I just finished reading the first book in the Larksong Legacy series, For a Noble Purpose, by Kelsey Gietl. The author describes her writing as "historical fiction with a dose of romance and a dash of intrigue." I thought this story was a perfect fit for this phrase, and the balance of these elements was just right. I personally love stories that are set in real times and places, but I also enjoy a touch of the supernatural or the spiritual. After reading the first two pages, I was drawn into the time period by a writing style that exhibits the skill of a historical fiction author.
The female protagonist, Sarah Walcott, believes herself to be cursed after seven marriages have resulted in seven dead husbands, all occurring on the wedding night before consummation. I was more than halfway through the novel before picking up on the parallel to the Book of Tobit from the Old Testament. The author did an excellent job in using this Biblical story as the basis for the storyline, and I enjoyed the Historical Notes included at the end of the book. The male protagonist, Tobias, is determined to be Sarah's eighth husband--and the first to survive. He believes Sarah is Gifted rather than cursed, and that maybe by two Gifteds coming together in marriage, the streak of deaths can be broken.
The supernatural elements come into the story in the form of the Giftedness of the four brothers. I loved that these Gifts were clearly of a supernatural ability that set them apart, yet not so unbelievable as to be outside the bounds of reality. Tobias is able to build anything in a fraction of the time it would take a normal person. Another brother can sense storms and knows when to warn people to safety. A third can heal any illness or injury through his gift of medical talent, and the other can sense the location of other people with extreme accuracy. I saw these talents as gifts from God in the way that some people in real life are given extraordinary skills. I recently read a nonfiction book about exorcisms, and I learned that some people exhibit certain charisms to sense and recognize demons, which is extremely helpful to the exorcist in driving them out of a possessed person. God's miracles exist, and this book, while fictional, supports a hope in God's presence with us in ways seen and unseen, noticed and unnoticed.
I don't want to spoil the story, but here are a few things I liked best. First, the characters are well-developed and realistic. Even Linden, Sarah's long-dead first husband, jumped off the page to me as a vivid and living character simply because the writing is descriptive and detailed. Second, I loved the real setting. Reading about actual places like Fort Laramie, Independence Rock, a plantation in Charleston, and the Pacific Ocean put me in the actual places, and even had me looking up Independence Rock to see photos and its map location so I could really immerse myself into the setting and imagine the characters in those places. And third, I loved the colorful writing style sprinkled with memorable metaphors. A few examples: "Their chatter roared as suppositions tumbled over each other like rapids falling upon rocks," "his back as rigid as the gate posts they walked through," and "Moist earth clumped atop the coffin one shovelful at a time, a thud for each beat of her rusted heart." This type of language is thoughtfully chosen and not at all overdone throughout the novel. It elevates the narrative to another level.
The novel touches on some difficult topics such as slavery. These are addressed tastefully. As a reader, I could see the characters struggling with these issues throughout the storyline with realistic emotions and reactions.
I very much enjoyed this page-turner and am looking forward to reading more of Kelsey Gietl's writing!
My Review of Three Last Things by Corinna Turner
I absolutely loved this short story. At just 50 pages, it is a quick read, but full of deep meaning. The writing from the perspective of Carl, a convicted serial killer, came across as realistic, and his thoughts on the meaning of life, not understanding/believing in love, and whether God is real were all clearly portrayed through his thoughts and his conversations with a priest who has been visiting him faithfully for a few years. The priest's unconditional love is obvious to the reader even if not at first to Carl, and his last moments as he is prepared for his lethal injection bring all his buried doubts to the forefront of his mind, shocking him with their power when he'd been so sure for years that death would be a welcome escape from a pointless existence.
The author wove in the truths of Catholicism without it being a lesson or essay. Carl's urgency was apparent and real, and the possible mistakes and callousness that can occur with administering the death penalty should give any reader pause, if they have not already thought much about it. Turner has done her research on the method of administration, and that comes through in the details of her writing.
