Make Mine Without Warts, Please

Earlier this year I read a biography: C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. by Alister McGrath. Although I admire McGrath, I have mixed feelings about the book.

On one hand, knowing something about an author’s life is useful in understanding their work. On the other, however, I’m not sure that exploring every single detail of an author’s life is useful in understanding their work.

A reader’s response to this biography (and others as well) will probably be shaped by why they’re interested in Lewis. I doubt everyone who simply loves Lewis’s work (fiction or non-fiction) will care for some of the questions it raises that are left unresolved. To be fair, it appears some of this information was revealed when Lewis’s letters were published several years ago, and also is likely to be explored in future works about Lewis and those with whom he was connected, so the author probably simply wanted to address extant information – certainly a challenging task!

Still, I came away with the conviction that delving into the complex question of Joy Davidman’s motivation for pursuing a relationship with Lewis does very little to shed light on Lewis’s work. Who can possibly claim to know exactly what Joy was thinking about Lewis before she met him? In the end, a marriage is between two spouses. The rest of us can only be, in a very real sense, ignorant outsiders, and raising questions that no one alive now can answer seems a fruitless quest. In my opinion, all such questions are best answered by A Grief Observed, Lewis’s passionate and poignant account of how he suffered after Joy died. Lewis documented the power of their relationship, and it’s absolutely clear that he was devastated by losing his friend, his colleague, and his love. What more do we need to know?

So: What’s to be learned from reading a “warts and all” biography about a favorite author? Perhaps for some people (who believe their own sins are unforgivable?) such a depiction might offer encouragement. After all, Lewis obviously relied on grace, mercy, and forgiveness rather than his own (non-existent) perfection, and as a result of that faith was able to speak the truth powerfully in his work. For it does take courage to write about truth when you know your own faults. You’re writing, after all, about ideals you can only hope and pray and strive to live for, knowing you will always fall short.

Fortunately, the book also followed the development of Lewis’s thought and how this was reflected in his writing: his pre-Christian poetry, followed by The Pilgrim’s Regress and his apologetic works, through his fiction, especially Narnia. I particularly enjoyed the reflective chapters on Narnia as the author unpacked how Lewis came to write the series, and what some of the underlying, unifying themes might be (e.g., see Planet Narnia, by Michael Ward).

In future, this type of analysis and reflection about the work rather than speculation about personalities is what I’ll be looking for when I read other books about Lewis. Already on my short list: Bandersnatch, and rereading Bright Shadow of Reality: Spiritual Longing in C.S. Lewis.

Of Genrevores and WIP

Ever heard of a genrevore? Maybe not, because <pause to use search engine> I may have just coined it.

My definition of a genrevore: A reader who devours anything and everything published in a particular genre.

When a genrevore turns author, s/he typically writes in the same genre s/he devours. In many instances, s/he is already heavily involved with other genrevores via social media (and/or wikis) and thus has a ready-made audience. And a genrevore author is unlikely to wake up early in the morning with a story from a totally unrelated genre forming on the brain and demanding some attention.

The most well-known examples of successful genrevore authors are romance writers. But authors who are completely dedicated to cozy mysteries, or thrillers, or epic fantasy, etc., also fall into this category, and many have deep back catalogues of stories written within a single genre to prove it.

I’ve never been a genrevore, on two counts. First, I’ve always read widely (cross-genre), and second, I’ve never read everything available in any particular genre. For example, I love fantasy by certain authors, but I’m selective about what fantasy I read (I won’t pick up a book simply because it has a dragon on the cover). So I’m definitely not a fantasy genrevore.

Same goes for scifi. And thrillers. And dystopian. And apocalyptic. And (an odd choice to follow apocalyptic, I know!) cozy mysteries. (I love Ellis Peters, Agatha Christie, and Dorothy Sayers, but I won’t read any and every cozy mystery that comes along just because it’s a cozy mystery.)

Establishing a deep back catalogue that will appeal to genrevore readers is a challenge for any author. If the author is not a genrevore, doing so is even more challenging. I’ll admit there are moments when I look at what I’ve published so far – an allegorical novella with fairy tale themes (Strange Country); a retelling of a classic speculative suspense/horror tale (Monster); a classic allegory retold as portal fantasy (Dragon Slave) – and then turn to my WIP notes (spanning everything from fairy tales to zombie apocalypse) and wish I were a true genrevore.

