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.

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.

Book Review: Does God Believe in Atheists? (John Blanchard)

This book is quite mammoth (655 pages). In it, John Blanchard has attempted the rather ambitious (but worthwhile) goal of attempting to construct both a critique of atheism and a defense of Christianity all in the one book.

He starts by going through a history of atheistic ideas, then proceeds to pull it apart on various aspects (everything from it’s failure to explain why everything is here, perceived design in the world, lack of a moral framework – the usual stuff). Blanchard helpfully takes things a step further by defining theism as Christian theism. This helps because rather than just defending the idea of God in general (which could encompass many religions which Christians wouldn’t believe in either), it’s tied down to the one faith.

It also means that, using that definition, an atheist can be someone from another religion who doesn’t believe in the Christian God, thus allowing for some critique of the other major world religions and agnosticism as well. (Though at the same time, he is careful to distinguish between them – so an atheist needn’t worry that he’s going to be painted in the same brush as a Muslim or an agnostic, for instance.)

Overall, I liked the structure of the book and I liked that John Blanchard was trying to write it for an atheist to be able to think through his or her own position, plus also the evidence for Christianity. This is good, because sometimes atheists don’t necessarily seem to have responded to all the arguments that Christians have put  forward, or they’ll just use a blanket dismissal of anything that comes from the Bible, just because it is the Bible. (But I’ll be the first to admit that Christians have spent a lot of time recently answering objections that nobody’s really raising as well, so it does take two to tango.)

It’s also a nice mix of all the different arguments involved – some are philosophical, regarding how you determine truth and morality. Others are evidentiary – what does historical evidence say about Christianity? So it tackles atheism on many levels.

As a broad brush introduction to the Christian responses to atheism, I’d recommend it, but I have two reservations about it, one minor, the other more major.

The minor quibble is just that the book is so formidably dense (it feels like an average of five endnotes per paragraph) because Blanchard is doing his best to represent a well-read critique of atheism that has actually understood his opponent’s position. However, I felt the same points could have been made in a shorter book.

But the more major point is that there is a large chunk missing in temrs of how the Bible reconciles with science. I believe Blanchard has written another book on Christianity and science and how they’re compatible, and I’m sure he left it out because of space reasons, but I think it leaves a gap in the argument. I believe one of the biggest issues that modern Christianity faces is that when Darwinism first arose, the weight of scientified evidence seemed to clash with the creation account in Genesis. I haven’t looked too closely into the issues, but I know many Christians who take the opening chapters of Genesis fairly symbolically – not to be taken as a literal account of creation. However, if I was a skeptic, I would want to know: if it’s okay to discount the opening chapters of the Bible because they clash with science, why insist so strongly that a guy rose from the dead – which also clashes with science?

I think the answer lies in understanding the presuppositions that support how we view the scientific evidence as well as an understanding of how the opening of the Bible is meant to be read, and I would have loved to have seen some thinking along that line.

But instead, Blanchard spends an entire chapter demolishing evolution, but never gets around to explain what he’s replacing it with. He clearly believes that God created the world, and that there is intelligent design – but how does that all work? Did the world evolve, but evolve in a designed way? Is it a young earth that looks old? An old earth with some reinterpretation needed for how we understand Genesis? I think all of this is imporant (especially with the attention being drawn to Charles Darwin in this anniversary time) because the perception that I get from many non-Christians is that Christians cling to believing in a book which can’t possibly be true, because science has disproved it. To my mind, while I believe there is strength in the notion of a creator to explain an ultimate cause for everything, and while I believe there is merit in intelligent design, I think it needs to be more strongly linked with the evidence that is out there. Anyway, that could well be in Blanchard’s other book, so I’ll have to track that down at some stage. (After doing some atheist reading, because I think it’s important to make sure we’re not misrepresenting the other side either.)

That said, this is a great introduction to various streams of Christian arguments against atheism, and it’s nice to see someone grappling with the arguments that atheists are using.

4 out of 5.

Book Review: The Lovely Bones (Alice Sebold)

I don’t always chase up the book of a movie before I watch it, but in this case, Alice Sebold’s book was such a bestseller, even I’d heard of it. (I have so many books of my own that are still unread, I’ve kind of held off on reading new books, which means that there are many, many books out there which I haven’t had a chance to catch up on yet.)

I’m hoping to see the movie this evening, but I thought I would get my thoughts down on paper about the book before the movie affects my view of the book. (Too late to stop it going the other way.)

For those who haven’t heard of this book yet or somehow missed the hype about the movie, the story is pretty straightforward. A 14-year-old girl, Susie Salmon, is murdered by a man living near her house and the story goes on to talk about how her shattered family survive over the coming days, months and years. The twist with this story is that we know what’s going on because it’s narrated by Susie herself, speaking to us from heaven.

