CSFF Blog Tour, Day 2 – A Review of Vanish

Vanish coverVanish, the June CSFF Blog Tour feature written by Tom Pawlik, is an adult supernatural suspense novel. Those of you who hang around here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction are probably rolling your eyes. (I need to come up with some short, snappy way of referring to this little blog. ACWoF just doesn’t do anything for me) Why the eye roll? others may wonder. Because I’ve said often enough, supernatural suspense is not my genre of choice. Yet I end up reading far more of it than I care to because it’s lumped in with fantasy in the “speculative” category.

Except, this time, I am happy my involvement in CSFF spurred me to read Vanish.

The Story. I can’t tell you much. 8) Even giving you the genre feels like I’m spoiling the story. This is one you need to experience sans spoilers. If you haven’t read Vanish yet and plan to take a peek at other CSFF posts, STOP READING IMMEDIATELY if you see a spoiler alert. Too much information will indeed ruin this story. I say this knowing full well that tomorrow I plan to discuss something important that Vanish has made me think about, and of necessity I’ll give spoilers. You are warned!

So what can I tell you? The main character Conner Hayden experiences the strange sensation that he’s being watched, until one evening when he sees an odd storm cloud, then passes out … or goes to sleep. He doesn’t really know. But when he awakens, everyone he knows is gone. No cars on the road. No one answering the phone. Only static on the radio. No TV reception. Stores are empty.

The story, then, is about Conner trying to figure out What Has Happened, and about how What Has Happened affects him.

Strengths. Intrigue! Intrigue! Intrigue! And Suspense in equal measure. Yes, Tom really has written a story that will have you guessing and wondering and worrying and fearing. And maybe in the end, hoping.

I hesitate to say this, but I think this book could be classified accurately as Christian horror. I have to think that one of Tom’s intentions was to scare people. And notice, I put this down as a strength. Hmmm.

At the same time, this is not a blood-bath kind of book. The real fear is generated by the unknown. I think Tom did an outstanding job feeding just a bit of information at a time, gradually increasing the fear factor.

Weaknesses. I didn’t feel a strong connection with Conner at first. So when things started to happen, I didn’t care deeply. Later I came to care, but I think the story would have more impact if I cared more deeply. If the sequel, Valley of the Shadow (which couldn’t have a more distinct cover from Vanish), is the story I think it is, then I’ll already have a connection to the character.

There’s also a theological issue that comes into play. It’s one of those tough things to sort through when writing Christian speculative fiction. How much must we pay attention to theology if we are using our imagination? I’ve said before, when we write about what is real, even if it is real in the spiritual world or in Biblical history, we are obligated to stay within the bounds of that which has been revealed. Within those bounds, I think we can speculate. (For example, a story about angels must be true to what the Bible says about angels, but a lot has been left unsaid, so I think we can speculate as long as we aren’t contradicting what the Bible says).

As I think about Vanish, I’d say there is a theological problem towards the end, but I didn’t find it off-putting or utterly misleading. Am I splitting hairs to say this is a problem? Maybe.

One of my favorite books is The Great Divorce by C.S. Lewis, yet many Christians clack their tongue at such a work that seems to suggest man gets a second chance at heaven after he dies. Well, I don’t think that’s what Lewis was saying in The Great Divorce. My theological criticism of Vanish may be as empty for the same reason.

You can be the judge tomorrow, because that issue will be in the forefront of my post.

Recommendation. For those who love suspense and especially supernatural suspense, this is a must read. For anyone who likes a captivating story, I highly recommend Vanish.

Don’t forget to check out the other bloggers (listed below my interview with Tom) posting about this book. I particularly recommend Phyllis Wheeler’s review and possibly the best ever introduction by someone who hasn’t yet read the book posted by Fred Warren.

Published in: on June 23, 2009 at 12:27 pm  Comments (9)  
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The Dragon of Trelian – A Review

Business. Today is the last day to vote in the May CSFF Top Tour Blogger Award run-off poll.

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This week the Children’s Book Blog Tour is featuring The Dragon of Trelian (Candlewick Press), a middle grade fantasy by Michelle Knudsen.

The Story. The young mage’s apprentice, Calen, becomes friends with Princess Meglynne and together they uncover a plot to assassinate Meg’s soon-to-be-married sister, and thus to thwart the planned-for peace her union intends to usher in.

With the help of the dragon Meg is now linked to and Calen’s own surprisingly strong magic, they face a greater evil than they imagined. But will anyone else believe them? Can they discover tangible proof in time to warn the king of the threat to his daughter and his realm?

Strengths. I love fantasy, and this is the kind I find most enjoyable. It’s a clear good-versus-evil struggle, with a traitor and a surreptitious plot, a secret and unsuspecting power, an “underdog” and an impossible task. The stakes are high, and as the story unfolds they become even higher.

The characters are sympathetic, even likable. They seem appropriately motivated and realistic. I understand their decisions and cheer for them to succeed.

The story was easy to read and as I got into the heart of it, the pages flew by.

