Monthly Archives: December 2016

Review: MR TIMOTHY by Louis Bayard

Over the holiday, I reread a book I’d loved the first time I encountered it: Mr. Timothy by Louis Bayard. Originally published in 2003, the book is a literary thriller. If you enjoy a good mystery wrapped in history, poignance, and a great tip of the hat to a well-known piece of literature, Mr. Timothy won’t disappoint.

Bayard breaks your heart with his portrayal of Timothy Cratchit — yes, that Cratchit, Tiny Tim from Dickens’s A Christmas Carol. Now a young man, Timothy is adrift in life, supported by monthly payments from his “Uncle N,” Ebenezer Scrooge, whose home is now perpetually decorated for Christmas and whose generosity is so well-known that a queue of donation-seeking do-gooders fills his parlor waiting for audiences.

But Scrooge’s munificence colors Timothy’s life in a softly malignant way. Instead of finding his way to great things or even a modest occupation, Timothy suffers from the ennui of the existentially disappointed.

About a third of the way into the novel, Bayard sums up Timothy’s problem with a poignant “letter” from the protagonist to his now-dead father, Bob Cratchit. Timothy writes:

Are you ready for a story, Father?

A young boy — roses blooming in the hollows of his cheeks — is deprived by cruel Fate of the use of one limb. He is clasped in the bosom of a warm, distracted family, who dote upon him but fail to understand his intrinsic worth. For this boy, the reader soon learns, is nothing less than a changeling, a prince of nature, whose birthright was stolen from him in infancy (even as his leg was robbed of its motive force). The infamy might have stood uncorrected were it not for the intervention of a kindly family friend who detects something unusual in the boy, something no one else can see, the boy least of all…And so this kindly old gentleman resolves to restore the changeling to his proper place in the cosmic hierarchy — to raise him up, as it were, to the life for which he was originally destined…

…he sits, still dreaming, still waiting for The Event, which is his private term for the public realization of his destiny. He envisions it as a carriage, a grey brougham pausing at the curb in front of his house, openings its door.

The carriage never comes.

How can you read that and not throb with the heartache of Timothy as a boy, to whom “much was given” and thus “much expected.” He ends up disappointing himself, though, as he waits for that “carriage,” never settling on anything of value to do other than tutoring the madam of a whorehouse, teaching her to read.

164792500But it is near this den of prostitution that he encounters a mystery–the corpse of a young girl whose body has been branded with a stylized “G.” Soon after, he encounters another young girl, aged ten, on the run. And the mystery truly begins — who is she running from, what does the “G” signify, and who in the halls of Scotland Yard and the peerage is involved in a dark and ugly crime?

Timothy solves the puzzle, eventually, but not before experiencing thrilling adventures which involve good policemen and bad, London carriage drivers, a likable (and ill-fated) river dredger, prostitutes, other members of the Cratchit family, a young man on the con, “Uncle N,” and the strong, resolute little girl, Philomela, who started his detective journey. The story winds through life in Victorian London like the snow swirling on Christmas Day, a fitting ending point for this complicated tale that combines pathos with page-turning mystery.

The pathos comes mostly in the form of Timothy’s reflections on his late father. He sees him everywhere, and if you have lost a family member, you will know precisely what he is going through as he sees the body shape, the face, the physical attitude of his father in men he chances upon. But it is in his “letters” to his dad that his grief pours out, his grief at having discovered, too late, just how much he loved the tender man who’d carried him on his shoulders everywhere to spare him walking with a crutch.

I reread Mr. Timothy on my Kindle. I’ll now look for a print copy. This is a book to own as an object as well as a story.

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I sold a “book of my heart”!

Some authors write to the market, others what the spirit moves them to create. I do a little of both. I’ve written books I thought should do well in the marketplace because of their genre (and sometimes been wrong about that) and novels that we writers call “books of the heart.”

I’m proud, excited, pleased, giddy, elated…doing the Snoopy dance of happiness…to announce that a “book of my heart” will be published next fall by Bancroft Press: Fall from Grace. I’ll tell you why it’s a book of my heart in a moment. But, first, here’s a summary of the novel:

Fall from Grace: Eli Baine has sinned. Spectacularly. When he’s caught using a prostitution ring, the news blasts across print and broadcast media: the son of a reality TV evangelical clan, whose Christian lifestyle is showcased regularly in Baine Family Values television episodes, is exposed as a hypocrite. Carted off to rehab, Eli chafes at being lumped in with molesters and serial adulterers. But when he escapes to visit his wife, Ruth, he finds no solace there. She can hardly bear to look at him, let alone admit him back into her life with their infant child. This sets Eli off on a hard journey toward redemption, understanding and reconciliation. His first stop is at a mainline Protestant church that embraces him with tolerance and support, but where he must endure counseling from a “she-priest” and an ultimate betrayal by someone who’d offered a helping hand. Meanwhile, Ruth herself sets out on a healing path, being counseled by a new, young pastor at her parents’ fundamentalist church who offers her more than just spiritual guidance. Both Eli and Ruth wander in the wilderness of heartbreak, distrust and eventual tragedy until they finally transform into different individuals who can see the light of hope and love in their marriage and their lives.

bookclub_bannerThis novel is a perfect fit for a small press like Bancroft. Larger publishers, used to dealing with very specific categories of books, with offices full of editors looking for books in those specific categories, would have a hard time pegging where this book should be, what shelf it should be  placed on at a bookstore. Even though it deals with faith issues, it’s not an inspirational.