But – I’m not. I yam what I yam, and it is what it is, so for those of you who are curious about what I’m working on now, this is the post you’ve been waiting for. It’s the first week in July, and time for the mid-year Works-in-Progress (WIP) report!

On My Desk: First draft of a retelling of the Grimm Brothers’ Snow White for the Rooglewood Press writing contest. Current word count: 20,000+ (which means I have some cutting to do, as the word limit is 20,000).

Top Drawer: Second draft of Ami and the Alien (scifi retelling of Beauty and the Beast). Current word count: 63,000. In early spring I received substantial constructive criticism from an insightful, gracious beta reader. I’d just reached a convenient place to pause in making suggested revisions when the Rooglewood Press contest announcement came out. Because Rooglewood is asking contestants to submit entries as soon as possible, I decided to get Snow White out of the way before finishing Beauty.

Middle Drawer: Quite a few things stuffed in this drawer, including:

First draft scenes from a retelling of the tale, The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Current word count: Unknown, because handwritten.

First draft scenes from an original fairy tale, which is related to the retelling of The Twelve Dancing Princesses. Current word count: Unknown, because handwritten.

Beneath the stack of fairy tale stuff is the second draft of a retelling of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (which I group with Monster as speculative suspense/retold classics). Current word count: 57,000.

Bottom Drawer: Partial first draft of volume two From the Annals of the Dragon Slayer. Current word count: 37,000.

First draft scenes from the first volume in an original fantasy series. Current word count: Unknown, because handwritten.

Trunk in the Attic: First draft scenes from the first volume in a zombie apocalypse series featuring neo-Vikings and a sort of knight errant in the guise of an old lady traveling cross-country in a Winnebago. Current word count: Unknown, as nearly all of it is handwritten.

Phew. That’s it, and that’s quite enough to be getting on with.

Five Poisoned Apples

If you are a fan of retold fairy tales, then you’ll be glad to know that Rooglewood Press is sponsoring a writing contest in the genre.  Rooglewood has previously published three popular collections of winning tales, which are available on Amazon: Five Glass Slippers (Cinderella), Five Enchanted Roses (Beauty and the Beast), and Five Magic Spindles (Sleeping Beauty). If you love retold fairy tales, check them out!

This year’s theme is Snow White, and the collection of winning stories will be titled Five Poisoned Apples. Sadly, this will be the last contest, so if you are a writer (or aspire to write), now is the time to check out the rules and follow your muse in Snow White’s direction! Although I already have several works in progress, I do have an idea for retelling Snow White, so – we’ll see where it leads! I’ll keep you posted.

Here is a peek at the Five Poisoned Apples cover. Cover photography is by Wynter Clark. Cover design is by Julia Popova.

FivePoisonedApples

Review of The Prince of Fishes

I love fairy tale retellings that improve on the original, adding new facets of thematic depth and impact. I also love speculative fiction that asks an interesting question and then explores possible answers in unexpected, creative ways. Life is short, and while I enjoy being entertained, I often want more than that from the precious hours I can spend reading: I want to reflect on some important idea or truth. I want to read edifying stories.

So it’s always satisfying when these two loves converge, as they did for me in The Prince of Fishes, Suzannah Rowntree’s witty and poignant retelling of the Grimms’ tale The Fisherman and His Wife. [UPDATE: I recently found out that author Rowntree has published all four of her retold tales as a box set collection, available on Amazon for a terrific bargain price. I’ve read and enjoyed them all, and highly recommend them!]

Set in 8th century Byzantium, The Prince of Fishes offers a well-crafted and entertaining glimpse of a fascinating period of history. The Byzantine interest in clockwork mechanisms and automata provides a sort of medieval version of a steampunk vibe (clockpunk). And against this backdrop, everyone from the lowest rung on the social ladder all the way to the top is obsessed with theology, arguing the pros and cons of iconography with all the self-declared authority and enthusiasm of a classroom of newly-minted Philosophy 101 students.

