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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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Fall from Grace: Launched!

The book is launched! Fall from Grace was officially released September 1. I hope it finds its readers, and that they like it.

Every author approaches launch day, I’m sure, with the same amount of joyful anticipation and fearful dread. An optimist at heart, I always think, “this is the one.” This is the book that will propel me on to a best-seller list, that will have agents and editors scurrying to respond to my queries, that will result in more and better contracts and a ditching of the day job.

The flip side of this sunny scenario? The book does none of those things.

And yet…and yet, I’m grateful to be a published author, to have people buy and read my books, to have found this “job,” one that never bores me, that always inspires me, that gives my life joy.

Some sweet tidbits from launch week:

Radio interviews:

Author and talk show host Eric Metaxas interviewed me on his show for nearly an hour! Here’s the interview on SoundCloud.

What a thoughtful host he was! I was already in awe of him before the interview for the beautiful, best-selling biography he’d written of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the Protestant minister who defied Hitler and paid with his life for it. But Mr. Metaxas is not just intelligent and intellectual; he’s also…kind.

Authors are advised, when doing radio interviews, to mention the title of their book often, instead of just saying “my book” or “my novel.” But Mr. Metaxas handled that for me, saying “Fall from Grace by Libby Sternberg” numerous times throughout the interview. He’d also taken the time to look at my website and knew about my other books and my background. What a delight! I’m very grateful for that opportunity.

Another online interview took place with Ed Morrissey, a devout Catholic and leader at the political blog Hot Air. Ed and I have emailed over the years, and I did some writing for Hot Air back in the day. But we’d never actually spoken to each other. So it was great fun talking to him on his show. Here’s a link to that confab.

Last but not least, I did a book signing at Bethany Beach Books Labor Day weekend, while we were there for a big family-vacation reunion. As the signing approached, I began to regret scheduling it since signings can be a little depressing if you’re not a best-seller, and it would take time from moments with my family. But a good reporter from a local newspaper interviewed me beforehand, and wrote this lovely article. And…I snagged the Best Book Signing Photo Ever in my life — me with two of my darling grandchildren!


All in all, not a bad launch week. I might not be a best-seller (yet!), but I’m a happy writer.

Fall from Grace by Libby Sternberg is available wherever books are sold.

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Why’d I write this book anyway?

Fall from Grace will be released in a little under a month (September 1, 2017), and I just know my fans (all ten of them, ahem) are eager for insights into why I wrote the novel, what kind of story it is, and…other stuff. 🙂 So, here’s a handy Q and A for those who might be interested in picking it up. And it is available for preorder now! Yay! Hop on over to Amazon pronto and get a copy before they run out – here. They do run out at Amazon, right? Right? So you need to be sure to get your order in now!!

What inspired you to write Fall from Grace?

Fall_From_Grace_COVERAs with most novelists, my inspiration came from a “what if” question. I was intrigued by the scandal involving Josh Duggar (of the Nineteen Kids and Counting TV show), and I wondered what if he made his way back to his wife, family, and faith—what would that journey look like?


What kind of story is Fall from Grace?

It’s a love story: the love between Ruth and Eli—can it survive? And it’s about Christ-like love—how does one truly live a Christian life, what sacrifices does that entail?


For Ruth and Eli, what are those sacrifices?

It becomes obvious fairly early that they both must sacrifice their earlier beliefs about what God expects of them and what they should be doing with their lives. Eli must also confront the sacrifice of possibly letting Ruth go after discovering how deeply he still loves her.


How did your religion impact the characters and plot?

I was raised Catholic but now belong to an Episcopalian church (“Catholic light” – all the ritual and one-third less guilt, the old joke goes!). I have worked with evangelical Christians on education issues. And I have a Baptist sister-in-law, as well as Jewish and atheist and agnostic relatives. I have a great deal of respect for all of these people and their beliefs, even when they don’t mesh with mine. My faith journey was a small one compared to Eli and Ruth’s, but I know how one can wrestle with whether to stay in one’s “native” denomination or change, how you can feel a tug back toward your first experience with religion. But Fall from Grace is not about theology or canon law or church edicts. I’m no theologian, and I deliberately kept out of the book characters quoting a lot of Scripture. I wanted the story to focus more on the broader struggle of these two people finding the meaning of love in the personal and spiritual sense, not the “angels on the head of a pin” type of arguments.


