Saturday, December 14, 2013

An Excerpt from SOUTHERN GENTLEMAN, a novel by Bracy Ratcliff


Baptist churches in the Deep South, even today in the 21st Century, are often the biggest buildings in town, bigger than City Hall, even bigger than the schools or hospitals, and this one was no exception. Brown’s Valley, like so many others, was built of red brick, with alabaster columns, posts, and trim. The main sanctuary, with a ceiling nearly 70 feet high, seats over 5000. It’s somewhat reminiscent of a giant NBA arena, with sophisticated light and sound systems, big screen TV’s in the hallways branching off the vestibule showing the “action” on the arena floor. The “Media Department” simulcasts the services to other buildings on the “campus” and broadcasts on two radio stations and one popular cable TV channel. The campus encompasses a dozen buildings spread over ten acres. There's a gymnasium to rival a medium sized college, a nursery/daycare/preschool facility, an infirmary, an adult theology building, a women’s study center, a men’s worship center, a family enrichment center, a Senior center, a fitness club, two banquet kitchens, four event rooms, an outdoor sports complex, a media center, computer lab, a theater, two chapels, a Youth Center, a dozen offices, an RV park with all the amenities, and a motor pool facility to house and maintain a fleet of buses. It isn't the physical size that made Brown’s Valley so imposing, so impressive, however. The church’s influence in the community is pervasive and growing; and, those closest to the center, all of the leaders of business and industry, the senior city & county government officials, and the church leaders are the purveyors and the beneficiaries of that influence.


Don Morgan was standing with the rest of the congregation, holding his hymnal low so anyone looking could clearly see his face. He was nodding slightly to the beat of the orchestra, enjoying the choir, but not singing. Instead, he was marveling at the enormity of it all and thinking how much money it took to run the place—and he knew the exact numbers because he was the church’s CPA and financial advisor. What was truly astounding, thought Don, was that so little of the Church’s revenue came from local donations. The collection plate still accounted for a big sum of money but had largely been replaced by the EFT. Thanks to Don’s influence and the church’s connections in banking—the presidents of two local banks and the officers of the large regional bank headquartered downtown were all members of Brown’s Valley—collections grew and became more predictable, more reliable. They automated, modernized tithing; but, that still accounted for only a small fraction of the church’s total revenue. Don had guided Brown’s Valley into commercial real estate investments that made the church one of the largest property owners in the state. He put them into the music and video business—entertainment marketing and publishing on a grand scale. They didn’t just market their own choir and orchestra via an ambitious live performance schedule, they also produced CD’s and DVD’s; but it didn’t stop there—they had under contract more than a dozen other Christian singers, musical groups, authors, and artists. The church book store, typically a meager earner for all but the largest churches, generated millions for Brown’s Valley thanks to Don’s imaginative direction. They didn’t just sell Bibles and Christian art, they bought and sold just about anything they could print the BV logo on—a full line of men’s, women’s, and children’s clothing, sporting goods, even furniture and electronics—and 95% of it sold on the church’s web site or through a network of brokers. The church sponsored Boy Scouts, Cub Scouts, Girl Scouts, Brownies, Little League, Pop Warner, basketball, soccer, and track teams, none of which cost the church much money, but generated loads of good will and free publicity. They recently got involved in a Christian NASCAR team, a minor league baseball team, and a professional soccer league. There was more, much more, and what it all added up to was over a quarter million in annual net income for Don; and, the church wasn’t his largest client.

As the hymn ended, Don thought, “I love church.” But, that wasn’t true, really. What he loved was going to church, “seeing and being seen.” It was the best kind of “networking” in the Deep South. To reach the upper levels of business or society required a church membership—it didn’t have to be Baptist, necessarily. Presbyterian and Methodist were usually acceptable, Catholic not so much except maybe in New Orleans or Mobile. But, the best of the best always belonged to the biggest Baptist church in town.

Don liked what he saw in people’s faces when they looked at him—he knew that they knew that he was successful and important. That was the reason it was so easy for him to smile—he reveled in the admiration. He could tell they were impressed and envious. He nearly laughed at the thought—they coveted his life. An aggressive anti-aging regimen helped him maintain his boyish good looks and charm. They saw his well-fitting, expensive suits—though he reserved his best for really important occasions—his fancy Italian loafers, starched shirts, bright ties, his gold Rolex; and, of course, his cars. Cars were important; or rather “vehicles” were important. You had to have an SUV for the wife and kids, a pick-up for hunting and fishing trips, and a sporty sedan for Dad—and Don’s were top-of-the-line.

Don took his seat with the 5000 and settled in for the sermon. He glanced at his wife and kids—again, top-of-the-line—and smiled smugly. His wife, Beth, had attended UA but never with any intentions of having a career of any sort. She was there for her “MRS” degree, which was still the primary reason a certain type of woman attended college in the Deep South. Beth was that type—from a family clearly in the middle of middle class but with aspirations of moving up. Her looks had propelled her to popularity and success. The family struggled to send her to school, get her in the right sorority, dress her right; and, finally early in her junior year, she met Don. Don was smitten. He remembered thinking, “She’s perfect.” It was love at first sight and for a couple of years into the marriage, Don was sure that he was truly in love. But, he changed. Beth was still perfect, but not in the way you might think. Don was no longer in love, and Beth wasn’t a soul mate, she was an accessory not much more important to him than his CL63 AMG Mercedes—perhaps less important. His two daughters were excellent accessories as well. He was glad he didn’t have a son. In the Deep South the Sons of the important families had to be good athletes, ideally football players, as Don had been. It would be beyond humiliating if a son had turned out not be a stellar athlete. The daughters had only to be pretty for Don to maintain his stature in the community.

