Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Busy Week

My week started on Saturday, with an email saying I needed to be in a conference call on swine flu on Sunday at 11 a.m. That was a problem -- because I was ushering at church on Sunday. It worked only because I got off the call when it was time to collect the offering, did the plate thing, and then hurried back to the call.

I stood outside the church with my cell phone, listening to a discussion of my company's response to the swine flu situation while watching families walk into the church on a spectacular if rather windy spring day. I'm listening to a report on illnesses and deaths in Mexico while watching mothers and fathers with little girls in Sunday dresses and little boys trying to pretend they weren't in dress slacks and shirts. It was a mental and emotional disconnect.

So I became part of the preparedness and response team. You learn a lot about people in a crisis, and the people I'm working with are incredible. Sunday was a 10-hour work day. Monday went a little longer -- I was drafting communication documents at 10 Monday night. Tuesday was intense but more like a normal day -- I got home on time and even got my hair cut. If you want to see a little bit of what we've been up do, you can read this story in the St. Louis Business Journal or see this section of my company's web site that my web and intranet teams put together. You can't believe what great people I have on my team.

So, not much time for reading or writing (my own writing, that is). On Saturday, I finished Tony Dungy's Quiet Strength and am now reading something that I won't disclose the name or author of. It falls into the serial Christian chick lit category (and yes, I have the category right). I bought it to see what this genre was all about. The writing is actually decent; the plot is tedious (at least for a non-chick); the characters stop just shy of stereotyped. As I read, I can see dozens of ways to make it better.

But right now, it is pure escapsim, and it's something like therapy when you're trying to deal with a situation like swine flu.

Sunday, April 26, 2009

Books from Childhood

My wife found me in the basement this morning. Instead of getting ready for church, I was looking through a shelf of old childhood books, trying to remember who wrote the Trixie Belden books. Yes, I could have gone to or Wikipedia, but with the computer off, it was quicker to go the memories-in-the-basement route. At least that's what I told myself (my wife knew better).

Trixie Belden and the Secret of the Mansion is the very first book I can remember buying. I think I was 6 or 7 years old; the book was a little beyond my age group but I was one of those early readers. I bought it it for 59 cents at the local TG&Y dimestore, rode home on my bike and dove into the book.

The book had everything a kid could want. An old deserted mansion, a tomboy heroine with a rich best friend, a lost teenaged boy living on his own, a little brother who gets bitten by a copperhead, a mystery -- it didn't get much better than that. I read all of the Trixie Belden books published at the time, perhaps seven or eight books in all. (The series got reinvented a few years ago, and there are a lot more volumes than there were in the 1950s and early 1960s.)

From Trixie Belden, I graduated to the Hardy Boys. I liked Trixie Belden, but I loved the Hardy Boys stories. I read them all, starting with The Tower Treasure. These weren't the modern updates but reprints of the originals from the 1920s and 1930s, and included such incomprehensible words as "roadster." I had the complete set, and made the mistake of leaving them at my mother's house until it was too late -- she told me how fast they sold at a garage sale. But I picked up a few along the way at used book stores, and they're down in the basement, too, right near Trixie.

So are some books from the old Scholastic Book Service. A book club through school! And every month! Forget homework. I'd bring home the paper flyer with all the books being offered and pore over it. My choices were eclectic -- mysteries like The Mystery in Old Quebec; funny stories like Triple Trouble for Rupert; and occasionally even books that were obviously for girls, like Understood Betsy (a city girl is sent to live with relatives on a New England farm; I learned where maple syrup comes from).

One of these Scholastic books was called Ready-Made Family. It's the story of three children -- Hetty, Peter and Rosemary -- who are orphaned and adopted by a childless couple. Hetty needs braces and has all of the insecurities of a young girl; Peter's a born troublemaker (a lot of the tension of the book is about Hetty's fears that Peter will be sent back to the orphanage); and Rosemary, the sweet and pretty youngest of the three, is the one everyone falls in love with. I still remember feeling terrified when Peter breaks a window of the house next door, owned by a crotchety old man; I knew this kid was going to be back at the orphanage in no time. This is one book I didn't find in my basement (probably another garage sale), but wish I had. It rates as one of my childhood favorites. Obviously, since I remember the main characters and the plot.

Books can be powerful things.

Oh, that author's name. According to the title pages, the author of the first few Trixie Belden books was Julie Campbell, and then Kathryn Kenny.

