded literary agents), added to the fun. But when the Scott Bell-James character walked in, I nearly lost it. It doesn’t stop there, as many more ‘literary’ characters add their color to the story. (Important to note, by the way, is that Mr. Murphey employs his friends’ names, but not their real personalities or other actual attributes. Having had the pleasure of meeting some of them, their characters’ descriptions and roles became that much more precious.)

Second, if you had the pleasure of reading Roger Harden, you’ll get a double treat watching Julie’s and Burton’s personalities, as well as their relationship, develop. Writing a novel in the first-person perspective is a bit risky, and not at all easy. It effectively puts the reader inside the head of the character; therefore, the author must remain focused, consistent and honest with the character’s personality biases, limited frame of reference over the entire plot, and even the nuances of his/her gender. I personally am guilty of setting aside a novel by an accomplished writer who had a promising story line, but just lost me with the handling of the first-person point of view. Mr. Murphey doesn’t just make it work, he uses it to elevate the reader’s experience to a whole new level. His command of the technique is flawless, and seeing events unfold through Julie’s eyes is absolutely priceless. Her acerbic wit, professional slant (she’s a psychologist), feminine intuition—and especially her attraction to Burton—imbue a unique deliciousness into the reading. Mr. Murphey’s practiced pen would still have succeeded at telling the story in the more common third-person narrative style, but I don’t think it would have enhanced the tale to nearly the extent it does by allowing us to view the world through Julie’s eyes, heart and mind.

All things considered, it’s not necessary to read Roger Harden to enjoy Room 623, but your pleasure will be greatly enriched if you do.

Everybody Wanted Room 623 is a must-read for those interested in a true mystery, but who also enjoy multicolored threads of the Gospel and the Christian ethic interwoven skillfully through the fabric of a story—not awkwardly basted over it. And Mr. Murphey never drops a stitch.

Oh, and be prepared to giggle…or chuckle…whatever.

Quote of the Week - No, no particular reason...

"I know I was writing stories when I was five. I don't know what I did before that. Just loafed, I suppose." --P. G. Wodehouse

Sunday, September 21, 2008

Leonardo’s Chair, by John DeSimone (River Oak)

(Click cover for more information)

I pulled Leonardo’s Chair off the bookshelf at my local Christian bookstore because of its curious title. I took it to the checkout counter because of the intriguing synopsis on the back cover. I’m glad I did both of those things. I highly recommend you do the same.

The title “character”, Leonardo’s chair, as you might surmise, is just that: a chair made by the great artist Leonardo Da Vinci. Frustrated that his life was waning and his artistic genius will die with him, Da Vinci builds an ornate chair and somehow imbues it with a supernatural power: his own artistic greatness. Anyone who sits in the chair can achieve the artistic mastery that Da Vinci himself had. However, the gift comes with a price—a terrible curse that entraps the unwary artist in his own ambition for greatness.

This price has been paid repeatedly throughout the family history of the Duke of Savoy. The Savoy dynasty has owned the chair since the 16th century—that is, until it’s lost just prior to World War II to the Nazis, as they plundered the great art treasures of Europe. A California artist, Vincent LaBont, acquires the chair and tastes of its mystical powers. When the chair is stolen and returned to the Duke of Savoy’s castle in the Italian Alps, Vincent dispatches his son, Paul, to recover it. The Duke has other plans, however, and Paul is caught up in an elaborate scheme that ultimately puts him in mortal danger—by the lure and the curse of the chair itself! Complicating the plot is the Duke’s beautiful daughter, Isabella, who has her own plans for the chair, unbeknownst to both her father and Paul.

The New World and the Old World clash in a fascinating story that is steeped in classical Renaissance history and the intricacies—and passion—of the art of painting. You won’t know who to trust, who to cheer, or who to boo, as Mr. DeSimone skillfully unfolds his story one brush stroke at a time.

It sometimes seems that authors, in their effort to produce something new, something different, something outside-the-box, occasionally stretch a story’s moral or theological theme so thin that it either disappears altogether, or—even worse—stays visible and travel to places it should never go. Mr. DeSimone has accomplished the former without resorting to the latter; that is, Leonardo’s Chair may be unlike any other novel you’ll find in a Christian bookstore, but its spiritual impact is stark, and its message solid. But Mr. DeSimone takes a risk in subtlety. Twice while reading this book I nearly set it aside when encountering Biblical arguments that go awry. But for the reputation of the publisher (River Oak is an imprint of Cook Communications Ministries), I may have followed through with my error. Thank the Lord for perseverance, though, because Mr. DeSimone delivers wonderfully on his message, using the seemingly logical arguments to illustrate the fallacy of faulty perspective. And, as someone who values subtlety in story-telling, I’m somewhat embarrassed that Mr. DeSimone caught me as flatfooted as he did.

All the better! Bravo!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Mysterious Ways, by Terry W. Burns (River Oak)

(click cover for more information)
Clever, inspirational and well written. Mr. Burns pens a homespun western tale of a man God catches up in his own game. Amos Taylor is a robber, con man and all-around scoundrel who steals a parson’s outfit as the “perfect disguise.” Much to his surprise—and chagrin—when he dons it in the peaceful town of Quiet Valley to cover his latest crime, the people actually expect him to perform as a parson. He finds himself in the awkward position of having to preach Sunday morning services, counsel a quarreling married couple, give solace to a dying woman, and even conduct her funeral service. If not for the help of Joseph Washington—a godly, blind, black man, who is himself not what he seems to be—the ‘parson’ would have been detected at the very beginning for what he was. But the blind Joseph saw in Amos what no one else would have dreamed was there: God’s grace.

