Book Review 25: Havoc In Islandia by Mark Saxton (Islandia Quartet Book #4)

The past two reviews, The Islar (a sequel) and The Two Kingdoms (a prequel) to the underground utopian classic, Islandia, has shown a depth and clarity of a fictional world unlike anything I’ve ever read before.

Havoc in Islandia, a second prequel to Islandia, I believe is the most interesting novel of the three Islandian books written by Mark Saxton.

The novel tells the story of when Roman Catholicism arrived in Islandia determined to proselytize the natives and make the land become a Catholic nation. The protagonist, Bren, is an officer in the Islandian resistance who is trying to save the land from Catholic rule. He is young, inexperienced, and not fond of
Catholicism either. However, he is love in with a woman who has converted to Catholicism and that adds a little of bit intrigue to the story.

I know some Christians would probably automatically think this is anti-Christian novel and I could definitely see an aspect of that after reading the novel. However, I found the novel compelling and Saxton tells a good story.

My issue with the novel is that the portrayal of Catholics (I know they are the villains) in the story could have been handled with a little more depth and not be so stereotypical of what bad religion is supposed to be.

Moreover, there several points throughout the novel where the author shows some thoughtfulness to effect of what proselytizing had on the people.

For example, here’s an excerpt to demonstrate my point:

“The main tenets of the faith-I mean such things as the Virgin Birth, the Godhood of Christ, the Trinity, and the transubstantiation of bread and wine are extremely difficult. They confront the intelligence like a great well. They are also exceedingly beautiful. I came to see them as tests of my ability to deny my mind. Some people are able to accept these assertions with no reservation and say they then enter realms of a different sort of understanding. Many others, like me, work harder to get less. Because of the beauty of the concepts, and because they so much ought to be true, we others do manage to achieve a state in which we simultaneously believe and disbelieve without contradiction.

It took me tremendous effort and a long time to find my way into that second group. I went through it because I wanted the strength and reassurance of faith, faith in a determinant, something that could say yes or no as well as I am.”

That was said by Lord Mora, one of the leaders of the Islandian resistance and him dealing with his conversion to Catholicism. But, he decides to resist the church in order to keep them from controlling Islandia.

I could identify with Lord Mora’s struggles of believing in the basic tenets of Christianity because I’ve had some of same thoughts since I became a Christian. That excerpt reminded me of the Doubting Thomas story in Book of John, Chapter 20:24-29 of the New Testament where Thomas didn’t believe it was Jesus who appeared amongst the disciples after the resurrection.

I wished Saxton could have shown more of this type of struggle that the Islandian natives had in converting to Catholicism and that would have given the novel another dimension of depth and honesty.

Outside of that, I really enjoyed reading Havoc in Islandia. Unfortunately, this book is out of print as well as the other two aforementioned novels. You will have to go to the library or buy a copy from Amazon like I did to get it. I do believe it is well worth the extra trouble to read this book and the other two Saxton Islandian novels.

This novel and along with the others show the power of imaginative literature at its best and readers unaware of these books need to seek them out for their own reading pleasure.

Book Review 24: The Two Kingdoms by Mark Saxton (Islandia Quartet Book #3)

Last year, I posted a review for the book titled, The Islar, by Mark Saxton. It was a sequel to the underground utopian novel Islandia by Austin Tappan Wright. Saxton wrote two more novels in the Islandian universe and this review of The Two Kingdoms is a prequel to Islandia.

The Two Kingdoms tells the story of Frare, a young officer in the Islandian Navy. He is caught in a power struggle between Queen Alwina of Islandia and King Tor of Winder.

Queen Alwina is the first queen in Islandia’s history. She just took over the kingdom from her father, King Alwin, who recently passed away. King Tor of Winder is the queen’s neighbor and ally against another kingdom on the Islandian continent who wants to remove her from power. However the queen (who barely is in her twenties) is headstrong, passionate, and manipulative has created a contentious alliance with King Tor.

Frare has to become an ambassador for both sides to make sure that Queen Alwina and King Tor work together to defeat the enemy who wants to take over all of Islandia.

