Fantasy · Full Reviews · Science Fiction · Thriller

Forbidden, by Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee

I was in the mood for something with a bit more “flair” and ended up grabbing Forbidden by Ted Dekker and Tosca Lee. If I can give Dekker credit for anything, it’s that he never seems to think “inside the box”… while I may fault him sometimes for execution, he has no lack of raw originality.  Forbidden, the first in a three book arc, is set in a dystopian future and blends futuristic advancements (e.g. DNA manipulation) with a way of life that in many aspects parallels the far past. (Sword fights! Horseback riding! Underground prisons that are basically dungeons!)

The world of Forbidden is a gloomy one—after a cataclysmic world war, scientists create and unleash a virus capable of altering the genetic codes responsible for all higher human emotions. All human emotions, that is, except fear and its derivatives. With a new world order in place, humanity is at peace for hundreds of years—essentially because everyone on earth is only a few steps removed from being a robot. Devoid of hate and love, people appear to be motivated only by reason and a desire to alleviate their anxieties.
That latter, sadly, struck an all-too-familiar chord with me… how many people do I know that are motivated by fear? How many spend most of their time distracting themselves from the uncomfortable realities of life– like death, pain, and the always unknowable future?

Fortunately for the fictional characters in Dekker and Lee’s work, a vial of blood capable of restoring the full spectrum of feelings to those who drink it (side note: yuck) falls into the hands of the story’s protagonist, Rom Sebastian. Suddenly Rom –and a few friends who also take the restorative blood–are the only people on earth who are truly alive. On the run from the establishment, the group must search for a boy prophesied to be the key to restoring the rest of humanity. Unfortunately for them, someone else has found—and taken—a partial cure. Though whether it can truly be called a cure is questionable, since it only restores the darkest side of the human heart…

I really like the premise of this book, and it grabbed me quickly with plenty of action. I think it had a huge amount of potential, but I’m ultimately going to give it a tentative 3/5 stars, and by tentative I mean that it barely squeaked past the two star threshold. What fell short? In my mind there are two glaring issues.

First off, Forbidden was violent. The antagonist, Saric, is literally incapable of any noble emotions resembling humility, kindness, or affection to temper his villainous passions–so I can understand why Dekker and Lee painted him in such a one-dimensional, sadistic light. Among his offenses (although some are just alluded to) are murder, mad-scientist torture…and a disturbing attraction to his own half-sister despite having what appears to be a hoard of concubines. Saric aside, there was darkness elsewhere in the story I felt was unnecessary…a scene near the end involving a dead body and an internal organ stands out in my mind. I would never recommend this book to a young person. I felt as if Dekker (and Lee) enjoyed focusing in on the disturbing nature of things more than is required of the story.

Second, nothing in the book is very well fleshed out. The characters, for example, are mostly flat; the plot is simplistic. To be fair, the premise of the story makes character building difficult—after all, how to you create connection for your readers with a character that has had essentially no emotions for his entire life? Backstory becomes a challenge, as their lives are nothing but a list of facts that held no deeper meaning for them, at least until recently. After the characters are brought “to life”, many still lack depth or behave inconsistently—although it’s a wonder they can function at all given that processing so many new emotions at once must be akin to being blind and then suddenly given sight.

So what saved the book for me? Why did I let it inch up to a 3/5 stars? Ultimately, it comes down to the fact that this book is the first in a trilogy. Despite all the problems I’ve mentioned (and some that I didn’t) I still walked away really wanting to know what happens in the next book, which to me is a sign of some level of decent writing. The closing reveal had all the dystopian-drama-cliffhanger goodness I was hoping for, and I can’t stop thinking about directions the plot could go. Some of the issues I had seemed less rankling as I considered that this first volume may have been, ultimately, setting the stage for the full-fledged drama of Mortal (the sequel title). How many middling TV pilots have led to an excellent series?

“Love covers a multitude of sins” and in this case, well… so does a good sequel.

