Review: The Iris Deception

The Iris Deception
The Iris Deception by Bernard Schopen

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Of the three Ross books I’ve read, this was the strongest and shows the clearest exposition of sometime detective sometime lawyer Jack Ross who is again perambulating through the deserts of Nevada and the bustle of California in search of lost souls who desire to stay lost and be lost. As with other Jack Ross novels, there are hidden identities and mass confusion as to who is what. This novel shows a writer coming into his own voice, and of the three I’ve read I enjoyed this the most.

Note that there are some gritty and gruesome plot elements that might turn the squeamish away.



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Review: Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges: More Surprises Than Thika Road

Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges: More Surprises Than Thika Road
Of Goats and Poisoned Oranges: More Surprises Than Thika Road by Ciku Kimeria

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun read, and I enjoyed the entire book–not just the story, which is fascinating and all-too-human, but the method the author used to reveal the plot. A shifting series of vignettes, newspaper clippings, internal dialogs, court and police transcripts, and phone calls slowly shows the encircling despair of Wambui, Njogu, and Nyambura, caught in the web of present-day and not-to-distant-past Kenya.

It’s the old, old story of love and life and the girdle of circumstances that arise as people grow and change. Wambui is the daughter of a rich family, Njogu is the son of a poor one, and when they meet they fall in love and marry. Njogu becomes wealthy in his own right, but as King David in the Bible had a wandering eye when he should have been tending to his business, Njogu meets Nyambura, a poor woman working to support herself in the big city of Nairobi. There are multiple intersections between the three, and catastrophes, and as in real life, dreams are shattered by diamonds scraping against the glass.

There are some great, witty lines and observations: “Books had been cooked, and a manhunt was underway for the chef” is one of my favorites, but there are others such as “English had failed [my mother] by not having a stronger word to describe her.”

Now, I must say that I had to re-read several passages in order to understand some of the details and background, but I chalk that up to my lack of familiarity with some of the social aspects of Kenya. Ms. Kimeria provides helpful footnotes throughout the book, and everything is eventually explained, but the text requires some careful attention in order to follow along at times.



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Review: Of goats and poisoned oranges

Of goats and poisoned oranges
Of goats and poisoned oranges by Ciku Kimeria

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

This was a fun read, and I enjoyed the entire book–not just the story, which is fascinating and all-too-human, but the method the author used to reveal the plot. A shifting series of vignettes, newspaper clippings, internal dialogs, court and police transcripts, and phone calls slowly shows the encircling despair of Wambui, Njogu, and Nyambura, caught in the web of present-day and not-to-distant-past Kenya.

It’s the old, old story of love and life and the girdle of circumstances that arise as people grow and change. Wambui is the daughter of a rich family, Njogu is the son of a poor one, and when they meet they fall in love and marry. Njogu becomes wealthy in his own right, but as King David in the Bible had a wandering eye when he should have been tending to his business, Njogu meets Nyambura, a poor woman working to support herself in the big city of Nairobi. There are multiple intersections between the three, and catastrophes, and as in real life, dreams are shattered by diamonds scraping against the glass.

There are some great, witty lines and observations: “Books had been cooked, and a manhunt was underway for the chef” is one of my favorites, but there are others such as “English had failed [my mother] by not having a stronger word to describe her.”

Now, I must say that I had to re-read several passages in order to understand some of the details and background, but I chalk that up to my lack of familiarity with some of the social aspects of Kenya. Ms. Kimeria provides helpful footnotes throughout the book, and everything is eventually explained, but the text requires some careful attention in order to follow along at times.



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Review: The Big Silence

The Big Silence
The Big Silence by Bernard Schopen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Competently written in the detective noir style. Ross is a sometime finder-of-lost-souls who’s given the task of finding out whether a man claimed to be dead long ago is still alive, somewhere in the Nevada desert of the big silence. The story involves all the characters of the Las Vegas/Reno overlife and underlife–casino bosses, call girls, quirky ranchers, savvy business executives, and the occasional Native American. In the end, the right people find justice–which is sometimes happiness, but more often death.

I am not sure I understand the genre well enough to rate this perfectly fairly. Parts of the genre seem to include a very spare telling of events and relationships. There are many relationships to puzzle out, and motives sometimes are explained after-the-fact rather than through the actions of the characters.



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The Closing of the American Heart

Recently there has been a move in America for Christians to demand the right to avoid serving people with whom they disagree theologically. The claim is made that by baking a cake, arranging flowers, or being a photographer at a wedding for a couple who is marrying outside the Christian tradition, the Christian is breaking his religion.

I don’t know whether to laugh or cry at such an attitude.

First—the Christian is providing a service. A Christian electrical company cannot without providing electricity to those with whom they disagree. A Christian police officer cannot refuse to help someone with whom they disagree theologically. A Christian doctor, teacher, entrepreneur, shoe-shiner, butler, baker, candlestickmaker—all are providing either goods or services to the general public. Nothing is being done to affirm a decision. It is being done to provide equal and open access to the business to all who come and who pay the posted price.