How did your respect for evangelicals color the story?

As I mentioned, I’ve worked with people whose faith is more Bible-literal, who probably fall more into the fundamentalist category of Christian faith. And they were beautiful people. It always bothered me that they and their faith would often be made fun of or caricatured in popular culture, or that public figures would denounce their views as if they were members of the Westboro Baptist Church. So I wanted to draw a sympathetic portrait of them.


At one point in the story, you wrote that Ruth and Eli were looking for a church that was “reasonably comfortable that didn’t offend…” What did you mean?

In the novel, both the very conservative Baine family and the very liberal Protestant minister Rev. Pete Markham use their churches as proxies for political advocacy. Even if they are not preaching it constantly from a pulpit, their implicit message is “You’re not a good Christian unless you believe in ___________.” For the Baines, that blank might be filled with things like “traditional marriage, literal interpretations of Scripture, etc.” For Pete, the blank would be filled with things like “taxing the wealthy, gay marriage, etc.” So they both use a holier-than-thou approach that Ruth and Eli grow tired of. They want a church that helps them explore their relationship with God, with the world, and especially with each other.


Have you or anyone close to you experienced a transformation like Eli and Ruth do?

Not in the dramatic way they go through it. I think many people experience transformation throughout life, to one degree or another, and it can be a slow process, not immediately evident during the process itself.


Both Eli and Ruth stray from church during certain points in the story. How does one practice religion in times of doubt and hopelessness?

I think the answer is a word in the question: practice. You just keep practicing, putting one foot in front of the other. And you hope that “bidden or unbidden, God is present.”


Both Eli and Ruth end up having deeper relationships with their counselors, Frederick and Lisa, and their counselors seem to reciprocate their feelings. How did these relationships affect the counselors, and their roles in Eli’s and Ruth’s lives?

Both Frederick, Ruth’s counselor, and Lisa, Eli’s counselor, end up having feelings for their respective clients. And both counselors, in important ways, help Eli and Ruth. To me, they represented a Christ-like love—nonjudgmental, all-encompassing, pure, and requiring some sacrifice. Lisa, in particular, was a favorite character to write. She was sassy, no-nonsense, and deeply spiritual. You never knew her political beliefs for sure (even if you guessed she was on the same page with Pete). She loved…without hating. In other words, she loved unconditionally, even if she disagreed with those she loved. She didn’t hate them. It would be wonderful to have many Lisas in one’s life.


Eli struggles to get over the fact that he’s lumped together with all the “bad guys” in rehab and at counseling, which delayed his progress. Since he was repentant, why’d he fight rehab so much?

I actually found myself sympathizing with Eli when writing his resistance! He wasn’t a pedophile or a sexual predator, yet he was made to join in therapy sessions with men like this, as if his transgression were on the same level as theirs. And if his family hadn’t been celebrities, he might have gotten away with a far more low-key approach to counseling and a faster return to his life, for good or ill. He had to come to realize, though, that his atonement wasn’t relative to others’ sins. It only concerned his own.


What do you want readers to learn from Eli’s and Ruth’s story?

Hope. That there’s always hope for change, for something better. That love transforms lives. That God is love.

Fall from Grace is now available for pre-order here and at other e-tailers. 

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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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Justice: A short story

“Justice” by Libby Sternberg

Five of us gathered around the holidays at a midtown restaurant. We’d met each other ten years ago at a conference and hit it off, getting together for drinks and meals during the three-day event, discovering we shared an outlook on life, something ill-defined, maybe just a general happy-warrior skepticism.

We were a mixed group of friends, some married, others not, two in arts-related fields, one a lawyer, myself a financial manager, a fifth an executive suite member of a large conglomerate. Not spring chickens—at least one of us was near retirement age, others creeping there.

Tina, the director of a small arts consortium, always played major domo for these holiday festivities. She’d put the first one together after discovering we were all living in the same city or near it—not New York, but cosmopolitan enough. We’d considered asking spouses, and actually did an evening get-together one year to accommodate their schedules. It had been a stilted party, and we’d happily gone back to the midday long lunch.

unknownTwinkle lights sparkled in nearby decorations. Real pine wreaths with bright red bows filled the eye, their brisk woodsy scent wafting our way when hurried waiters stirred the air. Music that harkened back to happy childhoods played.

