The Words between Us by Erin Bartels

I have this almost continuous problem. I am endlessly curious about a host of subjects from politics and current events to theology and behavioral economics. I have a library full of such books and frequently check out and buy more from the library and bookstores online and off.

But I can only read so much non-fiction before my brain gets tired. So when I am ready to relax and read a little before bed, I look for fiction. As a result, I am always on the lookout for that perfect blend of engaging and yet not too mentally taxing.

It was on just such a search that I stumbled on to The Words Between Us by Erin Bartels. I believe it was a glowing review from Shawn Smucker on Goodreads that prompted me to check it out. Turns out it was available for free for Amazon Prime members so I grabbed and started reading.

Robin Windsor has spent most of her life under an assumed name, running from her family’s ignominious past. She thought she’d finally found sanctuary in her rather unremarkable used bookstore just up the street from the marina in River City, Michigan. But the store is struggling and the past is hot on her heels.

When she receives an eerily familiar book in the mail on the morning of her father’s scheduled execution, Robin is thrown back to the long-lost summer she met Peter Flynt, the perfect boy who ruined everything. That book–a first edition Catcher in the Rye–is soon followed by the other books she shared with Peter nearly twenty years ago, with one arriving in the mail each day. But why would Peter be making contact after all these years? And why does she have a sinking feeling that she’s about to be exposed all over again?

I have to say, I enjoyed this book despite it not really being my style. The obvious hook is that it is in large part about the love of books and language something I share. But is also clearly a romance, not something I typically read or enjoy.

What makes it work is the pace, tension and light touch. Bartels does not lay on the romance particularly thick so it doesn’t intrude on the story or dominate the style in a way that is off-putting (at least to me). And alternating chapters between the present and the past she builds tension and a sense of mystery.

The central character, Robin, is very well done. She feels like a fully formed person despite her extraordinary experiences. There is one section that strains believability a tad but otherwise her family’s past seems believable even as it shapes and forms her personality and choices. Her interaction with her parents was particularly well done even if brief.

Every time it feels like the story might begin to drag, when it is focused on romantic relationships and Robin’s fear, the plot twists and the story receives a jolt of energy. The mystery that has been in the background for most of the book and the romantic tension both come together in the end.

At the risk of being accused of sexism or stereotypes, this book will appeal to women (the Goodread reviews are dominated by female readers) but it has the storytelling to rise beyond simple romance. I also enjoyed reading a book set in my home state of Michigan. Bartels makes the setting add to the story and its characters.

It is also worth noting that it is published by a Christian publisher. There are faith elements but they are no obtrusive and seem just a natural part of the background. Those looking for a more obvious spiritual resolution will be disappointed but those worried about “Christian Fiction” should not worry.

All in all, a satisfying novel with just the right blend of romance, mystery and the love of books.

The Day The Angels Fell by Shawn Smucker

I believe I came across this book via Twitter and as it was $.99 I grabbed it. I have been piling up non-fiction lately but then suddenly my brain is tired and I need some fiction to capture my imagination and allow me to relax.  This fit the bill.

And I really enjoyed The Day The Angels Fell even if I am not sure I agree with its theology – if you can call it that. Not surprising given my enjoyment of stories with mythical and spiritual components.

The mythical elements are mixed well with a sort of coming of age story about friendships, family and loss. While it isn’t exactly a thriller there is a nice mix of mystery, suspense and reflection. The characters are filled out enough to make the story work but there isn’t a constant attempt to fill in the details and give everyone a complete backstory.

The pacing is well done; just enough inner dialog and suspense to go along with some action and tension.

As noted, I am not really sure I am in agreement with the idea that death is a gift and the way that plays out concerning the fall, humans, etc. But it is a fascinating exploration as one thread in a larger story about loss and choice.

Hell and Beyond by Michael Phillips

I have been doing a decent amount of reading about heaven and hell in the last few years; kicked off largely by the controversy surrounding Rob Bell’s Love Wins a few years back.  And so when I  stumbled upon Hell and Beyond – a fictional take on the afterlife on Kindle for free I  picked it up.  I recently read it over Christmas vacation.

Hell and BeyondA prominent atheist dies unexpectedly and goes to hell. Or so it appears…but nothing is what it seems in this engrossing allegorical novel about the afterlife. In the tradition of C.S. Lewis’ The Great Divorce and John Bunyon’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Michael Phillips has produced a riveting tale of eternity. Hell and Beyond is a lively and fascinating trip through the afterlife—one that will inspire you to re-discover the significance of your life here and now.

It turned out to be an interesting, if somewhat flawed, non-orthodox, but Christian, fictional/allegorical take on heaven and hell; or the “afterlife.” Phillips leans toward the universalist side but with a great deal of purgatorial type purifying and repentance involved. Heavily influenced by CS Lewis and George MacDonald and along the lines of Pilgrims Progress.

