Book Review: The Dead of Night (John Marsden)

As the film of Tomorrow When The War Began approaches, I’ve now knocked over Book 2 in the series (out of 7), so hopefully that will cover me for most of the film (though from the trailers, it looks like they’re sticking just to the first book – and pretty faithfully, albeit with some modern updates, such as mobile phones). However, certainly, it’s the kind of series that I want to see how the whole thing plays out, so I’ll continue to blog through it as I read.

I think it was my friend, Roz, who commented on the first book and mentioned that it was actually a soft intro to a series that became more extreme as it went on. At the time, I was a bit surprised, because I already thought the first book was fairly extreme for a young adult’s book, but – she was perfectly correct. This book raises the stakes and the content of the original story in every respect – most significantly in sex and violence, which could well be of concern to parents whose teenagers are reading the book.

As a recap, without wanting to give too much away (I always feel a bit guilty for talking about subsequent films/books in any franchise, for fear that I’m ruining the story that preceded it), we find Ellie and her teenage friends hiding out in Hell – the remote bush valley that they visited initially as a short camping trip at the beginning of the first book. However, in that first book, Australia was invaded by a foreign army while they were away and all the kids’  family and friends were captured and locked up. Now, in this second book, they ramp up their activities as guerilla fighers, attempting to strike back at the enemy (still from an unnamed country).

The main difference between this book and the last one is that in the first book, the situation of war was thrust upon them, and part of the tension was their discovery of just how bad things were. So any fighting they did was more one of survival. However, led by one of the boys, Homer (a Greek boy in this subtly multicultural group), our heroes decide to launch larger and larger attacks against the invaders.

Which is where things start to become problematic. In this new world of hiding from invaders, there are moral questions to be answered: If you fight, when are you justified in taking a life? Should you plan to kill people? What is that like?

Then, there is the question of the sexual awakening of Ellie and her new boyfriend, Lee. Their ongoing discussions about whether they should have sex and their eventual decision is probably going to be something that Christian parents will raise eyebrows about, especially because this is described in quite a detailed manner. To Marsden’s credit, subjects such as potential pregnancy and condoms are discussed, and sex isn’t turned into the big glamorous thing that it is in most films, but it’s still much more explicit than anything I was expecting.

By the end of the book (which is a particularly devastating ending, I should warn you), I was in two minds about the whole thing. On one hand, I absolutely love the concept of these books. By setting up a highly realistic world where Australia is invaded, we are able to think about the horrors of war and invasion (and its flipside – the wonders of living in a peaceful country) in a really well thought-out way. This is not a Hollywood war action film where characters just grab guns and blow away the bad guys willy-nilly. Every decision to fight, every move they make is dangerous, requires courage, and the emotional consequences of fighting are portrayed realistically.

But on the other hand, Marsden is clearly taking this opportunity to create a new social order. Currently, in our society (and it would have been even more extreme in the mid-90s when this book came out), there is often a divide between the stricter moralising of our parents and the “older generations” and the more free-wheeling post-modern approach of young people. Rights and wrongs, morals and laws, have been gradually replaced by doing what feels right and “if it doesn’t hurt anyone, it’s good”.

By using the literary device of a war that has locked up all the adults and left the teenagers to make their own decisions, Marsden is effectively letting his characters write their own moral rule book, without the input of parents and other authority figures that they would normally have. And this is done in such a realistic manner, than I think it is vital that any parent or young person reading this book should really have thought out what their morals are before they touch it. Questions such as when you should have sex, when is violence justified, are big questions – and not ones you just want to follow your feelings on.

So in a way, I’m almost a bit annoyed at John Marsden for opening this can of worms, without providing our characters with any guidance. In fact, to make matters more complicated, the young people disagree among themselves on issues, such as: when is it okay to kill someone else? There is one Christian character, Robyn, who is quite clearly recognised as a girl of faith, but it is unclear to what extent her faith is driving her decisions.