We were on dessert and coffee and after-dinner drinks when Mark, the executive, told a story of estrangement, how his daughter was becoming more distant now that she was married, and how he thought it was karma because Mark himself had been less than affectionate with his own parents as they’d aged, and felt he’d not been with them enough at the end of their lives.

We all tsked over his harsh self-judgment, and offered consolation and suggestions for a deeper relationship with his daughter. We told him he deserved it.

We’d met at an affirmation conference, after all, one of those fads corporations got swept up in, team-building quality improvement practices and the like. The techniques had long lost their trendiness, or been absorbed into human resources tactics. Even if we’d mocked the proceedings at the time, we’d developed our own booster club of sorts with communication over the years, and these holiday gatherings.

Mark’s stories led to more, tales of people we knew who had reaped undeserved rewards and others who’d deserved success yet were denied it.

Tina, swirling a brandy and staring at the tablecloth, confessed to feelings of great jealousy about a writing acquaintance whose work Tina had edited—she was an aspiring novelist herself and had done some freelance editing on the side.

“She’s not a good storyteller,” Tina said slowly, her mouth twisted in that rueful smile of painful recognition. “And barely has command of language. I really helped her shape her first book. It sold—received critical acclaim, made the charts….”

We pressed her for the author’s name, but she wouldn’t divulge it, either out of integrity or fear, I don’t know.

Gary, the publishing house marketing director, patted her hand. “Five books. That’s the max she’ll get. I’ve seen how it works. Her editor will do what you did with the option clause book, and maybe the next one, and then the author will get full of herself, turn something in that’s so subpar the house might not want to publish it. But they’re invested in her, so they will…and she’ll fade from view.”

“Justice,” I remarked, giving a nod.

Mark, whose spirits were now buoyed by our words about his daughter, tapped the table. “So rare to see that happen, though, isn’t it? Real justice.”

That’s when Jonah, the oldest among us, a dashing man with white wavy hair who worked for one of the most prestigious law firms in town, spoke up, so softly and slowly that many of us at first didn’t realize, over the din of holiday cheer, that he was talking.

No, he wasn’t just talking. He was spinning a tale, and being in good spirits, I believe some—maybe all—of us thought he was telling one of those long, complicated jokes at first, the ones with deliciously sharp punch lines that required a good intellect to understand, so that when you laughed heartily at its ending you were also patting yourself on the back for being smart enough to get it. We happily anticipated that moment of self-congratulation.

But, no, he wasn’t telling a joke.

“I knew a man,” he was saying, “some of you would recognize his name. He was very successful, started in retail, in the executive suite, right after graduation. Father was on Wall Street. Fifth generation Harvard, then Wharton. All the right connections.”

We nodded our heads. We knew such men, and all of us started trying to guess who this fellow was as he continued, but Jonah, like Tina, kept his protagonist’s identity a secret.

“Affable guy,” Jonah said, snagging the waiter for another glass of wine. “Well liked.” He laughed. “The curse of being well liked—no one wants to bring you down!”

He finished the wine before him and set the empty aside, waiting for its replacement.

“You need to give him a name,” Tina said, lightness back in her voice, regret gone. “A pseudonym.”

Jonah grinned. “What do you suggest?”

“Bertrand,” Mark said.

“Poindexter,” I chimed in. I had a dislike of moneyed families with names like Poindexter in their genealogical charts.

“Roger,” Gary said with authority. “Nice, solid name for someone well-liked.” And so it was Roger.

“Roger became vice president of, well, something like…” And here he mentioned a national chain of upscale stores we all recognized. Was this where Roger had really worked? “Did very well. Or rather, the stores did well.”

“I love them! Shop there all the time,” Tina interrupted. “High quality, good prices, wonderful service.”

“Exactly,” Jonah concurred. “All true before our Roger took over. But he made the mistake of thinking these attributes were due to his hard work, that the stores’ successes were due to his marketing expertise.”

“Happens all the time,” Gary interjected. “Some new MBA comes onboard with shiny spreadsheets that illustrate what we’ve all been doing all along, and he thinks he’s the root cause of all that is good. My god, the number of times I’ve seen a new marketing manager do that—I usually avoid those meetings now. Have a ‘conflict’ on my schedule.”

