Friday, October 19, 2018

Prison


After Psalm 107:10-14

The prison is cold, and damp,
a generator of a chill that
freezes and dries the soul,
the scurrying sounds 
in dark corners reminding me
of my cellmates, sharpening
the knowledge of my offense
that has led to affliction and
irons, irons I joyfully clamped
on my own legs, afflictions
I welcomed in ignorance and 
stupidity, believing them 
to be freedom. spurning
the good and embracing slavery,
not seeing as the cage 
with no door, no key, until
I cried out and the light
flooded my cell.

Photograph by Denny Muller via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, October 18, 2018

"A Staged Murder" by Jo Hiestand


If you ever visit England’s Peak District, you might want to avoid Guy Fawkes Night.

It’s almost time for the Guy Fawkes bonfire in the Peak village of Upper Kingsleigh. And there are a fair number of American tourists in the gathering crowd, to watch the celebration in remembrance of the Gunpowder Plot of 1605. As Ramona VanDyke stands on a ladder to light the effigy, she notices that this is no ordinary replica. It’s real person, a very dead real person and one of the American tourists. And Ramona does what any of us might do. She screams.

Detective-Sergeant Brenna Taylor of the Derbyshire Constabulary is on the scene, helping to maintain order. She’s joined by Detective-Chief Inspector Geoffrey Graham and Detective-Sergeant Mark Salt in the investigation. And they quickly discover that there’s more one mystery here. Who killed the man? And how did the body get hoisted up on a tree limb without anyone noticing?

A Staged Murder is Jo Hiestand’s first novel in the Peak District Mystery Series, and it’s a perfect cup of tea if you like mysteries with English village atmosphere, determined police detectives, and a dearth of suspects that becomes a wide array of suspects.

Jo Hiestand
Hiestand is the author of 16 novels in two British detective series, The McLaren Mystery Series and The Peak District Mystery Series. She received a B.A. degree in English from Webster University. She’s a member of the Mystery Writers of America and founded the Greater St. Louis Chapter of Sisters in Crime. She lives in St. Louis.

We begin to learn a bit about the detectives in this first novel in the series. Geoffrey Graham is a former minister; the constabulary has all kinds of rumors of how that happened. Brenna Taylor has to deal with the usual barbs aimed by policewomen by her colleagues and prove she’s capable of doing her job. She’s also more than attracted to her boss, Chief Inspector Graham.

A Staged Murder is an intricate mystery with a strong plot, solid characterization, and a satisfying ending. And it’s only the first of several more in the series.

Top photograph: what usually happens on Guy Fawkes Night – a bonfire; by SJNikon - Sam Roberts via Wikimedia.

Wednesday, October 17, 2018

“Once We Were Strangers” by Shawn Smucker


Working for a large company had its benefits and disadvantages. Pay and benefits were good; office politics wasn’t. But office politics exists no matter how large the employer is.

There was another benefit. Because the company had operations all over the world, it had employees and customers all over the world. And the company actively transferred employees to and from the United States. On a face-to-face basis, I worked regularly with employees from India, Britain, France, Belgium, Pakistan, China, Canada, Spain, the Netherlands, Israel, and several other countries. 

Because my job involved social media, which is global, I worked virtually with employees from those countries and others from Japan, Argentina, Chile, Turkey, Italy, Greece, Vietnam, Germany, Russia, and more. I might have been physically located in St. Louis, but my work was all over the world. I was exposed to cultures, people, religions, values, and experiences that many Americans are not. And it’s an interesting set of experiences to have when considering the question of immigration (illegal and legal) and refugees.

Shawn Smucker has a perspective as well, and he shares it in Once We Were Strangers: What a Syrian Refugee Taught Me about Loving My Neighbor. Smucker and his family befriended a refugee family from Syria when it arrived in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Working through a church mission organization, Smucker made a conscious decision to befriend a man named Mohammad, along with his wife and four sons. And then he made a decision to help tell this family’s story.

Shawn Smucker's friend Mohammad
Alternating between the chaos of war in Syria and how the friendship developed, what enfolds is two stories. One is Mohammad’s story – fleeing the destruction of war, getting to a refugee camp in Jordan, finding a way out of the refugee camp, and then finding a way to a new life in another country. Mohammad and his family were not set on living in the United States; any western country – any place where a family could be raised in safety – would have worked. But they found themselves in Lancaster, and Mohammad found himself befriended by a writer and part-time Uber-Lyft driver.

