Friday, April 29, 2016

A Rosary Giveaway, in Honor of Our Blessed Mother

Yesterday, my husband and I got a powerful sign that a prayer had been answered.  We have been putting a special intention into the hands of Mary, Undoer of Knots, praying back-to-back-to-back-to-back Rosary novenas.  We know that we can always count on Her, and we have always had faith in Her power to intercede for us with Her Son.  As usual, She has not abandoned us or let us down.  She has been there for us, through thick and thin, with Her infinite tenderness and mercy...the most loving of all mothers.
In honor of Mary, and of Mother's Day (which is fast approaching!), I am going to give away a cord Rosary made by one of my longtime blogging friends.  (I was going to say "oldest and dearest" blogging friends, but that might have given you the wrong idea; because this twenty-something gal is young enough to be my daughter!)

Sarah makes her durable cord Rosaries in a rainbow of colors.  It is her mission to spread devotion to the Blessed Mother and to the Rosary, and she is doing so through sharing these handmade Rosaries, which have awakened strong feelings in the hearts of even some non-Catholic recipients.  She has made Rosaries for my sons; she has made them for my grandchildren.  When I travel, I pack a Kelly green one that she made for me in my carry-on bag. 

Not too long ago, I won a lovely royal blue cord Rosary through a giveaway Sarah hosted on Instagram; and I decided that I would spread the wealth and give it away on this blog.  It's a beautiful color, as you can see.  Such a vibrant shade of blue--Mary's color.
Sometimes Sarah's cord Rosaries have crosses made of cord;
this one has been finished off with a large silver-toned crucifix.
It is an understatement to say that this family has benefitted
from a multitude of graces (prayed for in a multitude
of Rosaries)!  Thank you, dear Mother.
I am grateful to have this opportunity to share my friend's talents with you, as well as her devotion to Mary, Our Mother.  So if you would like to enter to win this lovingly handcrafted blue cord Rosary, just leave me a comment between now and midnight on Mother's Day.

Good luck and God bless you!

Thursday, April 28, 2016

The Lake...a Horse...and the Meaning of Life

If you've been stopping by this blog much lately, you know that my husband and I have been spending the past week or so at our house on Lake Champlain (the soon-to-be VRBO rental house we purchased last fall and hope to one day, God willing, use as a retirement home/vacation spot for our family).  We've been able to get a lot of projects checked off the list, but there is still much to do to get this place ready for its public unveiling. 

Yesterday, we had a crew here all day long, removing all the old insulation from the attic and replacing it with newer, better, bug-resistant stuff.  We won't be satisfied until Oyster Haven is in tip-top shape--from the basement, right through its two stories, and on up into the attic.  We're getting there.  Bit by bit, we're getting there.

Today, I have lots of touch-up painting to do. Moldings and trims and doors and such.  But here's the problem, as far as me and getting a move-on goes: this is what I'm seeing as I sit at my computer this morning, in my make-shift office at the kitchen table.
As one of the insulation installers who was here yesterday commented, "It would be hard to get much work done with that view out the window."  So very true.

So yes, my husband and I are very blessed--very, very blessed indeed--to have been able to figure out a way to make this beautiful lake house, and the fabulous piece of property on which it sits, our own (thanks to the future VRBO renters whom we are counting on to help us pay for it, before we end up in the poor house!).

But with every life, no matter how blessed and happy, there are challenges and difficulties.  Crosses are a given.  (Jesus told us how we would be sanctified by these crosses when He said, "Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross daily.")  So sometimes my husband and I have wondered if we've suffered enough.  We have been exceedingly fortunate, almost ridiculously so; for in our 35 years of marriage, we have carried fewer crosses than most, and those crosses have seemed to be lighter than the ones others are often asked to carry.  We have remarked on this over and over in the course of our life together; if it's true that God sends the toughest trials to those He loves most (remember that St. Teresa of Avila once jokingly complained, "Dear Lord, if this is how you treat your friends, it is no wonder you have so few!"), then should we surmise that we are not among His favorites, His chosen friends?  Does He know how weak we are, and how incapable of handing anything too difficult?  Do we have the "right stuff" to become saints?

