Radio Made in Michigan
10:39 am
Wed November 27, 2013

Book Review: Mitch Albom's 'The First Phone Call from Heaven'

Credit http://mitchalbom.com/

Picture a bookstore as an all-you-can-eat buffet. Can you see it? There is the salad bar, the pasta, the breakfast area with the waffle maker, the giant slab of ham or beef. Okay, let’s skip all the healthy things and aim for the dessert table. You know how at every buffet there is that one enormous piece of chocolate cake? Well, for me, Mitch Albom’s books have always been that piece of cake.

They are fluffy, a little too rich, sometimes hard to swallow, satisfying for a few minutes, but then something I may regret later on.

Michigan Christian fiction author Mitch Albom is back with a new novel “The First Phone Call From Heaven.” It takes place in Coldwater, a city most of us have driven around as compared to through. It is in this small town that eight residents on each Friday begin to receive calls from lost loved ones -- voices from beyond that promise that the end is not the end and love is waiting.

One of Mitch Albom’s strengths as a writer is in creating strong characters. His characters feel real, as real as Coldwater. There is Katherine Yellin, the real estate agent mourning her sister who is stuck in the middle of much of the media’s attention. Jack Sellers, the local police chief who lost his son in Afghanistan, and Sullivan Harding an ex-navy pilot who is struggling with his own demons. His wife died in a car crash on the day he crashed a plane and he blames himself. With Albom’s talent they all feel real, because living in Michigan, we all know people just like every one of them. It is truly a gift to be able to create characters that feel this alive.

One of the other things I enjoyed in the novel is how Albom integrated the true story of Alexander Graham Bell into the narrative. Bell is just as much a part of the story as the Coldwater residents, from his first inspiration for the phone, his relationship with his deaf wife to the struggles he had afterwards in controlling his own patent.

A major complaint I have with the book though is that it takes place in a small shell, in many ways like a small town. Which means you won’t get people from different religions, different beliefs, different cultures and their reactions. And atheists and other non-believers get a pretty bad rap, always presented as angry, aggressive and loud. Creating overall a perception of “Well, you will agree with us once you figure it out,” as compared to how the real world and real people are wired. In the end, this is a book that won’t change any minds, preaching to the choir as it were, those who already believe as Albom does.

Religious beliefs aside, the fact is the book “The First Phone Call from Heaven” shares the same truth with the chocolate cake. Which is, honestly, you know exactly what you are getting yourself into before that very first bite. There are no surprises here, no character twists you won’t see coming. I guessed every beat in the plot before I turned the first page and the book perfectly followed those notes like adding ingredients in a recipe.

Some might find comfort in a story that so strictly follows the paces you expect, but for me I always get a little disappointed. I like to be surprised no matter what genre, and I like it when a writer challenges their readers and themselves. Unfortunately that book is not “The First Phone Call From Heaven.” Someday, I would love to see Albom step out of his comfort zone, I think with his ability in characterization he could create something special.

With the cold of winter upon us, for those who enjoy Christian fiction this may be exactly what they want for those dark nights by a fireplace. Like that piece of cake, it might be exactly what they need to satiate their hungry souls.

To those individuals I say, “Dig in.” I’m gonna hit the salad bar so I’m ready for his next book.

Current State contributor Scott Southard is author of the novels “A Jane Austen Daydream" and “Maximilian Standforth and the Case of the Dangerous Dare." More of his writing can be found at his blog, The Musings and Artful Blunders of Scott D. Southard.

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