The Eyes of Experience

Monday, 15 September 2014

Eyes of Experience
'I do not think that you can be changing the end of a song or a story like that, as though it were quite separate from the rest. I think the end of a story is part of it from the beginning.'
Conn
The Shining Company Rosemary Sutcliff

It is pretty much a known fact in literary circles, that the art of writing for even the most extrovert persons among us can be a lonely business - though for the most part a joyful one! For me, writing has often been a sort of therapy, a way of escape and relief from the stress of life even when it has been hardest to pen those aching words and bleed out those stories of my heart. I am by nature a very bubbly people-person, and absolutely love spending time with my family and friends. But I confess, there are times that I long to bury my head in the sand like a fanciful ostrich; and just delve into my imagination and scribbles. Sometimes, when the world is especially cruel, when people just don't make sense and disappointments crash on top of each other, I become something close to introverted. I detest 'disturbances' with a vexation that makes me blind to the reality that this is normal life. I then flee into the little world of my literary life. I cry my heart out into epic stories and heroic characters and plots of heart-wrenching proportions. That attitude makes me numb to the aches and sorrows around me, but also to what is beautiful and glorious, even in strained harpsongs and catches of ancient blessed tunes. And then I think of those around me, and say I will write deep themes to inspire and help lift others up!

But lately, I’ve felt the Lord showing me that in doing so, I was acting in a shallow, self-centred manner. In fact, this attitude is so opposite to the way of Christ. C.S. Lewis' book, Surprised by Joy, startled me with this thought as I saw what it was doing to me... but also to what I was writing. The truth is, we cannot write what is both real and meaningful in our books if we shrink from any of life's experiences, trials and friendships, loves and hurts. We won't be able to write deep devotional and spiritual truths in stories, if we are not praying and living them out ourselves - and learning from them.

The lessons we acquire from the mountains and valleys we journey and the attitudes we have will forever mold their way into our stories. It will influence the perspectives of our characters, the situations and relationships they go through. But I do not mean that we should go strutting through life in a happy-go-lucky attitude that is always laughing in the face of adversity. Truth be told, it is usually the 'darker' threads amid the gold of our lives that are worth the telling in tales of greatness. What I mean is when you and I face some trial, some obstacle or hurt, we instead need to pause and realize the Sovereign plan our Heavenly Father has for us. God is making you go through a journey of growth through the experience of pain and suffering for a purpose - to make you more like Him and conform to His glorious image. Oh! instead of 'escaping', let us instead thank the Lord for those lessons; let us trust that He'll accomplish what He pleases in you and me. The things we face will, by God's grace, help us mature in godliness and wisdom, not only for ourselves, but also for for our writing.

I think of examples of men and women who stood through such trials and grew from them so that what they created became all the more rich and powerful: J.R.R. Tolkien faced the terror of death in WWI and saw his friends die in horrific battles such as the Somme - yet he also found the beautiful and transcendent in his life and was inspired to write flesh and blood heroes who still live in our hearts and imaginations - Frodo and Sam, Aragorn, Bilbo and Thorin. I think of the story my sister once told me of Beethoven - how some of his greatest masterpieces were composed after he became stone-deaf, and how through the agony of his soul beautiful music was born. Elizabeth Elliot may not have been the inspirational and godly writer that she is today if it were not for the martyrdom of her husband, Jim Elliot, or the many painful lessons she went through in the jungles of Ecuador as she learnt what it means to forgive one's enemies, be still before the Lord and trust Him with quiet assurance the way she did.

Nonetheless, even with all of life's experiences, our writing ought to be filled with a sense of hopeful longing for what 'might have been' or what 'will be', even if we have not personally gone through such things ourselves. The tale of our lives is like a tapestry. We see the upside-down side...only the shadow of tangled threads; But God sees it all...the ugly black stitches and the beautiful full picture too. But experience gives those longings some depth, I think. Many of my most loved characters and scenes that I have written have in fact been inspired from lessons and trials I've gone through myself or from what I've learnt from others. Those experiences made little sense at the time. But now that I look back, I see how much the Lord has worked in my life things which in turn influenced my stories for an ultimate good. 

