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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Pulitzer Prize Good News

The 2017 Nobel Prize in Literature was awarded last Thursday to Kazuo Ishiguro, which is good news. Ishiguro writes literary novels that defy genre boundaries and garner popular appeal.

Here’s the New York Times online story about the award. And here’s a Times 2015 interview with Ishiguro that explores his reading opinions and related reflections. A former editor, Robert McCrum, muses about his friendship with Ishiguro in this piece. And James Wood, of the New Yorker, gives his take here.

If you want to dip into the award-winning literature of Kazuo Ishiguro, be prepared for the unexpected. You may want to start with The Remains of the Day, his portrayal of a dignified butler on an introspective journey at the fading of his days.

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.

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.

 

 

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.

Thief of Glory by Sigmund Brouwer

Image from sigmundbrouwer.com

Does the concept of popular literature seem like an oxymoron? Can a book sell well in today’s pop culture, while still displaying a high degree of literary quality?

The answer is a resounding: Yes! This week I read a newly released book by prolific author Sigmund Brouwer that evidences excellent literary quality and is sure to skyrocket off the sales charts.

Thief of Glory engages the reader from its gripping beginning to its satisfying end, barely allowing anything beyond shallow breathing during the riveting middle. The narrative is written from the perspective of an elderly man forced to record his childhood memories of WW II years spent in a Japanese concentration camp in the Dutch East Indies. He begins with a paragraph that sings:

A banyan tree begins when its seeds germinate in the crevices of a host tree. It sends to the ground tendrils that become prop roots with enough room for children to crawl beneath, prop roots that grow into thick, woody trunks and make it look like the tree is standing above the ground. The roots, given time, look no different than the tree it has begun to strangle. Eventually, when the original support tree dies and rots, the banyan develops a hollow central core (Thief of Glory, p. 1).

That’s lovely writing, but the reader finishing the story realizes how masterfully Brouwer crafted those opening lines.

I’ve written a book review that I hope will appear in an upcoming issue of Christian Renewaland which I intend to post here after publication. But I wanted to mention this novel now and encourage all writers to read it. After I read an extremely well-written book, I often shut it and think, “I may as well give up writing altogether.”

I felt a bit of this when I finished Thief of Glory, but primarily it encouraged me that Christians can write stellar books for popular consumption. Books that shine with literary quality while subtlety conveying faith and truth.

Sigmund Brouwer excels at writing for the popular market. For more information about him, check out his about page on his website or look up his Amazon author page.

Writing & Living – a book review

Letters & Life: on being a writer, on being a Christian by Bret Lott
Crossway; hard cover; 192 pages; © 2013
Book review by Glenda Mathes

You have to admire a writer who admits to having received over 600 rejections. And who repeatedly confesses that he knows nothing about writing.

Bret Lott’s work always strikes me as humble and honest. In Letters & Life, those characteristics emanate from his faith and fuse reflections on writing and living  into one cohesive book.

In the first five essays, Lott explores literary fiction, the public square, precision, the workshop model, and the humility of Flannery O’Conner. The second half of the book is an extended reflection on the death of his father, “At Some Point in the Future, What Has Not Happened Will Be in the Past.” In both parts of the book, Lott looks at his subject with the keen eye of faith as well as the observant eye of the writer.

One of my favorite quotes comes from his first essay, in which Lott offers what may be the best published definition of that most-difficult-to-label genre, literary fiction. This is what he tells students:

“I tell them that literary fiction is fiction that examines the character of the people involved in the story, and that popular fiction is driven by plot. Whereas popular fiction, I tell them, is meant primarily as a means of escape, one way or another, from this present life, a kind of book equivalent of comfort food, literary fiction confronts us with who we are and makes us look deeply at the human condition” (p. 14).

By humbly and honestly sharing his faith-based explorations, Lott leads readers and writers to more authentic living and writing.

Pragmatism, inspiration, and redemption

The mysterious staircase at Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe
The mysterious staircase at Loretto Chapel in Santa Fe

During the fiction workshop at Glen West, the first and most frequent question instructor Larry Woiwode asked was: “Does it work?”