Here's the thing I'm beginning to understand about crosses, though: just as each and every human soul is unique and different, so will be his or her crosses.  And just because right at this very moment, your life seems charmed and easy, you can never know what might be waiting for you down the road.  So to try to manufacture ways to suffer "enough" is pointless, and even wrong.  We are made for joy, and should rejoice about each and every blessing we receive, each gift from God that makes our lives so profoundly happy (our spouses, our children, and our grandchildren, to name the most important of these).  But we should also be ever-ready to handle whatever curve ball God throws into our lives, trusting that His game plan is so much better than any we could come up with on our own--even when it seems like the worst thing that could possibly happen is happening to us.

God knows each and every one of us, better than any other human being can (even a beloved spouse who's been my best friend and confidant, the other half that makes me whole, for 43 years so far): "Before I formed you in the womb, I knew you, and before you were born, I consecrated you" (Jeremiah 1:5).  So if anyone knows what we can and cannot handle, and what unique crosses we must carry in our lives here on earth in order to spend eternity with Him in Heaven, it's God, our Father and Creator. it possible that He has given me heavy enough burdens to carry, at least for now--because maybe carrying them will make me stronger?  And then when I'm further down the road of my life, and I'm faced with a cross that seems much, much too heavy for me, perhaps--because of the muscles I've developed from carrying just as much weight as God thought I could handle at the time--I'll be able to lift it onto my shoulders after all?

Last night, my husband and I got together with my parents, one of my brothers, and one of my sisters for dinner.  This brother and sister both became grandparents for the first time this past year, and they both live close enough to their grandchildren to see them on a daily or almost daily basis.  My sister commented that she hadn't gone more than two weeks without seeing her granddaughter since she'd been born, and that she couldn't bear it if she wasn't close by.

And it hit me: people like my sister might look at me, a grandmother whose darling grandchildren all live a plane trip (or an all-day car ride) away and think, "Well, obviously she can bear it; but I couldn't."  But here's the thing, though: I can't bear it.  It is a situation that is unbearable to me.  Having to go even months sometimes without seeing my sons--those five wonderful boys-turned-men who are absolultely my heart's delight--or their children--whom I adore fiercely and completely--is torture to me. But somehow I bear it.  That is the cross, the uniquely painful, tailor-made burden, that God has asked me to carry--for now, anyway.

It might not seem like much, this burden, when you consider all the alternatives.  There is so much suffering in the world that would have to be considered far more devastating than missing your kids and grandkids.  But knowing how hard this particular cross is for this particular mom/Grammy to carry must be the reason God has chosen it for me.  If I can carry this cross with courage and strength, with acceptance and grace--and allow it to develop my spiritual muscles for whatever might lie ahead--then it could be the best thing that ever happened to me.

But of course it's the best thing!  God only wants what's best for His children, and we just have to trust that He knows what that is better than we do.

Wow...I did not expect to get so philosophical today.  I blame it on the extremely distracting, truly heavenly lake view from the kitchen window, because it got me thinking about Paradise and what that must be like.  And I also blame it on an early morning visit with Buddy, our across-the-street "horse neighbor" (as my horse-crazy three oldest granddaughters call him), because it got me thinking of and missing my grandkids.
And now that I've figured out the meaning of life, I guess it's time to get to that painting chore I've been putting off.  So until next time, dear readers...

Tuesday, April 26, 2016

Updates from Oyster Haven

My husband and I have been busy getting projects done at our Oyster Haven house, making sure that it's ready for its June 1 VRBO opening.  I've been painting, cleaning, shopping for kitchen items and various knickknacks, and decorating; he's been building things out of wood, clearing the beach of debris, hauling trash to the dump, shopping for outdoor furniture and water sports equipment, spreading a floor leveler in a basement room so that he can lay down some new laminate, wow--when I see it in writing, I realize he's been working a lot harder than I have!  But what's new?  He's my hero and he always does the heavy lifting.  (Plus I have a very bad cold, probably a sinus infection...and the sun has been in my eyes, and I tripped on a rock...yadda yadda yadda.)
It has been beautiful here for the past few days.  Here's a recent photo of our view from the back of the house.
Isn't it glorious?  Whenever the water sparkled like this, my mother-in-law used to say that there were diamonds on the lake.  That's a perfect way to describe it.

Last night, as we were sitting in the hot tub after a long, tiring day, taking in this spectacular view (my guy had a scotch on the rocks, I had a coffee loaded up with cream and sugar), we decided that we would get up early today and take our new canoe out for its maiden voyage--as long as the lake was calm and glass-like.

