Book review: Dukkha Reverb

Action and adventure complement insight and exoticism in martial arts thriller

dukkha reverb loren christensen visionary fictionRating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

This well-written martial arts thriller interweaves enough action to maintain a breakneck pace, enough spirituality to satisfy the metaphysical/spiritual reader, and enough extraordinary detail to deliver a captivating read.

StoryUp until six weeks ago, Sam Reeves, a respected Portland, Oregon police detective, martial artist, and teacher, had a good life. That is until a series of unimaginable events turned it upside down some good, some very, very bad. Still reeling from this maelstrom of fate, Sam heads to exotic Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam seeking refuge with his family, and to reflect on his deadly past. Sam is captivated by the contrast of beauty and struggle of a country still recovering from war, and by the warmth of his newfound family his father Samuel, wife Kim, half sisters, and the beautiful enchanting Mai. But the grief-crazed mob boss, Lai Van Tan, seeks revenge against Samuel who he holds responsible for the death of his son. Ever the protector, Sam Reeves joins the fight to thwart Lai Van Tan s deadly attacks on the family. (from Goodreads)

Spiritual/metaphysical content: High.The martial arts teachers, which figure prominently in this novel, are masters of the metaphysical. They use Buddhist techniques and other approaches (such as meditation, mindfulness, and chi manipulation) to attain high levels of not only achievement but wisdom. The book resonates with quotes from spiritual luminaries such as Buddhist nun Pema Chodron: “It isn’t what happens to us that causes us to suffer; it is what we say to ourselves about what happened.”

My take: Flawed people — both physically and spiritually — make up the rich cast of characters in this martial arts thriller. The author presents a fully rounded picture of each individual, including the spiritual/Buddhist tenets they employ to combat their flaws. This approach, combined with Christensen’s excellent prose style, gives the novel a depth and resonance that most psychological thrillers can’t approach, let alone a typical crime thriller.

Warriors, both old and new, is a prominent theme in this metaphysical thriller. Christensen, a Vietnam vet, speaks with great reverence, sensitivity, and authority about the south Asian fighters who engaged in the Vietnam conflict on both sides. He refines their hard-won insight and makes it understandable for younger generations training in the martial arts.

My only complaint with Christensen’s style is that he dwells too long on details that, while fascinating, slow down the pace of the story. If you’re in the mood for a leisurely read full of color, action, insight, and compassion, this is the metaphysical novel for you.

Details:
Dukkha Reverb: A Sam Reeves Martial Arts Thriller, by Loren W. Christensen
Published by YMAA Publication Center, 2013
Paperback, 535 pages
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Book review: Cliff of the Ruin

5 Sparkly Stars for ‘Cliff of the Ruin’ by Bonnie McKernan

Cliff-of-the-Ruin

Tahlia Newland, guest reviewer

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Cliff of the Ruin by Bonnie McKernan is an awesome historical fantasy with complex undercurrents, spiritual depth and many surprises. It takes us from post revolution America, across the ocean to Ireland and into the lair of the Shee (the Sidhe).

The story begins like a straight historical novel. Mae lives with her aunt and uncle, and their children, Aaron, a young man, and Charlotte, still a child. All of them are keen to find a husband for twenty six year old Mae, but after a broken engagement, she isn’t particularly interested in taking the risk of opening up again.

Until she meets the man on the riverbank.

Kieran the fisherman was so beautiful, that I suspected some other worldly intervention, but the full truth of what was to become a mystery around this man only became clear at the end. The influence of the Shee grew as the story progressed, and I found myself gradually drawn deeper and deeper into a world where spaces dwelled within spaces and time had a different meaning.

After a shocking revelation about her supposedly dead father, Mae disappears with Kieran for two weeks, then returns with a fever, a ring on her finger and no memory of how it got there. Clearly, Kieran is a scoundrel, and Will, a handsome lawyer friend of Mae’s uncle, is called in to help sort out the mess. Mae must become free of this husband, but the options for divorce for women in the nineteenth century were limited.

To reveal more of the story would do the potential reader a disservice, so I will only say that the plot is full of unexpected twists and turns, and the end provides a dramatic culmination of a rich story. The pacing is impeccable, and there is nothing extraneous yet everything we need to go deeply into the characters which are finely drawn and very real.

Mae, Will, Aaron and Finegal, the old man who befriends them on the ship, positively leap off the page. Each have their secrets, their flaws, and their ghosts from the past, and for Mae and Will in particular, their journey to find the scoundrel husband and force a divorce becomes one of personal reckoning and eventually healing.

