I’d rather be a zombie

I just finished the second book in Diana Rowland’s excellent White Trash Zombie series.

Yeah, I said “excellent” and “zombie” in the same sentence. What are you gonna do about it?

Here’s the synopsis of the first book, My Life as a White Trash Zombie, from Rowland’s website.

Angel Crawford is a loser

Living with her alcoholic deadbeat dad in the swamps of southern Louisiana, she’s a high school dropout with a pill habit and a criminal record who’s been fired from more crap jobs than she can count. Now on probation for a felony, it seems that Angel will never pull herself out of the downward spiral her life has taken.

That is, until the day she wakes up in the ER after overdosing on painkillers. Angel remembers being in an horrible car crash, but she doesn’t have a mark on her. To add to the weirdness, she receives an anonymous letter telling her there’s a job waiting for her at the parish morgue–and that it’s an offer she doesn’t dare refuse.

Before she knows it she’s dealing with a huge crush on a certain hunky deputy and a brand new addiction: an overpowering craving for brains. Plus, her morgue is filling up with the victims of a serial killer who decapitates his prey–just when she’s hungriest!

Angel’s going to have to grow up fast if she wants to keep this job and stay in one piece. Because if she doesn’t, she’s dead meat.

Literally.

It’s funny, it’s heartbreaking, it’s romantic and it’s incredibly gross. I LOVED it! Necessary warning: Angel is white trash and her vocabulary is appropriate for her. F-bombs fall frequently.

Even White Trash Zombies Get The Blues is the book that kept me up until midnight last night. This time Angel tangles with zombie hunters who may or may not be in cahoots with the zombie mafia. Wrap your head around that one.

I think what I love most about this series is the real heart that Rowland has for Angel. It is a compassionate and realistic portrayal of how things so frequently go wrong. (The story is set in Louisiana, but I know I went to school with Angel in Northern Michigan. Maybe the names were changed to protect the innocent.)

Angel has been shown grace. She’s been given a second chance at life, un-death after dying.

Stick with me here, but I’m seeing a pretty important parallel here.

I’m pretty sure becoming a zombie, like Angel did, is not going to happen. But I got a second chance after dying, after putting myself on the alter and walking away from what I thought was best for me and giving it all to God. Also like Angel, I need to follow some simple but vital rules. Angel has to eat brains or she will rot away. (Happily her new job at the morgue keeps her in fresh and quasi legal supply – she doesn’t even have to kill anyone.) To keep me from rotting away I need to keep close to my supply too. I need God in my life.

Another important thing to remember. Angel never forgets where she came from. She has compassion for a stoned convenience store clerk because that used to be her. She shows love to her father because she understands his hurt and how overwhelmed he was when her mother, his wife, went off the deep end of mental illness. She extends grace to the people who are where she used to be.

These are the most poignant, and most damning, moments in the series. Especially when I compare them to how Christians are reacting to current events. There is no grace in the Chick-fil-A conversation.

If this is how Christians continue to act, then I would rather be a zombie like Angel.

Review: Firethorn, real words and real action

I have read some very famous military thriller authors who seem to live by the motto, “If you can’t dazzle them with brilliance, baffle them with acronyms.” At that point it ceases to matter how edge-of-your-seat-breathless the action is, because I lost track of who the bad guy was.

Firethorn by Ronie Kendig

This is not the case with Ronie Kendig’s Discarded Heroes series. Ronie, an army brat and wife of military retiree, has captured all the intrigue of an international covert cloak and dagger operation without unnecessary jargon – or unnecessary language.

Firethorn, the fourth and last book in the series scheduled to be released in January 2011, is the first I have read as a digital review copy provided by her publisher. My intent now is the get all four of the books in print to keep on my shelf for my sons to grow into. The characters are the embodiment of what the military claims men are to be: honorable, faithful, strong, brave, and intelligent.

This is not to say they are perfect. In Firethorn, the protagonist Griffin “Legend” Riddell has already beaten back post traumatic stress disorder once, after witnessing his abusive father murder his mother. He found his calling in the Marine Corps Special Operation Command. Now, however, framed for a murder he didn’t commit, those nightmares are revisiting with a vengeance. When he is suddenly sprung from a maximum security prison to help put his covert ops team back together, Legend must face those demons or spend the rest of his life in their company. The woman who engineered Legend’s release is equally scarred. The larger question becomes, will they help each other heal, or will they end up damaging each other even worse.