I was rooting for Carl the whole time, which may sound strange since he's introduced as an unrepentant convicted murderer. Turner sheds light on his and all sinners' raw humanity, their fears and longings, showing that what we all seek ultimately is God. The contrasting personalities of the two prison guards brought even more depth to the story. Even a few somewhat unlikely circumstances (warning - spoiler alert!!) such as the priest getting into the death chamber were completely believable as I read because of the writing style--my reaction was, "How could it have happened any other way? Of *course* he got in!" It's rare that I have no complaints at all about a story, but there was nothing lacking or that could benefit from improvement in this gripping, fast tale. I am excited to read the sequel!
My Review of Diary of an American Exorcist by Stephen J. Rossetti
This book was written just as its title suggests: diary-style. Short, varied entries made this a quick read even though it was over 200 pages long. The author is a priest with much experience in conducting exorcisms, and I learned many new things. First, an exorcist usually relies on an entire team, which includes laypeople who sometimes have special gifts with sensing he supernatural.
The main takeaway from this book for me was that demons are real and can weak havoc in the world, but the calm and steady belief that Christ has already prevailed and conquered Satan is what keeps an exorcist strong and able to continue his job. Arguing with the demons, who are already damned and cannot choose good, is foolish, and it instead brings out failings in the exorcist himself. Relying on the name of Jesus and in holy objects that represent him and the saints who were faithful to his teachings—instead of thinking it is his own doing—brings the exorcist eventual success in banishing demons from a possessed person. It is God and not the human instrument of the priest who accomplishes this good. God merely uses the priest as his instrument through which he chooses to work. This of course echoes all Church teaching on the role of the priesthood. The priest is Christ’s representative here on earth and has no power of his own, only that which is granted to him by God—it is the action of God and not man that is effecting any good change in the world.
The “spiritually sensitive” people who were brought in for exorcisms were of special interest to me. They can often see or hear the demons or pick up on things the exorcist might not. It is seen as a kind of charism or spiritual gift that has been granted them for unknown reasons. I did not have a word for this kind of person, but I have been writing a fictional book character who is granted the ability to sense the presence of demons and angels in the world, although he doesn’t fully understand what it is for awhile. Knowing this is a real gift people have gives me confidence to write this character in an even stronger and truer way.
The evidence given by the author is compelling for those who may think it’s all made up. Some of the interference from the demons, the pain they bring a possessed person when confronted with holy words and objects, and the visible and verified reactions that are not human coming from those who are possessed lets the reader know this is real, and evil is powerful if you allow it into your life. It was very telling how many of the possessed had either dabbled in the occult and played around with curses (or had family members who did), or who had participated in grave evil or harmful behaviors to themselves and others such as murder, abortion, drug abuse, and sexual depravity. This should serve as a warning to the faithful not to mess around with any of these things lest they open the door to evil.
There’s something iconic, in a niche sort of way, about a truckdriver-turned-hero. Okay, so something being both iconic and niche is probably a paradox, but anyway... I guess it’s more the idea that an average American guy who does something as everyday as driving a big rig on a redundant route can become the hero of a story. That’s what is iconic – the relatable character who’s nothing special, really. The trucker part is niche. But it’s a premise that got me interested!
I read the first two books of this series more or less over the month of December. Note my Christmas candle and the fun dragon-themed beer from a local brewery. :-)
Tucker Kenworthy (yes, even his name screams average truck driver, and if the puns in there make you shake your head and sigh, well, they probably make him do the same regarding what has seemed to be his destiny since his birth) never really wanted to drive an 18-wheeler for a living, but life circumstances more or less funneled him into it, and we begin the story with a man who does his job out of obligation. He must help support his mother, whose mental and emotional state has slipped since the death of her husband and then the injuries of her son, which have led him to follow in his father’s job rather than pursuing a dream of an athletic career. Tucker doesn’t particularly enjoy his life, but he’s not the kind of guy to balk at his responsibilities. This is one of the things I find most endearing about him as a character: he’s steady, reliable, stable, responsible. And if he’s not ambitious, well, at least he’s an all-around good guy, and ultimately, that’s a great trait to have even when it seems boring.
