Thoughts on Christian fiction

Invisible Prey by John Sandford January 30, 2011

Filed under: Book Reviews: Fiction — somniloquist @ 9:16 pm

Invisible Prey (Lucas Davenport, #17)Book Title: Invisible Prey
Author: John Sandford
Publisher: G. P. Putnam’s Sons / Penguin Group
Publication date: 2007
Review date: January 2011
Stars: 1.5
(1-didn’t like it; 2-it was ok; 3-liked it; 4-really liked it; 5-it was amazing)

Lucas Davenport returns as an agent from the Bureau of Criminal Apprehension (BCA) to pursue the killers responsible for the deaths of two elderly women: Constance Bucher, a wealthy socialite, and her maid, Sugar Peebles. Simultaneously, Lucas handles a crime that involves a politician and pressure from the governor. Constantly on the run between the two cases, he is pulled further and further into the world of antique collecting as well as into the political world of the governor. The killers continue to evade discovery as they watch Lucas’s progress toward solving their crime. As he gets closer to learning the truth, they take more and more drastic actions, leaving a trail of violence and evidence of greed in their wake.

The story opens with the killers staking out the house of Constance Bucher. They have obviously done their homework as they know the name of the maid that opens the door—Peebles. They kill her and Bucher and then steal some items after moving the bodies to where they can’t be seen from outside. The narrative switches in the next chapter to Lucas with the primary point of view. He is consulting with a colleague on the political situation that he finds himself in due to an alleged crime committed by a well-known politician. Another agent arrives on the scene to update Lucas on the murders, and so the chase begins. Lucas is a veteran of detective work and has a deep and wide network of people and other resources to draw on in order to accomplish his job. As the narration switches between Lucas, the killers, and other characters, the details of the crimes begin to unfold, and Lucas is able to make more and more connections. He learns about other cases that might be connected to the Bucher murder case while discreetly arranging things so that the governor’s wishes in handling the politician’s crime can be met, within the law of course. The killers keep an eye on Lucas’s progress and take drastic measures to keep their identities secret.

Lucas Davenport is an agent for the BCA, but his real boss is Rose Marie Roux, the director of the Department of Public Safety. Lucas is apparently the star of all the Prey novels by John Sandford. He is a “man’s man,” married to a plastic surgeon (who seems to play the role of his conscience), and father to a son and a teenage ward. Lucas is almost three-dimensional. He seems to care about his work, although he is a gruff man with a foul mouth. In fact, almost all of the characters regularly swear. Only a few characters are shown to have higher language standards, one of them being a teenager named Ronnie Lash. Ronnie is a good student, well-liked, a devout Christian, and well portrayed. He struck me as a kid with a soul. Unfortunately, despite the many characters in this story, very few have any depth. As mentioned already, most have foul language. These characters portray a world where crass behavior, foul language, and dirty innuendo are the norm. This really detracted from the story for me as I thought the plot was well thought out and the story promising.

Sandford has a very direct method of narration. For the most part, he gives just enough detail for the reader to envision the surroundings and the characters; however, he then gives almost an obsessive amount of detail on streets and directions of turns when Lucas or the other agents are driving. The use of foul language and the level of nastiness (sexually and in brutality) of the crimes leads me to believe that this series may be popular for its titillating elements. I have not, however, read any other books by Sandford, so I cannot draw any authoritative conclusions. Early in the story, a fleeting character named “Capslock” is introduced. I felt indignant at this choice of name for a character. It seems almost as though Sandford had put in a placeholder name (from the keyboard he was typing on) and forgot to put in an actual name for the character. Did the editors not question this choice of name? Overall, I might have appreciated Sandford’s writing more if not for the above-mentioned shortcomings.

Ronnie Lash’s character serves as a great ideal to look up to and model. However, the reader must wade through a lot of filth and violence to reap this one small reward. That particular reward also comes early in the story, and no further spiritual markers or moral awakenings are made. All of the characters seem to end in the same spiritual place they began.

Overall, I think the plot had a lot of promise and could have turned into a really solid story with strong, deep characters and emotional or spiritual changes, whether for better or for worse. I am disappointed that this book did not impress me because I had been excited to pick it up and read it, hoping for a great story. Instead I did a lot of cringing as I learned to desensitize myself to the foul language and sexual innuendos.

I do not really recommend this to anyone. If you don’t mind the use of foul language and titillating imagery and want an easy diversion, this book might suit you. However, it will not uplift you or improve you in any way that I can foresee. If you’re going to spend time with fictional characters, you might as well read something more fulfilling—with deeper characters and some inner conflict. This book earned 1.5 stars only because of the plot.


