CSFF Blog Tour-A Cast of Stones and The Hero’s Lot by Patrick Carr, Day 1

    I see the Christian spec-fic genre as requiring a fairly serious break from the “bad theology” that has shaped much of mainstream Christian fic and a revisiting of a theology of the arts.

Them are my cards and they’re all on the table — “bad theology” has shaped much of mainstream Christian fiction.

My guess — no, my fear — is that many advocates of Christian speculative fiction are importing the same faulty theology and worldview into their approach of the Christian speculative fiction genre.

A-Cast-of-StonesSo said author Mike Duran in his post entitled “Christian Spec-Fic & ‘Intellectual Rigor’ — A Proposal.”

As it turned out, in the discussion that ensued, I presented Mike with a counter proposal, and he accepted. I gave him a short list of novels to choose from and challenged him to read and review whichever book he picked, in light of his question about Christian speculative fiction. As it happens, he selected A Cast of Stones, Book 1 of The Staff & the Sword series, by Patrick Carr, the second August selection of the CSFF Blog Tour.

Happily, Mike learned that in honor of the release of Book 2, The Hero’s Lot, A Cast of Stones is currently being offered as a free ebook (Nook is offering it for free as well), so he also invited his Facebook friends to join him in the challenge. One person even suggested a Facebook page where readers could discuss the book.

I wanted to intervene and say that such a discussion is the kind of thing that participants of the CSFF Blog Tour get to do, but I refrained–I don’t want to turn a positive conversation into smarmy spam. 😀

As to the portion of Mike’s post which I quoted above, I’ve spent some time trying to discern what “bad theology” Mike is referring to. From what he’s said in other posts and what he’s said in real life, I know he believes the Bible in the same way I do.

What he doesn’t believe (and again, I agree) is that there is a set of conservative behavioral standards often adhered to by an element of the more conservative evangelical churches which defines or even identifies Christians–things like no drinking, dancing, smoking, swearing. A number of readers who admittedly don’t read Christian fiction believe that these stories still hold to those standards. More than once I’ve heard how Christian fiction can’t show someone drinking, for instance.

It’s a laughable statement, and has been for at least five years, but A Cast of Stones ought to put the issue to bed because the protagonist of the story, Errol Stone, is the town drunk. (Note, he doesn’t just drink, but he is a drunk, something Scripture does, in fact, speak against). And yet, some strictures remain–primarily a prohibition against swearing and “coarse” language and against sex scenes.

As I understand Mike, this kind of “PG-rated story” means Christian speculative fiction is still tied to bad theology that says good Christians don’t do “those things” or at least want to hide their eyes from others doing those things.

I think I understand his point. Books that frown on including curse words have no compunction against showing characters steeped in greed and anger. Some have characters that slander their neighbors, or ignore the homeless. Why have evangelicals picked out a set of “defining sins” that aren’t in Scripture–at least in the way Christians use them–while ignoring others?

There’s something else in another comment that I think might also get to what Mike means by “bad theology”–that Christians have a bad theology of the arts. They exist as a means to evangelize. They are, in essence, little more than a pragmatic way to take the message of the gospel to those who need to hear. Or they are a means by which Christians can reinforce their own narrow views about life and godliness.

I’m stepping out on a limb here because I don’t know which, if any, of those ideas are part of what Mike thinks is the ongoing bad theology of Christian fiction. He says he doesn’t mean content when he refers to the intellectual rigor Christian fiction is lacking.

I’ll let others ferret out precisely what Mike means. I’ve written what I mean about intellectual rigor both here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction and also at Speculative Faith. I’ve written my theology of art, too, in bits and pieces here and there (see for example this post and this one and this one). Perhaps I need to revisit the subject.

In a nutshell, I see art as little more than an extension of who I am and what I am tasked to do and be. Consequently, my art is to be consistent with my life and my life purposes. My life purposes certainly include proclaiming who Jesus is and what He’s done (“. . . that you may proclaim the excellencies of Him who has called you out of darkness into His marvelous light” 1 Peter 2:9b), but that’s not the limit by any means.

And how does all this relate to A Cast of Stones, beside the fact that Mike and some of his Facebook friends will be reading and reviewing the book? I see this novel, and a number of others, breaking the mold which has limited traditional Christian fiction. It questions things other books have not questioned before. It addresses, for instance, what might be a barrier to someone becoming involved in the church–a significant topic lately considering the articles discussing why millenials are abandoning the church.

I promise–tomorrow I’ll discuss the book itself in more detail. For now, I recommend you check out what other CSFF’ers are saying about the first two of The Staff & the Sword books. (A check mark give you a link to a tour article).