The closest they come to getting any input from adults is when they stumble across a camp of adult freedom fighters led by a Major Harvey. However, “Harvey’s Heroes” are portrayed as being domineering, pompous and thoroughly ineffective against the invaders and our characters don’t stick with them for long. What does this say to teenage readers? It seems to me that it’s saying that you really have to make up your own rules in life because grown-ups aren’t that useful.

So, to sum up, teenagers are going to burn through this – no troubles at all. They’ll love it. However, it deals with such big concepts, and doesn’t always provide the best guidance, that I think adults need to have a read of this as well (if your kids are reading it) and engage with the issues it raises. And trust me, if you’re a parent, once the movie comes out – your kids are going to latch on these books.

3 1/2 out of 5.

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Book Review: The Prodigal God (Tim Keller)

The Prodigal GodThis book is so short (with nice double-spaced lines to pad it out even bigger) that I almost feel that if I tell you what it’s about, there’ll be nothing new to read in the book. (Except for the fact that Tim Keller writes much more persuasively and smoothly than I do, so certainly don’t stop at reading this review.)

The premise of this book is pretty straightforward, but one which many people (my wife included) have found absolutely eye-opening. It’s an expansion the parable of the prodigal son. However, Christians have traditionally focused on the prodigal son, who went off the rails and was welcomed home by his gracious Dad. However, also in the story, is the son’s older brother, who complains that his Dad shouldn’t have shown grace to someone as bad his younger brother.

The point with this, Keller makes, is that there are two ways to displease God – one is the path of open sin (like the younger son). But there’s also a way to outwardly do all the right things and tick all the right boxes – like the older son – but not have a right heart towards our gracious God.

This is the theme which is unpacked for the rest of the book. I think it addresses some important issues in the church, and by explaining the older son’s issues, Keller explains the concept of grace really well.

I didn’t find it as mind-blowing as some people, but at the same time, there’s never a bad time to be reminded again about the theology of grace that underlies Christianity. An encouraging read.

4 out of 5.

Film Review: Four Lions

Four LionsIt says a little bit about me and a little bit about the world we live in nowadays, that I was somewhat apprehensive about going to see a screening of a film purporting to be a comedy about Muslim suicide bombers. Despite the fact that the State Theatre was crawling with security guards, I was nonetheless wondering whether this was the type of film that would attract unwanted attention from terrorists. Okay, I was being a bit overly paranoid, but none of this was helped by an audience where – I kid you not – somebody would leave or return to their seat every five minutes. Come on, folks, the film doesn’t even run for two hours and it’s the Sydney Film Festival! Can’t you sit still just for one movie?

Anyway, that aside, the film was an interesting experience. British director Chris Morris, who was there to introduce his film and answer questions afterwards, explained that the idea for this film came when he was reading up on suicide bombers in the UK and discovered that, despite the seriousness with which they’re often portrayed in the media and movies, there is often a funny side to terrorists. He gave the example of a bunch of would-be bombers that were bugged for three months and their recorded conversations revolved around inane topics like whether a particular object was an ant or a leaf. “And what is an ant anyway?”

So drawing on this and other inspirations, Morris has constructed a black comedy about British suicide bombers. It certainly lives up to the comedy part of its title. In scene after scene, it takes a stereotype that we’re used to and inverts it. As soon as the film opens with a Middle Eastern young man sitting cross-legged in front of a wall hanging being videotaped with a gun, the imagery is familiar. But a voice says, “That gun’s too small. No one’s going to be scared of that!” “No, it’s not,” says the young man. “I’ve got big hands, see?”

From then on, we’re introduced to our bumbling four “heroes” and their increasingly more inept plans to blow themselves and something up. (Which involves many crazy schemes ranging from bombs strapped to crows through to threats to blow up a mosque “so the moderates will rise up!”. Which leads to one of my favourite dialogues:

“But my father goes to the mosque.”

“Does your father buy Jaffa oranges?”

“Yes…”

“Well, then, if he buys Jaffa oranges, he’s supporting nukes for Israel. Your dad’s a Jew!”

