Mercy to Generations

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Image URL at Amazon’s listing

Book review by Glenda Faye Mathes

Legacy of Mercy by Lynn Austin
Bethany; paperback; 400 pages; © 2018

Because I grew to love the main characters in Lynn Austin’s Waves of Mercy (Bethany, 2016), I was thrilled to read more about the lives of Anna and Geesje in her sequel, Legacy of Mercy. My hopes were not disappointed, and new characters found a place in my heart.

The novel is aptly-named as it effectively portrays the ramifications of withholding or extending mercy within family generations. Austin is at her best when showing the emotional turmoil of women who have been deeply wounded. The engaging plot gradually reveals secrets and provides satisfying resolution.

The first-person, present tense point of view from main characters pulls the reader into the story with a sense of active participation, while the first-person, past tense point of view from secondary characters helps keep perspective among the multiple narrators.

Geesje functions as a believable truth-teller, with wisdom based on personal losses and authentic faith. Her advice and observations in a multitude of situations reflect a soundly biblical perspective.

Austin’s literary touches delight the reader and help convey character. When Geesje meets Dominie Den Herder, she notes that he “has to duck his head as he enters the door of my tiny house. He looks around as if the house is for sale and he’s trying to decide if he will buy it.” While he’s a “handsome, distinguished-looking man,” he “carries himself with the rigid posture of royalty. He doesn’t return my smile, and his expression is one of a man who has been squinting into bright sunlight all his life.”

Another nice touch occurs when Mrs. Marusak describes the change in Christina after a year of marriage: “It was as if Jack had pulled a stopper from a sink full of water and drained all the life from her.”

And when Anna realizes the depth of another young woman’s deception, she observes: “Clarice is as phony as this beautiful conservatory—seemingly green and lush and fragrant, when the cold reality beyond the glass is startlingly different.”

This is another of Lynn Austin’s novels that combines an entertaining plot and delightful literary touches with a sound biblical perspective. Highly recommended!

NOTE: As a member of the launch team for Legacy of Mercy, this reviewer received a complimentary Kindle copy of the book prior to its October 2, 2018, release.

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A dangerous book

choosing-good-portion-2
Choosing the Good Portion is available from the OPC online store

Choosing the Good Portion: Women of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; edited by Patricia E. Clawson & Diane L. Olinger; published by The Committee for the Historian of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church; cloth, 470 pages; © 2016

 

This is a dangerous book. Like Proverbs 31, it can make women feel inferior if they begin to think they somehow don’t measure up. But we know that Proverbs 31, like all Scripture, is profitable (2 Timothy 3:16) and Choosing the Good Portion is not only profitable, but also enjoyable and encouraging.

Yes, some of the women described in these stories seem almost superhuman, traveling to far countries and difficult situations, giving birth or raising children while husbands are distant or busy with other kingdom work. But if you read this book and come away feeling like a sub-par Christian, you’ve missed the point. The point isn’t how great these women were, but how great their God was in their lives and is in yours.

The title, Choosing the Good Portion, comes from the biblical account of Martha and Mary, which like Proverbs 31 can be dangerous. Am I a Martha or a Mary? I’ve personally struggled with the question for years. More than a decade ago, I wrote a poem confessing my affinity with Martha and my longing to be like Mary. This book is based on the premise that the featured women chose to first receive Christ’s teaching and then serve His church.

Editors Patricia E. Clawson and Diane L. Olinger deserve high praise for their excellent work in compiling and constructing these stories, as well as each writing one of them. Pat’s introduction explains the rationale and process that led to the book, while Diane’s afterword encourages readers to ask themselves: Am I Choosing the Good Portion?

Fifty-five women wrote these stories about ninety-three women who invested themselves in Christ’s kingdom, specifically as it has been expressed through the eighty-year history of the Orthodox Presbyterian Church (OPC).

What a job it must have been to determine who to write about and the women to write the stories! But what wisdom (if not pure practicality) to tackle the project with broad delegation. In the hands of different editors, the book could well have fallen into a boring litany of what began to sound like similar stories with only the names changed. As it is, the different styles and author voices add richness and variety that capture and keep reader interest.

While OPC readers will find the stories fascinating and recognize many familiar names, Christians from any federation will appreciate the accounts of sacrificial service for the Lord.

How wonderfully the Lord sustained women like Debbie Dortzbach, four months pregnant when kidnapped with Anna Strikwerda from a medical clinic by armed Eritrean guerillas in 1974. Debbie survived the ordeal, which included witnessing Anna die from a gunshot to the head.

Eritrea had long been an inhospitable mission field. Bandits, armed with AR-15s, nearly attacked the Francis and Arlena Mahaffy family, who arrived in 1944 and stayed 22 years. Arlena’s seven children were born in primitive and unsterile conditions. Feeding them involved boiling sour and dirty milk as well as soaking vegetables in chlorinated water before cooking them with the stalks.

