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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Reading Recommendations

sunsetAfter a recent speaking engagement, I was asked for some book recommendations. Having expended a great deal of mental energy into the talks I’d just given, I felt a little brain dead and came up with only a few favorites. I did recall and mention, however, this earlier post that includes a variety of nonfiction related to literature as well as some fiction (both CBA and literary). That earlier post also talks about starting a book club.

Because I wrote that post several years ago, it’s definitely time for an update.  I also need to clarify something I said in front of the group. I spoke about finding one of Lynn Austin‘s books particularly meaningful when it described the struggle of Dutch settlers, and I’m pretty sure I gave an incorrect title. The book I was referring to is Waves of Mercy. But if you picked up Wings of Refuge, you’re also enjoy reading about how a woman’s archaeological adventure leads to a new understanding of the Middle East and her marriage. Lynn is a humble, godly woman who reminds me of Elisabeth Elliot.

Another favorite author in the Christian fiction genre is Ann Tatlock. In Every Secret Thing, a teacher learns how to cope with the present when she learns how to deal with the past. I’ll Watch the Moon is about a girl’s growing maturity while her brother is hospitalized with polio.

Jeanette Windle grew up as a missionary kid and spent many adult years in missionary contexts in foreign countries. This real life experience lends verisimilitude to her suspenseful books, and her painstaking research results in such remarkably accurate descriptions that she has been questioned by drug enforcement agencies about how she knew so much about their work.

I haven’t read any of the Amish novels written by Dale Cramer, but I enjoy the blue-collar male protagonists in some of his other books. One of my favorites is his Bad Ground, which is a coming of age novel with a young man who learns about work and relationships. His Summer of Light is a delightful novel about an unemployed husband and father who discovers a lot about himself and his family.

When it comes to literary fiction, the first name that comes to mind is Larry Woiwode. I had the privilege of participating in a week-long fiction workshop under his direction a few years ago (you can find my posts about that here, here, here, here, and here). Larry’s published works include novels, a memoir, and helpful books on writing.

Another literary author is Wendell Berry, creator of novels set in the fictitious town of Port William, Kentucky. His Hannah Coulter is a realistic portrayal of a woman’s long and difficult life.

Bret Lott has written many literary novels as well as an excellent book on writing, Letters and Life: On Being a Writer, On Being a Christian.

Charles Martin is a fresh voice who skillfully constructs his plots in a way that keeps the reader guessing. I love When Crickets Cry, and I’m pretty excited to see the movie based on his The Mountain Between Us. 

Gilead by Marilynne Robinson is one of my favorite novels. I love its imagery and mystery. I’m not a huge fan of her other fiction, but this one shines with luminous writing.

Island of the World by Michael O’Brien is a beautiful and tragic book about great loss with healing through faith. This is a difficult book to read, but one that shows redemption through Christ.

To Kill a Mickingbird by Harper Lee may be my favorite American novel. I also enjoy several Victorian authors, especially Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, and Anthony Trollope.

I hope you find these reading recommendations helpful. Feel free to leave a comment. If you’re interested in my work, hop over to my new author page on Facebook and comment there.

November

winterIt’s November, the between month. Between leaves tumbling in sun-warmed colors and snowflakes feathering from a slate sky. Between roaring combines churning dust clouds and dazzling white blanketing latent fields. November. Cold, gray.

I was born in a dreary November more than 80 years ago. In the same old farmhouse that cradles my weary bones and bleary memories. I am cold and gray. I am November.

Shrieks pierce my mind. My heart thumps in my throat as the ambulance careens around the corner and lurches into our pasture.

My eyes flutter open and focus on the book in my lap. The sound is only the phone. And like the old fool I am, I’ve left it in the kitchen again.

I grasp the sides of my walker and hoist myself out of the recliner. It will probably stop ringing by the time I get there. “Don’t you dare do that to this old lady.”

My slippers shuffle across the linoleum to the table, where I’d left the cordless phone after Charlie called during breakfast. I pick it up and press talk. “Hello?”

“Maggie, that you?”

“You were expecting Marilyn Monroe?”

Elizabeth chortles, and I wait for her snort, but she cuts it short. “You okay?”

“Of course, I’m okay. I’m standing here talking to you, aren’t I?”

“You weren’t in church yesterday, so I just wondered.”

“You and half the county.”

“Don’t flatter yourself, honey.” She chuckles.

I ease into a chair. “Well, maybe only Charlie.”

“Checking up on the old lady?”

“Just like you.”

