Thursday, April 29, 2010

Recommended Read: ANGEL'S DEN by Jamie Carie

It's not a big secret that I'm not a fan of historical fiction--but I do pick up a novel of that genre every once in a while. Especially if it is a new release from an author I trust.

Tuesday night I found Jamie Carie's Angel's Den. I got a few chapters in that night waiting for my daughter at her piano lesson and then picked it up yesterday during my lunch break at work, and again last night... 'til it was finished.

I trust Jamie Carie. Her novels have not yet disappointed me--and Angel's Den is no exception. Within the pages of Angel's Den I found no slugging of plot, no perfect (or perfectly evil) characters, no sermonizing--in other words, nothing to distract me from the artful storytelling I've come to expect from Jamie Carie's novels.

I respect Jamie Carie as an author. She isn't afraid to dig her claws into touchy subjects--a rarity in the CBA (aka Christian) arena of Historical Fiction. In Angel's Den Jamie explores spousal abuse (mental, physical, and sexual) and very clearly depicts the effects of such treatment on the abused. The female protagonist, Emma, is a sympathetic character and the reader aches for her while a deep seed of anger grows against the man who would continue to treat her with such degradation. Ms. Carie doesn't just stop with domestic abuse, however. She delves her characters, both protagonistic and antagonistic, into the realms of deception, adultery, and the desire to commit adultery. She touches on childhood traumas which result in mental fissures, and has her characters experience forgiveness in unconventional ways. Whereas the miracle of forgiveness is often portrayed in glossy, churchy purity within so many CBA novels, Jamie Carie shows the true struggle for her characters as each is faced with the ramifications of forgiveness being offered, refused, given or denied. No one in the story seeks and receives instant forgiveness, which I found refreshing--because forgiveness between human beings is a difficult and imperfect practice of the divine.

Ms. Carie doesn't hesitate to call her "good" characters to the carpet. I like that. My favorite line from the novel, found on page 142 and spoken compassionately by the character of Judge Littleton, reads:

"You might be real surprised how fragile your goodness is."

Now there's some truth we should all be reminded of--regularly; especially when gazing into the lives of those we see as "not good." I love that line.

My one complaint with this novel is the addition of an epilogue. Don't get me wrong: I HEARTILY RECOMMEND THIS TITLE. But... I felt the epilogue was superfluous. Unnecessary. (Like the addition of the word "unnecessary" after "superfluous.")I was completely satisfied with the open-ended hope at the end of chapter thirty-three on page 298. Without the epilogue, I still knew what would happen within the lives of the characters. I may not have known the specifics, such as the timeline of those happenings, but Ms. Carie layered her subplots well enough throughout the novel that I "knew" the epilogue without having to have it spelled out for me in a "7 Years Later" sum-up. The epilogue was... too neat for my personal taste. Feel free to disagree of course, but to have the two main characters sit down on the porch and, through one conversation, tie up every loose end seemed, to me, a tad unbelievable after such a vivid and credible story. I think the flow of the story would have been better served if the book stopped on page 298. That's just me.

Epilogue aside, however, I greatly enjoyed this book and would recommend it to anyone, regardless of their faith affiliation. And isn't that the whole point? Cross the lines. Meet people where they are. Show skeptics that not all people of faith subscribe to the lie of perfection after salvation. Ms. Carie is a talented story weaver--one whose mirror reflects a scene of the past which translates into the addressing of a painful contemporary issue.

Congratulations to Jamie Carie and her most recent triumph, Angel's Den--a novel which takes the reader to some very dark places of the soul. Places where fiction mirrors truth.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

Attitude is Everything

I don't want to be a negative, critical person. I've been praying about that. Working on that. The last several months have been difficult in every arena. But a new day has dawned. Things are looking up. My personality, however, is having a hard time making the jump to positivity. But, as so often is the case: when we're working on changing something negative about ourselves--especially something that is impeding relationships on both the horizontal and vertical plane, the enemy throws stuff at us to steal our joy and impede our progress. Stuff like Iron Deficiency. Health problems. Communication misunderstandings. Family Issues. Scheduling Nightmares.

Early morning phone calls.

I was called in to work today. I’m having a really hard time not being resentful of losing a writing day. Not because I don’t like my job—I do like my job—I really do! I work with a group of women who are funny, understanding, compassionate, friendly… and just plain nice. It’s a wonderful work environment and a job where I can “leave work at work” at the end of the day.