Will in particular is an interesting character, his qualities of faith, strength and discipline are endearing, and his words to Mae about love underline the theme of the book.”A love that rests on beauty is meaningless.” He also says that though God is love, love is not God. A distinction that becomes clear in the actions of Petra, a Shee woman who wants to keep Kieran for herself.

The other major theme is that of forgiveness. It is clear from this story that bearing a grudge brings no happiness and rights no wrongs, and that no matter how much others forgive us, we are only forgiven when we forgive ourselves.

There are some lovely passages and snippets of wisdom in the book, like this one from Mae’s aunt when referring to issues in our life that we would rather forget, but need to deal with.

“No. Not forget. We never forget.” Aunt Gwendoline caressed her cheek. “To drain poison from the memory.”

And this lovely metaphor as a description of the state of grace that came over Will when he put his trust in God.

He didn’t need to search for the truth or even test it; it poured over him now and filled him like a dried up sponge becoming new again.

Details:
Cliff of the Ruin, by Bonnie McKernan
Published by Abbott Press, 2012
Paperback, 416 pages
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Tahlia Newland writes heart-warming and inspiring contemporary fantasy, magical realism, and visionary fiction at tahlianewland.com, and she also writes reviews for AwesomeIndies.com

tahlia newland visionary fiction author

Tahlia Newland

Book review: The Novice by Thich Nhat Hanh

 Thought-provoking spiritual novel inspires compassion

Bernie Gourley, guest reviewer

The Novice by Thich Nhat HanhRating: 5 out of 5 stars

The Novice is the retelling of a Vietnamese folk tale about a young monk who is repeatedly wronged, but who always does the virtuous thing. As I read this book, I thought the story seemed familiar, and I realized that I read the same story as The Martyr by Ryūnosuke Akutagawa. Akutagawa does a much better job of story building. The Japanese writer doesn’t reveal to the reader that Lorenzo (his novice and the equivalent of Thich Nhat Hanh’s Kihn Tâm) is a female until the end—thus definitely resolving the claim that the young monk fathered a child out-of-wedlock and in contravention of vows for the reader at the same time as the characters in the story learn it.

Thich Nhat Hanh tells us that the novice is a female at the beginning, and he does so via backstory that serves both to give justification for why Kihn Tâm chooses to disguise herself and become a monk and to pile onto the injustice. We learn that Kihn Tâm’s female alter ego had been married, but the marriage ended with a false accusation of attempted murder of her husband. This backstory probably isn’t worth the drag for either of the aforementioned purposes—but the former is more justifiable than the latter.

What Thich Nhat Hanh lacks in gripping narrative structure, he gains in provoking thought. The Zen monk and poet gives the reader insight into how Kinh Tâm manages to be preternaturally virtuous. In The Martyr this is a black box affair. Hanh also encourages the reader to see Kihn Tâm’s accusers as the novice does, i.e. with compassion. Akutagawa does what any writer would do; he vilifies the accusers so as to make the story resonate with the average, petty, martyr-complex prone reader—as opposed to the enlightenment-aspiring reader. Hanh leaves the other monks in Kinh Tâm’s corner, i.e. when everyone else is condemning the novice, they still believe in her. In Akutagawa’s story, monastics are not inherently so perfect.

The book offers some interesting back matter. The most substantial of the appendices is an account by Sister Chan Khong of the works of Thich Nhat Hanh and his followers both during the war and afterword when they tried to establish a monastery in Communist Vietnam. The essay echoes the themes of loving-kindness and compassion that form the core of the novella, as does the essay by Hanh that brings the book to a conclusion. While this back matter is filler to make up for the fact that the story is not novel length, it nevertheless makes for interesting reading.

I’d recommend this book for those with an interested in Zen. If you’re looking for a good story, read Akutagawa’s The Martyr, but if you want to be inspired to compassion, read Thich Nhat Hanh. 

Details:
The Novice: A Story of True Love, by Thich Nhat Hanh
HarperOne, 2012
Paperback, 120 pages
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This book review was reprinted with permission from Bernie Gourley, who writes at http://berniegourley.com

Book review: Veronika Decides to Die by Paulo Coelho

 Metaphysical novel borrows from Coelho’s own experience

Veronika Decides to Die Paulo Coelho

Bernie Gourley, guest reviewer

Rating: 4 out of 5 stars

Veronika Decides to Die is about a young Slovenian woman, Veronika, who attempts suicide, fails, is institutionalized, and is informed that her attempted suicide damaged her heart and she has only five days to live. In the hospital she has to come to grips with what it means to be dying, but also what it means to be insane.