Other stories describe women who served the church on the home front by giving time, money, or sound advice. Women like Betty Wallace, who helped found Franklin Square OPC in New York and taught Sunday school for many years. She hosted missionaries in her home and viewed life as a wonderful adventure: “Any better, I couldn’t stand it!”

Not all the profiles focus on positive productivity. The women are portrayed as real people with human frailties. Donna McIlhenny bravely pens a transparent narrative about how alcohol helped her cope with stresses few of us will ever experience—until it stopped being her helper and became her tyrant. She eventually overcame her addiction, but this story shows that being a Christian doesn’t automatically deliver a person from deep and long-lasting struggles.

Choosing the Good Portion could be a dangerous book, but only if you read it with a focus on the human instead of the divine.

The above book review by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 43 of the March 1, 2017, issue of Christian Renewal.

 

Imprisoned for her faith

Marie Durand by Simonetta Carr; Christian Biographies for Young Readers; Reformation Heritage Books; cloth; 64 pages; © 2015

Marie DurandWrongful incarceration is a hot topic of current interest, but few people realize how many Christians have been imprisoned (often without even the pretense of a trial) for their faith. Arrested as a young woman, Marie Durand remained in prison for thirty-eight years.

This remarkable woman, who kept the faith through decades of imprisonment and difficulties beyond, is the subject of the latest Christian Biographies for Young Readers book by Simonetta Carr.

Marie Durand was born in 1711 into a family who secretly taught their children the Protestant faith. When she was seven, her mother was arrested, and her father was arrested when she was seventeen. Marie’s own arrest curtailed her plans to marry. Imprisoned in a tower that allowed snow or rain and disease-bearing mosquitoes free entry, she and the other women and children suffered greatly. Marie became a leader and encourager, despite her frequent bouts of what may have been malaria. When Marie finally was released, she discovered her home had been plundered and she had to pay her cousins to reclaim her property. She died less than ten years later.

As always, Simonetta skillfully distills complex history into an understandable narrative. The beautiful illustrations add visual interest to Simonetta’s engaging story about a faithful woman who lived for her Lord during a lifetime of wrongful incarceration.

The above book review by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 42 of the August 26, 2015, issue of Christian Renewal.

 

Somebody who is already famous: A conversation with Janie B. Cheaney

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Many Christian Renewal readers may be familiar with Janie B. Cheaney as a regular columnist for WORLD magazine. But you may not know about her multiple writing successes. She and another writer launched the RedeemedReader.com website to focus on children’s literature. She has written creative writing workbooks called the Wordsmith series. She has several published fiction books: two Elizabethan-era young adult novels (The Playmaker and The True Prince), a middle reader novel set in the WWII time frame (My Friend the Enemy), and two contemporary-setting middle readers (The Middle of Somewhere and Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous). She anticipates publication of another middle reader novel in June of 2015 (I Don’t Know How the Story Ends).

Booklist magazine chose The Playmaker as a top ten best young-adult books by debut authors, and it as well as The True Prince were on the list of the New York Library’s Best Books for the Teen Age. The St. Louis Dispatch named My Friend the Enemy as one of 2005’s top ten books for children, and the book was a finalist for the Pen award for best children’s novel. The Middle of Somewhere was nominated for the Texas Bluebonnet award, the Florida Sunshine State Young Readers award, and the Indiana Young Hoosier list. Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous was named a Junior Library Guild’s 2014 Fall selection.

Janie is not only a successful author; she’s also a humble believer invested in a local Reformed congregation, Gospel of Grace Church in Springfield, MO. Christian Renewal’s Glenda Mathes recently communicated with Janie about her work and faith.

Christian Renewal: Janie, you’re a regular columnist for WORLD magazine and have written several award-winning novels as well as a creative writing curriculum that continues to sell well. What’s the “secret” to your success as a writer?

Janie B. Cheaney: There’s a practical secret and a spiritual secret. I’ll deal with the practical first, because it’s the easiest. The easiest to state, that is; not so easy to do. The main secret of writing success is to show up for work. For beginning writers this is a tough hurdle because they haven’t established themselves as a salable commodity. Writing is a unique occupation in that the writer must produce a substantial body of work before the job actually begins. It could take years just to develop the craft and learn certain tricks of the trade. Then the sales job begins, during which you create a product and try to find a market. Over time you’ll develop a resume and a contact base leading to assignments, like any other line of work, but at the beginning the only thing that keeps you at your desk is your own conviction and determination. And, I might add, a certain inner need that all writers have; we are compelled to shape words around our thoughts and stories and to strive for our own trademark style. If you can keep going after months, or perhaps even years, of rejection letters and emails, you know you’re a writer.