“You mean I’m an old lady too, or I’m checking up on you like Charlie?”

“Both.” I grin, even though she can’t see it. “When are you coming over for Scrabble?”

“You up to it this afternoon?”

“Sure, I’m always ready to trounce you.”

“Ha!” She laughs like a crowing rooster. “Look up last time’s score.”

“Can’t. I threw that paper away.”

Now her laugh ends in the familiar little snort. “See you at two.”

“Wear your asbestos pants.”

She doesn’t reply because she’s already hung up.

I guide my walker to the desk and replace the phone in its charger. No sense letting the battery go down before something happens and I really need it.

The ambulance vision flashes in my mind, and I take a deep breath, dancing around the other images vying to be seen. I stretch out both hands in front of me and focus on the gnarled knuckles. The indented finger around my wedding band.

When William slipped on the ring, he looked into my eyes and the corners of his lips rose in that slow smile. If not for his smile, I wouldn’t be here today. In the decrepit old house where I spent most of my life, except for those college years in Iowa City. My brother, Charles, worked beside Dad every day and was obviously cut out to be a farmer, but that wasn’t the life for me. I was going to be a teacher, move out east or maybe to the west coast. Anywhere far from hogs and corn.

Then during Christmas break of my junior year, William Briggs from down the road came calling. And his slow smile stole my heart. His brother wanted to take over their family farm, which was fine by him because he planned to become a doctor. I easily envisioned myself as a doctor’s wife. I could teach while he was in medical school.

But by the time I walked across the stage to receive my diploma and teaching certificate, things had changed. Charles had been killed in action in Korea. Dad came in from scooping a heavy spring snow out of a feed lot, laid down to rest, and never woke.

Neighbors rallied to put in the crops and do the chores, but my mother didn’t have a head for business and needed someone with brains—someone like William. We moved up our wedding, and then we moved in with Mom.

I shake my head in a vain effort to dispel those memories. Adjusting to married life and the first year of teaching had been difficult enough, but complicating things by living with my mother while William learned to farm the place had been insane.

I take a deep breath. What I needed was some exercise. On the enclosed porch, I slip on my hooded sweatshirt and zip it up. I wrestle the walker through the door, and the cold air startles my lungs.

The walker slides along the smooth path into the pasture. A wisp of morning mist rises from the pond in the hollow like an unsettled spirit. I bow my head. The moment stretches into minutes. Then I turn away.

I stand and survey the land, feeling like a tiny figure frozen in a Grant Woods landscape. Acres of corn stubble spread like dunes of raked sand. Bean fields that lay covered with gold and russet velour blankets only a few weeks ago, now rest like shaved gray heads.

Clouds scud above, and a gust of wind invades my jacket. Time to turn around.

As I near the house, the LP truck rumbles down the road and pulls into my driveway. A man hops out, gives an energetic wave, and dashes around the back of his truck. By the time I’m within talking distance, he’s already fastened the hose onto the nozzle and another five hundred dollars flows into the tank.

The driver is Harold and Lucile Stanhope’s boy. He grins. “Should you be walking clear out there by yourself, Mrs. Briggs?”

“You offering to come walk with me every day?” Why can’t I remember this guy’s name? He was in Margaret’s class.

He laughs. “I wish.” He makes a note on his clipboard so the Co-op doesn’t neglect to send me the bill. “Nothing I’d like better than to walk with you on a fine day like this.”

I raise my eyebrows. “What’s so fine about it?”

“It’s not raining, and it’s not snowing. Yet.” He checks the tank’s gauge. “The roads are clear and dry.” He looks at me and grins again. “Yep. It’s a fine day.”

His name still eludes me, but I remember he has a daughter getting married soon.

“How are the wedding plans going?”

“Oh, the planning’s done. Jennifer got married in October.” He patted the pulsing hose. “Now I just have to work my tail off to pay for the blessed event.”

My legs and arms are turning to jelly, so I head for the back door. “Well, best wishes to the happy couple.”

“Thanks.” He waves.

“See you later.” I maneuver through the door, and he has the good sense not to offer to help me. Why can’t I remember his name?

My hood hung up, I push into the kitchen. What’s for lunch? The daily question. The refrigerator contains some wilted lettuce in a baggie, a few cheese sticks, and Rubbermaid containers I don’t want to open for fear of what might be growing in them.

Soup’s always good. I open a can of chunky chicken and dump it into a pan.

The phone blares, and my heart leaps. But it’s probably only Margaret.

“Hello?”