Islandia’s utopian paradise is in jeopardy again from being controlled by the outside world. However, Queen Alwina’s actions make a target for assassination and Frare must do all he can to save her life and keep the alliance with King Tor.

This book was enjoyable to read and it takes me away to a world unlike anything I’ve read in contemporary fantasy fiction.

I have to write that Queen Alwina believed a in New Age type of God called Om that was disconcerting.  But in the context of the novel, it was believable.

As I wrote in the review for The Islar, Saxton has written another terrific novel in the spirit of Islandia. Unfortunately, this book is out of print as well. And you will have to go to library to find it or a buy a copy from Amazon like I did.

I’m glad I did buy it and hope someday this novel along with the other Islandian books are back in print. The Islandian universe deserves a wider audience.

Book Review 23: Octavia Butler’s Parable of the Sower

How would you feel about a book that you re-read twenty years later?

Would it still fascinate you like it did before?

Would it bore you?

Would it show how much you have mature since the first time you read it?

Well, I decided to answer those questions by re-reading Parable of the Sower by Octavia Butler. It was published in 1993 and I read the novel at that time.  It fascinated me.  I had not read any book that grim and dark at that point in my early 20’s.

Now in 2012, I’ve read it again and I will admit upfront the novel didn’t fascinate me like it did in 1993.  However, I still found Parable of the Sower an interesting, thought-provoking story.

Octavia Butler (whom died in Feburary 2006) was considered as one of the great female science-fiction authors mentioned in the same breath as Ursula LeGuin, Andre Norton, Marion Zimmer Bradley, and James Tiptree Jr (real name Alice Sheldon). Butler’s novels explored gender and racial themes in a science-fiction context and Parable of the Sower continued in that tradition.

The story is about Lauren Olamina, a teenage girl growing up in a grim, dystopic Los Angeles suburb where their gated community provided some semblance of a normal life while anarchy reigned outside of it.

Lauren lived with her father, a minister, her step-mother, Corazon, and her brothers, Marcus and Keith. Her father was doing everything he could to provide for the family and raise his children in a chaotic situation. Well, the gate to their community was finally destroyed after repeated attempts and all hell broke loose which ended up ripping the family apart for good.

Meanwhile, Lauren (who is an empath) had a sense her home and family would be destroyed has decided to create a religion called Earthseed, and was forced to leave home and travel north to fulfill her vision for this new religion .

Butler’s lean, spare prose creates a stark, brtual story and it was closer to The Road by Cormac McCarthy or even the movie, Book of Eli staring Denzel Washington than a traditional science fiction novel.

Moreover, there were a couple of things that caught my attention:

All that you touch,

You change.

All that you change,

Changes you.

The only lasting truth

Is change.

God

is change.

This was one of the basic beliefs of Earthseed.  God is change.  Since change is inevitable, we must to yield to it or never truly understand who God is.

Well, when I first read this back in 1993, I found that concept fascinating and interesting. Now, I must admit it is half-baked at best and naive at worst.

I’m reminded of this verse of scripture:

“Jesus Christ is the same yesterday and today and forever.” {Hebrews 13:8 ESV Bible}

The writer of Hebrews was explaining how Christ was the same in his position as high priest and Son of God throughout his earthly ministry and his place in Heaven seated next to the Father.

I know I just probably scared some of the non-religious folk out there.  But, I want to add this if I was not religious why would I worship or believe in a God who changes all the time.  Isn’t God to suppose to be higher than humankind? Why would he need to change? I might as well be an atheist and believe in myself.

Here’s the other thing that caught my attention:

“But there’s hope in understanding the nature of God-not punishing or jealous, but infinitely malleable. There’s comfort in realizing that everyone and everything yields to God. There’s power in knowing that God can be focused, diverted, shaped by anyone at all.”

That was from a conservation Lauren had with one of the travelers with her and a future convert to Earthseed.

Again in 1993, I was fascinated by this concept of God being shaped by anyone.  Now in 2012, I found it shallow and underdeveloped and frankly dead wrong.  But, it did reveal something currently going on in our culture.

