Wednesday, October 29, 2008

Tribulation House, by Chris Well (Harvest House)

(Click cover for more information)

I’ve pondered now for several days on how to review Chris Well's Tribulation House. It’s one of the most unique books I’ve read, both in scope and in style. About the best generic descriptor I think I can muster is “compassionate satire”. Is that a curious mix, or what? Let me take it a piece at a time.

First, the scope.

It’s really hard to recap the story in a tidy little package. Mr. Well entertains a variety of social, spiritual and personal issues through a network of loosely, but definitely, connected subplots. I know that sounds rather complicated, like you could get lost in its intricacy. And it is intricate. But you won’t get lost. He does such a great job of undergirding the network with solid writing that mapping the characters and their dilemmas—oh yes, they all have dilemmas—flows quite smoothly.

Okay, an example: The first line of the synopsis on the back cover was enough for me to take it to the checkout counter. “It’s not the end of the world--which could be a problem...” I mean, how do you not read a book with that kind of introduction? In this subplot, Mark Hogan has bought into his pastor’s carefully calculated conclusion that Jesus is coming back in less than two months. On October 17, 2007, to be exact. At 5:51 am, to be even more exact. That’s all well and good, but it does present him a quandary. You see, Mark Hogan wants a boat. He’s always wanted a boat. Now it’s too late…or is it? Of course not. All it takes is a quick loan from his friendly neighborhood Mafia shark to secure him his dream craft. Naturally, he won’t have to pay back the loan, for he’s about to be raptured—and everybody knows the Mafia is going to be ‘left behind’. Well, the fact that you’re reading this review is proof enough of his pastor’s miscalculation. Now Mr. Hogan is faced with an impossible debt, and kneecaps in imminent threat of extinction at the hands of Mob thugs. Oh, the dilemma is resolved, but not how you might expect.

Other characters include Charlie Pasch, a police detective who stumbles through areas of service at his church until he finds his niche in the most unexpected way; Tom Griggs, Charlie’s detective partner, who is estranged from his father, and whose story ends up harboring the final and most poignant twist in the entire book; Hank Barton, another church member running for a vacant city council seat, with all the campaigning trials and tribulations you might expect (and some you might not); Ross Cleaver and Bill Lamb, a bumbling pair of Mob thugs who have their own issues—well, it just goes on.

Second, the style.

After reading Tribulation House, I envisioned Mr. Well's tongue so firmly planted in his cheek that I feared he may never be able to enjoy solid food again. The number of times I found myself laughing out loud is surpassed only by the number of times I found myself nodding my head and smiling. The satirical element elicited the former response, the compassion the latter. Gifted storytelling!

Mr. Well employs a clipped style of narration that may catch you a little off guard at first, but you’ll get used to it. It’s very effective in delivering quick punches of plot, and you’ll appreciate it in that context. In my estimation, though, it may be a bit overused; that is, applied in passages that require no such rhetorical device to push them along. But, again, the story is well worth any minor stylistic distraction you may encounter. Indeed, it may not bother you at all.

If chuckling at yourself doesn’t come easy, you may have a more difficult time with Tribulation House. It will stomp on your toes, like any good satire. But keep reading. As the story unfolds, you’ll discover Mr. Well's stomping shoes to be so generously padded with compassion, the pain becomes quite bearable.

If you’re a Christian who can laugh at yourself, make this the next book on your reading list. If you aren’t, make this the next book on your reading list; you’ll surely be one by the time you’ve finished.

Tribulation House was just plain ‘really, really good’. Bravo to Mr. Well!

Quote of the Week

Better to write for yourself and have no public, than to write for the public and have no self. - Cyril Connolly

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

Extreme Makeover - Web Site


Just a quick break in the action to let you know my Web site has just undergone a redesign. I actually had somebody who knows what she's doing revamp it. It's ever so cool.

It should be lauched soon (hopefully within the next day or so). You can get to it here. If it hasn't changed the first time you look, keep checking back.


Now, back to our regularly scheduled programming...

Saturday, October 18, 2008

The Bone Box, by Bob Hostetler (Howard Books)

(click cover for more information)

Rather than keep you in suspense of the inevitable, I’m going to begin my review of Bob Hostetler’s The Bone Box with a digression. That’ll get it out of the way up front.

One of the great things about Biblical fiction is that it allows us the freedom to examine the record in greater detail than what Scripture often actually gives us. However, that’s a two-edged sword. On one edge, there’s a danger of the writer weaving his own agenda into the Biblical record and straining, sometimes to the breaking point, reasonable inference (witness accusations against Dan Brown’s The DaVinci Code).