“Hi, Mom.” It is Margaret. “How’re you doing today?”

“Fine. You?”

“Fine, too.”

My daughter and I have scintillating conversations.

I decide to ratchet it up. “What’s on your agenda for the afternoon?”

“Paperwork. Then leading bingo in the activity room at 3:00. Want to come into town for it?”

“No, thanks. Elizabeth is coming over for Scrabble this afternoon.”

“Oh, good deal. Keeps the Alzheimer’s at bay.”

“We can only hope.”

She laughs. “Mom, I work with elderly people all day, every day, and you’re the sharpest pencil in the box.”

“Well, that’s a relief. Glad I’m sharp enough to write, since I can’t dance anymore.”

“Who are you kidding? You never could dance.”

I chuckle. “You got that right.”

“Have you had lunch yet?”

She’d moved into hovering daughter mode. And her question reminds me of the soup on the stove. “I’m heating some soup, which looks like it’s boiling. I’d better take care of it.”

“Don’t forget to turn the burner off.”

Definitely hovering. “I won’t.”

As soon as I hang up, I shut off the burner and put the pan on a cold one. I check again to make sure the knob is turned to off. One time the oven was on all night. I shudder to think what that did to the REC bill.

I eat from the pan to save dishes and dump the extra in a container, which joins the others in the fridge. I slide my walker into the living room and sink into the recliner. As I reach for the open book lying on the table, my fingers brush Emily’s picture.

The book feels heavy as I pick it up, but I hang onto it like a lifeline. I smooth the page and stare at the words, which blur. My mind wanders shadowy paths.

A baby’s face smiles at me, drool dripping from her lips. She giggles and grows into a leggy teen, bouncing on Blackie’s back as he bursts from the barn and pelts toward the pasture. I run outside, yelling for him to stop. But Emily tugs the reins and spins him around, laughing. “It’s okay, Mom. I have everything under control.”

Only she didn’t. She couldn’t control the demons in her mind. The demons that drove her to tie a gunny sack full of heavy rocks to her waist and wade into the pond. She tied knots well, and her body stayed submerged until Charlie glimpsed her red shirt shimmering beneath the surface. By the time William and Charlie dragged her out, it was already too late. William cleared her airway and performed CPR during all the years before the ambulance screamed down the road. He kept at it, until the EMT pulled him away and told us she was gone.

So many gone before me! Charles, Dad, and Mom. My precious Emily. Two little grandbabies who never saw the light of day. And William. That dear man with his slow smile and his warm heart.

He would have been a wonderful doctor. He loved people. But he loved the land too, and he was a great farmer. He taught me to see beauty not only in breathtaking sunsets, but also in the deep sheen of corn leaves. The myriad hues of green in the trees and grasses covering the rolling hills.

And I taught. Other people’s children off and on, but mostly my own. Teaching Emily to sound out words as she cuddled on my lap. Teaching Charlie to count apples and subtract the ones we peeled. Teaching Margaret to form letters on the blank backs of desk calendar sheets. Good times. Special moments with my children who had grown up so fast. Now their children were adults, some married with kids of their own.

“Yoo-hoo! Anybody home?”

Elizabeth waltzes through the kitchen and into the living room as if she owns the place. “Oh, sorry. Did I wake you?”

“No.” I blink. “Well, maybe I dozed off for a minute. What time is it?”

“It’s 2:00 on the nose, honey.” She gets the Scrabble game out of the hall closet and brings it to the kitchen table. “I said I’d be here at two, and I am.”

My body seems heavy as I struggle to stand. “Sorry I’m not ready. I haven’t even made coffee.”

“I’m not drinking coffee lately anyway.” She opens the board. “It bothers my gallbladder.”

I ease myself onto a chair. “You ought to have that thing yanked.”

She wrinkles her nose. “Easy for you to say. I don’t want to have surgery if I can avoid it.” She shakes the bag of tiles and holds it out to me. “Go ahead and take one. Let’s see who starts.”

I examine my tile and smile. An A.

She glances at hers. “Aha! I got a C.”

I show her my tile. “Looks like I make the first move.”

“Oh, shoot.”

As I place my seven tiles on the rack, I keep smiling. This game is off to a great start.

Elizabeth loses gracefully as always and puts away the game. She goes to her car and brings back a small casserole in a disposable pan that she puts in the oven on timed bake.

She pauses on her way out. “Now, remember. Supper will be ready at 6:00.”

“I know.” You’d think I hadn’t just beaten her pants off.

