Category Archives: Books

Book Review – “Counterstrike” by Hal G.P. Colebatch

“Counterstrike” by Hal G.P. Colebatch is a thriller. Better still, it is a thriller of ideas, which is why I found it so compelling.

CounterstrikeThe hero is Harry, a lawyer and university lecturer. Pining over a lost love, he sets off with a friend on a yacht to explore nearby islands and do some diving. Along the way they have several encounters that set us up for what is to follow.

Militant Islam is on the march, and it seems a plot is afoot to torpedo the Western alliance. Indeed, American power is already in retreat. The conspirators hope to accelerate this trend. It leads to much debate.

So we read:

“Terrorists can’t win,” someone was saying loudly behind him. “Not as terrorists. Think of the biggest terrorist atrocity you can imagine; say a nuclear explosion in a great city. Say a million or so people were killed in New York. The US still has three hundred million more, their basic military power would be virtually intact, and they’d be aroused, united, and vengeful as never before. That’s why Bin Laden was potentially the best friend and ally the West ever had: he gave a wake-up call, though it was only partially heard.”       

“So what do you think a terrorist should do?”           

“Change the culture. It’s much less dramatic but it’s much more permanent as well as much more risk-free. And if it’s done cleverly, it doesn’t provoke a reaction until it’s too late. You can’t unite or mobilize against cultural change. You can hardly outlaw it. You can’t even call an enemy an enemy.”

Much of the talk is about the malignant impact of conspiracy theories on our culture, and so we also read:

“There’s a strange syndrome present. Different conspiracy theorists will very often associate with, and reinforce, one another even when they have mutually incompatible beliefs. On the 9/11 conspiracy sites one theorist who claims that a missile was fired into the Pentagon will associate himself with another theorist who claims a remotely controlled plane was crashed into the Pentagon. And how many Islamicists will proclaim simultaneously that 9/11 and the rest were  great blows struck for Islam against the West by Bin Laden etc and that they are part of a Jewish plot to discredit Islam and give the US an excuse for invading Iraq and threaten Iran?”

“Yes,” said Liz. Toby added some water to his wine.

“Tens of thousands of people evidently think there’s something in it, ‘if’ – magic phrase – ‘you keep an open mind.’ I’m coming to think the truth is that if you keep an open mind people will throw all their crap in it – and as often as not have you pay them for doing so.”

It is also fascinating to find, in a book published in 2011, an engaging discussion of the phenomenon – which turns out to be not as modern as we might think – of fake news.

Colebatch is an excellent – not to mention prolific – writer (read his Wikipedia bio here). He has won awards for his poetry, and he is also the author of many science fiction novels. Most recently he has won acclaim – and the 2014 Prime Minister’s Literary Award – for “Australia’s Secret War”, an engrossing account of how trade unions worked to sabotage our troops during World War II.

“Counterstrike” is an absorbing book and an easy read. Though there is probably more talking than action, there is also considerable tension. And a lot of provocative ideas. Highly recommended.

“Counterstrike” can be bought directly from the publisher.

Seoul Man – New Book Describes Life in Corporate, Confucian Korea

It was back in the early 1980s, when I was a journalist in Tokyo, that I received a phone call from a British friend with some good news. He had just been hired by Mitsubishi Motors to an important position, handling the company’s public relations with the foreign media. But he was not a journalist himself – he mainly got the job because of his excellent Japanese-language skills – and he wanted to learn more about the world of journalism. He invited me to lunch.

seoul-manWe met at the Foreign Correspondents’ Club, and I began to detail how he could best meet the needs of foreign journalists – a regular English-language newsletter, press releases, meetings with senior executives, test drives, the chance to talk with engineers and designers, and so on.

He listened with a bemused look on his face, but then interrupted me. “No, no, you don’t understand. My job is to keep our company out of the foreign media.”