Shawn Smucker
Equally important, Smucker found himself befriended by a man with a different religion, a different history, and starting his life all over again in a country where he didn’t speak the language and didn’t have any job prospects. All he knew was that his family was safe. And what is there in story after story, page after page, is a man with a very different perspective on life. When your dining room has been shelled, and you’ve had to flee with your wife and children across the desert, you have a much more tolerant view of what we call “first world problems.”

It’s a moving, instructive, and inspiring story.

In addition to the novels The Day the Angels Fell and The Edge of Over There, Smucker has published three non-fiction works – My Amish RootsBuilding a Life Out of Words, and Refuse to Drown. He and his family live in Lancaster.

No one argues for unrestricted immigration, and that’s not the story Smucker is telling in Once We Were Strangers. The story he is telling, and it’s a compelling one, is how we can be welcoming to the strangers among us, how we can see them as our neighbors, and how we will receive unexpected blessings in return.

Related:







Top photograph by Tobias Mrzyk via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Tuesday, October 16, 2018

Longfellow, Whitman, Wheatley: Whatever Happened to Patriotic Poems?


In a collection of stories, letters, poems, and speeches, I happened across “Paul Revere’s Ride” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. It immediately brought a smile, evoking a memory of class memorization from elementary school, which occurred longer ago than I care to think. I can hear myself and my fellow fifth graders reciting in unison, some of us (overachiever Mary Ellen comes to mind) reciting louder to show mastery of the poem, while a few others mumbled to disguise what they hadn’t learned. I was somewhere in the middle but leaning in the direction of Mary Ellen’s loudness. 

After I reread the poem, remembering some of the stanzas, I checked back with a Tweetspeak Poetry post from last year, which took a look at “America’s most patriotic poem.” The Atlanticpublished Longfellow’s poem in January 1861, long after Revere’s famous ride (although much about that ride remains in historical dispute today). And then I went looking for what was happening when Longfellow wrote and published that poem.

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

Photograph: Henry Wadsworth Longfellow in 1860, about the time he wrote “Paul Revere’s Ride.”

Monday, October 15, 2018

“Blue Murder” by Emma Jameson


Mayfair meets East End London, to solve a double-ax murder in Chelsea. Welcome to Blue Murder by Emma Jameson.

Chief Superintendent Anthony Hetheridge happens to have a title – the Baron of Wellgrave. He’s also 60, unmarried, and faces the possibility of his title passing to a rather obnoxious cousin. He’s been content with that, until he meets Detective Sergeant Kate Wakefield, born and raised in the East End, with a prostitute for a mother and a sister confined to a mental institution. That’s about as far as one can get from DeBrett’s Peerage.

He’s very close to proposing marriage, including toting around an heirloom family ring. Kate is part of his team, as is Detective Sergeant Paul Bhar. As Hetherdige is considering his marital options, he and his team are called to a townhome in Chelsea. What had been something of a Halloween party for university students while the homeowners are out of town has become something else entirely. 

A party-trashed home, considerable damage to the contents, and two students dead – both killed with an ax to the head. One victim is a captain of the university rugby team; the other is something of a nondescript character whom everyone knew, nobody liked, and wasn’t invited to the party in the first place. And complicating everything is the house next door – the home of a titled gentleman who had been arrested, tried, and acquitted for killing his father, brother, and the family butler.

Emma Jameson
As Hetheridge, Wakefield, and Bhar investigate the murders, they find themselves caught up in cases from the past, family problems, and the relationship between Hetheridge and Wakefield erupting into full-blown passion. 

In addition to five novels in the Hetheridge series, Jameson has a second series of novels featuring the amateur detective Dr. Benjamin Bones. The series begins in Cornwall during World War II, and it has a companion series called “The Magic of Cornwall.” Jameson is currently working on the third Dr. Bones mystery.

Blue Murder is full of back stories, a raft of suspects (including the next-door neighbor), comic relief with Bhar’s mother’s tribulations as a romantic suspense novelist, and the Hetherridge-Wakefield romance. It’s a fast-paced, fun read, or at least as fun as a double-ax murder can be.

Related:


Top photograph: a townhome in Chelsea, London.

