Wednesday, April 6, 2016

An Open Book: Two Wonderful (and Very Different) Catholic Novels

My life, dear readers, is An Open Book today (because I'm linking up with Carolyn Astfalk again, along with a whole posse of enthusiastic bookworms, that's why!).
I have two books to tell you about, two very different books--each very worthwhile in its own way and both highly recommended.

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Last month, I told you I'd started a book that three chapters in had me so captivated, I was sure it would become one of my all-time favorite novels...and that's just what happened.  A Distant Prospect by Annette Young is an absolute delight, for young adult readers and maybe even moreso for adults.  Here is my Goodreads/Amazon review of this extraordinary work of Catholic fiction, a coming-of-age tale populated with unforgettable characters you will grow to love: 


I can’t remember the last time I was as mesmerized by a book as I was by Annette Young’s debut work, a meticulously researched and beautifully written coming-of-age novel titled A Distant Prospect. The story is set in Australia in the 1920's, when there is not a person alive whose world has not been somehow rocked (and more often than not, shattered) by the horrors of WWI. While this historical novel would make an excellent choice for young adult readers, it also held this not-so-young reader captive, I can tell you that! Over the course of a few days, I had trouble putting it down.

Young has created a world to get lost in here, populated by a large cast of exceedingly well-developed and utterly endearing characters. When the story opens we are introduced to a fifteen-year-old Irish lass named Lucy Straughan, a polio survivor and talented cellist, and her altogether wonderful father, a gentle soul and devout Catholic whom she lovingly calls “Daid.” Years ago, they fled war-torn Northern Ireland after Lucy’s mother was tragically killed, and they moved to Sydney to forge a new life for themselves. After arriving, Lucy was struck with polio. She was one of the lucky ones who survived, but now she cannot walk without the help of leg braces and crutches (and on bad days, she’s confined to a wheelchair). Lucy feels like an outsider at the posh Catholic girls’ school she attends on scholarship. Bespectacled, shy, and still shell-shocked from the loss of her beloved mother, she also has an enormous chip on her shoulder due to the disease that has left her a cripple.

Lucy’s life changes for the better when she meets Della Sotheby, a sweet-natured girl who comes from a privileged home. Della’s friendly persistence finally breaks down Lucy’s defenses, and the two girls become dear friends. Then when Mrs. Epstein, from whom Lucy is taking cello lessons, decides to form a quartet made up of Della and Lucy and two other talented girls with whom they go to school, Lucy becomes acquainted with fiery Pim Connolly and enigmatic Pheobe Raye.

The four girls bond musically—with Della playing first violin, Pheobe playing second violin, Pim playing viola, and Lucy playing cello—and eventually, they become much more than just musical partners. All four of them have unique crosses that they’re carrying and suffer under the weight of family secrets and tragedies powerful enough to destroy anyone. As they help each other through trials and share each other’s sorrows and joys, each girl’s life is forever changed by their friendship.

There was so much that I loved about this book. Young’s prose is impeccable, and the dialogue between her characters rings utterly true-to-life. There is a large cast of characters in the story, but each has been so deftly created by the author that it’s not hard to keep track of them all (and to fall in love with them all as well). There is the Irish component, too, which invariably delights me. (I absolutely love that Young has Lucy and her dad conversing in Irish—although I don’t understand a word of it!) If you’re a musician, you’ll probably devour all the scenes where the girls are learning how to play together. But even if you’re not musical at all (like yours truly), those parts of the novel are nonetheless captivating and inspiring.

A Distant Prospect is a Catholic novel, to be sure, with references to nuns and Rosaries and sacraments and whatnot, and it tenderly reveals the way the Faith can impact souls; but it is not just for Catholics. I think this book would appeal to a reader of any faith, as its themes are universal. Throughout this engaging tale, Young illustrates the complexity of the human condition—because no one in this book is perfect (with the possible exceptions of Della Sotheby and Lucy’s dad, Morgan, who are as close to saints as any human can hope to be); like all people, they have strengths and weaknesses, and they don’t always behave the way they should. But running throughout the story is the message that no matter what has come before, there is always the opportunity for forgiveness and redemption. And even after enormous suffering, there can be happiness.