I had a GREAT writing day yesterday. Seven hours of uninterrupted (okay, I ate lunch!) creativity. Ideas flowed, things got tighter, discovered a new twist in my plot…. It was a great day. And I was soooo pumped to hit it again today. Cause today was going to be EIGHT hours. Maybe more!

But alas. The 6:49am call came in. Someone’s sick. Someone else had a planned day off with appointments. So off to work I go. Sigh.

If anyone out there reading this is a praying person, I’d appreciate your prayers that I approach this day with positivity--that I leave all my negative regrets about lack of writing time at home. I keep telling myself: “The more hours you work, the faster you get the fence installed in the back yard. The faster you get the fence, the less time you have to spend cleaning up dog poo in the garage. The less time you spend cleaning up dog poo, the more time you have to write.”

It always comes down to some sort of poo, doesn’t it?

Oh, wait. I was trying to think positively.

Ellerie has dance class tonight. There’s nothing that says I can’t take my sweet little laptop with me and wait in the car with my characters. Because I can’t wait to reveal how Dr. Vidler found out about Thatcher’s strange abilities—that oughtta cause some tension. Not to mention the recent revelation made by Thatcher’s brother Logan that has far-reaching implications for the whole family….

Like Donald Maas says, and I paraphrase, “Tension on every page!”

Oh, dear. I really need to go get my make-up on. I’ve got to get a fence so I can have more writing time!

Think positive, Shawna! Everything happens for a reason, and acceptance of circumstance can lead to revelation. Who knows what customer will come in, what situation will arise, that could start the wheels turning in new directions? Fiction mirrors truth, after all.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Burned... or not.

A sort-of-review of Ted Dekker and Erin Healy's novel Burn

I can’t even begin to tally the number of books I’ve checked out from my library the past few months only to return them in disgust after snoozing my way to chapter three. Whether the problem is boring prose, indistinct or cliché characters, or a dragging plot so many of these books have not lived up to their jackets.

So I was a little worried about whether or not I would like the new Ted Dekker/Erin Healy collaboration, Burn. Dekker has rarely disappointed me and his debut duo with Healy, Kiss, was a book I enjoyed. (Enjoyed. Not head-over-heels, but yes, enjoyed.) So I gave it a shot. But a little past chapter three I hit a wall of wondering if I really cared what happened to the characters in the end. But I kept going—kept holding on to hope that this writing duo would not let me down.

And I’m glad I did.

I was drawn into the life of protagonist Janeal Mikkado from the start—though I wasn’t sure I liked her. This caused me a moment’s pause—and some more moments of “What the…?” when the story moved on after Janeal was forced to make a… choice. The decision she made was… dichotomous. A bit confusing to the reader. But… I decided to stick it out.

***Spoiler note: HAVE NO FEAR! I will do everything in my power to avoid putting even the hint of a spoiler in this blog—especially concerning a new release! I want you to read for yourself! You read, you decide!***

Although I understood Janeal to be a conflicted character, even so, I was confused as the story moved away from tragedy and Janeal became… one-dimensional.

I have to admit, I was disappointed at this point. The story twisted and turned and I was stuck taking a ride with a one-dimensional protagonist. I almost gave up, closed the book, and threw it in the car for my next trip to the library returns slot. But as it turned out, the Dekker/Healy duo had a completely valid reason for making Janeal become such an unlikable, cardboard cut-out.

And the reveal takes a bit of blinking. Janeal’s recognition of her state of being (to avoid spoiling it I will remain vague) is a bit quick for my taste; a bit too easy for her to recognize and rather shocking for the reader. But as Janeal’s discovery becomes clear in an… “Are you kidding me?” sort of way everything vague, dichotomous, and downright odd is explained… sort of.

“But,” you think, “really?” You wait for the contradiction—the denial of the hypothesis. You say to yourself, “Surely not. There’s got to be some other explanation!” And then BAM! You get to the end, you’ve made it through the fire, so to speak, and the chaff of the story has been separated from the wheat. All at once your eyes are misty, and the story has spoken to you, and… you realize you’ve been reading an extended metaphor all along—an allegory-of-sorts—which makes you examine your own heart, your own past, your own choices and ask, “What if I had…(fill in the blank) instead?”

So… did I get burned by taking a chance on giving precious time to read this novel?


But not how you might expect.

Sometimes the mirror’s a flame.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Lions and Chiggers and Dragons... oh my!

I was five years old the first time I visited Narnia. I'm thirty-seven now and I have made it a point to step through the wardrobe/portrait/train depot/garden wall...regularly, rereading the entire series in chronological order every two years. It's time for me to enter again. Further up, and further in. And though I am changed each and every time I revist this most-adored book series, one thing never changes: on each fresh visit to Narnia I meet a Lion. He’s not tame, but he is good.

