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The Best American Mystery Stories of 2011
Edited by Harlan Coben
Published by Houghton Mifflin Harcourt

The word mystery and perhaps all genre names, while at times helpful guideposts on the literary landscape, are loaded words. This collection of recent American mystery short stories explores the ambiguities of the mystery genre as it has each year since 1997. The collection contains stories of detectives, arsonists, spies, kidnappers, and assassins which span enough time to reflect the America that was as well as the America that is.

One thing these stories have in common is their brevity and potency. The collection’s editor Harlan Coben says in the introduction “The best short stories, like those high octane lovers, never fully leave you. They burn, linger, haunt. Some sneak up on you in a subtle way. Others are like a punch in the gut-sudden, spontaneous. They knock the wind out of you.”

Harlan Coben is no stranger to the mystery story having written 20 crime novels himself. In this short story collection there is a subtle thematic thread that ties these stories together. Harlan Coben plays the curator of this dark gallery of narratives, placing stories in balanced relation to one another. The more comical or emotionally calculated stories help balance out the visceral and gritty tales in the collection. And as the genre is explored with each successive tale so are the motley human emotions of fear, bitterness, resentment, and anger. Of course the act of murder is explored as well. Does assisted suicide become murder ? If so, when? These sorts of involved and fascinating questions are the turbulent undercurrent of The Best American Mystery Stories from 2011.

The stories are full of broken, angry, hurt people sketched with human complexity such that nobility at times shines forth from the seemingly darkest of hearts and at others the true darkness of characters’ souls will make you shudder. I found some of the content in the stories too titillating, vulgar or horrifying at times to be sure, but I also gained a greater appreciation for the intricate mystery of the human heart as well.

Some of the standout stories in the collection for me were:

Who Stole My Monkey? by David Corbett and Luis Alberto Urrea
The Hitter by Chris F. Holm
Baby Killer by Richard Lange

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through NetGalley.com. <http://www.netgalley.com> I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Larry Brooks, author of six psychological thriller novels, has in “Story Engineering” collected the commonalities that exist in all stories whether they are a movie or a book and presented them as 6 core competencies: Concept, Character, Theme, Story Structure, and Scene. He’s convinced that many popular authors and writing books don’t own up to a certain accepted story structure that appears in the majority of novels across genres. Instead, they project a mystical and mysterious image of the writing process. This book sets out to demystify the writing process a little and put in practical terms what every good story needs.

Larry Brooks acknowledges that story planning and outlining aren’t the way everyone writes. Some will choose different more organic methods, but he claims that in all cases an understanding of story structure is needed.

He references “The Da Vinci Code” heavily throughout the book. I had a pretty high cringe factor at this. I felt tension, which I often do, between my evangelical religious beliefs and the value I also place on how well a story is told. In my opinion “The Da Vinci Code” is a bad story that is told in a really engaging and compelling manner.  Thankfully “Story Engineering” is not pointing out anything other than that; the engaging and compelling manner in which Dan Brown structured “The Da Vinci Code.”

I found the emphasis on planning in “Story Engineering” to be refreshing after spending much of my writing time wandering from one blank page to the next hoping to discover the next thing to write in my story as I wrote it. “Pantsing” your way through writing a story as Larry calls it hasn’t worked out too well for me up to the present and this is because I didn’t know the key scenes every story needs and where to put them in relation to one another.

This book doesn’t put on airs. It will be easily understandable to anyone, even if they, like me, don’t have any creative writing education to work from. Those with an English degree or an MFA might have a hard time taking pointers from mass market paperback authors and prime time television shows, but I found it to be quite helpful for learning about story structure. One criticism I do have of the book is its exclusion of some of the classics. There is no reference to the works of Jane Austen, Dostoyevsky, and Tolkien. There are quite a number of film adaptations of their novels which clearly show that whatever way these authors go about writing their stories it seems to be both successful captivating the imaginations of their readers as well as the attention of their film and television audiences.

If you are looking for an understanding, sympathetic and motivational voice to get your pen moving and help you overcome the writers’ block, you will be disappointed by “Story Engineering.” For that I recommend “Bird by Bird” by Anne Lamott. But if you want to find out what essential events need to be in your next story and where they go in relation to one another then “Story Engineering” is a good choice.

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through the BookSneeze®.com <http://BookSneeze®.com> book review bloggers program. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 <http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html> : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Cliches

I’ve been looking at cliches lately. Most agree that a cliche is basically a worn out idea that because of its constant use has lost its meaning. Maybe it’s similar to how I feel about the ocean. It’s neat but sort of “the usual.” I grew up with it only a 20 minute drive away. To some however the ocean is far more exotic and seemingly more full of meaning. The blog “How to Slay a Cliche” sets out to rewrite some common cliches. As this blogger who simply goes by Wordsworth puts it “Rewrite or recast them and their essence becomes useful again.” Reading his blog inspired me to do just that. I selected a couple examples of cliches from one of the creative writing books I had which addressed the issue and went to work on them.

