Caught Dead – A Review

Sometimes congregational life can be murder. Author Jayne Self’s debut novel, Caught Dead, was shortlisted in the 2009 Best New Author contest sponsored by The Word Guild. The book was published as a weekly online serial by The Presbyterian Record.

Between pet disasters, congregational politics, nosy neighbours, and parenting his sometimes lucid father, Dean has more than enough to deal with when his childhood friend is killed. Paige, the victim’s young, attractive and single sister, drags Dean into the heart of an investigation many people would rather leave closed. Was Justin murdered? If so—by who? I’m not telling.

Caught Dead is a sweet whodunit you could give your mom or pastor’s wife without hesitation. I found Dean Constable to be a well-rounded character with depth and genuine appeal, but other prominent characters came off as rather one-dimensional. I found the story rather predictable overall, but Self delivered a few well-timed surprises to keep me reading.

If you’re looking for a safe, entertaining read, then I definitely recommend Caught Dead; but for those whose tastes wander closer to the thriller or suspense genres such as those delivered by the likes of Ted Dekker, Terri Blackstock or Brandilynn Collins, Caught Dead might not hold your interest.

I had a chance to interview author Jayne Self, and chat about Caught Dead.

LW: Where did you get the idea for Dean Constable?
JS: I got the idea for Dean Constable while sitting on my friend’s veranda, staring at the tomb stones in the cemetery across the street from her Nova Scotian house. I was trying to find a protagonist who embodied the things I know best—church life and being adopted—but someone who could still legitimately solve crimes, hence Dean’s past as a homicide detective. My husband is a Presbyterian minister and my husband’s cousin, is a police officer with investigative and undercover experience.

LW: Will we see more of Dean in the future?
JS: A second Dean Constable Mystery, Hit ’n Miss, is in the finals revision stage and I have plans for other Dean Constable mysteries. I don’t know at this point.

LW: Caught Dead was published as an online serial. Would you do that again?
JS: I would do it again, yes. It’s a new and novel (excuse the pun) way for me, a previously unpublished author, to get my writing to an audience. When The Presbyterian Record expressed interest in “experimenting” with the online serial format I was thrilled to be their guinea pig.

It was fun. I connected with readers from Scotland to India and USA, though I suspect most were Canadian. I think people found waiting for the weekly chapters dragged a bit. It was sometimes hard for readers to keep track of details. I look forward to the day Caught Dead will be available in paper.

LW: I loved the video trailer you made for Caught Dead. How long did you spend on the video, and in hindsight was the process worth it for you? What were your goals in producing that video?
JS: Actually, Lisa, you inspired the video when you commented on Ted Dekker’s website. After watching his, and investigating those by a few other authors, I decided to give it a try. So I wrote a brief script, my son video-taped and created the end product. My goal? I was trying to take that next step in self-promotion that everyone talks about. I’m not sure it has significantly impacted my career, but personally I love it and still chuckle whenever I watch it. At this point in my life I think it honestly reflects me.

LW: What do you hope readers will take away from reading Caught Dead?
JS: Caught Dead is about belonging. It’s the struggle Dean and I, and I think most people, have in common. So I hope that through sharing Dean’s experiences people will come to understand that belonging isn’t about who you’re related to or where you and your family live, it’s about who you are in Jesus. And that is something that develops and grows and changes each day we spend with Him.

LW: Why a mystery? Caught Dead could easily have worked as a high-octane thriller or gritty suspense novel.
JS: That was one of the problems I had marketing the manuscript. With slight modifications Caught Dead could have been slotted into a number of different genres. Caught Dead is a mystery because that’s what I enjoy reading and because, knowing how much time I would spend with my characters and plots, it was where I felt most comfortable. High octane thrillers and gritty suspense novels make a great read, but I’m not sure I’m ready to live in that mental space for the months/years it would take to see a book birthed.

LW: What part of Caught Dead was the hardest for you to write?
JS: I found the faith element hardest to write. Trying to find the authentic voice for Dean’s questions and God’s responses without becoming schmaltzy/preachy. I hope I have achieved that.

Caught Dead will be available online until December 31.

Lisa

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Interview with Shawn Pollett

Each year Word Alive Press, a self-publishing book publisher, runs a competition and awards a free publishing package to one fiction and one non-fiction author. I tend to be . . . skeptical about self-published books, so when I was asked to review one of their winners (Shawn Pollett’s Christianus Sum), I’ll admit I wasn’t expecting much. (Please no angry emails from all the self-published authors out there–this story has a happy ending.)

Christianus Sum caused a stir by winning three awards at the 2009 Canadian Christian Writing Awards (Best Romance Novel, Best Historical Novel, and Best Suspense Novel). Word Alive Press offered Pollett a traditional contract to write the remaining two books in the trilogy. And I loved the book so much that I ended up interviewing Pollett while he was writing What Rough Beast, the next book in the series (now available for purchase).

Here’s what he had to say . . .

MK: How did you get started on your journey to becoming a Christian writer?

