Category Archives: Book reviews

Christian fiction should not contain…

Excuse me while I lick my wounds. My new novel Fall from Grace just received a one-star review (on Amazon and Goodreads) from someone who was offended by its language and the two scenes in it that are sexual in nature (but not overly explicit; I draw the curtain). This reviewer remarked that “there is so much in this book that should not be in a Christian book.”

I suspect the reviewer picked up the book thinking that if it’s marketed as a Christian book, it will fall into what  publishing calls the “inspirational fiction” category. This subgenre in fiction has very, very precise guidelines for what can not be contained in the book. I know the restrictions because my day job is copy editor for a major publisher.

I’ve edited inspirational fiction, and I’ve had to refer to the guidelines to double-check if, say, it’s okay for the hero to say “for Pete’s sake” (nope) or “jeez” (nope) or can he play cards (nope) or drink (of course not). He can’t kiss the heroine below the neck, and there can be no suggestion of the heroine reacting to physical affection except, well, chastely. There can also be no use of words like “heavenly” or “angelic” except in the literal sense. Oh, and no reference to Halloween, either. I could go on. Suffice it to say it’s a very restrictive genre.

Fall_From_Grace_COVERI’m not criticizing inspirational fiction’s restrictions, though. I like the idea that one can pick up these books knowing what’s (not) in them. I’ve written two myself (Kit Austen’s Journey and Mending Ruth’s Heart).

But Fall from Grace, while a Christian-themed book, is not an inspirational. You won’t find it on the shelves of a Lifeway store, for example, which stocks inspirational fiction exclusively.

The reviewer’s claim that there is so much in the book that shouldn’t be in a Christian book got me thinking, though. I would love to see the genre of Christian fiction expand beyond the restrictions of inspirationals. I’d love to see Christian and/or spiritual themes, in fact, woven through more mainstream fiction. While most fictional characters in novels are usually highly secularized individuals, most real people do pray (at least occasionally) and wonder about God. Many even go to church.

Fall from Grace covers sin–adultery. I chose to show one of the main characters in that sin (again, closing the curtain at a certain point) to convey the depth of his fall…from grace. I wanted to show his impulses, what leads him to this act of betrayal, to, yes, have the reader cringe at his sin, to be repelled by it.

The rest of the book, of course, is about whether he can overcome that sin, whether he can climb out of the pit into which he’s fallen. To convey that struggle, I did include bad language (some even spoken by “pure” characters), moral dilemmas, kissing that isn’t sweet (although it isn’t below the neck!) and the very human challenges he and his wife face as they try to figure out: What does Christ require of us?

If that kind of story is for you, then pick up a copy of Fall from Grace. But if you’re looking for inspirational fiction, don’t. Buy my other books in that category instead! (See covers below.) 🙂

To reassure readers who might consider looking at Fall from Grace, it did receive a wonderful review from another source:

“Truly a novel for our times by an author with a genuine flair for deftly created characters and engaging storytelling from beginning to end, Fall From Grace is one of those novels that will linger in the mind and memory long after the book itself has been finished and set back upon the shelf.” Midwest Book Review

Inspirationals: Where faith isn't preachy; it's just not hidden     Mending Ruth's Heart_250x400

 

 

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No April Fool’s Joke: FREE “After the War” and Extra Chapter!

It’s free, it’s free — again! I’m offering a two-day giveaway at Amazon Kindle of my 1955 family saga After the War. Mark your calendar and download it, Friday, March 31 and Saturday, April 1. 

And, if you’ve already downloaded and read this book, here’s an extra: I’ve penned an extra chapter for it that tells you what happens to some of the characters in the book more than ten years later! If you’d like a copy of this chapter, just email me at Libby488 (at) yahoo (dot) com, and put “extra chapter ATW” in the subject. I’ll send as a PDF!

After_the_War_Cover_for_KindleHere’s what’s new with this book: I redid the cover, and I tweaked the prose a bit, getting rid of a few phrases here and there that were either repetitious or clunky. Let me tell you, it’s a humbling experience to reread one’s work after it’s been published. Ask any author. We cringe when we crack open the spine of an ARC (advance reader copy) to proofread one last time before printing.

I’m excited to offer this book for free again because it has something in common with my new release coming out this fall, Fall from Grace (Bancroft Press, September 2017). While After the War is a historical and Fall from Grace a contemporary, they both share faith elements, where religious faith plays an integral part of the story, motivating characters to do both good and…not so good things.

So, get crackin’! Head on over to Amazon on the free dates (March 31 and April 1) and get your free Kindle editions of After the War. When you’re finished, email me for the extra chapter!

