The following is an expanded review of Gary Riner’s Lina’s Holy Struggle (https://www.smashwords.com/books/view/545477), an ebook available on Smashwords.com. A condensed version can also be found on Smashwords. My intent in the expanded edition is to help writers (myself and Gary Riner included) develop their craft. This review contains mild spoilers.
The book is a story in a planned series of stories about young godly women. The main character is a sixteen-year old Iranian girl, who is a follower of Yeshua (a Christian). And normally when I say, ‘Yeshua’, and I am mentally substituting the Hebrew name for “Jesus”, because that’s how I speak. But in this case, the girl actually uses the name Yeshua. Which helps develop the tone that this is not about a western Christian girl in an exotic setting, but actually about a middle-eastern disciple in her native setting. Gary does a wonderful job throughout the story of weaving in cultural details, such that many readers will find their horizons expanded.
And even though the villains in this story are Islamists, Gary does not make all Islamists out to be villainous. The title character clearly reflects a viewpoint of trust in the truth of scripture, that Yeshua is Mashiach, and Mashiach is the way of salvation. Yet many of the Muslim characters are presented as kind, wanting to do right as they believe it, and to have compassion.
Another thing the story does really well is to portray the plight of someone (especially a woman) who converts to trust in Mashiach in a fundamentalist Islamic culture such as Iran. Gary does this fairly . . . realistically. Early on, a Christian character is tortured for their faith, while others are tortured and killed elsewhere. Gary does a good job not softening things for the readers. And that’s a hard thing to do, but how do you tell a story about the trial of holding to the faith, without communicating how real is the struggle? Would Yeshua’s sacrifice have meant so much to us, if had lived perfectly on a deserted island and died peacefully, or too suddenly to make a choice? Isn’t the magnificence of His perfection, that He was tempted? That He saw His gruesome death coming, and chose it anyway?
Gary’s story askes us just what we would endure and still hold true to our faith. Now, I do think he pulled a few punches. A few times he left out details that would have been difficult to read, but would have made it a little more true. But, I think every believing artist has to find a balance between what is necessarily graphic or distasteful, and what is unnecessarily graphic. I mean even the Bible uses euphemisms for horrible things in some cases, and goes into scandalous detail in others.
Overall, the story is pretty good. Diverse in activity, surprising at times, stirring, even (one particular scene had me near tears). But it’s not without its flaws. What comes first to mind was inconsistency. It seems it needed another scrub. Formatting stuff: numbers that would normally have been written out were left as numbers, strange uses of quotation marks, underlining, etc. Violating convention is fine, but it’s like driving on the right side of the road. Would it work if you drove on the left side? But in the wrong country, you’ll probably get some funny looks, wild gestures, and flashing lights. Don’t break convention unless you have a good reason. This felt like the writer just didn’t know it was a convention.
Another inconsistency is the rotating of character titles. One person can be Jane and also the banker, Mom, Sis, the short brunette, all in the same story. But whichever title you use in a particular place, that title should have meaning beyond simply variety of word choice. For example, if I wanted to have some variety, and I had a scene where Jane was trying to turn on a light by pulling a string hanging from the ceiling, I might say, “The short brunette tried and tried, but that string waved just out of reach, silently saying ‘Neener, neener, neener.’” The title choice is relevant and descriptive. You wouldn’t have Jane nuking a burrito in the microwave in a home-life developing scene, and write, “The banker watched the burrito swell as if it would explode.” Her being a banker is irrelevant. So I think Gary could have done better in many cases (especially when referring to God), simply by referring to the characters by name or simply by pronoun when it was clear.
Besides uneven formatting and presentation choices, the main character comes off uneven. There’s a moral dilemma early on, the solution to which, left me aghast. But honestly, that was because I was expecting something more Hollywood. So kudos to Gary for not going that route. That’s one of his strengths. From that choice, Lina goes down a morally offensive path toward ‘redemption’; it’s Lina’s Holy Struggle, after all. But along her struggle, she is eventually hit by a bus—spiritually speaking. Afterwards she becomes a completely different person.
Now the event is of such magnitude that one would expect changes, but it felt like at that point that she became a full-time evangelist. Fine, great! But the annoying kind. The one who turns a conversation about pancakes into, whether you’ll go to hell if you choke on said pancake. Far be it from me to discourage anyone from sharing the Glad Tidings, but there’s a reason those people are annoying. It annoys me, I think, because for one its conversational hijacking. But also because the hijacking says the pancake itself has no value. Normal life events have no value. It devalues the very life of a person. Why would I listen to you if you’ve just told me the normal joys of my life have no meaning? Beyond being a turn-off, it doesn’t even make sense because we know it is God’s goodness that leads men to repentance. Rather than lowering the pancake, we should be elevating it. Ignoring basic goodness in life, makes it seem like the only moments that count are those that are printed with scripture and explicit gospel priming. Didn’t Yeshua point to birds to make a point? That would only work if you paid attention to the birds. What did YHVH say to Job when He made His appeareance? Did He say, “What if you choked on a pancake…?” No, He pointed to creation again and again and again. Why? The presumption is that life itself teaches us truth. The pancake’s innate buttery, fluffy goodness is innately telling us something; you either have ears to hear or you don’t.