The original Grimm story explores what happens when a human being is granted any wish she wants – not only once, but many times. In Grimm, the outcome is simple: Instead of becoming more contented, the fisherman’s wife becomes increasingly greedy, first for material comfort, and then for personal power. This is a true insight into human nature: more is never enough, and having secured to themselves all the luxury this world has to offer, many people continue to expand their grasp by wielding power over other individuals and then local concerns; if possible, they move on to entire nations, and even nature itself.

The Prince of Fishes takes this scenario a step further, showing us not only this critical character arc, but also the fisherman’s complicity in – one could say he is even the catalyst of – his wife’s guilt, making him a far more complex character than in the original. Best of all, the story explores the consequences of fulfilled wishes for society at large. In author Rowntree’s world, the fisherman and his wife rise only as others fall and life-changing events unfold. Thus we have a glimpse into the “interconnectedness” of the web of this world: to change the position of one thread results in the breaking of another. It is a profound depiction that is not only interesting and engaging, but makes one pause and think.

For me, this story became a moving meditation on the theology of prayer. how often have I, like the fisherman and his wife, begged God for some thing or event? But unlike them, I’ve often been frustrated when the answer appears to be a resounding “No.” To believe this “no” is the most merciful answer possible is a matter of faith. This story was a vivid and valuable reminder to me that I don’t know where all the threads connecting my life to the lives of the rest of the souls in this world are placed. Perhaps one day I’ll know much better how grateful I should be for “prayerful wishes” that have not been granted!

Reflections on Future Adventure

I recently came across an inspiring passage in Charles H. Spurgeon’s sermon, “The Love of Jonathan, and the Love of Jesus”:

“I have told you before what I sometimes dream shall be my lot in glory, to stand not [in the pulpit] and preach to a handful of people … but to stand upon some starry orb, and preach of Christ to whole constellations at once, and thunder out my remembrances of His sweet love to myriads of beings who have never heard of Him as yet, for they have never sinned, but who will drink in all the tidings of what Jesus did for sinful men.

“And each of you, according to your training for it, shall make known to angels, and principalities, and powers, the manifold wisdom of God. There is plenty of room for you all, for God’s universe will need millions upon millions of messengers to go through it all, and tell out the story of redeeming love. And we, I believe, are here in training for that eternal work of making known to illimitable regions of space, and countless myriads of intelligent beings whom God has created, but who have never fallen, the story of this little planet, and of the God who loved it so that He came here, and died that He might save His people from their sins.”

I especially appreciate that Spurgeon says “according to your training for it.” I think this means that in eternity, each of us will do the real work God designed us to do, and it will make us not only happy, but absolutely joyful. Not only preachers, but everyone: Those who try to honor God in the stories they tell now will tell the best stories of all. Those who try to depict the beauties of creation in various artful ways now will be able to reflect all the wonders of God in ways they never thought possible. Those who make music for the glory of God now will go on to make music that is so glorious we can’t even begin to imagine what it will sound like. And so on, and on….

Spurgeon’s inspiring words also reminded me of the scene in C.S. Lewis’s Out of the Silent Planet, in which the Oyarsa of Malacandra asks Ransom to tell him about what has happened on Earth during the past few millennia. Naturally I found myself wondering: Did Lewis ever read Spurgeon?

<Time out from drafting blog post to submit question, variously worded, via search engine. Hmmm. No obvious connection off the top of results list. Doesn’t mean there isn’t one to be found upon digging deeper, but nothing immediately popped up.>

While I would love to find evidence that Spurgeon’s thoughts inspired Lewis, it’s also interesting to consider that this might simply be an instance of great Christian minds thinking rather alike (albeit minds that belonged to different denominations, not to mention generations, and who no doubt would not have agreed on every detail of theology and doctrine, had they ever had the opportunity to sit down and talk).

I find it encouraging that both were inspired by their reflections on scripture (1st Peter 1:12 seems one likely candidate) to create very different but powerful word-works that have inspired many along God-glorifying cosmic questing adventurous lines. Spurgeon was a preacher, while Lewis was an academic, teacher, and writer of popular apologetics and speculative fiction, but both saw and were moved by scripture’s cosmic implications, and worked hard to pass along their thoughts to people in desperate need of God-glorifying cosmic questing adventure. I for one am grateful for their willingness to do so. Thanks be to God!