On the other edge, through careful research and skillful storytelling, the author can present angles on events and people that are entirely plausible and in keeping with the Scriptural account, but lend a novel (pun intended) perspective on them. In doing so, she offers something perhaps we hadn’t thought of before. The unexpected inference—or ‘twist’—not only enhances the entertainment value (see my February 11th post), but can also broaden our spiritual horizons.

The latter requires intellectual honesty. The former requires…well, nothing to commend. Happily for us, Mr. Hostetler’s The Bone Box is guilty of the latter and not the former.

Dr. Randall Bullock is an archaeologist who has pretty much mucked up his personal life in deference to his professional one. Recently widowed, Dr. Bullock tries to put himself back on an even keel by immersing himself in a new dig outside Jerusalem. When a construction project collapses an ancient tomb nearby, he is offered the opportunity to solo the project to examine its contents before having to turn them over to the Antiquities Authority. He discovers no less than the ossuary (bone box) containing the remains of one Joseph bar Caiaphas. Yup, the same Caiaphas who presided over Christ’s trial. In the ossuary is a small scroll, the contents of which cast a stunning light on the events of over two thousand years ago.

Enter daughter Tracy, recently expelled from college, who shows up in Israel in search of a father she barely knows—and respects even less—due to his absence from all the significant events of her life, including the death of her mother. They both embark on an awkward road of attempted reconciliation, which comes at a particularly difficult time as the demands of this momentous archaeological discovery pull at her father’s attentions. Just like before. Just like always.

Interspersed with Dr. Bullock’s story are flashbacks to the first century ad, with Caiaphas playing the central role. From his installation as Kohen haGadol (the High Priest), through the preaching of John the Baptist, to Jesus’ trial, Caiaphas is shown in a very interesting light—and as the subject of a most fascinating twist. I don’t think you’re going to anticipate this one.

Mr. Hostetler’s careful research is evident throughout the story. You’ll learn loads about modern and ancient Israel through the pages of The Bone Box. The only possible criticism I could offer to the author’s technique might be the reliance of side narratives to enlighten the reader on Hebrew history and culture. Perhaps more of the education could have been interwoven into the story. For example, Dr. Bullock could have presented some of the facts in dialog with Tracy (or other similar exchanges), thereby educating the reader through the action of the story instead of digressive explanations, which, I felt, pulled me away from the story a little more often than I would like to have been pulled. But don’t let that dissuade you. The tale and the education are well worth the ride.

Mr. Hostetler’s skill at storytelling is just as evident. He mixes intrigue, suspense, pathos and even romance wonderfully in a tale that tackles a well worn story in a fresh and meaningful way. Oh, and what becomes of this discovery that has such crucial historical and theological significance? Well, that’s Mr. Hostetler’s point. Read the book. He relates it much better than I ever could.

Final thought: I note on the title pages of my own works of Biblical fiction the following: “It has been the author’s intent to remain as true to the Biblical account as possible, filling in additional events, descriptions and characters where Scripture permits to accommodate the story line. Such extra-Biblical references are products of the author’s own imagination and are not intended to represent any persons, living or dead.” It, I believe, should be a goal of every author of Biblical fiction that their work would motivate the reader to delve back into the Bible (cf. Acts 17:11). There, fact will be separated from fiction, and the lesson can be applied against the Authoritative record.

Fortunately, (at the risk of putting words in his mouth) it appears Mr. Hostetler shares the above sentiment. The Bone Box was a real pleasure to read. Entertaining, thought-provoking, real, and honest. A great blend of historical and contemporary fiction that really means something.

Yup, highly recommended.

Thanks, Mr. Hostetler.

Thursday, October 16, 2008

Quote of the Week

"An author is a fool who, not content with boring those he lives with, insists on boring future generations." - Charles de Montesquieu


As I look for more books to review--I have two underway and am ordering another, even as I, type--does anyone who has been kind (and patient) enough to read through these have any requests? Is there a specific book, author, or a particular genre you'd like me to take a look at? Open to just about any suggestions.

Current batting order:

At bat is The Bone Box, by Bob Hostetler. (Historical/contemporary/archaeology)
On deck is Tribulation House, by Chris Well. (Contemporary/humorous satire)
In the hole is Such A Time As This, by Rebecca Velez. (Historical/Biblical)

If you'd like to place a book on the roster, please let me know. There's plenty of room!

Monday, October 6, 2008

Quote of the Week

"Many books require no thought from those who read them, and for a very simple reason; they made no such demand upon those who wrote them." - Charles Caleb Colton

Until the Last Dog Dies, by John Laurence Robinson (River Oak)

(click cover for more information)

Guy’s book. Good guy’s book, but definitely a guy’s book.