But Tucker’s life changes dramatically when his routine route is interrupted. He finds Ravinna, a girl on the side of the road, weak and helpless, and as he tries to help her, he is drawn into a quest to slay a dragon. Yes, the drama of the story picks up here with such an unlikely twist, and Tucker, against his normal judgment, follows her into the woods and ends up passing through a portal into another world called Aristonia.
This is what kept me reading: the combination of the two worlds. Tucker is an average American in a fantasy world. I am not typically a reader of fantasy novels—while I appreciate their role and admire the talent of the authors who write them, I often get bogged down in the foreign names and the unknown worlds until I am lost. That is why this fantasy series appeals to me: it combines reality and fantasy. Throughout the book, the story alternates between Tucker and Ravinna in Aristonia and people back in the real world who are concerned about Tucker’s disappearance.
At first, I found it hard to believe that Tucker would leave his own world so easily, without a word to his mother, his boss, or his friends. However, Ravinna is attractive to him on multiple levels, and I am left with the belief that because of her other-worldliness, she had a kind of power over him at first.
My favorite character was probably Flint, Tucker’s friend and mentor trucker, who actively searches for him. The budding romance between Flint and Karla, who is a caregiver to Tucker’s mom, was a sweet touch that served to ground Flint as a more solid person by the end of the story. For those who prefer the fantasy aspects of a story, maybe this wouldn’t be their favorite part, but I enjoyed the switching between the two worlds.
Tucker experiences much growth over the first book of this series, too. In deviating from his normal life, he discovers adventure and a greater purpose while not losing sight of the importance of his role in caring for his mother. His quest in Aristonia boosts his confidence in himself, and he and Ravinna begin to see a possible future together, although their separate worlds are going to keep that from becoming reality right now. One thing might leave the reader confused: it is never fully explained why Tucker was specifically chosen for the role of dragon-slayer from all the men in the world.
The good dragons in this book show the readers that sacrifice is more powerful than brute strength and violence. Ravinna’s strong will threatens to interfere with their plans at the end, but the Christian themes of good conquering evil come through (think Aslan’s sacrifice in the Narnia series).
One criticism I have is that the book could have been edited better to catch punctuation mistakes, but as I have continued reading further into this series, I can also say that it improves as you get into the next book.
The second book in the series, Peak Dragon Uprising, takes us to the other side of the world. A dragon named Tianshi Guang that has come through a portal into Hong Kong and has existed peacefully hidden in a mountain cavern there has begun to awake, with evil intent. Ravinna re-enters our world to find Tucker and take him to subdue the beast before Hong Kong is thrown into a panic.
This books weaves in local lore of dragons and how the people there tell the stories but don’t actually believe dragons were ever real, for the most part. The young protagonist of this book, Winnie, does believe in dragons, and she wants to befriend this one. Lacking acceptance from her parents and peers, she is easily drawn in even when the dragon’s tendencies for evil are obvious to us. Winnie is befriended by Singe, a boy whose father has power as a gang leader. Singe was one of my favorite characters. He was a true friend to Winnie, and he came across as very real to me.
In this story, we learn that Tucker’s family has had an unknown involvement with the dragons for many years. A stone found and given to his mother by Tucker is actually a blood stone from a dragon, and its powers are having a negative impact on Tucker’s mom, Nance, as the dragon regains strength and followers. This gives Tucker an even bigger reason for following Ravinna this time – conquering this dragon will restore his mother’s health, in addition to preventing the world from having an evil dragon unleashed upon it.
The conversion of Tianshi Guang from evil to good at the end of this book shows the power of love and forgiveness. Winnie’s devotion to the dragon softens her heart, and the benevolence of the good dragons in Aristonia comes through again as they heal others both physically and spiritually. Don’t think these dragons are soft pushovers, however. The themes in the book are clear that betrayals are not just forgotten and that temporal effects of sin remain, even though forgiveness and second chances are always available – but one must use one’s free will to ask for these things. I thought these themes were one of the best parts of the story.