Review of Shadows of the Hersweald: A Hansel and Gretel Novella (Legends of Light Book 3)

Shadows of the Hersweald: A Hansel and Gretel Novella (Legends of Light Book 3) by Hope Ann

The war is over in Aslaria, but the battle for individual loyalties rages on. Violent rebels roam the countryside, wreaking havoc among their former comrades and the Prince’s followers alike.

From the very first page I was drawn into former rebel soldier Haydn’s world. The story opens shortly after his return home from the battlefield as he tries to pick up the pieces of his pre-war life. But tensions between old neighbors and newcomers to the village soon erupt into conflict, and Haydn is forced to face his dubious past to cope with the demands of the present.

The author has pulled off a challenging feat in this story: it is a compelling adventure that depicts an intriguing fantasy world, while exploring significant themes such as the hard fact that today’s forgiveness doesn’t prevent possible future offenses, with all their associated pain and suffering. How far should any human being be willing to go in an effort to prevent such a fate?

Shadows is a novella, but it feels like a novel. Don’t get me wrong: it is a fast, engrossing page-turner, but many writers would need two or three times the page count to immerse the reader in their world. So if you love fantasy but hesitate to invest in a new series because you don’t have time, wait no longer: This is a quick but satisfying read! The same holds true if you love fantasy but aren’t drawn to fairy tale retellings, per se: Although many elements of the original tale are present if you’re looking for them, the story stands on its own as fantasy. Read either way, it works.

And if you love Christian fantasy in particular, then you will find much to appreciate in this resonant story. After I finished Shadows, I realized that in some ways Hope Ann reminds me of the young Stephen R. Lawhead. Over the years, Lawhead’s work improved from book to book as he found his voice, honed his craft, and simply gained experience.

Hope Ann’s approach in Legends of Light feels more contemporary than Lawhead’s early fantasy novels, but they have everything a fantasy lover could want: strange creatures, interesting lore, bantering dialogue, threatening shadows, and an underlying significance that ensures the parts add up to a greater whole. With each new story she’s fleshed out Aslaria and its inhabitants so that the world now has real depth.

Best of all, the author’s storytelling gets better with each release. I don’t know if she intends to write more legends set in Aslaria – certainly there is plenty of room for her imagination to roam in this world – but no matter what she writes next, I’m very much looking forward to reading it!

Shadows of the Hersweald is already available for preorder on Amazon, and is scheduled for release on March 28.

Note: I received an ARC from the author in exchange for an honest review.

Reading a Story for What It Is

I just finished reading Alister McGrath’s biography, C.S. Lewis – A Life: Eccentric Genius, Reluctant Prophet. This caused me to reflect once more on the relationship between Lewis and Tolkien, which in turn led (in a round-about way) to this post.

In the course of reading hundreds of reviews on Amazon and Goodreads over the past few years, I’ve noticed that instead of asking: “What question is the author asking in this story?” many readers assert (in one way or another): “This author didn’t do what they were supposed to do in this story.”

Now, I understand that in genre fiction certain tropes exist and the author should deliver them. I also understand that if a story makes a promise to the reader early on, the author must follow through on that promise by the last page of the book.

But I’m not talking about either of those things here. I’m talking about readers insisting that their preferred philosophy of story-telling is the legitimate approach to telling a story, and any story that doesn’t fit their philosophy is rubbish. IMO, this represents a rather narrow approach to reading!

One of the best examples of this gap between philosophies of story-telling is already fairly well-known among lovers of fantasy fiction: Tolkien’s dislike of The Chronicles of Narnia. If you are the type of reader who wants to know more about the authors of your favorite stories, then you probably already know that Tolkien didn’t appreciate Narnia. Apparently he disliked what he considered the patchwork quality of Lewis’s world-building.

And it’s not difficult to understand how strange Narnia would seem to Tolkien, a man who spent nearly his entire life building a world of magnificent depth and detail, and who spent many long years agonizing over continuity, rewriting passages, and rewriting them again, in an effort to achieve perfect consistency. Tolkien attempted to execute his philosophy of writer as sub-creator with exhaustive (and often exhausting) precision, and the result was an astonishing body of work that has engaged millions of people all over the world for several generations.

