Rooted in reality: Review of Promise to Keep by Elizabeth Byler Younts

I’ve made it no secret that I have a like-dislike relationship with Amish fiction. It is not my favorite genre in general, except when I find a series or an author that changes my mind about the genre as a whole.

And the books Elizabeth Byler Younts has written fit that latter description. Her three-book series, The Promise of Sunrise, has a unique slant–it is Amish fiction set during World War 2 and addresses the tension of a country at war and a community committed to peace.

promise to keepThe final book, Promise to Keep, released this week, and its story centers on a young unmarried Amish woman who has been raising the deaf daughter of an active-duty soldier. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher in exchange for my review.) Esther Detweiler has been raising Daisy, the daughter of her shunned cousin, since the girl’s mother died. When Esther’s grandmother dies, she and Daisy are all they have left of family. Until Daisy’s father returns.

Joe Garrison is home from war, but the war haunts him, especially at night. He wants to be a father to his daughter, but she has no initial connection to him. As Joe and Esther work to bring father and daughter back together, their feelings for each other grow beyond the love they both have for Daisy.

Though the story started a little slow for me–which isn’t unusual for Amish fiction; I find the pace is often slower, a reflection, I think, of the lifestyle being portrayed–by the middle I was turning page after page, wondering how this was going to work out for everyone. I so appreciate the perspective of someone like Younts, who does not tell a rosy, all-is-well story without conflict or realism, and who has the family heritage–she was Amish as a child–to lend credibility to the setting and culture. Both of those characteristics are what keep me coming back to her Amish stories. I hope we have more to look forward to.

The other books in the series are Promise  to Return and Promise to Cherish but they do not have to be read in order. (Book #2, Promise to Cherish, was my favorite of the three.)

Love in the Reformation: Review of Luther & Katharina by Jody Hedlund

A former monk and an escaped nun fall in love, marry, have a family, change the world. Truth is stranger than fiction sometimes, and Jody Hedlund’s new book blends both in an impressive historical novel.

Luther and Katharina. The names probably aren’t unfamiliar to you if you have an ounce of church background, or if you saw the movie Luther, starring Joseph Fiennes, that came out 12 (really?!) years ago.

Luther-KatharinaBut the story of their courtship is one I hadn’t read much about. I would want it in no one else’s hands but Hedlund’s. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book from the publisher through the Blogging for Books program in exchange for my review.)

The events surrounding Martin Luther and Katharina von Bora’s relationship are sometimes shocking and unbelievable, but Hedlund assures readers in the end notes that much of what she writes is based on fact. Of course, she takes creative license in arranging scenes for dramatic effect, which is why it’s called a historical novel. In previous books, Hedlund has taken real people and events and changed their names and storylines a bit to tell a romantic tale. (For example, in Rebellious Heart, the characters are based on John and Abigail Adams and their revolutionary relationship but their names are changed.)

I loved the weaving of history, religious reformation and romance throughout the story. The characters were full of life and passion, confronted with danger and forced to make hard choices.

It is a gift, I’m discovering, that someone can take historical events and turn them into stories that are page-turning and applicable to life today. Jody Hedlund has that gift. You don’t even have to be Lutheran to enjoy this story!

I always love a little peek into the author’s world. Here are a few questions and answers about Jody Hedlund and her writing process and life. (And Illinois, friends, I just discovered she has an Illinois connection. Read on to find out what it is!) jody hedlund

You grew up Lutheran. Share with us how your Lutheran background influenced the writing of this book.

Yes, I was born and baptized a Lutheran. In fact my dad was a Lutheran pastor all his life until he passed away. I have an uncle who was a Lutheran pastor until he retired. I went to Lutheran grade school, and my high school alma mater is Lutheran High School in Rockford, IL. I took catechism classes and was confirmed in the Lutheran church. My German and Norwegian grandparents on both sides of my family were strong Lutherans as well. I have a very fond spot in my heart for all things related to Martin Luther since his name and teachings were such an integral part of my upbringing.

It’s obvious that research plays an enormous role in the development of your scenes and the characters that inhabit them. How did you begin the arduous task of researching these two historical figures and the period in which they lived?

One of the first things I do in the early research phase of any of my stories based on real historical figures is I locate as many biographies on the couples and individuals as I can get my hands on. Usually I can get quite a number through my library system. Once I figure out the books that will be the most helpful to me, I usually buy them.

After I have the biographies I spend an enormous amount of time reading through them, taking pages and pages of notes, and trying to gain a realistic grasp of the people and the events that fall within the time frame that I hope to write about (which usually entails the romance relationship–how the couple met, fell in love, and ended up together).