My other favorite thing was how the reader is immersed in the setting. Most of the book takes place in Hong Kong, not Aristonia. The author’s familiarity with this location comes through in descriptions of the crowds, the architecture, the landscape, and the foods. This brought an authentic feel to the story. I am a fan of geography and setting, so this appealed to me as a reader who enjoys learning more about real places. Again, the mixture of reality with fantasy is what pulled me in, because realistic fiction is more my cup of tea.
Tucker and Ravinna’s growing romance will be met with an abruptness at the story’s end, leaving the reader wondering what will happen when book three comes out. By this point, we are left rooting for them, as we have seen how Tucker’s steadiness and reliability are a perfect balance to Ravinna’s more impulsive and take-action personality.
I was privileged to be a beta reader for Book Three, Bohemian Dragon Awakening, but I will not give anything away other than to say it is another installation in the series that combines the real world (this time set in the Czech Republic) with fantastical elements and dragon lore.
The following is a snippet of my fiction writing with ties to the Christmas season. It takes place on January 1, 2011, with three characters attending the Mass for today's solemnity inside the chapel of a monastery:
Father Fogarty, the old Irish priest who usually said Mass for the brothers, began with the sign of the cross. Seth held a missal open so his mother and Tess, standing on either side of him, could follow along with the words he’d memorized by now. When they sat for the first reading, Seth finally dared to look up.
The angels were there, innumerable heavenly hosts. His breath caught in his throat as Seth devoured the visual feast, feeling them through all his other senses, and he understood that what he had told his mother about as a child was what was happening to him now—he was feeling the angels, and more than just the glimpse he’d received at the cathedral twice now, more than the fleeting visions blessing him on occasion here in the monastery chapel, but he knew with a profound firmness he was going to notice them for the rest of his life when he entered any sacred space of a Catholic sanctuary. He dipped his head in humility and closed his eyes at the sight that was too rich for prolonged consumption.
During the gospel reading, Seth noticed Tess’s gaze concentrated on the nativity angel perched on the roof of the stable. Father Fogarty finished with the statement that ‘he was named Jesus, the name given to him by the angel before he was conceived in the womb.’
As they sat and Father began his homily, Theresa leaned close and whispered in Seth’s ear, “They sure focus a lot on angels this time of year.” The opening hymn had been Hark, the Herald Angels Sing.
He nodded and swept his gaze across the ceiling above the altar, thinking that Catholics talked about angels all year long. And this was why—they were here constantly, at every Mass, and alongside their charges as guardians every moment of every day. He wondered how he could even explain to her in words how it was all intertwined in him, running through his life, through the ups and downs, his failures and joys. Seth swallowed and squeezed her hand where their laced fingers rested on top of her pregnant belly.
Mary had been a humble, poor girl, the priest was explaining. Her prominence in the religious life of Catholics was due to one thing, he said: Mary had said yes to God. ‘Be it done unto me according to your word.’ She’d suffered much to care for the holy child entrusted to her. Seth felt the profound reality that the woman sitting at his side was accepting a difficult cross, too. Their life would be full of hardships but contain great happiness, too. He saw Tess studying the figure of Mary tucked inside the stable alongside the baby Jesus in the manger, with Joseph leaning protectively over both, and she fingered the Holy Family necklace at her throat. Seth hoped he knew what she was thinking: that this was a mother who was so poor that she gave birth in a stable, and then had to flee from an evil king who wanted her child dead. Seth’s heart raced at the thought of Ace’s threats to their unborn baby, the mournful words of Coventry Carol that they’d sung at the Mass for the Holy Innocents running through him, and he felt dizzy at what could have happened the other night. He dipped his head and gulped for a breath of air.
Tess leaned closer to him. “Are you okay?” she murmured.
Seth nodded. He was okay—now.
