Monday, January 25, 2016

Win the Legends of the Realm two-book series


1. Click the link below to enter (follow the prompt and leave a comment on this post).

2. Get bonus entries for tweeting about the contest after you entered (I wrote the tweet for you to make it easy to share).

3. Contest opens NOW and closes Thursday, January 28 @ Midnight. Contest is limited to entrants with U.S. shipping addresses.

4. Don't worry, you won't get bombarded with emails or subscriptions because of this.

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Friday, January 22, 2016

Thursday, January 21, 2016

An Analytical Review: The Fragment by Davis Bunn

*This is an analytical review; for plot overview please read the book description or other reviews. My goal here is to help you understand in which ways you will be influenced by this book (in addition to offering a few suggestions at a literary level). But don’t worry: no spoilers.

Davis Bunn returns to the page with his latest historical fiction The Fragment.

Readers of The Pilgrim will recognize familiar elements ranging from characters (a primary female protagonist, a faithful supporting friend, and an angry critic of the faith) to an artifact of special significance. In fact The Fragment develops the characters better, although the weight and purpose, even the reasons and transitions are less understood. But for readers and enjoyers of The Pilgrim, The Fragment offers a unique vantage point in an overlooked period of history while etching in the same worldview: the world is full of critics & skeptics, dangers & threats which try to distract humanity from the healing offered through Christ. The Fragment adds some color to this philosophy in showing readers that…

The physical world is first a distraction from the things that truly matter, and only secondly the necessary context for discovering true reality.

Indeed, God has given and continues to give his grace to those who trust him. Healing and wholeness are available for any who seek it; any and all of life’s despairs can be absorbed by faith in God who uses people, things, and circumstances to encourage his children.

Although I disagree with the second part of this book’s philosophy (that the physical world is only significant in its bridge to the spiritual), Bunn imbues it in the narrative expertly. And he frequently weaves the subordinate truths throughout his narrative in a way that nearly compensates for his halting, mosaic plot structure.

The plot begins at breakneck speed only to come to a grinding halt 1/3 of the way through. From there it progresses slowly, eventually gaining some momentum to ultimately end. When I tried to map the structure, the story begins with constant conflict, followed by a resolve, then rising action, conflict, resolve… Now while many books utilize dual-conflict/climax in plots, I’ve never read a story which literally starts back at ground level for the second. This odd setup was compounded by Bunn’s chapter endings which were nearly all cliff-hanger. Each new chapter would begin in a new location at a later time with some decision having been made during the page edge between. This made it difficult to understand what, why, and why I the reader should empathize with the characters and story. Perhaps if the author simply reasoned with me on the page I wouldn’t be left wondering when Bunn tries to create artificial “aha” moments. I should state that sometimes it worked… particularly in the first 1/3 when everything was moving so quickly, but in that latter 2/3 it simply bogged me down like jeans slogging through a swamp and trying to do jumping jacks. Consequently I vacillated between belief and incredulity at the story’s events.

Ultimately, if Bunn is writing for Christians, which I believe he is, he succeeds in presenting them with an encouraging historical narrative. The book doesn’t really challenge Christians to believe anything different except perhaps that there isn’t always a happy physical ending. So I give it 9/10 stars despite its plot flaws, but I’ll round up for its target audience: 5/5.

I recommend this book to readers who enjoyed The Pilgrim or Christians looking for a one-day beach read.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

This review is crosslisted on Goodreads, Amazon, my blog, and CBD. 

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

An Analytical Book Review: Merchant of Alyss by Thomas Locke

*This is an analytical review; for plot overview please read the book description or other reviews. My goal here is to help you understand in which ways you will be influenced by this book (in addition to offering a few suggestions at a literary level).

Merchant of Alyss is the second in Thomas Locke’s “Legends of the Realm” series, and the book picks up right where the first one left off… in fact, it picks up almost too quickly expecting you to remember the names and relationships of half a dozen characters in the first several pages. Perhaps that’s my fault, but having read the first one a year previous, I would like some overlap reminding me of past events and persons. Nonetheless, the book begins with a couple interesting scenes that ‘hook’ and then progresses into a plot structure best described as a ‘journey’ motif. The cohort of primary characters (which features a slight upgrade in diverse characterization from the first book) journeys from one place to another, and another—experiencing new locations and persons everywhere they go.