It was a joy to see Lucy grow and evolve by the end of the story, from a somewhat bitter girl who has put up a wall around herself and judges books by their covers to an empathetic and charitable young woman who can see beyond the surface and find the good in others. And I don’t want to give any spoilers here...but there just might be a sweet love story, to boot—a chaste one that is perfectly appropriate for teen readers, but even made my middle-aged heart go pitter-pat. But that’s all I’m going to say about that—because I want you to read this book!

A Distant Prospect is now on my list of all-time favorite novels that need to be re-read and re-enjoyed, so I unhesitatingly give it five out of five stars. Highly recommended.



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I was also privileged to receive an advance copy of Therese Heckenkamp's latest book, After the Thaw, which was officially released yesterday.  It is a sequel to her very popular Christian suspense novel, Frozen Footprints (a recipient of the Catholic Writers Guild Seal of Approval and a finalist for the CWG's Catholic Arts & Letters Award).

Therese and I have been corresponding for years. I am fortunate to be able to call Therese my friend (pen pals can be friends, right?).  This kind and generous young woman--a busy mom of littles and a fierce advocate for Catholic fiction on the Internet--was one of the first contacts I made back in 2012, when I had no idea how to market and promote my first novel, Finding Grace.  Without even reading it, Therese took a chance on me and listed it on her Catholic Fiction website, and later read and reviewed it as well.  Before Erin's Ring came out, she agreed to read and review a pre-publication copy; so I was just tickled to be able to return the favor for her with After the Thaw.  This edge-of-your-seat thrill ride couldn't be more different than Annette Young's slow and gentle tale, which is more the type of novel I'm normally drawn to; yet it is more than just your average secular thriller, for it also has lots of faith, hope, and love woven into the suspense-filled plot.  Here is my five star Goodreads/Amazon review:


Fans of Therese Heckenkamp’s Christian suspense thriller Frozen Footprints, originally published in 2012, have been eagerly awaiting a sequel—myself included! With the recent release of After the Thaw, Heckenkamp has delivered a fast-paced roller coaster ride that not only keeps the reader compulsively turning pages to see what happens next, but also provides satisfying closure to the story of her endearing and long-suffering heroine, Charlene Perigard, the young heiress who was kidnapped with her twin brother Max in Frozen Footprints. Once I started this book, I had trouble putting it down.

If you’re a fan of plot twists and turns that are just about impossible to predict, this book is for you. If you like to be inspired by courageous and spunky characters who never give up in the face of almost insurmountable odds, this book is for you. If you are moved by stories that show how faith can make even the most terrifying, tragic, and painful experiences bearable, this book is for you.

After the Thaw
is a thriller that features some unspeakably evil characters and some scenes of violence that are disturbing and chilling—and that sort of thing isn’t usually what I look for in a novel; but it is so much more than that. Believe it or not, this suspenseful novel also contains a sweet love story—one that will keep you guessing until the end, just like the rest of the plot. Charlene has two possible suitors: noble and gentlemanly Ben, a firefighter who desperately wants to marry her and give her the peaceful life that has thus far eluded her; and heroic and brooding Clay, who has served some jail time and whom readers of Frozen Footprints will remember as the younger brother of Charlene’s deranged kidnapper in that book. Ben and Clay are both essentially good guys, so it’s hard to decide which of the two men should win her heart. But without giving any spoilers, suffice it to say that I was very happy with the way things turned out.