The spiritual secret is this: if the Lord intends that you write, he will see that you get the opportunity. So much of publishing appears to the world like a matter of luck (dumb or otherwise): connecting with the right editor at the right time or catching a trend on the rise. For a Christian, all these mysterious hits and misses are divine appointments.

But you still have to show up for work!

CR: Most people who write for a living limit themselves to one genre or type of writing, perhaps for their entire career, but you may be writing a column for WORLD and a novel during the same week. How do you manage your various writing commitments or organize your time?

JBC: Organization is key, especially as your commitments increase; unfortunately I’m not an extremely organized person. One thing I must do is get up early so I can lay claim to the maximum number of uninterrupted hours. How early is early? Try 4 a.m. A detailed daytimer with each calendar day divided into time increments is also a big help to me. Writing down when I plan to do something doesn’t guarantee that I’ll do it, but at least I can imagine that it’s possible.

CR: Your method enables you not only to write efficiently, but also to write excellently. You’ve received several awards, and your recently-published novel, Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous, was a Junior Library Guild’s 2014 Fall selection. You structure the novel in an interesting way with an almost-unheard-of nine points of view. Why did you want to portray so many characters?

JBC: Most of my children’s novels are written for middle graders, an interesting transition time. That’s when their primary loyalties are beginning to shift from parents to peers, and that’s a natural process even in the most loving families. It’s an identity issue: kids are beginning to wonder who they are apart from family, and they become almost obsessive about what their peers think of them. My idea was to take nine middle-graders (one for each month of the school year) who all live in the same neighborhood, many of whom have grown up together, and tell each one’s story over a year of shifting self-images and relationships. They are all tied together by a central mystery, which is, Why does the driver make the same stop on the way to school every morning, when there’s never anyone waiting there? She refuses to say, and it troubles some of her passengers more than others. Over the school year, each one of them will pick up a clue to the mystery of the empty bus stop, and by the end (of course!) it will be solved. We also learn who will be famous, but I’m not telling.

CR: The novel ends with an exciting and satisfying conclusion that finally answers questions raised in the reader’s mind at the very beginning. How did you decide on that crucial first scene?

JBC: The first problem with posing nine protagonists in a novel is introducing them. Most authors when beginning a story will be careful not to crowd too many significant characters into the first chapter, because a reader needs time to get into the story and feel comfortable with it. Throwing eight or nine people at the reader in the first few pages is more likely to frustrate than intrigue. After my first version of a completed manuscript had been rejected a couple of times, I decided to use a trick.

The climax of the story involves a bus wreck—in a driving rainstorm, the driver swerves to avoid a passing car, the bus hydroplanes and slides off the road and down a slope towards a creek. I decided to move that incident to the very beginning of the novel: the rain and wind, a highway patrolman receiving a message about a school bus and racing to the scene. No names are mentioned and only two characters from the bus actually appear; one limping down the hill toward the patrolman, and one trudging uphill. Then the scene shifts to “nine months earlier,” with eight of the children getting ready to board the bus on the first day of school. The idea is that the reader knows the wreck is coming, but who are these people and what will happen to them? Any injuries? Any deaths? I’m hoping that after the prologue the reader will be invested enough to keep reading, just to find out.

CR: While your juvenile fiction novels convey deep truths, they are not overtly Christian or marketed at Christian readers. What’s your writing philosophy, and how does your Christian faith inform your work?

JBC: I think a writer’s worldview will automatically emerge, whether or not she sets out to write an explicitly Christian novel. We sense a structure and purpose to life, and simply can’t end a story on a nihilistic note. At the same time a Christian should understand sin and evil better than an unbeliever; there’s a reason for tragedy, but redemption waits just over the horizon. As Solzhenitsyn famously wrote, the line between good and evil runs through every human heart, and that’s where the wisest of nonbelieving authors end: with a conflicted heart. But God does not end there; he draws that line straight through the heart and ties it to Christ.

Since all my published fiction is for children (so far!) I can’t plunge into the depths of human depravity, but all children’s novels have the same theme: they are essentially about growing up. In the course of growing up, my main characters make mistakes and have to confront their own flaws. I never know what the theme of the story is when I begin writing; that will emerge from my embedded worldview and from the demands of the story itself. The Playmaker and The True Prince, my first published novels (both for a slightly older age than middle grade) are set on and around the Elizabethan theater, so the natural theme is about establishing your true identity in the midst of playing a part (as almost all young teens do!). My Friend the Enemy is a World War II homefront story involving a friendship between an all-American girl and a Japanese-American boy; it’s about seeing below the surface and determining who your friends really are. The Middle of Somewhere is a contemporary humorous novel about finding enchantment in the ordinary, and Somebody on This Bus is basically about adjusting one’s expectations. My next novel will be titled, I Don’t Know How the Story Ends, and the setting is Hollywood during the last year of World War I and the early years of the silent movie industry. It turned out to be about accepting profound changes in life that are contrary to the “story” you imagine your life to be.