Back then Mitsubishi Motors made pretty undistinguished cars, unlike rivals such as Toyota, Nissan and Honda, and so foreign journalists writing about the company invariably wanted to ask questions about something else.

And the “something else” was the company’s president at the time, Teruo Tojo, the son of the Japanese World War II leader Hideki Tojo, who had been executed after the war by the Allies. Any journalist could see the chance of a great story if he or she could learn more about this quiet, secretive man.

It did not help that Mitsubishi Motors had been spun off just a decade-or-so earlier from Mitsubishi Heavy Industries, which was responsible for much of Japan’s output of aircraft, naval ships and heavy machinery during the war. Foreign journalists in Tokyo in those days knew that their editors relished “Is Japan secretly rearming?” stories, and so hapless executives at corporations like Mitsubishi Motors could easily find themselves subjected to intense questioning on military matters.

It was little wonder the company did not want to be in the news.

I was reminded of this incident while reading a new book, “Seoul Man,” by former Washington Post journalist Frank Ahrens. It is the story of how he moved to South Korea, with his diplomat wife, to handle media relations for the Korean car-making giant Hyundai Motors.

It is a fun book, full of amusing incidents drawn from his years with the company. He explains how he dealt with the heavy drinking culture of corporate Korea (my Korean wife has three brothers, and I know this culture well) and with the Confucian ethos of his office. In a touching tale, he relates how he acquired a native Korean jindo dog. And then there is the traumatic occasion when he opened the Wall Street Journal and Financial Times and found full-page ads for Hyundai cars with the heading “Years doesn’t diminish the value of a Hyundai.”

I was particularly drawn to the book when I found it in my local public library because I had just returned from a holiday in Seoul with my wife, and also because just a couple of months earlier we had replaced our Ford with a new Hyundai.

But as the Korean economy grows and Korean culture becomes more prominent, we need to learn more about this fascinating country. So, with its unique take on life inside corporate Seoul, this is a book for all. We need more books like it.

A bonus for me was some poignant Christian witness. The author does not shy away from discussing how his faith and Christian convictions helped sustain him and his wife at times of stress.

Highly recommended.

After Saturday Comes Hope

Last year I conducted a Skype interview with one of the modern-day saints of the Middle East, Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean priest who endured nine days of captivity and torture after being kidnapped by Al Qaeda. I was startled at how surprisingly cheerful and relaxed he appeared as he related his harrowing experiences.

Father Bazi is one of the heroes of a new book that I highly recommend. It is “After Saturday Comes Sunday,” by Elizabeth Kendal. The sub-title sums up its message: “Understanding the Christian Crisis in the Middle East.”

Some of the stories in the book tell the traumatic experiences of individuals such as Father Bazi.

Kendal writes: “Bazi is fed up with Western elites who insist that all the Middle East needs is political and economic liberalization. He is furious that despite having no understanding or practical experience of Islam, they will insist that Islam is inherently peaceful, arrogantly believing they know Islam better than he does.

“’We are in pain,’ says Bazi. ‘I am angry because I know Islam well. In Baghdad they blew up my church. I drove by three bombings, and twice my car was destroyed. I got shot in my leg by an AK-47 – by Islam, and they kidnapped me for nine days.’”

This is a driving theme of the book – that the West does not truly understand the tragedy that is the Middle East. And I can think of few writers better able to explain the history of the crisis to us than Kendal, one of the finest commentators writing today about Christian persecution.

I especially value the regular Religious Liberty Prayer Bulletin emails that she sends free to anyone who subscribes. In fact, she actually lives here in Australia, in my city of Melbourne (although we have never met), where she is Adjunct Research Fellow in the Centre for the Study of Islam and Other Faiths at the Melbourne School of Theology.

The book’s title is, says Kendal, “a popular Arabic war cry which never fails to make the blood of Middle Eastern Christians run cold….As sure as Saturday (the day of Jewish worship) is followed by Sunday (the day of Christian worship), first we’ll kill the Jews, then we’ll kill the Christians.”