Evil is on the rise again, and a mysterious dream spurs Hyam into action. In fact one of the major themes revealed through these pages is “Purpose” or “Motivation.” They do something because they must. The impetus shifts in several key moments, but the motivation always boils down to responsibility: I do this because I must do this, and I must do this because I ought to do this. In painting this theme throughout Merchant becomes an interesting narrative of ‘doing’ even if sometimes I don’t understand why I’m ‘doing’, how I’m doing, or even what I’m doing!

Sometimes this works; it provides an interesting compulsion for the characters to do. But other times it sets up the narrative to show its gears—moments when it becomes clear this event happened simply to move the story along, or when there’s a logic gap in the lore (and I’m left wondering with the characters who don’t see the obvious…because it’s not there). And other times it forces the characters to discover certain innate abilities far too easily. This character suddenly finds he can understand and speak a language after hearing it 6 times. That character suddenly discovers they have mage ability to rival the masters of a school and thwart a hag who’s spent decades in practice. And that one is suddenly thrust into rulership when never would an earthly kingdom have been so hasty. All because the plot and the timeline demand this character be so capable.

I think the second primary theme  expounded and woven throughout the book is the ’need for newness’ in pursuit of future hope. Time and again the characters proclaim, “Wonder upon wonder,” or “The legends come alive” or “A thousand years of decrees and more have been broken,” and all of them serve to point us to the fact that the times are changing. A new time requires new rules; the traditions were good for the time that is now passed, but they aren’t sufficient to guide us in the new days. This too is an uncommon theme which I found refreshing in the narrative. Unlike the first theme, however, this theme is consistent throughout and doesn’t create plot holes or logic gaps. The world is in tension… the old still exists and to a certain extent binds the world and characters to it, but there is a newness that supersedes the old—in what ways it can. And it sets the stage for a momentous occasion that will color “the Realm” for all time to come.

Other themes play lesser roles, but nonetheless add color to the characters and actions. Themes of temptation, true knowledge of others, love, sacrifice, unification; each affords memorable, surprising scenes and are quick to illuminate similar scenes in my own life. Each serves to engrain the readers with the book’s philosophy of life and the world:

Selfless love for others exceeds all trials and paves new avenues of hope for a better life.

And the broader philosophy of the whole series:

Evil threatens to overtake life and good, but through the bonds of love, friendship, and hope, evil is vanquished.

Both are much needed in our culture. And I think the influence this book will have upon readers of fantasy is “not every temptation is worth the cost; selfless sacrifice achieves more good than selfish indulgence” even while every hopeless romantic is taught “not every desire receives its own happy ending”—truths well worth my time and consideration.

A few final thoughts before I offer my commendation.

1.      It’s often hard to track the physical surroundings. Now, I’m a fan of Tolkien’s pages on trees, so I know I’m partly biased, and yet I found myself unable to imagine where the characters were and what things looked like. Oftentimes there would be a quick 1-2 sentence description and the dialogue would move on… then it would refer to some physical aspect I never even realized was there. This was particularly troublesome in battle scenes when something would interact with the landscape and I had to go back three pages to reread the brief sentence describing the area.

2.      At the risk of sounding contradictory, I really enjoyed the portion of the book that took place in the desert. I often find desert travel skimmed or avoided completely, and found Locke’s description about desert navigation fantastic! And yet… I still couldn’t quite imagine the whole surrounding area, or the physical trauma the characters experienced.

3.      Too often the characters seemed to know all the same information. Page after page characters would finish one another’s sentences. There was hardly any learning from character-character interaction. Everybody already knew it all (the exception being when Hyam would connect the dots and I was left with the characters still ‘not getting it’). Give us a good monologue or two, or five! In fact, there was a distinct lack of long paragraphs, long thoughts started and carried to conclusion, no soliloquys. And again, I recognize my bias: I enjoy Shakespeare. And characters can be left in mystery, uncertainty, and ignorance—it is no flaw or sin.