Friday, April 24, 2009

A Long Week

It's been a long, busy week, and I haven't read too much since finishing Adam Blumer's Fatal Illusions on Tuesday. I've been easing into Tony Dungy's Quiet Strength and the followup book, Uncommon, for a project at work, interestingly enough. And I say "easing" because I don't normally read sports memoirs or autobiographies. Dungy has a good co-author with Nathan Whitaker -- both books read easily and well. (I'm just not a big pro football fan.)

I've focused a lot of time this week on editing the text of a major addition to our corporate web site (a multi-media history) and working on a presentation for a talk I'm giving in New York in May. And there have been the usual crises, upsets, issues and meetings that seem to fill up a work week far too fast and way too much -- the tyranny of the urgent at the expense of the important.

Outside of work, I've been turning my attention to a new writing project, or more precisely, a major rewrite of a relatively new project. It's hard, because I'm tearing away a lot of scaffolding and all kinds of things have started to collapse. But I'm pleased with the result so far. Something better is emerging from the wreckage.

I've also been learning some needed lessons about the publishing business. Some illusions that needed to go are finally gone. Publishing is what it is, a business like any other. I had some romanticized notions about some aspects of the business, mostly centered on my love of books and stories, and my faith. It's good, if painful, for those notions to die a timely death. I still love books and stories, and always will, but my illusions about the business needed to get jettisoned.

As painful as it's been, it's also had a positive effect of opening up broader possibilities. I'd been focused on one segment of the business, thinking it was my best fit and looking askance at other segments. Once my illusions were gone, I began to see I'd been limiting myself. If publishing is indeed publishing, I'm free to explore possibilities across the business, and not only focus on one kind of publisher or another.

It's hard to give up those illusions. But like the title of Adam Blumer's book, my illusions could have been fatal to what I'm trying to do. They had to go. But I wish there were some lessons I didn't have to learn.

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Adam Blumer's "Fatal Illusions"

I've posted a review of Adam Blumer's Fatal Illusions on I liked it -- a lot. It scared me silly -- as I said in the review, don't read it right before going to bed -- but I like particularly what the author did with the characters and the plot line.

The characters:
  • Marc Thayer, a pastor who's been counseling an unstable woman. She stalks him and shoots him.
  • Gillian Thayer, Marc's wife, who's grieving the loss of stillborn twins and finds herself growing ever more distant from her husband.
  • Stacey James, who shoots Marc in Chicago and stalks him again in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
  • Crystal, the Thayers' daughter, who has a beautiful singing voice and becomes the object of the main stalker in the story, an amateur magician.
  • Waydon Owens, the magician, who keeps killing teenaged girls, thinking he's killing the same one over and over again.
  • Chuck Riley, a newly retired police detective who's determined to find the serial killer.

Blumer shapes his characters with a deft hand. They're so real you'll recognize them from your neighborhood or church (okay, not the stalker or the serial killer, but you get the point). Even the minor characters are drawn well -- County Sheriff Dendridge, for example, is immediately recognizable, warts and all.

The Thayers, thinking they're in the Upper Peninsula for rest and a sabbatical, instead find themselves stalked and attacked. And they fight back, with Gillian assuming a particularly heroic role.

The author particularly gets the reader inside the minds of the magician and Stacey James -- no easy trick, because Owens' mind is perverted and distorted while James' mind is increasingly unhinged and struggling for sanity. The reader doesn't feel sympathy for either of them, but Blumer has crafted them with understanding.

As events beging to move faster and faster, the reader speeds along the plot line, hoping that this is going to end well but not quite sure what the author is going to surprise you with next. And Blumer does surprise -- remember that the villain here is a magician with an almost cult-like worship of Harry Houdini.

I can't call this great fun, but I can call it a great , suspenseful, read.

Monday, April 20, 2009

Short Update on Critique Groups

A second critique came in a little while ago, and it was similar to the first. Good comments. Encouraging thoughts. Tough but kind. What a blessing to have a group like this.

Also posted a review of Dale Cramer's Bad Ground on Great story.

Critique Groups

A few weeks ago, I joined the American Christian Fiction Writers, for the bargain price of $50. The association has everything from an annual conference to regional groups, online courses and critique groups (among a lot of other stuff). I signed up for an online course, joined a regional group, and then applied for a critique group. You usually have to wait for enough members of a critique group to come together, and the site tells you it can take as long as 30 days to get a group going.