And so much of the book recounts – often in unsparing detail – the horrific “Sundays” endured by Middle Eastern Christians over the past few years as their traditional homelands have come under waves of attacks from an enemy intent on genocide.

But – spoiler alert! – “After Saturday” can have another meaning. Think back to the crucifixion. On Saturday the disciples were in despair. Their Saviour had been executed. Their dreams were crushed. Yet on Sunday came the most joyous news ever heard by humankind. Jesus had risen again.

And so it is today in the Middle East. Amidst the genocide we see the buds of hope. In her final chapter Kendal shows how God is at work right across the Middle East, drawing people to Jesus in spectacular fashion. As persecution intensifies it seems that the number of believers grows.

This book is not always easy to read. The horrors it describes are real, and are happening today, to our Christian brothers and sisters. Yet it is ultimately a book about God and about the Christian hope. Every Christian will feel inspired from reading it.

Exciting and Innovative Supernatural Thriller from Lorilyn Roberts

The City“The City” is the fourth novel in the Seventh Dimension series from Lorilyn Roberts. I enjoyed the first three, and found this latest book to be just as exciting.

It is a cliché to describe a book as a page-turner, but that was exactly my reaction to this fast-paced, supernatural thriller. And despite being formally classified as aimed at young adults – a demographic I left some decades ago – it will surely appeal to older generations as well.

The action begins quickly. Shale, the teenage heroine of the story, is berated by her schoolteacher for bringing her Christian faith into a classroom science debate. Abruptly some kind of strange UFO-like aircraft lands outside in the school football field. School officials claim it is connected to the military. But is it really?

More unexpected events occur. Shale’s estranged father summons her to Washington. He wants her to fly to Israel in search of some ancient scrolls. And then, before we know it, the whole world is engulfed in war.

In Israel Shale meets up with her beloved Daniel, and is thrilled to learn that he is now a follower of Yeshua (Jesus). But Daniel is still seeking for his father. Together they fly out to look for him.

In the previous book, Daniel witnessed the trial and crucifixion of Yeshua. This time he – with Shale – encounters something vastly more sinister. I will not reveal the dramatic ending, though if you are familiar with your Bible you know it already.

As in her previous books, Lorilyn Roberts describes all these events with a riveting intensity. Her characters are strong and believable. We live the drama with them.

And some good news. I had thought “The City” was the final book in this exciting and innovative series. It seems I was wrong. I look forward eagerly to the next.

Christians and the Shaman

Daniel Pinchbeck has written a book “Breaking Open the Head”, an account of his efforts to achieve spiritual enlightenment through psychedelic drug-taking encounters with shamans.

Daniel clearly knows a lot about drugs, but less about spirituality, which is a shame, as I wish he could have told us more about one particular meeting, in Ecuador, with shaman Don Esteban.

He had been a shaman in his youth, but when the missionaries arrived he assumed that Christianity had greater power. He abandoned his traditional spiritual culture and became a Christian, working with the missionaries. They told him not to take ayahuasca [drug], so he didn’t. But as time went on, he realized that, as a Christian, he was no longer able to heal anybody. A nephew of his died, and he knew that with ayahuasca he would have been able to heal him. He decided that Christianity didn’t have all the answers and he returned, after a thirty-year hiatus, to ayahuasca.

I personally doubt that Don Esteban “assumed” that Christianity had greater power. Rather, he knew.

My wife is Korean, and before our marriage several times consulted a shaman about her future. According to her, the shamans say they cannot do their work if a devout Christian is present, as Christians possess a spiritual power much greater than their own.

When she was 24, and wanting to find a Westerner to marry, my wife consulted a shaman. He told her that when she was 27 she would marry someone from America or Japan. This was a shock, as she had no desire for a Japanese husband.

And then, after she had turned 27, I arrived on the scene, from Japan, where I was living. We were married two months later.

