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: 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 Amazon.com)

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.

Details:
Sensei, by John Donohue
Thomas Dunne Books, 2003
Paperback, 258 pages
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Book review–Mixer: on a Strand

Visionary thriller destined to become a favorite among spiritual readers

Mixer: on a Strand metaphysical fiction spiritual novel visionary fictionRating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Many self-published novels promise a thrill ride with a touch of romance and spiritual insight, but few deliver. “Mixer: on a Strand” by Theresa Nash delivers like downtown Denver on the Fourth of July, excelling both as a multi-dimensional thriller and as an illumination of the nature of the cosmos. Fast paced and well written, the Mixer series is sure to become a favorite among readers of visionary/metaphysical/spiritual fiction.

Story: Secrets kill. Miracles go wrong. Just when you’re resigned to it, an ordinary life can turn…extraordinary. Merri s a moderately successful businesswoman with a pleasant life. But below the surface, nothing is as it seems. Family hides secrets, friends are foes, and dreams wait to awaken a long-forgotten truth. Once upon another life, Merri rode the Strands of life, threw miracles, and hobnobbed with Angels. Then a miracle went wrong, and she fell, and forgot, and became ordinary. Now she’s on the lam with her blind date and a police detective—and she doesn’t trust either of them. Mixer is Visionary Fiction for a new age, that illuminates the miraculous in the ordinary and explores the relevance of destiny in a world of free will.

Spiritual/metaphysical content: Medium. Nash sets up a rich and detailed ethereal dimension with Guides, Miracle Mixers, Angels, and a throng of characters both angelic and bedeviled. These light beings can influence the physical world, but the key is free choice, which is available to every sentient being in the cosmos. According to Nash, free choice is the only means for advancement, and the only means for decline.

Beyond the dimension of lightworkers, there isn’t much spirituality in the corporeal side of the story. Characters in the ethereal dimension spend a lot of time discussing the nature of reality: What is fate? Destiny? Free choice? The importance of intent? The will of the Creator? Nash notes that “Free will without context is just chaos. Souls need purpose.” She goes on to say, “Spirit wants to grow! But our measly little souls just want to contract, to huddle like frightened infants in the bosom of their mother.” I have certainly felt that dichotomy of existence–the drive to grow spiritually versus the need for stability and safety in the physical world.

Nash’s cosmology is thought provoking and easy to follow. And by placing all the metaphysical musings in the context of the parallel dimension, it frees her earth-bound characters from the need to preach in order to convey the spiritual theme of the story–a trap many spiritual/metaphysical/visionary authors fall prey to.

My take: Nash has conjured up a strong, sassy, and appealing heroine in Merri, a lightworker who accidentally incarnates on earth. Her character is outspoken yet endearing, and she outshines the male characters who try to save her but mostly get in her way. In addition to the earth and lightworker dimensions, this visionary novel also operates across time; Merri experiences a parallel story from the 1920s that holds the key to saving the cosmos.

It’s a bit too convenient that Merri’s kooky millionaire ex-fiance and best friend pops up with whatever it takes to bail Merri out of a scrape, whether it be houses with bullet-proof windows, cabins with trap doors, or conveniently located escape vehicles. However, Nash imbues the character with enough quirky detail and complex layers to save him from becoming a mere plot contrivance.

As an author, Nash has a light touch, leavening her scenes with dollops of humor. The few romantic interludes are touching, written with a sweetness and delicacy not often seen in thrillers. And a proper thriller this is, from the first door that gets bashed in to the fate of the seen and unseen universes riding upon an impossible goal. Mixer is an epic battle of good and evil that unfolds across multiple realities–the lightworkers against the darklighters, Merri and her friends against a misinformed police force–and across multiple timelines. The tension builds quickly in all three dimensions, prompting the reader to turn the pages faster and faster, until the multiple realities come careening together into an  explosive–and thoroughly entertaining–climax.

Details:

Mixer: on a Strand, by Theresa Nash
CreateSpace, 2012
Paperback, 365 pages
Buy at Amazon

Book review: Mayan Interface

Award-winning visionary thriller a rollicking, thought-provoking read

mayan-interface-coleman-perrin-visionary-fiction-metaphysical-novel-spiritual-fictionRating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

“Mayan Interface,” a new spiritual thriller from Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin, is a wonderful example of the growing genre of visionary fiction. Winner of the 2012 Silver Medal for Adventure Fiction from Living Now Book Awards, “Mayan Interface” is a marvelous mix of science, psychology, metaphysics, and mysticism packaged in a fast-paced thriller that keeps you guessing to the very end.