All of these have resonance for a Christian. The solution to the central problem might not be what the characters had hoped for, but it gives them hope, and sets them up for the next challenge in their journey to adulthood.

The above article by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 34-36 of the February 25, 2015, issue of Christian Renewal. The following book review by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 37 of the same issue.

SOTB hi-rezA sweet treat for kids (and adults)

Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous by J.B. Cheaney; Sourcebooks; hardcover; 296 pages; © 2014

Take nine middle school kids, combine them in a bus, stir in diverse personalities, sprinkle with literary elements, drizzle in mystery, and shake well. That’s the basic recipe for J. B. Cheaney’s well-written Somebody on This Bus Is Going to Be Famous.

Few authors would attempt to incorporate nine different points of view into any novel, let alone one for middle grade readers, but by layering nine primary chapters—each focusing on one student and one month of the school year—Cheaney creates a delightful treat.

Another challenge with multiple points of view is introducing the characters, particularly when standard procedure is to keep characters to a minimum in the first chapter. Cheaney beats that problem by creating a gripping initial scene set in a terrible thunderstorm (the Storm of the Decade!). Readers learn only that a bus has crashed and children are hurt. They’ll have to read to the end to discover what’s happened, and by that time they’re heavily invested in all the various characters.

Cheaney keeps readers invested by lacing the plot with an intriguing mystery and spicing it up with realism. Believable action, dialogue, and thoughts reflect the wide range of problems and emotions experienced by these kids and the adults in their lives. The author garnishes the narrative with fresh literary elements that appeal to young readers. Many girls will identify with this one: “On the outside, she looked the same but was really a virtual human, trying to act normal while a snake wrapped around her quick-beating, mousy little heart” (p. 77). And most middle grade boys will enjoy: “It may be the kind of idea he should forget, but it’s like a booger that won’t shake off his finger” (p. 219).

Kids will enjoy the tasty writing, but parents and teachers will also have fun reading this delectable book to their children and students. Cheaney’s superior writing leaves a palatable aftertaste readers will continue to enjoy.

Lit! An elliptical book review

You say you’re not a reader? Readers are made, not born. Like anything else, we learn to do it through practice. You read a lot or you want to read more, but you feel like you need direction? Look to the light of Lit! by Tony Reinke.

The title is a clever play on words that intentionally conveys Reinke’s basic premise: appreciation for good literature, which reflects the Creator’s glory, shines in the flood lamp of a biblical worldview. Now don’t roll your eyes and click away, dismissing Lit! as a boring theological tome. It’s title also shows this is a short, easy read that engages and challenges.

I may have heard first about this book from Tim Challies, perhaps in a Facebook status update, but I’m not sure how I came across it. Tim has written at least three posts mentioning the book, and gives 5 reasons to read it. And The Gospel Coalition (TGC) blog features an interesting interview with Tony Reinke.

In any case, I purchased Lit! several months ago and sent it to my husband’s Kindle, but didn’t find time to read it until this month. That’s when I began reading Kindle books in bite-sized pieces as a way to force myself onto a newly-acquired used (and very old) elliptical. Lit! has short, easily-digested chapters that lend themselves well to these brief elliptical reading episodes.

Reinke doesn’t write like a theologian, but he writes from a solid biblical foundation. He doesn’t write like a professor, but he writes about literature from a broad liberal (in the academic sense) perspective. Reinke writes like a regular guy who comes up with unique phrases.

Take this hook from his introduction, for instance:

Perhaps you love to read. You get the same feeling from a new stack of books as you get from looking at a warm stack of glazed donuts. Maybe not. For most, reading a book is like trying to drink down a huge vitamin. You know you need to read—you’ll be healthier for it—but everything within you refuses to swallow! (p. 15)

Or this gem as he describes different bookstore experiences:

My hanging head notices an eight-hundred-page Russian novel by Fyodor Dostoyevsky. The book cover is beautifully designed, the book was translated into English with great care (according to a friend of mine), and the novel is reasonably priced. My eye has caught the spine of this book many times before, and I’ve nearly purchased it on several of my frequent trips to the bookstore. But it’s also a very thick book that asks me for a serious commitment. And I’m already married! (p. 22)

Reading Lit! is almost an interactive experience. It’s like sitting across the coffee shop table from Reinke as he sips a hot latte and punctuates his sentences with expressive waves. When he dropped the names of old friends Anne Bradstreet, Leland Ryken, and Larry Woiwode, I actually spoke aloud: “Ah!”—which is elliptical shortspeech for, “Oh, you know him (her) too?”

The first part of the book presents a theology of books and reading. Reinke lays a scriptural and historical foundation before he recounts how personal sin and the gospel shape literacy. He then talks about developing a biblical worldview in an “Eye-Candy” culture.

