Monday, March 30, 2009

Summer of Light by W. Dale Cramer

rating: ****
publisher: Bethany House

Reading Lynn Austin and W. Dale Cramer in the same week reaffirms my long-standing opinion that they are the two strongest writers in the Christian marketplace. I fell in love with Cramer’s prose when I read Bad Ground and then subsequently with the rest of if his novels. Cramer once mentioned in an interview that some of his greatest influences were Faulkner and Steinbeck. Reading his thoughtful, well-embroidered yarns you can easily detect this influence. Though Summer of Light is a bit of a more breezy read without the seeming emotional or thematic depth of Bad Ground and Levi’s Will, it is still an exceptional novel... And, when held up against other contemporary Christian novels manages to pack quite the punch.

Mick Brannigan is a tough iron worker with set views that a man’s place is as the breadwinner. Though Mick loves his kids and his paralegal working wife, he is steadfast in his beliefs that he should be out of the home and on the job. After an unfortunate accident, Mick is forced to leave the working world and care for his three children: Toad, Ben and the sometimes challenging Dylan.

More than a “Mr. Mom” story, Summer of the Light is a novel of perspectives cast by differing shards of light. The search for the perfect light and the challenge to capture the perfect light is a resounding theme in the novel. Mick’s talent for photography, his upscale neighbour Aubrey’s coaching and the homeless man-with-no-hands’ classic opinion help Mick thrive in an element foreign to him: one of art and light borne of seemingly commonplace circumstance. This light, as embodied in photography, in the stainglass of a monastery, in a sunrise over a ramshackle barn was ( to this reader) the manifestation of God in human places.

Mick sees most clearly when things are reflected in a certain light. This ironworker/ photographer has an almost preternatural reverence for light at angles and the perspective these angles give him. The reader is given the same perspective as Mick as he is the character driving the novel.

From a monastery, to an empty barn to a homeless sector beneath the bridges, Mick’s photographic eye snaps everything: Hope, Charity, Emptiness, Faith …. People, his kids and a zillion different reflections.

Cramer is magnificent with symbolism and theme. Some if his descriptive prose is quite breathtaking and he does well in using photography and an artist’s eye to capture the exceptionalities of what Mick once found commonplace.

Tolkien once mentioned that his Lord of the Rings novels were a type of “pre-evangelum”: stories with symbols and archetypes which bordered on the metaphysical--- prodding readers to contemplate rather than receive a forced conceptualization of theology. I feel that Cramer uses this same practice. Though his characters ( especially the Preacher) are recognizable symbols of Faith, there is nothing explicity or exploitatively “Christianese.” Instead, Cramer infuses Christianity through practice rather than words. Any Christianity is embodied through actions. Cramer mentions something along the Francis of Assisi line “ preach the Gospel, if necessary use words” ( my paraphrase) when Mick realizes that Dylan will mirror his actions rather than internalize his words. Cramer doesn’t bludgeon you over the head with the Gospel, rather he credits the thinking reader with enough dots to be connected: parables to be chewed over and aligned with resonant Faith.

My only Cramer complaint is that the Christian reading populous has heard nothing of him since this publication two years back ( I just read it now. I was saving it for a rainy day). I wish he would come out of hiding because the Christian book publishing prospect of 2009 is rather empty without him.

More W. Dale Cramer? He will completely overhaul any preconceptions you had of Christian fiction

...and hold on. I will get to Hidden Places! I am just savouring a re-read. I always go through a fantastic book and re-read my favourite bits to pick up any thread I missed.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

A new take on TOP FIVE

My friend Courtney tagged me in a meme which asked me to write about five things that I love.

I thought I would tweak it to reflect the subject matter of this blog.

Thus, I give you ( and ever so delightedly) five leading men I love from Christian novels.

These are my top five, so to speak and I hope you enjoy reading about them ....and will be inspired to hunt down the excellent books they live in.