Julie Bihn
Keanan Brand
Beckie Burnham
Jeff Chapman
Laure Covert
Pauline Creeden
Emma or Audrey Engel
April Erwin
Nikole Hahn
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Krystine Kercher
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Writer Rani
Nathan Reimer
Chawna Schroeder
Jojo Sutis
Steve Trower
Phyllis Wheeler
Rachel Wyant

Rules of Murder by Julianna Deering – A Review

Author Julianna Deering must be doing something right because her novel Rules of Murder (Bethany House), first in the Drew Farthering Mystery series and the current Christian Fiction Writers Alliance blog tour feature, garnered multiple Goodreads reviewer comparisons to Agatha Christy, Dorothy Sayers, and the TV writers behind the cozy mystery series Murder, She Wrote. Without a doubt, it appears fans of those writers comprise the audience for Rules of Murder.

I have to admit, as I read the story, I couldn’t help but think of Downtown Abbey as well as the mysteries of yesteryear. There was a distinct upstairs/downstairs element that I thought added to the charm and enjoyment of this novel.

The Story. Drew Farthering, a young English gentleman of the 1930s, comes home to more than he expects. His mother is holding a party and his stepfather has invited a number of the guests who are also business associates to stay over the weekend. After wrangling his room away from a man with a questionable reputation, Drew settles in to make the best of the situation.

If only circumstances had allowed such settling. Instead, first one body turns up, then another, and another, and another. Drew and those he’s gathered around him are intent to find the murderer, though the police inspector isn’t too keen on having a civilian tampering with evidence—that is, until Drew and his cohorts find a key something which the police missed.

Strengths. I love a good mystery and Rules of Murder qualifies. There were sufficient red herrings and unexpected events to keep the story from being predictable. The historical feel seemed wonderfully familiar. Ms. Deering successfully painted the setting without getting bogged down in details or slowing the story.

Besides the expected puzzle the story provided, I most enjoyed the varied character voices. The English gentlemen came off appropriately stuffy and impersonal for the time period. The American love interest sounded less formal and more relaxed. The servants altered between their clipped and somewhat stiff “at work” speech to the more expansive narrative of those comfortable in their own skin but not so comfortable in association with moneyed or authoritative people.

My favorite exchange, which goes on for several pages, is between the gardener, Mr. Peterson, and Inspector Birdsong. The protagonist, Drew, is present as well. Here’s part of the interrogation.

[Birdsong asked,] “Tell me what you did last Friday.”

“The whole day?” Peterson asked.

“The whole day.”

The gardener scratched the side of his head with one grimy fingernail. “I gets up round five, as I reckon it, and gets dressed. My old woman, she give me beans on toast fer breakfast and a bit of black pudding and tea. Then I does down to the shed fer my spade and such.”

“Is that the shed where you kept the shotgun?”

“It is.”

“Go on.”

“About then I sets Mack and Bobby, my men, you see, I sets them on to weedin’ and that whilst I tends to the roses. Mrs. Parker, God rest her, sir, Mrs. Parker was that fond of her roses, and I liked to keep ’em fer her. So I were mixing some top-class muckings from the stables into the soil round them, just to perk ’em up like. Took me nigh unto noon to do ’em all.”

“All right,”Birdsong said. “And did you see anything during that time?”

“I seen some of them has aphids.”

“I mean anything unusual,” Birdsong pressed.

“That is unusual for my roses.”

Drew bit his lip.

“Anything else?” the chief inspector asked.

“There’s moles or somethin’ digging round in the bed nearest the forest.”

I could go on—the entire scene is delightful—but that gives you a picture of the strong character voice Ms. Deering gives to her characters.

Weaknesses. Very little bothered me. I finished the book feeling as if I’d found a new friend because I truly love mysteries. This one was thoroughly satisfying. However, for the sake of a review, I thought over the story and came up with two specifics.

First, I thought our protagonist needed more emotional depth. He’s falling in love and facing tragedy, all at the same time. Yes, he is an aloof English gentleman, but I think he would have at least thought more deeply even if he didn’t allow himself to feel more deeply.

But that leads to the second. In response to the death around him, in what felt like inappropriate and unmotivated times, Drew had short musings about death. I would have rather he dealt with the issue or decided to avoid it all together, but this near-handling of it felt tepid to me. (And now, for some reason, I feel as if I must write in the lofty English style of the period. Whatever has come over me? 😉 )

Recommendation. Loved it. Really an enjoyable story, well-told. Anyone who has a soft spot for the mysteries of old, with the big reveal at the end which ties up all the loose ends, will be a fan of Rules of Murder. Anyone who appreciates historical settings and strong character voices will enjoy the writing. I enthusiastically recommend this one.

