Wednesday, August 25, 2010

Wednesday Book Review: "The Lake" and "33 A.D." by David McAfee

One feature I'd really like to get started in this space is a regular book review.  I first started writing them earlier this year at the behest of my wife, who is active in the online Kindle community.  Informed reviews are highly valued on these message boards, both by readers needing input for buying decisions, but also by the authors themselves.  Many independent and relatively unknown writers publish on the Kindle because of the reasonable costs associated with eBooks, and to tap into a wide distribution network already in place.  These authors often are fixtures on the message boards, interacting directly with their readers and generally promoting their work.  Most are happy to see honest, coherent reviews of their work posted in a forum full of potential readers.

And to be honest, reviews are a great outlet for my own writing.  Not only am I allowed to exercise my writing skills (such that they are), but it forces me to pay closer attention to the books I'm reading.  Thinking critically about a work often enhances its impact, and gives me insight into making my own writing better.  Any aspiring writers out there...if you find you're stuck doing the same things over and over (or more commonly, doing nothing at all), try reviewing a book you've read that moved you.  It will likely help get you kick started, it's only about 1,000 words, and any writing is good writing, right?  Right.

Anyway, I've now written what looks like a tome on the post and I haven't even gotten to the reviewin' yet.  We'll try to make this a weekly gig (alert readers will note that it should recur every Wednesday).  I'll try to link to the books' listings on Amazon so if you feel the urge to IMMEDIATELY READ THIS BOOK! you can do so with ease.  The grades assigned at the bottom should be taken as they are--an ironclad judgment from the highest authority on whether or not a book should be read, or even allowed to exist.  No, that's not's just my stupid opinion.  Forget I said anything...

David McAfee is an independent author, self-publishing on Kindle and in paper editions on Amazon.  The genre his work fits most comfortably in would be gothic horror, but I hate categorizing.  It limits people.  Since this is the very first installment of this feature you get a two-fer. 

The Lake and 16 Other Stories (David McAfee); Bonus Story by David Dalglish

Horror fiction almost always benefits from a minimalist approach to story-telling. Alfred Hitchcock understood very well that an audience can generate far more terrifying and disturbing imagery using their own imaginations, than anything he could film. Edgar Alan Poe, too, understood the reader’s ability to fill in the gaps in the graphics of the story. This collection of shorts by David McAfee takes the concept to a logical extreme by invoking a writing exercise known as “microfiction”—stories of extremely short length, in this case exactly 100 words. It is a revelation in just how disturbed one can feel after reading the horror equivalent of a breathy greeting card.

14 of the 17 stories by McAfee are the 100-word micros. Some are more memorable than others, and range in tone from tongue-in-cheek to earnestly gory. A surprising number of them seem to deal with cannibalism (if David ever invites you to a barbecue, be politely wary of the ribs). The best are those that easily lend themselves to back-story—there are several that allowed me, as I finished them, to fill out the surrounding circumstances and expand the story to feature length, as it were. Good ones include “Scott and Mary”, “Mario”, “Bobby and The Mayor”, and the winking “Writers Wanted.”

The other stories, including the titular “Lake”, are more traditional short stories, and fine in their own right, but are generally overshadowed by the popcorn fun of the micro-stories. The bonus story by David Dalglish, “One Last Dinner Party”, is an examination of the last day on Earth for a small group of Middle Americans. It’s sad, but oddly comforting, and quite a bit more honest than most armageddon stories. I’ll need to read more by him in the future.

The collection is a quick and stimulating read, perfect for a short afternoon on the beach or read aloud around the campfire.
Grade:  B+

33 A.D. (David McAfee)

The passion and death of Jesus Christ is one of the best known stories in human history, but even a casual read of the Gospels reveals just how...spare the story is. The final week of Jesus' life is maybe the most dynamic period of time in the New Testament, and yet the story arc of that short time in Jerusalem is presented as a series of staccato events from the focused point of view of a few disciples. David McAfee sets his novel 33 A.D. in the gray areas between these events, and in the process builds a genre-crossing world that while initially shocking, hooks the reader almost immediately, and allows for greater expansion of the story and characters.

The initial story concept of a vampire with a mission to assassinate Jesus is, on its face, not an easy one for some to immediately accept, myself included. But from the first pages McAfee establishes a tense, quickly-paced story that viscerally grabs the reader's attention. The story follows the exploits of Theron, 900-year old Bachyir (a Hebrew word translated roughly as "chosen one" and here used interchangeably with "vampire"), and Lead Enforcer of the Council of Thirteen. In response to the growing threat to the vampires' influence represented by Jesus of Nazareth and his revolutionary teachings, the Council has decreed that Jesus must die, and in as painful and public a way as possible. Theron's effort to complete this task forms the foundation of the primary plot, but the mission is of course not nearly as straightforward as Theron anticipates, which becomes apparent to him the moment he lays eyes on the Nazarene.

A parallel plot follows Taras, a conflicted Roman centurion stationed in occupied Jerusalem, tasked with investigating several instances of Theron's prior handiwork, and his forbidden relationship with the daughter of a wealthy Jewish merchant. The plot lines intersect in a devastating and revelatory climax, and set up the future paths the story may take in works beyond this novel.

Practically speaking, this is a vampire story, with plot devices and themes that regular readers of the sprawling genre of paranormal fiction will recognize quickly. But not far underneath are the clear messages of forgiveness, peace, and faith that have become synonymous with the teachings of Christ and the religion that emerged from Israel 2000 years ago. The characters are not easily categorized into hero and villain, protagonist and antagonist. Jesus himself functions less as a character in his own right as much as a source of motivation for those around him--for better or worse, depending on the point of view. Everyone is flawed, and nearly all the main characters eventually realize that the paths they've chosen have been determined not so much from free will, but from the manipulations of those they have trusted.

Those who tend to shy away from so-called Christian Fiction should not avoid 33 A.D., since the traditionally Christian themes are presented subtly, and by no means dominate either the dialogue or the plot. Those who favor strong female characters, however, are out of luck here. This is a story populated by men (soldiers, criminals, politicians), with male-driven motivations. The women who do play a role are not really given a chance to demonstrate anything beyond concern for their respective mates. This is a shame, but perhaps reflective of the ancient society in which the story is set.

I found this book to be a great page-turner, and I sincerely hope to see more work from McAfee in the future.
Grade:  B

1 comment:

  1. I just saw this for the first time today.

    Jon, your reviews are always insightful and informative, and I wanted to thank you for posting these two. Both are easily among my favorites.

    --David McAfee