Well, if you live in the Northeast, you know that the weather is about as fickle as a teenage girl.  As the old adage goes, if you're bored with the weather, just wait five minutes and it'll change.

So I woke up this morning, all excited about our planned canoe ride...and I looked out the window and saw big fat snowflakes falling.  That's right: it's April 26, and it's snowing.  As I sit here writing this blog post, the view from the kitchen window is gloomy and gray.  And did I mention that it's SNOWING?!
So the canoe ride will have to be put on hold, at least for another day.

I'm so excited that we'll be able to offer our guests the use of not only a canoe, but two kayaks and a stand-up paddle board.  Before too long, we'll be having a new dock put in.  We've picked out a nice  dining set for the deck and some Adirondack chairs for the yard.  Soon, we'll also be purchasing some comfortable patio furniture, so that people can relax around the outdoor fire pit.  Hopefully, by opening day there will no longer be the threat of snow and guests can enjoy plenty of outdoor sports and activities.  (Even here in upsate NY, winter does not extend into June!!)

While I was figuring out the décor for Oyster Haven, I decided to shamelessly use one of its walls to promote my two Catholic novels, Finding Grace and Erin's Ring.  Check out this framed piece of artwork in the front hall, which doubles as a marketing tool.
Actually, as another way to promote these novels, for the past two months I was running a giveaway on Goodreads.  It ended last night at midnight, and I've received the names of the winners.  I was thrilled to see how many people participated!  592 entered to win one of two signed copies of Finding Grace; and 753 entered to win one of two signed copies of Erin's Ring.  

But back to this little slice of heaven called Oyster Haven.

One of my sisters-in-law, who also has a VRBO home here on the lake (and whom we are using as our guide and mentor as we navigate the tricky waters of the business), says that we have to try to distance ourselves emotionally from our property.  If we feel too much like it's "ours," it will be hard for us to let anyone else use it. 

If only it was that easy!  Every time I spend a few days in this house, I grow more attached!

As we soaked in the hot tub last night, my husband and I talked mostly about how excited we were that our whole brood is going to be spending a week here with us in August--including the son stationed in Germany, who will be taking some leave.  Sometimes when I think of letting other people use our heavenly lakeside retreat, I'm a little jelly of the time they're going to get to spend here.  Unfortunately, however, we must rent this house out in order to be able to afford to own it; in a perfect world, we could use it whenever our little old hearts desired!

But as retirement approaches, we are trying to figure out where we belong: here, where we have roots--where we grew up, met, and fell in love; or in NH, where we raised our five boys--in the house where we've lived for the past quarter of a century?

In the meantime, we're just hoping that plenty of people stumble upon our VRBO listing and decide to spend their summer vacation at Oyster Haven.  We think they'll love it as much as we do.

Sunday, April 24, 2016

What I (Make That WE) Wore Sunday: Princesa's Baptism

I've been a bit of a blogging slacker lately, because I've been too busy traveling about the country visiting with the kids and grandkids.

The weekend of April 17, my husband and I flew down to VA to witness the Baptism of our newest grandchild, Princesa (or more accurately, not to witness it, per se, but to be in the vicinity when she received the sacrament--more on that later). Afterward, we left VA together and flew to Atlanta, where we parted ways; from there, he went on to NYC to fly an overseas trip and I hopped on a flight out to MI to visit with son #1 and his family for a few days.  It had been five months since we'd seen his four little girls, when they came to our Oyster Haven lakeside home in upstate NY to spend Thanksgiving with us, and Grammy was having severe withdrawal symptoms.  (Papa, too, know, work.  Work really gets in the way of life sometimes, doesn't it?)

And now we're back at Oyster Haven, trying to get some projects done so that it's ready for a June 1 opening on VRBO.  It's a busy life!