Her car shoots down the road, leaving a comet trail of gravel dust. The sun has dropped behind the barn and casts long shadows.

I slip on my sweatshirt and head outside. The morning’s gray sky has broken into white clouds that sail across intense blue. The humidity must be low for once.

I pause by the pond. No mist rises now, and I allow the images to wash over me.

Emily’s pale face surrounded by her darkened hair, streaming dank water onto my shirt and pants as I cradle her head in my lap. William bending over her face, pressing his mouth to hers. Charlie pressing her chest with his crossed hands. Water bubbles between her parted lips like suffocating baby drool. I will her to gasp. I beg God to make her breathe again. But she doesn’t.

I lean on my walker and look at the hills. That’s where my help comes from.

Bent and broken corn stalks gleam in the light of the low sun. Tall grass stems glow like bronze reeds. It’s a fine day for a walk on the farm. Especially for November.

Time for this old lady to go home.

The above short story by Glenda Mathes appeared on pages 6-9 of the December 14, 2017, issue of Christian Renewal.

The Delight and Truth of Fiction

flaming-mapleWilliam Boekestein, pastor of Immanuel Fellowship Church in Kalamazoo, MI, was recently appointed as the social media coordinator for Reformed Fellowship, publisher of the The Outlook. In his continuing task to help Reformed Fellowship build an online presence and engage meaningful internet discussion, he posted yesterday (October 20, 2016) a link to my article on Fiction’s Delight and Truth.

I wrote the article over a year ago, and it appeared in 2015’s November issue. At the risk of sounding like a presidential candidate, I felt then and I still feel it is one of the best things I’ve ever written. In my defense, I submit what Leland Ryken (longtime professor of English at Wheaton College) wrote after I shared it with him:

Your essay is what I call a moon shot in my classes. It is absolutely perfect as a complete coverage of the material in a small compass. Congratulations on work well done. You did it better than I could have.

Considering Leland’s prolific writings on the subject and his astounding output as an author, I take this as the highest compliment. And I give all praise and glory to God, the I AM who writes all our stories as part of His great and never-ending story.

 

 

Living Echoes – it is finished

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This photo I took some years ago reminds me of a scene in my novel, Living Echoes.

Almost six years since the initial idea glimmered in my mind, Living Echoes is finally a completed novel.

For about half that time, I didn’t know how it would end. Every word of the last phrase was clear, except the proper noun subject. It was only as I wrote that the ending crystallized.

Then it took me about another couple of years to write to that point. During recent months, I’ve been fine-tuning the manuscript and running it through my online critique group. Certain spots that needed work and ways to fix them have been occurring to me. But this morning, I feel as if the novel is finished. Although it may need a little tweaking or polishing here and there, I have confidence that the work as a whole is complete. Other authors may understand this feeling.

Living Echoes features a complex plot and construction. The first section, Echoes, contains chapters consisting of short “Now” scenes followed by longer “Then” scenes. The second section, Living, goes forward in current time from the previous chapter.

The book begins with the protagonist, Jillian Norris Gardner, sustaining severe injuries in an accident. As scenes unfold, readers discover her multi-faceted crisis on physical, marital, and spiritual levels. And everything is complicated by her brain injury.

One reason this novel took so long to write is due to the extensive research required for its realistic portrayal of brain injury. I didn’t want readers who have experienced it themselves or in a loved one to feel cheated. Those experiences vary widely. And while Jillian’s story may differ from a reader’s, it rings true. At the same time, experiences of infidelity occur on a wide-ranging spectrum. I didn’t want readers to feel as if I sugar-coated the problem or applied a band-aid. Although Jillian’s resolution may not or should not reflect that of readers, it too is true. This novel is a unique and fictional story, but I believe many readers will feel it reflects aspects of their own.

Just as the novel itself consists of two parts, its fruition includes two major aspects: writing and publishing. With the hard work of writing the manuscript behind me, I’m ready to tackle the tough job of shopping it to publishers.

Fiction’s Delight and Truth

2015-06-nov-dec-outlook-coverAn article I wrote about why Christians should read fiction appears in the November issue of The Outlook. You can page through this online preview to read that article as well as a lovely review of my Matthew books.

Matthew is moving ahead!

MMAFew things thrill a writer more than holding a hard copy of a finally-published book. It’s a rush to see your name on the cover, but it’s also such fun to see how the colors and artwork look in real life. With all three of my Matthew in the Middle books, I’ve been pleased that the actual books look even better than the PDF cover files. Ken Raney, over at Clash Creative, did the artwork for all three novels in this series and he did a fabulous job.