“Yes, precisely,” Jonah repeated. “That was our Roger’s problem, too. Thinking he was inventing the wheel, and filled with pride when it rolled merrily along. Headhunters came after him, and he moved to, something like…” And here he named a specialty brand that was wildly successful in its niche with a creative CEO. We were impressed.

“As you can imagine, he did well there, too.”

“How could he not?” Tina asked. “That product sells itself.”

When Jonah’s wine arrived and he took a sip, Gary filled in the obvious. “Let me guess. Our Roger thought again that success was due to his great work.”

Jonah laughed. “Oh, yes, to his showing up when he did. If you recall, that company went through a great sales and stock spike. It coincided with young Roger’s arrival on the scene.”

“Are you now going to tell us that Roger was really a nincompoop?” I asked, eager to hear the denouement, the moment of justice, when failings are unveiled.

Jonah shook his head. “No, no. He wasn’t stupid. Just…misled. By unmerited opportunities. By good looks. By…oh, people being nice to him. He wasn’t an ogre. Nothing mean-spirited about him.”

“So, what next? He gets caught with his hand in the till? Goes to jail?” Tina asked, as if secretly taking notes for a mystery she would write.

“Nothing so dramatic,” Jonah said. “Well, not then, at least. He did quite well at his job and moved to another, and this, too, was a case of being in the right place at the right time. An etailer on the cusp of making it big.” He held both hands up and shrugged, and we mentally filled in the story. More success, more rewards.

“All right, Jonah, you have to give us the payoff,” Gary groused. “Nice guy finishing first. Where’s the conflict?”

“Oh, be patient,” Jonah said good-naturedly. “Our poor hero finally met his match. He was lured to a department store that wasn’t doing well that needed a turnaround guy—”

“Oh, no,” I said, knowing where this was going. “Poor Roger. He thought those other successes…”

christmas24“Were all due to his smarts,” Jonah said. “But they weren’t. And he’d never had his mettle tested. Never had to be accountable for his mistakes. Because, god knows, he made them. Everyone does. But in his previous jobs, successes were carried in by the bushel, and mistakes were swept up in the dustbin. He didn’t know…” He trailed off, a faraway look coming to his eye.

Tina leaned in now, a detective on the case. “I think I know what department store chain we’re talking about here,” she said, and gave the name of one that had failed spectacularly many years ago, a hallowed name in retail that had gone under.

The story came back to us all, and we started tossing in the details, fast and furiously, telling the tale ourselves.

“…he wouldn’t wear the suits the store made. Kept a rack in his office to use for press conferences,” Mark said after snapping his fingers in remembrance.

“He fired a third of the staff,” Gary offered, “and redid the layout. My god, I remember going in one during that, and it was a mess. And staff…they bristled with resentment.”

Tina smiled. “I used to shop there regularly.” She laughed. “Thanks to him, I discovered other stores!”

I had my own memory, as well. “He was skewered in some business paper. A columnist speculated he was a mole for the competition.”

Jonah nodded to each remembrance. “He was using his experience at his other employers to build what he thought would be success. But, as you know, those other corporations had different…gestalts.”

We all nodded now, thinking to the brands, the specialty marketing of each of the man’s past employers. How easy it was for us to see the disaster looming. We shared our memories of that, too, of reading articles about the impending collapse of the company, of the stock nose-diving, of rancorous board meetings, scandalous revelations about sales numbers. It had played out over the course of just three years. And at the end of it…

“What happened to him?” I asked. No one had heard of the man’s fate, I was sure. I read the business papers regularly and didn’t remember a word about his after-collapse future. “Golden parachute, if I recall.”

Tina snorted and crossed her arms over her chest. “That’s hardly justice.” Yes, that was the original topic. Justice. Just rewards. Or punishments.

“He did well financially. No CEO doesn’t,” Jonah said, stating the obvious. “Might have ended the job in ignominy, being ousted by the board, excoriated in the press, but he had a multi-million-dollar severance deal, and he cashed out his stock before the company went belly up.”

“So,” said Mark indignantly, “where is the justice in this story? I thought we were sharing those kinds of things, not…just another one of these fat cat does well after ruining lives tales.”