SP: I guess God plugged the “writer circuit” into my brain when He made me. My first published short stories and novellas were all horror, fantasy, and science-fiction, but after I became a Christian, my writing naturally shifted.

MK: Where does your passion for writing historical fiction in particular come from?

SP: When I was a child, my parents purchased the World Book Encyclopaedia, and whenever we went on a road trip, I’d pick a volume at random and rifle through it, paying particular attention to the historical articles.  Even then, history was more than just a dry recitation of “what happened when” for me.  I wanted to know what motivated the historical figures I was reading about, what caused the events that filled the history books.  So I would close my eyes and picture the people and events I had read about, talk to the characters, ask them questions, throw them into different situations to see how they’d react.  That passionate curiosity about history (my mother called it “nosiness,” God bless her!) never left me.  To this day, I still approach my characters, real and imagined, in the same way . . . and I still feel the same passion toward them that I did as a child.

MK: When I read Christianus Sum, the courage that it took to stay faithful in the face of death impressed me. What inspired you to use the value of perseverance in the faith as a theme for your books?

I haven’t always persevered in the faith, and my historical studies exposed me to the persecutions of the Christian confessors of third and fourth centuries. I felt embarrassed by the ease at which I had turned away in favour of sex and drugs, compared to the ease by which so many of these martyrs had shouted Christianus Sum, two little words for which they died.

After re-dedicating my heart to the Lord, the theme of perseverance in the faith really began to haunt me.  What would I do if I was forced to choose:  Deny the Christ or die?  Deny the Christ or your wife dies?  Deny the Christ or your child dies?  The answer?  I honestly don’t know.  Yes, I’d like to think that I would be brave and true and stand up and shout Christianus Sum . . . but the truth is, until the day that choice becomes reality rather than conjecture, none of us knows how we will react.  But that does not excuse us from the obligation to search our hearts and assess our  loyalties while there is still time.

MK: How did writing What Rough Beast differ from writing Christianus Sum?

I wrote Christianus Sum soon after I re-dedicated my life to Christ. The idea of publishing it didn’t even cross my mind until after I finished.

On the other hand, What Rough Beast was written for publication. When the dust of negotiation cleared, my publisher had set a deadline for What Rough Beast that made me gasp for breath.  I honestly wasn’t sure I could pull it off in the allotted time.  Having said that, I thrive on deadlines, and this particular deadline became a race between me and time.  I loved it!  I left daily updates on my Facebook fan page—20 pages today . . . 30 pages today—and my fans spurred me on.  It was exhilarating and terrifying all at once!

There’s more of “Shawn the Writer” in What Rough Beast, more technique. Christianus Sum was like a surprise party, while What Rough Beast was more of a gala.

MK: Can you give us a sneak preview of the third book?

It takes up the story again about a decade after the end of What Rough Beast. This time the story takes a new twist—an emperor who tried a different way of dealing with the Christian Problem.

MK: What do you hope readers will take away from your books?

My goal is a good story written well. I want my readers to react emotionally—even viscerally. I also want them to join me in examining themselves. I want them to see how Christians in another time lived and how they were not so different from us. I hope I can infect my readers with passion for history. History is so much more than the boring progression of dates and events. It’s people and lives and loves and passions and death and salvation and . . . come and read and enjoy and find out for yourself!

What Rough Beast

Would you deny your faith if someone held a gun to your head? No? What if someone held a gun to the head of your husband or wife or child? Not quite as easy, is it?

Shawn J. Pollett, award-winning author of Christianus Sum, is back with the second book in his Cry of the Martyrs trilogy, once again making his readers question their determination and sincerity in a way that we all need to do once in awhile.

In A.D. 253, Julius Valens and Damarra anticipate the birth of their first child, but their household and the church are in conflict over how to deal with the lapsi, those who denied Christ to avoid execution during the recently ended persecution. Their relative peace shatters when they learn that Valerianus—the man who sought to kill them—has become emperor of Rome.

Valerianus’ son and co-emperor, Gallienus, promises Damarra (his half-sister) that he will protect them, but Valerianus’ subterfuge soon convinces him that Christians are once again a threat. Valens and Damarra attempt to escape to Germania, not realizing that a traitor lurks in their midst waiting for a chance to turn them over to Valerianus.

Fans of Christianus Sum won’t be disappointed. Pollett once again brings to life history and the bitter struggle of staying true to your faith regardless of the consequences. For those of us who currently live in North America and can go to church and write blogs like this one without fear, he also gives us a peek into what Christians are still going through in other parts of the world.

My one major critique is that Pollett falls back on deus ex machina at times to get the characters out of trouble. I have no problem with the occasional Christian novel containing a single, well-placed, carefully chosen miracle, but I draw the line at characters turning invisible so that the enemy army runs right through them.

Still, expect to see What Rough Beast as a finalist at next year’s Canadian Christian Writing Awards.

What Rough Beast by Shawn J. Pollett

Published by Word Alive Press

For more information on persecuted Christians in our time, please visit Voice of the Martyrs.