Chapters 5 & 6 conclude his first section and contain the information I found most valuable. “The Giver’s Voice” presents seven accessible arguments for reading non-Christian books with discernment. Reinke writes, “As book readers, we are mistaken when we categorically reject non-Christian books. And we are mistaken when we read non-Christian literature uncritically” (p. 77). He reflects on John Calvin’s wisdom in this area, finding his model “generous, cautious, and sobering” (p. 77).

In his chapter, “The God Who Slays Dragons,” Reinke speaks about “The Purifying Power of Christian Imagination”:

The imagination is a God-given ability to receive truth and meaning. In an essay, C. S. Lewis wrote, “For me reason is the natural organ of truth; but imagination is the organ of meaning.” Using fantasy in literature does not make a story fictitious; it’s often a more forceful way to communicate truth” (p. 87).

Fiction writers strive to write what’s true. While that may seem an oxymoron to some, discerning readers understand that truth shines bright in the best fiction.

The second part of Lit! gives practical advice on book reading, all of which can be implemented easily. Although I still cringe at his advice to write in your books. I understand the logic and wisdom behind his argument, but I haven’t quite summoned the strength to jump over my defacement hurdle. Maybe if I work out a little longer on the elliptical.

If you’re looking for a quick but thought-provoking read about reading, pick up Reinke’s Lit! And see the light.

The above book review by Glenda Mathes is on:

Lit! © 2011 by Tony S. Reinke
Published by Crossway, Wheaton, Illinois
186 pages

Glorying in God’s Grace – book review

The Glory of Grace: The Story of the Canons of Dort

by William Boekestein; illustrated by Evan Hughes

© 2012 by William Boekestein,

Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids, MI, 30 pp.

 

 

 

Readers of the third volume in the Boekestein/Hughes trilogy of children’s books will find themselves glorying in God’s grace.

The collaborative efforts of William Boekestein and Evan Hughes culminate in this lucidly written and engagingly illustrated concluding volume of the pair’s series on the Three Forms of Unity.

As in the two previous books, The Quest for Comfort: The Story of the Heidelberg Catechism and Faithfulness Under Fire: The Story of Guido de Bres, Boekestein aptly conveys complex theological history in terms easily understood by children. Colorful illustrations by Hughes capture children’s attention and spread to page edges as an artistic background for block of easy-to-read large text.

Boekestein has masterfully simplified the Canons’ comprehensive history as well as the content of the Canons themselves, and included an epilogue summarizing the current status of the Canons and contemporary discussion related to them.

This thin hardcover, beautifully produced by Reformation Heritage Books, is the Boekestein/Hughes best effort yet and is highly recommended for family and church libraries, especially in order to complete this helpful set on the Three Forms of Unity.

Having personally wrestled with summarizing complex historical issues related to the Canons of Dort (see pp. 83-85 of Little One Lost: Living with Early Infant Loss, Reformed Fellowship, 2012) increases my admiration for Boekestein’s deft treatment and his emphasis on the glory of God’s grace.

The above book review by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 28 of the February 6, 2013, issue of Christian Renewal.

Simonetta Carr’s beautiful biographies

Simonetta Carr

Simonetta Carr writes beautiful “Christian Biographies for Young Readers” that are a visual and literary delight while teaching biblical truth. Her subjects in this series, published by Reformation Heritage Books, include John Calvin, Augustine, John Owen, Athanasius, and Lady Jane Grey (see review below). She has also written a semi-fictional biography, Weight of a Flame, the Passion of Olympia Morata, a book in P&R’s “Chosen Daughters” series.

When Glenda Mathes recently interviewed her for Christian Renewal, she discovered that Simonetta Carr is more than an author. She’s a teacher, translator, and busy mother. She and her husband, Tom, have seven sons and a daughter; four of their children still live at home. The family resides in Santee, a suburb in East County of San Diego, and attends Christ United Reformed Church. 

CR: Simonetta, I believe you are from Italy, is that correct? How did you happen to come to the United States?

SC: Yes, I am from Italy. I met my husband there (he is American). It took us many years to decide to come to live in the United States, because he preferred to live abroad. After many children, we realized that economically (at least at that time) living here was a better choice, because obviously my husband could find better opportunities to work.

CR: Do you have any connection to Rev. Ferrari or the church in Milan from the time you lived in Italy?

SC: I have been translating Christian books from English to Italian for many years, so I first contacted Rev. Ferrari about 7-8 years ago when I discovered that his publishing house, Alfa e Omega, specialized in Reformed books. I have since translated for them until recently, when Rev. Ferrari left his position as publisher to concentrate on his ministry as pastor and church planter. My schedule was already full anyhow, because — besides being a wife and mother — I translate for another company and spend a lot of my spare time doing research for the books I write.