This American value of an open marketplace is courtesy of a long struggle in America to grant all who live here their equal rights under the law. This stems, first, from our Constitution, which sets forth the idea that we are a nation founded by ourselves—“We the People of the United States.” Without any reference to Scripture or religion, we founded this nation.

Our Constitution and our nation was flawed, however, by its inclusion of slavery. Black Americans were held in literal chains for some 250 or so years, and their slavery was blessed and protected by the Constitution. It took a bloody Civil War, the deaths of a million Americans—North, South, white, black, male, female, adults, children—to decide that this was wrong. Three Amendments to the Constitution made it a fact: slavery was wrong, and all freed slaves were the equal of their white counterparts.

It took another 100 years for the promise of the Amendments to be made statute law, and in 1964 the great Civil Rights Act was passed, making it a law backed by a vigorous, energetic Federal government that we all have the right to work, live, eat, play, and die where we want to.

The Civil Rights Acts (plural), passed by Congress, signed by the Presidents, and affirmed multiple times by the Supreme Court, guarantee that in the marketplace the customer has the right of access. There is no right of free association that supersedes this right for free access to any goods or services.

Period.

Evangelical and conservative Christians have gone along with this for 50 years because everyone knows that “racism” is bad. And who would outright deny a brother in Christ his right to a job or a home or a meal?

The 1964 Civil Rights Act was the death blow to Jim Crow—Jim Crow being the official and unofficial policy in most places in the U.S. (including the North) where black Americans could not be safe in their own homes, be safe on the streets, have safe access to schools and transportation and residences, be secure in their liberties—and over the last 50 years we’ve ever-so-slowly been dismantling both de jure Jim Crow (such as red-lining) and de facto (such as red-lining).

It has been seen as a good thing, to give everyone the access in the marketplace to all goods and services. Laws that attempt to forbid one class of people to access a job, a home, a place to eat have been struck down, over and over.

It is settled law that the Constitution requires open and free access. The 14th Amendment declares this with its claims of “due process of law” and “equal protection of the laws,” and the 1964 Civil Rights Act makes it true as a law and accepted as a principle—the government may set the rules for how a business can operate. Just as a business cannot operate without (in most cases) paying federal minimum wage, so a business cannot operate without (in most cases) complying with the 1964 Civil Rights Act. Section 5 of the 14th Amendment states clearly that Congress can enforce these rights by appropriate legislation.

Game over for the prejudiced and the non-compliant. There is no place to hide one’s bigotry within the skirts of the Constitution.

But now we have a great upheaval regarding marriage equality. Some Christians (not all!) feel that marriage should always be between a man and a woman. This is fine, and within the Christian church the wedding ceremony can be restricted to whom the church would authorize.

However, the wider world is not Christian and does not need to comport itself to Christian doctrine in anything. We live in a society ruled by our Constitution, not our Bible, our doctrines, our creeds, our dogmas, or even our sincerely held beliefs.

Christians today offer their services to the public as a business. A business is neither Christian nor non-Christian. It is just a business. It can be operated on “Christian” principles, but in the end, the customer must be treated neutrally—all who come to gain access to the goods or service must be treated equally.

Baking a cake is not a religious act. It is an act of cookery.

Snapping a photo is not a religious act. It is an act of documentation.

Arranging flowers is not a religious act. It is an act of decoration.

None of these acts “approve” a marriage anymore than providing electrical service or police protection or cleaning services “approves” a marriage. They are just services.

It is an extremely foolish, ignorant, and short-sighted thing to claim that one’s religious beliefs forbid them from providing services to weddings where two people are getting married in contravention of Christian teachings. We don’t have anywhere the same sense of scruples over people remarrying, of people “living in sin” before marriage, or of many other circumstances—we just keep our thoughts to ourselves and ask “Will that be a chocolate or vanilla cake?”

There is a great quote from Tertullian, who lived ca. A.D. 200. He was not a believer, lived a life of gross ignorance, watched the games where Christians were tortured and killed—and was convicted by the lifestyles of the Christians. He made this famous statement: “Behold, how these Christians love one another.” The literal, actual affection of Christians and their sacrificial love made an enormous impact upon him—and so he chose to follow Christ.

It was not a refusal to do business with non-Christians. It was not an assertion that Christians must be free to reject the non-believer. It was not an rejection of the basic humanity of all mankind. It was their positive reflection of the love of their Lord Jesus Christ.

We Christians (for I speak as a Christian in the Evangelical tradition) simply must ask ourselves “Why are we doing this? Why are we swallowing such a ginormous camel of intolerance in the name of straining at a gnat of entrepreneurship?” Who is ginning up this controversy? Who is stoking these flames of hatred and intolerance? What is their goal? Where will this end? And ultimately, what kind of witness are we showing the world at large of the love and mercy of God?