“Bone chilling cold” became:

  • goose pimpling cold
  • teeth chattering cold
  • muscle tensing cold
  • joint stiffening cold

“…sleeping like the dead” becomes:

  • sleeping like the housecat
  • sleeping like the surface of the placid lake
  • sleeping like a house with the shades drawn
  • sleeping like a flag; inhaling and exhaling the gentle pulsing breeze

“…feet planted firmly on the ground”  becomes:

  • footing like a tower
  • feet rooted firmly in the earth
  • foot planted like an ancient stone
  • feet buried in the sand like a bulkhead

After I had gotten the creative juices flowing I realized that I had used nautical imagery quite a bit. I grew up near the water which probably played a little factor in the way I write. I can see, and hear and smell the ocean just by closing my eyes cause its drenched my memory so thoroughly. Anyways I thought I wonder if there’s a story here? There was.

“On the morning after the storm the town slept like the lone tattered flag; inhaling and exhaling the gentle pulsing breeze as it hung on the flagpole. The coastline was a joint stiffening kind of cold in January, but the man stood on the beach. Fear gripped him; his feet buried in the sand like a bulkhead. he blamed himself. The perfect life he’d constructed for himself had collapsed; destroyed by the very thing that drew him there: the sea.”

As pleased as I was with the descriptive imagery of this scene and the way the setting worked as an antagonist to the mans desire to live by the sea I couldn’t help but think what a downer. This story isn’t factual. Its fiction. And I can have it end however I like. I’ve read that “the great promise of fiction is that it will tell a lie so marvelous it will contain more truth than what is factual.” One of the most profound truths to me is the reality of grace and forgiveness expressed in the biblical parable of the prodigal son. So couldn’t this man be in a similar moment of failure and revelation that the prodigal son experienced. Couldn’t he have his house pulled out to sea along with everything else he owned only to have him realize that the loving father who freely gave him his inheritance he used to build that house will meet him with a compassionate embrace, give him a fine robe, put a ring on his finger, feast and celebrate when he returns home.

Here is the story with the prodigal elements included.

On the morning after the storm the town slept like the lone tattered flag; inhaling and exhaling the gentle pulsing breeze as it hung on the flagpole. The coastline was a joint stiffening kind of cold in January, but the young man stood on the beach. Fear gripped him; his feet buried in the sand like a bulkhead. he blamed himself. The home he’d constructed for himself had collapsed; destroyed by the very thing that drew him there: the sea.

The father was tense in his chair watching the news reports. He’d given up trying to reach him by phone. The old man’s imagination was beginning to side with despair thinking about what might have happened to his son. The doorbell rang and he stood to his feet and walked to the door. He signed for the package and brought it inside. He slowly cut through the packaging tape with his keys and opened the box. The man’s shaky hands grabbed one of the books and he turned it over in his hands. His fingers ran over the raised letters of his name on the cover. Clinching his teeth he threw the book across the room. It hit one of the dining room chairs and flopped to the ground. The old man held his face in his hands and he began to cry. The young man quietly opened the door and walked tentatively into the house.

“Hey pop.”

The man looked up, the tears in his eyes turning from sorrow to joy as they flowed, stood to his feet and embraced his son.

The Journaling Life

Journaling is an important part of my life that I hope to continue to until I die. In art school this was really the backbone of my education. In nearly every class our work flowed out of our journals. My life and my journals intertwine so much that when I left mine at my fiancee’s parents’ house in Fredericksburg a couple weeks back I felt incomplete. I felt disembodied and at the same time bursting at the seams.

I think journaling can be a really valuable part of Christian devotional life. In art school I wasn’t shown how to connect my devotional life with my journaling. This is fine. VCU never set out to do this. They set out to teach me about visual communication and did. Instead the Lord has taught me devotional journaling, slowly over time. My journals show marked shifts from one time period to another if you were to read through them. Some are more organized than others. After finishing college I learned to lay my thoughts and feelings bare on the page without expectation of sounding eloquent, pious or profound. After my friend passed away from cancer at the young age of 29 I needed a place to vent. I became enamored with the book The Artist’s Way around this time. It is a book which aims to link spirituality and creativity. The author Julia Cameron feels they are inseparable really. I tend to agree. Still, her definition of “spirituality” I later realized was much broader than my evangelical Christian definition of it. More and more I began to experience that being free to express myself honestly is liberating. But if I am to remain true to my faith I can’t simply write whatever I feel and expect my writing to be devotional; nor can I expect it to deepen my relationship with Jesus.