Sunday, October 14, 2018

Desert cry


After Psalm 107:4-7

Wandering. Arid. Dry.
Parched. Seering. Desert. Heat
overpowering. No protection
from sun or wind or hear,
no refuge to find, no oasis.
Sand, and rocks, and 
Unrelenting heat. Body
fails, soul fails, collapsing
in the sand, tasting 
the hot grains, what little
moisture is left evaporating
until I become a piece
of parchment, edges seared 
by flame, and I cry out,
without hope, a sound
anguished in extreme.

The cry is heard, the listening
lifts and carries me
to the refuge.

Photograph by Ian Dooley via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Saturday, October 13, 2018

Saturday Good Reads


It has to be the most charming thing I read in the past week. In 1948, T.S. Eliot received the Nobel Prize for Literature. And for his sister, who couldn’t attend the ceremony, he wrote a long, detailed, gossipy letter about his trip to Stockholm and the various ceremonies he attended. The Guardian posted the entire letter (Hat Tip: J of India).

A lot of people are thinking, and posting, about writing. Ann Kroeker continues her series on how to be a better writer, with advice on boosting all seven traits of great writing. Adam O’Fallon Price at The Millions explains how to write a bestseller; well, sort of. Zak Schmoll has some guidance on writing a research paper. And Thomas Kidd at The Gospel Coalition explains how to avoid using bogus Christian quotes.

Advances in electronic technology have not only brought us computers, the internet, the cloud, and artificial intelligence. They’ve also brought us holograms. Would you attend a concert where the singer is there via hologram? What if the singer/hologram was Roy Orbison?

We’ve been seeing a lot of stories about China and its “social credit” system – how the Chinese government is tracking its citizens and assigning them points for proper behavior. Did you know that the same capabilities are being created in the United States? Tomas Sidenfaden at Arc Digital has the story.

It’s a movie I don’t want to see but I just may be compelled to. Jesse Johnson at The Cripplegate has a report on Gosnell the Movie, Gosnell being the abortion doctor in Philadelphia who was sentenced to life imprisonment. 

Justin Taylor at The Gospel Coalition has a report on Howard Zinn’s A People’s History of the United States, arguably the most influential American history book of the last 40 years. Taylor explains where Zinn got some of his sources, and (surprise) they’re not all historical.

More Good Reads 

Poetry

The Burned Butterfly – Anya Silver at Image Journal.

I Did Not Look Away – Laura Boggess.

Chlorophyll – Chris Yokel.

A funeral… -- Maureen Doallas at Writing Without Paper.

The Christian Plummet – Malcolm Guite.

Film

Alfred Hitchcock’s “The 39 Steps”: A Coded Message? – K.V. Turley at The Imaginative Conservative.

Art and Photography

Sweet Black-Eyed Susan – Tim Good at Photography by Tiwago.

The Short Stay of Autumn -- Susan Etole.

Faith

Learn the unforced rhythms of grace – Eileen Knowles at The Scenic Route.

The Man Who Died for the Lord’s Supper – Benjamin Hawkins at For the Church.

What Ever Happened to Civil Debate? – James Williams at Grow the Church.

Life and Culture

Liberated for What – Katherine Dalton at Front Porch Republic.

Two artists, two worlds: Mantegna and Bellini at the National Gallery


Painting: Woman Reading a Book, oil on canvas by Gabriel Metsu (1629-1667).

Friday, October 12, 2018

At the gates of death


After Psalm 107

Wait a minute, we’re all supposed to be
good, right, I mean, it’s not like
we’re Hitler, right, we make mistakes,
we misspeak, we’re boxed in by what
happened 50 years ago, or 100, or 157,
whatever, and because we’re good
it’s never our fault (I blame Trump),
we can all play our victim’s card,
earned and honorary membership, 
don’t tell me otherwise as I careen toward,
approach, stagger, stumble toward
the gates of death. I look around to see 
(blame) someone for shoving me here,
and all I see are mirrors, reflections 
that would embarrass Dorian Gray,
it’s all there staring at me really ugly
and the only thing I can do is cry
out.

Somehow, through the roaring
and the noise, all the screams around me
and the screams from me,
the cry is heard.

Photograph by Dil Assi via Unsplash. Used with permission.

Thursday, October 11, 2018

“The Day of the Lie” by William Brodrick


This is one of the best books I’ve read this year.