Anyway, when I was packing for my sweet little granddaughter's Baptism, I chose a raspberry-colored sheath dress by Jones New York (via Dress Barn) to wear on her big day--because I thought I ought to wear some shade of pink...because she's a girl.  I have this weird habit of feeling the need to wear occasion-appropriate colors for events.  At Notre Dame, I always wear blue, gold, and Kelly green.  For G-Man's pre-birth "gender reveal" party, I wore both blue and pink, because I didn't have a strong feeling about which color was hiding inside the cupcakes.  And I also wore both of those colors for Ginger's baby shower, because she and son #2 had decided not to find out the sex of their firstborn baby ahead of time; I chose a navy blue Danny & Nicole dress and matching jacket, an old stand-by that I'd snagged at JC Penney years earlier for less than $20, and pinned a hot pink fabric flower on it.  So, all (or should I say, both) bases were covered, you see.
With Preciosa, Ginger, and Braveheart at Ginger's shower.
Here's the then father-to-be, now the doting father of
a lookalike son (minus the facial hair) named Junior.
But what am I telling you all this for?  I'm supposed to be telling you what I wore Sunday (not this Sunday, but LAST Sunday, for Princesa's Baptism).  So here goes, readers.  (And bless you for reading, really, because I haven't given you that many reasons to stop by lately.  But I'm determined to keep at this blogging thing, as tempting as it is to use only Instagram to get my social media fix.)
Okay, then: I had on my raspberry-colored sheath, as I said; but I decided I needed a touch of white in my outfit as well, since that's the color that symbolizes the pure, clean soul of the newly baptized.  So over my sheath I wore an off-white lacy sweater (shrug?) from Dress Barn, one that I've had for years and can be worn over a thousand different dresses.  Not that I have a thousand dresses, but it really could.  I decided to close it in the front with a brooch, but you can't see it in the picture because it's obscured by the much prettier accessory I'm holding in my arms.
Princesa wore a beautiful white Janie & Jack sundress, both before and after the Baptism.  Not to mention a headband embellished with a white flower almost as big as her sweet little noggin!  She looked absolutely adorable.

Her 18-month-old brother, G-Man, looked quite dapper as well.  He had on a seersucker suit I'd made over 30 years ago, an outfit which his daddy had worn as a toddler.  My daughter-in-law Preciosa dressed both of her men in navy blue-and-white striped seersucker for this special day, and they looked like two peas in a pod.
But when you have a toddler, it's pretty much a foregone conclusion that there will be some sort of disaster just as you're trying to head out the door; and sure enough, while we were all distracted with last-minute picture-taking, G-Man found a half-drunk cup of cold coffee on a low table and dumped it all over himself, ruining his outfit.  But never fear: he still ended up wearing a vintage ensemble that had once been worn by his daddy; and he still looked pretty stinking cute!

On to the church now.  For her christening, Princesa wore the same gown that her big brother had worn, one that I made using some linen-'n-lace pillow shams that had belonged to my late mother-in-law.  (I made Princesa a new more feminine-looking cap than G-Man's to wear with it.)  She looked like a little angel from Heaven.
Papa and Grammy were on G-Man duty for the Baptism.  Our little buddy was being a bit of a wild man at the church (that is to say, a totally normal 18-month-old boy who had no understanding about the seriousness of what was going on and had no intention of sitting quietly).
While we were waiting for the ceremony to begin, Papa tried to keep him entertained with his favorite "upside-down boy" game; but eventually, it was necessary to take him outside and let him run around.  I decided that if my best guy was going to miss Princesa's Baptism, then I would miss it with him.  (We are nothing if not a united team.)  So we weren't there for the big moment, for the pouring of the water and all of that good stuff.  But that was okay.  We were there to celebrate with Princesa's parents.  We were able to spend the weekend with three of our boys and their wives, and with our three VA grandchildren.  It was enough.  More than enough, actually.

I don't know why I've been so very blessed--to have so many people in my life whom I love so much, and to have the opportunity to see them as often as I do, despite the distances that separate us.  I'm pretty sure I don't deserve it.  But boy, am I ever grateful.
Son #3, Preciosa, Ginger, Son #2, Braveheart, Son #4 (the VA gang).
That's it for the Pearl family fashion show.  If you're interested in seeing other stylish peeps wearing their Sunday Best, head on over to Fine Linen and Purple.

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

Grace-filled Tuesdays (Book Club "Meeting" #17): Last of a Four-Part Series

Here is the last installment of the four-part series I've been sharing here recently at the Grace-filled Tuesdays Book Club--or re-sharing, I should say, as this series originally appeared on the blog in 2013 and 2014.  It was called "Where Real Life and Fiction Intersect," and its purpose was to answer any questions readers might have about which parts of my novel Finding Grace were loosely autobiographical and which were entirely made up.
Feb. 3, 2014

