Saturday, January 19, 2008

Magi – Daniel L. Gilbert

© 2007 Paraclete Press, Brewster, MA

The title of this short novel says it all. Unlike O Henry’s short story “The Gift of the Magi,” this book by Daniel Gilbert is not an allusion to the biblical story, but an author’s attempt to fill in some of the pieces that the original story hints at.

Who are the magi, and from where in the east have they come? Gilbert’s take says that they are Parthian priests, of the order of Belteshazzar (the Babylonian name given to Daniel during his captivity). What about the journey—how long did it take? How did they know what the star meant? And on and on the questions could go.

Gilbert does a fair job crafting a story that tells the side of the magi. Ramates, who is much better at hunting than at stargazing, discovers a new star in the sky while hunting the elusive white leopard. The ancient writings point to the Deliverer, the Sociosh as the Parthians call him. Glory and admiration are given to Ramates when he arrives at the palace with the fabled animal draped over his horse and the story of the new star on his lips. He leads a company of priests on the arduous journey to Jerusalem in search of the new King of the Jews whose star he discovered. Along the way they encounter thieves and incite riots with their tales of this Deliverer.

Gilbert weaves an engaging story that makes sense of the few verses afforded the wise men in the gospel of Matthew. Some of the answers he arrives at are not the usual surface conclusions assumed by the casual reader of the Gospels. For instance, he places at the backdrop of the magi’s home country a civil conflict that builds the tension—for characters and reader alike. He joins the retinue to a caravan for safety, only to have them pawned off on a smaller caravan after they have drawn too much attention to themselves. He has them sent to Bethlehem as the scripture indicates, only to find the Messiah living in Nazareth—the opposite direction of Bethlehem when one starts from Jerusalem.

Literarily, the story is well-crafted. It is fast-paced with all the tension one would look for in an adventure story. The emotional upheaval associated with most Christmas stories is missing, but the deeper message that belongs to all true Christmas tales—whether based on the original event, a modern dilemma, or a fable-like Santa Claus offering. What we find in Magi is the story of a man (Ramates) filled with arrogance and pride, one who is looking for self-advancement and glory, who finds humility and truthfulness at the feet of the infant Savior. One of the best moments in the entire book is the revelation in the words of Ramates that, “Truth belongs to God . . . What I must cultivate is the humility required to recognize it.”

The one major drawback in the reading of this novel is at the same time one of its strengths and charms—namely, the desire of the author to remain faithful to the historical time period and setting. In so doing, he uses names and terminology that cause the casual reader to pause for a moment as he figures out how to pronounce character names and places (i.e. the home town of the magi—Ctesiphon). Even with the distractions of the tough names and places, Gilbert writes a story well worth reading, and possibly well worth re-reading during future Christmas seasons.

Magi deserves a hearty 4 ¾ reading glasses out of five, and a rousing round of applause from the Christmas reading community. Thanks for the story, Mr. Gilbert.

—Benjamin Potter, January 19, 2008

Wednesday, January 16, 2008

The Christmas Train – David Baldacci

© 2002 Warner Books, New York

Years ago I enjoyed an audio of one of David Baldacci’s books, and have been wanting to read the bestselling author in print. I’ve been looking forward to The Christmas Train since it came out in 2002. Finally, I had an opportunity to snag a copy at a book fair last spring.

Baldacci’s effort at a Christmas story leaves a little to be desired. Tom Langdon, erstwhile battlefield reporter and current “lifestyles” freelancer, has decided to take the train cross-country at Christmas. Ostensibly it is to gather research for a story about the train trip reminiscent of Mark Twain’s travel guides. Twain had apparently been close enough to Langdon in ancestry to mention, and had made such a transcontinental trip without having finished the documentation of it. Armed with orders not to fly within the continental US, a desire to complete this work (as a promise to his father), and arrangements to meet his girlfriend from the other coast in LA for a ski holiday over Christmas, Tom books passage on the Capitol Limited (service from Washington, D.C. to Chicago) with continuing service on the Southwest Chief (Chicago to Los Angeles). On the ride he encounters a variety of characters—some Amtrak workers, others fellow passengers, who color the trip in as many different ways as there are characters. He is thrown back into the path of his long lost love and former writing partner, Eleanor. The experience on the train brings him in contact with a couple running off to marry on the train, a retired priest, a laid-off train expert, and an expert thief.

The biggest problem with The Christmas Train is that it can’t decide what kind of story it wants to be. Is it a love story? Is it a mystery? Is it a disaster story? Is it a Christmas, feel-good story? And in the end it doesn’t do justice to any of these. The romance with all its tension is resolved just as we expect it to be. The thief is caught, but isn’t really the focus of the story. The avalanche, while it could be scary and is written as life-threatening, doesn’t pass muster for the disaster. And the resolution of the Christmas theme doesn’t tug at your heartstrings the way it should. To top it all off, the Mark Twain connection is tossed in so often as to be overbearing on the story.