1.) Neil MacNeill from Christy (Catherine Marshall)

has this book EVER been published with a good cover?

Dr. Neil MacNeill is a fiery Scotsman who sacrificed a prestigious city medical career to serve his mountain people in Cutter Gap ( the small populus ensconced in the Great Smokies of Tennessee).

Neil is a little bit different than numerous Christian heroes because he begins the book as an agnostic. He has a lineage tracing back to Bonnie Prince Charlie and a fiery temper to match his heritage. He is a skilled and brilliant doctor who is seemingly well ahead of the game dappling with groundbreaking cures ( for diseases like trachoma) while having some of the most rudimentary resources at his disposal. It is funny to see him as a suitable match for the coming-of-age schoolteacher Christy Huddleston, but they share a similar passion for the people and a desire to see more in the region than anyone in the "outside" world ever will. This not only solidifies their relationship ( even if it is interspersed with some incredibly verbal battles), it helps Christy grow into the strong and independent woman she is to become...all the while turning Neil back to faith.

(note: they made a rather horrific family television series which diluded all of the serious subject matter of the powerful book. But they did one thing right. They gave Neil MacNeill a pension for opera and flyfishing. I thought this was a poignant touch and very much in character: delineating him from the mountain people he was descended from while sewing a common thread to Christy's cultural background in upscale Ashville).

2.) John Murphy Vienna Prelude (Bodie Thoene)

I think I can safely say that John Murphy was my first fictional crush. I had turned 12 when I read Vienna Prelude for the first time ( I have read it every year since at Christmas time) and I immediately fell under the spell of this brash, quick-witted New York Times reporter. I first fell for him when he was saving Theo Lindheim and his beautiful violinist daughter from a Nazi interrogation at a Berlin train station. Murphy snappingly responded to a mousy Gestapo's "Heil Hitler" with a quick "Twenty Three Skidoo". Some things just don't translate.

Not a spineless, mopey lover, Murphy pursues Elisa doggedly---even accepts her proposal of an arranged marriage , crashes a Kosher Zionist party with ham as a gift, and buys a multitude of symphony tickets in a seat and row which directly align with her chair in the orchestra section. In later novels in the series (The Zion Covenant) , Thoene tells us that John Murphy resembles Jimmy Stewart. Sign me up! Like Neil MacNeill, Murphy does not begin the novel as a Christian allowing the reader to be ministered through those who minister and challenge him.

3.) Silas McClure A Proper Pursuit (Lynn Austin)

I'm reticent to reveal the delicious secret surrounding Silas in case you have yet to read the novel ( please go get it now ). Suffice it to say, Silas is one of my all time favourite leading men. Sort of Harold Hill ( think the charm of the Music Man) without the sly ulterior motives. Silas is an elixir salesman: a drummer clad in saddle shoes and bright suits with stunning blue eyes and a candleabra smile. Silas is light-hearted, adventurous and funny with a fire crackery "gee whillicker" boyish charm. He provides heroine Violet Hayes with a taste of the penny novel adventures she longs for, takes her up Mr. Ferris' Wheel at the Chicago World's Fair and engages in bouts of a "would you rather" game." He is also one half of the most tingly, joyous kissing scenes I have ever read.

One thing I am learning as I read more Austin is that her best heroes have a tendency to see more in the heroines than they do in themselves. This has always been a romantic trait for me. Well-done Silas! And he's a Christian! Praise the Lord. I wish I could bring him home to meet my mother.

4.) Phineas Snowe All the Tea in China (Jane Orcutt)

What I like most about Phineas is that he is part of the reason Orcutt's novel strays from falling into convention. He is sneaky and not always truthful but he treats sword-wielding wordsmith Isabella as an equal. Phineas doesn't shy away from teaching Isabella the finest of Chinese combat and legend and martial arts. Further, he engages in many a match of witty repartee with Isabella which adds to the novel's sheer brilliant, diamondy dialogue. He's not who he seems but he is a lot of fun and gives a fresh and unexpected twist to a taut and tantalizing Regency adventure.