Major plot twist I’d love to see in book two? Saric getting some of the curative blood, and either redeeming himself as one of the good guys…or purposely fighting against his “better side” to be a more complicated villain.

Speaking of sequels, I still haven’t read book two of Dekker’s Circle series… which would you rather see me read next? Should I continue with this or head back to his more definitive work? Let me know with a comment, and thanks for checking in on the blog!

Allegory · Full Reviews

Full Review, The Book of Told

“Where were you when I wrote the first words of this story? Tell me if you understand. Who marked out its chapters? Surely you know. Who stretched the story arc across it? On what were its structures set, or who laid the first cornerstone?”

~The Author, when Brew accuses him of being responsible for the painful death of his brother.

What if you found out you were just a word in an author’s book? That this world was His creation and story, but that he had given you free will to decide what kind of character (word) you would be? What if the author penned himself into his own story and promised that those who were words of life in his book would be granted to become ‘real’ at the end of the final chapters, and live in reality with him? What if in six years, you and the inhabitants of your valley experienced an allegorical version of nearly all of human history?  This is The Book of Told: Mere Words.

No matter how I summarize K. A. Gunn’s work, I feel as if I am swaying back and forth between either over-simplification or representing it as extremely complicated. While it is unique in concept, it is not entirely hard to understand or follow – just challenging to describe. You could almost imagine that it is like Pilgrim’s Progress, if Pilgrim made his journey as a Christian but was also traveling through world history, in addition to his own life. However, unlike Pilgrim’s Progress— or even Hind’s Feet in High Places— the main character is relatively stationary in his valley and the narrative involves all the things taking place between the different people who live there.

The language and plot-line of The Book of Told are much easier for me to follow than the aforementioned allegories, given that it was written in a modern-day style and vernacular. Human history doesn’t always condense down into the smooth pacing desired in fiction, so the story can at times feel… fragmented. That said, Gunn does a decent job of weaving the main character’s life through the larger picture to hold it all together and keep things moving. (Side thought… have any of you read Ted Dekker’s Black? This reminds me of Black’s “other reality”, but a lot less fantastical/outlandish.) Like many allegories, there are plenty of “theological pauses,” where the characters stop to discuss or try to wrap their minds around ideas, such as creation vs. evolution or the dangers of entertainment.

What the book lacked in a few minor ways I’ve already mentioned, it more than makes up for by practically fulfilling the very definition of ingenuity: the quality of being clever, original, and inventive. Gunn employs a lot of wordplay and wit, and some of it borders on genius. But ultimately, what I love about this book is that it doesn’t draw attention to itself, but to our Lord and His brilliance.

At times quiet and reflective, at other times (especially in the second half) full of action and conflict, I would recommend this book to anyone who’s been a Christian for some time. It can be difficult to draw out the parallels and soak up the meaning–frankly, I’m still scratching my head and wondering what a lot of the symbolism stood for. I recommended it to my Pastor, and perhaps he will point me in the right direction; notwithstanding, I can easily see myself re-reading this treasure in the near future to see if I can glean some more goodness from the details I glazed over. When I do, or if I alternatively discover something I disagree with upon understanding the meaning, I would love to write up another post to share my findings.

History lovers, allegory readers, and English language devotees, I hope you grab a copy, and be encouraged that the author pledged all the royalties from your purchases to the A21 Campaign, a non-profit which works to end human trafficking and slavery.

To close, which Christian allegory do you think you’ll be more likely to read next; this one or Hind’s Feet on High Places (review here)? Let me know in the comments.

An arrow zinged too close, and I held up my shield swiftly to stub it. Cheers of approval rang out behind me. Still, Told held us back from the attack.

This time, an Untold phrase charged madly into the dome with weapons aimed. “Between ignorance and intelligence!” they shouted their war cry.

Startled they would claim intelligence, given their name, I laughed tensely. Again, they ran by us to attack Som, Duso, and Reson on the stairs. Again, we shouted tribute. “Fear of the author is the beginning of wisdom!”

