Tag Archives: Canadian author

Review: The Red Journal, by Deb Elkink

Book cover: The Red Journal, by Deb Elkink

The Red Journal, by Deb Elkink (The Mosaic Collective, 2019)

At 50, Libby has lived with her grandmother since childhood and is mourning Gram’s recent death. Her lifelong dream is to own her own home, away from the tenement where she’s been raised. She also longs to recreate Gram’s signature soup recipe—perhaps in hopes of restoring the sense of home Gram provided.

Her friend, Sibyl, is about 10 years younger and likes to think she’s found her security in spirituality and sensuality. Sibyl is convinced she knows what Libby needs while having no understanding of her friend’s grief.

Paige is a young woman working at the Laird Mansion Museum in the next state, pushing to finish her research paper before her baby arrives. She’s obsessed with finding a more personal side to the now-deceased MDM Laird and with clearing his name of hints of scandal.

The Red Journal is a carefully-imagined novel for the literary, even scholarly, reader who likes to chew over a novel and tease out its depths. Libby and Sibyl are each searching for sacred spaces in their own ways, and the heart of MDM Laird’s manor is another sacred space.

The story begins with Libby and Sibyl en route to visit the Laird Museum, and alternates this present with the recent past leading up to the journey. I would have found it an easier read in a linear timeline. Movement between multiple timelines is often done, and I’m not sure why it didn’t work for me here. It might be the short distance back in time, or the short duration of the “present” museum tour itself. Breaking the tour into sections may highlight the journey to the heart of the manor, and I’ve seen other readers commenting on enjoying the “dance” between timelines.

As well-written as each scene is, the novel felt long to me. I don’t think we needed as much of Libby’s soup-making and apartment-packing, Sibyl’s travels, or even as much depth in Paige’s research. I wonder, in fact, if the story needed Sibyl’s point of view at all. Possibly any key information in her scenes could have been introduced through Libby’s observations. As with a good soup, condensing could have strengthened the flavour, and readers would have still been able to observe two women’s very different searches for sacred space.

The novel also includes journal excerpts, perhaps to give readers extra clues to tease out the full story before Libby discovers it herself.

Sibyl’s point of view scenes often share rich memories of exotic travels, which will appeal to readers who love to travel (and armchair travellers). Her mashup of various spiritual beliefs shows its hollowness but might still sound appealing enough to lead seekers astray.

On the other side of belief, MDM Laird’s Bible-based faith has a few mentions and there’s some reference to God as “Father” near the end. The faith thread has enough hints for people who know their Bibles—even MDM’s name, Moses David Melchizidek—but biblical literacy is not a given for most mainstream readers.

I appreciated the chance to read about 40- and 50-year-old protagonists, as well as the (fictional) historical character MDM Laird’s exemplary relationships with the Native Americans he invited to dwell on his estate. His focus on keeping their families together was a refreshing counterpart to the true-life travesties imposed by both American and Canadian governments.

Deb Elkink is a skilled, award-winning author who writes at a deeper level than I can easily plumb. I’ve had to work harder than I like to figure this one out, and I’m not sure I have it yet. I think the concentric layout of the Laird Mansion Museum estate somehow connects with the choice of narrative structure, circling back upon itself.

The Red Journal has a strong sense of place, in the unfolding history of the land around the manor and in Sibyl’s vividly-rendered exotic travelogues, which feel like the author has visited in person. Although the characters sometimes frustrated me, I appreciated the ending.

Deb Elkink has also written The Third Grace (a novel) and Roots and Branches: The Symbolism of the Tree in the Imagination of G.K. Chesterton (nonfiction). For more about the author and her work, visit debelkink.com.

[Review copy from my personal library.]

Follow me on BookBub

Review: Burning Justice, by Helena Smrcek

Burning Justice, by Helena SmrcekBurning Justice, by Helena Smrcek (EverWind Press, 2015)

Nora Martin’s dream is to establish the Beacon of Hope residence as an alternative to prison or forced military service for young men who’ve been arrested. She has the government approval and the funding, but suddenly she may not have the farmhouse she leased from a church in rural Indiana.

The church assumed care of the property when its owner died. How could they have forgotten to notify the man’s heir? What else have the locals “forgotten” to mention? One thing’s sure, they know how to hold grudges.

Most of those grudges are aimed at Jake Schwartz, the farm’s heir, who arrives unexpectedly on leave from the military. Jake tells Nora and her FBI friend Alicia to stay out of his troubles, even when things escalate to violence.

How can Nora do that, when she’s in danger of losing her ministry? And how can she admit her attraction to Jake, when she takes her Mennonite pacifist beliefs seriously? For that matter, how did Jake, another Mennonite, end up in the Navy?

Burning Justice is set in the real town of French Lick, Indiana, and many of the settings sound like real places. Nora and Jake are both what I’d call expatriate Mennonites, keeping their faith but cut off from traditional communities. Jake, who looks to have compromised his beliefs, is more connected to God than Nora, who’s crushed by guilt over advice she gave in her previous career as a social worker.

Favourite lines:

Sometimes we are our own biggest obstacles in our walk toward God’s will. (Miriam, a young Mennonite mother, to Nora, Kindle location 2436)

For some reason, you seem to think that by clutching the steering wheel, you can change the direction of the road. (Jake to Nora, Kindle location 3100)

My only issue with this novel is the ending. It provides a satisfying fictional wrap-up, but in the real world I think the characters would be setting themselves up for trouble. I can’t give more details without giving spoilers, but I wouldn’t want an impressionable reader to follow this example.

Burning Justice is the first book in the Alicia Yu series. This is Nora’s story, but Alicia is an intriguing support character. I look forward to seeing what action she gets into in the next books: Glitter of Sorrow and Color of Money.

Helena Smrcek’s debut novel is a fast read laced with danger and romance and steeped in small-town secrets. For more about the author, visit her Goodreads page, and to read a sample chapter, visit her website. Burning Justice is currently free for Kobo. Amazon and the other online retailers will follow shortly.

[Advance review copy provided by the author.]

Heaven’s Prey Facebook Party Tonight

Heaven's Prey Facebook PartyCome and join the conversation … and maybe win a prize! Click the image to go to the event on my Facebook page for more information, or to sign up. When the party starts, there’ll be clear directions on how to join in. I just wish we could serve some real food!

Also… today’s the final day for the Heaven’s Prey blog chase. The chase posts will still be available tomorrow, but we draw for the free book tonight 🙂 Haven’t taken the chase yet? Click here to start running:

Heaven's Prey Blog Chase graphic