In The Magician’s Nephew the Lion taught me about the Creator’s song. In The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe he showed me the heart of a traitor and the sacrifice of a King. He chased me through tombs and left scratches on my back in The Horse and His Boy. In Prince Caspian He told me that he never changes, but still gets bigger. In shades of green he used The Silver Chair to show me that I need to keep my guard up because the evil that I think I’ve conquered still longs to come back and bite me in the butt. After The Last Battle the Lion allowed me to imagine and long for Heaven, my true country, without fearing death.

Those are just a few of the big lessons I learned in six of the seven Chronicles of Narnia. But the one chronicle which I have left out is the one in which I have most clearly seen myself. But not as one of the characters you might have imagined.

You see, I am a Truth Seeker. I sail across unfamiliar waters in the hopes of finding a fresh perspective of the dawn as I tread toward the lily sea. My favorite chronicle of Narnia is The Voyage of the Dawn Treader because it makes me weep at the beauty of Redemption.

In many areas of my heart I am Eustace Clarence Scrubb, the irritating cousin of the heroic Pevensie children. I am a pretentious, whiny, know-it-all; a greedy snob. But, thankfully, I am regularly pulled through a picture (a picture I’m not all that fond of) and dumped into the brine. Unlike Eustace, however, I understand the value of “spin” and have fooled even myself sometimes by coloring over my pretentiousness with a nice and glossy airbrushed finish that is occasionally mistaken for spirituality or intelligence.

But the Lion knows the truth.

Lurking deep within my need for intellectual stimulation there’s a little green chigger playing a slide trombone. You know what a chigger is, right? Well, if not, I’ll explain.

A chigger is what we Iowans call sometimes call a “can’t-see-‘em bug”. If we’re sitting on the grass and we start to itch, it must be a chigger. If we come in with hives but don’t remember a sting, it must have been chiggers. And, since my spell check isn’t putting a little red squiggly line under the word, it must be a real one.

In high school biology class we learned that the bugs known as chiggers are little parasitic mites that burrow under the skin and then die. As their little green carcasses rot underneath the top layers of our epidermis the chemical reactions of their decay cause the specific irritation, swelling, and itching we refer to as a “chigger bite.”

Okay, I might have made up the “green” part just because it sounds creepier. My memory of high school biology explanations may not be 100% accurate, but who knows? They might be green… and since I’m not in the mood to Google mites of the family Trombiculidae right now, let’s go with it.

In case you’re wondering, I so did NOT pull that Latin word out of my mental class notes—I have a very comprehensive dictionary sitting in my lap. And, also, there are squiggly red lines under “Trombiculidae”; so, while the computer is happy to accept the existence of “chiggers” it isn’t so quick to give them the credence of a fancy word to validate their worth.

Trombiculidae. Hmm. When I look at the unfamiliar word it causes me to wonder if in some areas of lawn lore the chiggers are the undisputed brass virtuosos in the parasitic marching band.

But I digress.

So, now that I’ve explained why I think Mr. Trombiculidae is playing a slide trombone in my psyche, how did he get there? Why is there a chigger lurking within my need for intellectual stimulation?

Well, it’s because that little bugger isn’t dead yet. (And, since I’m an American, I can say “bugger” without getting sent to the Headmaster’s office. If you’re from the U.K. or beyond and I’ve offended you, I’m sort of sorry, but not enough to delete the word.) So, as I said before I went off on my little pseudo-Brit-swearing tangent, my little chigger is not dead yet--not even close. The little green dude is laying eggs, probably; procreating within a cushy, blood-pulsing area of living pride.

The chigger personifies (or insectifies?) my selfish, overweening desire to be thought of as an intellectually superior human. Creeping around the edges of each new discovery of erudition (living next to my dictionary I also have a monstrous thesaurus—because I love interesting words; not only are they cool, but they keep my chigger well fed), the little green guy laughs like a villain through every spiritual light-bulb moment; happily itching and irritating in gales of skin-chafing chigger-glee. Mr. Trombiculidae’s happy squirming causes welts to break out across my personal sense of intellectual indignation in the form of societal-flagellating questions and assertions.

Why don’t the rest of these morons get it? Why are they so happily going about their mundane, ordinary, uninformed, and thirstless lives? Don’t they hunger for more? Don’t they long for deep conversations and mind-stretching dialogue? Where are the thinkers? The philosophers? The humans who long for a pyrotechnical explosion of understanding?

