Wednesday, March 30, 2011

The Unforgivable, by Tessa Stockton (Risen Books)

This is one you won't soon forgetmaybe ever forget.

Ms. Stockton has selected a major league topic for her debut novel. It's the one element of the Lord's Prayer Jesus considered worthy of commentary in Matthew 6. It's arguably the single-most difficult commandment the Christian has to deal with, and concept for the non-Christian to deal with. It's an issue that's inextricably enmeshed with other equally difficult problems of the heart, like, oh say, pride. Guessed it yet? Yup.

It's forgiveness. But wait a sec.

Ms. Stockton didn't tackle this heady issue on only one plane, which would be challenging enough. Oh, no. She laid before her readers forgiveness in its purest multifaceted form: intra-personal, inter-personal and multi-personal. How she goes about it is the joy of the ride.

Our heroine, Genevieve, is at a quilting convention and trade show in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with her best friend, Sally, and her new friend, Paloma, an Argentinean craftswoman. A chance encounter at a restaurant with a man, Carlos, sends her heart into palpitations and her friends into shock. The problem: Carlos is one of Argentina's most notorious figures, an ex-military officer blamed for horrible atrocities committed during the Dirty War of the late 70s and early 80s. Chastised for her foolishness by Sally, and harangued for insensitivity by Paloma, whose family suffered personally at the hands of men like Carlos, Genevieve still can't shake what she perceives behind the eyes of this gentleman with a very ungentle history. But she begins to spend more time with him, despite the protestations of her closest friends.

What unfolds is an emotional and spiritual rollercoaster ride for Genevieve, who doesn't dismiss the evidence against the man with whom she's falling in love, or excuse his past, but deals with them at the level on which God is leading her. For she believes God has brought them together. Through her exposure to this enigmatic man of sorrows, Genevieve not only gains a historical lesson in Argentina's Dirty War, but an even more valuable spiritual lesson in what it means to forgive against the backdrop of the seemingly unforgivable.

Ms. Stockton strikes a chord with an intensity few writers have dared to. Many have written about forgiveness; Tessa writes forgiveness. If this story doesn't make you evaluate your response to what is perhaps Christ's toughest commandment, then either you're ready for sainthood or your conscience has abandoned you.

This review is based upon an advance copy Ms. Stockton was kind enough to provide me. I guarantee you, though, having already read the story will not stop me from buying my own copy of the book the minute it comes out. Bravo to Ms. Stockton on a strong debut in the first installment of her "Wounds of South America" series.

Friday, March 18, 2011

The Shape of Mercy, by Susan Meissner (WaterBrook Press)

Click cover for more info
 I’ve reviewed quite a few books over the past few years. Some I’ve had a lot of fun reviewing, some were more sober endeavors. But I haven’t actually feared reviewing any of them.
Until now.

Why fear? Well, because of the two things I think people fear most: the unknown and failure. I don’t know how to best approach representing this incredible story, and, regardless of the approach I choose, I’m certain I’ll fail to do the book justice.

So, you’re going to have to work with me here. Please be patient.

The Story. Lauren Durough is a young well-to-do university student in covert rebellion against her heritage. Abigail Broyles is an elderly well-to-do retiree in covert rebellion against her legacy. Interposed between them is Mercy Hayworth, an innocent victim of the horrific 17th-century Salem witchcraft trials. Okay, so how does that work? At the marvelously skillful hand of author Susan Meissner, it works exceedingly well.

Abigail retains Lauren to transcribe Mercy’s diary, a precious family heirloom. Lauren is to approach her task wrapped in a cloak of ignorance; that is, she must promise not to research the events surrounding the trials until she’s completed the transcription. Mercy Hayworth must be allowed to speak for herself, unfettered by historiography. Also woven into this cloak, though, is the real reason Abigail has selected Lauren as the transcriptionist, as is the effect the words of a simple girl from a distant era will have on her own self-perception.

An intriguing cast of supporting characters push and pull at Lauren throughout the story, adding their own contemporary thematic hue to the faded brown ink of Mercy’s ancient journal. Through it all, Lauren will either mature into her future or collapse under her past. There’s no other option.

The Writing. As writers, we’re encouraged to keep our readers on the edge, to force that next page turn, anything to breathe new life into the tired clich√© “I couldn’t put it down.” There are techniques to do that, such as ending scenes and chapters with mini-cliffhangers, dangling questions that simply must be answered now. And gadgets like that have their place.

But then there’s writing like Ms. Meissner’s.

You know quality prose when you’re not sure you want to turn the next page, but find yourself compelled to do so—not because of a dangling question, but because the titanium thread binding the storyline blurs the distinction between pages, and so you go on. You have to. And you will.

Intense and honest, humorous and poignant; I’ve yet to read a book that I’d recommend more highly than The Shape of Mercy.

