Back on Murder : Response

Yesterday I posted the basic info about Back on Murder for the CFBA tour, but I wanted to write a little more about the book. I finished it a couple of weeks ago and found it to be one of the best mysteries I’ve read in a long time. It’s not perfect, but Mark Bertrand has done a wonderful job of creating a rich, complex character in a fully realized setting. Roland March is a mess, which I know bothers some people, but I like him. (I’ve enjoyed Michael Connelly’s books featuring Harry Bosch, a complex mess himself.) March is his own worst enemy at times, and a little irritating, but he has a dogged determination to solve the web of crime he’s confronted with and I like that about him.

That dogged determination doesn’t apply just to crime solving — early in the book I wondered if March’s marriage could possibly survive, but he sticks with it. Mark captured the ways a couple can wound each other so well, but he also captured the underlying love and commitment to see each other through the bad times. It’s one of the best depictions of a fragile marriage I’ve read. Relationships matter to me and I enjoy reading books where relationships matter, so I appreciate that the relationships in Back on Murder are an important part of the story.

Another strong point is the depiction of Christians. Roland March is not a Christian, and in fact finds much evangelical culture to be confusing. He’s not sure how to deal with the Christians he’s working with, and yet he responds to their kindness and integrity. They’re not all perfect, which is also refreshing. There are no conversion scenes but there is hope.

One aspect of the book that worked less well for me, at least part of the time, was the first-person present tense. I’m fine with first person but sometimes I found all the present tense a little jarring. Still, I was forced to see things through Roland March’s eyes, as he saw them, and that was an interesting experience. I’m not sure I could pull it off, but Mark kept the voice consistent throughout. I also thought the story felt a little rushed at the end, though sometimes events all come together at once.

I appreciated what seemed to be a realistic picture of police life and I appreciated that, though the crimes were solved, it was bittersweet. Some crimes just almost never have a happy resolution and that plays out realistically in the book.

I can heartily recommend Back on Murder and I’m really looking forward to the next installment in the Roland March series next summer, The Pattern of Wounds.

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15 books … (more or less)

I’m a sucker for memes and facebook quizzes. So when Chris tagged me in a note called 15 Books That Have Shaped You (for better or worse), I had to make my list. It’s on facebook, but I’ll post it here, too, with a little commentary. (And these are probably not in any particular order, other than roughly chronological.)

1. Black Beauty
2. King of the Wind
I read these two horse stories more times than I can count and I loved them every time.

3. Little Women — I think I related to bookish Jo, always the outsider, the most. The four March girls old friends I like to visit now and again.
4. Jane Eyre — I first read this when I was about 13 and I think this is the book that really awakened me to literature. (up until then I read a lot, but I don’t think I’d tackeled anything very challenging) Sure, it’s gothic romance, but it’s gothic romance at its best, with rich characters and thrilling conflict. I was enthralled.
5. The Moon is a Harsh Mistress and Stranger in a Strange Land (both by Robert Heinlein)  — I should probably also mention a book by Andre Norton, but I don’t remember what it was called. But it was one of the first science fiction books I ever read. I was probably about 15 or 16. Then it was on to Isaac Asimov and  Heinlein and Arthur C. Clarke. I was hooked on science fiction.
6. The Left Hand of Darkness (by Ursula K. LeGuin) — I first read this one weekend while I was in college and it was one of those books that so completely sucked me in that when I would come up for air, it was a bit of a shock to find myself in a college dorm room and not on the planet Gethen. LeGuin is a master storyteller and in this book she was at her best. I still love it.
7. The Hobbit and the Lord of the Rings — I discovered The Hobbit in high school and had never read anything like it. So then I tackled the Lord of the Rings. It took me a couple of tries to read it all the way through, but I’ve been a resident of Middle Earth ever since.
8. The Chronicles of Narnia — I didn’t discover these until I was in college. We were fond, at my little Christian college, of using passages as devotions. But I think even if you never knew anything about C.S. Lewis or about Christianity, the beauty of the stories would speak to you. They’re all good, but my favorite is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader.
9. To Kill a Mockingbird — I actually read this in high school and I’ve returned to it many times since. I love the voice and the way Harper Lee wove the story. It’s as if someone were sitting on the front porch and telling it to me.
10. Mysteries by Agatha Christie — My mom is a mystery lover, so I suppose it was only natural that I’d start delving into her collection. I’ve read most of her books and enjoyed them a lot, though I have found that they aren’t the kind of books that hold up to rereading. But she was very good at writing mysteries and I don’t think I ever figured out who did it very much  before the end.
11. Mysteries by Ngaio Marsh — I discovered Ngaio Marsh after I was grown and found her stories to be a little meatier, at least in some ways. Her characters seemed deeper than Christie’s. I think I liked her later books better (especially the ones where Inspecter Allyn’s wife appears).
12. Gaudy Night, by Dorothy L. Sayers (as well as her others, but this one’s my favorite) — and then I discovered Dorothy Sayers and most English mystery writers have paled in comparison ever since. I can reread some of Sayers’ books, especially Gaudy Night. I realized that a mystery story could be good literature, too, and I just loved the way she told the stories. Some of them are a little rambling and seem dated, but the characters and scenes are still vivid.
13. Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger — it’s beautiful and what else is there to say. Enger has a way with words and with characters.
14. On Writing, by Stephen King — I’ve read a lot of books about writing, but this is my favorite. And I’m not even a big Stephen King fan. But I liked his approach — telling his story and then telling about writing. It all fits together somehow and it’s entertaining as well as instructive.
15. In This House of Brede by Rumer Godden — I think I first read this in a Reader’s Digest Condensed Book and loved the story of nuns in Britain. I’m not Catholic, but Godden brought that faith tradition alive. But it’s also full of very human characters and it’s a good story.

