Friday, July 31, 2015

Short Takes: Three Novellas

Short Takes is a new feature here that focuses on works than can be read in an hour or less. Today it’s three novellas – a mystery, a work of suspense, and what I can only call a computer hacker procedural (a new genre in the mystery/suspense field, I’m sure). All three are actually introductions, either to larger works and / or a series.

Three Sisters by Helen Smith introduces a rather unlikely detective, Emily Castle, a young woman who is still mourning the loss of her dog. She lives in a south London neighborhood, and she finds an invitation to a party slide under her door. It’s a squat party, which means it’s being staged at a nearby house that is occupied by squatters. It’s a rather lavish party for the neighborhood, with food, drink and entertainment. Except one of the entertainers ends up dead. Or does she? Emily rather persistently (and slightly obnoxiously) continues to investigate.

Suspects abound, and it’s quite a trick for author Smith to keep them all straight in the relatively short narrative. She’s written full-length Emily Castle stories, and based on Three Sisters, they’re well worth checking out.

Before Paris by Adria Cimino is, I suspect, a rather large chunk of narrative removed from Paris, Rue des Martyrs, to help shorten the manuscript. Cimino has turned it into a novella, focusing on one of the four stories she covers in the full-length novel (the novella is subtitled “A Prequel to Paris, Ruse des Martyrs”).

The novella is the back story for Rafael Mendez of Colombia, who is resisting his father’s demand that he join his parents in the emerald trade, a rough-and-tumble, borderline criminal activity on a good day. Reluctantly, he goes with his parents for what turns out to be their last trip – they’re shot dead while driving to the mines. His father’s dying words are “Find Carmen,” whom Rafael determines lives in Paris – on the rue des Martyrs.

It’s not a complete story (it is finished in the full-length novel) but it is a good introduction to Cimino’s style and how she constructs a story. (You can read my review of Paris, Rue des Martyrs here.)

In Social Engineer by Ian Sutherland, we meet Brody Taylor, a self-described “white hat” computer hacker who makes a living by trying to hack companies’ computer defenses. He’s called to a British pharmaceutical company after the company learns that Chinese hackers are nosing around, trying to obtain the research on a new Alzheimer’s drug. Taylor tells the story on a double track – explaining how he was able to hack the company’s systems and his relationship with a new girlfriend. She thinks he’s a movie location scout, and is ignorant of his hacking profession.

Sutherland takes the reader on a few interesting twists, the most surprising of which brings the story full circle. Social Engineer is a fun read and a good introduction to computer hacking, and how it’s done. The novella is also the introduction to a series of Brody Taylor stories.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, July 30, 2015

Louise Penny’s “Still Life”

I always enjoy finding a new mystery series, and I believe I’ve found a good one with Chief Inspector Armand Gamache.

Gamache, with the Surete de Quebec, is the creation of mystery writer Louise Penny; the first of her series of mysteries is Still Life, set in the small town of Three Pines in Quebec, not far from the American border. Gamache is called to investigate the death of an elderly woman, Jane Neal, shot in the woods apparently by an arrow. Neal was a rather eccentric artist – loved by her neighbors but one who had never shown her art nor let anyone in her house beyond the kitchen.

Gamache and his team discover that what looks to be an accidental death caused by a hunter is actually murder, murder with a motive buried long in the past.

Louise Penny
Penny is strong on characterization, not only for Gamache and his police team but the rest of the major and minor characters as well, a collection of both rather normal and rather eccentric people, most of an artistic temperament. One of them, in this quaint little village, is a murderer.

It is Gamache, however, who is the novel’s star. A loving husband with grown children, he is in his early 50s, enjoys good food, and believes in teamwork over lone wolf investigations. He has a past, with mostly notable investigatory successes but some have come at a cost. He listens and observes; he watches and likes to set potential suspect against potential suspect. He’s not convinced by an early confession. And he develops strong likes, and strong dislikes, for the people he meets.