Published in: on August 15, 2013 at 5:46 pm  Comments Off on Rules of Murder by Julianna Deering – A Review  
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CFBA Tour – Hurt by Travis Thrasher

The Christian Fiction Blog Alliance is featuring Hurt, a young adult novel by Travis Thrasher, categorized on the back of the book as mystery and thriller. One of those endorsing the book, however, says The Solitary Tales books are superior entries “in the genre of Christian horror and teenage angst.” Oh, joy! My two favorite things! 😕 But wait.

The Story. Seventeen year old Chris Buckley has returned to the town of Solitary to save his mom. For all he knows she’s being held against her will by an evil pastor trying to manipulate him to do things he doesn’t want to do. And to keep him from the fledgling faith he recently embraced. The problem is, Pastor Marsh and the man he works for, as well as the man who does his bidding, won’t stop at threats. In reality, no one Chris knows and loves is safe. Who can he turn to for help? Who would believe him if he told all he knows about the men behind the evil in Solitary?

Evaluation. Travis Thrasher is an excellent writer–that’s clear from the start. He creates a character with a unique voice. Yes, he’s full of angst, but he isn’t without hope. In fact a good portion of the book is about the protagonist wrestling with his faith or discovering a new love.

Both of these threads–and sometimes they intertwined–are masterfully written. I liked Chris as a guy who appeared self-assured though inwardly he feels like he hasn’t got a clue what he’s doing. I like his protective nature, his inability to say all he’s thinking, his awe at the bright spot this one special girl has become in his life.

The horror never felt particularly horrifying to me, but I think that aspect of the series was more prevalent in the first three books. In Hurt, the perpetrators have been unmasked, the goal of their schemes is clear. The real focus is on how Chris is going to respond when the critical D-day approaches.

To be honest, the end wasn’t what I’d hoped. I wanted Chris to have a better plan, to do more, stand up for what he believed, resist evil. Instead it seemed as if he was still in reactionary mode, which he’d mostly been in throughout the novel. He had put some plans in motion, but what those things were mostly happened off stage. The one critical event had some flaws.

For (a purposefully circumspect) example (to avoid spoilers), at one point Chris needs help with a belt, but later in the scene, he seems to have no trouble with this belt even though there’s no one around to provide the same kind of help he required earlier.

There’s also a place where Chris could have exercised at least a modicum of forgiveness–the kind he’s received–but he spurns the opportunity in what seemed to me to be a cold-hearted disregard for life. In standing against evil, I’d like to see the character offer a sharp contrast–not returning evil for evil.

All in all, the book moved at a brisk pace. There were moments that were thoroughly engaging. I can see fans of horror embracing this series. I think the Christian elements and faith discussions were natural to the character and his circumstances. I liked the contrast between evil Pastor Marsh’s “sermons” and those of Chris’s girlfriend’s pastor.

Recommendation. Would a non-Christian read these books? Sure, if he wasn’t predisposed to hate Christians or Christianity. I think it’s an entertaining story without a bit of preachiness. Chris’s struggle with his faith seems believable under the pressure and intimidation with which he lives.

What about Christians? I see less here for Christians. Young adults may relate to the characters, but I’m not sure what they’d come away with.

Nevertheless, readers of any kind who like horror or thrillers can enjoy Hurt, no doubt.

– – – – –
About the Author

After college, Travis Thrasher targeted working in the publishing industry and was fortunate to find a job early after graduation. He worked as Author Relations Manager for Tyndale House Publishers, the publisher of his first two novels.

The thirteen years he spent working in author relations taught him the business of publishing as well as the psyche of writers.

Early on, he made a deliberate choice of not wanting to be boxed in by a brand or a genre. Instead, Travis has chosen time and time again to write the stories that mean something to him at that moment. He views his first ten years of being published as training and practice. Those novels in many ways were written for himself.

The four years of writing full time have taught him the discipline and determination necessary to make it as a novelist. They’ve also served to close the chapter on what is hopefully just one era in his writing journey.

The stories continue to fill his head like they did when he was in third grade. The only difference is that Travis now knows what to do with those stories. His goal continues to be to tell stories that move him as well as his readers. He wants to continue to experiment and take risks, but more than anything he wants to provide readers a satisfying experience.

The dream remains the same. To try and write something magnificent. To make up wild worlds full of wonderfully rich characters. To make sense of the world through the stories he tells. And to try and inspire hope with the words he writes.

Learn more about Travis and his work at his web site, Facebook, Twitter, and Goodreads.