What makes this work of fiction truly extraordinary, however, is not the surprise-filled plot or the satisfying romance; what sets it apart from the pedestrian thriller is the way it illustrates the beauty and power of the Catholic Faith. Faith played a huge part in Frozen Footprints (which received the Seal of Approval from the Catholic Writers Guild and was a finalist for their Catholic Arts & Letters Award), but not in a way that was preachy or in-your-face. The same can be said of its sequel. In the military, they say that “there are no atheists in foxholes”; and when Heckenkamp’s characters are battling for their very lives, they do indeed rely on God for strength and courage. They turn to the Blessed Mother, finding comfort by praying the Rosary and feeling wrapped in Her loving embrace. And even hardened ex-con Nails, the diabolical monster in
After the Thaw whose goal is to make life a hell on earth for Clay and Charlene, has a conscience that is sometimes nagged by memories of what he learned while living with the devout Catholic family who took him in as a foster child after he was rescued from his abusive mother. This well-written page-turner tenderly illustrates the possibility for redemption, even when it comes to the most hardened sinners. Catholics will surely be pleased to see the tenets of their Faith so beautifully evoked in After the Thaw; but this book should appeal to readers of any faith, as its themes are universal.

I think this sequel could stand on its own, but I don’t know if I would have enjoyed it as much as I did if I hadn’t read
Frozen Footprints first. So if I were you, I’d get my hands on copies of both of these exciting novels as soon as you can. I guarantee that once you get going, you won’t be able to stop until you turn the last page of the sequel.

Bravo, Therese Heckenkamp!
After the Thaw is another home run hit!

(I received an advance copy of this novel from the author, in exchange for an honest review.)




Now head on over to the link-up see what books others have had their noses in this past month.  Happy reading!

13 comments:

  1. I also loved After the Thaw. My heart just ached for Charlene through much of it. I'm intrigued by A Distant Prospect. When I think WWI, I don't think about Australia, so it strikes me as interesting right off the bat. Thanks for linking up this month!

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    1. I really LOVED it. And I've corresponded with the author, who told me that a sequel is in the works! It will be set in the WWII era, a period that has always captivated my interest; I can hardly wait to read it!

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  2. I'm not much for suspense books but A Distant Prospect is going on my 'want to read' list!!

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    1. I'm really not a suspense person, either. But I love promoting Therese's work, because she actually shows the Catholic faith at work, fortifying believers who suffer violence at the hands of evil people.

      I think you'll love A Distant Prospect. I feel like it's one of those gems that not enough people have heard about.

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    1. You won't be able to put it down. :)

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  4. Laura
    I LOVED both these reviews! Totally riveted, thank you for sharing. I now want to read them both. Last St Nick I have Frozen Footprints to my 16yr old lad and he had lots to say about it, I'm sure he'll appreciate the sequel, now to decide do I make him wait till the next St Nick's or surprise just cause.

    btw love the green for your blog facelift, do think it more 'you'. and see your youngest has a blog, have popped him in my feedly to follow.

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    1. Hi Erin! Thanks! I've been feeling a bit rusty as a writer lately, and worrying that I can't do the books I've been reviewing justice. So I'm glad that these reviews made you want to read these two books.

      I think I like the green better, too. (As my sister commented, it matches the sweater I'm wearing in the picture up there!)

      Our youngest son is such a good writer. I've told him that he's the real writer in the family!

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    2. Just spoke to my 16yr old and told him there is a sequel. His instant response was "thank goodness" the ending in the first was a cliff hanger. He wants me to get it post haste

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  5. What great reviews! I just saw Therese's announcement about her new book, and I hadn't read the first one yet. She said the same--you don't HAVE to read the first one first but it will help. So both of them are on my list :) And I purchased "A Distant Prospect" before I even finished reading your review. Now to stop myself from diving in before I get my work done today...

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    1. Hi Barb!

      I am always so happy when I can do my small part to help promote the work of Catholic writers! I think they're doing so much good out there, when so much modern fiction is totally inappropriate for readers of any age. I hope you enjoy these books!

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  6. The only problem with these book link ups is I have an ever growing "books to read" list! And yes, penpals are definitely friends.

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    1. I love my internet friends! I think that's one of the reasons I keep on blogging. :)

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