We want to shape God in our own image.  Both religious people and non-religious people want to shape God into their liking or disliking. However, if I can shape God or focused God into what I believe or want…why should I worship or believe in him?

As you have read, I was glad that I re-read this story even though it didn’t feel same as it once did.  In the end, Parable of the Sower revealed a lot about myself, my beliefs, and even my maturity.

I would recommend all readers at least once go back re-read a novel from years ago and see what it will bring to light for you.

Book Review 22: Stephen King’s Bag of Bones

What happens when you fulfill one of your bucket list items?

Do you feel a sense of achievement?  Satisfied?  Surprised?  Disappointed?

Well, I can write that after reading Bag of Bones, I felt all of those feelings except disappointed.

As you know, Stephen King was on my reading bucket list and Bag of Bones was the choice of my readers for the next novel that I would read and review. I got a double whammy and a 2-for-1 special with this book.

Bag of Bones is the story of Mike Noonan, a bestselling novelist with a great life until his wife dies in an accident near their Western Maine summer home. From that accident, Mike’s life is turned upside down and inside out.

Because of that event, Mike gets writers block, discovers their summer home is haunted and has a connection to the town’s lurid past, and is caught in the middle of a family custody battle with a woman half his age that has a beautiful three year old daughter and realizes that he deeply loves both of them.

This is a moody, atmospheric story and it felt like I was reading a John Irving or Richard Ford novel with a huge paint splattering of Stephen King over the top.  Bag of Bones qualifies for the first literary ghost love story I’ve ever read.

One of the things, I really enjoyed in this novel was King’s ability to show the pressures of a writer trying to produce the next bestselling book:

“Readers have a loyalty that cannot be matched anywhere else in the creative arts, which explains why so many writers who have run out of gas can keep coasting anyway, propelled onto the bestselller lists by the magic words AUTHOR OF on the covers of their books.

What the publisher wants in return, especially from an author who can be counted on to sell 500,000 or so copies of each novel in hardcover and a million more in paperback, is perfectly simple: a book a year.

Less than a book a year and you’re screwing up the publisher’s investment in you, hampering your business manager’s ability to continue floating all of your credit cards, and jeopardizing your agent’s ability to pay his shrink on time. Also, there’s always some fan attrition when you take too long.”

That section and the conversation with his agent was the most honest parts of the novel.  It felt like King wanted his readers to understand some of the burden he has being one of America’s bestselling novelists.

Moreover, I felt King wanted to show in this story the power of wealth and how it can control an entire small town. The good ol’ boy network and hate can make you do something that you will regret for the rest of your life and affect succeeding generations.

After reading Bag of Bones, I’ve learned that King is a gifted storyteller and I can see why he became one of our greatest bestselling novelists.  I know he is a polarizing author, but I believe he is a true talent and should be recognized as such.

I would recommend this novel an introduction to Stephen King’s work and also a good story to add to your reading bucket list.

Book Review 21: Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451

When I heard that Ray Bradbury had passed about eight days ago, I realized that I had never read any of his books. Wow, that surprised me. Well, in honor of his passing, I decided to read his most popular and enduring work, Fahrenheit 451.

“Do you know why books such as this are so important? Because they have quality. And what does the word quality mean? To me it means texture. This book has pores. It has features. This book can go under the microscope.

“So now do you see why books are hated and feared? They show the pores in the face of life. The comfortable people want only wax moon faces, poreless, hairless, expressionless. We are living in a time when flowers are trying to live on flowers, instead of growing on good rain and black loam.”

Both of those passages were spoken by Mr. Faber, a former professor, to Guy Montag, the main character of the novel. Guy is a fireman living in a grim, dystopian society where books are outlawed and anyone caught having books gets them burned to temperature of Fahrenheit 451.

However, he discovers upon burning books that something is not right and begins to realize he may have been doing the wrong thing all along. Guy meets a few characters that confirms his suspicions and the transformation begins.

This is such a well-known novel and covered from so many angles that I have just a few observations after reading it.