Ten years ago, when the church was much smaller, once the sermon was done the Pastor would make his way to the vestibule while the choir entertained the congregation for a few more minutes. After a hymn or two, conducted by the Musical Director, the Choir would wrap it up and the worshipers would make their way toward the door where the Pastor would shake hands until the church was empty. At Brown’s Valley and other Mega-Churches that didn’t work. Instead, the Pastor stepped down from the chancel and shook hands with the people nearest the front; and, those nearest the front always included Don. This was the most important part of the morning—the Pastor would see him, other congregants would see the two men shake hands, and see Don whisper something to the Pastor . . . and envy at the obvious personal nature of the relationship.

But, now Don was ready to go. Sometimes it was exhausting maintaining his image . . . though image wasn’t the correct word, actually. “Image” implies a shallow countenance. Don’s image was so deep that no one had any notion of whom or what he really was—not his Pastor, not his wife, no one. And, Don intended for it to stay that way—until the time was right.

Saturday, June 15, 2013

FREE Kindle Edition, Great Family Mystery and Adventure Series, Vol. 1

For five days, Monday, 12/1, through Friday, 12/5, download FREE Kindle editions of both Madison Adventures: Mike Madison, Intrepid Explorer, and Friends and Foes?
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Thursday, May 23, 2013

HOLLOWLAND by Amanda Hocking

Hollowland (The Hollows, #1)Hollowland by Amanda Hocking
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

It was kind of a fun story, but disappointing in some ways. The coolest thing was the lion the kids found during their trek north. Remy could be a great character, but it takes every page of the book to really get her defined/developed as a character; the other characters are very thin. The periodic, frequent, zombie battles are tiresome--the same each time. The notion that the world can fall prey to a zombie creating virus seems familiar (like a dozen others), but played out OK, just not great.

I expected more, but it wasn't terrible, it was an easy, quick read, I liked Remy's heroic decision at the end, but overall was not happy with the ending, and the door was left wide open for #2. I suppose it's good for YA audiences, just not too Y.

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Saturday, May 4, 2013

The Hit by David Baldacci

The Hit (Will Robie, #2)The Hit by David Baldacci
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Baldacci's pretty reliable. Will Robie, if you can get past the fact that he's an assassin, is one of the good guys . . . a professional killer with a heart. This time his heart nearly got the best of him, but . . .

Sorry, can't tell more. It's a good story, a little frightening in the sense that it might be going on in the real world, but entertaining with the kind of ending I prefer.

It's not a kid's book, but the author doesn't use profanity, the sex is less graphic than prime time TV, the violence nothing compared to blockbuster movies, and there's plenty of action and intrigue; and, I admire Baldacci's style.

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Nevermore by James Patterson

Nevermore (Maximum Ride, #8)Nevermore by James Patterson
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I thought I had read at least one Max Ride book, but I guess not. My initial impression of the series is that it's another one that JP engineered or directed, but didn't really write. I didn't enjoy it. The characters, Max, Fang, Dylan, Angel, are likeable enough, but what's with the wings? They don't add anything to the story. They could have been any mid-teen kids struggling with growing up with the added twist that someone is out to kill them. And, the ending wasn't an ending---I've said this before, but I like endings when the mystery is solved, the good guys win, the bad guy is vanquished. None of that happened; so, is this really the last adventure?

Who knows? Maybe kids will like this, but it's not JP's best work and not really for grownups.

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The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our StarsThe Fault in Our Stars by John Green
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I read (and occasionally re-read) about 60 books per year and have done so for 50 plus years; and, I can count the really, really good ones on one hand--now I have to add a finger from the other hand. You have to know that any story whose main characters are kids with advanced-stage cancer cannot end well. My 14 year-old son talked me into reading this. "It made me really angry," he told me. We didn't have time to discuss it further, but now I understand; anger is one of the many emotions evoked as I read it. Unless you're a complete sociopath, this story will get to you.

I strongly recommend this to any reader. I'd like to tell more, but can't really without spoiling it. Yes, the main characters are kids with cancer, but they're funny, smart, and strong--you'll love them.

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Sunday, February 3, 2013

SIMPLICITY: The New Competitive Advantage

Simplicity: The New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, FasterSimplicity: The New Competitive Advantage in a World of More, Better, Faster by Bill Jensen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

I could not agree more strongly with the title of this book. Simpler will yield a competitive advantage. The truth though is that I'm too far down the food-chain to make any substantive changes. Everything I do (and my 200+ employees) is directed by procedures that can't be bent, shaped, altered, or otherwise made simpler. The processes are written and enforced by the departments often referred to as "support functions." Without elaborating, there's huge irony in that description. Regrettably, this book is not simple. It's so loaded with jargon and corp-speak that I was instantly turned off; yet, I trudged on for several hundred pages looking for some guidance, something concrete that I could take back to work with me. Alas, it's not there. It's mostly pages and pages of propaganda aimed at convincing me that simplicity is next to godliness (I might be exaggerating a little), but I don't need convincing. I believe it, I've embraced the concept--but, tell me how to make it happen from the middle. The market for this book is a tiny little niche within the senior level of corporate managers (who often don't want simpler), or to autonomous department heads (who depend on complexity for security).

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