On the slow and stumbling road to his own eyes being opened, Amos wraps himself tighter and tighter into his own web of deceit until his schemes, and his ego, blow up in his face at the most unexpected moment. But, as with most of us, it's difficult for him to abandon his fallen ways. When he does, there's recompense to make for his past, which presents him with the greatest mortal and spiritual trials of his life.

You’ll fall in love with Judy Valentine, the unwitting victim of Amos’ heart, admire John David Slocum, the kind of Texas Ranger you expect all Texas Rangers to be, and empathize with the simple, but honest, citizens of Quiet Valley who learn as much from Amos’ experience as he does himself. God has in mind to teach every character in the story—and perhaps everyone who reads the story—more about Himself.

This is Mr. Burns’ first book in the Mysterious Ways series. You need not read the next two to fully appreciate Mysterious Ways—but when you finish this installment, you’ll probably want to!

Monday, September 1, 2008

Everybody Loved Roger Harden, by Cecil Murphey (Heartsong Mysteries)

(Click cover for more information)

What a fun book! Cecil Murphey is a prolific writer (just Google him), and Everybody Loved Roger Harden is a great addition to his repertoire.

This is a whodunnit with a Christian slant. A classic murder mystery, Roger Harden is written mostly in the first-person through the eyes of Julie West, a psychologist and one of the two primary sleuths investigating Mr. Harden's murder. Her co-investigator is James Burton, a pastor who, like Julie, is a dinner guest of Harden's the evening of his murder--and who, again like Julie, shares a first-person perspective alternately througout the story.

It seems a carefully selected group of Roger Harden's "friends" have been invited to his private island for dinner. The guest list has been carefully prepared, for each one of the invitees has a unique relationship with Mr. Harden. Unfortunately, before dinner even begins, their host is found murdered in his study. The remainder of the story has Julie and James piecing together the puzzle of who may have killed Harden.

As the story unfolds, each of their fellow guests reveals--some less willingly than others--why they probably appeared on the guest list for this special dinner, and how they really felt about Roger Harden. Each one of them, it appears, has a motive for eliminating their host. But who stands to gain the most by his death? His wife, who inherits her husband's considerable estate? The TV weather personality, who's indebted to him for her success--and hates it? The professor, who Mr. Harden discovered cheated on his dissertation and holds this knowledge over his head?

Everybody Loved Roger Harden flows wonderfully from chapter to chapter as, bit by bit, the facts emerge about a manipulative, hard-hearted millionaire who craved control over people and their lives. But something has happened in Roger Harden's life, and he has invited--no, not invited, but summoned--them all to his island for dinner and a special announcement, one that will affect each one of their lives. Does his announcement die with him? Can Julie and James ferret out the truth, or is there more to the story than can ever be told?

If you enjoy a light-hearted mystery with plenty of twists, but don't want to be nervous about turning the page into a gory or explicit scene thrown into your face for effect, Everybody Loved Roger Harden is for you. Oh yes, did I mention there's chemistry between Julie and James that teases their efforts to concentrate on the mystery at hand? The fun never ends!

This was another one Jeannie and I enjoyed reading together at night. Give it a try. See if you can finger the culprit before Julie and James do. We didn't...

Waking Lazarus, by T.L. Hines (Bethany House)

(Click cover for more information)

In his work The Prophets, Abraham Heschel writes, "None of the prophets seems enamored with being a prophet nor proud of his attainment." Jude Allman, hero of T.L. Hines' Waking Lazarus, can identify with Dr. Heschel's words.
His gift? Well, it’s unlike any popularly associated with that of a prophet. He writes no book, he preaches no sermon, he calls no fire down from Heaven. Rather, Jude has experienced clinical death no less than three times: once as a young boy, once as a teenager, and once as a young man. Each time, against all medical reason, he returns to life. But these resurrections are not his gift; they are merely preservations of the gift.
The notoriety these miraculous raisings inflict on Jude has a sensation-seeking public breathing down his neck at every turn. Like the Biblical Jonah, he runs from the world and from his calling. Jude’s Tarshish is Red Lodge, a sleepy hamlet in Montana, where he adopts a name change to protect his identity, a comfortable paranoia to protect his sanity, and tucks himself into a cocoon of obscurity.
Enter a series of crimes so heinous it strips away Jude’s protections and he is forced once again to face his calling and the eyes of a prying world. He stubbornly clings to the shreds of his cocoon until events threaten to destroy the one connection to his past—his only son.
Waking Lazarus will evoke a curious mixture of emotion. You’ll find yourself in the awkward situation of fearing the next page turn, but being powerless to resist it. Masterfully written and eerily imaginative, Mr. Hines achieves a quasi-believable surrealism without resorting to excessive paranormality. There are twists and turns, blind alleys and perpetual horizons, and a spiritual element that is quiet, but unmistakable.
Highly recommended for readers who lean toward the Frank Peretti and Ted Dekker edge, but have a greater appreciation for the art of subtlety.