Interview With Mags Storey

Thanks to everyone we met from Write! Toronto. We had a blast, and we hope you learned a few things about freelancing for a faith-based market.

A few months ago, I had the privilege of interviewing Mags Storey about her debut novel. We chatted for over an hour while she made pb&j sandwiches for her kids, and I wondered… was that really an earthquake (yes, I was doing an interview during Ontario’s ‘was that an earthquake?’ tremor). If Only You Knew won 3 awards at the 2010 Canadian Christian Writing Awards.

LW: When did know that you wanted to be a writer?
MS: I’ve always wanted to be a writer. It’s always been my main goal and my main dream. It’s a stressful goal and dream to have because it’s a hard industry to break into. I felt very foolish and silly for a very long time. I didn’t tell a lot of people I was writing, it was a secret.

LW: Which life experiences and people from your past did you draw on to write If Only You Knew?
MS: Each of the characters is based on four or five people including myself. Lots of bits from ex-boyfriends were woven in, hopefully in well disguised ways. The great thing about writing is you can take all your failures and all your mistakes and all of the things you did wrong; you get to take these moments and recreate them and turn them into art—into something wonderful and something funny and creative, and it touches people’s lives.

LW: Why a Christian YA novel?
MS: You write what you know, and you write what springs out of who you are. I started writing this book when I was in my early 20’s. This was the most natural extension of who I was as a person. I decided to keep the characters at the ages they are because that’s the stage of life where you really get freedom to find out who you are, what you believe, what you want to believe, where you fit, who you want to be in your life. So the characters are at this cusp of just beginning to get freedom. They’re trying to decide who they want to be, and that’s a really exciting stage of life to write about.

The book raises a lot of questions because of what the characters are going through, and the book gives you some answers, but not all the answers. At least the characters don’t find all the answers. If they did, it wouldn’t be real life.

LW: Tell me about your characters.
MS: I like these characters, they are real people. Jo and Sam are the kind of people who often don’t feel like they get a fair shake in our churches. Lisa is the kind of person who feels like in order to fit in she has to put on a mask and play a role. Nate is the kind of person who is struggling with a real and genuine faith, but is finding that very difficult to walk through and live, and to be.

LW: Who is your book written for?
MS: My book is for the girl who gets up in the morning and looks in the mirror and thinks:

  • I’m ugly
  • The guy I think is best in the entire world doesn’t want me
  • The girl who I thought was my friend has now turned out to be a gossiping witch behind my back
  • And I’m supposed to now believe God loves me?
  • And because God loves me that is supposed to make everything better?

We don’t have a lot of books for people who look at themselves in the mirror and don’t like themselves. We don’t have books with heroines who find themselves unattractive. We don’t have romance novels about people who fall madly in love with someone who doesn’t like you back. This book is for people where that’s their reality.

LW: You break a few conventions that are fairly standard to Christian fiction and romance novels.
MS: I thought I had written the unpublishable novel. I never thought I would win any awards. In the past year, there have been book stores who wouldn’t let me have book signings. I remember when I was trying to get this book out, one church leader who I really respect said only silly people read books like that? Why would you write a book for silly people? I said then who is going to write good books for the silly people?

LW: What does winning the inaugural Grace Irwin award mean to you?
MS: It validates what I’m trying to do. It’s not just exciting for me—see that’s what I like. It’s exciting for people who like books like mine, and people who are going to be touched through books like mine.
It matters to me that I won this award because of the kind of book this is, because of what this book says, and what this book did. It matters so much to me.

Read my earlier review of If Only You Knew and about the inaugural Grace Irwin Award.

The entries are open for the 2011 Canadian Christian Writing Awards. For more information, check out the awards sponsors: The Word Guild.

Talking to the Dead

Sometimes it’s hard to let go of the ones we love . . .

The day after her husband Kevin’s funeral, Kate Davis falls apart. She refuses to eat, shower, or sleep in her bedroom. She can’t remember large chunks of time from the last year. And she hears Kevin talking to her.

As Kate attempts to stifle Kevin’s voice, she seeks help from a “spiritual” counselor, an exorcist, a psychiatrist, and group therapy. None of it works, and when she begins to uncover the truth about Kevin and their relationship, his voice turns from playful to accusing. No longer knowing who she can trust and believing God hates her, Kate wonders if she should give up on ever being “normal” again.

Despite the unusual events, Kate’s situation is still one that every adult in a relationship can identify with. Love, unfortunately, always comes entwined with the fear of loss. Grove also paints a sad but accurate picture of the damage we cause when we deny the truth.

Kate’s story will remind you that only God can put our broken parts back together. Between Grove’s eloquent use of language, touches of humor, and compelling plot, I didn’t want to put this book down. It deserved its win in the Contemporary Novel category of The Word Guild’s 2010 Canadian Christian Writing Awards.

Her second novel, Time and Time Again, was due for release in September 2010.

Talking to the Dead by Bonnie Grove

Published by David C. Cook

This review is an updated version of the one that originally appeared in Maranatha News in August 2009.