Uncovering family secrets: Review of Shadows of Ladenbrooke Manor by Melanie Dobson

One of my favorite types of fiction is a story that blends past and present storylines, and though I’d never read anything by Melanie Dobson before, the premise of her new book, Shadows of Ladenbrooke Manor, was one I couldn’t pass up. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book through Litfuse Publicity Group in exchange for my review.) ladenbrooke

In the book, Heather Toulson, an art restorer living in Portland, returns to her family cottage in the Cotswolds of England to pack up her family’s belongings after the death of her father. Heather’s life is full of strained and tense relationships, past and present, and her goal is to clean out the cottage and sell it as fast as possible and move on with her life. Her newly married daughter Ella joins her and as they sift through the contents, Heather uncovers questions about the older sister she never knew and the boy next door who died long ago.

The historical storyline, set in the 1950s and later, follows Maggie Doyle, Heather’s mum, through an unexpected circumstance and consequent marriage to Walter Doyle. Maggie’s daughter, Libby, is the sister Heather never knew, and though she loves butterflies, she does not interact with the rest of the world in the same way as others, except the boy next door, Oliver Croft, son of the Lord and Lady Croft of Ladenbrooke Manor.

There is a lot to sort out as the book starts out, but once it gets rolling, the plot unravels like a ball of string leading from one place to the next. For me, this book was a study in how to write about family secrets revealed across generations because the novel I’m working on contains similar themes. I enjoyed it as a story, as well. Dobson doesn’t reveal too much too soon, but partway through, readers gets a sense of what’s happening. I especially appreciated the themes of restoring what is broken in relationships.

And Dobson gives Libby a unique personality–something along the lines of the autism spectrum, which would have been undiagnosed in the 1950s. It was fascinating to consider how people would have viewed her and interacted with her.

If you’ve never read a dual timeline story, this is a good one to start with. And if you like family mysteries, you’ll enjoy the way secrets are uncovered.

More about the author

dobsonMelanie Dobson is the award-winning author of thirteen historical romance, suspense, and contemporary novels. Two of her novels won Carol Awards in 2011, and Love Finds You in Liberty, Indiana won Best Novel of Indiana in 2010. Melanie lives with her husband Jon and two daughters near Portland, Oregon.Find Melanie online: website, Twitter, Facebook

Summer Fun Week 4

A month of summer already? And now it’s July? True on both accounts.

Last week, I left you hanging with a teaser about an adventure we were taking on Sunday. So, let me relieve your agony from the anticipation.

wpid-20150628_103831.jpgThe Tall Ships Festival in Philadelphia and Camden, New Jersey, took place last weekend, and we decided to take our family out for the day. (We skipped church because I needed a break, which is probably another blog post I could write, but no one had official duties and that hasn’t happened in months. Family time it was!) One of the ticket options was just for entrance onto the waterfronts on both sides of the Delaware River, but that included access to the ferry. Since we’re newbies to the tall ships world, and we didn’t have an entire day to spend there, we took this option. wpid-20150628_124424.jpg Packed a lunch, paid for parking and wandered around on a beautiful day. (With about a billion other people. Lots of people everywhere. And we spent a lot of time standing in line.)

We didn’t tour any ships this time but it was fun to see the artistry of the boats and learn a little bit about their history. While waiting in line for the ferry the first time, we learned that the U.S. Coast Guard boat that was there was a confiscated German boat from World War II and that the French boat Hermione was an exact replica of Lafayette’s boat.

The closest we ever got to it was on the return trip on the ferry. Still, it was a magnificent boat that sets my writer’s imagination running wild and free. (The costumed people walking around did as well. At times, I felt like I could jump into a story from the past if I wanted to!) Maybe it seems like a bit of a letdown that we couldn’t wander all over the ships or even get close, but for me, this was great. When else do you get to see sights like this? (The next day, friends of ours vacationing in Cape May saw the boats sailing on their way to New York City, which is another sight I’d love to see!)

wpid-20150628_155418.jpgIn-person adventures always make me more interested in the history of those events and places, so I’m adding to my to-read list. (And we have more places to add to our must-visit list.) The Battleship New Jersey “lives” on the Delaware River in Camden, and we’d love to go back sometime and take a tour.

wpid-20150628_124640.jpgOur kids love adventure, and we decided to not tell them where we were going right wpid-20150628_162311.jpgaway. We drove past the church and asked if they wanted any clues. After a few, they wanted to know what we were doing, so we told them.