Mine took less than a week. There are six of us, one of whom serves as facilitator. We're from all over the country, with varying ages, experience levels and writing subjects. Never having participated in a critique group before, I had to ask what kind of response was expected (I think we all signed up for the "tough but kind" category). The facilitator sent some general guidelines, which were helpful.

I sent my six-page selection to the group yesterday. I was third into the barrel, the facilitator having volunteered to go first. And this group is almost exactly the kind of readers I'm writing for.

For someone who has faced down a gaggle of reporters with microphones shoved in my face, and on more than one occasion, my heart was in my throat. I tried not to think about it at work today. Fat chance.

So I got home, sat in front of my computer and stared at the list of 53 email messages waiting for me. One was from a member of the critique group. I went through all of my other emails before I opened that one. I clicked, downloaded the critique, and started reading.

She had some suggestions. Some were changes in phrasing that I wouldn't do, but a number of her suggestions were right on. And she included reasons for the comments, which were really helpful.

Yeah, I've got four more to go, but this was both tough and kind, thoughtful and encouraging. I smiled.

Saturday, April 18, 2009

Stories in Real Life

This Saturday morning, I spent two hours at my church, listening to the Rev. Scotty Smith of Christ Community Church in Franklin, Tenn. Rev. Smith is visiting our church this weekend as the main speaker for Mission Sunday.

I was part of a group of church elders, deacons, pastors and staff who had the opportunity to listen to Rev. Smith speak about leaders as the main mission field and chief repenters in the church. I sipped my coffee and listened.

He told stories about his life and his walk. Quiet stories. Powerful stories. Familiar stories. As he talked, I began to recognize my own stories. Then I began to notice others quietly and unobtrusively wiping tears from their eyes. Like I was. After a while I gave up and let the tears go.

He's written several books, like The Reign of Grace: The Delights and Demands of God's Love and Objects of His Affection: Coming Alive to the Compelling Love of God. He's also written books with singer/songwriters Michael Card and Steven Curtis Chapman.

He was Rev. Smith before he began to talk. He was Scotty by the time he finished. And I was shattered. I felt the brokenness in my life, and how God uses it for His own purposes. And how he heals it. What Scotty said and how he said it was a pointed reminder to me of how important stories are in our lives. In my life.

Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Why I Write Reviews

I've written book reviews off and on for the last 33 years. My first book review was for a novel called "The Man Who Died Twice"by Samuel Peeples, a fictional account of the murder of Hollywood director William Desmond Taylor in the 1920s. It was published in the Houston (TX) Chronicle, and I still have the book (and the review, too, yellowing somewhere in a box in the basement). I wrote reviews for the Chronicle for about three years.

After moving to St. Louis, I contacted the book editor at the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and he graciously signed me on as a reviewer. And this time I got paid -- $25 per published review. I did it for a few years, and then drifted away, only to pick it up again in the late 1980s. This time, I specialized in Hispanic literature in English translation, and I soon learned who the best translators were, what authors to look for, and the sheer volume of books in this particular area of publishing (the book editor sent me everything, including books he didn't want reviewed).

Since that time, I've done a few reviews of business books for college and profesional publications, but nothing really extensive or sustained.

Last fall, I started reading Christian fiction. Well, reading might be too weak a word. I started inhaling Christian fiction. I'd been working for two-plus years on my own fiction, and pointedly ignoring anything even close to what I was writing until I had the basic story down. Last November, I stopped in a Barnes & Noble, and bought six Christian novels. It was great fun, standing there and discovering this whole new world of books (new to me). A week later, I was in Phoenix for my son's wedding, and stopped by a Border's -- and bought four more. Read all 10 in about a month. Then I stopped by a local Christian bookstore in St. Louis, and bought eight more. Those were finished by the time I visited friends and family in New Orleans in February, so I checked out a local Christian bookstore there and bought a bunch more. You get the picture.

The authors I've been reading? Charles Martin. Dale Cramer. Nancy Moser. Chris Fabry. Marlo Schalesky. Travis Thrasher. Mike Dellosso. Taylor Field. Elizabeth Musser. Jason Wright. Annette Smith. And a lot of others. Adam Blumer, at this very moment. My reading crosses a number of Christian genres -- contemporary, contemporary romance, women's fiction, suspense, horror and even one straight romance. While my reading was initially aimed at understanding the market(s) I might eventually be selling into, something else happened -- I rediscovered my love for reading and for books.

I've been posting reviews of some things I read on Last month, I realized I had more to say than one review about what I was reading, and started this blog. I'm reading, and reviewing what I read, because I love books, I love the authors I'm discovering and I love great stories.

