Category Archives: Recommended Reading

Facing the Sky review, part 2

I had intended to post this part of the review for Facing the Sky (also available on Amazon.com) a few weeks ago, shortly after reading the book, but life intervened, plans were changed or forgotten, and now it’s the beginning of October. Zoiks!  (Read part 1 here)

Rainee Grason’s story is told inside-out.

We meet her as a teenager, facing the sky, feeling God’s love in the warm rays of the sunset. We overhear her thoughts about her boyfriend, their relationship, the rape.

One line of copy from back cover states, “She realizes she does have a choice — she can walk away from the imprisoning walls of the unhealthy relationship, but how?”

As events play out, she says goodbye to Gideon and hello to Cole. About a third of the way through the book, however, after she and Cole are married, Rainee pushes the curtain even further back, all the way to her earliest childhood memories, and reveals what led up to the night she stood, sixteen and pregnant, facing the sky.

Teenagers and adults alike will identify with much in this true story, including the themes of worthlessness, hurt, shame, abuse, teen sexuality, awkwardness, fear, alcoholism, the desire for a better life.

This is an excellent book for mothers and daughters to read together and discuss. It reminds us that even the darkest night doesn’t last forever, we are worth more than we think, and God is waiting to lead us into the light of a new day.

NOTE: Fathers and sons can also benefit from this book, because it addresses — obliquely yet clearly — the importance of strong, kind fathers and husbands. It is in the embrace of Cole’s understanding and strength that Rainee is able to heal at last, after she is suddenly confronted by matters she thought long resolved. By reading her story, young men may also see the painful, tragic results of selfishness and pride: many girls used, even raped, their lives forever marked by Gideon’s sexual desires.

Rainee Grason is available for speaking engagements (youth groups, writing groups, churches, etc.), and can be contacted as follows:

c/o Precious Grace Publications

PO Box 340953

Beavercreek, OH 45434-0953

pgp@PreciousGracePub.com (in subject line: Attn Rainee)

(937) 429-2084

Audio and paperback versions of Facing the Sky are available:

$16 for paperbacks

$35 for 8-CD audio sets

(Price breaks are available for larger orders)

 

Secrets, a review

I hadn’t planned on reading a romance novel this past weekend — I was feeling more of a science fiction vibe — but there are several historicals and modern romances in the stack of stuff I’ve promised to read and review, and Secrets has an interesting premise, so I dove right in.

And am I glad I did. Before this book, I’d never read anything by Kristen Heitzmann, but I certainly will in the future.

Excerpted from the book’s page on the Bethany House website:

The old villa needed what Rese Barrett could do as well as any man on the crew. Trained by the best, she had honed her skills with a passion for quality, an eye for detail, and no room for compromise. Renovation was her joy–taking something old and making it new without changing the heart if it. But this time the inn she restored was hers, and this time she worked alone….

Chef, musician, and spellbinder, Lance talked his way into her plans before she’d even made them and had Rese telling secrets she’d never before revealed.  He spoke of faith as if he could touch it, but how much more was left unsaid?

My daddy is a carpenter, and my brother and I worked for him at various times in our childhood and young adult years, doing anything from cleaning up nails and sawdust on new construction sites to painting the walls of historic homes, so I appreciated the renovation and woodworking aspects of this story. I could well identify with this passage from chapter two:

The whine grew to a pained wail that set her teeth on edge in a way it never had before. It passed with a breathy whiff of new maple, mingling brazenly with musty damp and age. Rese breathed the scent that had filled her lungs more comfortably than the purest air. She let go the trigger on the miter saw and examined the fresh cut on the section of molding, then approved it with her fingertips.

Maple, oak, and cherry had been her companions as long as she could remember. The plane had molded her palm; the chisel had developed her eye and fingers. She knew her way around any power tool on the market, had shot nails, routered trim, sanded and carved and finished every wood worth using. She’d also laid pipe and run wires, though it didn’t compare to working the wood. Nothing did.

Heitzmann, Kristen (2004-09-01). Secrets (The Michelli Family Series Book #1) (pp. 17-18). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.

It was even more interesting that the female lead is the carpenter, and the male lead is the cook, a nice juxtaposition of roles that fits well with the characters’ personalities. I enjoyed a few giggles at his frustration over her lack of reaction to his excellent cooking. There’s also a spritely elderly neighbor, Evvy, who gains amusement by watching the young folks next door work out their differences and solve the mysteries of their pasts even as they bring two old structures back to life.