What a pleasure to receive this afternoon my first hard cover copies of Matthew Moves Ahead, the third and final book of the Matthew in the Middle series! All three novels are now available on Amazon: Matthew Muddles ThroughMatthew Makes Strides, and Matthew Moves Ahead. Check them out!

If you enjoy them, please leave a review. Any reader can review a book, and it’s easy to do. It takes only a few minutes, but it means a great deal to the author because reviews drive ratings and sales. And being able to pay for groceries thrills a writer almost as much as holding a hard copy of a published book.

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.

Grace Awards 2014 Winners ~ in Faith Based Fiction

Congratulations to my friend, Susan Lawrence, for her well-deserved win with The Atonement for Emily Adams in the Women’s Fiction/General Fiction category of the 2014 Grace Awards.

You can read the announcement here: Grace Awards 2014 Winners ~ in Faith Based Fiction.

Here’s my interview with Susan in May of 2014.

Susan is an extraordinary storyteller and a humble, godly Christian woman. Her writing shines with authentic characters responding to trauma in realistic ways.

If you still need more reason to buy Atonement for Emily Adams, you should know that proceeds and royalties go to Pour International, to help build a home for abandoned children and babies in Swaziland.

Dedicating Matthew, Take Two

Logan-MMS-2The second novel about my “book boy” Matthew is dedicated to my second grandson, Logan. During this past week, I had the opportunity to present a copy of the book to him.

Putting a copy in his hands was almost as much fun as writing this stimulating story. Others who’ve read the book find it exciting as well. This is what Douglas Bond, who’s written Duncan’s War and other works of historical fiction, says:

Glenda Faye Mathes writes with energy and intentionality. When she writes about a coming tornado, it feels so real, I start glancing nervously out the window. Young people will feel like the author knows them, is inside their heads, so intimate is her knowledge of her readers. This is a frank and honest portrayal of a preacher’s kid, but one that speaks to the extraordinary challenges and joys of ordinary growing up. Highly recommended.

This is a huge compliment, coming from the author of engaging nonfiction and many intensely thrilling novels.

Another excellent writer provided a second meaningful endorsement. Simonetta Carr, author of Christian Biographies for Young Readers, writes:

Well written and captivating, this book—as the previous one in the series—takes us through the everyday life of Matthew Vos, an inquiring and thoughtful fifth grader who faces many typical challenges of a middle child and “Preacher’s Kid.” There are surprises along the way, and important lessons as Matthew strives to overcome his fears and to be more like the heroes he admires. I was impressed by the author’s ability to describe in a very plausible and heartfelt manner the inner thoughts of a young child. Although the book is set in a specific situation (a Dutch Reformed community in 1996 America), many children in different circumstances will easily identify with Matthew’s feelings and struggles.

Simonetta’s books are beautiful with rich illustrations. They include the San Diego Book Awards finalists, John Owen and Lady Jane Grey, and winner of the award, Anselm of Canterbury.

Receiving these wonderful endorsements from excellent writers thrilled me, but I also hoped the book’s portrayals of military aspects and heroism were realistic and compelling.

Paul T. Berghaus is a West Point graduate and U.S. Army Chaplain, who has been deployed in combat situations and currently serves as Ethics Instructor and Infantry Chapel Pastor at Ft. Benning, GA. He writes:

Matthew Makes Strides quickly captured my attention and provoked thoughts and emotions that are sympathetic with those of several characters in the story. Glenda Faye Mathes does an excellent job portraying the trauma, excitement, and relief of events where great danger and courage are present. Her chapters are rich in narration, imagery, momentum, and emotion. They also contain a good amount of humor to guard against overly heavy intensity. I am thankful that she is writing Matt’s story and sharing it with readers of all ages, and I applaud her for taking up topics of fear, loss, courage, and authentic masculinity.

In his communication with me, Chaplain Berghaus confirmed that my portrayals in the story exactly captured the characteristics and emotions of military veterans and memorial services. He even noted how the military veteran helping Matthew cope with being a hero brought healing to the veteran himself. This subtle theme may escape most young readers, but I was delighted when an experienced military man recognized it.

Logan-MMSI’m so thankful these people enjoyed and appreciated this second novel in Matthew’s story, and I hope my all grandsons and you will too!

You can find Matthew Makes Strides, as well as Matthew Muddles Through, the first book of the Matthew in the Middle series, on Amazon.