CR: What led you to begin writing biographies of theologians for children?                                                                                                   

SC: I just saw a need for simple and factual books for younger children with an emphasis on the importance these men and women bear on Christian thought and the church in general. There are, of course, Christian biographies for children, but when I started to write I found that most of them were geared to older children and didn’t usually include much information on these people’s theological contributions. I wanted to show children, for example, that our historical creeds and confessions have been compiled with much careful thought, study, and prayer and have been confirmed throughout the centuries, and that Reformers like Luther didn’t wake up one morning with a theological revelation, but rested on the exegetical work of others before them and on historical councils.

CR: What other work or writing do you do?

SC: I translate Christian books from English to Italian, and I teach Italian part-time (in the evenings or on Saturdays). I write occasional articles for magazines (most recently, Modern Reformation, Leben, and The Outlook).

CR: How would you describe your usual schedule or a typical work day?      

SC: I wake up around six, when my husband gets up to go to work, then go to my “office” (a walk-in closet that has been turned into an office, with my clothes still hanging on one side) for some quiet time alone before the kids wake up. I normally read something short and pray, then check my emails. I have breakfast and family devotions with my kids around 7:30, then we clean the house together. Now that it’s summer the kids are busy with many activities, so every day is different. I translate for an Italian publisher, so I have a goal of translating a short chapter each day and checking the previous chapter (they are very short chapters, less than 2000 words each, and this work takes me about two hours). Since I am translating great Christian books (mostly commentaries), it’s also very nourishing for my soul.

The Carr family

Most of my day is still taken with cooking, cleaning, shopping, and kids — even if the ones at  home are teenagers now. As the years start weighing me down, I have gone back to the good Italian habit of an afternoon nap. That’s very refreshing and gives me some more time to read and pray before I fall asleep. On most evenings, I teach Italian outside the home — sometimes at the Italian Cultural Center in San Diego, and sometimes in private classes. I come back around nine.

So when do I write? Most people are surprised to know that I write in my spare time — in the few evenings when I don’t teach, on some Saturdays, just whenever I have time. And it’s okay, because it’s something I really like to do, so I don’t need to find motivation.

My sixth book in the “Christian Biographies for Young Readers” series, Anselm of Canterbury (scheduled to be published next year), has already been sent to a few experts to check for accuracy, so right now I am doing research for my seventh book, John Knox. After a busy and often challenging day, cuddling up with a book on the Reformation can be very inspiring.

Then a lot of the actual writing is done as I go. I hate to get stuck in front of a computer screen with nothing to say, so when that happens, I take that thought with me while I wash the dishes or drive to the store, and eventually the sentences start to take shape in my mind. Then I just run back to the computer to write them down.

CR: How did you get connected with the illustrator who does such lovely work?

SC: Matt Abraxas is the brother of my pastor [Rev. Michael Brown]! The first two books were done by other illustrators, but they couldn’t continue for different reasons.

Initially, I had a lot of problems finding a good illustrator for my books. My first illustrator decided not to continue after the first book (he was just helping me to get started). The (good) problem is that he set a very high standard with his work, so when he quit I had to embark on a mad search for a top quality artist who was willing to be seriously underpaid. I found a few people, but then something always went wrong — there were misunderstandings, or they changed their minds at the last minute…. I am not exaggerating when I say that my publisher almost gave me the boot. He was seriously wondering if I could ever work with an illustrator. I finally found someone for the second book but, almost immediately after we hired him, my pastor mentioned very casually that his brother was an artist. After I saw his work and exchanged a few emails with him I knew immediately that he was perfect for the job! He was the answer to my impossible quest — a true artist (not only talented, but insightful and serious about his job) and willing to work “for peanuts” (as I often told him).

CR: So you’re responsible for finding and hiring your own illustrator?

SC: In my case, yes. It all depends on the publisher. Large publishers hire their own illustrators, but smaller publishers cannot afford to invest money in illustrations. From the start, I wanted to make the “Christian Biographies for Young Readers” series comparable to the best biographies for children you find in the secular market, so I agreed that any expense for illustrations or photos can be taken out of my royalties. Recently, however, RHB has very graciously decided to put a cap on my expenses, and I am very thankful for that.

I had a vision for this and amazingly God allowed me to do it. I think it’s quite amazing that he gave Reformation Heritage Books a similar vision. They have also aimed at high quality and I know that they are investing much money in these books.

CR: From what publishers or outlets are your books available?                                 

SC: They are available from Reformation Heritage Books, P&R, and from many other venues online (including Amazon, Barnes and Noble, Christianbook.com, Grace and Truth, etc.)

CR: How would you describe your philosophy or perspective on your work?

SC: I aim at quality, accuracy, and simplicity. I do the same amount of research whether I write for children or others. I try to understand the historical context and theological issues, and then try to convey them with simple words so that children can understand them. I also send off each manuscript to at least two experts on the character I am covering.

