Wednesday, November 22, 2017

Stranger No More, by Annahita Parsan

Annahita Parsan has suffered much more than her share, yet now offers hope to all kinds of people.  In Stranger No More: A Muslim Refugee's Story of Harrowing Escape, Miraculous Rescue, and the Quiet Call of Jesus, she tells her story of suffering and oppression and, ultimately, her physical and spiritual salvation.  I was horrified as I read of her experiences in Iran, at the hands of her abusive husband, and her flight to safety. 

Parsan lived in Iran at the time of the Iranian revolution.  After her first husband was killed in an automobile accident she felt pressure to marry again.  She met a man with whom she thought she had rapport and understanding, but on their wedding night the beating and raping began.  This man was absolutely crazy, violently beating her, berating her, and treating her as less than human.  Yet her concern not to bring shame to her family kept her in this toxic marriage.

Many enlightened Westerners resist any hint of cultural superiority.  Yet as I read about Parsan's experiences in Iran, where women are devalued, where husbands beat their wives with impunity, where teachers beat their students into submission, I became convinced that any culture with these characteristics is inherently inferior.  I know there are kind people in cultures like that, and in the United States abuse occurs, but the open acceptance and expectation of such treatment in Parsan's Iran was appalling.  She noticed the difference upon her arrival in Denmark.  "I noticed that people in Denmark were so different from people in Iran or Turkey.  There was not visible anger in them, no hate raging just beneath the surface. . . . Things were gentle, warm, and easy."

When her husband became a target for the revolutionaries--he was in favor of restoring the power of the Shah--Parsan had to flee with him.  Smugglers helped them across the snowy mountains into Turkey.  Without adequate food or clothing, the fact that they survived without starving or freezing to death is remarkable.  When they finally arrived in Turkey, officials there thought they were spies.  Their family languished in unspeakably terrible conditions in prison, repeatedly questioned and abused by their captors.

Eventually they were released and allowed entry into Denmark.  The Danes assisted them tremendously, but Parsan's husband continued to abuse her.  Once in Denmark, Parsan began the process of separating from him, eventually divorcing.  During this time, door-to-door evangelists gave her a Bible in Farsi.  She didn't read it much at first, but began praying for God's help.  For a time, she and her children found refuge in a convent.  As the nuns ministered to her, she came to appreciate their faith and the rhythm of their worship.  Eventually she fully embraced God's salvation and became a pastor.

While most of Parsan's suffering resulted from her husband's insane violence, the values of Islam played a part in her experiences.  The flight to the West and her embrace of the Christian faith showed her another way.  Her suffering equipped her to bring succor to others who suffer.  Her salvation after her life as a Muslim equipped her to share the gospel with other Muslims and refugees.  Her story tells a shocking reality, but also offers hope for people suffering in terrible cultures and abusive marriages around the world, and a reminder to us who live in comfort and safety not to neglect the suffering in our world.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Life Everlasting, by Robert Whitlow

In Life Support, Whitlow begins the story of Rena, who pushed her husband off a cliff, and Alex, the lawyer who is defending her.  The story continues right where Life Support left off in Life Everlasting.  These really should be viewed as one book.  Whitlow spends too much time in the early pages of Life Everlasting retelling the story of Life Support.  Publishing this as one novel would have avoided some of the repetitive story telling.

Life Everlasting felt faster and more intense than Life Support.  The tension and conflict from the first book has built to the action of the second.  Rena, terrified that her husband will awaken and tell his side of the story, has to play the loving wife while secretly wishing him dead.  Alex has to sort through the lies that Rena continually tells, struggling with whether she can ethically defend her.  Rena's in-laws, whose lucrative businesses turn out not to be totally legal, have to figure out how to keep Rena happy, quiet, and out of the way.

More importantly, Alex's new-found faith continues to grow, and her relationship with the music minister blossoms.  For a male author, Whitlow seems to go out of his way to appeal to female readers.  Alex is the strong lead, who falls for the manly minister, who not only works with his hands but is also an accomplished concert pianist.  (Way to make the rest of us guys feel inadequate!)  I am a middle-aged regular guy but I certainly enjoyed Life Support and Life Everlasting, even with the feminine-leaning story line.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, by Ian Fleming

Like most kids of my generation, I have seen the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang many times.  I recently took my family to see a stage production of it at a local church (it was fabulous!) and got to thinking that I have never read Ian Fleming's novel, Chitty Chitty Bang Bang: The Magical Car on which the movie was based.  Actually, as I learned upon reading the book, the movie is very loosely based on the novel.