One of the characters is a poet, and poetry plays a surprisingly significant role in the story (as does art). A poem by W.H. Auden contains an important clue. And Penny includes interesting historical facts about the region that had color and depth to the story.

And now I have the satisfaction of knowing there are several Chief Inspector Gamache stories waiting to be read.

Painting: Quebec Village by Arthur Lismer, oil on canvas (1926); Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen's University.

Wednesday, July 29, 2015

The Hiding Place: The Rope Tightens

It is two years into the Nazi occupation of Holland. Each month, Corrie ten Boom writes in The Hiding Place, the occupation grew harsher, the restrictions more numerous. Corrie’s brother Peter violates one of the latest edicts and plays the Dutch national anthem, the “Wilhelmus,” during a church service. He’s imprisoned for three months.

More Jews are being arrested and deported to the camps in the east. The numbers seeking help and hiding remain steady. One friend organizes the “burglary” of an identity card office, including a very real physical beating to convince the Germans. Corrie is later taken to a meeting of the Dutch underground, bicycling with a contact with tires wrapped in cloth to muffle the sound.

This is the line between amateur underground operations and the professionals. Corrie and the ten Booms will cross that line, and what results is the construction of a secret room in their home, a place that Jews and others can be temporarily hidden, the “hiding place” of the book’s title.

The risks for the family were enormous.

And yet they took them, with barely a second thought. As Corrie’s father would say, “In this household, God’s people are always welcome.” His meaning extended to God’s original chosen people, the Jews.

Was this courage? Foolhardiness? Recklessness?

Or was it an expression and extension of the ten Booms’ faith?

What does it mean to have that kind of reckless faith? Their lives, the lives of the extended family, the security of their church were all at great risk. And yet they continued.

We haven’t faced that kind of test of faith and courage here in the United States, but many say the time is coming. Christians in the Mideast have faced it and continue to face it. Globally, the number of persecutions of Christians has been increasing. We are likely fooling ourselves if we believe that something like this could never happen here.

I think about my children and my three grandsons. Would my faith be that reckless if I knew I would be putting them in jeopardy?

It’s a question I hope I never have to answer.

But I need to be prepared to answer it.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading and discussing The Hiding Place. To see more posts on this chapter, “The Secret Room,” please visit Jason at Connectingto Impact.

Photograph: Members of the Dutch underground in 1944, via Wikimedia Commons.

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Poetic Voices: Megan Fernandes and Sandra Marchetti

I read some poetry collections that are enjoyable and well crafted but soon disappear in the far reaches of memory. I suppose that’s a nice way of saying they are enjoyable in the moment but not terribly memorable. And then there are other collections, by poets who use words that are almost jagged, sharp points that tear and shred preconceived notions and force you to consider something in an entirely different way. The result can be unsettling.

Meet Megan Fernandes and Sandra Marchetti.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, July 27, 2015

Ed Cyzewski’s “First Draft Father”

Our firstborn was a few weeks old. I came home from work for lunch, so my wife could do a regular postpartum doctor’s visit. She left, and I sat there in my suit, feeding our son a bottle in the place of his regular breastfeeding.

Suddenly I heard the noise, the sound of a rather large if muffled explosion. I looked down to see that my son had somehow figured out how to get a bowel movement through his Pampers, through his plastic pants, and through the lap pad to splatter me and my suit with a yellowish-brownish substance.

My first thought: being single again. My second thought: how do I move and not see the stuff slide down my suit to the shag carpet on the floor? The volume was large. And liquid. On the plus side, the baby seemed quite content and resumed inhaling his bottle.

None of the Lamaze classes prepare you for these kind of moments, or the more general fears of every first-time father. Will I drop the baby? Do I know how to change the diaper? How do I know if the baby’s sick? Can I make it to the kitchen floor before the poop hits the carpet?

Writer and author Ed Cyzewski had an additional fear – he would be the stay-at-home dad while his wife attended graduate school.

As it turned out, Cyzewski did just fine. What likely helped was that he blogged the experience of being a first-time father, which meant he could articulate his fears and worries and get ideas and encouragement from both dads and moms.