As the priest prepared the altar for the Liturgy of the Eucharist and all sang the hymn What Child is This, Charlene turned to her son with a smile. “I like how Catholics celebrate Christmas as a whole season. It’s not such a letdown when all this is still happening a week after December 25th. Maybe I’ll leave the tree up a little longer, after all.”
On his other side, Theresa put her arm gently over Seth’s sore shoulders. “We know what child this is,” she whispered, rubbing her belly. “He’s ours. I can’t believe that you and me have been trusted with something so amazing. I can never be as good a mother as she was.” Her eyes rimmed with tears as she pondered the manger scene.
“But Mary needed him in order to be a good mom, Tess.” The words came from Seth without hesitation, and he assumed it was something he’d assimilated from all the prayers and talks with the brothers over the past many months. “He still had to save her. And this baby has helped save us.” He dipped his head. “Thank God.” His last words shuddered through his lips in a whisper that had him wanting to fall to his knees, and the angels’ praises inundated the air all around.
I just finished reading In Pieces by Rhonda Ortiz, a book that I made the foolish decision to read alongside an 800-page Tolstoy novel with a book club meeting deadline. I had to return In Pieces to the library on its due date, begrudgingly, less than a fourth of the way in. After that, it was checked out for a while (a good sign that others were enjoying it!) and I couldn’t get it back in my hands right away.
But when I did – wow, I got hooked quickly! Once I hit the midpoint of the novel, I could barely put it down. The first half is excellent, but the second half is even better as it draws in the reader – I wanted to know what would happen next.
My favorite thing? The characters. They were some of the most likeable, realistic characters I have read in a long time – more so than the aforementioned Tolstoy characters, actually. Neither Josiah nor Molly were perfect – both were quite real, and the way they interacted with each other felt very much like a real male/female relationship might actually unfold, especially given the time period in which the novel was set. I loved both Josiah and Molly, but Josiah was my favorite. When an author can bring characters to life that the reader truly cares about, then I call that success. Those two characters will live on in my mind. I enjoyed the side characters as well. Everyone had real dimension – no flat characters.
A short synopsis: Set in 1790s Boston, the storyline follows Molly Chase, who has lost both her mother and father in recent years, as she grapples with the impact of the tragedies. Her childhood friend, Josiah Robb, gives her a home in his house with his mother and sister while he stays on his boat (he’s a sailor) to avoid scandal. Molly’s father had taken on responsibility for Josiah’s education and some of his upbringing after his own father died when he was around age nine, so the families already have close ties. Molly wants to support herself through sewing, which is her form of artistic expression (and I loved the clever titles with their double meanings: “Mismeasurement,” “Alterations,” “Josiah’s Suit”), but when she starts to consider an easier way to cease being a burden on the Robb family (her perception, not theirs), the pace picks up and the reader is mentally urging Josiah to get back home, and quick! I won’t tell the rest so as not to spoil it for those who haven’t read it!
A great part of reading this novel was watching as both characters try to do the right, responsible thing based on their own perceptions of the situation and their male/female differences in approaching problems. Molly’s ignorance of Josiah’s true feelings for her made for a more interesting story, and his tenderness and tact towards her showed he was a true man. Josiah’s questioning of faith was woven into the plot beautifully and came across as important but not obtrusive to the flow of the rest of the story, and I hope to see where his questions take him in the rest of the series. The mentions of how he has been speaking to his deceased father – and how that disturbs his mother - have me intrigued to learn more, too.
Finally, the historical details painted a great backdrop to the story. It was clear that the author put research into the writing process to give an accurate portrayal of the setting. Historical figures appeared as minor characters and were mentioned throughout, making the novel a fantastic piece of historical fiction.
I will be purchasing a copy of this book despite having read the library’s copy, because it is just too good to not own it so as to be able to return to it again and share it with friends and family. Can’t wait for Book Two!
Trucker horror? Yes, please!