The action ranges from the above mentioned prison break, to London nightclubs, to African diamond mines. Each character is fully realized and vital to the overall story.

I can’t wait to go back to the beginning to see how the other team members came to be. The Discarded Heroes series is Nightshade, Digitalis, Wolfsbane and Firethorn.

A Fictional Question of Faith: Iron Druid Review

I came across a really interesting statement on the status of religion in Western culture the other day, from what may be

Book cover of Hounded

Hounded, book one of the Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne

an unexpected source – the urban fantasy novel Hounded: The Iron Druid Chronicles by Kevin Hearne.

Don’t scoff. There is no better barometer of a culture than its fiction. Fiction is where authors are most free to write the truth because they can safely put it in someone else’s mouth. (However, as Salmon Rushdie can attest, sometimes even that isn’t very safe.)

Hounded is exactly the sort of fiction I enjoy reading. A clever premise, sharp writing, and a seamless mash-up of other incongruous elements make this book and the others in the series a delightful mental escape from a less-than-magical reality. The pure entertainment value of a 2,000-year-old Druid in Phoenix, Arizona who retains vampires as his lawyers and shares a universal disdain for Thor (because Thor is a jerk) cannot be overstated. What I find more intriguing, though, is how through Atticus O’Sullivan, Hearne gives us an extremely long view of Christian faith.

“Most old souls I know think the attraction of modernity rests on clever ideas like indoor plumbing and sunglasses,” Atticus says. “But for me, the true attraction of America is that it’s practically godless.”

In the Iron Druid universe, the power of the world’s pantheons of gods and goddesses comes from faith. If faith in a particular deity falls out of fashion, so does that deity’s ability to affect change in the physical world. Atticus cites Jesus as a prime example of how lack of faith, or lack of a unified faith, works.

“The Christians have such muddled ideas of (Jesus) that he usually can’t take shape beyond the crucifix form, and that isn’t much fun, so he rarely bothers. Mary will appear more often, though and she can do some pretty awesome stuff if she feels like it,” Atticus explains.

As much as I delight in Hearne’s clever writing, that paragraph breaks my heart.

Why can’t we agree on who Jesus is? A simple sounding question. Not so simple to answer. But again, it’s in the fiction. We, as self-called Christians, don’t all believe in the same Jesus because to believe in the real Jesus is to surrender power. It’s painful to believe in a Jesus who calls us to serve the poor, remember the imprisoned, take care of widows and orphans. We’d much rather leave him up there on the cross, denying the miraculous power of resurrection and the immense debt he paid off for us through his sacrifice. We deny his power in our individual lives, and thus in the world at large, through our unwillingness to let go of everything he’s given us – everything that has always been his from the start.

So, instead of Jesus as Aslan, “not tame, but good”, we give the world “weeping Jesus on the cross”, an impotent image if there ever was one.

Shame on us.

Here is my challenge to you today. Reclaim your faith. Give your worries big and small to God, and watch as he responds to your faith with answers you never expected.

Review: Forbidden by Dekker and Lee

It is the author match made in heaven – the heart-pounding thrills and pacing of Ted Dekker and the heart-rending character development of Tosca Lee – that makes Forbidden such an unforgettable read.

Dekker, known for testosterone-charged thrillers and speculative fiction like the Circle series and Immanuel’s Veins, brings his own brand of allegory to the table. Dekker writes in bold colors and broad strokes about sin in all its tragic loss and the terrible price at which grace is made available.

Lee’s artistry is much more subtle. Yes, she can write a thriller. Demon: A Memoir draws you to its cliff’s edge of decision with the inevitable pull of gravity, the tension mounting in your chest with each turn of the page. But it’s her characters, drawn with a rare depth of dimension rarely seen in any genre that will stick in your imagination for weeks after you close the book.

Combined they create a tour de force of strength and subtlety, characters you come to know and love in a world of deep darkness and danger. Forbidden is set in the far future, 500 years post-apocalyptic, where a new form of science and religion has sprung up. All emotional reactions have been genetically erased from humanity through a viral infection, leaving only the one most necessary for survival – fear. But now, the effects of the virus are breaking down. It is time to feel again.

