Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Map of Time

Felix J. Palma's novel, The Map of Time, is a deceptive little thing, and by "little," I mean gargantuan three-parter. It's an unusual (but not unheard of) read for me for two reasons: 1) it's written by a man, and 2) it's not young adult fiction. The Map of Time is not a lot of things. For instance, most of it is not about real time travel (and by "real," I mean that which is considered real in a fictional world); two of the three parts have to do with people pretending they have time machines. Additionally, the novel is not about one person. Each part focuses on a different main character or two, and though they are all woven together into the story as a whole, it's somewhat upsetting and wearying to swap main characters like that and, for the most part, be done with their stories while two-thirds or a third of the book remains.

So, what is this strange, not-so-little novel about? Set in Victorian England, The Map of Time is about the sensational stir the idea of time travel causes after the publication of H.G. Wells' The Time Machine. Mr. Wells, in fact, makes appearances in all three parts of the book and stars in the third. In Part One, a man loses his lover to Jack the Ripper and wishes to go back in time to kill the man before the murder takes place. In Part Two, a woman falls in love with a Captain from the future but does not realize he is merely an actor, and he, unwilling to crush her spirit, concocts an elaborate hoax to keep her from finding out the truth. In Part Three, H.G. Wells attempts to help solve a murder case in which the assault weapon appears to be futuristic and the words of a novel he's barely finished and not yet shown to anyone are scrawled on the wall above the victim.

The plot may sound intriguing here, but it annoyed me to no end while reading it. The first of the three stories is about a man who falls in love with a prostitute. Okay, who am I to judge? I love the book Redeeming Love, by Francine Rivers, which is all about a man falling in love with a prostitute. But is it love if the relationship is based wholly on sex and the man pays for every encounter? Call me crazy...but I think not. The second story is about a man who takes advantage of a woman falling in love with the person he is pretending to be and tricking her into getting into bed with him though they don't know each other. And might I reiterate, all this takes place in Victorian England. Though I'm well aware that there were prostitutes at that time, too, I'm not convinced that every wife was a cold, dead fish in bed and that every man was a hormonal sex machine like the book so ridiculously implies. Not one of the men in the book stays true to one woman all his life. Jane Austen is turning over in her grave.

It was kind of ironic to me that after the author seemed to have no scruples about writing about sex, he suddenly veered away from a bedroom scene he had been meticulously and detailedly leading up to. But the "Aha" moment came later when the scene was described in detail through a letter. The only defense I can offer up for such writing is that it is presented more or less factually and not too graphically. It's a little crude at parts, but it doesn't dwell or sensationalize. Still, I was rather stupefied as to why two-thirds of a novel that was supposedly about time was spent talking about fake time machines and relationships based entirely upon sex. I guess I shouldn't be surprised that modern "literature" takes on the face of modern people, even if it is set in other eras. But I'd rather be surprised by a novel that exudes talent and goodness. Do those exist anymore? I used to think young adult fiction (which, I remind you, this is not) was beginning to have more sex in it than adult fiction, but I think it's all the same. Both genres have it, and the only difference is how the author approaches the subject. I've been happy lately, however, to find slightly less of it in the young adult novels I've been reading. Maybe I'm just learning to pick my titles better.

The minor redeeming value of The Map of Time is the way it is written. It has a lyrical quality and reads beautifully, which is all the more remarkable since the book is translated from Spanish. The narration is quirky, too, as the narrator addresses the reader directly, frequently reminds the reader that he is omniscient in the story, and ends the book by having H.G. Wells suggest that in a parallel world somewhere someone might be writing about him, wink, wink.

You might wonder why I, self-proclaimed morality gateway to book and movie entertainment, would continue reading this book after the first part's dismaying plot line. I think the gist of it was curiosity (I was searching for that blasted real time machine!) and the compelling readability of the book. I kept thinking, this will get better just around the corner, and though it eventually did, it may have been too little too late. If you want to wade through the odd, morally ambiguous plot to get to the glimmers some people are calling "brilliant," it's your call. But if you trust me, take my word for it and read something a little less gutter-stuck and a bit more satisfactorily happy. I'll let you know if I find such a thing in reviews to come.