Father Anselm of the Gilbertine Order Larkwood Monastery near Cambridge receives a call from John Fielding, who’s been a friend since they were 11 years old and sent to the same school. Anselm had gone into law before becoming a monk, while John went into journalism. John had traveled globally and had been a reporter for BBC when he was forced to leave Warsaw in 1982 for “espionage.” Which translates as talking to dissidents.

Since then, John had been involved in an automobile accident and had lost sight in both eyes. And he needs help. The woman he was meeting with in 1982, who was to connect him to a shadowy dissident known as the Shoemaker and had herself been arrested, had shown up at his door in London. She was asking for help in bringing to trial the man in the secret police who had arrested them. 

But this wasn’t her first arrest by the secret police officer. That had happened in 1951. She and the officer had been in the anti-Nazi resistance together as teens. In 1951, he had arrested her but executed her husband. He had also persuaded her to give up the child she was carrying and gave birth to in prison.

And now, the officer had survived the fall of the communist regime in 1989 and was quietly retired, spending his days with his stamp collection. Many people want him brought to justice.

In other hands, The Day of the Liewould have been an interesting story of the aftermath of the Cold War. In the hands of author William Brodrick, the story is less a mystery novel and far more serious literary fiction, with a slight suspense element to it. This novel is as good as any of the John LeCarrenovels, and LeCarre ranks as one of the best spy story writers.

William Brodrick
Reading this story is like opening kachina dolls. You think you’ve found the answer – for example, who the informant was that betrayed John and the woman – and it turns out not to be an answer but only a path deeper into the story. And along the way Brodrick explores human motivation and psychology, the damage wreaked by years of first Nazi and then Soviet domination, and how all that history continues to shape, guide, and distort the present.

Brodrick was a friar in the Augustine order before he became a barrister and a writer. He’s written eight of the Father Anselm mysteries, with A Whispered Name winning the Crime Writers’ Association Gold Dagger Award in 2009. He lives in France. (And the Gilbertine Order was a real order of monks but was disbanded by Henry VIII during the dissolution of the monasteries in the 1530s.)

The Day of the Lieis a masterpiece, and I don’t use that term lightly.

Related:




Top photograph: Mokowtow Prison in Warsaw, by Jolanta Dyr via Wikimedia. The prison plays a significant role in The Day of the Lie.

Wednesday, October 10, 2018

Where Do Our (Fictional) Characters Come From?


My wife has said, more than once, that the main character in my Dancing Priest novels is an idealized version of me. The first time she said it, I disagreed. There were some things I shared with that character, but I never planned to write about making an idealized version of me.

After considering it, I thought, well, maybe. I thought about it some more, and I reverted to my original thought. Nope, he’s not me. 

Not one of the characters across my four novels are disguised versions of real people. Instead, they are composites of people and experiences. 

To continue reading, please see my post today at Christian Poets and Writers.

Photograph by Hudson Hintze via Unsplash. Used with permission.

“Appalachian Serenade” by Sarah Loudin Thomas


It’s the closing months of World War II, and Delilah Morrissey is back in Wise, West Virginia, the small town where she grew up. She’s taken refuge with her sister and brother-in-law after the death of her husband from a heart attack. She had lived in Chicago, and what looked like a glamorous, exciting lifestyle from outside masked an increasingly disastrous marriage.

Sarah Loudin Thomas
Delilah is 34, and she knows that time is working against her dream of a large family. At the moment, it’s working against the idea of marriage. But at Thornton’s General Store, she meets Robert Thornton, handsome, unmarried, in his 40s, and, Delilah will come to know, unable to have children. As for Robert, he finds himself falling in love with Delilah, but he comes to understand her desire for children.

The novella Appalachian Serenade by Sarah Loudin Thomas is the story of Delilah and Robert, and a sweet story it is. It may be hard to find two people more meant for each other than these two people groping for love and understanding. It may also be hard to find two people who seem to go out of their way to avoid falling in love, to the point of Delilah trying to play matchmaker between Robert and an old flame.

Thomas is the author of several novels and stories in the Christian fiction genre. Her stories are set in West Virginia and celebrate Appalachian people and culture, and Appalachian Serenade is full of small-town West Virginia. Loudin and her family live in western North Carolina.

You’re convinced you know how this story has to end, and you’re not far off. But the process of watching two people fumble and stumble toward each other is what Appalachian Serenade is about.

