Summer Reads

Looking for something good to read by your fellow Christian novelists this summer?

Check out the following in science fiction, romance, and mystery.

Science Fiction

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So what happens when humanity has to be re-booted by AI’s? Updated and now in a paperback edition from my favorite science fiction and fantasy author, here’s a wonderful offering wherein you’ll find elements of faith, knowledge, and redemption intertwined with an exciting plot that will keep you engrossed to the very last page.

Also, an audio and print version of the short story on which the novel is based is available free on the author’s website. “The Understudy” is read by the author and is about 17 minutes long. I promise you’ll enjoy it as much as I did!

Romance

Annie Dolze calls her romance “short and sweet,” which is exactly right for a beach or a lawn chair read right on your very own front porch. It’s guaranteed to bring a smile to your face.

My Baby the Spy involves, to wit,  “Two spies. One very secret baby.” Clean  romances are hard to find and this one’s so well-written I got through it in one sitting! It’s that good. There’s the twists and turns of romance, of course, but the intrigue of espionage will keep you on the edge of your seat.

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… Click on the book cover for more on the plot!

Cozy Mystery

Cybele brings a bit of an international flavor to the cozy mystery genre. The spunky Indian American heroine, Marteena Mohan, discovers that the case of murder that ensnares her as the chief suspect, is not so cozy as hair-raising to solve. As she tries to keep one step ahead of the law and her enemies, she wrestles with the faith that she thought she had abandoned.

By the way, she has some very loyal (and eccentric) friends who have decidedly strong ideas of their own and a detective that is a threat in more ways than one!

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… Click on the book cover for more on the plot!

Well Met, Jude: Mann & Mantel

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I’ve been reading David R. Helm’s Commentary¹ on Jude while finishing up Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall Trilogy. She’s a gifted writer is Mantel. Her incisive yet poetic imagination will send chills up your spine. And Helm unfolds his commentary with a literary feel that many theologians sadly lack.

I began the first book in Mantel’s trilogy just as the last book, The Mirror & the Light, was being released in March. It had taken Mantel more than fourteen years² of research and writing to complete what she now calls “the central project of my life”³: a project charting the rise and fall of the man best known for masterminding Henry VIII’s break with Rome and ushering in the Protestant Reformation in England.

Cromwell was a complex man whose history is a dark shroud relative to his contemporary’s, the gentleman-born Thomas More of whom much hagiographia exists. So to recover Cromwell, Mantel dug into the many records of his time preserved in libraries and royal court records. She also dug into her imagination to fill in the blanks of his early life working at the forge as a blacksmith’s boy in Putney to working as a clerk with the merchant bankers in Antwerp, before finally being mentored by Cardinal Wolsey who was himself the son of a butcher.

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Thomas Cromwell by Hans Holbein (1533)

The trajectory of Cromwell’s life as a self-made man who rose to become Henry VIII’s right-hand man and the architect of Tudor policy reverberates to this day. But the rise from commoner to courtier was hard-won. And one thing that Mantel makes clear to the reader is that the past is ever at Cromwell’s elbow: the bellowing voice of his alcoholic father and the feel of his hard fist, the ditches and marshes and hardships of a runaway, the gaze of a dark-eyed lady in Antwerp, the capable steps of his beloved wife, Lizzie, who died of the plague and the disconcerting contradictions that were his two daughters (Anne and little Grace) who died from it the very next year, Wolsey’s silk-clad presence replete in adroit political coups, counsels and strictures, all ghosts that walk the halls of Austin Friars, his London home.

Though the noblemen around him scorn it, he never forgets his history. Neither does Mantel let the reader forget: each line of Cromwell’s history is seen through his eyes and written solidly in the present tense. The reason is very purposeful. Our history would look very different for us now if not for Thomas Cromwell, our present altered past recognition.

During these current days of political and social unrest, one thing remains clear. We cannot have a clear understanding of the present if we don’t remember our history and what has shaped it. History can’t be ignored with impunity. It lies beneath us like unseen geological strata and walks among us peopled by ghosts from the past.

Many thousands of years have passed since Eve took the bite out of the apple but she’s close among us reminding us of that moment every day, the maelstrom of guilt, shame, and  judgment that was pronounced. Each time we bury a loved one, each time we sit by a bedside at a hospital, each time we read of disasters and wars, or see riots and fires and mobs in cities, the twin shades of Adam and Eve pass through our midst. They initiated the rebellion against the rule of God in our world.  We have been driven out of Eden with them. We have birthed our Cains, Abels, and Seths.

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The Body of Abel Found by Adam and Eve by William Blake, 1826

In his Commentary, Helm points out how conscious Jude is of history as he writes to churches under threat not only of persecution but false teachers. The admonitions and commands in the twenty-five verses that comprise the letter are laden with historical references to events and people, even angels, but not as if they remain in the past, but because they are witnesses to the present.