Fahrenheit 451 is Ray Bradbury’s love letter to books and literature. His prose is full of poetic imagery and all sorts of literary allusions to great authors from the past. I could sense that writing this novel probably sadden him on some level and if the prophecy of this story ever came true….it could have probably broken his heart.

I must admit that the novel felt cold and distant even though it was readable and engaging. I didn’t get any warmth or connection from Guy and the other characters. It was like watching a documentary on some alien society that was destroying its own soul.

Nevertheless, the story came across as believable and frightening in its implications. Even though, we live in a multimedia/electronic age, the written word needs to be appreciated and cherished for as long as possible.

Fahrenheit 451 is an American classic and should be read at least once by all lovers of fiction.

RIP, Ray Bradbury.

Book Review 20: Sidney Sheldon’s Other Side of Midnight

Have you ever gone outside of your comfort zone?

What did it feel like? And were you better for going outside of your comfort zone?

Well, I did in reading The Other Side of Midnight by Sidney Sheldon. This 1974 classic best-selling novel was something I would have never read five or ten years ago. However, I do believe in timing and it definitely was the right time to read this story.

I will admit that I got the inspiration from Mike Duran, author and blogger, when he decided to read a novel outside of his comfort zone with Francine Rivers’ popular novel, Redeeming Love.

http://mikeduran.com/2011/04/redeeming-love-a-review/

Thanks for the inspiration, Mike. (BTW, I would recommend you check out his blog as well.  He always has some thought-provoking blog posts about Art, Faith, and the Publishing Industry.)

So I went to Wikipedia and looked up the top ten bestselling novelists: (in order)

William Shakespeare, Agatha Christie, Barbara Cartland, Danielle Steel, Harold Robbins, Georges Simenon, Sidney Sheldon, Enid Blyton, Dr. Seuss, and Gilbert Pattern.

I read that list and wondered what has made those novelists the world’s best sellers and I chose Sheldon out of that group to find out.

The Other Side of Midnight revolves around four people, Catherine Douglas, an innocent, naive, young American wife, Larry Douglas, her playboy-pilot husband who has a magnetism for the ladies, Noelle Page, a sophisticated French actress who is a master manipulator, and Constanin Demiris, a Greek tycoon whose wealth and power can get him anything he wants and will stop at nothing to get it. While I don’t want to give away the entire story. Let me write that a woman’s scorn is nothing to mess with.

Sheldon’s novel has a soap-opera feel to it and I know that will turn off most readers of literary fiction.  But, I must admit when I started reading the story I could not put it down.

Because of that, I thought of this quote:

“Every good book should be entertaining. A good book will be more; it must not be less. Entertainment…is like a qualifying examination. If a fiction can’t provide that, we may be excused from inquiring into its higher qualities.” (C.S. Lewis)

How appropriate from C.S. Lewis.  This novel definitely passed the exam for being entertaining. Lust, Revenge, Power, Innocence, and interesting plot twists all made for a novel that many people wanted to read and made a best-seller.

I’m glad I went out of my comfort zone to read The Other Side of Midnight and would recommend others take that detour as well.  Warning, it could be entertaining and might cause you to stay up a few late nights.

Book Review 19: The Christian Imagination edited by Leland Ryken

I wrote a review for Imagine by Steve Turner and said that book along with the Bible and a couple of others that every Christian who loves the arts and literature should have in their library.

Well, I’m adding The Christian Imagination edited by Leland Ryken to that list.

This book presents and argues effectively the importance of literature in a Christian’s life. It has essays from Tolkien, C.S. Lewis, Annie Dillard, Francis Schaeffer, Flannery  O’Connor, Walker Percy, and T.S. Eliot that covers everything from fiction to poetry to the defense for the pleasure of reading and how the imagination can strengthens one’s faith.