The big rig with skull and crossbones on the cover of this book and its play-on-words title had me – I wanted to get a copy and find out what it was about. Halloween/All Souls seemed the perfect time of year to read it. Frightliner and Other Tales of the Supernatural by Colleen Drippe and Karina Fabian is a short story compilation. My favorite two stories were, not surprisingly for me, the trucker stories: Frightliner and Accidental Undeath.
Frightliner is the first and longest tale in the book and was excellent. The protagonist, a truck driver named Jay, is an average guy who believes in God but doesn’t put much thought or effort into it. When he finds himself pursued by another truck that few people can see, the reader sees his weak will and the feeble efforts he makes against what I can only presume to be a demon or even the devil himself. He is fortunate to meet a couple of friends along his drive, Miguel and LeRoy, who help him fight in the spiritual attack. Catholic elements come into play, including a rosary, stained glass, and holy water. A great line from this story: “And maybe even if he didn’t have faith in God, God could have faith in him,” followed soon after by Jay’s declaration of, “I didn’t do anything. It was all God.” The diversity of the characters in this story also serves as a reminder to how universal the Church is and how demonic attack doesn’t discriminate – all are subject to it, all can have weak wills which need fortification. This story reminds us why Christ left us his Church – to wage war against sin and the devil and to lead us to reliance on him so we can one day be in heaven.
Accidental Undeath, while much shorter, packed a powerful punch in its message. A trucker-turned-vampire has to make a sudden and heart-wrenching decision. Told in first-person, we don’t even get his name, but his struggles to do what is right despite his condition come across as very real. Maybe that sounds funny since he’s a vampire, but his self-talk, his attempts to justify what his vampire instinct is telling him to do, seems very human, and ultimately, we are left with a cliffhanger as to his decision, which I thought was the best way to end this story. Showing his decision, no matter which he chose, would not have left a satisfying ending, in my opinion.
I am not going to detail the other three short stories since I wanted to focus on my favorites. Be aware that there is some crass humor, especially in the last story which was a bit too much for my personal taste (although some still had me laughing out loud) – but then, the idea of zombies really bothers me already, so I am probably not the best one to comment on a zombie story. There is a little gore and some profanity throughout the stories, but I think it was well-placed, personally, and I don’t flinch easily at that sort of thing anyway.
I never thought that Catholic trucker horror fiction could be a subgenre, but this reader sure hopes there’s more of it out there!
I finished reading A Bloody Habit by Eleanor Bourg Nicholson a week ago, and I thoroughly enjoyed delving into the Catholic horror genre - what, you didn't know that was a thing? My recommendation - read Dracula by Bram Stoker before you pick up this novel. Set in the same time period and with a fun brief appearance by Stoker himself, this novel's parallels with Dracula are part of what makes it so good.
I will start off by saying that somehow I missed the fact that this novel had ties to Bram Stoker's novel. I have begun to read more Catholic fiction in the last year, saw this as recommended in several places, and asked my local public library to purchase a copy. When they did and I checked it out, imagine my surprise at finding its relationship to Dracula, a classic novel that I had only recently read for the first time. Reading this book a half year later was a nice follow-up.
Each chapter begins with a quotation from Stoker's novel, but the story itself is very much an original. The writing style made me feel like I was in the actual time period of early 1900s England. The fact that many of the characters were reading and raving over Dracula - and that the protagonist obviously scoffed at their enthusiasm over what he believed to be foolishness - drew me in right away. John Kemp's skepticism worked perfectly within the plot of the novel, giving him room to grow into a faith in something bigger than himself and beyond his typical trust in reason alone. He was an interesting and likeable character.
My favorite parts as I was reading Nicholson's novel on the tail of Dracula were when Father Thomas Gilroy's comments voiced thoughts I had entertained myself as I read Dracula from a Catholic perspective - namely, when he talked about "that putty nonsense" and when he corrected Stoker's mistaken use of the term "indulgences." I too corrected the text as I read - "that's a dispensation, not an indulgence!" I felt as if I shared a common understanding with the author.