Published in: on January 14, 2013 at 6:02 pm  Comments Off on CFBA Tour – Hurt by Travis Thrasher  
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Fantasy Friday – The Kingdom Review

As part of the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance, I received a review copy of The Kingdom by Bryan Litfin from the publisher, Crossway. This is the final book in the Chiveis Trilogy, following book 1, The Sword and book 2, The Gift.

The Story. Continuing where The Gift left off, The Kingdom tells the story of Anastasia and Teofil, two exiles from Chiveis living in a post-apocalyptic Europe.

For the most part Christianity had vanished because the Bible had been lost, but through Ana and Teo’s efforts, that changed, and in The Gift the entire Bible was recovered. Now, in The Kingdom their mission is to take the Holy Writings first to lands of the Beyond, but ultimately, back to their native country.

Evaluation. Writing an epic story is hard and bringing it to a satisfying conclusion, harder. There are only so many times that the hero can overcome the antagonist before these confrontations lose power. Without the stakes being raised, each new conflict seems predictable and redundant.

Unfortunately, The Kingdom falls prey to these lurking predators. At the same time, the characters are much the same as they were in the first volumes of the story–not actually a good thing since I found them to be “thin. Their motives are clear but not in the least complicated. The changes in their goals or moral fiber happen quickly, even easily, and often over night.”

Plot problems are solved in the same quick, easy way, which is why the stakes remain low–there is no sense that failure is actually a possibility.

There’s inconsistency in the intriguing setting, too. While the Bible had been lost for decades, once its found, there is no trouble translating it into various languages in a matter of weeks and of printing out multiple copies, though their world is without basic technology.

And while the Bible had been lost in the post-apocalyptic age, the Vatican, the Sistine Chapel, the Pope, and various abbeys survived. Yet apparently nowhere among these was there knowledge of Jesus, His death and resurrection, or promised return.

In many ways I feel a little heartbroken. I am still excited that another Evangelical Christian Publishing Association house chose to invest in a fantasy series. I’m also happy that they chose a post-apocalyptic story since this side of the genre has been popular in the general market. At the same time, the story had many elements that made it feel like familiar fantasy–a good thing for fantasy lovers like me.

However, the sharp edge of promise was dulled by mediocre execution. As much as I want to be a fan, as much as I have prayed for Mr. Litfin to do well and to succeed, I find myself more relieved to be finished than pleased I read the trilogy.

Mine is just one opinion, of course, and I know for a fact that others who read the book in conjunction with the CFBA tour had a much different take on it than I did. See for example Megan who reports that she loved the book.

You can also read the first chapter of the book and/or watch the impressive trailer Crossway put together to showcase the book:

CFBA Tour – Nothing To Hide By J. Mark Bertrand

Nothing To Hide (Bethany House Publishing) is a Roland March mystery by Mark Bertrand, a writer I got to know at the Faith In Fiction forum years ago. I later had the privilege of meeting him in person at an ACFW conference.

Besides his Roland March mysteries, he co-authored a mystery romance with Deeanne Gist and has written a non-fiction book on Christian worldview. As you might guess, the man is a real talent.

All this to say, when I get an opportunity to read and talk about his work, I’m eager to do so.

The problem is, my copy of Nothing To Hide only arrived last Thursday. Unfortunately, I couldn’t drop everything else and read through, much as I would have loved to. Being a notoriously slow reader, I have only reached the critical set up point during the few hours I’ve been able to settle in with the book.

So rather than a review, I’m offering first impressions. The first is my typical reaction when I crack a book and discover first person, present tense writing–a silent groan.

It’s not my favorite. I’ve tried to figure out why, and the main things that come to mind are moot points if the technique is executed well (see review for Shannon Dittemore’s Angel Eyes).

Clearly, Mark is a skilled writer, and until I sat down to write this post, I hadn’t thought about the point of view or tense since I first started the book.

The plot revolves around a fairly gruesome murder–Roland March is a homicide detective, after all–so there was a little CSI feel to the story at the beginning. I think many readers will be attracted to this aspect, and it wasn’t a negative for me since I wasn’t actually seeing all grisly parts. (Yes, parts!)

The character continues to intrigue me. I’ve seen growth over the first two books, and he isn’t the same despairing, insecure person he was in the first two volumes. He’s still troubled, still trying to make life work, but I like him better so far, respect him more.

Mark’s writing is stellar. There are no hiccups, nothing that pulls me from the story. The scenes are painted well without laboring over needless detail, the characters all seem to be living, breathing people with their own issues.