Here are a few quotes from some of my favorite essays:

“Christians should neither undervalue nor overvalue literature. Literature is not exempt from artistic, moral, and intellectual criticism. Yet its gifts to the human race are immeasurable: artistic enrichment, pleasurable pastime, self-understanding, clarification of human experience, and, in its highest reaches, the expression of truth and beauty that can become worship of God.” (A Christian Philosophy of Literature by Leland Ryken)


“The modern age has generally regarded the arts as dispensable because they are nonutilitarian. But if we look honestly and deeply within the human spirit as created by God, we will find a hunger for human creativity, for artistry, for beauty.”  (Words of Delight: A Hedonistic Defense of Literature by Leland Ryken)

“The desire to avoid offending sensibilities in regard to dialogue and human situations often results in plastic, smoothed-over characters, and a holding back from the kind of writing that may evoke true inspiration or authentic villany.” (Christian Fiction:Piety Is Not Enough by Richard Terrell)

As you can read from those quotes that nothing is off-limits concerning the role of literature in our daily walk as a Christian.

I can not recommend The Christian Imagination highly enough to everyone who loves who literature and I believe these book of essays should not be read in one setting but over time in order to digest the truths these great writers have given us.

Book Review 18: S. by John Updike

What happens when a woman leaves her former life behind in order to seek a spiritual awakening?

Well, that’s the scenario in the novel S. by John Updike.

S stands for Sarah Worth, the main character in the novel.  She is a New England housewife who decides to leave her husband, daughter, relatives, and friends  to go to a Hindu religious compound in Arizona.

She communicates with her family and friends through letters and cassette tape recordings throughout the entire book about her religious experiences at the compound.

However, Sarah begins to reveal things are not what they seem from when she first arrived in Arizona and ends up being deceived by her decision.

I must write she was probably the most self-deluded, narcissistic, and immature main character of a novel I’ve ever read. But, a writer of Updike’s talent made interesting and sometimes downright funny to read.

My wife asked me why would I read a novel like this.  I told her that when I lived in Santa Fe, NM in the early 90’s that I actually met women like Sarah Worth there.  Those women came from California, Texas, and the Northeast looking to get in touch with their new-found spirituality and while reading this book, I recognized that attitude and behavior instantly.

This was the first John Updike novel I read and was impressed in how he got the female perspective realistically. Also, there is a connection to the novel Scarlet Letter by Hawthorne. While the main character in that novel dealt with the sin of adultery, S. deals with the sin of self-deception and selfishness and in some aspects those characteristics could be worse than adultery.

Finally, I found this novel to be an interesting character study of a self-deluded woman and it showed me how fiction can illuminate the worst in human behavior and make it believable.

Book Review 17: The Transmigration of Timothy Archer by Philip K. Dick

Well, I finally decided to read one of Philip K. Dick’s novels. Since he’s one of the giants of the science-fiction genre and I’m a reader of it, I thought the time was right to check him out.

Some of you would have told me to read either Man in the High Castle or Flow My Tears, the Policeman Said, considering these are his most popular and well-received novels.

But, The Transmigration of Timothy Archer, intrigued me the most and I believed it would be an excellent first Dickian novel to read.

So what is this novel about?

The Transmigration of Timothy Archer tells the story of an Episcopal Bishop, Timothy Archer, who is determined to find the true identity of Jesus Christ.

Timothy Archer learns about the existence of some ancient scrolls from the Zadokites, a Jewish sect who were around before the time of Jesus.  The bishop believes those scrolls would reveal Jesus’ true identity. He decides to go to London to determine if they are the real thing.

However, the novel’s narrator, Angel Archer, who is the Bishop’s daugther-in-law shows him to be a smart, charming, but deeply-flawed dilettante.

Through Angel, we can see Timothy began to lose his way because of a relationship with a mistress, the death of his son, and the questioning of his faith and position as a bishop.

Moreover, Angel came off as cold and cynical and I didn’t care for her throughout most of the story. But, Dick’s strengths as a writer came through in this novel by having  compelling characters and essentially creating a philosophical and spiritual page turner.

Overall, I’m glad I read the Transmigration of Timothy Archer. While, I don’t think this novel will be everyone’s cup of tea. But, it was one of the more interesting and insightful character-oriented stories I have ever read.