Story:  An ancient myth is happening right now, changing all who discover it. Near the end of the Terminal Classic Mayan period, a high priest commits a murder where a sacrifice is needed. The consequences of his deed will reach across worlds and ages. In our own time, Lydia Rosenstrom is a master translator working with an archeological team in Yucatán and on a virtual reality simulation of the ancient site. She is drawn into a dangerous convergence of realities. This tightly woven tale blends mysticism, technology, archaeology, authentic Mayan history, and Mayan prophecies for 2012 into an engrossing story about challenges, consciousness change, and transformation. (From amazon.com)

Spiritual/metaphysical content: Medium. Lydia is an archaeologist and a practicing shaman in the Mayan tradition. The novel explores how ancient and contemporary shamans use crystals, tarot cards, and other tools to create a state of shamanic awareness or “wide focus,” which encompasses both intense concentration and a free flow of thought, say the authors, in a “paradoxical feeling of reverie and alertness.”

A fascinating aspect of Mayan Interface is the interplay of science and metaphysics. If you enter a computer-generated virtual reality in a shamanic state, the authors say, the virtual world becomes real. Is it magic? Is it reality? To the brain, it really doesn’t matter;  you experience what you think and perceive.  In some cases, a somatic shift happens in your brain–your sensory apparatus “buys into” the illusion; what was cartoon-like before suddenly takes on depth, color and richness. That shift is not produced by the software but only by the brain, particularly if the individual has a rich inner life. Virtual reality can merge with shamanic reality. There is a fine line, say Coleman and Perrin, between shamanism and schizophrenia.

My take:  This wonderful visionary fiction novel asks, What is truth–your sensory experience, or how your brain interprets that experience? (Perhaps there is more than one “truth” in any experience.) The plot seamlessly fuses computer science and metaphysics to explore this question and many more, including how the bicameral brain may have evolved during the height of the Mayan culture in a way that changed the very nature of human consciousness.

The authors incorporate broad-based research and attention to historical detail. For instance, Mayans have a rich oral tradition, but they do not tell stories–they “converse” them with other people. Story-telling is a participatory experience. The authors’ detailed research into Mayan glyphs is integral to the plot, not just window dressing.

Coleman and Perrin are master storytellers, ratcheting up the suspense until nearly the last page. They are adept at  unusual and effective character development for even minor characters (such as a nerd/poet). The spiritual novel‘s pace is rollicking, keeping you on the edge of your chair until the very end. Although the book is a fast and easy read its depth is surprising, pulling in principles from so many scientific and philosophical sources that your head swims with new concepts. Take, for example, the importance of story: “. . . that’s what stories do. Re-write the mind.” What greater goal could fiction have?

My question to you: What role should fiction play in fostering spiritual/metaphysical growth?

Details:
Mayan Interface by Wim Coleman and Pat Perrin
Madeira Press, 2012
Paperback, 314 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.

Details:
Deshi: A Martial Arts Thriller, by John Donohue
Thomas Dunne Books, 2005
Paperback, 288 pages
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Book review: The Fourth Awakening

Spiritual thriller captivates the imagination, despite a weak villainFourth Awakening, Rod Pennington Jeffery A Martin, new age thriller

Rating: 4  out of 5 stars

“The Fourth Awakening” crackles with tension, right up to the end–where, unfortunately, the lack of a credible villain unravels the tightly woven story. However, the strong writing and spiritual depth are more than enough to make the novel an entertaining and enlightening read.

Story: Penelope Drayton Spence made a choice years earlier, and picked marriage and family over a promising career as an investigative reporter. Now, divorced and with her children spread around the country, she is having second thoughts. A mysterious call from the Managing Editor of the Washington Post, offers her a second chance at big time journalism. He has a story so sensitive that the President of the United States personally asked the Post to leave it alone. With rumors of 30 top scientists missing and rich industrialist, Michael Walker, being held incommunicado in a prison typically used for terrorists, the story is too big to ignore. . . . On one level it is a straightforward suspense story with plenty of action, a healthy dose of humor and a pinch of sexual tension. On another it is a spiritual quest by a remarkable woman who meets an enlightened man the likes of which have never been seen in fiction before. . . . Penelope becomes aware of the looming Fourth Awakening, and makes the chilling discovery that her reporting skills and ability to fight her personal demons may be the only thing that can save humanity. (From amazon.com)

Spiritual/metaphysical content: High. Penelope is on the path to to  enlightenment via yoga and meditation and practices the Law of Attraction. When she meets Michael, she learns that thoughts have power.  “Thought is thought. There is no good or evil. . . . Emotionally charged negative thoughts tend to be more strongly felt than positive ones. You run the risk of manifesting something that you really don’t intend.”