All in all, this is a satisfying beginning. I’m glad to get back to it again when I must put it down.

If you’d like to read an actual review, check out my friend Nicole‘s article (she is also a former FIF’er) or the excellent one by Linda. I admit, I had to skim their summary of the story because I didn’t want to know anything ahead of time, but their comments about the book are thoughtful.

Better yet, get a copy of the book and find out for yourself what a good storyteller Mark is.

Published in: on July 3, 2012 at 6:36 pm  Comments Off on CFBA Tour – Nothing To Hide By J. Mark Bertrand  
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CFBA Blog Tour – The Hope Of Shridula

From time to time I participate in the Christian Fiction Blog Alliance blog tour, and this second half of the week the group is focusing on The Hope Of Shridula (Abingdon Press) by Kay Marshall Strom. This is actually book 2 of the Blessings in India Series, but it easily reads like a stand-alone.

The Story. Shridula and her parents are members of the Dalites, or India’s chaste of Untouchables, enslaved to a rich landowner because of a small debt her father’s father owed. Trapped in what appears to be a hopeless situation, the world as they know it begins to unravel because this is 1946 — the British colony is fighting for independence and then to accommodate the strong and varied religions influencing different people groups. Trapped by their economic circumstances, helpless against the powerful, and now squeezed by political forces that are ripping apart the fabric of society, Shridula and her family have few options until a surprising way of escape opens.

Strengths. Some Christian publishing professionals claim that American readers don’t want stories about other peoples and other places. I don’t know if that’s true or not. I know I used to shy away from what I considered the “typical missionary story.” Not that I’d read many. But in my mind they were predictable and unrealistic. They put missions in the very best possible light and told only success stories.

Forget all that with Kay Marshall Strom’s work. Her novels are about real people facing real struggles. And she happens to be perfectly suited to write books about people living in underdeveloped countries, suffering hardship and abuse because of injustices they face. For years she’s written non-fiction based on personal interviews with people throughout the world. She’s been to India alone seven times. In other words, she’s done her research in the best way possible, and it shows.

In some ways, though, you have to be ready to have your heart broken because of what people suffering at the bottom of the caste system go through. Humble people, subservient people, hard-working, fearful, superstitious, loving people tied to a religion that debases them and offers little hope. Then to realize that the cultural Christianity of the minority clouds the truth, as well, the story seems destined to a hopeless end.

But in a deft way, Kay’s skill as a novelist shows God’s sovereignty, so that light and truth merge in a wonderfully surprising ending.

This is a quiet book in the sense that there are no car chases or clashing armies. But there is plenty of tension and suspense based on personal conflict and pressures, so it kept me turning the pages.

In addition, I immediately cared for the title character, a twelve year old put in a dangerous situation. Here’s the opening, and I think you’ll see what I mean.

Chapter 1

South India
May 1946

The last of the straggling laborers hefted massive bundles of grain onto their weary heads and started down the path toward the storage shed. Only twelve-year-old Shridula remained in the field. Frantically she raced up and down the rows, searching through the maze of harvested wheat stalks.

Each time a group of women left, the girl tried to go with them, her nervous fear rising. Each time Dinkar stopped her. The first time she had tried to slip in with the old women at the end of the line the overseer ordered, “Shridula! Search for any water jars left in the fields.” Of course she found none. She knew she wouldn’t. What water boy would be fool enough to leave a jar behind?

By the time the girl finished her search, twilight shrouded the empty field in dark shadows. Shridula hurried to grab up the last bundle of grain. Its stalk tie had been knocked undone, and wheat spilled out across the ground. Quickly tucking the tie back together, Shridula struggled to balance the bundle up on her head. It shifted . . . and sagged . . . and sank down to her shoulders.

If you’d like, you can read the entire first chapter, but I think these opening paragraphs give you a sense of Shridula’s vulnerability, the quality that I believe won me to her right away.

Miraculously and without any preachiness, Kay navigates common pitfalls and delivers an ending that is not contrived, predictable, cliched, or overly simplified. This is a memorable story, exposing the light of God’s love in the midst of a dark world steeped in false religion.

Weaknesses. If you’re looking for literary prose, you won’t find it in this book. The writing is straightforward and crisp. Some might think of that as a strength rather than a weakness.

If you’re looking for sweet romance, you won’t find that in this book either. The story is far too realistic, exposing harsh realities, though in a matter-of-fact manner that reduces the horrific to the mundane. Perhaps that’s a strength, too, though I might wish the horrific dug a little deeper into my heart. It’s a hard thing to accomplish for a novelist, though, when the characters themselves, consistent with real life, accept their lot and suffer much of their abuse willingly or at least silently.