Sunday, March 13, 2011

Yesterday's Tomorrow, by Catherine West (OakTara)

In 1954, Malcolm Taylor, a noted foreign-affairs journalist, kissed his daughter at the front door, said goodbye, and promised to come back. He didn't.

In 1967, Kristin Taylor, a budding novice journalist, followed her father's trail to find out why.

So begins a gritty and heart-rending tale of integrity, faith and perseverance in two war-torn countries: Vietnam and the United States.

In Saigon, Kristin meets up--or rather, is forced into reluctant collaboration--with Luke Maddox, a photojournalist who irks Kristin in just about every way imaginable. And she reciprocates. Little do either of them know that Kristin's determination to follow through on a story her father had begun the previous decade and Luke's hidden past are intertwined. Finally, her self-imposed assignment, an expos√© on a secret war within a war, threatens to explode both of their worlds, which have now become one.

Professionally, Kristin excels in her honest portrayal of a conflict gone so wrong, endearing herself to the men she has come to respect and love.  Personally, she doesn't do so well in shielding her emotions from the horror engulfing a nation she has also come to love. From the trauma of a blood-spattered field hospital, to the heat of battle at a forward fire base, to the precious and precarious existence of a Saigon orphanage, Kristin learns the hard way how to survive physically, mentally and emotionally in an environment man was never meant to endure.

Her love-hate relationship with Luke comes to a head, then Kristin is forced to return to the States. Like most veterans of that conflict, part of her she leaves in Vietnam, part of Vietnam she brings home with her. And life is never again the same.

Ms. West delivers an honest, compelling, and very well written tale of war and the aftermath of war. But it's not a mere blood-and-guts story. It's one of hope. She shows us how love and faith have curious and unexpected ways of sprouting even in the most barren soil. Yesterday's Tomorrow will leave you very satisfied at its conclusion, but don't expect the path to be strewn with rose petals. Few paths to meaningful destinations are.

As an endnote, Ms. West is represented by Rachelle Gardner of the Wordserve Literary Agency. Neither Ms. Gardner nor Wordserve are known for tolerating mediocrity. In Catherine West, and Yesterday's Tomorrow, they've advanced their excellent reputation.

This is a review of an ARC of Yesterday's Tomorrow. The book is due to be released through online outlets in March 2010 by OakTara--another pretty good outfit, I might add. ;-)

Wednesday, March 2, 2011

Gatekeeper, by Ruth Crews (OakTara)

In the middle of page 28 of Gatekeeper, the author plants this deceivingly benign snippet of advice:
“Most of your life will not allow you to use sources for proof or inspiration.”

Although Ms. Crews didn’t feature it as a tagline on the front cover, she could have. And our heroine is about to find out why.

Anna Merritt, a vivacious coed from the southern United States, finds herself on exchange in the archetypal upper-British academic environs of Oxford. Unshackled by even the remotest degree of formality and tradition, Anna plows a ‘primitively colonial’ furrow into the neatly manicured grounds of the ancient and renown university, and especially into the lives of two fellow students: the spontaneous Eddie Mitchell and the reservedly detached Nicholas Diggs. Inseparable almost from the first day, the trio brave the academic stresses and social pressures of Oxford’s Saints College. But that’s just the beginning.

Everything proceeds as both Anna and the reader might expect, until one fateful day a ‘routine’ tutoring session unexpectedly thrusts her into a position to test the above-suggested tagline. You see, Nicholas Diggs is poised for destruction on his 21st birthday, a mere three weeks away, at the hands of the people from whom he would least expect it. Anna’s tutor, the enigmatic Dr. Barney, lays Nicholas’ future in her lap—then promptly disappears.

At the end of the term the three students embark on a whirlwind trip through Prague, Berlin, Paris, then back to Oxford. The trip provides the perfect scenario to help Anna forestall Nicholas’ day of reckoning. Or so she thinks. Anna is aided in her task by the mysterious Mr. Truman, who always seems to be at the right place just at the right time, and only divvies out information to Anna in just the right amounts at just the right times. The question is, does Anna have what it takes to rescue Nicholas, whose dilemma is diametrically opposed to her own inner struggles?

You’ll discover the answer to that question in the pages of a very cleverly written story by a promising new author, Ms. Ruth Crews. Her fresh, perky writing voice pairs wonderfully with her personal experience at the venues in which the story takes place to deliver a fascinating, humorous and poignant coming-of-age tale. You’ll find the repartee between the three friends to be absolutely priceless—especially for those who have visited the UK. Not only do Anna’s Americanisms wage battle with the boys’ British-isms throughout the story, but her right-brained English-major subjectivity clashes with the stodgy, ultra-functional outlook on life to which Nicholas clings so tenaciously. And Eddie? Well, Eddie is Eddie, and he takes shots at everybody.

Ms. Crews sets the bar at a very respectable height with her debut novel. Highly recommended for the genre. Looking forward to reading The Leaving, the second installment in Ms. Crews' “Gatekeeper” series.