Caractacus Pott and his lovely children, Jeremy and Jemimah, are clearly the same characters we know from the movie.  However, Fleming, who I wouldn't have thought would be a big family man, includes Mrs. Pott, rather than the lovely Truly Scrumptious.  (First of all, I was a little disappointed that Truly Scrumptious was not a Fleming creation.  That is a perfect name for a Bond girl.  Second, in the novel, it's "Skrumshus," but in the movie it's "Scrumptious."   I wonder why.)  Together they use the proceeds from selling the whistle candy to Lord Skrumshus to buy the broken down racing car that comes to be known as Chitty Chitty Bang Bang.  On their first outing, on the way to the sea shore, the Pott family gets stuck in traffic.  Mr. Pott notices a blinking light on the control panel, follows the directions, and off they go, flying over the city, out to a sandbar in the English channel to enjoy a picnic.

When the tide comes in, another flashing light directs Pott to a different lever, which transforms the car into a hovercraft.  So far, the story seems much like the movie, but after this point, the divergence is almost complete.  Rather than Vulgaria, the spies, the hidden children, and the child catcher, the Potts find a cave where a criminal gang has stored their arsenal.  After the Potts blow it up, the criminals kidnap the Potts children to use them as bait in a heist.  Chitty knows what's going on, though, and saves the day.

I hesitate to compare the book and the movie.  The stories are so drastically different that you really have to view them as two separate works.  The book has merits of its own, though.  It's a perfect bedtime story, with cliffhangers that will leave young listeners eager to resume the story the next day.  It's a lovable car and a delightful story that deserves to be a classic all on its own, classic movie or not.

Saturday, November 18, 2017

Valerian: The Complete Collection, Volume 1, by Pierre Christin and Jean-Claude Mézières

Because I loved The Fifth Element, I had to check out Luc Besson's latest movie, Valerian and the City of a Thousand Planets.  And because I thought Valerian was awesome, I had to check out the comics on which it was based.  The comics, which date back to the 1960s and 1970s, have been collected in book form.  Valerian: The Complete Collection, Volume 1 contains the first four Valerian comics: Bad Dreams (1967), a two-part story The City of Shifting Waters and Earth in Flames (1970), and The Empire of a Thousand Planets (1971).

First of all, if you're not familiar with Valerian and you're a fan of sci-fi, you will want to get to know these comics.  Pierre Christin and artist Jean-Claude Mézières were groundbreaking in their day, and very influential in the world of sci-fi.  Even a casual reading of these comics will reveal influences on the Star Wars movies.

Given the historic significance of these stories, they are well worth preserving and reading.  The visuals are rich, the stories are complex and entertaining (more so than many sci-fi movies and TV shows today), and the broad range of characters, species, and technologies reveal imaginations that were well ahead of their time.

The genre has its limitations.  These are comics, after all.  The action is static, and sometimes there are too many words in a frame.  But, as is pointed out in the introductory material, comics have the advantage of allowing the reading to dwell on a particular frame, revisit a page, and absorb the story at his own pace.  If you're a fan of comics at all, especially sci-fi comics, you definitely will want to check this out.

(By the way, a word about the movie.  The movie was fabulous.  I loved it.  But don't read this comic expecting to see anything like the story in the movie.  Other than the main characters the world(s) in which they live, the movie contained very little content from these stories.)

Friday, November 17, 2017

Life Support, by Robert Whitlow

Robert Whitlow has become a go-to author for me with his reliably entertaining legal fiction.  Life Support did not disappoint with the elements that make Whitlow's books page turners: likable but complex characters, dramatic legal cases, detailed legal proceedings that drive the story without bogging it down, and a strong faith element.

In Life Support a young couple goes on a hike in a remote area.  The wife, Rena, who struggles with issues from her childhood, pushes her husband over a cliff.  Thinking he was dead, Rena calls the police to report his "accidental" fall.  To her horror, he survives, but is in a coma.  She finds a confidant and defender in Alexia Lindale, a lawyer for her husband's family.  Alexia is forced to choose between the firm and Rena.  She sides with Rena in a battle over maintaining her husband's life support, and becomes entangled in the whole family business.

Rena proves to be a difficult client who, Alex learns, tends to lie--a lot.  Whitlow sets Alex up as a smart, effective lawyer.  Her specialty is divorce, particularly uncovering husbands' lies as they try to cover up their activities and assets.  So she's predisposed to believe Rena, who pulls the wool over Alex's eyes, showing Alex not to be as smart as we may have thought.