Recommendation. This is a must read for anyone willing to step out of the comfort of his or her own culture and to look at how limitless our sovereign God is. It’s a story that will hold your interest to the last page.

According to the FAA I must add, I received a courtesy copy of this book from the publisher as part of the CFBA blog tour.

CFBA Tour – The Gift by Bryan Litfin

A little over a year ago I wrote a review for Bryan Litfin‘s debut novel The Sword published by Crossway, a house not known at the time for its speculative fiction.

What impressed me the most about The Sword was the premise, so much so that I seized the opportunity to review Book 2 of the Chiveis Trilogy, The Gift. Now, as then, I’m so happy Crossway has taken the bold step to invest in fantasy.

The Story.
This dystopian fantasy continues the plight of Teofil and Anastasia who are exiled from their homeland because of their faith in the one true God who they know as Deu.

After an adventure that almost takes Ana’s life, they arrive in Ulmbartia where they encounter others who believe as they do. But just like them, their new friends do not possess a copy of the last part of the sacred writings.

However, some of the traditions of their faith have survived, though what these things mean, none can say.

When circumstances separate Teo and Ana, they take wildly different paths. He commits himself to finding a copy of the New Testament but refuses to turn his back on what he considers his first mission — to protect Ana.

In my review of the first book, I voiced concern about a theological point — specifically how people without Christ were coming to God. In The Gift, I thought Mr. Litfin did an admirable job reflecting what Scripture says about those in relationship with God prior to Christ’s coming. The clear emphasis was on the hope for the Redeemer King.

Once again, I found the look at Christianity from the eyes of those who have the promises of the Messiah without the knowledge of who He is to be particularly interesting.

The story was fast paced and interesting, with lots of danger and intrigue. New villains surfaced, as deadly as those in the first volume. In addition, the main characters battle their own doubts and fears.

Plus, this is the kind of fantasy I enjoy. I was happy to pick up the book, glad to be in the unique world Mr. Litfin painted.

While I enjoyed The Sword, I thought The Gift was a stronger book. And yet …

My main quibble is with the characters. I find them to be thin. Their motives are clear but not in the least complicated. The changes in their goals or moral fiber happen quickly, even easily, and often over night. In addition, the action takes place at a breakneck pace so there really isn’t a lot of time to develop the characters in the well-rounded way I enjoy most. However, I’m sure there are some readers who prefer it that way. 😉

The story had a particularly interesting twist at the end, and I thought the climax was foreshadowed, at least in the brief way the rest of the story unfolded.

However I thought there were a few holes in the plot such as what became of the people in the Sanctuary after the Overseer left and what became of the sell-out Knight of the Cross and his little defective son. I also wondered how Teo who was banished from one country seemed to operate there freely. I wondered why he could defeat the Iron Shield in their first engagement but had so much trouble with some of the lesser skilled foes he faced later. I wondered why he didn’t keep shouting to Ana to trust him or even tell her in their native language what he was plotting rather than let her take his place.

Little things, to be sure. But those holey spots kept me from being completely immersed in the story.

While I wasn’t immersed in the story, I still enjoyed it and am glad I had the chance to read The Gift. Overall, I thought the book was a fine sophomore novel that showed stronger writing than the debut it follows.

Again, this one will be a book those who love fantasy and who want a story with a Christian worldview will enjoy. I suspect there will be more Litfin fans coming on board because of The Gift.

To acquaint you with the book further, stop by the CFBA blog and click on the links to other posts about The Gift. If you visit Mr. Litfin’s website, you can also read the first chapter. For now, sit back and enjoy the book trailer.

The Gift Trailer from Crossway on Vimeo.

Special thanks to Crossway for providing me with an Advance Reader’s Copy of the book to review.

Published in: on May 3, 2011 at 5:57 pm  Comments Off on CFBA Tour – The Gift by Bryan Litfin  
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Another Dawn by Kathryn Cushman

I may have mentioned that Kathryn (Katie) Cushman is one of my favorite authors. Consequently I jumped at the chance to be a part of the CFBA tour for her newest book, Another Dawn.

The Story. Single mom Grace Graham wants to do what’s best for her son Dylan. That’s why she chose not to have him vaccinated. Her close friend and co-worker/boss Jasmine is dealing with an autistic child — one who had been developing normally until a week after he received his shot. And Grace has done her homework — she’s read what a host of other moms in similar circumstances are saying, in contradiction to the latest scientific studies. In the end she made the choice she thought best for her son.