In 1992, shortly before we moved from Japan to Australia, she was back in Korea, visiting her family, and she went again to the shaman, to ask about our future. She didn’t tell me about this visit, as she knew I was extremely antagonistic to fortune tellers and the like.

“Your husband is going to turn to the cross,” the shaman told her. “Don’t ever come to me again.”

Shortly after we moved to Australia, I became a Christian. My wife never told me about the shaman’s message until some years later, and she never really pushed me into becoming a Christian. It wasn’t a self-fulfilling prophecy.

Is there a connection between shamans and Christianity? Does God perhaps use shamans to build a relationship with those of His people who have yet to hear of Jesus? I wonder if Christians should perhaps recognize the good sometimes done by shamans.

A New Feeling of Peace and Joy Amidst the Bloodshed

We do not hear much good news for Christians from Iraq nowadays, so I was encouraged to hear about a new school there that, against all odds, is achieving great success in turning angry and confused young refugee kids into enthusiastic students.

It is run by Father Douglas Bazi, a Chaldean Christian priest, and I was able to set up a Skype connection to chat with him about his activities.

In fact, Father Bazi has previously achieved a degree of renown. He was once kidnapped by Islamists. They used a hammer to break his teeth, his knees and his back. The torment only ended when his church paid a ransom to win his release. But he was forced to spend a year in bed, recovering from his injuries.

Douglas BaziHe has also been in churches that have been bombed, and he has seen members of his congregation murdered. He has been urged to leave the country, for his own protection, but he refuses.

He is now priest at Mar Elias church in a secure part of Iraq, in Ankawa, a Christian suburb of Erbil, which is the capital of Kurdistan. Though just 80 kilometres from ISIS-controlled Mosul, the region is well protected and ISIS is not deemed a threat.

His church has a large, sprawling garden, and Christians fleeing the genocide of ISIS have found sanctuary there, living in 120 caravans.

It is among the caravans that he has launched his new school, staffed by volunteers and aimed at giving education – and hope – to some 200 youngsters, and to their parents as well.

Several caravans are classrooms. One is a computer lab. There is also a library. He wanted to take the children to the cinema, but it was expensive. So he was able to acquire a large television set, and another of the caravans is now a cinema.

“I want to give the children a future,” he said. “I want them to be creative. We must not transfer our hatreds to them.”

His programs seem to be working. Youngsters and adults arrived angry and aggressive, and traumatized from their experiences. With little to occupy them in their new environment they then became restless and depressed.

Now, thanks to the school and an extensive program that incorporates sports and drama classes, as well as more traditional subjects, he is witnessing enormous changes. The students have become happy, enthusiastic learners. Their parents have found a sense of community. A feeling of peace and joy embraces the caravans. Some of the families have refused to leave when given the chance to be resettled in apartments.

The students learn English, among other subjects, and Father Bazi has a request.

“I need books,” he told me. “Especially picture books for the younger children, but also books suitable for older children and adults.” Rather than novels he would prefer collections of short stories, as well as non-fiction titles with lots of illustrations.

If you feel you have suitable books that you could donate please email Father Douglas at douglasbazi@gmail.com.

Buddhist Extremists and My Novels

Military Orders - Smashwords Cover Jan 2013So you haven’t heard of Dorje Shugden, the extremist Buddhist group now in the news for their opposition to the Dalai Lama. Well, that’s not my fault. For I made them the villains of my thriller “Military Orders.”

The title of a lengthy post this week on the Foreign Affairs website sums up the group – “Meet the Buddhists Who Hate the Dalai Lama More Than the Chinese Do.”

That’s what happens when you write novels that are based on current events. These events are apt to overtake your novels.

I have already written about how soccer riots in Egypt mirror events in my thriller “The Coptic Martyr of Cairo” and how the burning of churches in West Africa was foreshadowed by my novel “Festival in the Desert.”

