Sunday, August 26, 2007

Book Review: Fitness Kills

Author: Helen Barer
Publisher: Thompson Gale
ISBN: 13 978-1-59414-585-8; 10 1-59414-585-7

Nora Franke, a food critic for MetroScene Magazine, is juggling several projects at Rancho de las Flores, a spa in Baja California. Professionally, she is assisting the spa in its efforts to update its menu and produce a cookbook. Personally, she is losing excess weight and sorting out a stalled love affair. All of these projects are interrupted when murder comes to Rancho de las Flores.

Alan Nardy, a regular spa guest whom Nora never met, is found dead in the mountains on a Sunday morning. The next evening, Nora and several others watch helplessly as Cece Clayton, another regular guest and a friend of Alan’s, sips a poisoned beverage and dies before their eyes. Throughout the week, Nora is injured in several inexplicable, but clearly dangerous, encounters. This formerly idyllic health spa has quickly become one of the unhealthiest venues on the planet. Nora is spurred to action by the realization that she must solve the murders before she becomes the next victim.

Fitness Kills reads like Agatha Christie on steroids. As Christie often did, Barer sets her mystery in an exotic, isolated locale. Although Barer tries, like Christie, to limit her cast to a small number of characters, she does not succeed in this endeavor. There are several bit characters that could (and should) have been trimmed. Unlike Christie, Barer does not conclude the story with a public confrontation and revelation of the killer’s identity. Perhaps it’s a reflection of our age that, even though Nora identifies and confronts the murderer, the book ends in a distinctly postmodern fashion. I find this type of ending unsatisfying, but that probably has more to do with me as a reader than it does with either the author or the story.

The story’s momentum starts briskly and never lets up. It is not a gripping, suspenseful tale, but it is entertaining. The characters are varied: some are quirky, some are fun, some are annoying, some are funny, some are intriguing and some are tiresome. Nora is quirky, fun, funny and intriguing, a mildly flawed yet likeable heroine. The plot, like all good mysteries, is littered with red herrings and false leads. Nevertheless, the clues regarding the killer’s identity are clearly visible, perhaps too much so, to the astute reader.

Helen Barer has much experience as a non-fiction author. Fitness Kills is her first Nora Franke mystery (the second one is underway). In this book, Barer’s overall skill as a writer is obvious, but her relative inexperience as a fiction writer is also evident. Her pacing, plotting and setting development are generally satisfactory, though her plotting and setting techniques could be improved. In general, however, her character development is the area in which she has the most room to grow. This does not mean that Fitness Kills is a poor effort. To the contrary, Nora Franke is a fine character who will be able to engage and hold readers for years to come. I, for one, am looking forward to developing a lifelong reading relationship with Nora and her cohorts. Other mystery fans also may want to start right at the beginning of this series so that they too may share in the pleasure of watching this character and her author as they grow together.

Monday, August 06, 2007

Quickie Comment: The Meaning of Jesus

Authors: Marcus J. Borg & N.T. Wright
Publisher: HarperOne
ISBN-10: 0060608765
ISBN-13: 978-0060608767

Borg and Wright are two of the leading contemporary scholars engaged in studying the life, ministry, message and meaning of Jesus Christ. Both men are outstanding scholars and fine writers. This book contains their dialog about such issues as Jesus' humanity and divinity, the historicity and significance of his deeds and teachings, the historicity and meaning of his death and resurrection, the meaning of "second-coming" doctrines and the mission of the Christian Church in the 21st century.

Each section of the book is divided into two chapters written by each of the authors. The authors lay out their points of view and frequently identify points at which they agree with and differ from each other. Borg, a member of the Jesus Seminar, generally takes more liberal positions than Wright. It is likely that most evangelical Christians will find themselves agreeing with Wright's more orthodox positions rather than Borg's. Nevertheless, Wright throws some curveballs that may make conservative Christians wince. One example is his view of the significance, or lack thereof, of the Christmas narratives and the Virgin Birth (which should probably be called the Virgin Conception) doctrine. Wright may be the more conservative participant in this dialog, but it is simplistic to distinguish his views as merely "conservative" and Borg's as merely "liberal." The positions of both men are far more nuanced than such labels can convey. Having said that, Borg's views of both Jesus' conception and his resurrection may well scandalize conservative Christians. While Wright throws effective curveballs, Borg's knuckeballs are truly wonders to behold.

In spite of their significant theological and interpretive differences, Borg and Wright have been friends for well over two decades. Their mutual respect is displayed throughout the book and their critiques of each other's views are always delivered courteously. Throughout the book they offer a fine example of how to conduct substantive dialog without rancor. This book, which should be a welcome addition to the vast literature of Jesus studies, gives Christians from the full spectrum of faith interesting insights to ponder.