Thursday, July 19, 2018

"Dead Water" by Ann Cleeves

Jerry Markham, born and raised in Shetland, took himself off to London as soon as he could. He’s a journalist, gradually making a name for himself, although in Shetland he’s something of a celebrity already. But people generally don’t like him; he was the spoiled only child of the owners of Ravenscroft Hotel, he made something of a pest of himself when he reported for the Shetland Times, and he got a local girl, Evie Watt, pregnant when she worked at the hotel. That was another reason for hightailing it to London.

Jerry comes back to Shetland for a visit, although it may be something more than that, like a story. He’s back barely a day when he’s murdered. His body is found floating in a racing scull, and it’s found by Inspector Jimmy Perez’s boss, Rhona Laing. Because Perez is still recovering from the death of his fiancée, a detective inspector is sent from Scotland to manage the case. And what becomes clear is that Rhona knows more about Jerry Markham than she wants to say. So do a lot of other people.

Dead Water by Ann Cleeves is the fifth Jimmy Perez detective novel, and it’s as consistently high-0caliber and entertaining as its predecessors. Cleeves continues to develop the story and character of Perez, who almost against his will is drawn into the investigation. He always knows the right questions to ask, and it’s largely because he pays close attention to what few other investigating officers pay attention to – the personal details.

Ann Cleeves
Cleeves has published seven mysteries in the Jimmy Perez / Shetland series, including Raven Black (2008), Red Bones (2009), White Nights (2010), Blue Lightning (2011), Dead Water (2014), Thin Air (2015), and Cold Air (2017). She’s also published eight mystery novels in the Vera Stanhope series (also a television series), six Inspector Stephen Ramsay mysteries, and several others works and short stories. The Jimmy Perez novels are the basis for the BBC television series “Shetland.” Cleeves lives in northeastern England.

There will be a second murder, with more in the offing unless Perez and his fellow police officers can delve deeply into the past to find answers and motives. Dead Water is a fine mystery, gripping to the end, and has the reader almost cheering to see Jimmy Perez managing to recover from his own personal tragedy.


Top photograph: A view of the Shetland coast, via

Wednesday, July 18, 2018

“A Garden in Paris” and “A Hilltop in Tuscany” by Stephanie Whitson

Have you ever read a novel that you found sound engaging that you immediately bought and read the sequel?

That’s what I did with Stephanie Grace Whitson’s A Garden in Paris and A Hilltop in Tuscany. They’re romance novels, but in the same sense that the Shetland and Scottish novels of Michael Phillips are romance novels. At one point, I even suspected that Phillips had written these two books under a pseudonym – these two romances by Whitson have a similar sense of place and a sweeping story that the novels of Phillips has.

A Garden in Paris tells the story of Mary McKibbin Davis and her adult daughter Elizabeth. They live in Omaha, and Mary is recently widowed. Her husband Sam had been something of a control freak – sweeping her away from where they met in France, organizing her life (and his own), discouraging her playing of the violin. He operated a property development firm, which is now being run by Elizabeth, who appears to be just as hard-charging and controlling as her father. Elizabeth, who feels no closeness to her mother, is engaged to Jeff Scott, an attorney who genuinely likes his prospective mother-in-law and has growing concerns about his driven fiancée. 

Mary sets into motion a series of events that will lead to a general unraveling of the family. For starters, she challenges her daughter over a contract at the family foundation. More significantly, she writes to her first love, Jean-Marc David, at the last address she knew for him, and asks him to meet her in Paris on Christmas Eve. She hasn’t seen or talked with him in almost 30 years. The story becomes something of a family saga, as Mary begins to rediscover love and Elizabeth learns there is far more to her mother than she ever knew, or that her father ever allowed her to know.

In the sequel, A Hilltop in Italy, Mary’s love life is growing more complex, with both Jean-Marc David and his close friend Luca Santo falling in love with her. Elizabeth is planning her wedding and her future life in the same hard-charging way she’s run the business founded by her father, and she’s running right over her fiancée. Elizabeth is also having to deal with collapsing illusions about her late father, her mother’s romances, and the real possibility of her own relationship to Jeff collapsing. 