So, I began reading through the Bible and responding to it each day filling three pages. Since then I have also begun incorporating weekly debriefs and monthly debriefs where I read through past entries looking for common threads, themes, and perhaps key verses to keep in mind. I picked up this idea of weekly reflection or debriefing while going through a devotional for dating couples with my girlfriend in the earlier part of our relationship. Reading through books together and discussing them has really been good for us. While reading the devotional for dating couples I thought, “What a great way to consistently review journal entries and keep thoughts and insights fresh.”

My future mother-in-law gave me a new journal for Christmas and I’ve been journaling in it since the new year as I read through a Karen Kingsbury 52 week devotional called Miracles. I have continued to reflect back on entries weekly and monthly. There is nothing miraculous about the structure or the writing. But it is a record of a life lived in Christ and a life lived in relationship with Him is a miracle. Journaling is an intentional documentation of that miracle as outwardly I will waste away but inwardly I am renewed daily.

I hope that I’ve inspired you to begin or continue to journal your walk with God no matter how close you feel to Him. If you do, make responding to scripture and reflection on prior entries a habit. Even if you are the only one who ever reads it, the experience will deepen your sense of who you are and your relationship with Christ. That will eventually touch others by the way that you live. Who knows, you may pen something that touches the hearts of others profoundly as well.

My fiancee Erin Lemelin read this book with me. Here are our thoughts on The mountains bow down:

Sibella Giorello’s third book in the Raleigh Harmon series is a mystery novel which takes place on a cruise ship in the cold yet beautiful state of Alaska. For those like me who are new to the Raleigh Harmon series of books, Raleigh is a FBi agent. In this book Raleigh is a trying to take a vacation and having a really hard go at it. She spends the cruise keeping tabs on her mother whose mind and grip on reality is quickly deteriorating and trying to resolve the murder of a cruise ship passenger.

One of the greatest strengths of Giorello’s writing is her use of description. Her descriptions throughout the book are both lyrical and poetic. Another strong point of the book is the use of first person. The book really takes the reader into the overworked misunderstood life of an FBI agent. Anyone who has seen a parent or mentor deteriorate in the later part of their life will probably be able to relate to Raleigh as well. Giorello also tells the story with a touch of humor.

The book got me to care about Raleigh as a protagonist but I felt a sort of let down by the conclusion of the murder case. I(Elliot) will give the author points for developing mystery. My hunch as to who did it was way off. But I also felt the resolution of the murder was almost too complex to produce that sort of moment in which seemingly disconnected and veiled events coalesce into the diabolical deed of murder. Raleigh Harmon is an interesting relatable character trapped in a overly complex plot.

The strongest element of Mountains Bow Down is Giorello’s protagonist, the character of Raleigh Harmon. As I(Erin) got to know Raleigh, I came to see her as a believable character with flaws and realistic thoughts and feelings. She is a Christian, but she makes mistakes which give her a greater depth as a person. She is a refreshingly strong female lead, too, as she heads the FBI investigation and rescues herself more often than she is rescued by someone else.
Raleigh’s partner, Jack, is far less well-developed. As a once avid reader of Christian romance novels, I know all the clichés of the genre. I was surprised to find that Giorello’s novel contains all the same clichés. Raleigh and Jack’s romantic tension is extremely predictable and contrived. The lack of creativity on Giorello’s part is strange since her characterization of Raleigh and her gift for description are so strong. If the interaction between Raleigh and Jack had been more original and imaginative, the novel would have been much more compelling.
Overall, Mountains Bow Down is a fresh approach for Christian fiction. It’s not a thriller or a romance; it’s a mystery and a drama. It’s a unique book within Christian fiction, and Giorello is expanding the genres that Christian writers explore.

This post is based on a review copy.

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It is really not uncommon to find me with my nose in a book. I love to read and I enjoy writing as well; hence the blog you are currently reading. But every once and a while I need that reminder that our words are only as valuable as the depth of understanding we have of them expressed in our actions and how much they connect us to the rest of the world in a meaningful way.

Reading can keep you on the pulse of what is happening in the world or be a fantasy escape from it.  It is still largely an issue that can be ignored by the more fortunate. I could keep my nose in a good book quite easily and loose sight of the part I might play in the world. But instead on a rainy saturday morning in February I choose to put my book down even though I am just  a few chapters away from finishing it and step into the gymnasium at West End Assembly of God church. The gym is filled with people choosing to stare the cavernous needs of the worlds hunger in the face and seeking to make a difference. Some faces are more familiar than others. There are many there from the men’s Bible study I attend as well as others from the young adult community. But many others are acquaintances young and old. Still today we all don hair-nets looking rather ridiculous for a good cause: working together assembly line style, funneling, weighing and packaging meals for those less fortunate than ourselves.

