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.
American literature sometimes contains themes of roaming, travel, listlessness that takes characters on wandering journeys - maybe because America is so vast simply in terms of land mass compared to smaller European countries. Or maybe because Americans are listless.
I've mentioned before that some of the stories that stand out from my younger years involve a physical journey. I loved The Grapes of Wrath when we read it in school. My favorite movie was A Perfect World, the story of an escaped convict running running the law across Texas.
And one of my favorite things to do was take the regular family road trip to Florida. I kept and checked/updated a travel log that contained lists of everything at every exit off I-75. I still have it. And there were always sentimental 80s songs playing on the radio during these trips, so that they have become engrained in my memories as "songs that remind me of Florida." I've checked my memory on this to make sure I wasn't making it up - but I have a strong recollection of riding in the back of the green Ford Fairlane wagon in fall of 1984, looking over the seat and asking my dad why we were going to Florida, and his answer that my grandmother had died. I remember lying back down next to my younger brother (because we didn't have car seats for 2 and 5 year old back then) and feeling sad, with two songs playing on the radio as a backdrop to my little five year old thoughts. Looking the songs up as an adult, I found that both had been recently released and were popular at that time in 1984. I was really remembering those exact songs at that moment when I was only five. Music can play a powerful role in memories.
Driving back to Florida now to get together with family at the same beachfront condominium we stayed at multiple times during my childhood - taking my own children there - is special. Same songs (because I taped them off the radio in the very early 90s and then burned them to CDs from Napster downloads in the early 2000s), same road, some of the same roadside landmarks and businesses, but many have changed.
Although I have always enjoyed restless journey stories, I've been content with repeated drives to the same destinations overall. It's exciting to see new things, but I love the familiarity of a repeated road trip.
We've discovered that today is the travel day for some sports car convention trip between Atlanta and St. Petersburg, Florida. Lucky us - that means we get to avoid multiple speeding crazy people in decal-covered expensive looking cars as we drive the same route today. Interestingly, the Lamborghinis drive the most reasonably. I guess when your car costs that much, you don't take stupid risks with it as much as the people with the Mitsubishis and such. What are they all looking for on their $22,000 nine-day journey? All I know is that I've never seen so many cops along this stretch of interstate before.
Restless travel exists throughout the Chalice series, but especially in Book One. The protagonist is not satisfied with repeated trips, and he doesn't care where he's going as long as it's somewhere new. While it's not a chase for the latest and greatest - he's extremely frugal and from an underprivileged background - it comes from a place of dissatisfaction with his life. When questioned about his wanderings by his best friend, Dallas says, "You know I never go the same place twice if I can help it."
This same drive we're completing today is one I've used in my fiction writing, putting an actual realistic setting to events I've created. A character who we meet in Book Three of the Chalice series, Eric, has taken family vacations to the beach along this route numerous times throughout his childhood, and he is taking a return trip as an adult. So I took this trip from my own childhood and placed a fictional family on the same route, with the same vacation plans. Dallas goes along with Eric's family this time, and the experience gives him a taste of tradition and family bonds, a window into a world where pointless roaming is not the norm.
His search for a destination, a true home, is very literal, but it speaks to a deeper longing inside. Each book gets him a little closer - a little less restless. But it takes him a long time to truly understand and live out a belief in St. Augustine's words: "Our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in you."
The other day, I had the privilege of hearing a brand-new priest’s homily at his first Mass, and a connection struck me regarding something I’d written. The priest’s words were true - nonfiction - and what I had written was a fictional scene for a book. That scene actually got cut from the book – I decided it didn’t fit, but it had provided valuable “pre-writing” that gave me insight into one of the main characters, so it was not time wasted.
Why write Catholic fiction? What are my goals? The connection to the priest’s reference to a flowing stream leading us to our own ascension into heaven and having its source and destination as the same - God - had me marveling at how a fictional character’s wonderings about his own source and destination in relation to a river could point to greater universal Truth. Both of these waterway analogies express the realities of God. If God is the source and summit of our lives, then wouldn’t it make sense that characters in a fictional story are also seeking Him?
Truth, beauty, and goodness. We've all heard them before, but can they be goals of a Catholic fiction writer?
First, I do not write with a goal of making money or gaining notoriety. I’m fortunate that my husband’s income provides for all our family’s needs. Some writers do need the money, and I encourage anyone who enjoys a good story to seek out fiction writers of faith: purchase their books, support their families, put your money where your faith is.
I write because there was a story to tell. There were two characters begging for purpose, for redemption, for God. These are real things that all humans struggle for, whether they recognize it or not. To feel a longing or emptiness that only God can fill, to sense that we were not made for this world in its imperfections, is to be human. Fictional characters, while not real people, have human struggles with which we can identify. We may not experience their same situations, but we can see ourselves in their temptations, their failures, and their yearnings to be better. As they search for Truth, we cheer them on, knowing that we do the same in our own earthly journeys. And the subtleties of absorbing truths by entering into fiction is something that pulls people in as they delight in the action and conflict of the story, mourning with and rooting for the characters.