CR: How do you maintain your perspective?                                                                      

SC: I keep reminding myself of my initial goal of providing children with accurate accounts of church history, including the history of theology, so they will have a better understanding of why we believe what we do.

BOOK REVIEW

Lady Jane Grey by Simonetta Carr, 2012, Reformation Heritage Books: Grand Rapids, MI, 64 pp.

“Raised to be Queen”

Simonetta Carr’s “Christian Biographies for Young Readers” are delightful volumes. Artistic illustrations and superior materials make them heirloom quality. These thoroughly researched biographies transcend factual information to show children the ways God used this person in theological history.

Lady Jane Grey is the newest addition to the “Christian Biographies for Young Readers” series. Lavish illustrations, many by Matt Abraxas, and interesting narrative engage and hold the reader’s interest. Simonetta Carr’s writing skill is obvious from the opening paragraph: “Lady Jane Grey lived almost seventeen years and ruled England for less than two weeks. Still, she has been remembered for generations for her courage in defending the gospel until the end.”

That writing skill become increasingly evident as Simonetta describes a complex period of English history in a clear and smooth narrative. She is careful to add explanations about events or situations that are far removed from modern readers. She accurately and sensitively handles the execution of Lady Jane Grey at a young age.

Chapters highlight Jane’s childhood as a girl “Raised to Be Queen,” through the political and religious intrigue during “Times of Trouble,” to her reluctant acceptance of “A Heavy Crown,” and her time as a “Prisoner” who was “Ready to Die” for the sake of Christ’s true gospel.

The back matter of the book includes a helpful time line of Lady Jane’s life, an interesting “Did You Know?” section that gives fascinating glimpses of life in 16th century England, and the text of her last letter to her sister.

I highly recommended this book with its lovely illustrations and lucid language for home and church libraries. Adults as well as children will appreciate this valuable biography of the girl was raised to be Queen: Lady Jane Grey.

The above interview and book review appeared on pages 29-31 of the August 22, 2012, issue of Christian Renewal.

The Thirty-Nine Steps by John Buchan

Confident and capable heroes sprint through John Buchan’s action-packed novels.  If you’ve never read any of Buchan’s work, this first of his novels about Richard Hannay is a great starting gate.

In the introduction to The Thirty-Nine Steps, Robin W. Winks writes that the book is “often said to have established the basic formula for the spy (or conspiracy) thriller” and that it shows “the formula at its most pure.” 

Take an attractive man, not too young–Hannay is thirty-seven in Steps, two years younger than Buchan when he began to write the book–and not too old, since he must have the knowledge of maturity and substantial experience on which he will draw while being able to respond to the physical rigors of chase and pursuit. Let the hero, who appears at first to be relatively ordinary, and who thinks of himself as commonplace, be drawn against his best judgment into a mystery he only vaguely comprehends, so that he and the reader may share the growing tension together. Set him a task to perform: to get the secret plans, let us say, from point A to point B, or to bring the news from Ghent to Aix. Place obstacles in his path–the enemy, best left as ill-defined as possible, so that our hero cannot be certain who he might trust. See to it that he cannot turn to established authority for help, indeed that the police, the military, the establishment will be actively working against him.

Then set a clock ticking: the hero must bet from point A to point B in a sharply defined time, a time-frame known to both pursuer and pursued.

John Buchan’s novels reflect only a small facet of his prolific writing career, which spanned a wide range of fiction, nonfiction, and biography. He maintained his writing career simultaneously with an illustrious diplomatic and governmental career that included serving from 1935-1940 as Canada’s Governor General, after being elevated to the peerage as 1st Baron the Lord Tweedsmuir. You can read more about John Buchan/Lord Tweedsmuir here. And you can order The Thirty-Nine Steps here.

I recently read The Thirty-Nine Steps for the second time and was struck with Buchan’s literary skill as well as his ability to craft heart-stopping action scenes.

Since one of my favorite characters in his Hannay novels is Sandy Arbuthnot, I was surprised to find a character named Freddy Arbuthnot when I subsequently picked up for the second reading Thrones, Dominations a novel begun by Dorothy L. Sayers and finished by Jill Paton Walsh.

Are the names of those two characters sheer coincidence? I’d like to know if Sayers or Walsh chose that character’s name and if he’s related to Buchan’s suave spy.

Whose Words whisper in the Wind?

Book review: Words in the Wind by Yvonne Anderson, Gateway to Gannah #2
Risen Books, paperback; 296 pages; © 2012
Reviewed by Glenda Mathes

Most people who’ve read Christian speculative fiction view it as poorly written, often romance masquerading as sci-fi with an awkward conversion scene thrown in. Obviously, they haven’t read Yvonne Anderson’s “Gateway to Gannah” series. Even readers who don’t particularly care for sci-fi or speculative fiction will enjoy these well-written and inventive stories about life (and death!) on the planet Gannah.