The characters were well-developed and believable. The writing quality was superb. I enjoyed this novel on many levels, both as intellectual reading as well as entertainment. One part that touched me greatly was the compassion with which Father Gilroy assisted Adele Lawson at her death - Kemp was almost angry that the priest "didn't do anything," and yet, it is gradually made evident that the vampire-slaying priest is battling demons in a more dramatic yet quiet manner. The calm power of the sacraments was made evident without the novel coming across as preachy. Well done!
Do you ever see yourself in a book character? Identify with him or her in a personality trait or a personal struggle or a major worldview?
Over on Instagram (@authorerinlewis), I’m posting glimpses into the characters of Firetender on Tuesdays. I love these characters – but not because I made them up. They truly took shape without conscious effort on my part, other than contemplating them. I love them because of their humanity.
We love fictional stories not because they are real, but because we can empathize with characters and situations. Even in a book with personified animals or inhabitants of another world, we look for that human touch and the human problems woven throughout the story’s plot.
You may be a 40-something married-with-children female like me, but can you relate to 19-year-old Dallas Malone, who thinks he can keep his life together if he just maintains control? Or how about 17-year-old Channing, who is tired of being afraid and weak and searches for something more, something that infuses meaning into his life? Or perhaps mid-70s Father Benedict, who sees what sinful mistakes do to people and must decide the best balance between chastisement and sympathizing? Or are you John, who never thinks much about his life but accepts God’s existence as a simple and everyday fact? Or maybe Murphy, who lives a quiet faith as he tries to create a more positive environment to balance his co-worker’s harsh correction of others? Maybe you’re Adam Smith, ready with a smart-aleck response for everything but good at heart deep down.
You may never find yourself with no home, and you may not make a snap decision to drive off into nowheresville when faced with your problems. You may not get into fistfights to protect others. You may never face a night in a homeless shelter, your car, or a prison. But everyone’s life contains crosses that must be borne. Are we willing to face those challenges and ask the hard questions of ourselves, acknowledging God’s power and goodness over all humanity? God is in every story, whether it’s intentionally Christian or completely secular.
At the end of the day, God is what each person seeks. So pick up and book, lose yourself in a story, and find Him as you identify with the characters.
I don’t typically read romance novels, but as a Catholic wife and mother of teenage daughters, I was interested to see what this genre could be when written through a faith-based lens. A few months ago, I read Stay with Me by Carolyn Astfalk.
I really enjoyed the opening of this book because it was sweet and simple and humorous, taking place in a grocery store when Rebecca, a young lady babysitting her niece and nephew, runs into Chris for the first time. The realistic setting worked well and made the characters relatable. In fact, the setting was woven under the entire plotline, and it was clear that the author loved Shenandoah National Park based on its prominence in the story.
The descriptions of the characters’ time spent in Shenandoah particularly endeared me to the story because I write in the contemporary realistic fiction category, and introducing readers to the realistic parts of a setting, particularly ones that have either historical or natural significance, is something I do intentionally. Even if I haven’t traveled to a certain location, I want it to be real, so with the help of the internet – Google Maps in particular – I love getting to know a place as well as possible as I weave it into the setting of a novel.
This may be based on stereotypes, but it’s my understanding that many people who want to read a Christian romance novel are looking for the exact opposite of what the typical secular romance contains. I’ve seen the word “clean” used in descriptions of romance novels so that readers understand that they won’t be seeing sinful sexual behaviors being described in graphic detail or glorified as good, normal, or beautiful. However, in order to be realistic while also telling a story, there must be struggle. Astfalk does this in her novel. She avoids graphic details, but her characters do make mistakes, and then they learn from those mistakes. This is what I appreciate most in this book – the realistic acknowledgment that humans can be tempted, sometimes fall, but can be redeemed afterward.
The relationship of the priest character’s relationship to both Rebecca and Chris was slowly revealed and helped the reader to understand some of Rebecca’s past. I appreciated his role as mentor and the sound advice he gave while not coming across as a preachy character inserted for that purpose. His role was realistic.