The Orchid Shroud by Michelle Wan January 29, 2011

Filed under: Book Reviews: Fiction — somniloquist @ 4:26 pm

The Orchid ShroudBook Title: The Orchid Shroud: A Novel of Death in the Dordogne
Author: Michelle Wan
Publisher: Doubleday (division of Random House)
Publication date: 2006
Review date: 2011
Stars: 3.5
(1-didn’t like it; 2-it was ok; 3-liked it; 4-really liked it; 5-it was amazing)

Interior designer, Mara Dunn, is renovating the manor house of Christophe de Bonfond, a wealthy and socially prominent resident of the Sigoulane Valley in France, when her workers discover the body of a baby wrapped in a blue shroud. Authorities believe the body has been concealed for more than a century, and the news of the discovery causes a stir in the valley. This occurs at a terrible time for Christophe who is about to publish a book on his family name and its illustrious history. Christophe hires genealogist Jean-Claude Fournier to exonerate the de Bonfond family name, but Jean-Claude uncovers suspicions about the family history instead. Mara and her boyfriend, orchidologist Julian Wood, pursue the truth behind the baby’s death—Mara to resolve the story of the child’s death and Julian to acquire an elusive and mysterious orchid that also happens to be embroidered on the child’s shroud. Christophe’s disappearance and a subsequent grisly death heighten the stakes as Mara is fingered for murder.

The book is quite fun to read. Wan weaves an intricate and sophisticated story that is populated with interesting characters. The reader is taken on a murder mystery that involves multiple victims in different eras of time. Complicating the mystery of the deaths are the stories that the locals tell of werewolves. These werewolves are blamed by the villagers for the deaths of many people over the years. The stories are dismissed by the main characters as mythology, but the effect of their telling lingers in the background and creates an additional layer of suspense for the reader. Mara pursues the origins of these stories and finds herself becoming more and more wrapped up in Christophe’s life history as she tries to clear her name of murder. Wan intersperses the present-day narrative with chapters that narrate segments of the de Bonfond family’s past through the eyes of Henriette de Bonfond, née Bertillon. The storyline is tied together with details of the characters’ relational ambiguities, jealousies, distrust, friendships, and loyalties.

The main character is Mara Dunn, a Canadian interior designer. She has been introduced to Christophe de Bonfond by her boyfriend, Julian Wood, who is good friends with him. Mara has a successful career but is willing to do almost anything to keep the de Bonfond project, which would take her to the next level in her career. She and Julian have a lukewarm relationship—she wants more commitment from him but is unable to express it while Julian is content with their informal arrangement and shies away from commitment. Julian is an orchidologist who believes himself to be in competition with fellow orchidologist Géraud Laval, whose methods he detests with a passion. Julian is obsessive about his work and so acutely focused on obtaining the mysterious orchid, which he has named Cypripedium incognitum, that he is unable to pursue Mara in a meaningful way. Christophe de Bonfond, though he does not get as much “screen time” as do Mara and Julian, is truly a third main character. When he and his activities are not present in the narrative, the other characters are talking about him, talking about his family, researching his family story or estate, or connected to each other because of him. I found him to be a quirky, neurotic, and somewhat silly character. Mara considers him to be immature in many respects. Surrounding characters are well-fleshed out and are notable for quirky characters or other distinctive personality traits. One of my favorites is Patsy Reicher, Mara’s best friend. We actually never meet her except in her e-mails with Mara. Patsy is the one who provides stability for Mara, and the reader, in the midst of the chaos in the valley, supporting her as a friend should and helping her to remain calm and practical in her choices.

Michelle Wan does a wonderful job of storytelling. She has a distinctive voice and is able to vividly populate the reader’s mind with images of the characters and the locations in which they are interacting. She interweaves French with English with such smooth transitions that, although no definitions are given for the French, the reader is able to discern the meanings based on the context. She is able both to put the reader in a serious mindset during dangerous or thrilling moments as well as to create humorous moments with lighthearted banter in the friendly conversations and gossip between friends. Throughout all this, she maintains a sophistication in her language and in the characters that nicely underscores the high society that Mara, Julian, and others inhabit in this story.

The Orchid Shroud explores doubts about what is believable and what is not, what is natural and what is engineered, and who is trustworthy and who is not. It also explores the effects of wealth and social status on how people choose to interact with others as well as the moral choices they make.

This story has no obvious spiritual layer in it and is absent any moral law that is higher than the one that humans set for themselves, such as not committing murder. The characters are free to interact carnally without repercussion. The language used throughout is inoffensive.

Overall, I found this to be an enjoyable read. It was great fun, as a non-French speaker, to have French words thrown my way for me to decipher via context. Speculation of werewolves and a rare orchid also kept the pages open for me. And I enjoyed peeking into the world of high society in the French Dordogne and the hunt for Cypripedium incognitum.

I recommend this to those who want a fun yet sophisticated read. I would caution against adolescents or younger from reading this due to the illicit interactions that take place and romance that is sexual in nature. Unfortunately, the story did not receive 4 stars because of the recurrent carnal scenarios.