I think I knew from the first scene ( which plays like something out of a Jane Austen drawing room with a careful match of well-strung words) that he and Isabella would provide me with hours... meaning pages... of blissful entertainment.

5.)Wynn Delaney The Canadian West series (Janette Oke)

Who doesn't love a man in uniform? Face it, these books may have as much depth as a tea spoon but they are classic. In a wonderful twist relating to her subject matter, Oke is very much a pioneer in the genre: paving the way for other Christian novelists as Wynn and Elizabeth were part of the mass settlement in the Canadian West.

Well, I AM biased. As a Canadian, I have a soft spot for the tales about a gorgeous, steadfast mountie of impeccable character whisking a courageous and refined schoolteacher to a remote post in the Canadian West. The scenery is beautiful ( and not just Wynn in scarlet) and the episodic events create inspiring terrain for Christian values and morals. I also really enjoy the close proximity of the Delaneys to the First Nations. We learn a lot about a rich and beautiful cultural heritage.

Honourable mention:

John Falconer Heirs of Acadia series (T.Davis Bunn)

I read the entire series for this former slavetrader whose dark, redemptive journey challenged and compelled me. I think Falconer is one of the most dimensional Christian heroes in years. I strongly recommend these books for those who hanker after solid character pieces.

Christy Awards

Named after one of the greatest Christian fiction novels ever written, The Christy finalists are announced.

Interesting catagories and some excellent shortlists this year.

See here

and yes, Lynn Austin is nominated.

Tuesday, March 24, 2009

Well-played Lynn Austin

I am currently reading Hidden Places and, as per usual, am blown away by Austin's prose. She paints images with words I would never think of stringing together.

Pending a review of the sumptuous book ( I cannot get enough of it ...I am reading some paragraphs over again so I don't miss one well-situated word or phrase), I thought I would dedicate a whole entry to Lynn Austin.

I think I mentioned previously that even in the novels without strong starts ( I had trouble sinking into Until we Reach Home) she always wins me over with a moment I was never, ever expecting.

Here, they start at the beginning.

Here is Lynn Austin's website. Just buy the lot of her work. She has such a wide range and she is an incredibly beautiful writer.

p.s. Apparently they made a television film adaptation of Hidden Places with Shirley Jones (!!!) however, a synopsis assured me it strayed too far from the novel for my liking.

Sunday, March 22, 2009

"The Cubicle Next Door" by Siri Mitchell

rating: ***
publisher: Harvest House

Jackie works for the US Air Force. She has been there for ten years, is extremely proficient and has her own office.

But, not for long.

The powers-that-be squeeze a divider between Jackie and a new pilot/history teacher named Joe and office space becomes a little more crammed.

Even more so because Joe immediately likes Jackie and spends the rest of their working relationship pulling her out of her comfort zone (vis-a-vis a cubicle) and on to the rest of her life.

The metaphor of the cubicle closing someone in to a space: trapped and somewhat ignored is a prevalent one in Mitchell's breezy chicklit.

Jackie narrates that story with precision and a fresh sarcasm/realism that few first person narratives can pull off.

Joe is an engaging, funny and downright adorable pilot ( with dimples *cough*) who endears us (and Jackie) by seeing more in her than she ever does in herself.

While this is a strong contender in the realm of Christian chicklit, I cannot help but think that Mitchell was somehow reigning in what could have been an even more daring and delectable novel.

This could be because her most recent foray into the genre, A Constant Heart is more than one of the best of its kind.

The Cubicle Next Door refers to an eponymous blog wherein Jackie informs a wide readership of her confused and mixed feelings toward Joe. She also shares some kernels of wisdom and a delightful vulnerability.

This being said, the blog itself is the weakest part of the novel. For a writer like Mitchell, crafty blogs should be a cinch but I could not figure out why this blog enticed upward of 20 000 hits a day. Moreover, why it would be the subject of a television news segment ....the very one that lures Joe into reading it daily----unaware of its author.