The book deals with the effect of Veronika’s death sentence diagnosis on her as well as on other patients with whom she interacts. The first patient Veronika comes in contact with is a depressive named Zedka who offers Veronika advice and insight. Then there is Maria, a woman who withdrew from her professional and family life to be institutionalized because she was having inexplicable panic attacks. Finally, there is Eduardo, a schizophrenic who is virtually non-functional when he meets Veronika, but who ends up in a relationship with the young woman nonetheless. These patients come to realize that they are hiding out at the hospital. They stay in the hospital because they are free to defy norms without judgment. When Veronika decides she doesn’t want to die hiding out, it has a profound impact on the others.

The book borrows heavily upon Coelho’s personal experience. He was institutionalized as a young man by parents who were disturbed when he went artsy and began hanging out with undesirables. Interestingly, Coelho has a cameo role in the book as himself. In the book he writes an article that playfully asks the question, “Where is Slovenia?” When Veronika is waiting to die from her overdose, she reads the article and decides to write a letter to the editor claiming that she killed herself because of the depressing effect of Coelho’s suggestion that nobody who’s anybody knows or cares where Slovenia is located.

In the end Veronika finds that she is truly free. Veronika seems to have everything at the beginning of the story: a job, boyfriends, and popularity. However, it’s those things that she comes to feel enslave her, and that’s what leads to the attempted suicide. In a way, Veronika is doubly freed. She is free because she is dying, and what can one do to a dying person. Second, she has been labeled crazy, and, having such a label, people expect her to act oddly. She has the freedom to do those things she has been too frightened to do all her life.

I’d recommend this metaphysical book. It’s short, readable, and offers clear food for thought.

Details:
Veronika Decides to Die, by Paulo Coelho
Harper Perennial, 2006
Paperback, 240 pages
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This book review was reprinted with permission from Bernie Gourley, who writes at http://berniegourley.com

Book review: Dark Night of the Soul

A real gem of metaphysical fiction

Dark Night of the Soul by E.M. Havens metaphysical fiction sci fi-fantasy novel

Tahlia Newland, guest reviewer

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

Dark Night of the Soul is a real gem. E.M Havens has used magical realism in this YA novel to examine suicide and the issues that surround it, and like all the very best indies, it’s a completely unique voice that explores its theme in a brave new way.

Seventeen-year-old Jayden commits suicide and finds herself in a kind of purgatory where teams of people who have committed suicide protect other suicidal souls from the demons that whisper in their ears and incite them to suicide. Life in this purgatory is a series of battles. If they defeat the demons, the person lives; if they lose, the person succeeds in their quest for death and their soul joins the team. When a new member arrives, the Judgement–a kind of sparkly storm cloud–comes for another. If it’s you it comes for, you’ll meet a statue of yourself and you can either submit to the judgment or fight to keep the demons off your statue/soul. If the judgment takes you, you’ll either move on to the next realm, or you’ll go back to your life. It’s a second chance. It’s difficult to explain and it’s bizarre, but it works.

Havens takes us through a series of events in which Jayden grows as a person.This isn’t a story you can say much about without blowing the intricacies, surprises and beautiful ending. What I can say, though, is that I didn’t want to put it down.

The author skilfully revealed the details of the world and the character’s lives as the story progressed, so that there was always something new to learn and a different angle to take on what we’d already seen. A romance blossoms as well, one with a bitter-sweet flavour because it apparently has little chance of long-term success. The environment is surreal, taking the group of demon slayers through various terrain and a wide variety of accommodations provided by “Him.” Is it God? No one knows. One powerful image is of a Walmart in the middle of a desert where the manager uses televisions to show Jayden the options the suicides don’t see due to their tunnel vision. That’s when she learns why they fight to keep the demons from luring people to their death.

Though the subject is suicide, this is not a sad or depressing book; it’s a great tale with layers of meaning. Though it appears as a fantasy, everything is a vehicle for insight making it more precisely metaphysical fiction and magical realism.

It’s simply but effectively written and warrants 5 stars once an issue of formatting has been corrected.

Favourite quote:

“Is it Heaven.”
“No.” He looked down at me in awe, a smile gracing his burnt and peeling lips. “Better. It’s Walmart.”

Details:
Dark Night of the Soul, by E.M. Havens
E.M. Havens, 2013
Kindle, 166 printed pages
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tahlia newland visionary fiction author

Tahlia Newland

Tahlia Newland writes heart-warming and inspiring contemporary fantasy, magical realism, and visionary fiction at tahlianewland.com, and she also writes reviews for AwesomeIndies.com

Book review: Vingede

An excellent and eerie metaphysical mystery

Tahlia Newland, guest reviewer

Rating: 4.5 out of 5 stars

Vingede (The Friar Tobe Fairy Tale Files, #2) metaphysical mystery

The second of Krisi Keley’s Friar Tobias mysteries is even better than the first. Once again the author’s background in linguistics and theology provides the unique material for this superb supernatural mystery.