The film manages to continue in this crazy tone for the whole film, however, obviously, as the film progresses, the film is heading from our friends talking about blowing themselves up to actually going forward with the plan. This is a tough transition to manage, and the film mostly succeeds in pulling this off (though obviously this will depend on your palate for black comedy – if you were amused by the film poster above, then it will be to your taste).

Where I think I felt disappointed was that, amidst all this silliness, I didn’t really feel like I had any deeper understanding of what does motivate such terrorists. Or maybe that’s the point of the film – that such people are extreme and a bit silly anyway. Either way, I do wonder what victims of terrorist attacks would make of such a thing – because the bigger issue is not so much laughing at terrorists as opposed to getting laughs out of innocent people being blown up.

I think also, as a Christian, there’s a sense in which I feel like this type of humour is masking the fact that we’re powerless to do much in the face of such horrors as suicide bombers and terrorism. It’s a bit like saying, “Well, we’ve tried tracking down terrorists with military force and that hasn’t stopped them. We’ve tried diplomacy and that doesn’t seem to be working. Given that nothing is going to make this horror go away, we can either not talk about it or get a laugh out of it. But that’s about it.”

Not that I’m saying I’ve got an easy solution to the problem myself. And it does take some of the fear out of the issue to see the lighter side of it. But laughter alone doesn’t feel like it will contribute anything to changing the world we now live in.

3 ½ out of 5.

Book Review: Conspiracy 365 – May (Gabrielle Lord)

In May, the game has picked up immensely. Gone are all the non-stop running away and escapes. Instead, Callum settles down and we start to get some answers as to why he might be being pursued. We also learn a bit more about the Ormond Singularity, the Ormond Riddle and other such mysteries shrouded by the dim, dark past.

Also, assuming that this book is relatively plot-driven, all the characters we’re meeting – some of whom are a bit random – could well pay off in interesting connections further down the track …

Also, the run-ins with animals are back! This time, it’s two ferocious guard dogs as Callum attempts a vital last-minute break-in to get the information he wants.

This also features …

***SPOILER ALERT***

…the death of a major character for the first time – at least in the timeline (obviously Callum’s father died in the previous year), thus raising the stakes of the whole game.

And as the story ends, Callum finds out that flying lessons turned out to be a useful idea…

*** END OF SPOILERS***

Thus why I’m going to have to go out and get June as soon as I can. I hope Big W have it in stock for under $10 as well…

3 1/2 out of 5.

Book Review: How To Do A Great Job And Go Home On Time (Fergus O’Connell)

This book would probably be a bit difficult to track down, because the publishing house is not so large and it’s in the UK. Certainly, I haven’t seen it for sale in too many bookstores. But if I could, I would make this book a compulsory read for everyone who works a white collar job. It’s that good.

Fergus O’Connell has a very simple idea: at work, we need to stop trying to be magicians and start trying to be a Duke of Wellington. A magician is someone who  tries to pull rabbits out of hats. In other words, someone who says “yes” to everything and will kill themselves to deliver what they said. But a Duke of Wellington is someone whose word is dependable. If they say they’re going to do something, they do it.

This book doesn’t necessarily have a lot of time management techniques, though there are a few – but is most concerned with your mindset towards work. Because no matter how much you plan, you will continually sabotage your plans to get out of work on time if you are driven by things like: fear of what other people will think, guilt that you aren’t doing a proper job, a lack of self-esteem if you don’t say “yes” to everything.

So this book’s greatest strength is cutting right to the chase on why we tend to get workaholic and giving good tips on how to plan, how to get agreement with your managers on what you will do, how to say “no” – a very important chapter – and other things related to the psychology of trying to have a work/life balance.

I doubt there will be anything ground-breakingly new in this book, but if you work through it carefully and thoughtfully (and it is meant to be worked through, not just read) and you have the courage to implement Fergus’ suggestions (and it will take courage, believe me), this book just might change your life.

4 1/2 out of 5.