Susie’s heaven is a rather unusual place where she has an almost God’s eye view of the world and can watch everything that’s going on. The cleverness of this set-up is that in much the same way as her family have to get used to life without Susie, Susie is just as much going through her own process of having to let go of her family to go to Heaven proper.

The story is quite engaging – in fact, almost too engaging – as a father, I really struggled to get through the first couple of chapters, describing Susie’s murder. The detail isn’t super-horrific (while the concepts are borrowed from serial-killer novels, this is not meant to be one of those stories), but there’s enough for us to imagine it all in our head.

But the story gradually moves on from there to cover the individual members of the family, as they go through their various stages of coping. In addition, there is the matter of Susie’s killer, Mr Harvey, who successfully evades capture by the police at the time, but does not evade the suspicion of Susie’s Dad and sister.

How you respond to this novel will most likely be determined by how you respond to Alice Sebold’s prose and characters. The characters are all very well drawn and act in ways that felt completely real for me (under their particular circumstances). I had more trouble with the writing style – Susie narrates like no other 14-year-old I know. Sometimes she sounds a bit like a teenager girl, but most of the time she sounds like a novelist you’d find in the literature section. Is the idea that she’s grown rather worldly-wise after all the years in heaven when she finally tells the story? Or is it because we wouldn’t find the story half as interesting if it was narrated by a real 14-year-old? I’m not sure.

The ending of this story is a curious mixture – many of the plot strands get tied up in a rather satisfying (and almost cliched) way. But other plot strands get tied up in less conventional ways. And I’ll leave it as vague as that. If you’ve read it, you know what I’m talking about.

From a Christian point of view, this is obviously not a Christian portrayal of life after death. There’s no God. In fact, Heaven is just a kind of place that you turn into whatever you want it to be. If Susie imagines it to be like her school, then it is. The only thing she doesn’t have there is her family. So in a sense, her life is just as unsettled after death as it was before. It doesn’t sound like that great a place, to be honest, and Sebold soon gives us describing it after a while and focuses more on what’s going back on earth.

In the end, the afterlife seems to come off as a poor second to the real world, with the only relief being that you can’t really die again. This is very different from the Christian perspective of an afterlife where we have an unbroken connection with God and with fellow believers.

But for a really interesting take on grief, family and death, this novel is well worth a look.

4 out of 5.

And Then There Were None – Letter in a Bottle

“…I determined to commit not one murder, but murder on a grand scale…”

Well, there we go – the explanation of the whole thing. I thought it very neatly tied the whole thing together. I remember the first time I read the first page or so of this letter – especially since Wargrave’s name doesn’t appear till the last page – thinking, “Hang on . . . this sounds like Wargrave. But he’s dead, isn’t it?”

Once I’d got that settled in my head that maybe he wasn’t, then the whole explanation made sense. Part of the fun of this denouement is just the grand style in which Wargrave unveils his plot. (A grand unraveling is usually a trademark of Agatha Christie’s book, but normally it’s done by this detective. Here we have it unveiled by the murdered.)

I haven’t watched it yet (but it’s on my shelf ready to go), but I understand that Agatha Christie’s stage adaptation of this novel, and subsequent film versions have a slightly different ending. (I’m not sure, but I think it goes something like Vera shoots Lombard, walks back in the house, Wargrave comes out, and then in another twist Lombard shows up to her rescue, because they’d planned together that he should pretend to be dead.) While this allows for a nice ending, for me, the true effect needs to be the chilling realisation that the Judge killed everyone and then killed himself. A far more effective ending, and certainly the one I’d use if I was making a film of it today.

So there you have it – And Then There Were None. I still think it’s the original and best of these type of stories.

We’ve mentioned some of the spin-offs from this story. Obviously, any story where there’s a bunch of people being picked off one by one owes a debt to this story.

Harper’s Island, the recent TV series, mercilessly ripped off the concept, only to stuff it up horrendously. Identity (which Dave worried was the same twist) clearly owes a debt to this story. If you haven’t seen it, and you have the stomach for it, Identity is a very clever usage of the idea of 10 people being killed off one at a time, but with a logic of its own, and a completely different ending.

In terms of the killer, there’s a certain similarity between Wargrave and Jigsaw, the killer from Saw (which you need to have even more of a stomach for). Jigsaw (also suffering from a terminal illness) takes it upon himself to harass people who he doesn’t consider worth living. That’s a completely different premise, and quite a bit nastier, but the writers (at least of the original film) had the same sense of cleverness about it all.

Well, hopefully, none of you felt cheated by the ending (my apologies if you did). This was fun enough that I might do another Agatha Christie at some stage down the track. I’ll see how it goes. Thanks to all who participated (either commenting or uncommenting) – especially those who showed the remarkable restraint of being able to read the book over three weeks instead of all in one go…

And Then There were None – Epilogue

Just so there’s no misunderstandings, this post is on the epilogue, the next post tomorrow is on a mysterious “letter found in a bottle”.