When I picture the person who might say such things aloud it doesn’t look like me. The guy’s a professor at Harvard or Yale; he’s got salt and pepper (mostly salt) hair, a well-trimmed goatee, and a brown suit with a vest and a bow tie. He’s an educational elitist; a snob.

I will never hold a job at Harvard or Yale. I haven’t worn a bow tie since I was in Show Choir in high school; and, thanks to Lana The Magician of Hair, I will probably never have salt-and-pepper hair (at least not the salt.) But, even though familial evidence of a genetic predisposition points to the uncomfortable conclusion that I may someday have the ability to grow a goatee, I firmly believe in the power of HOT WAX (and my Magician is adept at its application); so that guy can’t be me… can it?

But it is me. Professor Highbrow reads the transcription of my scathing, prideful thoughts. The sad truth is that I am fully capable of morphing into a self-righteous, egocentric snob at any moment in time. It’s pathetic, isn’t it? -- This skewed self-perception-meets-the-people reality I live in is quite ugly, don’t you think? But it’s the chigger’s fault.

Stupid bug.

I want people to think I’m smart. I want go to the Great Receptionist of Revolutionary Thinking and have my brain power parking permit validated.

Part of it, I suppose, is a bit of not-so-latent feminism which likes to assert my mental prowess—especially to the males of my species; but most of it, as uncomfortable as it is to admit, is just a deep-rooted ache to be noticed.

And that makes it all sound so sad and so human and so… sigh… pitiful. But that’s me; maybe that’s all of us. Some people want to be noticed for their singular steak-grilling talents, their muscles, or their ability to change the oil of a dually pickup in less than seven minutes. Some are organizers, clean freaks, or fashionistas, while others’ seeming humility might cover up a chigger screaming, “Look at me! I’m so good!”

I guess in our own way, we are all a bunch of self-righteous bastards practicing our own brand of chigger-religion to the plaintive wah-waoh of a well-greased slide trombone.

So is it wrong for me to seek out the similarly cerebral (wearing invisible bow-ties) for conversation? No, I don’t think so. Because not only do those conversations leave me filled up, they leave me hungry. And that is the paradox of seeking, isn’t it? I like the hunger; I’m fed by the hunger.

But the problem is the chigger. When I begin to define myself by comparing my hunger to the hunger of others, I become the chigger; the itching, irritating, decaying corpse.

Hunger can’t be seen or measured by anyone outside the individual who is experiencing it. After a certain point a person who is starving may not even be able to acknowledge “hunger” as a state of being; when the need has gone unmet for so long they don’t even notice it anymore.

Why should intellectual or spiritual hunger be any different than physical hunger? If left untended the starvation is just as severe. When we quit feeding our minds or our spirits, our intellectual digestive system quits functioning; quits voiding; and the “food” we have just sits there like a warm, comfy lump of emptyness in our spiritual bellies.

So the chigger keeps feeding as we get fed; it keeps growing and squirming and breeding incestuous little green offspring so we can hold our heads up high and say, “Look at me! Look at me! I am sooooo hungry! And that makes me smarter and prettier and more spiritually mature than you!”

The chigger needs to die, but I don’t know how to kill Mr. Trombiculidae. In my heart of hearts, I’m not even sure I want to; because, let’s face it: it feels good to scratch an itch.

As a reborn, Trinity chasing Believer I’ve been called to keep searching for and ingesting Truth in as big of gulps as I can swallow—and then go back to God’s Big Buffet to see if the Holy Spirit has laid out something new for me to taste. He’s called me to my hunger; and he’s seasoned his Truth so perfectly that it always leaves me happily salivating for one more bite; one more sip of Holy Wine. And that is good. The digestion of Living Water promotes a glowing countenance. But nibbling away underneath my very human skin is a parasite with an appetite that goes beyond hunger and into the darker realms, eking out its survival squirm by squirm in a Darwinistic battle for supremacy over the glowing, insecticidal parts of my Spirit.

I’m a reader and a writer and a student. I’m a mom and a wife and a friend. But, sadly, I’m also a pathetic elitist lifting my nose at the numb satisfaction of the well-churched masses. I’m both the host and the parasite—the chigger and the chigged—hanging on to my humanity by a thread.

But that thread is a strand of three cords, and it is not easily broken. It’s a thread woven and held by the perfect hand of a Master Weaver who sees the completed tapestry of my life and who is, even now, chasing down the chiggers of my soul. He’ll find them and he’ll root them out… even if it means slicing open several layers of my skin in order to clean out the rot.