My advice, read The Christmas Train if you’ve nothing else pressing, but if you want a good Christmas story look to Dickens. I can only give up two out of five reading glasses for The Christmas Train.

—Benjamin Potter, January 16, 2008

Thursday, January 10, 2008

The Prayer of Jesus – Ken Hemphill

© 2001 Broadman & Holman, Nashville.

Prayer is a constant concern for Americans. There is the constant fight over when and where people can pray – that includes the quip that “as long as there are tests there will be prayer in public schools.” In the church community, there are volumes of books, hours of conferences, and pages of small group study materials that teach us how to pray. Some of these efforts go so far as to suggest that if we prayer a certain prayer in a certain way, then we will get whatever we want. Almost like a magic incantation.

Although the subtitle suggests “The Promise and Power of Living in the Lord’s Prayer,” the book is not about a formula to fabulous living. Instead it is a thoughtful dissection of the model prayer found in Matthew 6. Hemphill has long been a favorite among Baptist writers. His congenial style, an personable demeanor are just what people are looking for in a pastor, seminary president, or church growth consultant (all of which he has done quite successfully). His treatment of the Lord’s Prayer, while occasionally a choppy read is filled with well-considered study and personal anecdotes that bring the principles he espouses to life.

From the very beginning, Hemphill suggests that if believers will follow the pattern set forth by Jesus when His disciples asked Him to “teach us to pray” it will change their lives. He outlines the prayer into four triads dealing with how we respond in prayer to God, and then offers instruction on how to apply this outline to daily living. By doing this, we are told that we can apply other scriptures such as “pray without ceasing” to our daily lives.

The outline of the model prayer—a three-part address, a three-part commitment, a three-part petition, and a three-part benediction—bears little resemblance to the age-old prayer outline used by evangelists for years—ACTS (Adoration, Confession, Thanksgiving, Supplication). The major difference in these two approaches to prayer life is the focus. While both deal approaches deal with our sin at some point, our relationship with God at some point, and our need at some point, Hemphill’s approach is actually more God-centered. If we get to the place that we really place God at His rightful place in our lives, praying according to the pattern that Christ gave us should do nothing less than draw us closer to Him.

Hemphill includes suggestions of how to put these ideas into practice in our personal lives as well as in group study. For the practical suggestions and the personable presentation I give Hemphill’s study of the Lord’s Prayer 4 out of 5 reading glasses.

—Benjamin Potter, January 10, 2008

Saturday, January 5, 2008

Houston Homicide – Bill Crider and Clyde Wilson

© 2007 Thomson Gale, New York

Christmas Eve brought a pleasant surprise in the mail—my autographed copy of Houston Homicide. I had been looking forward to Clyde Wilson’s debut novel for several months—ever since collaborator Bill Crider made the announcement about this Five Star offering. It delivered everything I expected.

This excellent police procedural introduces us to Detective Ted “Steve” Stephens. Steve finds himself assigned to a triple murder case already being worked by Wetsel and McGuire. Wetsel, the lead on this team, is lazy and looks for the easy answer to all his cases. The Lieutenant wants Steve to cast a more objective eye on the case. His crumbling home life doesn’t help the investigation any. To the chagrin of Wetsel, Steve turns to his friend private detective Clive Watson for help in solving the case.

Happily, Steve’s marital woes take a positive turn as the book progresses, if his relationship with Wetsel doesn’t. By the conclusion of just over 250 pages our hero has solved the case despite having to face reassignment because the case is moving to slowly and taking a self-imposed, long overdue vacation in order to patch things up with his wife.

Crider, highly recognized mystery writer who introduced us to Sheriff Dan Rhodes two decades ago, is no stranger to sharing the pen. (His first book was a collaboration on a Nick Carter spy thriller.) Unlike previous collaborations with the likes of Willard Scott, Bill Crider’s influence is not readily evident in this superb book. It appears that Bill is along in a more advisory capacity in this outing, sharing his literary acumen to this ancient novice writer (I’m sure he’ll let me know if I’ve missed this call). The voice in Houston Homicide comes straight from the retired Houston private eye—Wilson.

I’m looking forward to future offerings by this debut author, he’ll be looking out at the award audiences with his own acceptance speech if this freshman effort is any indicator. Readers will be rooting for Sgt. Steve in all aspects of his life. It doesn’t hurt that Clyde Wilson Clive Watson offers his entire organization—contacts and all—to help solve the case. I’m sure that similarities between the author and the p.i. are merely coincidental. Don’t pay any attention to that editorial hiccup on page 67.

Houston Homicide gets a whopping 4 ½ out of 5 reading glasses. If you’re a fan of Crider, you’ll want it. If you enjoyed the 57th precinct novels, this is a good addition to your library. Even if you can’t get a copy signed by both authors delivered to you on Christmas Eve, you’ll want to read this book.

—Benjamin Potter, January 5, 2008

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