Weaknesses. Even good stories have them. While nothing I’ll mention here spoiled the story, I do think these things keep The Dragon of Trelian from being great. First, I thought Calen and Meg did not have distinct voices—and they should have. Yes, they were soul mates, if you will, but he was a boy, a mage’s apprentice, who didn’t know anything about his family. She was a girl, a princess, from a loving family. These facts alone should have given them distinctive voices.

Second, I thought many of the plot points were predictable. I didn’t find them boring because I could see them coming, however, and a younger reader who hasn’t been exposed to a number of fantasies may not even catch on ahead of time.

Finally, I don’t see any clear themes, other than do what’s right. Meg and Calen want to stop the assassination, want to make it possible for peace to replace the feud-like battle raging between two kingdoms. I’m not sure how either character grew. Meg did as a result of her connection to the dragon, but that was more a fusing of her personality with his power, so the only change was her giving in and finally letting the dragon in.

Recommendation. The Dragon of Trelian is a fine middle grade fantasy. For Christians looking for magic-free fantasy, this is not their book. There’s a Tarot Card reading (under another name), and the connection between Meg and the dragon reminds me of spirit channeling. And of course Calen is studying to be a mage. If a reader can look at these elements as make-believe, then the story is fun and enjoyable, but not powerful and purposeful.

If a reader is looking for a little escape fantasy, then this is a the kind of book for that purpose.

Take some time to see what other bloggers on the tour think about The Dragon of Trelian:

Published in: on June 2, 2009 at 11:58 am  Comments (6)  
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Tuck – A Review

I want to mention a few of the CSFF Blog Tour posts about Tuck by Stephen R. Lawhead (Thomas Nelson). There are some interesting opinions and observations you won’t want to miss. Start with Fred Warren‘s excellent story summary. Then read Phyllis Wheeler‘s comprehensive review.

For those new to the King Raven Trilogy, Jason Joyner posted his reviews of the first two books, Hood and Scarlet.

For an inside look into one reviewer’s process, visit Terri Main, then follower her on Twitter.

That should get you started. 😉 For the entire list of participants, with check marks that link to their posts, see God and Fiction – A Look at Tuck. On to my review.

The Story. Since I gave a summary of the King Raven Trilogy yesterday, I won’t repeat that information. Tuck doesn’t either. It picks up the story right where Scarlet left off. Bran and his people are on the run with little hope of survival or, of equal importance to them, of justice. After half his followers give up and leave, Bran seeks help from his mother’s family. A good portion of the book, and much of the fun and intrigue, comes in Bran’s efforts to win their support. Meanwhile Mérian has her own ideas about acquiring help, and in Bran’s absence, she pursues them. And how does it end? You didn’t seriously think I would tell you, did your? 😀

Strengths. Mr. Lawhead is a skilled writer. Very quickly I was absorbed in the world he created and engaged with the characters of his imaging. In the end, I thought how plausible his suggestion was, that the Robin Hood legend was based upon the history of a minor Welsh king and eventually became larger than life as an adaptation for an English audience. This kind of believability is a result of excellent research and masterful use of language. Throughout the story I had the sense that I’d been transported to another time and place.

I also loved the action. I thought the pace was perfect. I wanted to know what would happen next, but I didn’t feel like the action overshadowed the characters. I found Bran’s responses to his circumstances believable and in places even admirable. I had one moment of true grief because of one plot point.

Weaknesses. In spite of my post yesterday about how God is portrayed in Tuck, I’d have to say, I think the theme is the biggest weakness in the book. Not because it is false but because it is … weak. As I thought about the story, which I enjoyed immensely, I had to consider long and hard to arrive at any lasting meaning. Was it a story about people fighting for what they believed in, despite great odds? Or was it about giving to others in return for what they gave? Or was it about pursuing peace even when war seems inevitable?

Any of those, maybe all. But there’s the problem. In saying several things weakly, the story left me unaffected. I finished the book, left the March with sadness, but felt unchanged by the characters and their struggles. I guess I’d just like more.

Recommendation. In a heartbeat I’d encourage anyone to read this book. It is a tale skillfully told. It’s unique, yet familiar. The characters seem true to life and each has an identifiable voice that helps them come alive. Those who enjoy historical novels along with those who love mythic, legend-like stories will like this best. For those two categories of readers, this is a MUST. For all others, I highly recommend Tuck.

Published in: on May 19, 2009 at 11:46 am  Comments (4)  
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CSFF Blog Tour – Broken Angel, Day 1

Broken Angel coverFor August, the CSFF Blog Tour is featuring Sigmund Brouwer‘s adult dystopian science fiction novel Broken Angel. I’ll confess up front that I expected this book to be other than what it is. For one thing, the category listing is “suspense.” With a title like Broken Angel, I assumed “supernatural suspense.” Another Frank Peretti knock off.

This story is not in a venue even close to supernatural suspense. Since I’ve mentioned more than once that supernatural suspense is not my genre of choice, you might guess that I was pleasantly surprised.

The Story. Broken Angel is set in a not-too-distant future, in America, or at least a nation within America. Because of how divisive religion became, a theocracy grew up within the borders, walled off from the rest of the country.