They were no longer in sight, but she stood at the window drawing the inch of fresh air in with small, pathetic breaths. She still imagined herself a robust, mite-sized dynamo, in spite of the cane, the aches, the time it took to do any small thing. Young at heart was a cliché, and Lord knew, her heart was as old as the rest of her. Youth, however, was a matter of perspective.

It might truly be wasted on the young, as the saying went, who had too little experience to see clearly. Take the angst-ridden pair next door. Without perspective, it was easy to squabble over little things. All that energy, and so little temperance. Evvy chuckled. That was what made them so much fun.

Heitzmann, Kristen (2004-09-01). Secrets (The Michelli Family Series Book #1) (p. 52). Baker Book Group. Kindle Edition.

I enjoyed this many-layered novel peopled by interesting, believable characters. Lance’s and Evvy’s faith is strong, and they share it with the other characters, but not in a heavy-handed or preachy way. Nearly all the characters change and grow, even the minor ones I didn’t necessarily like. Heitzmann tackles tough topics — abuse, mental illness, organized crime, family relationships, forgiveness, trust, love, faith — but does so without the shallow melodrama I’ve come to expect from novels in this genre.

Another thing I appreciate is her grasp of the subjects she includes in the story. She either researched or had first-hand knowledge of carpentry, construction crews, mental health matters, Italian cooking, and more. I enjoy stories that are enriched by the author’s knowledge of setting, careers, skills, time period; deft handling of those elements helps me trust the author.

One thing I’d change if I could: the proofing. I’m an editor, so one thing that affects my enjoyment of a novel is the smoothness of the text. There were some unclarified pronouns (which “he” or “she” did the author intend?) in a couple places, and sometimes the actions of one character were paired with the dialogue of another, which made for hiccups in reading, pulling me out of the story while I detangled who was talking or what was happening. Some of the errors could have been formatting glitches in the e-book. Those instances are few, however, merely cosmetic flaws in an otherwise well-told tale.

Secrets was published in 2004, and is the first in The Michelli Family Series, followed by Unforgotten (2005),  and Echoes (2007). Read more about the author and her work at her website.

A Response to Three Common Christian Arguments Against Using Foul Language in Fiction

Today’s post is the result of a question asked of me last week when I gave an abbreviated presentation on editing. The group I addressed was composed of Christian writers, some of whom are striding into edgier territory than is comfortable to many of the traditional Christian publishers.

This question probably would not have been asked, or even considered worthwhile, had I spoken to a group of writers of no particular faith, but it did stretch me to present a cogent response, and is worth discussion, especially since it brings up the notion that every word we write must have a purpose:

In writing the conflict between good and evil—what words are acceptable? Damn, hell—how graphic can a Christian writer be?

My immediate response: as graphic as your conscience allows and the story requires.

My modified response: what is allowed depends on your publisher.

But what about a Biblical response? I’m so glad you asked.

A) What about offending a “weaker brother”?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Romans 14:1-3

“Accept other believers who are weak in faith, and don’t argue with them about what they think is right or wrong. For instance, one person believes it’s all right to eat anything. But another believer with a sensitive conscience will eat only vegetables. Those who feel free to eat anything must not look down on those who don’t. And those who don’t eat certain foods must not condemn those who do, for God has accepted them.” (NLT

“Receive him that is weak in faith, but not for passing judgment. For one believes that he may eat all things: another, who is weak, eats herbs. Let not him that eats despise him that eats not; and let not him who eats not judge him that eats: for God has received him.” (KJ2000)

Although we need to be mindful of others, don’t let the possibility of offending someone keep you from telling the truth. Don’t let weaker readers weaken a strong story.

Evil exists. Bad things happen—even to good people.

Consider the oppressed, tragic lives of many persecuted believers around the world. Try telling them a squeaky-clean, neatly-packaged, everyone-is-saved-and-happy-at-the-end kind of story.

That may be our ideal, but is it reality?

Use discernment.
Is evil glorified in the story?
Is it present in order to reveal truth?
Prove a point?
Provide a comparison between darkness and light?

There can be, and often are, redemptive elements in harsh stories. Context is everything. Consider your audience, and your reason for including the foul language, the violence, etc.

And remember: Everyone has to grow up sometime. One cannot always cater to the weaker believers, else they’ll never have a reason to “man up” and grow stronger. Disciple them. Show them how to be strong.