“Rich guy becomes richer,” added Gary, “despite his failures.”

“Failures writ large,” Jonah said lowly. “So large that he disappeared. Word was he ran off, changed his identify. Wife divorced him—not much of a marriage really, as phony as his life had been, which he discovered when he began his descent. No children, thank goodness, to share the pain. Even with no pre-nup, he still made out well. Flew to one paradise after another, considered buying his own island. He had the money. Didn’t need for a thing. Couldn’t quite figure it out—how it had all gone south. And he was just waiting for a time to rebound. For a long time, he thought it was just wrong place, wrong time.”

“He’d experienced the opposite, so why not?” Gary asked, obviously liking the symmetry of the situation.

“But it…wore on him. That sense he’d messed up. He couldn’t avoid it. He started retracing his steps, so to speak, trying to figure out where he’d gone off course. Oh, he still thought he’d find that it wasn’t his fault, but…” Again, Jonah held out his hands, palms up. “And then, something pushed him outside of all he knew. He fell in love.”

Tina snorted again. So much for her romantic stories. “Oh, man, when are you going to get to the good part—where he loses his riches?”

Jonah laughed. “No, no, don’t rush me. He fell in love,” he repeated. “With a woman ten years younger and a world of experience away. A woman who…had shopped in that store.”

Now Tina groaned, joined shortly afterward by Gary. “So what? She found another store, no doubt.”

“Yes, yes, she did. But her sister had worked there. And she’d lost her job, of course, when the whole thing went under. And she was a single mom, one kid. And she ended up with a bad sort. He…well, he treated her badly.”

There was more to that. We could all see it in the way Jonah scowled, as if he didn’t want to mar the holiday mood, even a discussion of bad deeds, with something grimmer.

“Go on,” Tina nearly whispered. “Tell us about his big love.” She said it cynically, as if we were to soon learn this new love was just a fortune hunter. Yes, I believe we all thought that.

“He met her on a layover. One of his jaunts to some tropical getaway. She was a waitress in Miami. The usual thing, flirtation, banter, trying to score. But she was a different sort of girl. Oh, not that she played too hard to get. She was just…refreshing. Refreshingly honest. Not a bit of guile in her.” He looked at his drink. “She knew he had money. He didn’t hide that. He liked to treat her. But she didn’t like to feel bought. She even had a long talk with him about it, about how she had to work hard to resist that part of his ‘charm’ because, if she was honest with herself, she knew it was a draw, to know that he could provide for her. Everyone likes to feel cared for, she told him.”

“So, what happened? With the bad sort she ended up with?” Mark asked.

“What?” Jonah looked confused, then clarity dawned. “Oh, no, not her. Her sister ended up with the bad sort.”

“She was the single mom?” Gary asked.

“Yes. She’s the one who’d lost her job. And when…Roger…found out, well, you can imagine. He was mortified. Should he confess who he was—”

“He used an alias?” Tina asked, sounding disgusted.

“No, not…then. She just didn’t follow corporate…shenanigans. She had no idea he was the CEO of the company that had led to her sister’s…problems.”

Disappointment fell on me as I thought I got it—an obvious ending. “So when did she figure it out? After she’d taken him for all he was worth?”

Jonah heaved a sigh and bit his lip. “Taken him for all he was worth. You mean money, of course.” He looked up, eyes watery, brow creased. “Justice would seem to require he lose everything, wouldn’t it?” No one spoke, but he knew we agreed. “He didn’t lose a penny. Not a single penny. She gave back everything he’d given her—every piece of jewelry, every diamond, sapphire, ruby and gold and silver. Every trinket, every piece of clothing. It cost her, too. She had it all packed up and shipped to him.”

“How did she find out?” Tina asked, again on a whisper, her fingers curled around her brandy.

“Her sister. She might not have followed business news, but her sister knew the name of the bastard who’d ruined her life. And she let Roger’s lover know. It was the last thing she told her.”

“The last thing?” Now Gary’s voice was the one low and hesitant.

“Before her criminal boyfriend killed her—the sister. Shot her in a drugged-up rampage.”

“No!” Both Mark and Tina voiced it at the same time, the word that was also on the tip of my tongue.