Inspirationals are novels that target a mostly conservative Christian audience, with no swearing, sex, or offensive material, no use of faith words except in a respectful, literal manner, novels that pass muster with the Christian Booksellers Association and buyers at stores such as Lifeway.

Fall from Grace strays from the guidelines these booksellers and buyers would likely follow. It does contain some cursing (though hardly any). It does contain some sexual content (though just one or two scenes, and even then action takes place “off screen”).

But because the book contains a lot about faith, editors at big publishing houses wouldn’t really know what to do with it. Novels today are highly secular, with virtually no mention of churchgoing or faith. To include these elements in your books means risking being placed in the inspirational genre…where you have to follow very strict rules, and where the religion involved is a nondenominational brand of evangelical faith. Fall from Grace doesn’t follow those rules.

In fact, Fall from Grace includes some unflattering portraits of people involved in both evangelical and mainstream Protestant churches. But it also includes — and this is so important, and a crucial part of why this is a “book of my heart” — some very loving and inspiring portraits of people in those churches, too. Yes, even evangelical church people.

You see, I’ve worked with evangelicals over the years when I was very involved in the school choice movement. And their more Bible-literal faith might not be my brand of religion, but I had great respect for them. They are beautiful people, those I worked with. They were sweet and loving and kind. And today I know people with a more fundamentalist approach to faith I call friend and family. They, too, are lovely people, living good, Christian lives.

Too often, these religious people are maligned in popular culture, lampooned, caricatured, or worse. And in political punditry, they can often be lumped in with the unsavory characters at the gay-bashing/hating Westboro Baptist Church (which shouldn’t have either Baptist or church in its name), as if that is the only alternative to mainline Protestant or even Roman Catholic faith.

Fall from Grace treats them kindly, or at least…equally. Just as there are mainline Protestant characters in the book who are flawed, yet striving to lead Christian lives, so, too, are there evangelicals on their own similar paths.

Fall from Grace is about finding that path, about answering the question: What is true Christ-like love? As Eli Baine, the protagonist, tries to find his way back to his marriage, he must also find his way back to faith, a faith he took for granted.

And that’s why it’s a “book of my heart.” I took more than a year to write it, penning a first draft, working with a critique partner (thank you, Jerri!), rewriting, polishing, tweaking some more.

I’ll be writing more about this book as publication date nears. Stay tuned!

________

The other part of my pitch to publishers included this material:

Quick bio of author Libby Sternberg: Multi-published author in YA mystery, adult mystery, historical fiction and romantic comedy; Edgar nominee for her first YA mystery; one of her romantic comedies was optioned for film — a brief squib about this project is here . Her Jane Eyre-inspired novel, Sloane Hall, was one of only 14 books the Simon & Schuster “Off the Shelf” blog featured on the 200th anniversary of Charlotte Bronte’s birth. She has been published by Bancroft Press, Harlequin, Dorchester, Sourcebooks, Five Star/Cengage and independently. She writes under the names Libby Sternberg and Libby Malin, and is currently a copy editor for a Big Five publisher.

Praise for Libby Sternberg:

For Death Is the Cool Night and Lost to the World (Libby Sternberg):

  • “This volume collects two well-crafted novels by Sternberg… Blending operatic drama, sumptuous description, and noir, Sternberg gracefully puzzles out her tormented characters’ actions and motivations in each book.” Publishers Weekly

For Loves Me, Loves Me Not (Libby Malin):

  • “The love story is charming and will be appreciated by any woman with bad taste in men who somehow inexplicably ends up with Mr. Right.” Washington Post
  • “A whimsical look at the vagaries of dating… an intriguing side plot adds punch and pathos to the story…” Publishers Weekly

For Sloane Hall (Libby Sternberg):

  • “An original story with complex character development…(Sternberg) knows how to tell a story and she does it well….a refreshing tale.” Bronte Studies journal
  • “Libby Sternberg’s intelligent and intriguing Jane Eyre reimagining has achieved two of the most difficult goals in a novel: being a page turner and paying a worthy tribute to Charlotte Brontë’s immortal story.” – The Bronte Blog
  • “Sternberg never loses sight of the story she’s re-telling, but this novel is definitely her own. Readers have things to figure out and look forward to. Her prose flows beautifully with vivid descriptions of people and places, bringing to life a Los Angeles of times gone by. Fans of historical fiction and Jane Eyre in particular will relish this novel, and readers who enjoy a love story should definitely pick this one up.”—Fresh Fiction

 

 

 

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