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.

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: Sensei–A Thriller

 Zen martial arts thriller blends murder, mysticism

sensei-thriller-zen-novelRating: 4  out of 5 stars

The first in a series of Zen martial arts thrillers, “Sensei” by John Donohue blends Zen principles and the sweat and intensity of a Japanese dojo with a wryly smart police procedural in this top-notch Zen thriller.

Story: In every case, the modus operandi is the same, and the only clue available is a cryptic message scrawled on the wall bearing the signature “Ronin” – the Japanese name for a masterless samurai.  Connor Burke, a part-time college teacher with a passion for the martial arts, is called in to help out with the investigation by his brother, an NYPD detective. With the help of his teacher, the master warrior Yamashita Sensei, Burke begins to follow the trail of clues that stretches across time and place, ultimately confronting his own fears, his sense of honor, and the ruthless killer who calls himself “Ronin”. (from

Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. Donohue is a kendo (Japanese sword) master, but this novel is much more than a murder mystery with great fight sequences. Burke applies Zen principles to training, to life, to combat, to art. In fact, there is no way to separate them; Sensei Yamashita instructs his students on how to “destroy with elegance.”

The true spirit of karate, Sensei Yamashita says, is not in perfecting fighting technique but in the development of the spirit. He emphasizes the importance of being fully present, in practice and in life. Martial arts is another way to train to diminish the ego, one of the goals of Zen Buddhism. Kendo training is just another tool in pursuit of enlightenment.

My take: I loved the spare, elegant prose that reflects the spiritual simplicity of the story. Sensei is much like the martial artists it depicts; violent and frenetic on the surface, yet calm and centered within. Donohue’s debut novel is not quite as lyrical as Deshi, the second novel in the series, but it’s still a gripping thriller with amazing details and compelling characterization.

Donohue really knows his subject. The novel is full of interesting little asides that explain the nature of the Japanese, especially  Zen and martial arts. He has a way of describing physical movements, of writing a combat scene, that reveals the grace, precision, and spirituality that hold together the brute force and aggression. You don’t just read about a battle–you experience it. And you understand why one man or woman prevails and another falters, both from a technical and a spiritual perspective. Sensei is a stellar example of a novel that shows rather than tells its spiritual/metaphysical theme. I look forward to reading the entire series.

Sensei, by John Donohue
Thomas Dunne Books, 2003
Paperback, 258 pages
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Book review: Deshi

Cutting spiritual insight infuses martial arts thrillerDeshi byJohn Donohue new age fiction spiritual novel martial arts thriller

Rating: 4  out of 5 stars

Steeped in Eastern philosophy, rich with language that evokes the sweat and intensity of a Japanese dojo, and peppered with gritty cop talk and wry humor, John Donohue’s “Deshi” smoothly folds mysticism into this top-notch Zen action thriller.

Story: Dr. Connor Burke, a history scholar and black belt, gets enlisted by his NYPD detective brother Micky, who’s his spiritual polar opposite, to decipher the calligraphic writing left by the victim at the crime scene. The inked message implicates followers of a revered Tibetan lama in this and two other murders. Charged with protecting the lama, who’s at the center of a conflict involving a rising charismatic sensei (aka teacher), political threats in Tibet and competing martial arts disciplines, Burke journeys to the lama’s reclusive mountain retreat, where he’s stalked by a hulking Korean-American named Han. (From Publisher’s Weekly)

Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. The villain is a martial arts sensei who teaches a potent blend of Tibetan mysticism and the lethal heritage of the samurai.  Connor Burke, master of the Japanese sword, is a thinking man’s hero who embodies both the physical and spiritual aspects of the Asian disciplines. He is guided by a Tibetan rimpoche (lama), a clairvoyant mystic who grounds the story in spirituality.

My take: I loved the spare, elegant prose that reflects the spiritual simplicity of the story. Donohue underpins the intense action with depictions of a mystical martial arts culture that evoke the beauty of haiku. The characters–sensei Yamashita, deshi (student) Connor Burke, and the Tibetan rimpoche–are as finely drawn as the missing calligraphy scroll that holds the clues to solving the mystery. At once a gripping exploration of Eastern wisdom and a gritty cop thriller, Deshi fed both my desire to seek truth and my need for bloodthirsty catharsis in a satisfying balance of oriental philosophy and Western sensibility.

Deshi: A Martial Arts Thriller, by John Donohue
Thomas Dunne Books, 2005
Paperback, 288 pages
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