In First Draft Father: A Write-from-Home Dad Finds the Joy/Anxiety/Exhaustion/Wonder of Parenting, Cyzewski has assembled and edited his blog posts and added a few articles published in other publications. The result is an honest, and real, account of fatherhood – and trying to juggle baby duties with being a freelance writer and author.

As I said, Cyzewski did just fine – but there were many times when he felt the outcome was in doubt. Whether we’re stay-at-home dads or working dads, we all experience the feelings of doubt, frustration, fear, anxiety, frustration, anger – and love.

He deals with “the real” of babies – the exhaustion, the trade-offs, the best-laid-plans that blow up when the baby decides not to nap, doing whatever it takes to get the baby to sleep (if that means walking him in the stroller during a thunderstorm, so be it); dealing with all the great and not-so-great advice; and the times when you break.

Ed Cyzewski
It’s been 27 years since our second son was a newborn – and reading First Draft Father was walking back through those times when I did things I never dreamed of doing B.C. – before children. And learned things I never dreamed of learning.

What Ed Cyzewski has served up is a big helping of encouragement, understanding, and experience. Read First Draft Father if you getting ready to become one, if you are one, ir if you were one.

And did I make it to the kitchen without a downpour on the carpet?

Yes, hunched over at a 90-degree angle with the baby held tightly to my chest. I laid him on floor, messy pad and all, and removed all of my clothes – nothing had been spared, including my socks. Then I removed all of his clothes, none of which had been spared, either, and the two of us streaked to the shower.

Photograph by George Hodan via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Sunday, July 26, 2015

I keep the laws

After Acts 6:8 – 7:60

I keep the laws
I wash, when I should,
I fast, when I should,
read and listen when I should

he serves the widows at table

I live near, the sacredness
of this place spills over my home
I tithe what I should

He serves the people with love

And you, Stephen, hand me
Scripture and history and
innocence and spirit and
wisdom and the face
of an angel

he serves his Lord in what
he says

I give you stones, cast
I give you stones, thrown
I give you stones, hurled

he serves his Lord in what
he does

stones, Stephen,

he is served stones

Painting of the stoning of St. Stephen by Rembrandt van Rijn, oil on canvas, 1625; Musee des Beaux-Arts de Lyon.

Saturday, July 25, 2015

Saturday Good Reads

It was a bad week and a good week online.

It’s one of those controversies that can only get going when someone misses the context of a comment or article or statement, or ignores what someone has said in general on the subject, or just doesn’t check their facts. Yes, it was Christians doing it to Christians, and this time author Karen Swallow Prior was the target. Blogger Mark Chanson comprehensively set the record straight, and the offending party eventually backed off. And they’ll know we are Christians by how venomous we can be?

The controversy is indicative of several things: how the internet and social media can exacerbate rumors and misinformation; the heightened sensitivity among Christians over where the culture is headed; and the general tendency of having to be right, about everything and all the time, without exception, starting with our political leaders.

Christians should know better.

But it was a good week for poetry (well, perhaps every week is a good week for poetry). And photographs. And ponderings on faith.

And something else good happened, too: someone saw the link to my blog post this week on The Hiding Place, saw the photograph I used with it, and recognized it had been taken in Holland. The photograph showed German troops marching a group of Jews to deportation from a Dutch town. The photo brought back some of this person’s earliest memories – she had been a toddler during the Nazi occupation and remembered the “black boots” marching people to the concentration camp outside her town. She was not familiar with Corrie ten Boom or The Hiding Place, but decided to read the book.


The earth is stained with an unyielding wildness – John Blase at The Beautiful Due. 

Not pretty – Lise at All the Words. 
Remembering Sunrise - Seth Haines. 
Burden – Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper. 
On our island and Awakening – Troy Cady at T(r)oy Marbles. 


Happy Halloween and Four Studies of Lilies – Tim Good at Photography by Tiwago. 

Slow Process – Cait Kovac at Oxford American.