 

 

 

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Favorite novels with faith elements

The Wall Street Journal’s Saturday book review section (which is excellent, by the way) runs a regular feature called “Five Best,” five one-paragraph reviews of books that aren’t new releases, all on one theme, chosen by a writer who might have a book coming out (or just released) that touches on the theme. For example, today, February 18th’s theme is “novels of political protest.”

I always enjoy that column and have ripped it out more than once to save for later book purchases.

Because I have a novel coming out this fall that deals with religious faith (Fall from Grace, Bancroft Press — you can read more about it here), I’ve been thinking of what I’d include in a list of favorite novels with faith elements. Here are three, for a start:

The first, and most recent, one that comes to mind is Marilynne Robinson’s Pulitzer Prize-winning Gilead (2004). Like all the novels on my list, I’ve read this more than once, and it never fails to move me. Set in 1956 at the end of Rev. John Ames’s life, it consists of a letter he writes to his young son to explain his family, his history, his relationship with God. The climactic moment of this novel is a quiet scene that creeps up on you as you realize that you, too, might have had moments of singular grace such as this, but hectic schedules and the duties of daily living could keep you from recognizing them. One of the most profound scenes in the book, though, occurs fairly early in the story when John relates a tale of his abolitionist preacher grandfather being confronted by his son (the narrator’s father) about his activities. “I remember when you walked to the pulpit in that shot-up, bloody shirt with that pistol in your belt,” the father says, “And I had a thought as powerful and clear as any revelation. And it was, This has nothing to do with Jesus. Nothing. Nothing…” Keep in mind that the grandfather was on the right side of the Civil War battle, yet his son justifiably chastises him for using his pulpit to push for war.

Evelyn Waugh’s Brideshead Revisited (1944) has been a go-to for john_15_12_love_one_another_poster-rac0d4c53566348458f59796e03c63b1a_au58_8byvr_512me over the years for quiet, even nostalgic introspection. You don’t have to be British to feel the bright sunny pre-war mood of the upper-class characters in this tale of an aristocratic Catholic family in Anglican England. Although I’ve reread the story many times, I still have trouble remembering plot points as the various Flyte family members marry, separate, marry again, and reconcile over the years. The climax is, as in Gilead, quiet, yet breathtaking in its impact as the estranged husband of Lady Marchmain returns to Brideshead to die and be reconciled with his faith.

J.D. Salinger’s Franny and Zooey (1961) immediately appealed to me on the first reading, even though its characters were as removed from my own experience of life as the author’s most famous protagonist, Holden Caulfield of The Catcher in the Rye. Caulfield never grabbed my attention or sympathy, though, because he, with his upper-class New York wealth and advantages, seemed like, well, a spoiled ungrateful brat. But while both Franny and Zooey come from that same kind of background, they always appeared to me to be more humble about their place in life, more thankful. And Franny’s inner torment is universal. This book, originally two short stories printed in the New Yorker, is odd in that it consists mostly of long conversations between Franny and her brother Zooey, as he tries to coax her back to living when she suffers a breakdown of sorts as she confronts how empty her life is. While faith discussions are sprinkled throughout the novel, it is Zooey’s patient explanation of who an unattractive “Fat Lady” really was in their now-deceased brother Seymour’s life that lights up the tale: “And don’t you know — listen to me, now — don’t you know who that Fat Lady really is? . . . Ah, buddy. Ah, buddy. It’s Christ Himself. Christ Himself, buddy.”

Let me know your favorite novels with faith elements — I’d love to add to my list!

___

Fall from Grace by Libby Sternberg (Bancroft Press, Sept. 2017; ISBN: 9787-1-61088-205-7): When Eli Baine, son of celebrity evangelicals, is caught using a prostitution ring, he has to relearn early faith lessons to find his way back to family and true Christ-like love.

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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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When friends and family read your books

After I finish writing a novel, I’m excited and eager to share it with the world. I have to tamp down this excitement, though, as I go back and revise, edit, polish. Then, once again, as I’m ready to push the “publish” button or, if I’m fortunate enough to land a contract with a traditional publisher, as the release date nears, a strange shyness overcomes me.

51LJWn26G5L

A book I’m proud of.

I become reticent to have friends and family members read the book. I might be all hip-hip-hooray, buy-my-book on social media, wanting the world to read my story. But if I see a friend or family member weigh in with a chipper “I just bought a copy!” I’m clutched with nervousness. I have to stop myself from saying, oh, you don’t need to buy it and read it. Really, you don’t. 

That’s crazy! I know it. And part of me argues with that other Negative Naomi, saying, of course you want them to read it, silly! You’re proud of it!

As I analyze this sentiment, I think there are several reasons for it. First, sometimes I will know, because of how well I know the reader involved, that this particular story is not their cuppa. So while I’m grateful — very, very grateful — for their support, I don’t want them disappointed when they discover that my book isn’t their kind of read.