It was a tiring day of walking and we had a few moments where we might have regretted our decision (standing in line for the ferry for 45 minutes on the return trip was one) but we know the kids had fun when they played ships and Coast Guard for the next two days.

One attraction at the festival was the world’s largest rubber duckie that stands more than six stories tall. But it had some issues over the weekend and never was able to be inflated. We heard a lot of people complaining about that, and though we were a bit disappointed, the ships made up for it. (A couple of women dressed as pirates engaged Izzy in conversation calling her the “dread pirate Izzy.” I think she’s still beaming from this moniker.)

That was our big highlight of the week.

We also managed to make it to two parks this week, despite the threat of rain. wpid-20150630_091938.jpg

We had a super fun playdate on Wednesday in the city. (And because it was so fun, I have no pictures!) And we went to two library programs: one about reptiles and one about insects. Fun times! The kids didn’t get close enough to touch or hold either one, but both programs were informative and fun.

Another part of our week was a rally night at Chick-fil-a for our Kenya team fundraiser. The kids totally stole the show, running the spinning wheel and instructing people on their winnings. As the trip draws closer (almost three weeks now!) our summer plans are dropping off a bit as we try to keep up with housework and packing for our various travels. (The kids to Illinois; the hubs and I to Kenya.)

Not every day or week has to be jam-packed full of fun, but we’re hoping to make a few more memories together in the coming weeks before the school year is upon us again.

How’s your summer going?


There’s a book for that (TV edition): About a Boy

A few summers ago, I found out some of my favorite classic movies were based on books. (It’s not unusual for books to become movies these days, but for some reason it surprised me about some older works.) That year, I blogged a short series reviewing the books I’d read. You can search for those under the category “there’s a book for that.” Or you can click on the individual reviews at the end of this post.

This year, my discovery has been that a bunch of TV shows I like are based on books. So, I set out to read the books that some of those shows are based on.

about a boyThe first, About a Boy by  Nick Hornby, was a movie, yes, but my husband and I have been enjoying the TV version (NBC) of this story as well. (I love Minnie Driver, and I’m super sad that the network apparently canceled the show abruptly in the spring. Boo!) I don’t remember much about the movie except for Hugh Grant (who forgets Hugh Grant?), which is why I’m opting to include this in my TV-from-books series. (And yes, the cover of this book is from the movie, but this is the one the library had for me to read.)

If you’re unfamiliar, the story is about Will Freeman, a pretty self-centered 30-something guy who lives off the royalties of a hit song. In the book, his father wrote the song. In the TV show, he wrote it. Either way, he’s used to a life of luxury and leisure that revolves around him. He can hardly stand to be around his friends who have children and he’s a womanizer who likes to party. Will’s life is about one thing: Will.

And then he invents a child to meet women at a single parents’ group, and then he meets Marcus, the eclectic 12-year-old son of the even more eclectic Fiona, and they reluctantly start to bond. Will’s relationship with Marcus begins to draw him out of his bubble and forces him to awkwardly and uncomfortably care about other people.

On the TV show, we see this develop bit by bit, and even when I think the show has gone too far in illustrating Will’s lifestyle, there’s usually a redeeming moment when his relationship with Marcus brings him back.

I enjoyed the book because it adds depth to the characters. And even though I think Will is incredibly selfish and lazy, I appreciate the theme that authentic relationships can change us.

Each week this month, I’ll be posting another review of a book that has become a TV show. Next week: Sidney Chambers and the Shadow of Death by James Runcie (Grantchester, PBS).

Interested in the books-to-movies I reviewed? Here’s the list and links:

Mary Poppins.

The Princess Bride.

The Wonderful Wizard of Oz.

Memoirs of an English Governess at the Siamese Court.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes.

When going to Kenya doesn’t make sense

In less than a month, we’ll be on our way to Kenya, and that scares and thrills and excites and terrifies me. wpid-img_20150507_163444.jpg

We’ve been dreaming and planning and thinking about this for about a year and nothing about this trip makes sense. Not really.