The world is a hostile place for Christianity. Movies and books - our secular fictional stories - too often want to glorify sin and depravity, or leave God out of the picture entirely. A good story does contain evil. It features sin and temptation and struggle. But the hero comes through it stronger. A Christian fiction story doesn’t mean the protagonists have perfect lives as soon as they recognize and accept God as a reality – at least, they shouldn’t. In fact, the devil often throws obstacles in our paths when we are on the right track, because he doesn’t want us to get to heaven. Christian fiction should feature heroes who make mistakes and learn from them, or who face depravity and sin but fight against their allure, or who experience sorrow with an attitude of offering it up, accepting their crosses to unite their suffering with Christ. Everyone likes a happily-ever-after ending, and that ending should be heaven. It doesn’t mean there won’t be struggle along the way.
My family asked me recently if I would dedicate my first book in this series to anyone. I answered, “It’s dedicated to all young people seeking to follow God’s will for their lives.” The protagonist is a young man, but young women can find truth in his story as well (I think I can say this as a female myself). Anyone who was ever resistant to God as a reality, anyone who has struggled with control issues, anyone who’s made impulsive mistakes, anyone who faced challenges to forgive self and others, and most particularly, anyone who has never considered that God has a specific plan for their lives – my hope is that all can find something to which they can relate. We should see bits of ourselves represented in a fictional character, even in those whose lives are vastly different from our own.
I also write fiction because it is a creative outlet that brings me joy. Losing yourself in a story, revising and editing so much that you really get on a personal level with the characters, knowing them inside and out – I find it personally satisfying. Many people need an outlet, an escape, but it’s not healthy if you find the wrong kind of outlet. Writing fiction is one that produces rather than consumes, gives rather than takes. However, reading fiction consumes, takes. When doing things that entertain – be they producing or consuming – it’s a good idea to ask whether these things can be categorized as the true, the beautiful, and the good.
So, what’s my goal in writing Catholic fiction and having it published? Of course, it is to have people read it. But I hope it will share universal Truth with the readers. I don’t want to promote it so that people will look at me. I want them to look at the characters and the stories and see God working in those lives, just as He works in their own lives. I want them to feel the emotions brought on through fictional characters while seeing that God is in everything – that truth, beauty, and goodness exist in our world, even (and maybe especially) when we must walk through the fire to find them.
In a Far-Off Land by Stephanie Landsem
After requesting several Catholic fiction novels to be purchased by my public library as part of the Stock the Shelves campaign sponsored by Chrism Press, I was surprised to get a message a few days later saying one of those books was already in. When I went to retrieve my book on hold, I found that it had been sent via inter-library loan. Apparently, In a Far-Off Land was already in our system. In fact, there are five copies already circulating in the public libraries in my system in the state of Georgia. Yay!
In a Far-Off Land is a story that keeps you reading. I finished it in about a week, the second half of it in about two days. There is just enough detail given to make you wonder what’s coming next and want to keep going. It is a redemption story – I’m partial to those myself – in which the reader meets likeable characters with flaws who sometimes learn their lessons the hard way. I think my favorite part about the writing style is that it switched between characters, with only the protagonist’s view in first person as she tells her story. We get Oscar’s story told in third person, as well as brief snippets of Mina’s father’s story. Towards the very end of the book, we get Max’s point of view told in first person too, which was unexpected, but it worked well.
My favorite character was Oscar. His loyalty to his family, his sense of duty and wanting to do the right thing, and his assuming of all responsibility for his brothers were appealing traits that drew me to him. I enjoyed seeing him wrestle with wanting to do what was right while not always knowing what that was, and also while struggling with the grudges he’d held. In spite of his grudge against Max and his anger at Mina for falling into his life and throwing everything into chaos (which she truly did), Oscar still made the right choices ultimately. An inability to forgive others was his biggest hurdle and brought mental anguish on himself, and he was able to gradually soften as it unfolded that he’d not always had all the facts of the story to begin with.
A great lost-and-found story, In a Far-Off Land’s prodigal son themes show us that fame and fortune aren’t all they are cracked up to be and that love is a gift rather than something earned or deserved.
Did you know that you can ask your local public library to purchase books? They have funds allocated for this very purpose, so why not visit your library and ask them to put those dollars to good use in buying some literature from your favorite authors? This is a great way to get those new authors or lesser-known novels onto the shelves and into the hands of a wider audience of readers!
The Stock the Shelves campaign, sponsored by Chrism Press, is your prompt to ask for fiction from Catholic and Orthodox authors - books that are often less known to the general public. Some libraries have a place online where you can make materials purchase requests, but the way I did it was to stop by the front desk with a list of about eight different fiction novels by Catholic authors. I asked them to consider making these purchases.
Keep in mind that you can do this year-round! Some libraries are nearing the end of their fiscal years right now, so it is possible they have extra money they need to spend, but asking for books to be purchased in the fall when they have more money available would be a good strategy as well.
You can visit Chrism Press's website to see a list of participating authors - consider asking for one of their books at your own library! As for me, I have no books published as yet, but I hope to be able to get some into the libraries once Firetender comes out early next year.