Stephanie Grace Whitson
Much of the story is set in Florence and Tuscany, the home of Luca Santo and his large, extended family. And the reader wonders how Mary’s and Elizabeth’s love lives are going to resolve itself without major wreckage for everyone involved.

Whitson has published 29 Christian fiction books, most in the Christian romance genre, as well as two non-fiction books. She’s also a speaker and seminar leader, teaching groups on writing, Christian faith, and women’s history. She holds a master’s degree in history.

A Garden in Paris and A Hilltop in Tuscany fall into that proverbial “difficult to put down” category of novels.  

Top photograph of the Montmartre District in Paris by Guiseppe Mondi via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The Poets of Instagram: r.h. Sin and “I Hope This Reaches Her in Time”

I’ve watched a video on Facebook that I almost can’t stop watching. It’s produced byJay Shetty, a British relationship coach, host, former monk, and, as he says, someone who is all about “making wisdom go viral.” Just so you know, Shetty has 14 million followers on Facebook, one million followers on Instagram, and 800,000 subscribers on YouTube.  His web site has received more than a billion views.

What likely caught my eye about the video is that it’s filmed on a bridge I’ve walked many times – the Millennium Bridge over the Thames in London, which connects the Tate Modern on the South Bank and St. Paul’s Cathedral on the North Bank. The video tells the story of Jack and Louise, and it’s entitled “When You Bump into Your Ex.” (It’s not yet posted on YouTube; if it were, I’d include it here.) They meet by chance, and it’s clear they’re still in love with each other, but both misunderstand what the other is saying.

I find the video fascinating because it powerfully tells a story, a love story. And it didn’t help that I’d been reading I Hope This Reaches Her in Time, a new poetry collection by Instagram poet r.h. Sin, which could almost serve as the script for the video.

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

Monday, July 16, 2018

Dancing King Stories: Researching a Novel

I’m looking at a web site called English Historical Fiction Authors. Its audience is authors who write period historical novels. The various posts are written by the authors themselves. So, you can learn about how ice cream was made in the 18thcentury, what pieces of furniture would have been found in an upper-class hoe in the 16thcentury, who the Lord Proprietors of Carolina were in the 17thcentury, the friendship between the British Saxon Osulf and one of Charlemagne’s sons; and similar kinds of really detailed information. If you want your period novel to show authenticity, you need authentic historical details.

I don’t write historical novels. Mine fall into the more contemporary genre; actually, they’re set a few years ahead of our own times. So, I don’t have to be concerned with a lot of historical detail, like what Osulf really thought of his friend Charles a thousand years ago.

But it doesn’t mean I’ve escaped the research yoke. Far from it.

To continue reading, please see my post today at Dancing Priest.

Photograph by by Gaelle Marcel via Unsplash. Used with permission.

“Grant and Twain” by Mark Perry

I knew the story of Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain, or, more precisely, I knew the barebones of how Twain helped Grant publish his memoirs. I learned it years ago, when I found a first edition of two-volume The Personal Memoirs of Ulysses S. Grant (1885) in a local antique store and noticed that the publisher was the one Twain had helped to create. From reading several Twain biographies, I knew about the publisher Charles H. Webster & Co, and that Twain played a significant role in the Grant memoirs.

I knew the story, but I didn’t know the story. Author Mark Perry tells that story in Grant and Twain: The Story of a Friendship That Changed America (2004). The subtitle may sound a bit overstated, but it’s not; as large as each of them loom in American military and literary history respectively, their friendship resulted in something of almost mythic proportions.

Grant’s work would come to be seen as the best military memoir since Caesar’s Gallic Wars; its straightforward, concise style would set the example for every military memoir that came after. And it was the Grant-Twain friendship that helped Twain to finally break the writer’s block on a story he had started and then set aside a decade earlier, one called The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. The story of Grant and Twain’s friendship and collaboration is a significant and remarkable chapter of American literary history. And Perry tells it a lively, highly readable, and intriguing fashion.