My mind flits to that beautiful scene in the Disney movie, Tangled, when Rapunzel would see from her window on her birthdays the distant special lights of the city float to the sky, and how it filled her with longing. But when she went out that day and saw those lamps, it all finally made sense. She saw the light... and it changed her whole life! In the same way, when we see things from a human perspective, it can at best be only a glimmer of something beautiful, but most times quite dreary and hopeless. But when we look through the eyes of Jesus, all things will be new. He is the Author of all beauty, all songs to be sung, all tales to be written and told. And if we dwell and abide in Him, and ask Him to teach us to see all things through His eyes, we will also be able to write that way too. We will see what we were meant to see all along - in our own little personal story... in our far flung dreams and hopes... in those quiet times of prayer and rejoicing in God's Presence... in the tears trickling down a sister's cheek as she shares her heart with you... in the little freckle-faced smile of a curly-headed baby... in the stalks of dew-green grass between golden heads of dandelions at your feet... and in the mundane-ness of an Algebra equation;  in doing what you are meant to do...in learning what you are meant to learn... and in appreciating what God has given you and me through life and experience...)

Then, we can truly write a story of beauty.
 Then, we can write a story from its beginning to its end. 

"Anon, Sir, Anon" by Rachel Heffington - book review

Tuesday, 2 September 2014

Genevieve Langley, paragon of all things mannerly, was late.
-Anon, Sir, Anon

Farnham. "Anon, Sir, Anon"
Hello, everyone. Today I have got a review for you all. Admittedly, I am not a pro with book reviewing like I should wish, but I will do my very best about the business, avoiding any major spoilers (it's a mystery, after all); it is a pretty special book all-round! I had the wonderful privilege of reading an "advanced reader's copy" of Rachel Heffington's newest novel, "Anon, Sir, Anon" - a mystery to be released on the 5th of November, otherwise known as Guy Fawkes' day over yonder in England :). Quite a momentous day, I see, for more reasons than one!

Be sure to check out Rachel's lovely writing blog, The Inkpen Authoress and her other published works as well: "Fly Away Home" and her novella Windy Side of Care in the "Five Glass Slippers Anthology".

Small disclaimer: this is a very subjective, personal review, and not a purposeful reading analyses to help a reader obtain an objective view of the book. 

Anon, Sir, Anon by Rachel Heffington
The 12:55 out of Darlington brought more than Orville Farnham's niece; murder was passenger.
In coming to Whistlecreig, Genevieve Langley expected to find an ailing uncle in need of gentle care. In reality, her charge is a cantankerous Shakespearean actor with a penchant for fencing and an affinity for placing impossible bets.
When a body shows up in a field near Whistlecreig Manor and Vivi is the only one to recognize the victim, she is unceremoniously baptized into the art of crime-solving: a field in which first impressions are seldom lasting and personal interest knocks at the front door.
Set against the russet backdrop of a Northamptonshire fog, Anon, Sir, Anon cuts a cozy path to a chilling crime.
Rowan. "Anon, Sir, Anon"
What I Liked (really, really liked!):
Unlike some stories, "Anon, Sir, Anon" is not just a good little mystery novel pulled out, read and forgotten in the passing list of a bibliophile's reading pile. This mystery is quite special. . . and unique. From the very start of the book, I was pulled into Rachel's sparkling and witty prose, the cozy, almost whimsical mystery plot of English countryside in the 1930s, and two unforgettable main characters, Vivi and Farnham, who held me glued to their wonderful story till the very end. I would say without much hesitation, that "Anon, Sir, Anon" is an amazing novel, and well-worth reading and rereading on any wintery, blankets-and-socks, and hot-cocoa sort of day ;). 

I have read "Fly Away Home" and Rachel's Cinderella-retelling "Windy Side of Care" a while ago, and while I really enjoyed those two stories, I have to say that "Anon, Sir, Anon" beats them all by a mile, in so many different elements,  but especially in strength of plotting, characterization and writing-prose. Here we read a compact, solid story, with deeply three-dimensional characters and a style of writing that is both unique, fun but also more smooth, powerful and natural. This is Heffington's best work yet.

My two favourite things about this book are the witty dialogues that are so spiced with charm, intelligence and humour, and the wonderful friendship of an odd uncle and strong-minded niece. Like some other reviewers have pointed out, I found that the key that makes this novel shine so wonderfully, stands firmly and wonderfully on the relationship of Vivi Langley with her uncle - the Shakespearean actor, Orville Farnham. The two of them are such brilliant, fascinating and down-right fun characters to read about, and simply putting the two of them together in the same room is enough to make me want to read pages of their hilarious and witty dialogues. They are such dears! Some of the early scenes between the two of them, fumbling about observing one another, kept me in a constant state of amusement. Their friendship, an odd-sort-of thing where Farnham is involved, is quite a special, and endearing part of the book, as well as being a very central part of the story. I appreciated that so much!