The premise is catchy and the characters well-drawn ( I love Oliver: Grandmother's British love interest and the ladies Joe helps switch from Bridge to Poker).

This is a light and page-turning read that I devoured in a sitting. Joe IS wonderful and the tenacity and patience in his pursuit of Jackie will restore a reader's faith in romance.

I particularly enjoyed the setting of Colorado Springs and area as that is a familiar territory for me because one of my closest friends lives there. It made me feel inadvertently at home.

I would definitely consider reading A Constant Heart if you can choose but one Mitchell title. However, you cannot go wrong with this slightly lesser fare. Mitchell has a knack for words and stories that translates well into any genre.

More Mitchell? I recommend here highly.... see here

Friday, March 20, 2009

A Proper Pursuit by Lynn Austin


Publisher: Bethany House

A Proper Pursuit by Lynn Austin is one of my favourite Christian novels of the past year. It is sweet confection and tugs your heartstrings while catching you in a dizzy whirl of romance and fun.

Violet Hayes is ecstatic to leave her stepmother and her usual high-society existence for the adventure and mystery she is sure await her at the Chicago World’s Fair. Violet knows that staying with her eccentric aunts and society-hungry grandmother are an easy trade for the chance of finding the mother she recently learned abandoned her….while soaking up the intrigue she has read about in dime novels and Sherlock Holmes stories.

Violet is an imaginative and engaging young woman who is always at the ready to snap up romance and danger. She is winning, endearing and brightly created.
As mentioned, Austin is one of the most capable novelists in the genre. Her structure is always one of her strongest suits. Here is no exception. Violet is courted by four very different suitors and both Violet and the reader are able to dissect each potential relationship though a telling trip to the World’s Fair.

One of Violet’s suitors, the enigmatic “drummer” Silas McClure is like Harold Hill meets Gilbert Blythe. It is hard to characterize Silas’ open charm. He is one of my favourite leading men in all of Christian fiction. He is surprising and mysterious and perfect for Violet…also for me. The two banter and play rounds of “would you rather” as well as exorcise their need for a bit of danger with trips to the beautifully-described Mr. Ferris’ wheel: one of many wonders of the Fair.

Austin has captured the period perfectly. Her characters, wit and dialogue shine. While, surfacely this novel seems to traipse at a more sunny and simplistic gait than the sterner subject of other works, it has serious undercurrents touching on abandonment, cultural and social discordance, loss, and the rights and roles of women in a subservient era.

And, on a superficial level, the novel has one of the most perfect kissing scenes I have ever read. Think of all of the hyperbole given “the kiss” in Goldman’s “Princess Bride” and top it by ten. This scene is electric.

Shove away the early Spring shivers with a warm and inviting novel that will send jolts of happiness up your arms and tingle your fingers with giddy joy.

I LOVE this book.

I recommend this novel heartily to readers Christian and non.

Tuesday, March 03, 2009

The God Cookie by Geoffrey Wood

publisher: WaterBrook

Geoffrey "Leaper" Wood has more than exceeded my expectations with his jaw-droppingly well-written sophomore book.

In fact, The God Cookie should propel Wood into the large readership he deserves. I knew that the Christian reading populus had something special on their hands when we were gifted with Leaper's sparkly dialogue, fly-highing premise and thunderbolt of fresh creativity....and now this! All of the ingredients which made Leaper so giddily defy the norms of the genre have been healthily dolloped into the God Cookie....tenfold.