15 people taking almost two weeks out of their summer to travel halfway around the world to a continent that is not exactly safe and is certainly foreign in every sense of the word to visit missionaries and serve the students at a school is madness really. It would be so much easier to go to the beach.

If you’ve known Phil and I for any length of time, it won’t surprise you that we do things that don’t make sense.

If we did, then we would have turned around and went home when I wrecked his parents’ car on the way to Pennsylvania the first time, when we were searching for clarity of Phil’s call to ministry, before we were even engaged. We would have gotten married before he deployed to Iraq with the Army. We would have stayed in northern Illinois after we got married so Phil could finish his undergrad and maybe looked at seminaries in the Chicago area. We definitely wouldn’t have moved to Pennsylvania without a guarantee of a place to live. We might have waited to have kids until we were “financially secure.” We might not still be married. We probably would have moved home after seminary when we had no job prospects in Pennsylvania.

The list could probably be longer but I don’t want you to think we’ve totally lost it. Maybe it’s too late for that. Following God’s lead looks foolish sometimes.

But back to Kenya.

I won’t go into all the details, but in a lot of ways, it doesn’t make sense for Phil and I to go to Kenya. We don’t have loads of vacation time to spare. Or tons of extra money lying around. We barely know the missionaries we’re going to visit. And it’s been a long time since either of us has left the country. We have young children we’re leaving behind in the competent care of their grandparents. (But I’m still worried about their health and safety.)

It wasn’t a no-brainer decision for us, but it was something we couldn’t let go.

I was sure that God would close the door anyway when we needed money for the deposit by the end of last year. I gave Him a specific challenge for answering that need, which seemed nearly impossible at the time. And He met it. Exactly as I asked.

That was pretty clear to me.

We couldn’t ignore the nudges we were getting from God. Despite our hesitations and excuses.

There are days I still think this is not a good idea. What were we thinking agreeing to this? (Pictures like this remind me that risks are worth the reward. We’re not just going to see beautiful scenery, but that is one bonus.)

The view from where we'll be | Photo by Alyssa Stoltzfus

The view from where we’ll be | Photo by Alyssa Stoltzfus

And yet, God continues to provide and confirm. He is showing us, at least weekly, that He is in this. He brings donors out of the shadows of our lives–people I would never think of to ask for money are giving generously and sacrificially. Our kids are excited for us and eager to tell others about our upcoming trip. Sometimes I think our daughter wishes she could go. Maybe next time. She’s only 7.

We have a cadre of prayer supporters and while I can’t speak for anyone else on the team, I feel like we’re going to need them. Since we signed up for this trip, we’ve had more troubles in our life than I expected from this year. I try not to blame Satan for every bad thing that happens, but in this case, I’m wondering if there’s an element of spiritual warfare to our fears and discouragements and problems. It could be coincidence, but I’m not sure I believe very firmly in that either.

I wish I could tell you exactly why we’re going to Kenya. Maybe it will be clearer when we’re back. Maybe I’ll never be 100 percent sure. All I know is we couldn’t ignore this press from the Lord and when we stepped out in the uncertain places, He made it more certain.

We will work at the school, assisting with buildings and grounds projects while the students are away. We will support these students whose families give them into the care of the boarding school while they serve the Lord in other parts of Africa. We will visit and encourage and enjoy this missionary family (and we will bring their daughter/sister to them). We will meet Kenyans and worship with them, the same God on a different continent. And we will see things we can only imagine–the beauty of a land half a world away.

If it was up to me, we’d go to the beach for a week. Or rent a cabin in the woods. Or take a week to spend with family back home. We could have made any of those decisions for our summer. But it wasn’t what we were meant to do.

For some reason unknown to us, we’re meant to go to Kenya this year.

If you want to find out more along with us, you can sign up for our monthly newsletter here. No purchase or promise necessary. And if you’d like to be on our support team, for prayer or financially, you can e-mail me at lmbartelt (at) gmail (dot) com for more information.

July 2015 seemed so far away  when we turned in our deposits. And now it’s almost here.

Let the journey begin!