But when she leaves California to help care for her father as he undergoes knee surgery, she finds that her decision has ramifications she never considered. Like so many other things in her life — her break-up with Steve, her decision to take time off from work when Jasmine needs her most, and her anger toward her father after her mother died.

Strengths. Katie is a master at revealing both sides of an issue in a sympathetic way. She does so beautifully in Another Dawn. But this book is not a mere “issue” book. Yes, the central external conflict deals with a relevant question that confronts parents today, but there’s so much more happening in this story. There are relational issues between the protagonist and her father, her boss/friend, her sister, and her former boyfriend. There’s also an internal conflict about how she handles problems, and there is a spiritual dimension that overlays all. In other words, this is a complex story.

However, the complexity never feels knotted. It’s masterfully interwoven and makes this book speak to readers on a number of different levels.

Is it entertaining? Completely. I found it to be a compelling story, one that had one mystery after another waiting to be unraveled.

Moreover, this story digs inside hearts. It confronts because the character is forced to confront. It is full of faith and encouragement even as it works as a needle excising a splinter or a scalpel cutting away infection.

Weakness. In a large part, Another Dawn shows Christians working out a set of problems. The one question that came to me after I finished the book was about the back story. With Grace’s past, I couldn’t help but wonder when she stopped running from God, as it seems she was doing prior to Dylan’s birth. As I recall, Grace did say something about not talking to God much lately, but she seemed to pick up where she left off without acknowledging sin in her life.

I know this is a somewhat contentious issue these days. Does “Christian fiction” need a “conversion”?

Katie did a beautiful job portraying real people who happened to be Christians. Consequently, I was surprised when in the end I didn’t see what I would expect from a Christian who has strayed from God.

Did it ruin the story? Not at all. Was it theologically unsound? Not in any way. It was silent, is all. Many people may not think twice about Grace’s past.

As I write this, however, it seems like her realizing she had run from God as much as she had run from her other problems could have made the story even stronger.

Recommendation. Must read for those who enjoy women’s Christian fiction. Must read for parents of younger children. Highly recommended for anyone (yes, even men) who enjoys a well-written story.

In conjunction with CFBA I received a free review copy of this book from Bethany House.

Published in: on February 8, 2011 at 8:15 pm  Comments Off on Another Dawn by Kathryn Cushman  
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CFBA Blog Tour – The Lightkeeper’s Bride

This side of heaven, expectations can be a curse. I wish that was a line describing the theme of this CFBA Blog Tour feature, The Lightkeeper’s Bride by Colleen Coble. Unfortunately, it’s related to my reaction to the novel.

I anticipated what? A good story, well-written, but of course those things are subjective. One of the endorsers of this historical mystery romance mentioned plot twists, another, red herrings. A third identified the book as a fast-paced romance. Those then were things I expected.

Except, the title gives away which of the two men in the heroine’s life she falls in love with. No twist there, despite the usual prickly beginning to their relationship.

What about the mystery element? There weren’t any genuine red herrings. The heroine suspected the hero, but the reader knew he was out in the ocean at the time of the crime trying to save a group of sailors whose ship had been pirated. The next suspect was the heroine’s father, and he admitted to his part of the nefarious events. But not the critical event our heroine is initially concerned with.

Who was left? The constable, the hero’s private investigator brother who is trying to solve the pirating crime, the heroine’s mother, and her gentleman friend who insisted on courting her though she had no feelings for him. Hmm. Let me see. Who do I think committed the crime? 🙄

I understand, not everyone puts as high a value on surprise as I do, and perhaps others read without interest in looking for suspects. Consequently, I’m sure some will overlook the things that bothered me and enjoy the typically sweet romance in this story. (Girl meets boy; girl is forced because of a small pox epidemic to move into the lighthouse with boy—and a chaperon and an abandoned one-year-old they both want custody of; girl is attracted to boy because of his rugged good looks and tenderness with child; boy falls for girl; girl admits her attraction but thinks she must marry to please her parents; love conquers in the end).

Those who enjoy the romance may well overlook some of the writing issues that disappointed me, too, such as characters that dropped out of scenes without explanation, or blackmail secrets told in front of characters as if they weren’t present.

At one point the heroine felt physically ill when she found out the man wooing her was involved in the piracy that cost ten men their lives. But earlier in the story when she learned of her father’s similar involvement in said piracy, she had no such reaction.

Those kinds of hiccups made the story feel uneven to me. At some points I was caught up in the adventure and at other times I felt uninterested in characters that seemed unrealistic.

Too bad. I like the idea of a historical mystery romance. I think this book’s beautiful cover gives a feel for the intrigue I expected. But the problem with expectations … they sometimes cause a letdown.