– Chapter 59

Disclosure for readers– I should note that a mild swear word is used near the beginning of the book when a character grieves the death of a family member. It is not used in any passage thereafter.

Biblical · Full Reviews

Full Review of Jerusalem Rising: Adah’s Journey

What should I say about Jerusalem Rising: Adah’s Journey by Barbara M. Britton? My thoughts about this book have been tumbling around in my mind for some time now, as you can ascertain by the late summer setting of the cover photo!

I first discovered Adah’s Journey when I was processing some new library books to be moved over to our regular fiction section; it’s a small book, and the unknown author and publishing imprint (Harbourlight Books) held my interest. It promised the imagined story of Adah bat Shallum, one of the unnamed daughters recorded as rebuilding the wall of Jerusalem with their father in Nehemiah chapter three. Having no brothers, Adah steps forward and volunteers as a laborer in an act of faith in God as well as a desire to see her father’s name honored and remembered in Nehemiah’s records. Of course, rebuilding the wall is a smooth, peaceful process, right? Wrong, as anyone who’s read the book of Nehemiah knows! Challenges present themselves and Adah plays a role in helping overcome many of them.

Truthfully, this story has what I would call an “unfinished” quality; I felt as if I was reading an excellent second draft that still needed a round or two of polishing. To be fair, most of the problems were small—a number of typos and grammar errors that could have been easily fixed, for example. One fairly substantial character was barely developed and had an unlikely/weak backstory. Even the cover of this book feels underwhelming to me, as if the publishers could have given it a professional finish but perhaps didn’t have the budget. The romances were Hallmark movie style, so expect the characters to experience lots of heart fluttering… and yearnings… and tingly sensations…

All that said, if you’re looking for a lighter, shorter read about a young woman trying to more actively trust God, this may be just the book for you. If you relish a sensory experience, like me, you may also take joy in Adah’s talent as a perfumer– as the different oils and herbs are pleasantly mingled and described throughout the story.  3/5 Stars.

Full Reviews · Historical

Full Review: All Manner of Things, by Susie Finkbeiner

When I took a pre-reading peek at other reviews of All Manner of Things by Susie Finkbeiner, I saw a repetitive comment– “It’s so unique to read historical fiction set during the Vietnam War years!” I won’t talk at length about this aspect of the book, then, since it’s been said before. However, having read a decent helping of historical fiction lately, it is refreshing to see a change from the very common settings of WWII or the American Civil War. The 1960s weren’t all that long ago, so I felt a closeness to the story– after all, it’s the world my mom and dad were born into, with my older aunts and uncles already slipping into bell bottoms and pedal pushers.

All Manner of Things is a coming of age story. Annie Jacobson is on the cusp of full-fledged womanhood, and the novel follows her as she navigates small town life on the edge of Chippewa Lake, Michigan. Already a mature and responsible young lady, she watches her brother enlist as an army medic; works a job as a waitress; and struggles to handle gracefully the return of her father, who abandoned her family twelve years prior. The characters in this book are so alive I still miss them, still see them, as if they were real– and I rarely give out that type of compliment because it can so easily become cliche and hollow.

If you love stories in the vein of Little Women or the Penderwicks series by Jeanne Birdsall (not to be confused with the Penderwick Chronicles), you’ll love this book. Hardly fast-paced, it takes its time, but every moment washes over you like a gold-tinged happy memory or a softly faded polaroid photo. It’s warm and genuine, but not saccharine, infused with everyday happenings and nods to 1960’s pop culture.

I listened to this in audiobook format (downloading it through the library app Hoopla) and I highly recommend you do the same if at all possible! The narration by Tavia Gilbert was among the best I’ve ever listened to. I finished the entire 10+ hours of narration in under a week, which is a record for me.