“He felt…he felt…as if he’d been the one pulling the trigger. That the sister had only taken up with the guy because she was hard up, after losing her job…”

A jumble of voices, Tina saying it wasn’t his fault, Gary concurring, Mark sympathizing, and I, I was agreeing with them all.

“Is that how it happened – the breakup?” I asked.

“Yes,” Jonah said. “No. I mean…yes, that was the final closing of the door. The night before that…that event… when she’d found out who he was, she’d refused his … proposal. He’d come to her that night wanting forever. She’d come wanting never.”

There was something in his tone, something timeless, something resigned, accepting.

“No hope at all? Never heard from her again?” I pursued.

He shook his head. “He tried to reach out to her. Couldn’t find her. She changed her number. Her job. He hired a PI…”

“Oh, man…” Tina.

“She wanted him never to find her.”

wpid-3120682842bb85936e64z“But he did.” Tina again, Tina the storyteller herself, who could pick up on the tone of a statement. I thought she was off, but Jonah’s face and then his words indicated it was true.

“The PI tracked her down. She was still in Florida. She met and married someone else within five years…”

“A poor but noble schoolteacher,” Mark said.

“No, a minister,” said Gary.

“Or a penniless writer,” Tina offered.

Jonah laughed, but there was no real joy in it. “A widowed father of three, owner of Pizelli’s,” he said, and we instantly inhaled, laughed with him. A very successful national pizza chain. “Good man, too, if you’ve read about him. Self-made. But no backwoods hick. Cultured, even plays piano. Came close to finaling in the amateur Van Cliburn…”

“Get out!” Tina said, unbelieving.

“Nope. All true. She did better than she would have with Roger. Married a real man of accomplishment. Was cared for, provided for, got an instant family—she’d wanted family, you see—and he even took in her nephew, since his mom was gone now. Last I heard, they were quite happy together.”

“But not Roger,” I said, now getting it. He’d not lost his fortune. He’d lost something dearer. His true love. “Did he marry?”

“No. He told himself he would. Had plenty of opportunities. And he didn’t go around making scenes pining for her, so it wasn’t a matter of no one measuring up…”

“But no one really did, did they?” Tina supplied the sad reality in her voice, one that recognized true romance.

“No, no one did.”

“Did he lose himself in drink?” Gary asked, looking for the obvious story answer.

“Nope. Became a success in another field. Respected. Even had an honorary degree bestowed on him. Still jets off to tropical paradises. Still has friends and family who love him. He’s a wiser man now, though, not so full of himself.”

“But he wasn’t really full of himself before,” Mark interjected. “I mean, from the way you tell it, he just didn’t know, he was just blind to his …inadequacies.”

“Yes, he was blind. And he had his eyes opened. Painfully. To how his failures rippled out to affect others. He was a careless man, he discovered. A thoughtless man. Not a cruel one. Just a thoughtless one.”

The restaurant was empty and hushed. Waiters were clearing tables and resetting them for the evening crowd. Light, yellow and dim, poured through the wide street level windows. Shoppers scurried by, hurrying to find Christmas bargains, last-minute gifts.

I studied Jonah. In the ten years we’d gotten together, he alone of our group was the most difficult to get to know. His background was…fuzzy. Although he was a lawyer, I was aware it was a second career, and he’d been sent to the conference where we’d originally met because he was one of the newer members of his firm, even though he was older than most of the lawyers on the masthead. He’d divulged that over drinks our first night.

He was affable, always willing to help if you needed it—he’d given Tina an introduction to the chair of her board, helping her land her job, and he’d done favors, big and small, for the rest of us we only found out about in passing.

But whenever I thought of him, I never imagined him as…happy. I thought of him as going through the motions, somehow, living a life that was required of him rather than one he had chosen. A life with friends. But no deep love.

I mentally conjured up the few pictures of the “Roger” in his story from the articles that had appeared at the time of the store chain’s failure. Yes, yes…the patrician profile, the thin lips, blue eyes…

He was Roger, there was no doubt about it. Did the others know? I looked at each one. Of course they did. But his secret, such as it was, was safe with us, a holiday gift of confession and atonement.


Libby Sternberg’s new novel, Fall from Grace, a tale of sin and redemption, will be available from Bancroft Press September 2017.



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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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