B) What about the admonition to avoid unclean speech?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Colossians 3:6-9

“Because of these sins, the anger of God is coming. You used to do these things when your life was still part of this world. But now is the time to get rid of anger, rage, malicious behavior, slander, and dirty language. Don’t lie to each other, for you have stripped off your old sinful nature and all its wicked deeds.” (NLT)

“For which things’ sake the wrath of God comes on the children of disobedience: In which you also once walked, when you lived in them. But now you also put off all these; anger, wrath, malice, blasphemy, filthy talk out of your mouth. Lie not to one another, seeing that you have put off the old man with his deeds.” (KJ2000)

Not all unclean speech consists of four-letter words.

There’s gossip, slander, blasphemy, lies, name-calling, belittling, boasting, abusive speech, anything that’s meant to tear someone down. An insidious form of foul speech is the backhanded compliment, or the well-spoken but ill-meant piece of advice.

Again, context: It’s not just what you say; it’s how you say it. And how you mean it.

Do characters lie or gossip or use sarcasm in a story? Do children on a playground call names? Or is everyone in your story a perfect specimen of civility?

Remember: A major storytelling necessity is character arc, the term for the changes a character undergoes during the course of the story. The main character may begin as a foul-mouthed, brawling drunkard. By the end, however, he may have cleaned up his speech, overcome alcohol, and be working on his temper. That character’s arc/change is essential to the story.

As stated earlier, we don’t have to glorify the evil—in this case, the foul language—but we do need to tell the truth. It’s an unfortunate fact that we humans have difficulty controlling our tongues (James 3:8). If the characters in our stories act like saints in all things, they lose believability, and we lose credibility with our readers.

C) And, finally, ahem, what about avoiding unclean thoughts?

Scripture used as basis of argument: Philippians 4:8

“And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise.” (NLT)

“Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things.” (KJ2000)

You may not dwell in evil thoughts, but there are people who do, and therefore there are characters who do.

Those thoughts can range from wishing someone would die to actually planning a murder; from thinking oneself superior to actively working to keep others down; from thinking someone other than one’s spouse is attractive to lusting after that person; from harboring anger to plotting revenge; and so on.

Realism and character arc require room for characters to begin in a place of weakness, trouble, misguidedness, even outright evil, and then progress toward strength, peace, wisdom, goodness.

(Not all change is improvement, by the way. Some characters regress, or begin from a place of goodness or strength, and end in weakness or villainy.)

“Holier than thou” syndrome is a turn-off to believers and non-believers alike. If a non-believer reads the work, will they be offended at the presence of God in the story, or at the too-perfect falseness of the characters (Christian or otherwise)? If they’re offended by God, then tough luck. They’ll just have to remain offended. However, if the author hasn’t done his job as a storyteller, and created believable, flawed characters, then he needs to rewrite them.

Just as we living, breathing humans have shortcomings, so too should our storybook humans. Lives transform as they turn from darkness to light, and therein lies powerful storytelling. The light would not be so bright without the darkness in which it shines. A happy ending is not quite so powerful without all the struggle that came before it.

Something to consider: Perhaps the story doesn’t belong with a traditional Christian publishing house, or with a Christian publisher at all. Perhaps the work requires a secular publisher—and there are many Christians who do publish in secular rather than religious venues, simply because their work is not in keeping with the expectations of a Christian publisher or of a Christian audience.

Is the intended audience the Church, with readers who want their beliefs affirmed and don’t necessarily want to be confronted with certain words or ideas? Or is it the world at large, everyone who wants to be given hope or shown a different way?

Final thoughts

A friend read this on Facebook Monday afternoon; it was posted by E. Stephen Burnett (whose excellent post on spiritual villains can be read at Speculative Faith), who was quoting another writer:

From fantasy author Kat Heckenbach: “I was thinking about the continuing war among Christian writers. The whole, ‘Christian fiction needs to be this,’ vs. ‘No, Christian fiction needs to be this,’ war. Clean vs. gritty. Righteous vs. real. Hide in the light vs. plunge into the dark. What I think is being missed in this whole situation is this: When we say Christian fiction needs to be of a certain type, we are really saying Christians need to be of a certain type. […] God is able to meet all of those needs, and fortunately He is willing to stoop to our levels to meet them. He stoops.” So should stories.

Update (12/1/14): Another good article about foul language in Christian fiction can be found at Randy Streu’s blog, An Unfinished Life.

Update (1/20/15): An excellent piece discussing how one actually takes the Lord’s name in vain, and how profanity has nothing to do with it, can be read at Mike Duran’s blog, Decompose — “On Taking the Lord’s Name in Vain“.