Perhaps the most important point I can make about Susie Finkbeiner’s work here is that I feel it rides a fine line between “Christian Fiction” and what I would classify as “wholesome reading.” Remember when you were a little kid doing English assignments in school? One of the principal parts of story-telling you learn is that every story has some sort of conflict, be it external (e.g. I need to defeat the ogre to save the beautiful princess) or internal (e.g. I must put aside my cowardly nature for the first time in my life to face the ogre) or both. This is just my opinion, but if a book’s conflict isn’t driven or influenced or affected in some way by the character’s faith, relationship with God, or the Bible– then the religious elements are more a part of the setting than the story. To some degree I think that’s the case with All Manner of Things; Christianity is a part of the characters’ lives in the sense that you see them talking to someone at church or praying at dinner (and that’s certainly a good thing, don’t misunderstand me.) I just wish God had been portrayed as a little more personal, more influential, instead of feeling like an afterthought. I wish more questions had found their answers in God’s Word.

Did I still enjoy the book? Absolutely! Wrapping up this post with a 4/5 star rating.

I would mention to fellow readers that may be concerned about euphemisms that there are many uses of them in this novel (for example, golly or gosh.)

EDIT:

Oops! …this post was accidentally published a week early in addition to the planned post. I am going to leave it up, but will make a few changes and edits as I had not finished “cleaning up” the post and fixing grammar errors, etc. Also, there will be no new post for next week. Thanks!

Contemporary · Full Reviews · Historical

Full Review, Hidden Among the Stars

If absence truly makes the heart grow fonder, than you must be dearly fond of me by now, friends. How sweet, then, to be able to return to you inspired with new ideas for the blog–armed with possibilities and a number of summertime reads to share!

I’m all for a dessert-first attitude, so I wanted to come back with my absolute favorite book of this year. Hidden Among the Stars is the kind of book I started this blog to find; the kind of book I thought about during the day, and looked forward to enjoying when I got home in the same way I look forward to savoring my favorite comfort foods or lighting my favorite candle. I felt as if I could nestle into this book and its characters.

Written by Melanie Dobson, the book is a time-slip novel alternating between Nazi Austria (late 1930s) and a modern day America. Unlike many dual-plotline stories, I found myself equally invested in and enjoying both, at least until the very end… when I absolutely HAD to know how the past would unfold and finally have all my questions answered. The modern day protagonist owns a children’s bookstore with her sister (cue a surplus of snippets from classic children’s literature),and is trying to uncover the links between a family member’s puzzling origins and two mysterious vintage books. The past holds a musician, a wealthy young man, and a girl in love… plus a large dose of fascination. As if that wasn’t enough allure for one novel, Dobson skillfully set the stages in and around a lakeside castle.

How do you feel about unrequited love stories, readers? It isn’t usually to my taste; perhaps I just think there’s enough loneliness in the real world to invalidate ever wanting to put it into a work of fiction where a happily ever after would be as easy as writing in another “I love you.” There was a case of it in Hidden Among the Stars, but it was so perfectly juxtaposed against a few other romances in the novel that it seemed fitting. Younger readers should be cautioned that this book does deal with some heavy topics. As well as, or perhaps as a result of, the expected anti-semitism and cruelty of the period, a young woman is raped. 

While I generally try not to rely on other reviewers to put my feelings about a book into words, I think author Sandra Byrd put it perfectly when she said of Dobson’s work:

“A silver thread of the love-of-others entwines with a golden thread of the love-of-God, tying past and present storylines.”

These threads of Christian truth are woven in delicately and don’t begin to really sparkle until about half-way through. Patiently enjoy the beauty of this novel as you wait for them to emerge and add rich depth to an already lovely book. 5/5 Stars.