I've not written reviews of some things I've read because they're bad, or at least not good. But they're few and far between. Generally, most of what I read and review are at least good. Some are outstanding. And a few are spectacular.

I've written and published one review that I debated long and hard over. The book was well written, extremely well written. The story was more than intriguing (and somewhat controversial). The characterization was excellent. The only problem -- the novel was incomplete. It's part of a series -- and what I didn't know or understand was that the story would be told over the course of several books. So a lot of stuff was left hanging at the end of the first book. Like virtually everything. And my disappointment was profound. The writing and the story were just too good to do this to the reader.

My internal debate was whether to write a review or not. What I would have to say would not be considered positive. I suspected that this story reflected the author's personal experience or that of someone close, and whatever I said would likely be taken personally. And if anything, this was a writer I'd want to encourage to write more. A lot more. So perhaps I should have just stuck the novel on a bookshelf and forgotten about it.

I finally decided to write the review. And it was because I'm a reader first, and a writer second. And the reader was disappointed.

Since I published the review, I've learned that I seriously hurt the writer's feelings. I regret that enormously. I understand what this business is like, and how much of it can be summarized by one word -- rejection. Rejection by agents, by publishers, by editors, by readers and by reviewers. Whether it's Christian or secular, rejection is still rejection. I know what it is, because I've experienced it.

But I didn't reject the author, or I thought I didn't. I loved the writing and the story. I found myself inside the main character's head, and becoming that character. That only happens when the writer is skilled and gifted. And this writer is all of that and more. The writer in me was cheering for that story. The reader in me was dumbfounded that I didn't get that story. It's like I rode up a very tall roller coaster, reached the top and expected the thrill of the ride, then the roller coaster evaporated and I was left sitting on the tracks.

I'm seriously grieved that I discouraged the writer. I considered taking the review down. But the reader in me said no.

I still grieve. But the reader still needs to speak.

Sunday, April 12, 2009

Chris Fabry's "Dogwood"

In October 2007, my wife and I drove to Williamsburg for vacation. We spent almost exactly one week (had a great time), and then drove back to St. Louis. Crossing over the mountains of Virginia (and discovering what it’s like to drive in mountain fog), we arrived in West Virginia at the absolute peak of the fall colors. And it was spectacular. We’d never seen fall colors like those in West Virginia – and the colors went on for scores of miles. The state is an incredibly beautiful place.

It is that sense of place that permeates Chris Fabry’s Dogwood – the hills and valleys, the vistas, the back roads, and even the colors infuse the novel. And – no surprise – West Virginia is the author's native state.

Fabry is best known for writing novels for children and young adults. Last year, he shifted gears, and published Dogwood, aimed squarely at adult readers. And glad I am that he did.

It's a great story. Or more correctly, Dogwood is a carefully constructed layering of stories. It is the story of Will Hatfield, who’s gone to prison for manslaughter – killing two little girls in what was almost a hit-and-run. It’s the story of Karin, Will’s great love, who has created a new life for herself, with a husband who’s a pastor and three children. It’s the story of Danny Boyd, whose two sisters died when Will’s car struck them, and Ruthie, their grandmother who befriends Karin. Then there’s the town of Dogwood, which will not forgive Will when he’s released from prison and returns for one reason alone – because he still loves Karin. There’s the undercurrent of lawlessness and viciousness. And then there’s place and memory, which are characters in their own right.

The story of what happened when the little girls died is the heart of the novel, and Fabry uses it to structure the plot, gradually unfolding the individual but intertwined stories of the characters. As memories melt away the intervening years and the characters tell and live their stories, facts become less certain, nothing is what it appears to be, and something new is born.

I started reading Dogwood on Good Friday and finished it Easter Sunday. Like this time of the year we celebrate, Fabry’s novel is one of sacrifice, death and resurrection.

Saturday, April 11, 2009

Kinna, Jimmy and a Dog Named Tulip

Following up on my earlier post, I finished Marlo Schalesky's If Tomorrow Never Comes. I liked it. A lot. It's a story about relationships and love, where they go wrong, and how they can be healed. Not that they will be healed, necessarily, but how they can be.

Childhood sweethearts Kinna and Jimmy Henley are watching their marriage collapse and seem powerless to stop it. Kinna's desperate desire for a child, and Jimmy's failure to come to terms with a childhood distorted by an abusive, alcoholic father, are destroying their marriage. Kinna steals fertility drugs from the hosptial where she works; Jimmy is compromising ethical standards by giving into pressure from his construction boss to cut corners on a project. Both are headed for professional, personal and martial disaster.