The story gets interesting when the authors introduce the idea of the Fourth Awakening: The number of individuals who can reach a state of non-symbolic thought (aka enlightenment) has reached critical mass. The book likens this state to the Internet–a giant field of energy, full of information, open to anyone who has the right connection.

My take: I enjoyed the novel as a spiritual thriller. The quick-paced plot keeps you turning pages as the stakes grow higher and the fate of the human race is in peril. Penelope’s character is well drawn and entirely believable.  The rationale explaining the Fourth Awakening is fascinating (see What exactly is an awakening?). I devoured the first two-thirds of this novel in one sitting, reluctant to put it down. Unfortunately, a good thriller requires a significant threat, and that’s where the book fell apart for me. The authors ran into the basic problem that confronts every metaphysical writer: How to you spin positive development in a negative way in order to manufacture believable conflict?

In my opinion, Pennington and Martin handled that specific problem more gracefully than James Redfield did in his Celestine Prophecy books. It’s a difficult problem to overcome. However, the book succeeded as an entertaining thriller even though the “villain” fell short for me. The book was well written, fast paced, and well crafted. Their spiritual principles are sound, and I look forward to seeing where the series will lead.

Details:
The Fourth Awakening, by Rod Pennington and Jeffery A. Martin
Published by Integration Press , 2009
Paperback, 298 pages
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Book review: The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse

Metaphysical twist broadens appeal of clever YA thrillerPrince of Soul and Lighthouse Fredrik Brouneus spiritual novel metaphysical fiction

Rating: 4 1/2 out of 5 stars

Fredrik Brouneus’ new young adult novel is short on preaching and long on sassy dialog and rollicking action.  Built on a framework of Buddhist reincarnation principles, the book is both simple and profound. Throw in zombies, romance,  and a smart-mouth hero with a wicked wit, and you’ve got a metaphysical thriller that both delights and inspires.

Story: What happens when we die? I know what happens. Believe me, I’d rather not. But I do. There is a lighthouse, and it guides our souls along the narrow path to being reborn as humans. It’s the light at the end of the tunnel. Unfortunately, as my undead granddad and the Tibetan special mission monk in my kitchen have kindly told me, there’s a problem with the lighthouse. And if the world is to be saved, someone needs to fix it. Which is where I come in: George Larson, eighteen years old. Who could possibly be better suited to save the world? (Condensed from book jacket.)

Spiritual/metaphysical content: Medium. In New Zealand, 18-year-old George meets a Tibetan monk named Tenzin who helps him “stretch his brain” to contain the spiritual truths he must rediscover in order to succeed at his mission. Brouneus employs concrete, accessible metaphors to clarify complex concepts such as reincarnation, suffering, and impermanence: Existence is a long, bumpy road trip in which your soul drives its car into the ground and then moves to the next, aeon after aeon.  Death is merely a pit-stop to refuel and switch cars before hitting the road again. When we die,  “we will be recycled as atoms and molecules — immortal parts of the big LEGO box Mother Nature has to play with.” The concepts are basic, but the metaphors are a perfect introduction to metaphysics for the  novice seeker or zombie-obsessed teenager.

My take: Nonstop action drives The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse. However, George’s guide, Tenzin, provides welcome pacing and colorful characterization as he teaches George how to make decisions based on spiritual principles.  Some plot twists may ask readers to stretch their brains a synapse too far, such as connecting jingoism, prayer and the Internet. But the way Brouneus weaves character and action into a cohesive story that spans centuries makes such missteps merely a pothole that you speed past. Zombies, romance, hilarious asides, a little bloodlust, and plenty of relevant cultural references appeal to younger readers, while the spiritual and metaphysical theme satisfies those seeking a more profound experience. Read it as a YA thriller or a short spiritual novel; either way, you’ll be glad you did.

Details:
The Prince of Soul and the Lighthouse, by Fredrik Brouneus
Published by Steampress, 2012
Paperback, 292 pages
Buy at Amazon