Listening for the Symphony - Jason Stasyszen at Connecting to Impact. 
Recovering Your Joy – Lise at Words and Wonder. 
Pulpit and Pen's Accusations Against Karen Prior – Mark Chanson.   
July 4th Blues & Building a Foundation for a Story that Matters – Chris Peek at Trail Reflections. 
A Foreigner Sees the World – Ann Kroeker.

Photograph of Greek Orthodox Church on Crete by Petr Kratochvil via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Friday, July 24, 2015

Did it save you, Stephen

After Acts 6:8-7:60

Did the face of the angel
save you, Stephen, did
the five words save you,
did the grace and spirit
save you, Stephen

did the logic save you,
did the recitation of history,
accurate, save you, did
any of this save you, Stephen

the charges flew around our heads
the sentence flew around our heads
the stones flew around your head

none of it save you, Stephen,
or did it

Photograph by Maliz Ong via Public Domain Pictures. Used with permission.

Thursday, July 23, 2015

“Stone’s Fall” by Iain Pears

My first encounter with the novels of Iain Pears was An Instance of the Fingerpost, published in 1999. I was enthralled by a story that was almost hypnotic, not to mention almost impossible to put down (and it was a long story). I was just as taken by a second novel, The Dream of Scipio (2003), and how Pears used the idea of time as the framework for his story.

Between those two novels, Pears drew upon his background as an art historian to begin what became a series of seven “art history mysteries:” The Raphael Affair, The Last Judgment, The Titian Committee, Death and Restoration, The Bernini Bust, Giotto’s Hand and The Immaculate Deception. The books are wonderful mysteries, and you learn about the art and the art world at the same time you’re enjoying a good story.

In 2010, Pears published Stone’s Fall, which I have finally gotten around to reading. Here, rather than drawing upon his knowledge of and experience with art, he utilizes his experience as a journalist (BBC, Reuter’s and others) and creates a story about the world a few years before World War I. Almost like an investigative journalist, Pears leads the reader down a path of armaments manufacturing, the Industrial Revolution, international finance and diplomatic intrigue.

But even more than that, he takes us back in time, from London in 1909 to Paris in 1890 and Venice in 1867, telling his story in almost reverse chronological order.

In 1909, in his London home on St. James Square, 68-year-old businessman John Stone falls out of a window to his death. The police conclude it was an accident, that Stone tripped on a carpet in front of the window and fell. No one wants to consider suicide, because Stone is the center of an industrial armaments empire that stretches globally, and his shareowners include people at the highest levels of the British government.

Stone’s considerably younger wife Elizabeth hires a something journalist, Matthew Braddock, to ostensibly write a biography of her late husband but actually to discover the identity of the child mentioned in Stone’s will. The will doesn’t give a name, gender or age, but there is some 250,000 pounds left to “the child.” As he investigates, Braddock stumbles into Stone’s web businesses and business / political relationships. The young Braddock also falls in love with the considerably older Elizabeth Stone.

Iain Pears
The story moves backward to Paris in 1890, with a tale of intrigue spun to bring down the Bank of England. But even then, the story has murkier antecedents, in the Venice of 1867, and the creation of the torpedo and adulterous relationships among the English ex-pat community.

Similar to what he did in The Dream of Scipio, Pears uses time as a major structuring device for the novel. By essentially telling the story backwards, he employs the line from William Wordsworth, “The child is father to the man.” The great events and the individual lives of today owe much to the past, even if and especially when we don’t realize it. In Stone’s Fall, that line is almost literally true, but the child mentioned in the will becomes the key to what happens over the next 40 years.

It’s a captivating read, and another great story by the author.

Painting: Canal of the Giudecca, Venice, oil on canvas by Edward William Cooke (1867). Tate Britain, London.

Wednesday, July 22, 2015

The Hiding Place: Invasion

Haarlem, The Netherlands, September, 1939. A family of aging sisters, and an elderly father and aunt, listen to the assurances of the Dutch government on the radio that the country is neutral, it will not be invaded by Nazi Germany and there will be no war. A few hours later, Holland is at war. Five days after that, the queen flees to Britain and the government surrenders. And everything changes.