While the philosophical aspects were interesting at times, it struck me as a bit too “universal” in perspective; not in the sense of “everyone goes to heaven” but in the sense of applying to everyone everywhere and lacking a connection to history or scripture in a rooted or narrative way. It is an imaginative creation based on a conception of God’s character and love but not connected to the story of God in time and space/place (the people of Israel, Jesus the Messiah, the martyr and apostolic church, etc.). So while it is literary to some degree it is really more philosophical/psychological. And thus it came across to me as a little too much speculation and metaphysics and not enough storytelling.

In Phillips conception, within the novel at least, humans have free will and that free will continues after death. Every choice a person makes impacts his life and his character.  He is either becoming more in line with God’s Fatherhood and becoming childlike in that relationship or moving away from that ideal state. At death you enter the afterlife and continue that journey.

The piety involved in the afterlife is as orthodox as the after death experience is un-orthodox.  The prominent atheist is immediately changed by his encounter with Christ and from that moment on is on the path to repentance and purification.  He must see the error of his ways, acknowledge and face the consequences of those decisions.  This process is painful and difficult both physically and mentally (or perhaps spiritually).  But it never really felt like he was not going to keep moving forward and so there was little in the way of suspense.

 For many orthodox Christians, Phillips work is likely to provoke objections and protests.  It doesn’t envision the traditional view of heaven and hell.  It posits the ability to make choices after death.  And it has a strong universalist perspective.  Phillips clearly thinks that current understandings of hell are more influenced by Dante than scripture and makes this clear in this work of fiction.

While I am not in any way offended by his unorthodox views on these issues and/or his attempts to explore them in fiction.  I found the overall effect rather flat.  It seems a little too much like a CS Lewis Pilgrims Progress mashup.  As I didn’t enjoy Pilgrims Progress and am not really a big fan of Lewis’s non-fiction (shocking I know) it didn’t work for me.

As noted above, I also found it too speculative and philosophical/psychological.  The fiction seemed more like a mental exercise than an attempt at art or literature.  As such it wasn’t really a novel so much as a thought experiment in the form of an allegory (if that makes any sense).

OK, I am rambling a bit here …

All in all, I think a couple of things limited the appeal for me. 1) it is clearly steeped in the world of Lewis and McDonald so if you don’t enjoy their style and approach it is unlikely you will like Phillips take 2) I have moved toward a view of scripture, and thus faith, grounded in narrative and history and so speculative theology holds little appeal 3) neither the writing nor the ideas were good enough to overcome these drawbacks.

But if you enjoy fictional explorations of the afterlife from a Christian but un-orthodox perspective you should check this one out.

The Sword of Six Worlds (Book 1) by Matt Mikalatos

I have been reading children’s, middle grade, and young adult fiction for a while but now that my daughter (8) is reading more seriously I am more focused on what she might like and what seems a good fit.

So when I heard Matt Mikalatos had published a middle grade fiction book as part of a planned longer series I was intrigued.  I managed to get a copy of The Sword of Six Worlds, Book One in the Adventures of Validus Smith at the local library (I have since purchased the Kindle version).

sword of six worldsFor centuries the paladins protected the Earth from a creeping darkness known as the Blight. That all changed when a new enemy destroyed the paladins, plunging the free worlds into danger. Validus Smith—an ordinary girl in an ordinary town—is next in line to become the paladin. Untrained, unsure of her destiny, and hunted by monstrous forces, she must recover the fabled Sword of Six Worlds, the only weapon capable of defeating the Blight. The Sword, however, is not on Earth, but in a strange fantasy world connected to her own. In an unfamiliar world of monsters, talking animals and living rocks, can an ordinary girl like Validus survive?

I finally got around to reading it recently and found it to be a creative start to what feels like a promising series.

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Seeker of Stars by Susan Fish

Picked up the novella Seeker of Stars by Susan Fish for free for my Kindle (from David C Cook publishers) because, um, free books.  And then I decided to read it because I am fascinated by stories surrounding the Magi and is it after all Christmastime.

Seeker of StarsAs a boy, Melchior is fascinated by stars but has rigid obligations to apprentice with his rug-making father. When his life is radically changed, he is propelled onto a new path full of danger and glory in pursuit of a special star. The journey leads Melchior to reflect on life and death, dreams and duty, and to find unusual reconciliation within his family and with the God he never knew he sought. Destined to become a classic, Seeker of Stars offers a fresh retelling of the story of the magi, and will appeal to people of all ages and faiths.