In some ways, this chapter is a bit of a nod to Christie’s normal detective novels, where the police come in and try to sort out the crime. And maybe if Hercule Poirot was on hand or Miss Marple, they’d have a better chance.

But they’re coming up with nothing. We’re now enlightened about the fascinating back story about why the boat never came to rescue the 10 during the week, the involvement of Isaac Morris (the Jewish gentleman referenced back in Chapter 1, if you remember three weeks ago) and a little bit more background on our characters. (Though obviously our killer knew more about their back stories than the police were able to uncover.)

So in some ways, this chapter just serves to reiterate the mystery and deal with any final theories that people might have. (I like the bit best where they’re trying to work out how the last three could have died.) And who doesn’t feel creeped out by the chair below Vera’s body being placed neatly back against the wall?

Without a doubt, U N Owen is the 1930s precursor to Keyser Soze.

And sometime after this investigation was closed – we’re not sure how long – a boat comes across a bottle floating in the water with a letter in it. That letter, which we’ll read tomorrow, contains the final missing pieces of information that shed light on what took place on Indian Island . . .

See you tomorrow!

And Then There Were None (10 Dead; 0 Alive)

In many ways, the best thing to come out of this novel getting renamed as And Then There Were None is that it sets up a promise that – staggeringly – gets delivered in the final chapter.

We could believe, when it just came down to Vera and Lombard (why does he always get referred to by his last name, but she always gets referred to by her first?) that Lombard was it. Like Vera, we instantly see the wolf snarl and the cunning as the mark of a man who could cold-bloodedly pick off eight people one by one.

But then – the magnificent twist: the countdown goes down to zero. I remember I read this novel out loud to my sister when I was a teenager and at the time, none of us knew how it was going to end. And we hit this chapter, and it really just set my teenage brain reeling.

What on earth happened here? Did I really read what I thought I read?

For my money, it’s one of the greatest “What the…?” moments in storytelling history. The rug has been completely ripped out from under us. We know what we’ve witnessed – but we understand none of it.

And it is in that state of confusion, that Agatha Christie rolls out the Epilogue. I’ll see you tomorrow night for that one …

And Then There Were None – Chapter 14 (6/7 Dead?; 3/4 Alive?)

Now all bets are off. Is it one of the remaining four? Is there someone else on the island? If it’s one of the four, who can it be? If it’s someone else, why can’t they seem to find them? It’s all going crazy.

We also get another look into the back story of the characters, especially Vera, and we realise that she actually was quite callous in killing off young Cyril. And up till now has been very good at hiding the truth of how evil she is. But does that make her evil enough to engineer this?

Blore seems scared out of his mind, but if Dan’s theory is correct – the killer may not realise what he’s doing. Lombard says he’s a bit rattled – but rattled by how close he is to being murdered – or by how close he is to being unmasked as the killer.

And then, of course, there is the doctor – but he’s not in this chapter. We’re left with only three Indian boy statues, which would indicate that he’s dead.

But there’s no body.

And as Dan will be the first to point out, if I don’t:

Four little Indian boys, going out to sea;
A red herring swallowed one and then there were Three.

So on that rather ambiguous note, I’ll bid you goodbye until tomorrow.

And Then There Were None – Chapter 13 (6 Dead; 4 Alive)

Now this chapter is where the cinematic potential of this story to be redone as a really scary slasher flick comes to the fore.

I love the levels of paranoia in this chapter – five people just sitting watching one another’s every move, checking that the drinks aren’t tampered with.

And then, despite all that, they’re still outsmarted by our very clever killer. Actually, with the whole costume thing – all the missing objects of the last few chapters now being revealed – I’d say a very clever, very twisted killer.

Hang in there, folks . . . only a few days more.

Oh yeah, Dan, and they gave you all the inner thoughts of everyone while they were sitting in the lounge room as well . . .

And Then There Were None – Chapter 12 (5 Dead; 5 Alive)

Well, we’re at the halfway mark now, as another of our suspects bites the dust. Oddly enough, she was our chief suspect from yesterday. We’re now down to five. Unlike that other island serial killer show, having less suspects doesn’t at all make it clearer who is likely to be a killer. (But if you do watch that island show, you would have well and truly worked out the identity by then.)

I’m quite enjoying the character of the Judge, because having worked in the law courts, the way he speaks is characteristic of the way Judges deliver summings up or sentences: very deliberately, point by point, logical.

How else could he persuade everyone to submit to strip-searching?

Actually, while all their actions (locking up the drugs, hunting for the gun, etc) logically make sense, all of this is really about persuading you, the reader, of the rules of the game. It’s Agatha Christie’s equivalent of the conjurer showing you that there’s nothing up his sleeves.

There’s a house, five people, missing gun, drugs all locked up. We’re all clueless. That’s the situation.

See you tomorrow!