Five individuals are exposed to the virus’ cure. Five individuals, who must now learn to control their feelings, band together and survive against the onslaught of a political system unwilling to relinquish its greatest strength, the submissive populace driven by fear alone.

Forbidden goes on sale a week from today, September 13th.

I, for one, am already anxiously awaiting the rest of the series.

Review: Military thriller “Sea of Shadows” does not disappoint

I stayed up way, way, way too late last Tuesday finishing up Sea of Shadows by Jeff Edwards. I had to know if the fictional Middle East terrorist state of Siraj succeeded in obtaining state-of-the-art German submarines, or if the handful of U.S. Navy warships in the Arabian Gulf stopped the transaction and the beginning a new world war. It was non-stop action along the lines of Hunt for Red October without as many confusing acronyms.

Although slight, I have a personal tie to this story. My husband, Michael, retired from the U.S. Navy. His final tour of duty was aboard the aircraft carrier USS John F. Kennedy in the same turbulent region after 9-11 and before Saddam Hussein was captured. He was gone for six months, leaving just weeks after our first child turned two. I spent a lot of that time exercising faith in the President and praying for Michael’s safe return.

In the book, that same sort of blind faith in leadership also plays out. The hero, Commander Samuel “Jim” Bowie, is asked to take on this all-but-suicide mission, chasing down four untraceable submarines and preventing their delivery to Siraj, without being given a reason why. It goes all the way up to the President of the United States who has determined the only way to prevent World War Three is to keep the conflict as evenly matched as possible. Four German subs, four U.S. warships. It is war by proxy, may the best man win.

Edward’s experience as a retired Chief Petty Officer brings the ring of truth to the story as he captures the idiosyncrasies of military life, and the life and death effects small choices can have aboard ship. It’s little wonder Sea of Shadows has been optioned by the producer who gave us two of the three Jason Bourne movies.

This is a great “guy read”, but if you’re a chick who digs Robert Ludlum or Clive Cussler, then pick up Jeff Edward’s books. You can smell the ocean from there.

My Rebellious Blood

The thing about non-fiction is that you can’t dismiss the truth when it stabs you in the heart.

Warren Petoskey tells a story at a Northern Michigan bonfire, July 1, 2011.

Right now I am completing the website for Dancing My Dream by Warren Petoskey, an elder in the Odawa and Lakotah tribes. It should go live in a few weeks. Warren writes with great passion and compassion about his experiences as the most American of minorities, the native who has had to ask permission to use the land his ancestors once worshiped and worked freely.

Reading Warren’s book and other writings, researching historical photos and building these web pages has ripped off a scab I didn’t know I had. The romantic image of the noble savage marrying into civilization, like Disney’s Pocahontas, has shattered. My native ancestors cry for justice and my European blood is too ashamed to look back – not too closely, anyway.

I have been asked, especially when I was young with long, straight, dark brown hair, if I was native. Eventually, I began to answer with a laugh, “Yes, but not enough to get me a scholarship.” Curious, isn’t it, that admitting my Scottish, German, Irish and English heritage never required a qualifier.

The print on this 1891 picture says, “Three of Uncle Sam’s Pets. We get rations every 29 days. Our pulse is good. Expressive medium. We put in 60 minutes each hour in our present attitude.” Three Lakota teenage boys in western clothing, sitting near a tree—probably on or near Pine Ridge Reservation.

The greatest thing about Warren is he does not reverse discriminate. His love for all things Native includes us whose blood is so dilute as to be nearly invisible – but still enough to call us back to nature whenever we get the chance.

This is what Warren wrote for the website, and almost exactly what he said to me when I expressed my grief that I cannot legally claim the native status I feel calling me so strongly when I return to the woods, water and hills of Northern Michigan.

“As I have traveled many apologize to me that they were only an eighth Indian or less. I asked them who they felt they were in their heart, admonishing them not to allow anyone to dictate to them.”