I stand amazed as Mike Nelson, warehouse manager for Stop Hunger Now, tells us that SHN can feed hungry people all over the world for .25 cents a meal. I spend 14 times that for one meal at a fast food chain. The reality is that the obstacle in the way of feeding the hungry is not lack of food but lies in the distribution the resources on the earth. Cindy Johnson, who helps with missions at WEAG told me that Robert Maddux visited India on a WEAG missions trip three years ago and left after 2 weeks knowing that those two weeks made a small dent in the spiritual and physical needs of the impoverished people in India. Determined to maintain a relationship with the people in India, Robert sought out ways to continue working with the people he met during his trip there. 3 years of seeking and listening to the holy spirit  and waiting on the Lord helped Robert, WEAG, and SHN work together to continue to minister to the hearts and stomachs of people in India. According to UNICEF, without proper nourishment normal growth is compromised, physical activity becomes difficult, resistance to disease is lessened, and learning ability is diminished. There are many less fortunate. According to UNICEF, 25 million people worldwide are chronically hungry, though this reality is quite distant from the lives of most who live outside of third world countries.A metallic splash of sound resonates out from a gong cymbal and off the walls of the gym in West End Assembly of God church signifying that another 1000 meals have been successfully funneled, weighed, sealed, and packaged to send out. Volunteers cheer as the tally hits 12,000. Packaged are sent out to countries all over the world whose populations go hungry every day.

Words are great. What makes them so great is the fresh perspective of the world around us they offer and how they can connect us to others in a meaningful way. It is my hope that these words do this.

If you would like more information about helping meet the spiritual and physical needs of people across the world by partnering with Stop Hunger Now visit their web site at stophungernow.org. If you are in the Richmond area and are interested in finding out more about what is happening at West End Assembly of God church go to weag.org.

In Then sings my soul Robert J. Morgan reveals the stories behind 150 hymns that have echoed in the sanctuaries and hearts of believers throughout the years. The book is best viewed as a devotional or a reference book as there is no real attempt to string the stories together in a linear structure. Instead, the Morgan packs the stories of tribulation, salvation, and redemption that produced hymns like “Great is thy faithfulness” “Be thou my vision” and “It is well with my soul” into short single page narratives with the accompanying sheet music and lyrics printed alongside them.

The collection of hymns are broken up into five sections: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving, Patriotic and other favorites. Whilereading I found many hymns I knew and loved as well as others I was not familiar with. I was surprised, however, by what was missing from the collection as I read. The Star Spangled Banner is included among the section of patriotic hymns but it is the only anthem present in Then sings my soul.

This is what made the book not quite as well rounded as it could be. By including the United States National anthem in this collection of hymns and excluding all other anthems, the author fails to reach an international audience with Then sings my soul presents Amercan readers with a idealistic patriotic pride in the United States. What is a New Zealander to think of the fact that according to this book “The Star Spangled Banner” is a hymn worthy to be sung in church services but the New Zeland national anthem is excluded?

I use New Zealand as an example because its anthem is, like The Star Spangled Banner, lyrically reverant to God. Including the New Zealand national anthem I feel would have kept Then sings my soul from propetuating the idea that the United States is superior to other nations in the eyes of God. This is unfortunate and ignores the complex history of the United States which contains some accomplishments, heroics and travisties. America is a desireable nation to live in and I am blessed in inumerable ways by living here, and thankful to the men and women who serve in the military to protect the freedoms I enjoy, but I can’t deny that the U.S. is not without it’s own issues and that there are other nations who fear God.

I would like to see an introductory section in the book on hymnology as well to orient readers. Throughout my reading I kept wondering “What exactly is the criteria for a hymn?” I am writing this review at the age of 28 and reading many of these stories was a sort of time travel or history lesson for me because of my age.I am willing to say that I have plenty to learn from generations of believers who came before me but the collection silently implies that with the exception of the author Robert Morgan’s hymn “Jesus Christ is Born Today” written in 2005, a christian hymn worth exploring the story that birthed it hasn’t sucessfully been written since 1971. With such a picky selection of current day hymns for this collection I would have liked to see an accompanying definition for what a hymn is.

Overall I feel about this book how I feel about the subject of history. It’s incomplete but interesting and worth reading. Despite my quibbles, I recommend Then Sings My Soul. I also recommend the following:

-The story behind the song “Open the eyes of my heart”
-The New Zealand national anthem.

This post is based on a review copy.

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