Summer fun week 3

This week, we broke our streak of having our horrible, no-good day on Saturdays, and it came on Friday instead. We attempted to clean the house, the children and I, and let’s just say, we failed in our mission. (And in the process used all the dish soap before many of the dishes were clean and accidentally spilled water on one end of the couch, splashing the laptop in the process. If there’s any place I freak out about water being spilled, it’s near the computer because that’s where my words are kept!)

Our cleaning misadventures landed us at Chipotle for dinner because I couldn’t deal with the kitchen or our diminishing food supply. (We only have two kids who live here–where does all our food go???)


But our week wasn’t all tears and sadness. After all, it was VBS week at a local church. Daytime VBS, no less. (There was much rejoicing, yay!) So I had a few hours to myself on four mornings and it was just the break I needed. I even snuck in a breakfast date with a couple of other moms whose kids wpid-20150624_110630.jpgwere at the same VBS. Our shared love of breakfast bonded us. And we had a great time just hanging out and talking about nothing and everything.

After day 1 of VBS, Phil and I had an appointment to get our travel shots for Kenya, which is happening exactly one month from today. (Commence freaking out!) I will not include that among the “fun” in our week because I hate medical stuff and spent significant time for the rest of the week wondering if I was experiencing any kind of weird reaction to these shots. (And wondering more if I was going to be paranoid about every health symptom for the next year after going to Kenya. Pray for me? I’m more than a little bit of a hyponchondriac.)

But after we got that out of the way, we took the kids to the science and nature museum here in town. We had a free family pass to use by the end of the month, so we thought a couple of hours there would do us all some good. (The only down side is we missed the dinosaur exhibit by a day! They were literally dismantling it while we were there. Sad.)


Phil and the kids dug through these explorer boxes looking at rocks and shells and antlers and skulls while I sat in front of the bee hive mesmerized by the activity. There was a ton of hands-on stuff for the kids. At one point our son yelled, “We’re doing science!” I had to laugh.


wpid-20150622_143135.jpgHere, Phil and the kids are looking at a map of our county trying to find our house. I think they succeeded in getting close to it. We also looked at snakes, turtles, lizards, and bugs behind glass, which is my favorite way to experience those sorts of creatures.wpid-20150622_145926.jpg

And speaking of creatures behind glass, the museum has a frightening-yet-fascinating collection of stuffed (taxidermy) birds. If you have any fear of birds, this would be a nightmare, but it was the kind of display Phil and I could have spent a lot more time looking at. The kids had trouble taking it all in. Also in the basement was a rock and mineral collection that astounded me. So many variations and colors inside the earth. Amazing.

Because of VBS, I didn’t plan a lot of extra activities for the kids this week, though Izzy started her summer reading program at school which was a chaotic and fun evening in a school that felt a billion degrees warm.

wpid-20150626_122653.jpgOur garden was a great source of entertainment this week as well. A storm knocked our jalapeno plant over so I had to frantically try to repair it as the rain ended. And one day the kids came screaming inside, “Come look! Come look!”

Our pepper plants (not pictured) have tiny peppers on them and the kids were ridiculously excited. I get it. Because our garden is doing what it’s supposed to be doing. This cucumber plant, especially, amazes me. Not long after we planted it, we thought we were going to lose it. It just wasn’t thriving. And then all of a sudden it took off and it’s a monster.


Our week was a little more low-key than some of the first weeks, but we have a super secret surprise adventure planned for the kids tomorrow. I can’t tell you yet what it is but here are some clues: water, a large rubber duckie, and sails.

Check back next week to see what we fun we had!



Stories of Friendship: The more things change, the more they stay the same {guest post}

Occasionally on Fridays, I post stories of friendship–mine and others’. Today is a story from a former co-worker, Beth Heldebrandt. She was my boss, technically but she wasn’t bossy and we sometimes had lunch together, so she felt more like a friend. Read what Beth has to say about friendship! (And if you’d like to share your own story, send me an email: lmbartelt (at) gmail (dot) com.)

I can’t remember the day we met because my memory doesn’t go back that far, but I know that it was just after I had proudly learned how to tie my shoes. Dawn, Beth and I were three of the 10 girls in our small Catholic school kindergarten class (there were 16 kids in the class total, and three of us were named “Beth”). That was more than 40 years ago (40!), but as the saying goes, the more things (and people) change, the more they stay the same.