The God Cookie is not your grandma's yellowed Grace Livingston Hill novel; nor is it the broadly coloured collection of riff raf circa 1970 with a cover seemingly stolen from the movie poster of Funny Girl you would find in a church rummage sale. Instead, the God Cookie belongs in the Christian literary elite. Geoffrey Wood, I hope, has a long career in the industry because he will not conform. Take his gutsy plot---young barista who has copious world views on golfing and salt shakers but cannot wrap his head around the metaphysical, follows a holy trail spun from a vague interpretation of a fortune cookie he interprets as God's divine will. Through a caffeine-induced high and not withstanding the mockery of his coffee shop pals and the greater world's cocking of a sceptical is he for real? eyebrow, John Parrish is ready to listen. He scrapes by on a thread: following blindly a commandment to "take the corner."

"The Corner" holsters a discombobulated melange of bench-sitters---some seemingly waiting for a bus (or Godot?) which might never come. This mix leads John and his new pal Audra along a trail of redemption, life lessons and gritty, every-day Grace.

What I like most about Wood is that he meets everyone where they are at. Not all of the characters infiltrating this Christian novel are believers and, let's face it, by the end of the novel, there will be no mass-conversion and looping of arms in joyful song. There are no super-powered (well, there was one literally in Leaper....) molds of perfect spirtuality. John continually questions God in the way he questions his underworked employees Mason and Duncan about where the duct tape went.

Wood is a dynamite story teller who is funny, saucy, conversational and invitational: you feel like you are being invited as a privileged fly- on-the- wall witness to something outstanding. The realism surging each page makes this experience plausible and keeps the pages flipping.

Wood is heavy on dialogue ( especially in the first third of the novel) but he has a knack for it and each character has such a distinctive voice that were you to detract any notation of speaker, I have a feeling I would still be able to figure it out. This is a rare gift indeed. One, I think, which might derive from his extensive background in theatre.

As a coffee lover, I enjoyed long, frothy odes to the beverage as well as the tirades on the monotony of tea ( the anti-coffee).

As for the structure of the novel, it is almost genius: life changing, climactic events of pseudo-Biblical proportion unfold in the course of a week. In this span, numerous people ( making a big web, say), are changed and interconnected.

Poetry is apparently ( according to my grade ten teacher, at least) "the perfect words in the perfect order" and our friend Wood is apparently a poet. Example: a scene thawing a frigid urban February: touched blue and they became background for streaks and wisps of cloud. Sunlight, rays of it, gave a brightness like spring, a direct and golden-yellow brightness unlike the trapped, refracted glow of winter's day, and to that homogeneous cityscape that lay so inert and wide and flat, just a few spring rays of sunshine gave a sudden depth of dimension to everything. Individual things came alive, as if each stood brightly before you, each with its own story.

There are also whispers of unpreachy symbolism and comparison prompting the thinking reader to stop and pause. And, everything has meaning: Fritter Johns: the eponymous coffee shop derived ( very inadvertently ) from Robin Hood (a book John and his rag tag trio can "get behind") and John Parrish's name: which boasts a religiousity lending well to a discourse on the "everyman" or "parish":while still putting us in mind of one of Jesus' ultimate followers.

Geoff Wood went out on a limb ( again ) and succeeded. The vulnerability of his characters seems almost ironic when housed in such a stern, confident and strong novel. I like guts in my Christian fiction. This guy has guts.

Most importantly, however, beyond the pitch-perfect phrasing, the well-executed tale and the characters who spark and fly, is the message encapsulated in each page. A message of: 'we're not there yet, how can we possibly be? but, let's keep trying and searching; learning and listening, following redemptive strands that might lead to nowhere, rejoicing in hope and hats and snow....'

A cop tells John that he expects God on earth would find out the lonely places...rather than the over-crowded congregations. Wood reminds us that God meets us where we are at, if we give a little: no matter how flawed.....

I believe, most heartily, that He has found His way between the covers of a Geoffrey Wood novel and it would be an absolute shame to miss what He has to say.

More Geoffrey Wood: read interview here

Sunday, March 01, 2009


Hello, I have written several reviews recently over on my Christian fiction blog:

I have a love/hate relationship with this genre which will be apparent when you read my reviews. I am always truthful and I hope never biased.

mantra: Just because its Christian, doesn't mean its good.