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Tea with Hezbollah

This book is about a year or two old, but I have been wanting to read it since I heard about it. It's nonfiction, which I admit, I typically don't read, but it's a memoir/travelogue of sorts, written by Ted Dekker, who is my favorite fiction author. And with a title like Tea with Hezbollah: Sitting at the Enemies' Table, Our Journey Through the Middle East, I was definitely intrigued.

Tea with Hezbollah is the true tale of how Carl Medearis, a man with a great love for Arabs, and Ted Dekker went in 2009 to sit with Arabs in the Middle East and discuss the greatest teaching of Jesus: loving one's enemies. They got interviews with men no other group could reach, interviews that were often "up in the air" until the very day or hour. They spoke to men who write Islamic law and men who practice it. They drank tea with Hamas and Hezbollah. They met real Samaritans. They visited Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Beirut, Southern Lebanon, Syria, and Jerusalem, some of which were practically war zones, in the middle of cease-fires. And all the way, they asked, "What do you think of Jesus' teaching to love your enemy?" They recorded the answers, and Dekker relates these sessions in transcripts while also telling about his own emotions going into such dangerous territories. It's fascinating stuff, mainly because Westerners don't often get a chance to get into the heads of those from the Middle East. What do they think of us? Do they hate us? Could they love us? More to the point, could we love them?

It was particularly interesting to me to read this from Dekker's point of view, having met him and heard him speak. Believe me when I tell you that the book sounds just like him. I don't think he ever studied writing or English, but he has a brilliant mind and great communication skills, not to mention an awesome imagination. I say this to point out that the book isn't, perhaps, the best written piece of nonfiction. Dekker delves a little too much into history at some points. I think he finds a lot of things interesting and sees the connections in all of it, but for this particular book, I didn't find it always necessary. Nonetheless, the actual tale of his travels is delivered in a very informal way that makes you feel like Dekker is a normal guy with the same reactions his readers would have had in a similar situation. He draws you in and really makes you feel what he's feeling, makes people you wouldn't know how to relate to relatable.

My reaction coming away from this book was that I haven't been loving my enemies the way Jesus tells us to. Like many Americans, I group all the Arabs together and I fear them. I've read books about Arab women, and I feel compassion for them. But I haven't loved the Arab people as a whole. I've always been okay with our soldiers being over there fighting the War on Terror, and I'm still okay with liberating people from terror. But now I'm a little less enthusiastic about the measures we take because I see a little better how it affects our image in the eyes of Arab people. In the end, all the fighting in the world will never bring about peace. After all, that's what the Jews and Arabs have been fighting about all along. Each side wants peace ultimately, but when one side attacks, the other thinks they must retaliate, an eye for an eye at the very least. But how do you keep track of such things? One side, either way, will always feel like it's their turn to deal the damage.

Regardless of what you feel on this issue, this is a good book to read. It's not political. It's only about love. Whether you think it's right to be at war in the Middle East or not isn't the issue. The question is: do you love your enemies? Christians, especially, should be aware of the things this book has to say. You might feel a little less like calling yourself a Christian after reading this. But don't just take my viewpoint on this book. You really need to read it for yourself. I promise, it will make you think and rethink a lot of things.


On a similar topic but in another medium entirely, I recently watched Munich, the 2005 Steven Spielberg film about the Israeli athletes murdered during the 1972 summer Olympics in Munich and the Israeli Mossad agents sent to assassinate those who had a hand in the massacre. It's rated R for graphic violence, nudity, sex, and language in about that order, and I don't recommend it. However, it was interesting to watch, having just read Dekker's book. It's another look at the seemingly hopeless situation between the Jews and Arabs, from a non-Christian, Jewish point of view. It has a similar message in some ways, but it's much more depressing in its interpretation of the situation. The main similarity is that the movie explores the idea that each person has a story. Each Arab they kill has a family, and the conflicted man in charge of the Mossad assassination group has a wife and new baby of his own. Over the course of the movie, this Israeli agent (played very well by Eric Bana) grows from a naive, untested, sensitive soul into a killer who is more paranoid, more angry, and more unsure of himself by the day. It's really sad, and watching it, you are unsure who is right or even if the director meant to say one side is more right than the other. But the end gives no answer except to say we are all human, and each human has the potential to become an animal.