I could go on and on (and have sometimes). But I would say that these are some of the books that have had the most lasting affect on me. What about you?

Remembering God’s Faithfulness

(This is my May 2009 column)
Psalm 77

In the early 1970s my father preached at a church in Linton, Indiana. I was just entering my teens and it was a good place for me. My brothers and I had friends in our neighborhood and there were a lot of kids in our church. What I was not aware of though, was that it wasn’t such a good place for my dad. There were good people there, but it just wasn’t a good fit and after a couple of years he resigned. I think it was the only time my father resigned before he’d been called by another church. I’ll never forget our parents telling us that we were going to be moving, but we didn’t know where or even if we would be serving another church. I think we were all a little scared, but our parents told us that God was with us and we could trust him.

My parents understood, better than my brothers and I, what the psalmist is talking about in Psalm 77. Sometimes God seems far away, sometimes we enter a desert time in our lives when the path is rocky and hard to follow. Those are the times, though, that we can say:

I will remember the deeds of the LORD;
yes, I will remember your wonders of old.
I will ponder all your work,
and meditate on your mighty deeds.
(Psalm 77:11-12)

By remembering what God has done throughout history, and in our lives, we’re reminded of what a great God we serve and can be comforted. We know we can trust him because he’s never failed us.

And all those years ago, when we wondered what God had in mind for our family, he proved himself faithful once again. Within a month, my Dad had been called to another church in southern Indiana, where he would have a fruitful ministry and our family would be at home once more. And ever since, when the path seems uncertain, that time in my life reminds me of God’s faithfulness and I know I can trust him.

True Riches

(this is my April 2009 newsletter column)

Mark 10:17-27

Whenever a group from our church returns from a mission trip to Mexico or Nicaragua, someone always mentions the joy they saw even in the midst of great poverty. Our brothers and sisters in Christ in other countries experience real joy and peace from knowing Christ, maybe because they understand very well what it means to totally rely on God’s provision. When I see the pictures from Nicaragua and Mexico, and hear the testimonies of those who went there, I’m reminded how wealthy I am compared to most of the world. I don’t usually think of myself that way, but I have everything I need and much of what I want.

So when I read the story of Jesus and the rich young man who came to him for guidance, I realize I have a lot more in common with that young man than I usually like to admit. Jesus told the young man that even though he’d lived a good life, there was something lacking. He needed to sell his possessions and give to the poor, and then follow Jesus. The young man apparently found this too hard and went away sad, and without making any changes in his life. Jesus used this opportunity to teach his disciples about what it means to follow him. They didn’t find the teaching any more comfortable than the rich young man did.

It’s not that having wealth is a bad thing, but too often our material comfort leads to complacency. Our possessions can get in the way of our walk with Christ. Jesus told his disciples it was harder for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich person to enter the kingdom of God. The disciples were somewhat dismayed by this statment. In Jewish culture, as in ours, wealth was considered a sign that a person had done everything right. They were blessed. So if a wealthy person couldn’t get to heaven, who could? But Jesus reminds them that nothing is impossible with God.

I, like the rich young man, could say I’ve lived a pretty good life. And I, too, am uncomfortable with the idea that I might have to give up something to follow Jesus. But my salvation isn’t dependent on what I can do or on what I possess. It’s because of the saving work of Jesus Christ. And because of that I need to be willing to do whatever God asks of me. That’s the only way I’ll ever know the true riches that come from a life lived for Christ.