I draw great comfort from Warren’s words as I ponder how much of my own native blood came from women who married white men to survive rather than for love. I have come to recognize the Northern Michigan countryside my European ancestors have owned for generations also owns me – a fractional breed daughter of Mother Earth, who draws strength from the hills and seasons, lakes and trees.

My own Christian faith echoes in and fulfills the native beliefs of a kind and generous Creator.

Registering as a Native is unlikely, even after adding up all the diluted parts I have inherited from different branches of my family tree. So I take great comfort in from Warren’s words, that Native is not all about blood, but about blood memory.

Do you have a heart for nature and preserving the Creator’s work? Are you stirred by traditional arts like the flute and drum? Is there peace for you resting quietly around a campfire?

My answers are yes, and my blood is enough.

FEAST is released, contest announced

Merrie Destefano’s sophomore book, FEAST, was sent out into the world this morning. I am marking the release date with a recap of a previous interview. But the real party will be Thursday when I post my review of FEAST and tell you how you can win a signed copy all for yourself.

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Jane: AFTERLIFE (Merrie’s first book) is a fantastic mix of old-school science fiction and older-school pulp noir, set in a near-future New Orleans… FEAST, your upcoming book to be released in June, seems to be a different animal altogether, the teaser copy indicating something more along the lines of vampires and werewolves. How does your faith play out in fantasy like that?

Merrie: Like I mentioned earlier, the faith element is stronger in some stories than others. Obviously my worldview colors what the characters are allowed to do and the conclusions that they make. I think FEAST has a moral quality to it, but the faith element isn’t nearly as strong or as outspoken as it was in AFTERLIFE. Although it’s never mentioned in the book, the premise for this story was found in Proverbs 29:18: “Without vision, the people perish.” In my mind, I changed that to, “Without dreams, the people perish.” So, the paranormal creatures in the book harvest people’s dreams, but if they take too much, the people die. Basically it’s a parallel for how we can’t survive without hope or dreams, and the fact that Satan strives to steal our hope. The creatures in FEAST aren’t bad in themselves, although some of them have base desires that drive them to commit evil acts—just like humans.

Jane: Have you been given any static for writing fiction as a Christian? Have you been surprised by the reactions you’ve observed?

Merrie: Actually, I’ve had a pretty good response, which was a bit surprising. I think everyone brings their worldview to their fiction—sometimes it’s their political views, sometimes views on conservation, sometimes it’s their faith-based views.

Jane: What was your journey to published fiction author like, both “real world” and spiritual?

Merrie: Like every writer/author, there were a number of bumps in the road along the way. I started writing books and short stories in my twenties, then stopped for about fifteen years. Then I wrote, designed and illustrated a series of four gift books that I sold to Thomas Nelson, which was pretty cool, except that this happened right when that publisher merged with Word. As a result, my books got dropped. I got to keep the money—again, very cool—so I was able to stay home for two years and really work on writing books. After that, I got a job as the publisher at The Word For Today, which I believe was totally a God-thing, since my experience up until that point was in graphic design and illustration. At this point, I had worked in publishing for about 15 years, but still, this was my first job as an editor/publisher. I worked there for 3 years, then got laid off. After that, I got a job as the senior editor on Victorian Homes magazine and Romantic Homes magazine. I eventually became the editor of Victorian Homes, the founding editor of Cottages & Bungalow, and a contributing editor of Romantic Homes. But honestly, my heart has always been in books, specifically novels. I just love making up stories. When I got laid off from my position as editor of Victorian Homes, I decided that I was going to focus seriously on becoming a published author. I believe that God answered that prayer. I got laid off in April and my agent sold AFTERLIFE to HarperCollins/Eos in August. Since then I’ve been working full-time as a novelist and a freelance editor.

Jane: Thank you, Merrie, for your time. I know you’ve been busy lately with convention appearances and a myserious new Work In Progress! I can’t wait until the day we don’t have to do interviews via e-mail and can have real coffee in real time in person.

Merrie: Jane, thank you so much for inviting me on your blog today! All your questions were great. And I wish you the best in your writing!

Merrie’s books are Afterlife: The Resurrection Chronicles at HarperCollins Eos and Feast: Harvest of Dreams, available today from Harper Voyager. Her website is http://www.merriedestefano.com/. You can read her blog at http://merrie-destefano.blogspot.com/.