Biblical · Full Reviews

Full Review, In the Field of Grace

I really had no intention of reading another Tessa Afshar book so soon! Back in January I reviewed Land of Silence; besides that, I have an ever-growing pile of works by unknown (to me) authors begging to be given a little time. But In the Field of Grace popped up in the audio book section of the library, and I gave in. I haven’t had a good audio book in a while… I can listen with my phone using free services like Hoopla, but lately I’ve been struggling to keep my phone charged. For that reason alone I tend to prefer audio books on CD rather than digital format. Someday I’ll get around to buying a charging cable for my car…

In the Field of Grace, ©2014 by Tessa Afshar, Moody Publishers.

In the Field of Grace is a retelling of the story of Ruth (from the Biblical book of the same name) with imagined details filling in the areas of her life we don’t know from Scripture. Afshar conjectures what Ruth’s Moabite backstory may have been like; considers her daily life in Israel; explores her relationship with Naomi.

The difficulty in writing this book, in my mind, is that I think most Christian women have read and heard the Old Testament passage preached so many times that they have already imagined for themselves many of the unknown particulars of the account. Challenging those interpretations makes it difficult for them to feel as if this could be how it “really happened.”

Afshar does a wonderful job, as usual, of painting with words a vivid world, but somehow it felt disconnected from the Biblical account to me. Maybe it’s the aforementioned problem (though I tried to have an open mind.) Mostly, however, I thought the romance between Ruth and Boaz was exaggerated and modernized in a way that somewhat cheapened the known Biblical narrative (which I’m sure was not Afshar’s intent). By way of example, in this fictionalization Boaz is instantly enamored with Ruth’s beauty upon first sight. Her eyes, her height… I actually rolled my eyes when he notices her long slender fingers (which are covered in dirt from working in the fields all day but still manage to be alluring!) Despite Afshar’s efforts to show that Boaz is a Godly man of character, the over-romanticizing detracted from Boaz’s words of blessing a few minutes later. This is because it felt as if he only showed her kindness, in large part, because she was so attractive to him. Would the wealthy landowner have shown the same generosity if she had not been beautiful, or was just too dirty, tired, and gaunt for him to notice her lovely features? Something in my gut tells me the real Boaz would have.

Ruth’s life also takes on a more precarious nature . She is nearly killed by thieves; struck down with heat stroke in the fields; is burned and suffers from smoke inhalation after beating back a fire in Boaz’s field alone; and… well, I’d better stop before I give away crucial spoilers. I wouldn’t mind the suspense if I wasn’t left wondering if most of the excitement was set up just so Boaz would have a couple opportunities to carry Ruth home in his arms, trembling with concern and hidden ardor.

But wait! Despite some of the issues I take with the book, I really don’t mean this to be a scathing review. I’m rating this 3 stars–lower than Land of Silence or Bread of Angels–but I wouldn’t say it’s devoid of merit. In keeping with Afshar’s signature style, there are plenty of moments of spiritual reflection throughout the book that are thoughtful and encouraging, so if you’ve enjoyed her other titles you will find similar here. I also particularly liked Afshar’s rendering of Ruth’s background in Moab as well as her relationship with Naomi.

In closing, have you read any other books based on the life of Ruth? Also, what are your favorite verses from the Biblical account?

 

Full Reviews · Historical

Saving Amelie, Full Review

I’ve been busy, book friends—I’ve been on a trip to Germany! More than two weeks spent mostly in the little Bavarian village of Oberammergau. It’s a place where fragrant breakfast rolls and strudels warm your mouth and your heart… and the Alps reach up with snowy hands as if ready to catch the sky if it falls. This is the home of the Passion Play, which has been performed by the locals once a decade for over 350 years.

Of course, I haven’t been there literally; who has money to travel? I’ve been immersed in a WWII novel by Cathy Gohlke—Saving Amelie. If you’ve been following my blog for a while, you may remember it as one of the books in my bargain haul from Tyndale. $5 for a ticket back in time is certainly a fare I can afford!