German military uniforms are everywhere. Curfews are announced. Radios have to be surrendered.

We’ve reached the point in our book discussion of The Hiding Place by Corrie ten Boom where the introductory chapters are over, and the story turns to one of the darkest times in Dutch and European history. It is difficult time to be Dutch, and occupied by Nazis. It’s an impossible time to be Jewish. The Jews of Haarlem gradually begin to disappear, starting with the rabbi and other religious leaders. (In a separate story, in Amsterdam, the Frank family, including their daughter Anne, goes into hiding, and will evade the Nazis for three years.)

Corrie ten Boom finds a wide array of responses to the occupation. Some people will fight it and join the resistance. Some will embrace the new conquerors and become much like them. Most will try to muddle through and focus on surviving. And some will be consumed, never to be seen again.

The last time any part of the United States was occupied at least partially by a conquering army was the Civil War. Before that, it had happened during the American Revolution. (During the War of 1812, there were battles and forays like the burning of Washington, but no sustained occupation.) Those occupations, while disruptive and often terrible, cannot compare with what happened in Europe with the Nazis. And yet people’s responses were similar – some resist and fight, some collaborate, most try to survive.

Corrie faced a choice in how she would respond. She could have ducked and likely been left largely alone. But Corrie and her family were strong Christians, and they’re horrified by what’s happening. Persecution of a Jewish neighbor leads her to help him escape, and Corrie ten Boom discovers the underground. And more than that, she will become part of the underground. She will offer herself to God to help the Jewish people.

You read a story like this one and can’t help but ask, what would you do in her situation? You’d like to think you would be courageous – we all like to think of ourselves as noble heroes – but the fact is that you don’t know. And you won’t know until you face the kind of choice and the decision Corrie faced.

She chose the path of courage and danger. She could have kept her head down and ridden out the war relatively unbothered, ignoring what was happening to neighbors and friends, ignoring the men, women and children wearing the yellow star, herded into trucks and taken away.

And she knew there could be a heavy price to pay.

Led by Jason Stasyszen and Sarah Salter, we’ve been reading The Hiding Place. To see more posts on this chapter, “Invasion,” please visit Sarah at Living Between the Lines.

Photograph: German troops rounding up Dutch Jews for deportation to the camps in Poland.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How to Write a Poetry Review

Walter Lippmann (1889-1974)

We had considerable conversation, and a little controversy, around my post two weeks ago, “The 6 Most Overused Words in Poetry Reviews.” I didn’t realize just how hot a topic poetry reviews happens to be.

A common question arose: “OK, so you have six overused words in poetry reviews and three more than are contenders for the list of most overused. Just how do you go about writing a poetry review?”

I consider poetry and book reviews highly subjective endeavors. It is someone’s opinion, after all, of someone else’s creative work. There’s no textbook approach I could cite that would meet all conditions and situations.

But I can explain how I do poetry reviews myself.

And you can blame Walter Lippmann (1889 – 1974).

To continue reading, please see my post today at Tweetspeak Poetry.

Monday, July 20, 2015

Charleston – A Poem by Lynn Morrissey

Lynn Morrissey is a writer and poet, who has written for The High Calling and numerous web sites, including Jennifer Dukes-Lee’s. She is the author of Love Letters to God: Deeper Intimacy Through Written Prayer; Seasons of a Woman’s Heart: A Daybook of Stories and Inspiration; and Treasures of a Woman’s Heart. We happen to belong to the same church in St. Louis, and I’ve actually served with her husband on the church Board of Deacons.