So the main character becomes this kind of person. Of course, those people exist. I’d even daresay that most of the best believers probably are tempted by that pattern of behavior. I mean, if you grasp the fullness of what it is to be in a loving relationship with the Elohim of elohim, the Creator of the Heavens and the Earth–from an intellectual standpoint–everything else seems like a distraction. So it’s perfectly, possible and realistic that, after such a traumatic event, Lina would become like this.
Then what are the grounds for criticism? I think the problem is that Gary doesn’t show us the inside that justifies this shift. Early in the story Lina makes a decision that I found reprehensible, but the display of her inner workings made me see that it was hard to imagine how she might have avoided that decision. I understood—however I might have disagreed. In the later case, I saw a vacuum of normal reaction. As if Lina was actually some kind of impossible, robotic believer. Why did she not react to being nearly killed? Someone is trying to help her, and she just brushes aside their best efforts and condemns them for not being a believer, why doesn’t she see how unreasonable she’s being? Why don’t any of her believing friends say, “Hey, girl, you’re being a jerk.”
I think that was where the story had the most potential to be improved, by letting Lina mature and become a powerful saintly figure, but while maintaining her humanity. Or else showing us that she was immature, but it was coming out of an honest internal process.
One related area. Lina’s later shift, I inferred to be Gary focusing on delivering a specific message, rather than allowing the characters freedom to tell that message through who they were. So, being focused on the message, Gary passes up avenues for better story telling (IMO). For example, there was a scene where Lina goes to a pool. Now being an Iranian girl growing up with strict modesty standards, she’s had quite a culture shock moving to Isra’el which is mostly secular and therefore not concerned with modesty. So being at this pool, wearing something she never would have in the past, surrounded by others even more “scantily” attired, that could have had an influence. Someone might have seen her discomfort. Showing some scarring from a recent event, could have given her more difficulty. Thinking about a recent near death could have been a factor. Point being, lots of things could move the story on a personal level. Some of these are mentioned in passing, but the whole scene lasts a paragraph or two and concludes with Lina again talking about Yeshua to some people (who we only meet by summary). When I read that I concluded: that scene only existed so we could see that doors are opening for her to share. And because of that sense of the scene’s singular purpose, it felt like empty calories.
The “magic” of a story comes in hiding the structure. Why? Probably because living our lives, our own stories don’t seem to have structure. It’s like a magician’s tricks don’t work unless, he can distract you with the show. So how could Gary have worked this better? Stories have structure. In fact I would say, my poorest writing is when I’m just wandering without structure; failing to ask myself, “What does this scene have to do with the story?” Focus on the “reason” for each scene helps cut out a bunch of superfluous wordery. But once the reason for a scene is identified, then you have to add in the ‘superfluous’ details: the magician’s distractions. You fog it up. Hiding what the reason for the scene was, so the astute reader will afterward think . . . “Oh, that happened because of . . . ” And that realization may never reach the conscious level; Kudos if it doesn’t! The reader shouldn’t know why something worked, they should simply sense that it does.
A great example is watching Castle or The Flash and watch the way the show explains things. A character will begin to say something, but then a question will come up. In the worst cases, the question is so obvious no thinking person would ever ask it. But then another person will dramatically enter the conversation to supply the answer. This ‘works’ because it makes the dialogue become a conversation with flare instead of a monologue. Usually, the person who supplies the answer will also begin to answer from off camera. As if they just rolled up, figured out the conversation, anticipated the question, and supplied the answer before there could be real-life dullness. It keeps the story moving, makes it kinetic. The only problem is when (like in Castle) you do it multiple times in every episode, usually with the same characters. Once you see the technique it just becomes annoying.
“Really? You couldn’t have explained that all where you were? How is it that you always begin your complicated explanation away from the computer screen with all the answers? What? Did they find you in the break room and started to ask you there instead of beginning the conversation at your work station?”
In a later blog, I intend to lampoon the abuse of these techniques, but when used right, these add those ‘distractions’ that hide the seams. And they aren’t just distractions. They are life. If you think of your life in terms of a list of items, actions, etc. It becomes boring, very very very boring. “What did I do today? Well . . . I got up. And I had breakfast. I went to work. Then went to the gym. Came home. Ate again. Melted my brain with The Voice and went to bed.” I got bored just writing that. It seems like nothing happened at all. But that ignores all the bounty of the life YHVH has given us. The way those pancakes tasted. That crisp breeze that slapped your face and antagonized you until you got in your car, feeling the cold of the seat grab you through your clothes. The funny dance you did to stay warm while the car defrosted.
Good writing needs to include those little details, because it is the little details that fill out the story and make a scene that was only ‘there for a reason’ into a scene with a reason in it. And in the best cases, this shouldn’t just be details hiding a reason, it should be two or three reasons. In the scenes where it works, characters are doing things, interacting with others, and giving exposition all at the same time. If Lina needs to be seen sharing, that’s great. Send her to the pool, but have her do something else in the same trip.
Conclusion: The premise is interesting; timely and relevant might be better descriptors. Gary writes a story that has a lot of pull, but suffers from rough patches in formatting, and more so a message getting in the way of the story. Again, the message is not the problem, but the delivery gets in the way of the story, making both feel artificial and unrelated. But that problem doesn’t really surface until the last third or so, and even then Gary shows some good scenes and ironic twists.