I was reminded of that phrase a few times recently when the three of us drove to the East Coast (and beyond) to spend a week in a beach house at Hatteras Island, N.C. I think we all had our moments of nerves in the weeks leading up to the trip. While I had spent time with each of them over the years, the three of us hadn’t spent any measurable time together since college. And now we were going to spend an entire week together? And more than 35 hours in a car?

beth's beach friends

“It’s the same old Beth,” I told Dawn when she expressed her excitement and anxiety a week or so before the trip. “It’s the same old Dawn,” I told Beth, in turn. But, I admit, I also wondered how our adult personalities would mesh on such a trip.  I thought, “Am I the same old Beth, too?” I didn’t think so.

Let’s face it, a lot has happened to us in 40 years – career changes, moves, marriages, divorces, births, child rearing, deaths, and all of the joys and stresses in between.

But in the end, I was right about one thing – life had certainly changed each of us, but deep down, we were still the same.

Within a few hours of the trip I felt that our old friendships had re-formed, and the past four decades were a blur. Despite all the curveballs that life had thrown us, we were still the same people at the core. The morning person was still a morning person. The night owls were still night owls. We were (in turn) bossy, sassy, anxious and moody.

But with Dawn and Beth, there was no need to be polite – we simply called each other on our issues the way lifetime friends can (and we took advantage of plenty of alone time, too!). We bickered and debated and laughed – and by mid-week we all admitted to feeling more relaxed than we could last remember.

A trip like this is full of reminiscing, together and on our own. Dawn, Beth and I were classmates through high school graduation, and then Dawn and I were roommates for four years of college. I remember Beth coming to visit us at our college and us going to visit her.

I remember having my first sleepover at Dawn’s house and being confused when I met her mom because I’d never seen a pregnant woman before.

I remember Beth and I shopping for prom dresses and having to be careful choosing the color because we were both dating boys with red hair.

We played basketball together. We were cheerleaders together.  We were in clubs together and hung out on the weekends. We double-dated, drove each other’s cars and broke plenty of rules as teenagers.

We’ll always have the shared fear of Sister Clementine (gasp!), the hours spent cruising Main Street (gas 99 cents a gallon!) and the music of Meat Loaf (“Paradise by the Dashboard Light”!).

The memories are endless, and I’m proud that we now have new ones.

Pieces of history put on display: Review of Maggie Bright by Tracy Groot

Last summer I read a book by Tracy Groot about the Confederate prison camp for Yankees, Andersonville, and I was not the same when I finished. There are certain authors who, when I read their compelling stories of actual historical events, make me angry that I never learned these things in history class.

maggie brightHer latest book, Maggie Bright, gave me the same reaction. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book through the Tyndale Blog Network in exchange for my review.)

In all fairness to history teachers everywhere, there is only so much of history that can be covered in a semester or a year. How do you choose what’s important? So, I’m all the more grateful to writers of historical fiction who bring little-known stories into a place of greater prominence.

Maggie Bright tells the story of the evacuation of Dunkirk in 1940. How the British army was surrounded on the shores of France and bombarded–literally–on the beaches and in the Channel as they tried to retreat. And how civilian sailors came to the aid of the British navy to evacuate the troops, at the risk of their own lives.

It’s the kind of story that gives me goosebumps, as any good story of sacrifice and a banding together of a group of citizens usually does. Maggie Bright is a fictional boat that answers the call.

The book is a great work of fiction in that Groot wastes no pages with long backstory or explanation. Readers are dropped right into the story and have to figure out how these storylines are connected. There is Clare Childs, owner of the Maggie Bright, who is set on figuring out what a thief was after when he broke into her boat-turned-bed-and-breakfast. And there is Jamie Elliott, who is tasked with escorting a mentally damaged captain who quotes Milton from the interior of France to Dunkirk. The latter part reminded me of Band of Brothers at times as these soldiers made their way to the coast with the hope of rescue.

Groot creates colorful and memorable characters through dialogue and mannerisms. The Milton angle on the captain was both amusing and challenging. And the American illustrator Murray Vance, who shows up in England to bail his friend out of jail, sticks out among the more refined British characters.

I loved everything about this book. If you’re a fan of World War II fiction, this is a must-read. It’s unlike any other story from that era I’ve read.