Much like the novelist Thomas Mann in his masterwork Joseph and His Brothers, Jude too, says Helm, is conscious that figures of history are never dead. They walk as “ancient archetypes” coming to life again, going by different names, working the same mischief, dooming themselves and others to destruction. They are warnings to us as well as examples. And they must be heeded because they are given to us for just that purpose in the scrolls and manuscripts and records on which they have been preserved.

After his greeting “to those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ,” Jude says he found it necessary to write “appealing to you to contend for the faith” because “certain people have crept in unnoticed who long ago were designated for this condemnation, ungodly people, who pervert the grace of our God …” (Jude 1-4). “Long ago” is for Jude as “this” day, a past event and a present danger indicating the same downfall. And so he parades the ghosts of apostates before us, making no distinction between them and the current false teachers, declaiming, “Woe to them! For they walked in the way of Cain and abandoned themselves for the sake of gain in Balaam’s error and perished in Korah’s rebellion” (Jude 11), as if living apostates are the walking dead and damned.

Time, you see, condenses in the present. The dead are among the living.

from Thomas Mann’s Joseph and His Brothers (1999) qtd. in Helm, pp. 303-304

History is that which has happened and that which goes on happening in time. But also it is the stratified record upon which we set our feet, the ground beneath us; and the deeper [we] go down into the layers that lie below and beyond … in our moments of less precision we may speak of them in the first person and as though they were part of our flesh-and-blood experience.

Deep-sunk in musing, yet mightily uplifted, was the soul of Jacob in these days when he with his brother Esau buried their father; for all past events stood up in him and became present again in his flesh according to the archetype; and to him it was as though the ground beneath his feet were transparent, consisting of crystal layers going down and down without any bottom and lighted up by lamps which burned between the layers. But he walked above them among the experiences of his proper flesh, Jacob, present in time, and gazed at Esau, who likewise walked again with him according to his archetype and was Edom, the Red.

from Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror & the Light (2020), pp. 38 & 64

Austin Friars was a small place once: twelve rooms when he first took the lease for himself and his clerks, for Lizzie and the girls, for Lizzie’s mother Mercy Prior. Mercy has now entered into her old age. She is the lady of the house, but she mostly keeps to her own part, a book open on her knees. She reminds him of an image of St. Barbara he saw once in Antwerp, a saint reading against the noise of a construction site, backed by scaffolding and raw brick. Everybody complains about builders, the the time they take, the mounting expense, the noise and the dust, but he likes their banging and thudding, their songs and their chat, their shortcuts and secret lore. As a boy he was always climbing about on somebody’s roof, often without their knowledge. Show him a ladder and he was up it, seeking a longer view. But when he got up there, what could he see? Only Putney.

Now Austin Friars begins to shape like the house of a great man, its front lit by oriel windows, its small town garden expanding into orchards. He has bought up the parcels of land that adjoin it, some from the friars, and some from the Italian merchants who are his friends and live in this quarter. He owns the neighbourhood, and in his chests…he keeps the deeds that have divided, valued and named it. Here are his freedom and titles, the ancient seals and signatures witnessed of the dead, witnessed by city wardens and sergeants, by aldermen and sheriffs whose chains of office are melted for coin, whose corpses rest under stone. … History inks the skin: it writes on the hide of sheep long slaughtered, or calves who never breathed; the dead cut away the ground beneath us, so that when he descends a stair at Austin Friars, the tread falls away under his foot, and below him there is another stair, no longer visible except in the mind’s eye; and down it goes, to the city where the legions of Rome left their ashes beneath the earth, their glass in the soil, their bones in the river. And down it plunges and down, into the subsoil of himself, through France and Italy and the pays bas, through the lowlands and the quicksands, by the marshes and the meadows estuarine, through the floodplains of his dreams to where he wakes, shocked into a new day: the clang of the anvil from the smithy shakes the sunlight in a room where, a helpless child, he lies swaddled, startled from sleep, feeling as if for the first time the beat of his own heart.


¹David R. Helm, 1 & 2 Peter and Jude, Crossway Books, 2008
²https://www.telegraph.co.uk/news/2019/05/22/final-book-hilary-mantels-wolf-hall-trilogy-will-finally-published/
³https://www.npr.org/2020/03/08/813384354/the-mirror-and-the-light-author-says-trilogy-is-the-central-project-of-my-life#

 

Charles Dickens & George Frideric Handel: Two Quotes

This is a first in my “Two Quote” series, since it sets side by side not only a written quotation but a musical one.

It’s rare when music is mentioned in literature that I feel inclined to dwell much on it but when the writer is Dickens and the composer is Handel, well, naturally I took the bait. Needless to say, the comic nature of poor Bella’s father’s grimly melodious characterization of his marriage took flight. But then Dickens always did have a way of making you literally laugh through your tears, perhaps even his own as he was at the time estranged from his wife.