Lynn has written a fine poem about the murders of nine people at the church in Charleston, and I’m privileged to share it here.

by Lynn D. Morrissey

in memory and honor of the martyred members of “Mother” Emanuel AME Church, Charleston, South Carolina, June 2015

Nine faithful saints met below a mahogany-lined,
stained-glass sanctuary
in an undercroft meeting room,

Nine innocents assembled,
as children in a Sunday-School circle,
                                    daring to entwine the stranger in their midst
in love’s caring embrace.
Opening their good hearts to him,
opening their Good Books,
their fingers traced ancient emblems on a page,
onion-skinned words,
pregnant with power,
that birthed life and love, freedom and hope,
while he unearthed a pistol with nine bitter bullets,
threatening to unleash Pharoah’s racist vitriol
of centuries past.

            (Didn’t he know that God commands to let His children go?
             Didn’t he know that Pharoah and his slave-owning minions throughout the eons
             always get sucked under and perish
             in the undertow of hate?
             Didn’t he know that Christ came and died and rose—
             that He set the slaves, the captives free?)

Would that the stranger had unsheathed the Sword, two-edged,
and turned it on himself,
pledging to let it do its piercing surgery,
dividing his withered soul and spirit, tethered joints and marrow,
cutting to the quick his narrow thoughts and intentions,
his rancid racial dissension,
slicing out the bigotry hidden in his own subterranean, Satanic heart.
Would that he had subjugated his repugnant faux-supremacy under
the Supreme Judge.

Would that he had begged Him
and them
for mercy for even contemplating what he was about
to do.

(He could have stopped.
            Racists can always stop.
                        They must.

Instead, he raged on, firing close-range shots like cannons,
abandoning all humanity,

He left them there,
nine innocents below the mahogany-lined,
stained-glass sanctuary,
blood-stains on his hands,
slave-chains on his heart,
chains sure to drag him down and drown his soul.

But for nine faithful saints,
the waters parted.

They walked through to safety.

They walked through to higher,
holier ground.

Photograph: Emanuel African-Methodist-Episcopal Church in Charleston, via Episcopal Café, which also has a brief history of the church.

Sunday, July 19, 2015

The deacon's song

After Acts 6:1-7

A duty born of a complaint
a complaint born of a practice
or non-practice, some ignored,
some disregarded for not having
the right credentials.

Created to serve, to serve
basic needs, to feed, born
to demonstrate a caring heart,
to meet the needs of the vulnerable,
to become the feet and hands
of the good news.

The seven sang:
We are the good news.

We are the gospel.

Saturday, July 18, 2015

Saturday Good Reads

With an announcement by Abingdon Press that it would no longer publish Christian fiction (the second time the publisher has made this announcement), a debate erupted over whether the genre is dead or alive. Across the pond, old notebooks belonging to Charles Dickens and recently discovered may well rewrite what we know about Victorian literature in England (my wife found this story). Rod Dreher discovered a premonition of his “Benedict Option” in a book published in 1978 by Barbara Tuchman, A Distant Mirror – the first book I read after arriving in St. Louis.

And some good poetry, and more good stuff.


Stasis – Jerry Barnett at Gerald the Writer.

Jane Kenyon – D.S. Martin at Kingdom Poets.

First Light – Brendan MacOdrum at Oran’s Well.

This is not (good / bad) news – Lise at All the Words.

I Don’t Fear Death – Sandra Beasley videopoem via Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

Reliving – Into the Wild – Nithin RS at My words.

Art and Photography

Twisting and In the Shade – Tim Good at Photography by Tiwago.

Max Beckmann at the St. Louis Art Museum – Episode 192 of the Modern Art Notes Podcast.


Christian Fiction’s Old Guard vs. New Guard – Mike Duran at deCompose.

How to Find Your Muse – Tanya Marlow at Thorns and Gold.

The Slow Growth of Ideas, Part 2 – Chris Yokel at The Rabbit Room.


The One who was and is to come – Troy Cady at T(r)oy Marbles.

Integrity of Life – Damaris Zehner at Internet Monk.

The 14th Century Dutch Benedict Option – Rod Dreher at American Conservative.

Photograph: The first installment of A Tale of Two Cities in All the Year Round, 1859. The recent discovery of the notebooks Dickens kept for the journal identifies who the various “anonymous” authors of articles and poems were. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.