Tuesday, October 9, 2018

The Poetry of Silence: The Anne Frank House in Amsterdam


At the Anne Frank House in Amsterdam, the first thing you notice is the crowds. This is one of the most visited sites in the city, and people begin to line up early to enter the museum. The weather seems not to matter. I was there on a rainy, overcast day in May, and the rain had not discouraged the crowds, standing in line under a sea of umbrellas.

The second thing you notice is the silence. As crowded as the museum becomes, silence seems to reign here. After walking through the museum exhibits and the rooms where the Frank and van Pels families hid from 1942 to 1944, I can’t recall a single conversation, a single voice, a single word being uttered. It was a profound silence, a poem composed of no words.

The house containing the “secret annex” (the original title of The Diary of Anne Frank when it was published in 1947) is actually the smallest building in the museum complex at Prinsengracht 263-267. It’s very close to one of Amsterdam’s famous churches, the Westerkerk, at Prinsengracht 279. And it was a very short walk from my hotel, the Pulitzer, at Prinsengracht 323.

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

Top photograph: The bookcase entrance to the secret annex in the Anne Frank HouseVia Wikimedia.

Monday, October 8, 2018

“The Ashes of London” by Andrew Taylor


September 1666: For four days, the Great Fire of London rages. It starts in the King’s bakery in Pudding Lane. By the time it ends, on Sept. 6, the homes of 70,000 of the city’s 80,000 inhabitants are destroyed, along with 87 churches, all of the city’s governmental buildings, and St. Paul’s Cathedral. Large crowds gather and watch in horror as the great cathedral is consumed in flame.

What will be left for months afterward are charred ruins, the smell of burnt wood, and ashes. 

Map showing the full extent of the Great Fire of London
In the crowd watching the fire at St. Paul’s is James Marwood, a young man working as a temporary clerk for a government office in Westminster. He cares for his aging father, a man who barely survived the restoration of King Charles II in 1660, after the death of Oliver Cromwell led to the end of the Commonwealth. Charles spared many (John Milton was briefly imprisoned) but some of the leaders had bounties on their heads. Marwood and his father live in Chelsea, renting a room from a family. 

Marwood watches the fire at St. Paul’s, and he prevents what appears to be a young boy from rushing into the burning church. The boy struggles with Marwood, finally biting his hand to escape, but not before stealing Marwood’s cloak. The boy, as it turns out, is Catherine Lovett, the niece of a wealthy goldsmith and money lender, whose clients include King Charles. Catherine’s father is Thomas Lovett, a Cromwell supporter who faces certain death if he’s caught by the king.

An unburned body will be found in the ruins of St. Paul’s, a servant of Catherine’s uncle. He’s been murdered, and his thumbs tied together. Then a second body is found in the Fleet ditch, the thumbs tied the same way. And Marwood is employed to learn what happened and who the killer might me. The killings smack of revenge, with threads leading to those who would still overthrow the restored king.

And so begins The Ashes of London, an enthralling historical novel (and mystery) by Andrew Taylor. It is also something of a travel book of the London of 350 years ago; Taylor has a great gift for reimagining the past and bringing it to life.

Andrew Taylor
Taylor is the author of a long list of historical crime and fiction novels, including The Mortal Sickness (1996); The Four Last Things (1997); The Lover of the Grave (1997); The Judgment of Strangers (1998); The Office of the Dead (1998); The Suffocating Night (1999); When Roses Fade (2001); The American Boy (2004); An Unpardonable Crime (2004); Bleeding Heart Square (2009); Anatomy of Ghosts (2012); The Scent of Death (2014); Fireside Gothic (2016); and several others. The Ashes of Londonwas published in 2017, and a sequel, The King’s Evil, will be published in the U.K. in April 2019.He lives near the English-Welsh border in the U.K.

As the investigation continues, the paths of James Marwood and Catherine Lovett eventually cross again. Catherine has escaped her uncle’s house to avoid marriage to a man who’s something of a decorative fop (he needs her money) and after being raped by her cousin (for which she repays him). Marwood finds himself drawn ever deeper into palace politics and intrigue. As the story builds toward its fateful climax, Marwood, Lovett, and the reader inevitably find themselves back where it started – the ruin of St. Paul’s Cathedral.

The Ashes of London is an outstanding example of the historical novel and historical crime novel.

Related:


Top illustration: A painting of what the Great Fire of London looked like at its height, by the Museum of London via Wikimedia.