Second, though, even if my book is to their taste in storytelling, I cringe at the thought of them not liking my particular brand of that storytelling. Unlike with a stranger who buys and reads my book, these relatives or friends are people I will most likely interact with regularly. Will they feel compelled to offer faint praise? (“I enjoyed your book. It was…different.”) Will they say nothing, leading me to absolutely, positively know they hated it? Will they think less of me if they dislike it, think I’m a…fake?

Reading tastes are subjective, I know. Who hasn’t excitedly urged a friend to read a favorite book, only to be crushed with disappointment when said friend gives that book a “meh” rating? Imagine that disappointment if you’re the author of the meh.

The third reason I am nervous when friends and family buy and read my books–What if they find…mistakes in it? Not just editing mistakes  (after all; a copy editor can’t catch everything. I know — I am a copy editor.) But historical mistakes in the case of a historical novel. Or mistakes in logic in the case of a mystery.

Yes, other readers can find those things and point them out to me via email. But again, having someone in your intimate circle point them out makes you feel like a sham. (Ha! So you thought you were a novelist, did you, the inner Negative Naomi cries.)

smartcookie2

Another book I’m proud of.

So, to all my friends and family who support me by buying and reading my books, I say, thank you, thank you, thank you. I’m really happy you support me in this way, and I hope my stories are enjoyable. And I’m grateful if you keep it to yourself if they’re not!

To my fellow authors, I ask: Do you suffer from these same feelings when friends and family say they’re buying and reading your books?

UPDATE: My daughter, Hannah Sternberg, also a novelist, noted that she feels “naked” when friends and family read her books, knowing they might learn very personal things about her through her writing. I completely agree with this observation, and I’m glad she pointed it out.

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LIBBY’S BOOK CLUB: Queen Victoria

Welcome to the first in a series I’ll call “Libby’s Book Club.” (Hence the title of this post.) It will be just like a regular book club except for these things: We won’t get together except online; I will probably do most of the talking; I will occasionally (or even regularly) promote my own books.

But other than those things, it will be precisely like any other book club. 🙂

First up, a question: Is anyone here as excited as I am to see the PBS British import Victoria series? Here’s a trailer and clip:

Doesn’t that look yummy? Costumes! History! More costumes! I can hardly wait. Here in the US of A, the series starts in January.

Anticipating this series sent me scurrying to my bookshelf where I pulled out and started rereading this well-worn tome: Queen Victoria by Cecil Woodham-Smith. It’s an oldie — published in the 1970s — but it’s jammed with historical goodies and covers the queen’s life from birth to the death of Prince Albert.

I’m sure there are other more recent books on Queen Victoria, but I enjoyed the slow, detailed pace of this one, which reports not only on Victoria’s history but on how that history was reported by others–what was false and what was true.

Not being a student of British history, I found the entire tale enlightening. One of the things about this story that surprised and  interested me was how she actually came to the throne–the various family intrigues that led to the daughter of the Duke of Kent becoming the monarch. Spoiler alert: the rest of the family wasn’t producing heirs or the right kind of heirs.

The Duke of Kent, her father, was an odd duck in that he was very kind to some people (his wife and his mistress of 27 years, whom he was forced to abandon in order to marry and produce an heir) and cruel to others (the many military under his command, so many of whom disliked him that he moved around to various posts, avoiding mutinies in some cases). Poor fellow died miserably, at the hands of doctors trying to treat what sounded like a bad cold, pneumonia or bronchitis. So he never saw his daughter rise to the throne, even though he was absolutely sure she would be queen.

I’m fond of this book for reasons unrelated to its content. For several years in the not-too-distant past, I would travel from Vermont (where I used to live) to Maryland to help my sister take care of our father by accompanying him to various doctor visits and the like. My sister had a copy of this book on her shelf, and I’d always pick it up and resume reading it when there, finishing it after many, many such visits. So I associate it with her warm hospitality. Years after I read it, I found a used copy in a little bookshop in Connecticut associated with a local library. I snatched it up.

So, do you have a Victoria biography you’ve enjoyed? If so, leave a comment! I’d like to hear about it!

And, while marveling at what a smart cookie Victoria was, consider trying my new book, Smart Cookie (by Libby Malin), a contemporary sweet romance with laughs as well as love. You can sample it at THIS LINK. (There — that’s the book promotion!)

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Review: SECOND CHANCE LOVE by Shannon Farrington

NOTE (August 3, 2015): I wrote this review months ago before the book mentioned was released. It’s now available! So, I’ve inserted a link to its Amazon page and updated the cover photo.