That’s the primary consideration. Either a piece of writing works or it doesn’t. This may seem a rather pragmatic view, but it’s crucial to establish a work’s viability before going on to other important questions, like: “Can you trust this person to tell you the truth?”

Being able to trust the author is a key component of what makes a piece work. Those were questions asked about every submission we discussed.

During our discussions, we talked about some elements that apply specifically to Christians who write (note I didn’t say “Christian writers” or “writers of Christian fiction,” which should be explored in another blog post). Two elements Woiwode stressed that relate to believing authors were inspiration and redemption.

Each workshop began with Woiwode reading a Scripture text or spiritual writing excerpt. His comments brought each reading alive for the believing writer’s life.

One morning, he read from Psalm 51, noting especially verse 6 (text below from the ESV):

Behold, you delight in truth in the inward being,
    and you teach me wisdom in the secret heart.

He spoke about wisdom in the secret heart as coming only from God, who delights in truth in the inward being. He said, “This is the closest thing we can get to inspiration.”

Another time Woiwode read from Psalm 37, including verse 3 (here in the ESV):

Trust in the Lord, and do good;
    dwell in the land and befriend faithfulness.

“How do you ‘befriend faithfulness?'” he asked. Pointing out that Christ himself is faithfulness, he said, “You need to be immersed in the Word to become closer to Jesus.”

The closer we become to Christ, the more we find ourselves delighting in him: He noted verse 4:

Delight yourself in the Lord,
    and he will give you the desires of your heart (Ps. 37:4, ESV).

Woiwode warned writers, “The secret area of your heart will come out.” But when we delight in the Lord, the desires of our heart change. They become less self-centered and more Christ-centered.

He also read verse 23:

The steps of a man are established by the Lord,
    when he delights in his way (ESV).

He pointed out how the psalmist’s “steps are established when he delights in the Lord” and encouraged us to walk in his way.

That idea of established steps ties in with what he read in verses 30-31:

The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,
    and his tongue speaks justice.
The law of his God is in his heart;
    his steps do not slip (ESV).

“The mouth of the righteous utters wisdom,” he reiterated. “The more you receive him, the closer you move to his righteousness, the better you can speak justice.”

Interior of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe
Interior of the Cathedral Basilica of St. Francis of Assisi in Santa Fe

Woiwode later expanded on this concept: “As a person thinks, so that person is. The more Christ is in you, the more you’ll be disabled from doing anything but the truth.” He added, “Shine the light on evil. What is of the truth is built on rock.”

In an earlier class, Woiwode had spoken of “shining the light on evil” as “writing redemptively.”

In my mind, you can’t picture redemption unless you first depict the necessity for it. Writing “safe” fiction that avoids any distressing subject isn’t realistic. Evil exists. It should be shown and named for what it is. I’m not advocating graphic or nauseating descriptions. But I do believe evil cannot be ignored. Only when evil is exposed can writers express the power of Christ’s redemption.

Our writing then becomes realistic as well as redemptive. Our inspiration will come from Christ and will reflect his redemption. Fiction will stand on truth. The writing will work.

Telling the story eclipses intention and audience

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Compressing everything I learned during my intensive Glen West workshop into brief blog posts seems impossible. But I can give you a taste through small samples.

Last Friday, I focused on the first day and wrote about beginning to write by writing. Two of the many literary terms we discussed on subsequent workshop days were intention and audience.

Our workshop leader Larry Woiwode didn’t seem particularly keen on the concept of authorial intention. “The critic never knows the writer’s intention,” he said. “The only person who can know your intention is God. Saying you know the intention of the author is promoting yourself.” He added, “Write to tell a story, not to convey intention.”

He wasn’t a big fan of writing for a particular audience either. “Don’t worry about who you’re writing for,” he said. “Do the best you can and it will find the audience.”

Do you see a pattern? Woiwode stressed expending your best effort in telling your story. “Tell the story properly,” he urged. “Do the best you can.” He described a well-written story as one that “has dimension under it,” saying, “We feel underneath it the thought that conceived it, compressed it.” He spoke of “the story beyond the story,” which “you want the reader to think about for the next week.”

I believe it’s accurate to say that, for Woiwode, story-telling trumps intention and audience.