Then Kinna saves the grandmother named Thea from drowning, and Jimmy meets the scar-faced Joe, an elderly janitor at a coffee shop. And things begin to happen. The author weaves pictures from the couple's past into the present, and it is through memories that hope begins to sprout. But it's a tough, unyielding environment to grow such a small thing as hope.

I noted earlier that it took me, a male reader, a while to figure out what was happening, when a female reader would have been more attuned to the plot devices in this story. I still think that's right. Only when Thea showed up with the dog named Tulip did I understand what was happening. And I knew where it would lead and end.

But the important point was to stay with the story and on the journey. That's what Schalesky does in this novel. You know the destination but it's all about the journey, because that's the real story. As she writes in the afterword, elements of this story come from the author's own experience, and the telling is strong enough for the reader to hear the heartbreak.

Yes, If Tomorrow Never Comes is written for women readers. But it's a story for men, too.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Women's Fiction

Christian women's fiction is not something I usually read. I'm more comfortable in the rough-and-tumble world of contemporary and suspense -- guy stuff. But I've started straying off the reservation, and finding writers in the "women's genres," which seem to be the vast majority of both writers and readers of Christian fiction. (I don't like the shortened name a lot of people give to this area of writing -- "chick lit." Cute, perhaps, but vaguely demeaning.)

Right now, I'm reading Marlo Schalesky's If Tomorrow Never Comes. The title alone suggests women's fiction, and if there was any doubt, the book cover convincingly settles it. You'd be hard-pressed to find a guy carrying around a book with that kind of cover -- no explosions, no blood or gore, no power tools, nothing recognizably male. In this case, the cover shows a winsome illustration of a woman's face, a beach, a sand castle and a solitary figure walking. The cover suggests impressions, feelings and the possibility of lost love. Yep, it's not a guy thing.

But a third of the way into it, I'm finding the novel quietly engaging. The writing is solid. I'm beginning to recognize the main plot device (it would have taken a woman reader a lot less time to figure it out -- but I got it once the dog showed up). I can see where the story is moving, and how it's likely to end. So I'm settling into how the story will develop. I'm understanding that the point here is not so much getting to the end but going along for the journey.

I'll have a post on the novel in a few days, but for now -- if even a guy can read it, get it and enjoy it, the author has a gift -- and she's done a fine job.

Wednesday, April 8, 2009

The Real E-Me

My friend Mike Dellosso had a neat post today -- taking us on an e-tour of his life and suggesting his readers do the same. So here goes.

This is the church I attend.

This is the company I work for as a public affairs director. One of the things my team does, by the way, is the corporate web site you're looking at. And right here is an article I wrote for the web site last fall.

This is the suburb of St. Louis I live in -- incorporated in 1853 and still with its own train station.

We have two newspapers -- the St. Louis Post-Dispatch and the Webster-Kirkwood Times (a weekly).

This is one of the trails I regularly bike. (I live a little over a mile north of the "8" designated on the map.) It's named after Ulysses S. Grant -- it goes right by White Haven, where Grant farmed before the Civil War and now a national historic site. The trail is also adjacent to Grant's Farm, owned for years by Anheuser-Busch (petting zoo plus free beer) and now owned by InBev AB. This farm is one of the locations where they keep the Clydesdale horses, and you can see the horses in the pasture next to the trail.

I don't listen to any particular local radio station, and I don't watch much television, so no helpful links there.

So that's a short e-tour of where I live and work.

Wednesday, April 1, 2009

That Box from Amazon

I've been biding time with my reading, getting around to a few things I had put off for a while. Two books were related to work -- Roger D'Aprix's The Credible Company and Jim Shaffer's The Leadership Solution -- both about internal corporate communication. I also read the museum guide to a show I saw last May at the Chicago Art Institute on the painter Edward Hopper, the artist who painted "Nighthawks," among a number of iconic American works.

Just biding my time -- waiting for the box from Amazon. This afternoon, as I pulled into the driveway, I saw the box on the front porch. I'm like a kid at Christsmas when I know books I've ordered have finally arrived. In this box were Travis Thrasher's Admission; Chris Fabry's Dogwood; Marlo Schalesky's If Tomorrow Never Comes; and Charles Martin's When Crickets Cry. I'm waiting on Adam Blumer's Fatal Illusions from another supplier.

Ah, the delightful anguish of deciding what to read first...