Grant and Twain provides the basic story of the lives of both men. Grant, several years older, was born and raised in Ohio, attended West Point, and served in the U.S. Army during the Mexican-American War. He left military service and lived in St. Louis, where his in-laws resided (right next to the suburban St. Louis biking trail I’ve traveled hundreds of times). He wasn’t much of a success at farming, and he re-enlists when the Civil War began. He was in command at some of the bloodiest engagements in the western theater of war – Shiloh and Vicksburg. President Lincoln appointed him commander of the Northern armies and he began to doggedly tear away at Robert E. Lee’s position in Virginia. 

After the Confederate defeat, Grant was elected President twice. His administrations were marked by horrible scandals and corruption, but none ever touched Grant himself. He moved to New York City and became a partner in an investment house partially owned by his son.

Twain was born and raised in northeastern Missouri, with a biography inevitably tied to the Mississippi River. At the outbreak of the Civil War, he joined a rather irregular Confederate unit, but he soon realized he wanted no part of military life. His brother was appointed to a federal post in Nevada, and Twain accompanied him, trying prospecting and other activities before settling in on one in which he excelled – newspaper reporting. He returned east after the end of the war, continued writing, married, and settled in Hartford, Connecticut. Twain was always on the lookout for money-making ventures, virtually all of which lost money, and often major amounts of money. And so, he would take to the lecture circuit, becoming one of the best-known public speakers in America.

Grant’s investment house collapsed in 1883, and the former general and American hero faced bankruptcy. Worse still, he was diagnosed with tongue and throat cancer, and he faced the prospect of death and having nothing to provide his wife Julia and family with. He reluctantly accepted what had been urged upon him for years – to write his memoirs. He found a publisher and began the work.

Twain knew something about publishing in the Gilded Age, and he realized that Grant’s publisher knew nothing about the important role serialization could play, both to provide income and to set the stage for the entire edition of the memoirs. He convinced Grant, shortly before he was to sign his publishing contract, to switch to the publishing firm operated by Twain’s nephew. It was a wise move. Grant’s first publisher thought the memoirs could bring Grant as much as #25,000 or even $30,000. Twain saw that as a ridiculously low number, and he was right; Grant’s family would realize more than $300,000 from the serialization and publication.

And thus began a race against time – for Grant to finish his manuscript before his medical condition incapacitated him. Twain served as one of the editors, but he made virtually no changes; Grant had a natural writing style that almost seemed to edit itself. And in the process, Twain was inspired to resurrect that story he had put away years before, because he couldn’t figure out how to get Jim the runaway slave and Huck Finn to go southto find freedom for Jim.

Mark Perry
It's a stirring story. Everyone involved became convinced that the only thing that kept Grant alive as long as he did was the intense focus on the writing.

Perry received degrees from the Northwestern Military and Naval Academy and Boston University. He has written extensively on military history, foreign affairs, and intelligence and security. His books include Four Stars: The Inside Story of the Forty-Year Battle Between the Joint Chiefs of Staff and America’s Civilian Leaders (1989); A Fire in Zion: The Israeli-Palestinian Search for Peace (1994); Conceived in Liberty: William Oates, Joshua Chamberlin, and the American Civil War (1999); Lift Up Thy Voice: The Sarah and Angelina Grimke Family’s Journey from Slaveholders to Civil Rights Leaders (2002); Grant and Twain (2004); and Partners in Command: George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower in War and Peace (2007); among others. He also co-founded the International Campaign to Ban Landmines, which received the Nobel Peace Prize in 1997. 

Grant and Twain tells the story of how two men became friends, fellow writers, and business partners to the benefit of both – but especially to the benefit of posterity.

Top illustration: Ulysses S. Grant and Mark Twain.