Having just finished reading Words in the Wind, the recently released second in the series, I am impressed again with Yvonne’s creativity and storytelling skills. The narrative immediately pulls the reader in and through the exciting adventures of realistic and interesting characters.

Yvonne accurately displays Dassa’s mental deterioration during her prolonged struggle for survival in a mysterious gully on the far side on the planet. She also admirably depicts Pik’s mental quandaries as he attempts to lead Gannah in Dassa’s absence. Meanwhile their children try in charactertic ways to cope with traumatic telepathic separation from their mother.

While the plot propels the reader forward as quickly as a Gannahan toppeller, frequent literary gems and credible Christian allusions cause the reader to pause in admiration. Yvonne not only tells a captivating story, but she also incorporates Christian truths in a believable, and even delightful, way. This is Christian fiction at its best.

Last year I purchased copies of The Story in the Stars for all our adult children, and topping this year’s Christmas gift list will be Words in the Wind.

Yvonne blogs over at Y’s Words. Words in the Wind is available at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Risen Books, and other online outlets.

Two brothers, just like us

The following book review by Glenda Mathes appeared on page 40 of the April 11, 2012, issue of Christian Renewal.

The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith
Timothy Keller; Dutton: New York, NY, 139 pp.

Every Christian should read this book.

Beginning a book review like that may be bad form, but every Christian—backslidden or backboned, infant or mature, lawless or legalistic—really should read Timothy Keller’s The Prodigal God. The subtitle, Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, describes its purpose and explains why everyone should read it.

When someone recommended The Prodigal God by Timothy Keller, I made a mental note to read it. When a minister mentioned it in a sermon, I decided to look for it. When someone let me borrow their copy, I put it on my stack of books to read. When another pastor highly recommended it to me a little later, I moved it to the top of that stack. When I finally picked it up and read it, I understood why the Holy Spirit had been so insistent.

The parable of the Prodigal Son had always been a bit problematic for me. I easily identified with the older son, who seemed to have a legitimate gripe. And I’d never felt as if I really understood the point of the parable. Sure, we’re supposed to forgive the wayward sinner who repents. But what about that older son? Of course, he should have shown more love toward his brother, but didn’t he make some valid points?

The Prodigal God was Convicting with a capital C.

Keller explains his title by correcting the common misperception that prodigal means wayward. He provides an accurate two-fold definition of prodigal as “recklessly extravagant” and “having spent everything” (p. 2).

Pointing out that even Jesus didn’t call the parable we know as “The Prodigal Son” by that name, which focuses on only one son, Keller believes the parable is better called “The Two Lost Sons.”

Keller writes that the two brothers represent different ways “to be alienated from God” and “to seek acceptance into the kingdom of heaven” (p. 7). Feeling like alienation and acceptance aren’t your problems? Convinced you understand the gospel? Keller believes “one of the signs that you may not grasp the unique, radical nature of the gospel is that you are certain that you do” (p. xi).

“The targets of this story are not ‘wayward sinners’ but religious people who do everything the Bible requires,” Keller writes. “Jesus is pleading not so much with immoral outsiders as with moral insiders. He wants to show them their blindness, narrowness, and self-righteousness, and how these things are destroying both their own souls and the lives of the people around them” (p. 10).

Comparing the parable to a play in two acts, Keller describes how Act 1 shows the freeness of God’s grace, while Act 2 shows “the costliness of that grace and the true climax of the story” (p. 25).

Jesus uses the two brothers to demonstrate the two basic ways people try to find happiness and fulfillment: moral conformity and self-discovery (p. 29). Keller notes that the modern world seems divided into these two opposing perspectives, although some moralistic people practice both attitudes by separating public and secret aspects of their lives, and many modern liberals regard conservatives with self-righteousness to equal the worst Pharisee. Keller shows how Christ advocates a radical alternative.

“The gospel is distinct from the other two approaches: In its view, everyone is wrong, everyone is loved, and everyone is called to recognize this and change” (p. 45). Everyone really needs to read this book and truthfully examine his or her own heart.

While Keller never hesitates to confront each of us with the sickness of our hearts, he also writes the prescription: We need “the initiating love of the father, [a deep] gospel repentance… [and] the festival joy of salvation” (p. 79).

Even if you’re not a younger brother or an elder brother, you’ve got tendencies toward one or the other. We can never hope to do anything that will secure the Father’s love, but believers have an older brother who’s done it all.

“We will never stop being younger brothers or elder brothers until we acknowledge our need, rest by faith, and gaze in wonder at the work of our true elder brother, Jesus Christ” (p. 89), writes Keller. “We can only change permanently as we take the gospel more deeply into our understanding and into our hearts” (p. 115).

Don’t put off reading this book as long as I did. But don’t just read it; take it to heart.