Now, I’ll confess right here that I don’t entirely disagree with Tolkien’s view that Narnia could have been fleshed out in more detail. I’ve often wished Lewis had done so! And I also recognize Tolkien didn’t necessarily demand that every writer measure up to the rigorous goals he set for himself. (Proof of this is in Tolkien’s positive and balanced comments about the world Lewis built in Out of the Silent Planet (the first volume in Lewis’s Space Trilogy), to be found in Tolkien’s Letters.)

Still, while Tolkien had every right to find Narnia not to his taste, I’m not aware that he ever acknowledged Lewis’s goal in creating it. Lewis never intended Narnia to be primarily an exercise in sub-creation in the same way that Tolkien approached his own work. In other words, Lewis’s work didn’t live up to Tolkien’s standard, but Lewis never intended to measure up to Tolkien’s standard.

So to the extent Tolkien viewed Narnia only through his own lens, it’s no wonder he was disappointed.

Lewis said the reason he wrote The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe was in answer to a specific “supposal” (what we might call the question at the heart of a speculative work): What would it look like if Christ were to become incarnate in a world of sentient animals and mythological creatures?

This is not a question Tolkien asks in LOTR. Quite the opposite: He said that although he wrote LOTR to be consistent with Christianity, he also avoided addressing the Incarnation in his mythology.

So even though both Tolkien and Lewis wrote fantasy fiction, the goals (philosophies) behind the creation of Middle Earth and the creation of Narnia could not have been more different.

And yet, despite the vast gap between these two authors’ goals for their stories, millions of readers love them. In fact, I think it’s safe to say that many of the same readers love both Tolkien and Lewis (although people who love both undoubtedly represent a smaller subset of readers).

But the only way the same reader could love both LOTR and The Chronicles of Narnia is if that reader is willing to read each on its own terms. The reader must be willing to at least respect each author’s philosophy of story-telling, and appreciate these stories for what they were intended to be – rather than finding fault with them for what they were never intended to be.

For example: If we insist that a Christ-figure must appear in LOTR, then we’re going to spend a lot of time and energy trying to make Gandalf or Aragorn fit a Messianic profile, even though this was not Tolkien’s intent.

And if we demand that The Chronicles of Narnia measure up to Tolkien’s personal standard of world-building and myth-making, then we’re going to be disappointed, because Lewis never set out to create any such thing.

In short: Maybe we’ll be happier readers if we consider an author’s goals as one legitimate component of our reading experience.

January Sale – Happy New Year!

Through the end of January, my two full-length novels will be on sale for $0.99 (as in cents, not dollars!) on Amazon. If you haven’t already, check them out and let your friends know!

Dragon Slave is a retelling of The Pilgrim’s Progress as a contemporary portal fantasy story with allegorical overtones. It’s appropriate for readers from middle school and up, and asks: What happens if the pilgrim doesn’t want to make any progress?  Dragon Slave is available in e-book format on Amazon.

Monster is a contemporary re-imagining of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley’s blackly comic speculative novel Frankenstein, set within the context of western society’s interest in life extension through science. If the human race figures out how to bioengineer its way into immortal life, should we – no matter what the cost? Monster is available in e-book format on Amazon.

May you set out on the adventure of 2017 with hope in your heart!

Review of Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales

(For the thrilling backstory of my complicated relationship with fairy tales, please see my previous post, “I Came to Love You Late, Princess.”)

Dear reader, allow me to introduce you to a collection of stories well worth savoring: Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales.

If you read widely, caring less for genre boundaries than you do about discovering imaginative, well-crafted stories wherever you can find them, then I recommend this collection to you!

And if you love retold fairy tales for the sheer ingenuity of the thing – the joy of experiencing human creativity as it launches familiar themes into new genres and settings and characterizations, and explores well-traveled territory in fresh and inspiring ways – then I heartily recommend this collection to you!

Before I read Once, I was already a fan of Suzannah Rowntree, the author of Death Be Not Proud (a suspenseful retelling of Snow White and the Huntsman set against a spectacular New Zealand backdrop during the Jazz Age).  I also admired Hayden Wand, author of With Blossoms Gold (an absorbing and deeply moving Italian Renaissance reinterpretation of Rapunzel).