A few excerpts from the Foreign Affairs post sum up its tone:

Dorje Shugden is an obscure trickster spirit, believed to have originated in the Tibetan capital, Lhasa, in the 17th century. And though the spirit’s followers in the Western world probably number only a few thousand, they’ve been surprisingly successful at generating attention for themselves and their campaign to discredit the Dalai Lama. 

…Besides protesting the Dalai Lama during his trips to the United States and Europe, Shugden followers produce websites filled with anti-Dalai Lama material and write and distribute pamphlets, articles, and books denouncing the Dalai Lama. Consider, for example, “The False Dalai Lama: The Worst Dictator in the Modern World,” published in October 2013.

The book describes its purpose as helping people to “understand the deceptive nature” of the Dalai Lama, who stands accused of “destroying pure Buddhism in this world.” If that weren’t enough, it depicts the Tibetan spiritual leader as a “Muslim” who is firmly in the grip of a “fascination with war and Nazism.”

One might think, given Beijing’s well-known hostility toward the Tibetan spiritual leader, that the book is a work of calumny sponsored by the ruling Chinese Communist Party. But its publishers are, in fact, enthusiastic Buddhists. Specifically, the International Shugden Community, a California-based organization representing a small religious sect whose members worship Dorje Shugden, and whose website claims its mission is “exposing the dark side of the Dalai Lama.”

My thriller “Military Orders“ has a somewhat fantastical plot about a plan by a Christian church to “hijack” the next selection of a Dalai Lama – after the current incumbent dies – and install in his place a secret Christian. During my research for the book I learned about Dorje Shugden, and they seemed to fit my plot perfectly – opposed to the Dalai Lama, but also no friends of Christians. They made excellent villains.

Expect them to appear in the news again, especially once the current Dalai Lama dies.

And this time you will have heard of them.

Care Needed When Christian Novelists Write About Other Religions

I wrote a couple of weeks ago about a program I am involved with, to help inmates of a Florida prison develop their writing skills. I donate copies of my novels, and the prisoners critique them.

As I noted, the reviews can be brutally honest. And it has set me thinking about how we Christians portray other religions in our novels.

Military Orders - Smashwords Cover Jan 2013My thriller “Military Orders” has a somewhat fantastical plot about a plan by a Christian church to “hijack” the next selection of a Dalai Lama – after the current incumbent dies – and install in his place a secret Christian. Of necessity it includes a lot of information on Tibetan Buddhism, for which I did a considerable amount of research.

I believed – and believe – that it is a resolutely Christian novel, faithful to Scripture and to Christian doctrine.

But one of the inmates, Keith, disagreed –

This book is intended for people who are interested in the Dalai Lama and think that Buddhism is the true religion.

I did not enjoy this book because of the way it portrayed the one and only God and Christians. Like it was God’s plan to protect the Dalai Lama. Are you serious?

And the church was going to bribe a Christian family to give up their child and make believe he was the Dalai Lama. First of all, if a Christian family gives up their child for money, they ain’t really believers. And what did you mean that the child was “christened?”

And here is a three-star Amazon review –

This books comes from a concept that I wouldn’t say is necessarily Christian, but the ending leaves it open to what might happen in a world where a ‘”reborn” Dalai Lama was found as a child. Since I don’t believe in being born again and again, it didn’t hold my interest as much as a book would with more intrigue or twists and turns.

Hot Rock DreamingI’ve looked again at what I wrote, and I truly believe the reviewers have it wrong. I think my novel has a strong Christian message. I wasn’t out to knock Buddhism – with which I once had an involvement – but I believe that the book clearly shows Christianity to be the true religion.

I would note that in a previous mystery, “Hot Rock Dreaming,” also with a strong Christian message, one of the main characters was a woman who practised shamanism, and that was a strong theme of the novel. That book was a finalist in the Australian Christian Book of the Year awards.

So it’s win some, lose some. But certainly Christians need to consider carefully how they depict other religions.