Tea with Hezbollah doesn't really give an answer to the whole Middle Eastern mess either, but it does suggest the individual's role much better than Munich, offering hope where there seems to be none.

Saturday, February 11, 2012


This is a very strange book. Incarnate, by Jodi Meadows, is a young adult novel about a society of people who have been reincarnating for 5000 years with no exceptions until one day, one person doesn't come back and a new soul is born.

I don't believe in reincarnation, but since some people do believe it, I wasn't sure what I would think of this book. I didn't want it to be too real, to take itself too seriously. And thankfully, it didn't. It's an odd combination of genres, mostly fantasy with a bit of dystopia in it. Overall, I enjoyed it and it read pretty fast, but there were aspects of it that I didn't like, too.

Ana is the new soul. A million souls have been born again and again, and everyone knows each other. So, when Ciana dies and doesn't come back and Ana is born instead, she is unwelcome at the very least. Even her own mother hates her. Ana leaves home after her eighteenth birthday in hopes of finding out the truth about herself in the great city of Heart. But before she gets there, creatures of shadow and fire, called sylph, nearly kill her twice. A boy who appears to be her age in this reincarnation but who has a soul just as old as everyone else's, rescues her and tries to show her that she is worthwhile and not a mistake. But Ana always feels as though she is playing catch-up, a mere fleeting butterfly amidst the old souls who find her a curiosity or a blemish. Can love make Ana see herself any differently? Will the community of old souls ever accept her? Or will she be a blip on the screen of their lives, forgotten after she's dead?

As I said before, I wasn't sure I would like the idea of this book, but it grew on me, particularly as the mysteries surrounding Ana mounted up. In the city of Heart, there's a great Temple that rises past the clouds, has no entryway, and gives off a pulse. The citizens of Heart don't seem to be bothered by it, but Ana is creeped out around it. The city is attacked by dragons now and then, and the dragons attempt to attack the Temple but don't even succeed in scratching it. The Temple is probably the most intriguing fantasy element of the book.

The tension and romance between Ana and Sam, her rescuer, is a little too drawn out. I felt like I was watching an episode of TV's Smallville where Lana says she just can't trust Clark...for the hundredth time. You can only push one plotline so far without it getting stagnant. In Incarnate, Ana is always misinterpreting Sam's actions toward her, always belittling herself, always seeing herself as a "nosoul." That will put a strain on any relationship, not to mention the 5000-year difference in age. Ana has a bit of a hard time accepting it, for good reason. So does the reader.

Sometimes I felt like the author was trying to live vicariously through her writing, as some do, making it more sensational than it needed to be, like a dream you try to hang onto when you wake up just as it was getting good. The romance felt a little forced, a little too unbelievable even though great amounts of the book were dedicated to it. For the most part, aside from the weirdness of the age difference, it was a clean romance, though there were awkward moments and Ana ends up living in Sam's house as his student. This isn't quite Stockholm Syndrome, but it felt similar. And I'm never for a guy and girl who aren't married living alone together. But that aside, there was one moment where Sam acts totally out of character at a masquerade and things get a little steamy then and after (though, no sex), and I kept expecting the author to reveal that Ana had mistaken this other person for Sam. But, no.

Unfortunately, the book is mostly a romance, and the mystery part is just the backdrop. I like romances, and I did enjoy this book. But something about it was just weird sometimes, not one particular thing but  a bunch of all these little things I've mentioned put together.

However, the reincarnation idea was fascinating, and I thought the author explored it pretty well, showing what it would be like for old souls to live so many years together, even in different bodies (and genders!) and what it would mean to be only eighteen years old as opposed to 5000. This isn't a must-read, but it's not a bad one either.