As the story opens, Caitlyn and her papa are on the run, making an effort, the reader soon learns, to return to the outside, primarily so that she won’t fall into the hands of the authorities. Something about her is amiss and soon the reader comes to understand, her life is at risk because whatever happened to form her is of great interest to those now hunting her.

Strengths. Brouwer’s writing is strong. This is a captivating story, one easy to become engrossed in. The world seems real, even plausible. The characters are engaging, with admirable qualities that had me rooting for them from the start. There are surprises along the way, but not ones that seem inconsistent or outlandish. The pace is fast but still allows the reader to get to know the characters.

Weakness. There is one element that seems somewhat predictable. For me it in no way spoiled the story. Mostly I wondered how it came about, not what it actually was. I also wondered what was to become of this element, and that was actually not clear. Is that a weakness? For some people it might be. Some like neat, complete resolutions. The end of this story was more like a beginning. Not that I thought there was any indication a sequel was on the horizon. I could be wrong about that, but rather, the end of Broken Angel felt like the reader was free to postulate what might happen next. Not a weakness, as I see it, but something a reader might like to know going in, so that his expectations stay in check.

Themes. Here’s where I really connected with this novel. I felt like there were bold statements about the world between the lines of a well-told story. Some of you may remember when I introduced Book Buzz Tag, I listed Broken Angel as a Must Read. I did so primarily because I think Christians should think about and discuss the issues this novel brings up. I plan to do that during the next couple days.

Recommendation. Must read for Christians. This is a story non-Christians could also enjoy, but I think someone who does not have faith in Christ might come to some erroneous conclusions about Christianity and the Church.

And now, others blogging about Broken Angel during our three-day tour:

Brandon Barr
Justin Boyer
Keanan Brand
Jackie Castle
Valerie Comer
Karri Compton
CSFF Blog Tour
Stacey Dale
D. G. D. Davidson
Janey DeMeo
Jeff Draper
April Erwin
Karina Fabian
Mark Goodyear
Andrea Graham
Katie Hart
Timothy Hicks
Christopher Hopper
Joleen Howell
Jason Joyner
Carol Keen
Shannon McNear
Melissa Meeks
John W. Otte
Steve Rice
Ashley Rutherford
Hanna Sandvig
Chawna Schroeder
Mirtika or Mir’s Here
Sean Slagle
James Somers
Donna Swanson
Steve Trower
Speculative Faith
Laura Williams
Timothy Wise

Bold font indicates links omitted from the original list;
“√” indicates at least one post available.

Kidz Book Buzz – Jimmy’s Stars

Jimmy's Stars coverI’m not a children’s writer, but because I worked with kids for so long—as an English teacher, no less—I care a lot about the books that are out there for middle graders and young adults. Happily, there’s a new blog tour, hosted by Kidz Book Buzz that features books for that age group.

The inaugural tour starts today. The Children’s Book Blog Tour is highlighting Mary Ann Rodman’s middle grade historical, a coming of age story entitled Jimmy’s Stars.

The Story. Jimmy’s Stars takes place in the US during World War II. The protagonist is a sixth grade girl named Ellie whose only brother is drafted late in the war. She is his favorite, it would appear, and her life is definitely entwined with his. Consequently, his leaving to join the war effort as a medic upsets her world.

Strengths. Rodman creates vivid, believable, interesting characters. Oddly enough she does this with “ordinary” people. Her characters are average people in small-town America. They go to school, pick out Christmas trees, can tomatoes, and come together as a community when tragedy hits anyone in the neighborhood. This is not a romanticized view. Instead, Rodman makes the ordinary aspects of these characters’ lives seem interesting and at times monumental.

Weaknesses. I’m not a big fan of coming of age stories. In some ways this one feels predictable. However, for a middle grader who hasn’t read a host of other coming of age stories, I think this will ring true. Ellie learns some valuable, though painful truths that will resonate with people in the target age group.

Observations. It would be natural for visitors here at A Christian Worldview of Fiction to assume that I am only reviewing books that are Christian fiction. That’s not the case. I talk a lot about Christian fiction and about Christianity, but in the end, I want to look at all fiction, informed by the Christian worldview.

All that to say, Jimmy’s Stars is set in a time period and in a location that made Christianity the accepted and expected religion. Consequently, there are numerous references to things like going to church and praying. But when it comes to the big issues, the central themes (which I’ll look at in my posts the next couple days), there isn’t a uniquely Christian approach. Which is fine, but necessary for visitors here to know before I give my recommendation.

Recommendation. I highly recommend Jimmy’s Stars for middle grade readers, and their parents. This book brings up some important issues, ones that adults will do well to discuss with their children and this book gives the perfect forum for such a discussion. Jimmy’s Stars is entertaining, too, and that’s the best kind of book to give a middle grader.

Take a few moments to check out what other bloggers on the tour are saying:

01 Charger, A Childhood of Dreams, A Mom Speaks, All About Children’s Books, Becky’s Book Reviews, Book Review Maniac, By the Book Reviews, Dolce Bellezza, Fireside Musings, Homeschool Buzz, Looking Glass Reviews, Maggie Reads, Maw Books, Small World Reads, The Friendly Book Nook

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