The whole fish in its crispy, salted jacket stared at her with a glassy eye and Genevieve thought it looked at Whistlecreig and its inhabitants in a spirit of judgement and lemon-juice."I incline to concur," she whispered."To whom are you speaking?" Farnham asked.Genevieve snapped straight. "To my fish, if you must know."  
...though it was, perhaps, only his profound sense of relief at not finding another body dead on his train, the conductor thought that when the plain girl smiled, she looked just a little beautiful.
Anon, Sir, Anon
Vivi is a lovely character - I grew fond of her very quickly, in her honest straightforwardness and eagerness, her determination to care for her uncle and her rather efficient cooking skills :). She has that self-confident streak that tends to get her into trouble, but her good sense balances that; oh, she is quite a flawed character and does some foolish things which I thoroughly disapproved of (HER MOTHER WOULD HAVE TOO!), but all in good cause, so I was willing to forgive her. That is one of the special things about Rachel in writing her characters: she writes them as they are - flawed, and very human with maddening quirks and warts; but through that, there is a nobleness and wonderfulness about her characters - they are learning and striving to follow God, and His grace strengthens them. And so you love them!
Anon, Sir, Anon
And then of course there is Farnham. Oh my! He's a wonderful character. At first, when I was introduced to him, I feared he would fit too easily into the mold of a typical Sherlock Holmes or Hercule Poriot, but Rachel pulled him off with splendid originality. His theatrical love of Shakespeare, his "banged" stomach ulcers, his gentlemanly sense of chivalry, all the while living broodingly in that ancient Whistlecreig manor of his -  all combine to make him a rather brilliant, though very clearly an eccentric detective, actor and uncle. 

There are the other characters too, of course, - kindly Dr. Breen, Allan the mysterious butler, care-free Jimmy Fields, the brooding and rather handsome Michael Maynor. . . while upholding the strength of strong main-characters, Rachel did not forget her side characters and suspects; they're all very three-dimensional, intriguing and fascinating. I hope this is not a plot-*Spoiler*- but I was thoroughly suspecting every single character in this mystery sometime somewhere in the story, even for a moment Farnham himself ;). 

Which brings me to the mystery plot - and I won't say much about this because I will inadvertently give something away! But I will say this much; it is very suspenseful, with many suspects and plot-twists - and then you fall headlong into the ending which Rachel ties off with a sheer brilliant, shocking bang, that will leave you a little breathless, shocked, and moved. I am generally not awful fond of mysteries throwing at me dozens of suspects, as it quite addles my wits! This time around, I felt no different than on other occasions in reading an Agatha Christie murder, however, there was a something that was far more sobering and deep than a normal mystery in the way Rachel wrote the details of murder and crime - she gently puts a few thoughts in, a moment or two, a reflection on character and the motives of the heart, a purpose and a sanctity to human life, and a clear picture of the heinous evil of taking another life that made me really appreciate this book, and Rachel's skill as a writer all the more. While not being overtly Christian in genre, Rachel allows her faith to shine in a lovely, understated way - in a quick prayer for help uttered in need, in small Biblical references and in the way the characters view justice, and mercy right and wrong. The very beginning, and the very ending are my personal favourite parts, and I wouldn't mind going back to the book just to re-read that wonderful ending. 

Small Dislikes. . . 
Well, the book is only a little spiced with mild-language - Farnham especially has a bent for using the word "banged" a little too often in my personal opinion. However, that aside, there isn't a whole lot of coarse language or swearing, besides a word here or there. Just a thought for those worried about that.

While romance is not at all the central plot to this story, there is a sort of romantic subplot going on, which includes a few things I felt slightly awkward about - there were basically one or two instances of a guy kissing a girl, and one time, pinning her to a wall which was a little suspenseful and uhm. . . not quite appropriate. Nothing untoward happening, though, and those two scenes are brief; however for that reason, and a few "mature" conversations, I would recommend this book for older teens and adults.

Conclusion:
I really loved "Anon, Sir, Anon". It is a sweet, endearing mystery story, filled with charming characters, a wonderfully heart-pounding plot and a solid Christian worldview as a foundation to the author's creation. I cannot wait for the publication, and look forward to more Vivi and Farnham mysteries in the coming years from Rachel Heffington, Lord willing. How wonderful that would be! So, folks, don't forget to remember Guy Fawkes' day, and keep a watchful lookout for this book's release, come November :).