Incarnate is out this month. Three stars.

Friday, February 10, 2012

The Invisible Tower

This is the last of the middle school novels I had on my shelf that were coming out in January. The Invisible Tower, by Nils Johnson-Shelton, is the first of a new series, Otherworld Chronicles, and it's a decent book. There's still something about the writing style that is probably how middle school novels are supposed to be written but that strikes me as too direct and simple since I was reading much more complicated books at that age. But the story is engaging, and I enjoyed the direction it ultimately took.

Artie Kingfisher is a quiet, nerdy boy who's just discovered how to beat a difficult dragon on a video game called Otherworld. But when a message addressed directly to him appears as an easter egg in the game, his true destiny is revealed. Young Artie is really King Arthur of Avalon, reborn, and the wizard Merlin needs him to retrieve a key in the real Otherworld, a magical sister world to Earth. Artie teams up with his sister (in his adoptive family) and a few new friends to pull the sword from the stone and Excalibur from the Lady of the Lake. But many trials and real dangers await Arthur and his new knights on their way to releasing Merlin from his long imprisonment, the most terrifying of which is the sorceress Morgaine. She wants Excalibur, and Merlin wants his freedom. But what does Artie want?

This idea is a very clever way of bringing Arthur back to life. It's very fantastical and quite a bit over the top. It's not particularly close to the original stories of King Arthur, but it's not meant to be either. Different fictional worlds are thrown together; it appears the author really enjoys Alice's Adventures in Wonderland since he borrows heavily from that. Hardcore Arthurian legend fans probably won't like this rendition, but imagination and creativity are certainly not lacking in Johnson-Shelton's Otherworld.

The pure imagination of it is what kept me reading. There are little things I could nitpick at in the story. I'm annoyed by the fact that the kids' dad is initially put under a spell so that the kids can do whatever they want around him and get away with it. But they eventually feel bad about using him, and he's finally brought into the loop.

I don't think it's accidental that Merlin is introduced in the prologue the way he is. For most of the book, he seems like a great guy looking out for Artie, but right off the bat, we're told that his priority is finding a way to escape. And the end leaves you wondering about Merlin, whether he's good or bad or somewhere between the two. It's a great cliffhanger for the rest of the series. I think I was particularly struck by Merlin's possible duality because the rest of the book is so forthright, telling things as they are. I admit, I was a bit caught off guard to learn at the end that Merlin's actions might be self-serving, yet I think it was at the back of my mind for the whole book, due to that nice bit of prologue workmanship.

Despite the book's flaws, I think story trumps craft, so I give this one a thumb's up.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Soul Surfer on DVD

I was more impressed with the movie Soul Surfer, in theaters in 2011 and recently out on DVD, than I thought I would be or even than I wanted to be. Typically, the inspirational movies I have seen have been somewhat sub-par as far as originality and creativity go. Sometimes they smack of too much touchy-feely emotionalism, not enough depth, the screenplays written with a very basic salvation message in mind, something so cheesy and full of Christianese that it makes me want to cringe. I wonder, are people really touched and saved by those messages, or do they just make other Christians feel good that "our kind" produced a movie to "save people?" I know the Bible says Christians will look like fools to the outside world, but I think to myself, is it possible to be too much of a fool? I know that I am more embittered toward Christian arts and entertainment than I ought to be, and since I've stopped watching and reading specifically Christian art, it has possibly improved and I just don't know it. Obviously, this is a soap box of mine, that Christians should be subtle in the presentation of the hope we have, not that our message should be any less meaningful or powerful but that we should be innocent as doves and crafty as serpents, not of the world but wise to the ways of the world in order to win the hearts of the world.

So, I didn't go into Soul Surfer with high expectations, and maybe that's why I was surprised. It's still, perhaps, a more low-budget type of film, but the acting was impressive, and the message was just what it needed to be. I was additionally surprised to see mainstream actors such as Dennis Quaid and Helen Hunt as well as Carrie Underwood in the movie.