Like in C.S. Lewis’s Voyage of the Dawn Treader my Grand Weaver is a Lion with claws--and I’m Eustace by the pool on Dragon Island. The gold bracelet on my arm is shiny and pretty, but it’s tight and it hurts. A lot. I can breathe fire, but it leaves an aftertaste of sulfur in my mouth. I can fly over the little people on the beach, but I’m disgusted by my own carnivorous cravings. I am a contradiction—but I am incurable, I think, without the searing rend of claws upon my flesh.

But then the Lion comes. His words--his very presence--causes steam to trail down the cheeks of my oversized dragon head. Sizzle, sizzle, puff. I cry, but the Lion-Weaver says he can make it better. He offers to bathe me.

And the memory of past bathings quickens my blood and caresses my broken heart.

Oh, it hurts! But it feels so good, having my scales ripped off one layer at a time. The Lion-Weaver keeps bathing me with his rough cat’s tongue and dipping me in the pool, yet there are still a lot of chigger eggs left under my skin and so many layers of dragonish epidermis left to remove. But someday—yes, someday… I’ll be scrubbed raw and be able to stand naked before him. And I’ll realize then just how very stupid I am and how much power my own pathetic intellect lacks, but how precious my hunger has been to His heart. As I bury my face in his mite-free mane I’ll weep for an eternal moment before he breathes onto my tear-streaked face… and invites me to climb on his back.

I’ll look at his huge form, and look for a step--a boulder or something I can use to get a leg up. But there will be nothing big enough for me to climb to be able to reach his back. My heart sinks when I realize I can’t get up there on my own. But then, to my awe, the Lion will kneel as if proposing marriage--and I’ll remember the day I said “yes” and I blink—and I see the distance isn’t nearly as daunting as I’d thought. Once on his back, I’ll lean forward and squeeze him with a joy of which I’ve only imagined the depth: the truest embrace of a longing fulfilled. A rumble will begin in his chest, as low as a purr, but growing until affection and delight pour forth from the sound as he laughs… and suggests that I cover my ears.

But I won’t-- because I want to hear him roar.

The ground shakes nearly as much as my knees at that amazing, powerful sound. My stomach falls to my toes as the Lion leaps and… we take a ride on the wind.

And the chiggers of my soul cannot survive at that altitude.

Isn't it great when Fiction Mirrors Truth... and imagination takes flight in ways that capture our souls?

Thursday, April 22, 2010

Never Underestimate the Power of a Good Dye Job

My previous post should explain my long absence from blogging. But I'm getting settled in a new "permanent" home now, my computer is enjoying a better firewall and the huge advance from dial-up to DSL. Woo-hoo!

I'm back, baby! But it took a bit more than an address change to get me here....

After a short stint as a coppery-blonde to play the role of "Margy" in our community theater's production of Rodgers and Hammerstein's State Fair I've finally got my real hair back. Well, what constitutes as my "real hair", anyway! I have my razor cut, my almost-funky striped low and highlights, and my flat iron and hair goo are once again receiving daily attention.

Who knew that something as wacky as a hair style could affect my mojo so much? When I let my razored layers grow out and went copper-penny blonde for "Margy" the bleach must have somehow taken the color out of my soul as well as my hair. Some random chemical reaction must have happened to make me feel insecure and entirely frumptastic. ("tastic", of course, being my personal suffix of choice at the moment; and, since I am a writer I am at liberty to make up words at will. I'm sure I'll move on soon to some other thing, but since I've been over-using the word "ginormous" I had to come up with something fresh. This too shall pass.)

My lifeless reflection hearkened my hair back to the days of being a new mom, when showers were a hit or miss part of the day and make-up?--faggeddaboutit! So even though I was getting up in the morning, going through the whole shower/makeup/hairstyle routine, dressing professionally, and heading off to the bank to fulfill my role as a Financial Services Representative, I still felt, well... frumpy. My creative juices fizzled, my writing slugged. It was depressing. I don't like to think of myself as vain, but dang. Something had to be done! Two days after our final performance of State Fair, I called my stylist (aka: The Magician) so sweet, innocent little "Margy" could DIE! and the rrrrrrrrr could get dyed back into S.R. Van Ness.

Thanks to Lana, my stylist/colorist/magician, I'm back, baby. And I'm digging in hard. I'm posting this puppy and then I'm opening up those first 130 pages of my supernatural-thriller-in-progress and seeing if I can make it to 140 pgs before the kiddos get home from school.

It's amazing what a girl can do when she's got the right hair.