In conjunction with the CFBA Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

Published in: on November 22, 2010 at 7:30 pm  Comments (2)  
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CFBA Blog Tour – Back on Murder

The current CFBA Blog Tour feature is J. Mark Bertrand‘s Back on Murder, a Roland March Mystery (Bethany House Publishers). I’ve known Mark as an online colleague for some time and have learned a lot from him, so I was happy to join in a tour for his first solo novel. You may recall, he debuted as the co-author with Deeanne Gist of a romantic suspense entitled Beguiled (a novel I also reviewed).

The Story.
Roland March is a troubled, and apparently, in trouble, homicide detective in Houston. He’s been shipped, metaphorically, from the penthouse to the outhouse—given jobs he sees as the bottom of the barrel. He wants desperately to get back into real detective work.

Except, he can’t seem to treat his superiors as … superior. When he gets a chance to work on a case again, under an up-and-coming younger detective, he chafes under the restraint. He has his own hunches he wants to check out, which makes him inattentive to the jobs he’s given.

Even as March is taken off the case and loaned out to another agency, then yanked back to homicide to work the dreaded cop-suicide detail, he continues to pursue his ideas, believing that his career hangs on his solving the intertwining crimes.

There’s more. A grudge match with another detective, personal failings, and heartbreak. As the story unfolds, so does the character—readers learn what caused March’s career to tank and what’s behind his personal demons.

But of course, I’m not going to tell you any of that. “Twould the story spoil. 😉

The thing that impressed me the most was how integrated Christianity is in this story. Not all the characters are Christians, mind you (I read that recently, in a blog comment at another site—that in Christian fiction all the characters are Christians 😛 ). But since one of the crimes around which the story centers involves a Christian, of necessity Detective March must interview a youth pastor among others.

As it turns out, one of his partners is also a Christian and so is … well, you get the idea. Sprinkled throughout his co-workers and acquaintances, March encounters a variety of Christians, none who try to convert him. They simply act the way Christians in real life act.

They struggle with guilt, make good choices, make brave decisions, make mistakes, show weaknesses, live out their faith, and more.

Besides the faith aspect, Mark has done an excellent job portraying characters. Roland March, his wife, Detective Cavallo, the youth pastor Carter Robb, all of them spring to life. They are believable, interesting, three dimensional, well motivated. In short, they make the book.

But what about the plot, you may ask. I mean, this is a mystery, isn’t it? Yeeess, sort of. It’s not your typical mystery, but I’ll touch on that in a bit. The thing is, the plot keeps moving forward and readers learn more about March’s inner world even as they learn about the complex crimes he’s working to solve. It’s not high-action, page-turning, heart-pounding drama. It’s more real than that. An engaging story, peopled with realistic characters, and placed in a true-to-life setting.

Recently Mark wrote a guest post at Forensics and Faith called “First Person, Present Tense (And Other Risks)” in which he said, “The story made me do it.” Yes, Back on Murder is written in first person, present tense. And I have it listed under “weaknesses.”

It’s a personal thing. I don’t like first person very much, though I can adjust. I don’t like present tense hardly at all, but I have liked some books that utilize it.

Both? Such a book requires a strong character voice, and I suggest one that is “agreeable.” To be honest, early in the story, I found Roland March’s strong, distinctive voice to grate on me because it continued page after page. He wasn’t whiny, but he was cynical and negative and depressed and jaded and a bit arrogant. He wore on me.

Thankfully as he became more engaged with the case, he began to … not change as much as shift. I began to understand where his attitude came from, too, so I grew more sympathetic. Let’s say, I’m glad I persevered through the earlier parts.

The other thing I’m considering as a weakness is that Back on Murder isn’t really a mystery. It’s a puzzle. This is not your Hercule Poirot type mystery with a cast of suspects and a litany of clues. Rather this is a twisty, interwoven series of crimes that relate to one another and March is trying to connect the dots.

It’s interesting, but I don’t see it as the kind of mystery that allows a reader to “play along.” Readers learn things as March learns things, so we’re sort of in it together, but not in the same way as the Agatha Christie mysteries. My taste runs toward those.

I know how Mark prefers reviews of Christian books that are more than promotional pieces. The thing is, Back on Murder is worth promoting. It’s a well-written story that integrates Christianity in the same way that Christians are, or should be, integrated in society. The book is entertaining even as it is insightful. I highly recommend Back on Murder to anyone who enjoys a good crime story, who wants to read a well-crafted novel, or who wants to read a book with intriguing characters.

Published in: on July 13, 2010 at 12:22 pm  Comments Off on CFBA Blog Tour – Back on Murder  
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