In Until the Last Dog Dies, John Robinson does a terrific job of rolling out a great PI tale in true Mike Hammer fashion. The lingo, the interior monologues, the first-person view—he’s got it down to a T. But John is in no way a Mickey Spillane wannabe. John creates a unique character with a complex personality that keeps him two steps ahead of predictability.

Joe Box is a Vietnam vet, ex-cop, now private investigator, who’s wartime past is thrust back upon him in an extraordinarily terrifying way. In a search-and-destroy mission that goes horribly wrong, his infantry squad captures a traitorous sniper, Martin ten Eyck. Politically connected, the traitor is spirited away Stateside and tucked out of sight into a mental institution—presumably for life. That was thirty years ago. He’s out. Not long enough.

The “rehabilitated” patient is released and the horror begins. Now, each member of Joe’s old infantry squad is being fingered for death—not just any death, but death meted out in way each individual feared the most: stabbing, aircraft accident, electrocution—you name it. It’s up to Joe to find him and stop the killings. Only he doesn’t have to find the killer; it’s his turn for the killer to find him.

A new Christian, Joe is still sorting out his spiritual responsibilities, moral obligations and personal expectations immersed in a hard-bitten line of work and battling a history of traumatic episodes that multicolor his world view and self image. Helping him deal with all this is the lovely, witty and intelligent Angela, an intercessory prayer warrior at his church. But Angela helps him do more than overcome his own mental obstacles, she plays a crucial role in the battle against the spiritual forces driving ten Eyck.

In Until the Last Dog Dies, John Robinson takes us back to rural Kentucky where we relive Joe’s grass-roots boyhood haunts (pun intended). We trek the steamy paths of Vietnam with his unit on the trail of a rogue sniper, whose phantom-like ability elevates the nerve-shearing terror of jungle warfare. And we journey with Joe along the uneven road of discipleship, learning with him what it means to trust God and apply Biblical principle in the toughest emotional, mental and physical circumstances.

And everybody knows only guys are interested in stuff like that.

Oh, okay, so maybe not just a guy’s book. Read it and see whatcha think.

Thursday, October 2, 2008

Dear Enemy, by Jack Cavanaugh (Bethany House)

(Click cover for more information)

(DISCLAIMER: I normally avoid the cliché “couldn’t put it down” like the plague. Therefore, please be advised that if you encounter it, or something like it, in this review, it will be for the simple reason that it was true.)

Dear Enemy is a quick read. It’s not a quick read because it’s particularly short, but because it’s particularly good.

Okay, maybe part of the reason for my enthusiasm is a fascination for the Greatest-Generation era. As horrific as World War II was, there was an ambient romanticism not born of war, but of a resurgent American society; reborn hope emerging from the Great Depression. You saw it in the films, read it in the literature, and heard it in the music. Values were less relative: right was defended, wrong was condemned, friends were friends, and enemies were enemies. Mr. Cavanaugh does a gripping job of highlighting these attributes in Dear Enemy—and bringing them into stunning conflict.

Annie Mitchell is an Army nurse at a field hospital in Belgium. Newly married, she and her husband, Keith, look forward to spending their honeymoon in Paris. Their plans are abruptly changed as Hitler launches his Panzer divisions on one last-ditch effort to stem the tide of a war gone sour—the Battle of the Bulge. Annie’s hospital is in imminent danger of being overrun, when she and a companion nurse commandeer an ambulance and race against time to find Keith before the enemy does.

A series of events catches Annie behind enemy lines in the Ardennes Forest, falling prisoner to a lone German soldier who is himself on the run. Her inborn hatred of all things “Kraut” drives her to escape, and, hopefully, kill her captor in the process. But something happens in the Ardennes that challenges her mores and preconceived notions, as common enemies and hardships force her to rely on the German—and him on her. A guarded relationship begins to emerge that disassembles and reshapes her understanding of what an enemy really is.

Reading the prologue of the book sealed my decision to buy it; however, I wondered if perhaps Mr. Cavanaugh didn’t reveal too much information in it. I almost felt like I knew the whole story just from the prologue. I was wrong. The prologue answered most of the “what” question, but not the “how” or the “why”. The “what” is the easiest part of a novel—it’s the “how” that is the finesse, the force that compels you to turn the next page…and the next…and not be able to put it down (There, I warned you…) until you’re emotionally satisfied with the “why”.

Mr. Cavanaugh mastered the “how” in Dear Enemy. The tension never lets up, but he achieves a flow, a rhythm, allowing non-stop action that doesn’t exhaust you. His character development is pristine; you really get inside Annie’s and Karl’s heads—and you care about them.

My only criticism is that the back cover came too soon. Well, too soon, anyway, for someone who couldn’t put it down. (Oops!)