So, how does this compare to the first? Pretty similar in plot and style, though better in characterization; fresh and exciting in themes; lacking in dialogue; disjointed at times, and yet the ‘big picture’ fits surprisingly well with the mosaics. Most of the book feels like it’s setting us up for something bigger, and so in the way of many sequels: it’s a slight dip in anticipation of something pretty remarkable.

I give it 3.5/5 stars, but I round up (particularly because how credible the temptation element was, and powerful the scenes of self-revelation).

I recommend this book to readers of high fantasy, with an emphasis toward the 15-21 age range.

Despite its flaws, this book helps me evaluate decisions I make in my own life; relationships I have, and what they are built upon. And I with Hyam and the others look forward with hope beyond the evil, where every foe is vanquished and life restored.

I will be raffling off a free copy of Merchant of Alyss January 25-29.

This review is crosslisted on Amazon, Goodreads, and my blog.

I received a free copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.

Monday, January 4, 2016

Book Review, An Outsider's Perspective: Angelarium

I am not the best person to review this piece of art because I’m not on ‘the inside’ of this book’s philosophy/spiritual beliefs. So I write this review to other ‘outsiders,’ and hope that you insiders will forgive my unattuned senses…

I don’t know that I’ve ever read a piece of literature that required so much additional study in order to be able to begin comprehending it or to feel even remotely adequate to evaluate it in an online review… let alone a Graphic Novel which is stereotypically focused on sensory pleasure and easy cultural receptivity. Sure, I could have forgone all the extra reading and study through the “Book of Enoch” and introductory Kabbalah literature and Rabbinic exegesis, but had I done so my review would have ultimately consisted of a big “I don’t get it.” And now, having done all the extra study, I can finally say, “Interesting.” Now, of course, every piece of art: poetry, painting, drawing, meditative prose, etc. deserves a certain extent of calm reflection, but I simply could not make the leap from page to sense or influence very easily. I found myself reading paragraphs over and over again, and looking at the art only to utter an exasperated, “What?!” Eventually, over halfway through the book, I started to get a sense of things that were happening and influences the pieces were making—not to say that the piece “made sense” and indeed!: I think the artists would say “You don’t understand “ to anyone who actually said, “I get it.” This purpose of ‘mystery’ and existentialism and insurmountability of the whole piece is at once relieving and frustrating. You aren’t supposed to “get it.” You aren’t supposed to be able to plumb the depths of its meaning and come up with the sunken ship; you’re supposed to be able to dive deep and return with buried treasure over and over again—and all the better if its treasure you throw into the sea as well! But here’s where my outsider perspective finds flaw. My philosophy doesn’t allow me to keep adding meaning where it isn’t there, or removing a piece from its intended purpose and wield it as a beautiful truth. My philosophy cries “illegitimate!” and won’t let me hold onto it because I’m deceiving myself into believing something I know isn’t compatible with my epistemology.

However… what my epistemology does allow for is a subjective thought weaving, so to speak. I can fully accept that seeing things and reading things easily and constantly pushes to my mind other experiences, ideas, and beliefs. And I can reevaluate those experiences, ideas, and beliefs based on the current context whether the one afforded by the art itself or by the art as a means only. In other words, Angelarium offers me the canvas with which to place down my own thoughts regarding love, kingdom, justice, mercy, etc. and to reposition and refine them; to burn away chaff, add dimensions, or even change. And yet… I’m not sure I would purchase this book. Perhaps I would—I’m sure it would offer interesting conversations for friends; and the art is certainly enticing, but as an outsider looking in I think: “well that was interesting, and I’m glad to have exposed myself to something so different” and now I move on to something else. Maybe I’ll return to it down the road, maybe I won’t. And I can’t tell you whether or not you should purchase it either; I suppose it just depends on what you’re looking for.

*An editorial note: there are several instances throughout with repeated words or tense disagreement in additional to a few lesser grammatical errors. I searched for an intended purpose based on the emanation in discussion, etc. but could find no justifiable literary reason for including the errors. I’m willing to chalk this up to my ‘outsideness,’ but I think it deserves investigation.

Thanks to NetGalley for a e-copy of this book in exchange for my honest review.
This review is crosslisted on Goodreads, Amazon, and NetGalley.