As with his other novels, Whitlow allows the characters' Christian faith to be an element in the story without cheapening either the story or the gospel.  Alex meets a local music minister and, through his influence, finds faith.  Together they experience the healing power of prayer.  Not to give any spoilers, but before you read Life Support you should recognize that it's part 1 of 2.  It ends with a major cliffhanger. I enjoyed it and, of course, immediately picked up part 2, Life Everlasting.

Wednesday, November 15, 2017

Artemis, by Andy Weir

Andy Weir struck publishing gold with The Martian, which he published himself online before it became a best-seller and a motion picture.  So can he do it again, with Artemis?  Yes and no.  Artemis followed a more traditional publishing track, and tells a more conventional sci-fi story.  Yet it retains much of the character and attention to science details that made The Martian such a hit.

Artemis is the moon's city, now populated by a couple thousand people, supporting fledgling industries, and hosting tourists from Earth.  It's very much a frontier town, and Jazz Bashara is one of the first generation of people to grow up on the moon.  She works as a porter but supplements her income with some smuggling.  When a local billionaire recruits her for a bit of sabotage, she gets gets pulled into a scheme that has far-reaching effects on the future of Artemis.

Weir has a great talent for providing enough scientific and technical detail for the not-so-distant future story to be believable, but in a way that doesn't detract from the story.  In Artemis, the story is pretty wild, with Jazz nearly shutting down a major lunar industry and nearly killing every human on the moon.  It's a fast-paced tale told by an emerging master story teller.

Will Artemis surpass the success of The Martian?  Perhaps not.  But it's certainly an enjoyable follow up.  Readers who like their sci-fi full of hard science, believable story lines, and absent made-up magic or alien tech will love Artemis and should have Andy Weir near the top of any list of best current sci-fi authors.

Thanks to Edelweiss and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!

Monday, November 13, 2017

The Best Kind of People, by Zoe Whittal

Zoe Whittal tackles a timely and controversial subject in The Best Kind of People.  When prep school teacher George Woodbury is arrested, accused of sexual misconduct with some of his students, the community, not to mention George's family, is shocked.  On many levels, he is a pillar of the community.  His ancestors built the town.  Despite his inherited wealth, he has poured his life into teaching at the local school.  He is repeatedly chosen as teacher of the year.  A decade before, he personally confronted a shooter at the school, saving countless lives.  Everything about him showed him to be a model citizen, a model teacher, a model husband, and a model father.

The Best Kind of People focuses on George's family, primarily his daughter, who is a senior at George's school.  She and her mother, a nurse at the local hospital, suffer the indignity of being in the family of the accused.  While George is in jail awaiting trial, they are harassed and shunned by just about everyone.  A small group sides with them, the "men's rights" folks, whom the Woodburys regard as right-wing nuts. 

Whittal's focus is the impact the accusations have on the Woodburys.  We hear next to nothing about the accusations.  George, of course, denies any wrongdoing, stating that he's being framed.  Why would someone frame him?  To what end?  Who knows.  This is actually a frustrating part of the book.  At some point, I would like to have heard more about the accusations, what prompted the students to bring the accusations to light, and the basis for George's protestations. 

Whittal addresses this objection, in a way.  George's daughter moves in with her boyfriend, whose mother's live-in boyfriend is a novelist.  He decides to write a "based-on-a-true-story" novel about the Woodbury case.  His editor presses him to include more details:
We can't have a book where the monster is actually a sweet old guy everyone defends.  There needs to be more conflict. . . . He's too empathetic so far, and it's too confusing.  This is a novel, but we need some black-and-white facts here.
At the risk of seeming shallow, I felt the same way.  Whittal leaves the question of veracity open, never giving details about what actually happened on the school trip.  In fact, in the end she leaves open the possibility that the victims were pressured to retract their testimony.  Granted, Whittal's focus is on the family and the impact of the accusations.  But the lack of focus on the case itself frustrated me.

The Best Kind of People is an uncomfortable book.  Whittal's depictions of teen sex (between George's daughter and her boyfriend), a homosexual relationship between a teacher and a teen, a relationship between a dad and a teenage babysitter, and other problematic scenarios add to the cringe factor.  Whittal nails some of the realities of the turmoil these accusations cause, but overall the development and resolution of the story left me unsatisfied.

Thanks to NetGalley and the publisher for the complimentary electronic review copy!