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Review: The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood

The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood
The Beautiful Struggle: A Father, Two Sons, and an Unlikely Road to Manhood by Ta-Nehisi Coates

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

African-Americans have struggled to acquire their voice in American culture. We have had uncertain biographies and stories written by others; in the last century we had the eruption of Harlem when black voices began to be more fully heard.

It’s still difficult to write those stories, but more and more black Americans are telling their lives, not to justify them or to make their unknown presence known, but to say “I am here and this is what I think and feel. Take me on my own words; accept me for my own values.”

Mr. Coates’ autobiography is of that vein, giving of himself in this, his first nationally known book. We see the life of a young black man in America in the 80s, like any kid simply trying to exist in a universe that is inexplicable and hostile. He is not creating a grand arc of history: he is simply saying “This happened. To me. To my brother. To my father. To my mother. To my friends, my family, my school, my neighborhood, my culture.”

There are the moments of grand explanation where he gives his insight as he tells his tale, and then their are moments of awful poignancy when he simply describes a boy living in the pages of a book surrounded by the chaos of urban violence and decay, a world that is collapsing around him but shored up by ordinary people who struggle to make sense and to keep order.

This would be a good book solely for the writing alone: Mr. Coates is a extraordinarily gifted writer, quick, insightful, laugh-out loud funny at times with a wry turn of phrase, or disquieting when he slips into code to speak at us rather than with us.

But it is a great book because it is simply a man describing what it is to become one. It is the struggle of ordinariness, it is the beauty of accomplishment, it is the story of that moment when a man says “I am.”

It is an awful thing, really, when someone reaches across the pages of a book and touches you, when he says “Hear me,” when you open your eyes and say “I see you.” There is such humanness in this book, such artful play, such ardent passion about being alive.

I do not buy many books outright, but this is one I was more than happy to purchase because I wanted to give back a little to someone who has given so much in the writing of this book.



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Review: The Control of Nature

The Control of Nature
The Control of Nature by John McPhee

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Very good, entertaining stories of three attempts by men and women to control nature–to control the Mississippi, to control the volcanoes and lava of Iceland, and to control the floods and fires of the San Gabriel Mountains in Los Angeles.



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Review: The Desert Look

The Desert Look
The Desert Look by Bernard Schopen

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

Note that this is not my favorite genre, so my opinion might be biased.

This is a good piece of work about the revelation of a death some 30 years ago in the Nevada desert. A cast of disreputable sorts interacts with each other in the present as well as in the past, and ultimately the true murderer(s) is/are revealed.

I finished the book, but I had a hard time doing so, as the cast of characters was, to me, too great.

*** SPOILER ***

Several of the characters have several names and false pasts. I found it to be too much of a struggle to keep up and somewhere around the half-way mark I stopped trying to keep track of who was who.

I gamely continued but in the end I just couldn’t really get into any of the characters. None of them were pleasant, even the protagonist.

There are some moments of lyric beauty in the descriptive text of the Nevada desert, but the text is jumpy and awkward and hard to follow. I found that I struggled to “enjoy” the writing.

This is not a badly written book, I must say. The author is competent in writing in and crafting a plot. I suspect my opinion is weighed more upon my unfamiliarity with the genre. It is highly rated by others, and has even won an award for its genre, so–take this all as my opinion.



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Review: Zulu Heart

Zulu Heart
Zulu Heart by Steven Barnes

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is just a fine book. It is the sequel, of course, to Lion’s Blood, but I have to hand it to Mr. Barnes in that the story and the characters have advanced.

We still have Kai and Aiden, brothers beneath the skin in a nation on the North American continent where things are delightfully awry compared to today–somehow in the distant past it was the African nations, and not the Europeans, who conquered the world with learning and art and culture and military prowess.

Kai is now functioning as the Wakil of his estate-empire, a slaveowner of northern Europeans, and now-freed slave Aiden is living with his wife Sophia, when challenged occur that drive them both in directions they neither expect nor want. Nandi and Laminya are back in the picture as well, and there is betrayal and love and death and the ecstasy of triumph. Familiar faces of wisdom return in Babatunde, and there is the tension of truth as a tension between faith and life.

Aiden will set out on a journey to find his long-lost sister, separated at the moment of enslavement, and Kai must walk an extremely fine line to manage the competing powers of Africa that would seek to divide and conquer the nations of America even further. There are shifts of political power that could result in disaster with a single wrong move, and there are assassins ready to strike a dagger into those he loves and protects. Swordplay and fights and love and betrayal swirl throughout the book.

It is a wonderful sequel, and thankfully not just an extension of the previous story–that is, it isn’t just Part B. It is an expansion of the people and the depths of their existence.

I loved Kai in the first book, and now I find that I would like to meet him some day in a world where all the good things of life that I know and imagine come together.

Very well done.



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Review: Between the Bridge and the River

Between the Bridge and the River
Between the Bridge and the River by Craig Ferguson

My rating: 1 of 5 stars

This is a dreadful, unfunny, pretentious pile of trash. I got to 48 pages and stopped reading–there is not one bit of wit or freshness in this book. It is written because the guy has a TV personality. But there is nothing of value so far.



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