Sunday, July 15, 2018

And the palms

After Mark 11:1-14

Gathered from the fields,
collected and carried
to the procession of the king
riding, entering his city,
unlike any conqueror previous
but a conqueror nonetheless,

The palm branches, waving
in the sunlight, spread across
the road ridden by the king,
designed to recognize, to honor,
to celebrate, to revere, to welcome
the rider on his way to the place
of sacrifice.

Photograph by Scott Webb via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, July 14, 2018

Saturday Good Reads

During my childhood, high school, and college days, when I heard the word “story” I knew exactly what it meant – a tale, a narrative, something you heard around a campfire, something your grandmother waned you never to tell her (“Now, don’t tell me a story, just the truth”). Even today, it’s how I think of the word. But it began to change in the early 1980s. Somewhere along the line, it got tangled up in post-modernism and deconstructionism. The articles typically used in front of the word, like “a” or “the,” were dropped, and it became “story.” I took a course in the mid-1980s entitled “The Nature of Story.” Something had definitely changed. Zak Schmoll begins to take a look at this at Entering the Public Square.

Mainline churches are dying in America, and it’s not a cause for smugness or “I told you so” or “serves them right.” Rod Dreher at The American Conservative has the story of a Lutheran church in Minnesota: “Lake Wobegon’s Ghost Churches.” Something significant is being lost; perhaps something significant has already been lost.

Peggy Rosenthal reviews “Won’t You Be My Neighbor.” The Guardian’s poem of the week is a medieval Welsh poem, that reads surprisingly well. Thomas Brewer considers the “instagrammable” Christian life. A story about Joe and Marge and living with dementia. Beautiful summer photos from Tim Good. Thomas Kidd corrects a myth about who printed the first American Bible. 

And more.


Donald Hall and the Unsettling of American Letters – James Matthew Wilson at Front Porch Republic.

Poem of the week: from The Gododdin by Aneirin – Carol Rumens at The Guardian.

Dateline: Syria – Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

Art and Photography

Checking in on Midtown – Chris Naffziger at St. Louis Patina.

Golden Light of a Summer Morn and Summer Garden– Tim Good at Photography by Tiwago.


The Way Home– Lori Heyd.

The Top Ten Books on Faith and Work—An Updated List for 2018 – Hugh Whelchel at the Institute for Faith, Work, & Economics.

Lake Wobegon’s Ghost Churches – Rod Dreher at The American Conservative.

The Instagrammable Christian Life – Thomas Brewer at Tabletalk.

Niggle and Me: Imagine if Your Work Really Mattered – Jerry Dienes at the Center for Faith & Work.

Another Look: Joe and Marge – Michael Mercer at Internet Monk.

American Stuff

Did Congress Print the First American Bible? – Thomas Kidd at The Gospel Coalition.

Life and Culture

Won’t You Be My Neighbor? – Peggy Rosenthal at Image Journal.

Reaching for Stories While Holding on to the Facts – Zak Schmoll at Entering the Public Square.


A mound with a story – Dr. John McGinnis and Charis Goodyear at University of Cambridge.

Imposters and the Cult of Romanov Survival – C.W. Gortner at CrimeReads.

Writing and Literature

Little Books of the Prairie – Ramona Tausz at First Things Magazine.

Glen Campbell’s Children Sing “Gentle on My Mind”

Painting: Man with a pipe, reading, oil on canvas by Franz von Defregger (1883).

Friday, July 13, 2018

The donkey

After Mark 11:1-14

Not a stallion or other
variation on a horse
not a chariot or even
a cart, not anything
they expected but:
a donkey,
and not only a donkey
but a donkey
previously unridden,
never before ridden
never before worked
or used

and that is the point

The donkey to be used first
to carry the king, the messiah,
the one foretold, the one anticipated,
the one desired and yearned for

riding a donkey
confounding expectations
contradicting expectations
a king riding a donkey
the animal used for hard work
the animal whose strength
is used to serve.

Photo by Laura Gariglio via Unsplash, Used with permission.