There's some footage of the real heroine of the story at the end of the movie, and that's pretty cool, too.

But what is Soul Surfer about? You've probably seen the picture of the girl with a big bite taken out of her surfboard on the DVD cover. It's based on the true story of Bethany Hamilton, a teenage girl living and surfing in Hawaii. She's headed for big success on the waves when one day, a shark takes a bite out of her board and her whole arm with it. Amazingly, she survives the attack, but her life is forever changed. Learning how to live day to day with only one arm, unable to even tie back her own hair, is a big enough challenge. But Bethany can't envision a world where she doesn't surf, so with the help of her dad, she learns how to surf with one arm and becomes an inspiration to fans all over the world. But it's a mission trip to Thailand after their disastrous tsunami that inspires her, and she becomes the girl who embraces more people with one arm than she ever could with two.

It's a moving story that had me in tears numerous times. The story is amazing. The surfing is entertaining. The message isn't overbearing. And it's very family friendly. The shark attack is quick, and though some blood is shown, the gore of it is not at all highlighted or sensationalized. I was not just surprised but pleased. If you haven't seen this one yet, it's totally worth it.

Saturday, February 4, 2012

In Time on DVD

I really enjoyed In Time for its concept. If you missed this one in theaters, it just came out a few days ago on DVD.

It's a world where everyone looks 25, but how long you've been 25 is the question. Time is the new currency. You might have 24 hours to live. You might have one thousand years. You might pay four minutes of your life for coffee. You might pay two months to buy a hotel room for one night. Or you might pay a year to cross the border from a poor time zone into a rich time zone. But when you get there, don't run; life in the richer time zones is more leisurely, so they'll know you don't belong.

Justin Timberlake plays Will Salas, a guy who lives day to day, always hours away from death, waiting for the next paycheck of time. In one night, his life changes, and he finds himself with over one hundred years of time on his clock. But where he comes from, that much time is dangerous, practically a death sentence. So, he heads for richer time zones. But the Time Keepers, the police force, are on his tail to make sure the status quo never changes. Will, a guy who's willing to give time away, is a dangerous man to those who horde it.

This concept is on par with the ideas behind the movie Inception. Unfortunately, it wasn't executed as brilliantly. In addition to the somewhat of a misnomer title (should be more like out of time), there are a few plot holes, some major scene skipping to get to the bigger plot points, and some minor believability issues. For instance, anyone can steal another person's time. In fact, people "fight" for time by holding each other's wrists, similar to arm wrestling. The person on top somehow sucks away the other person's time. I, myself, haven't tried grabbing a person's wrist and trying to turn it over and stay on top, but realistically, I don't think that type of arm wrestling even works. You try it, though; maybe I'm wrong. But, for the sake of the movie, I suppose it looks cool, especially with a person's clock embedded right into his forearm for anyone to see, and this manner of wrestling provides a cool background story about Will's dad, which, in turn, heightens the tension in a later scene. It is pretty intense to watch someone's clock tick down to two seconds as people gamble not just with time but with their lives.

I love science fiction like this, even if it isn't perfect. This sci-fi thriller is rated PG-13 for partial nudity (skinny dipping where a girl's backside is shown and a scene with a girl in lingerie on a bed), language (I believe the F-word is used once), and violence. If you go on imdb.com, there's a detailed description of the sex and nudity in the movie, but it's wrong. Or maybe whoever wrote that saw an uncut version. From what I remember of the bed scene, it's cut short before anything can happen by the arrival of the police. The murder, mainly by the stealing of time, is possibly more disturbing than the other things for which this movie is rated PG-13. It's just such an odd way to die, so quickly; humanity becomes even more fragile than it really is. (Though, the irony of the situation is that we actually do have only so much time on this earth; we just don't have it displayed on our arms for all to see.)

It's a clever little movie with entertaining performances by Justin Timberlake, Amanda Seyfried, and Cillian Murphy, whose face just lends itself to creepy characters. I'd be careful about letting kids watch this, but otherwise, if you enjoy science fiction, I recommend this one!

Three stars.