A man seeks Tobias’s help for his foster son. He thinks the child may have witnessed a crime, but the boy has a speech problem due to either autism or schizophrenia, so no one can understand him. Like Ms Keley, Tobias has a degree in linguistics which is why the man seeks him out. Paolo speaks in poetry and makes obscure references to what Tobias eventually figures out is an old fairy tale about a girl and her eleven brothers that are turned into swans by a wicked witch. He senses that someone is in trouble, but who?

Tobias’s friend, the psychiatrist priest, wants him to meet a mute and apparently traumatised girl who has turned up in a hospital and, in what appears to be sheer coincidence, her sketches indicate that she fills the role of the girl in the fairy tale. But where are her eleven brothers? And how does Paolo know all this? This description is a gross simplification of a story with many subtleties, but as with all good mysteries, our suspicions are aroused and the pieces come together at the end.

Ms Keley manages to imbue her mystery with more than just the supernatural. As with all her books, questions of spirituality are at the core of the story. Tobias is a staunch Catholic. He believes in leaving sex until marriage, so his girlfriend, Samantha, who he met in his last case, must wait with him, and this provides some interesting topics of conversation. The nature of the crime and how it reflects present day morals is also a matter of thought-provoking reflection on Tobias’s part, but both these issues sit quite naturally in the story simply because of who Tobias is.

Ms Keley is a master of the English language. Her prose flows beautifully (though I did find the first sentence rather a mouthful) and she expresses subtle ideas succinctly and elegantly. The characters are charming with a delightful intelligent banter between Tobias and Samantha. The plot is interesting, the pacing never languishes and the editing is sleek.

Overall the book is an excellent and eerie mystery about a sick crime that needs a little supernatural intervention to bring the perpetrator to justice. This is a wonderful example of the kind of gems you’ll only find in independent fiction. It’s an entertaining, skilfully executed mystery, but it’s also different, deep and thought-provoking. I highly recommend it for those who like private investigator stories with supernatural and metaphysical elements.

Details:
Vingede (The Friar Tobe Fairy Tale Files), by Krisi Keley
Krisi Keley, 2013
Kindle, 183 printed pages
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tahlia newland visionary fiction author

Tahlia Newland

Tahlia Newland writes heart-warming and inspiring contemporary fantasy, magical realism, and visionary fiction at tahlianewland.com, and she also writes reviews for AwesomeIndies.com

 

Book review: Orange Petals in a Storm

Beautifully crafted metaphysical fiction

orange petals in a storm metaphysical fictionTahlia Newland, guest reviewer

Rating: 5 out of 5 stars

I picked this book up when I was searching for a definition of metaphysical fiction, and found an article by the author. I was impressed with her writing so I bought the book, and I’m very glad that I did.

Orange Petals in a Storm is the story of an eleven year old girl who has been mistreated by her stepfather since her mother’s death one year ago. On an external level, it’s a simple story about her life turning around, but it’s the inner world that gives this story its magic.

To handle the abuse,  the girl sits in an old chair—all that she has left of her mother—and withdraws into her mental ‘safe room’. There, she meets the human male version of the cat that saves her when she runs away and nearly freezes to death in a storm. With him—and sometimes an old woman—as her guide she travels the web of light that makes up the connections of the inner world. The confidence and wisdom she gains from her inner travels empowers her actions in the outer world.

The inner experiences are too detailed and beautifully written for me to do them any justice in a description. It’s better you simply read the story yourself.

The book is expertly crafted, the prose beautiful and the characters well drawn. I highly recommend the book for anyone interested in magical realism, metaphysical or visionary fiction.

Here is Clune’s definition of metaphysical fiction. It’s exactly what you’ll find in this book.

“Modern metaphysical/visionary literature often crosses genres and enters into the little celebrated field of magic realism. In this genre, the supernatural is part of tangible reality; spirit and nature are interwoven, inseparable, and unquestioned, and the extraordinary is made ordinary. Metaphysical literature tells tales of the inner life. Usually these tales are told simply, in prose that reaches to express the beauty inherent in us and in the world about us. Its task is to give voice to soul and its yearning to transcend the suffering of everyday reality.”

Details:
Orange Petals In A Storm (Skyla McFee Series), by Niamh Clune
Plum Tree Books, 2011
Kindle, 190 printed pages
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tahlia newland visionary fiction author

Tahlia Newland

Tahlia Newland writes heart-warming and inspiring contemporary fantasy, magical realism, and visionary fiction at tahlianewland.com, and she also writes reviews for AwesomeIndies.com

How do you define metaphysical fiction?