Based on the back-cover summary, I initially thought that the story would be at least partly from the point of view of Kristine Schlick, a young mother unsure how to protect her deaf daughter. Married to an SS officer who views the little girl as a blight on his Aryan bloodline, Kristine is forced to turn to an old friend for help. Rachel Cramer, the true protagonist, steps in as a hesitant hero and escapes with Kristine’s child to the little village of Oberammergau. There, she deals with some shocking discoveries about her own past.

Rachel isn’t a gallant hero, despite the whirlwind of danger and deception she finds herself entrenched in. She’s somewhat selfish, a consequence of being raised in the affluent and prejudiced home of a eugenics scientist. Unable to stomach the depravity she comes face to face with among her father’s circle in Germany, Rachel takes a stand for morality… but remains reluctant to help others with their more mundane and down-to-earth needs.

There’s a romantic interest—Jason Young, an American journalist with resistance connections—as well as a whole host of other lovable characters. As both Rachel and Jason begin to understand Christ’s sacrifice for mankind, they also become more selfless… and this is where the core of the story lies, in what Gohlke emphasizes as “costly grace”—grace that requires a servant’s heart and a surrendering of your own desires.

Despite the hard realities of WWII, Gohlke manages to keep the book from becoming too gritty. She deftly paints the heartaches and struggles of her characters but manages quite a bit of good luck (or perhaps she would call it providence!) for them as well. One or two key plot lines seemed utterly far-fetched and unconvincing to me—ultimately hurting my rating of the book, which otherwise could have been a 5/5. That said, if you relish stories that feature undercover subterfuge or a mysterious underground resistance, you’ll probably still find yourself thoroughly enjoying Saving Amelie.

4/5

Biblical · Full Reviews

Full Review, Land of Silence

LandofSilence1

Close your eyes for a moment… (not too long, or you won’t be able to read this post!)

You’re me. You’re at work at the library. The automated materials handler (a.k.a. the book sorting machine) is humming and spitting books into different bins behind you; someone’s mom is reading aloud in the children’s area; coworkers in sweaters and cardigans answer the telephone at the help desk in a professional tone.

You just received the daily delivery from our sister library in Fairbanks… and opened the lid of one box full of brand new shiny books. If this didn’t already happen every week (and you didn’t have to wonder about little details like shelf space) you might expect some angelic music to fly out when that box opens. Or confetti. With sparkles!

Of course you’re only a little surprised when Land of Silence by Tessa Afshar makes its way out of the box– after all, your ARE the one who requested it for purchase… Continue reading “Full Review, Land of Silence”

Biblical · Full Reviews

Full Review, Take This Cup

 

The last jar remained to be opened. I plucked at the red wax seal and pried the lid off, welcoming the whoosh of ancient air. I peered in. This time there was no scroll, but a fleece wrapped package.

“Rabbi Kagba. It’s not like the others,” I said, some nervousness returning.

“Fetch it out, boy. My hand is too large.”

Reaching in elbow-deep, I grasped the prize and brought it into the light. Beneath thick wrapping, with smooth leather on the outside and fleece on the inside, I felt something the size and shape of a cup. Three strands of knotted leather bound the hide to it. On the exterior of the skin the label read, BEHOLD THE SILVER CUP OF JOSEPH, SON OF JACOB, PRINCE OF EGYPT.

Take This Cup
By Bodie and Brock Thoene
Zondervan, ©2014
Rating: 3/5 Stars

Continue reading “Full Review, Take This Cup”

Allegory · Full Reviews

Full Review, Hinds’ Feet on High Places

HINDS'Feet1

Hinds Feet on High Places
by Hannah Hurnard
Tyndale Publishers

I gave you a sneak peek of Hinds’ Feet on High Places a few weeks ago (you can find that here). In case you missed that post, Hinds’ Feet is an allegory detailing the journey of little “Much-Afraid”, a crippled and disfigured young woman following the Shepherd up to the High Places. In my interpretation, the High Places do not represent Heaven and the end of earthly life, but rather the reaching of a deep spiritual relationship with God which continues to grow. Continue reading “Full Review, Hinds’ Feet on High Places”