Once I’ve scoured the biographies, I begin the next phase of my research which is to delve into the details regarding the time period and setting. Usually I try to focus on gaining a “feel” for the era. I try to understand the social and political climate. I familiarize myself with wars or other disruptions happening during the time. And then I round out my research by studying clothes, food, homes, life styles, etc.

The process is intense and takes me weeks before I’m finally ready to begin the actual writing process.

Katharina von Bora is a name that most people would never connect with Martin Luther. Why do you think it’s important that we uncover and shine a light on some of the forgotten female figures who helped shape the Church?

My goal is to give a voice to the forgotten women of the past. Since most of history has been written by men, unfortunately all too often the accounts neglect to include or minimizes the many women who played critically important roles in the shaping of history.

As a mother of five children and a wife to a husband in Christian ministry, I’ve had a firsthand learning experience of the incredible work load and responsibility that comes with raising a family, being a wife, managing a home, as well as helping do all of the things necessary to provide emotionally, physically, and financially for our family. As I go about this calling God’s given me at this stage in my life, I have a greater appreciation for the women of the past who also struggled through the same issues (but without all of the modern conveniences that I have!).

I believe modern women will benefit from hearing their stories, will be incredibly encouraged to see these women who persevered through discrimination and found the strength to use their God-given abilities to make a difference. Not only did they make a difference in their era, but today (decades and even centuries later) we can see the fruits of their bravery and strength. These women of the past have encouraged me to persevere and to use my skills and talents to make a difference in my time. No matter how big or small that difference might be, I want to be faithful to leave an impact, just as those women did

As you began to read and learn more about Katharina, what particularly captivated you about her?

I was particularly fascinated by the fact that Katharina had once been a nun. And as we know, nuns take a vow of celibacy.

I was curious to know why she’d become a nun in the first place. What led her to that decision? And then what made her later decide to forsake her vows? What was life like for her after escaping her convent knowing that if she was caught and recaptured, she could face persecution and even death for running away? What were her hopes and dreams for her life after she’d denied herself for so long? What was it like for her to interact with men when she’d never before had the opportunity?

All of those questions and more reverberated through my mind. And what I really wanted to know was how she’d ended up with Martin Luther. What brought this couple together? It was a forbidden love during a time of incredible turmoil. It was a love that was never-meant-to-happen. So how did it come about?

What was the biggest surprise in researching this story?

As I dug into the research, the thing that surprised me most was that Luther and Katharina didn’t experience “love at first sight.” In fact, they had no thought of marrying each other. Katharina was a woman of noble birth and Luther a man of peasant beginnings. They were in two different social classes, which doesn’t sound like a big deal to us today. But at that time, social class was extremely important.

After leaving the convent, Katharina expected to marry a nobleman. And even though Luther preached the goodness of marriage and encouraged other monks and nuns to leave their convents and get married, he had no intention of getting married himself.  So, the question begs answering, how did these two opposite people with opposing personalities and aspirations, end up together? You’ll have to read the book to discover the answer!

A faith-plus-fantasy series for the doubters: review of The Sword and the Song by C.E. Laureano

I used to define my reading habits by what genres I didn’t read, and sci-fi/fantasy was always on the list. But well-written stories of any kind are finding their way to not just my reading pile but my list of favorites. And C.E. Laureano’s three-book series, The Song of Seare, is a prime example.

sword and songI just finished the third book, The Sword and the Song, and I’m stunned. (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book through the Tyndale Blog Network.)

Throughout my reading of this series, I’ve written about how surprised I was at how much I liked it. (Read my previous review here.) I didn’t grow up reading the Lord of the Rings series, although I did read The Chronicles of Narnia once upon a time, but I’m rediscovering a love for this kind of faith-based action adventure series set in a world of the author’s imagining.

Laureano’s world is reminiscent of Celtic culture, namely Ireland, and I want to literally applaud her for the names of people and countries that she invented to sound like Irish names but not quite.

But let’s talk about this final book for a moment, and the series as a whole. I did not see the end coming, and it was so surprising that it brought me to tears. You can read a short interview with the author, below, and she talks about some of her decisions in the series. Let me just say this: you will want to throw the book–any of them–across the room because Laureano does not play by the “everyone must be happy all the time” rule. (Is that a rule at all?) Her characters go through realistic drama that tears their worlds apart, but through it all, a thread of hope remains.