I was unfamiliar with the other contributing authors, but if these stories are representative of their work, then I’m very pleased to make their acquaintance!:

Elisabeth Grace Foley, The Mountain of the Wolf (a Little Red Riding Hood that both honors and questions classic Western themes of personal vengeance and vigilante justice);

Rachel Heffington, She But Sleepeth (an urban fantasy remake of Sleeping Beauty that moves from the contemporary dreamland of L.A. to the older dreamland of Romania while exploring the age-old conflict between love and death);

J. Grace Pennington, Rumpled (a whimsical and thought-provoking steampunk tale that re-imagines the original version of Rumpelstiltskin in a way that had me cheering by the end); and

Emily Ann Putzke, Sweet Remembrance (a poignantly evocative Little Match Girl set in the Warsaw Ghetto during World War II).

Whether or not you like all of the tales in Once equally well might very well be a measure of how many different genres and historical time periods you normally enjoy reading.  But despite these differences, I found this collection to have a powerful unity of theme. That theme is courage:

Courage to surrender one’s bitterness for the hope of something better. Courage to love in the face of despair and even death. Courage to admit one’s need for mercy – and then extend it to another. Courage to face the darkest secrets of one’s past in order to have hope for the future. Courage to confront one’s deepest, most uncontainable fears for someone else’s sake.

For me, these things embody what I think of as the Queen Lucy of Narnia kind of courage.

Who doesn’t need a shot of that kind of courage? So allow me to encourage you to be good to yourself today: Read this book. Find refreshment. Find new courage. Enjoy.

Note: Although I received an ARC from the authors in exchange for an honest review, I’ve also purchased my own copy of Once on Amazon because I know I’ll reread it in the future, so I wanted to have the final, published version on my ebook shelf.

I Came to Love You Late, Princess

For the last several years, I’ve ignored the burgeoning interest in retold fairy tales. Until recently, I didn’t even recognize some of the fairy tale themes in my own stories!

Why? In truth, I was never a fan of many fairy tales to begin with. Or rather, it was not so much fairy tales that I had a problem with (I was fascinated by the story of Hansel and Gretel). It would be more accurate to say that I was never a fan of Disney princesses.

Those princesses were always beautiful, and even as a tot I knew I would never look like them. They were loved by all except the truly wicked, and I knew I could never hope to inspire such admiration. Handsome princes were willing to brave all kinds of peril for their love. Yeah, right.

So when it came to Disney, I was not charmed by Cinderella. Instead, I loved Bambi and his forest friends, and I put up with Snow White for the sake of the dwarves. I was most impressed by Mary Poppins, who always knew the right thing to do, and came and went as she pleased, courtesy of her levitating umbrella.

In truth, songs like “Someday My Prince Will Come” made me want to hurl.

As I grew older, I loved Lucy Pevensie, who skipped being a princess altogether and went straight to being a Queen of Narnia. Her gift from Father Christmas wasn’t a doll, but a dagger – and a cool healing cordial (which certainly would come in handy following any adventures involving said dagger). She rode into battle with the other archers. She loved sailing toward adventure with her shipmates on the Dawn Treader.

More importantly, Lucy loved her brother Edmund so much that even in the face of his betrayal she begged Aslan to help him. She was kind to her spiteful cousin Eustace. She was willing to risk her life to save her companions by facing the Magician’s magic book alone.

In so many ways, Lucy had the kind of courage I wanted to have. I wanted to be like her. I still do.

For above all else Lucy knew her own faults, and was sorry for them. But she also knew that Aslan knew her as well or better than she knew herself, and that he loved her, as she loved him. This gave her hope.

Queen Lucy never appeared to be pining away, waiting for her prince to come. I mean, sure, she missed Aslan when he wasn’t physically present in Narnia, but … that’s not the same thing, right?

Hmmm….

Which leads me back to the current popularity of retold fairy tales. Turns out a fairy tale (as I’m sure countless others have observed before me) has become something like the tofu of the literary world – a template that is used to cook up a story flavored with whatever one likes:  Materialism. Eroticism. “I Am the Captain of My Soulism.”

Many tales, however (for reasons that deserve a separate post), are especially well-suited to depicting a God-centered view of reality. Therefore, I set out to find some retellings that resonate for me.

And guess what? I found an entire collection! Coming soon: A review of Once: Six Historically Inspired Fairytales.