It turned out to be a quick and enjoyable read. It has a simplicity to it but I felt like it captured the characters well and gave the reader some sense of what it might be like to live in that time and place. It also includes some interesting exploration of relationships and family life.

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Seeker of Stars by Susan Fish

Picked up the novella Seeker of Stars by Susan Fish for free for my Kindle (from David C Cook publishers) because, um, free books.  And then I decided to read it because I am fascinated by stories surrounding the Magi and is it after all Christmastime.

Seeker of StarsAs a boy, Melchior is fascinated by stars but has rigid obligations to apprentice with his rug-making father. When his life is radically changed, he is propelled onto a new path full of danger and glory in pursuit of a special star. The journey leads Melchior to reflect on life and death, dreams and duty, and to find unusual reconciliation within his family and with the God he never knew he sought. Destined to become a classic, Seeker of Stars offers a fresh retelling of the story of the magi, and will appeal to people of all ages and faiths.

It turned out to be a quick and enjoyable read. It has a simplicity to it but I felt like it captured the characters well and gave the reader some sense of what it might be like to live in that time and place. It also includes some interesting exploration of relationships and family life.

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Otherworld by Jared C. Wilson

Long time blog readers will recall my habit of attempting to read books written by anyone I have met or interacted with online in a significant way (man is that an awkward way to describe “online friends” or what?). Jared C. Wilson fits in that category.  I have been reading his blogging and writing for many years. Interestingly enough, when I began to interact with Jared on things literary he very much wanted to be a fiction writer.  But he found his initial success writing about faith and theology (ironic, during Theology Week, right?).

But his debut work of fiction, Otherworld, was recently released and I grabbed it on Kindle to read.

OtherworldSomething strange is happening in Houston and its rural suburb, Trumbull. It starts with the bizarre mutilation of a farmer’s cow, sparking rumors of UFO sightings and alien visitations. It’s all an annoyance for the police, who would prefer to focus on the recent murders in the area. Mike Walsh is a journalist with a nagging editor and a troubled marriage who finds himself inexorably drawn into the deeper story creeping up on all who dare get close enough: a grizzled small town police captain, a depressed journalist, a disillusioned pastor, and a little old man. They are unlikely allies against the otherworld.

This is also a well-timed review as we just passed Halloween and have been discussing how the Christian imagination deals with death, horror, etc. OK, I have been thinking about it more than “we” have been discussing it but you get my point.

Otherworld touches on many of these themes and turned out to be an interesting fiction debut for Jared. Otherworld is a sort of Christian horror/supernatural mystery. It starts off with a potential UFO encounter, moves toward the supernatural and ends with a Christian perspective.

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Night of the Living Dead Christian by Matt Mikalatos

I said of Imaginary Jesus by Matt Mikalatos that “the book walks the fine line between slapstick comedy and insightful spiritual commentary – and in my opinion manages to pull it off for the most part.”  Mikalatos follow up, Night of the Living Dead Christian, attempts to walk that same line – with less successful results.  What starts out as a slapstick spoof on cheesy horror movies suddenly turns into a very serious story and spiritual commentary. The transition is abrupt and gives the book a very odd feel.

Publisher’s blurb:

What does a transformed life actually look like?

In his follow-up to the critically acclaimed Imaginary Jesus, Matt Mikalatos tackles this question in an entertaining and thought-provoking way—with MONSTERS!!! While Christians claim to experience Christ’s resurrection power, we sometimes act like werewolves who can’t control our base desires. Or zombies, experiencing a resurrection that is 90 percent shambling death and 10 percent life. Or vampires, satiating ourselves at the expense of others. But through it all we long to stop being monsters and become truly human—the way Christ intended. We just can’t seem to figure out how.

Night of the Living Dead Christian is the story of Luther, a werewolf on the run, whose inner beast has driven him dangerously close to losing everything that matters. Desperate to conquer his dark side, Luther joins forces with Matt to find someone who can help. Yet their time is running out. A powerful and mysterious man is on their trail, determined to kill the wolf at all costs . . .

By turns hilarious and heartbreaking, Night of the Living Dead Christian is a spiritual allegory that boldly explores the monstrous underpinnings of our nature and tackles head-on the question of how we can ever hope to become truly transformed.

The challenge Matt faces is trying to use the unique fictional element (the story and his own role within it) to both entertain and offer insight; to make it a story that works while making the points he wants to make.  In Imaginary Jesus I thought it largely came together without any one aspect dominating and toppling over the balance. This time the balance was off and it came out as the foundation of a good story (Luther Martin) surrounded by a lot of silly distractions and ending with mostly preaching.  The hook of viewing Christian living through the lens of monsters is interesting but in the end it felt like too many ingredients forced into a style and structure that didn’t quite fit.

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