I’m sad to see this series end, and if I could ask the author one question myself it would be: Is this really the end?

carla_stairs_full-199x300Here are a few more questions Laureano answered about the series:

Why Celtic fantasy?

I’ve been interested in Ireland for as long as I can remember, maybe because of my distant Irish heritage. I had the opportunity to travel there during college, and I’ve never felt such an instant affinity for a place. While America will likely always be the place I “hang my hat”, I realized that Ireland was my heart’s home. Ever since then, I’ve written Irish characters and settings. But it was only when I started reading books by Juliet Marillier—wonderful historical fantasies that showed the pagan/Christian conflict from the pagan point of view—I knew I wanted to do something similar with a Christian slant.

How much is based on history and how much was made up?

The culture of Seare is very much based on ancient Ireland before the 10th century, but since relatively little is known about that time period, much of it is extrapolated from research done in the 1920’s. (Some of that research, like the idea that the Irish wore kilts, has since been disproven.) But the food, weaponry, law, and social structure of Seare is very similar to how things might have been in ancient Ireland. Of course, the addition of magic changes things, so I got to imagine how the existence of supernatural gifts and blood magic might have affected their culture. I also re-envisioned the faerie mythology from a neutral, mischievous role into something more malevolent.

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

I didn’t want to write a “safe” story where you know that everything is going to be okay and everyone will come out unharmed—because real life isn’t like that. It can be scary and messy and unpredictable. But through it all, if you look hard enough, is the ever-present thread of God’s grace and provision. My greatest wish is that readers come away with the understanding that they have a purpose, that they matter, that God cares for them as individuals and not just as a face in the crowd. I’ll consider my job done if readers walk away with hope.

Visit Laureano’s website to find out more about her and her writing. Books in this series are: The Oath of the Brotherhood, Beneath the Forsaken City and The Sword and the Song. I hope there is more like this series to come from Laureano!

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

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.

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.


The one thing I can’t do with a Jody Hedlund book: Review of Hearts Made Whole

If you pay attention to and read the book reviews on this blog, you already know about my deep affection for Jody Hedlund as a writer. Her books are some of the ones I turn to when I’m in need of a guaranteed good story. Like comfort food, they always offer satisfaction.

hearts made wholeShe has a new book out this month–Hearts Made Whole–and no matter when I start reading or what else is going on in my life, there is one thing I just can’t do with one of her books–stop reading! (Disclaimer: I received a free copy of the book in exchange for my review through Litfuse Publicity Group.)

I can’t do it! My house could be a mess, the kids in need of dinner, chaos reigning all around me and still my nose is stuck in a Jody Hedlund book as I turn page after page to see what will happen to my new friends, er, the characters in the book.

Though I have trouble picking a favorite book she’s written, Hearts Made Whole is in the running for that title because of Ryan Chambers, a broken Civil War veteran who comes to take the job of lightkeeper in Grosse Point, Michigan, and Caroline Taylor, the woman who has been running the light since the death of her father.

Ryan’s struggles with addiction to pain medication and alcohol to numb the pain of his war injury and the demons in his head about past mistakes are heartbreakingly real. And Caroline’s struggle to assert herself as competent in a man’s world is surprisingly modern for a story set just about the Civil War. His desire to change and make amends, her desire to use her gifts to care for her family–well, let’s just say that that theme hits a little close to home.

hearts made whole quote

Hedlund’s stories always teach me something about history, and if you’re a fan of lighthouses, Hearts Made Whole is the second in a series of books she’s writing about Michigan’s lighthouses. It took me a while to catch on that there is a connection from this book to the first in the series, Love Unexpected, and it made me look forward to book three and the tie-in I’m hoping will be there. If you have not read the first book, though, don’t let it stop you from reading this one. (You can also read the novella that precedes the series for free on Kindle.)

And now for some details about how the author is celebrating the release!

Don’t miss Jody Hedlund’s new book, Hearts Made Whole, a story of loss, forgiveness, hope, and true love set in 1865 Michigan. When Ryan’s failings endanger others, he and Caroline realize he’s in no shape to run the lighthouse, but he’s unwilling to let anyone close enough to help. Can Caroline forgive the hurting man who costs her the role she loves?

Celebrate the release of Hearts Made Whole by entering to win an Afternoon at the Beach prize pack and RSVPing to Jody’s June 23rd author chat party!

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One grand prize winner will receive:

One second-place winner will receive:

One third-place winner will receive:

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Enter today by clicking the icon below. But hurry, the giveaway ends on June 23rd.Winner will be announced June 23rd at Jody’s Facebook partyRSVP here!

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