Rebecca’s sister, Abby, provided comic relief, in my opinion – and she did it well. I read some reviews on Amazon in which she was called ‘inappropriate’ because she had no filter – and that’s true, but it doesn’t mean she should have been left out of the story, because she fulfilled her role as a character well, in my opinion. Because of her love for and support of her sister, you couldn’t help but enjoy her even when she made crass comments. Her inclusion gave variety to the story.
Rebecca's father played the role of antagonist. Some of his behaviors seemed a little unbelievable, but then, I haven't dealt with a family member who has an open hostility to my faith, so maybe some can truly be that cruel and ignorant. I would have liked to see a little more insight into their relationship, maybe showing more of the past or something that would have developed her father further.
I appreciated this novel as a light fictional story that actually covered some deep moral theology. As I have been revising Book Two in the Chalice series – Enkindle in Me, covering the moral ground of presenting sexual temptation and sin realistically in fiction has been a focus of mine. Ignoring the fact that temptation exists isn’t realistic (nor does it make for an interesting plot), and I love a protagonist who struggles with challenging decisions that eventually lead to his triumph in the end. The fine line of wanting a reader to recognize and be uncomfortable with sin while not giving scandal – that is a real challenge for a Christian fiction writer. I don’t want a reader scandalized, but I do want them to squirm a little at situations which they should see as wrong.
Finally, this was a book that was pretty easy to keep reading – always a plus when a story keeps you engaged enough that you want to pick it back up again so you can find out what will happen next. It left me interested to read the next book and get a closer look at some of the other characters.
I was excited to win this novel in a giveaway through the author’s newsletter, and despite the various other obligations I had going on at the time a few weeks ago, I picked it up and began reading, because it looked like it could be a quick read. And it was! I found myself staying up way too late to read over half of the book in one sitting and finished it in the span of just a few days.
Once I’d begun, it was easy to keep turning the pages. The impact of Violet’s past trauma on her present was very believable, and when she had a chance encounter with the man from her past who had been involved in that trauma, the pace of the story didn’t slow down. Violet is a likeable character, and I sympathized with her struggles.
The fact that her ex-boyfriend had become a priest in the years since she’d last seen him threw in more challenging layers of drama. The chance to read another modern fiction book with a priest as a main character was something I appreciated as somebody writing novels starring a priest myself. Seeing priests in fictional stories can make them more 'real' to us as human beings with real lives and feelings (for other ways to make priests more real to you - talk to them! Invite them over for meals! Include them in your own life!). Seeing that this book is the first in a series gives me hopes for further development of Tristan, so we can see why he made the choices he did and what will happen to him. In The Love We Vow, he came across as not taking his priestly vows too seriously, and perhaps he entered into the seminary in an attempt to escape and ignore and maybe even try to make amends for his past mistakes with Violet. Our priests today are bombarded with difficulties and secular noise, so I found myself disappointed when he left the priesthood, but not completely surprised.
I loved the minor character of Tristan’s father. The man stood by his marriage vows even though it was not easy as his wife struggled with alcoholism that impacted their relationship. His talk with Tristan near the end of the book was one of my favorite scenes – his words and example of sticking with your commitments seemed to challenge his son to excellence, and if Tristan grows more as a strong young man, hopefully he will rise to that challenge in the subsequent books, whether he returns to the priesthood or not. The title of the series being Vows for Life has me optimistic for him or for another character to fill the role of a selfless priest devoted to his calling.
Violet’s current boyfriend, Jude, seemed to be all that is good, until his big secret came out just over the halfway point of the novel. Even so, his likeableness had been established in my mind already, so I still found myself rooting for him.
I’ll end this review by asking that people please pray for our priests – we need more of them, and we need to support them and pray for their steadfastness. And pray also for our seminarians, that they discern God’s call for their lives. While seminary formation in recent years has been strong and serious, these young men still need our prayers to help them through. Discernment of either marriage or the priesthood needs to be presented to young people as permanent vows that require a decision made in advance and with full understanding of the commitment. This book is a timely reminder of that.