As I’ve noted on this blog, I have the privilege of being a copy editor for a major romance publisher, Harlequin. It allows me to read a wide sampling of books, everything from steamy suspense to sweet inspirationals through complex coming-of-age, mystery, and family tales. Anyone who thinks romance is one-size-fits-all storytelling should sit at my computer for a few weeks to have the lie put to that generalization. Romance, or more widely, women’s fiction, is enormously varied. I’ve edited some absolutely wonderful novels by talented authors over the past few years that deserve attention. (And don’t get me started on how many of these books get ignored by mainstream, especially literary, publications whose editors might curl their lips or roll their eyes when they see the imprint of the world’s most well-known romance publisher on a book.)

Recently, I edited an inspirational historical due out later this year. I don’t usually blog about a book that’s not yet released, but I asked the editor if I could do so with this one. So, here goes:

When Shannon Farrington’s Second Chance Love hits the shelves this summer, buy a copy. Buy one if you’ve never read an inspirational in your life. Buy one if you don’t usually read historicals. The reason I make this recommendation: Ms. Farrington’s book is about more than faith, about more than a love story, even about more than the historical period in which it’s set–the Civil War. It contains, amidst the lovsecondchancelovee story and the historical detail, a lesson that we all should absorb today: Loving your neighbor means…loving your neighbor, not hating those who don’t feel the same way as you do.

First, don’t be put off by the fact that this is an inspirational novel (for those outside the publishing world, inspirational novels are stories with no sex or cursing, but do contain some faith elements; back in the day, these novels would have been mainstream–think Jane Eyre, which is drenched in faith messages). The story is a universal one about love both in the discrete sense (the love between a man and a woman) and in the general sense (those pesky neighbors).

The tale in a nutshell: In 1864 Baltimore, Elizabeth, the heroine, mourns the death of her fiance, a Union soldier felled not by battle but disease, specifically pneumonia. Adding to her grief is the knowledge that she could have married him before his death if not for his brother David’s advice to delay until the war was over. David, it turns out, had an ulterior motive for that counsel–he’s in love with Elizabeth. But now he’s overwhelmed with guilt, knowing his feelings might have denied his brother and Elizabeth at least some short happiness together. To make up for this mistake, he takes on the responsibility of aiding her family, taking a job at a local newspaper to be near them. He learns that Elizabeth is an excellent sketch artist and gets his editor to use her talents for the paper. As she accompanies him on assignments, the two form a close friendship that eventually blossoms into true love.

About those newspaper assignments: David covers the movement to ban slavery in Maryland. Many people might not realize that the Emancipation Proclamation did not outlaw slavery in Union states, of which Maryland was one. So, it was up to the local citizenry to handle that task. Maryland did so by rewriting its constitution, which required calling a constitutional convention, drafting a new document, and then sending it back to the people for a vote.

Ms. Farrington handles all this detail seamlessly. You never feel you’re being treated to an “info dump,” where the author bestows all the hard work of her research on you, necessary or not. She includes enough history to keep the plot moving, and enough to educate you about a difficult period, but never so much that you feel pulled out of the story for a history lesson.

She also respects the time and place. I’ve written before about historical novelists who make faulty assumptions. Ms. Farrington does not fall into those traps. As a Baltimore native, I knew, for example, that the main railroad station is on Charles Street. But in Civil War days, that station had not yet been built.
A lesser author might have assumed it was the main train station back in the day because it is now. Not Ms. Farrington. She knew what stations to place her characters in, even what buildings now-well-known institutions occupied in the 1860s (different from those they occupy today). She respected the time period.

But here’s where her historical accuracy contained lessons for today–it’s easy, looking in our rearview mirror, to see how abhorrent slavery was and to wonder how any civilized people, especially those in a “northern” state (yes, Maryland was a border state, but Baltimore is more northern than southern), could find anything at all to debate about outlawing this “peculiar institution,” especially after their president had emancipated slaves elsewhere. Ms. Farrington shows as well as tells the story of the challenges of the debate in Maryland. Some abolitionists, the “Unconditionals,” wanted to go beyond outlawing slavery, imposing other requirements on their adversaries, such as taking a loyalty oath before voting. These measures rankled those whose minds were troubled by slavery but weren’t yet in the abolitionist camp.

Not for one second is Ms. Farrington sympathetic to a pro-slavery view. But she does show how outlawing slavery in Maryland was a closer vote than it needed to be, some of which was due to unsavory efforts of  “Unconditionals.”

And therein, for me at least, lies the great moral of this story, one that I’ve shared with friends and policy advocates over the years: if you want to move an issue forward, you have to love it and those it benefits more than you hate its opponents.

Three cheers to Shannon Farrington for wisely presenting this view in a beautiful story. Second Chance Love.

 

 

 

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