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Our Mutual Friend was his last completed work and, as if in a farewell gesture, Dickens throws into it the unrestrained comic genius and dramatic flair of his first novel (The Pickwick Papers, 1837) which brought him the acclaim he richly deserved. In the excerpt below, the “Dead March” from Handel’s dramatic oratorio, Saul, is made to dance to the sorrowful notes of Reginald Wilfer’s portrait of married life.

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Mrs. Wilfer, writes Dickens, “is a tall woman, and angular,” necessarily so according to the matrimonial law of contrasts, her husband being “cherubic.” “It is as you think, R. W.; not as I do,” comprised a part of her deceptively submissive repertoire of aphorisms with which she managed him. Only to Bella, his eldest daughter, is Reginald Wilfer able to relax his guard and venture into unfettered conversation.

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“Ransom. Ransom. Ransom. Ransom. Ransom.”

Matthew 16:26/Mark 8:36/Luke 9:25 For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his soul?

Of C. S. Lewis’s The Space Trilogy, my favorite for mostly personal reasons is Perelandra. The plot unfolds around a newly formed planet, loosely modeled after Venus, undergoing an Edenic beginning with a man and a woman and a multitude of new creations. Into this is sent Elwin Ransom, the protagonist from earth, charged by God (Maledil) with the mission of thwarting the attempts of Satan (Black Archon) to tempt the newly created Queen to rebel against Maledil and bring about a Fall, the agent of which is another man from earth, the staunch materialist Professor Weston who becomes a demoniac.

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God’s Silence and “Silence”

Shūsaku Endō’s Silence (1966) is the novel about 17th-century Jesuit missionaries to Japan on which Martin Scorsese’s movie Silence (2016)  is based.  The book’s central concerns are primarily theological, zeroing in on what true Christian faith looks like,  so I was intrigued to see the film’s overall favorable reception by some Christian as well as secular reviewers. Scorsese was quoted as saying that his movie was the culmination of a twenty-eight-year-old journey to bring the novel to life, and I expected some ponderous ruminations, albeit Hollywood-style, as a result. (Spoiler: After reading the book, I had no desire to see the movie.)

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On Faulkner’s Absalom, Absalom!

Her voice dragged me in, this old crone
who sat in her chair rigid like a schoolgirl.
It beat against the wisteria tendrilled heat
and the cloistered darkness where we sat,
my aunt and I, me home from school to the barren
bower of her past, where jilted desires hung unspoken,
an endlessly fingered bridal dress of twisted longing.

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A Study in Scarlett and Tolstoy

Shamelessly exploitative title, I know. Yet I couldn’t resist the Sherlockian/Scarlett O’Hara pun since after reading War and Peace by the venerable Tolstoy, I found myself thinking paradoxically of “little ole” Margaret Mitchell’s Gone With the Wind. Both are hefty novels dealing with the devastating effects of a war and both treat tenderly yet critically the time and place and culture their authors evoke: Tolstoy of Russia, Mitchell of the antebellum South. And both compel a strangely enduring fascination even (or most especially) over those who have little to no knowledge of these particular regions.

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So She Quoth

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Spitzweg, “The Bookworm”

There are some things I read or hear said that for some inexplicable reason, certainly not by design, stick in my head. Not only that, when I think of one, I seem naturally to think of the other. Or here’s a different scenario: during the course of a day or a week, I randomly encounter different texts by totally dissimilar authors and yet their ideas fall along the same lines and “fit” together in a startling way. Such unsought moments are blissful pools of mystery to a bookworm like me.

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Jane Austen & Marilynne Robinson: Two Quotes

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An 1804 watercolor of Jane Austen by her sister Cassaa

Jane Austen,  Mansfield Park:

Here had been grievous mismanagement; but, bad as it was, he gradually grew to feel that it had not been the most direful mistake in his plan of education. Something must have been wanting within, or time would have worn away much of its ill effect. He feared that principle, active principle, had been wanting; that they had never been properly taught to govern their inclinations and tempers by that sense of duty which can alone suffice. They had been instructed theoretically in their religion, but never required to bring it into daily practice. To be distinguished for elegance and accomplishments, the authorised object of their youth, could have had no useful influence that way, no moral effect on the mind. He had meant them to be good, but his cares had been directed to the understanding and manners, not the disposition; and of the necessity of self–denial and humility, he feared they had never heard from any lips that could profit them.

Bitterly did he deplore a deficiency which now he could scarcely comprehend to have been possible. Wretchedly did he feel, that with all the cost and care of an anxious and expensive education, he had brought up his daughters without their understanding their first duties, or his being acquainted with their character and temper.

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