"Where Real Life and Fiction Intersect" (Part 4): I Can Relate to Grace

I've heard that authors who are writing their first novels have a hard time keeping them from being a bit semi-autobiographical, and I suppose that's somewhat true about my own debut effort, Finding Grace.  The story is set in my old hometown in Upstate NY, and Grace lives with her family in a sweet old house very much like the one in which I grew up on a street very much like the one where our home was located.  Like my own childhood best friend, Grace's best friend Irene lives in a modern, ranch-style house out on the lake; and like my then boyfriend/now husband, the boy with whom Grace falls in love in high school lives on the lake, too, on the other side of town.  Two colleges near and dear to my heart play a part in the novel: the College of the Holy Cross in Worcester, MA, where I graduated in 1980, and the University of Notre Dame, where my husband graduated that same year.  Grace starts high school the same year my husband and I did--1972--and she and her friends attend a Catholic school very reminiscent of the one we attended...

I could go on and on.  (And I have written several "Where Real Life and Fiction Intersect" posts already, if you'd like to peruse those here, here, and here.)

But there are many important differences, too. Contrary to my mother's assessment that the novel [which I don't believe she's read in full] is about my own story with my husband, which is simply not true (and I would tell you how it's different, but that would spoil the plot if you haven't read the book yet), things happen in this book that came completely out of my imagination--things about which I have no personal experience.  Things that not only never happened to me, but didn't happen to anyone I was close to.  So this work is most definitely FICTION, with a capital F, and it's important for the reader to remember that. 

None of the families of the main characters in Finding Grace even remotely resemble the families of the real life individuals who inspired them.  And that's the key word here: "inspired."  Because most of these characters--Grace Kelly, Tom Buckley, Jimmy Sullivan, and Grace's five older brothers-- share some traits with real-life people, but they truly did become, over the course of the five years the book was coming together, quite unique individuals.  Of course Tom Buckley has a whole lot of the same qualities I admire in my beloved husband; I started dating him at 15 and never looked at another guy--how could he not?  And of course Grace's brothers share many traits with my own five wonderful sons, whom I just adore--and again, how could they not?  But these characters all took on lives of their own as I wrote; they became people completely unlike anyone I knew in real life; they sort of whispered to me what they'd say and what they'd do, and they helped to move the plot along.  I started out with a loose outline for my story, but the characters took me on many unexpected detours--because no matter what I thought they ought to do, over time I came to know what they WOULD do.  They became good friends that I missed once the final chapter was done.

I miss them still!  (Perhaps I shall write a sequel?)

I am not Grace Kelly, although I know very well what makes her tick and I share many of her feelings and insecurities.  Grace and Tom's high school story does not follow the same path as my husband's and mine (and again, I don't want to say too much about that, because--spoilers!).  But I know just what it's like to feel as if the boy you love is so much better than you deserve in every way, that he's perfect, in fact; to worry about not being beautiful enough, and to think that he's so much easier on the eyes than you are--and what does he want with little old you, anyway?  Oh yes, I had confidence issues--just like Grace.  I hid (and still hide) behind my glasses, like my shy and sometimes awkward heroine.  All the feelings Grace has for Tom in the book were easy for me to write about, because I felt the same way about my guy back when I was an insecure teenager, back before I let myself believe that in his eyes I was beautiful enough.

When my husband and I graduated from high school in 1976 and went off to colleges that were separated by almost 900 miles, I wondered if the best part of my life was over.  (Tears were shed the day he left for Notre Dame, about a week before I departed for Holy Cross.  Copious tears.)  I was sure that he would meet a smarter, prettier version of not-me out in South Bend.  And what would that mean for my future? Well, then I would join the convent, I figured, because I had already made the determination that he was the only one for me.

Within a few months of arriving in Worcester I'd gained the famous "freshman ten" (the culprit was not really beer, but rather greasy slices of pizza eaten at midnight--accompanied by zero-calorie Tab, of course), while my main man remained Adonis-like; but my weight gain didn't seem to bother him.  Although we'd decided we weren't going to hold each other back from seeing who else might be "out there," our relationship deepened--we'd been friends first before we were boyfriend and girlfriend, and now we were best friends--through hand-written letters and late-night phone calls.  Then I added 10 more pounds my sophomore year, while at the same time experimenting with a short haircut that didn't suit me and new glasses the size of ski goggles.  And still, our relationship flourished.
This 1978 photo of us, taken at a friend's wedding reception the summer after our sophomore year of college,
 really does make me think of Tom and Grace.  My heart still skips a beat when I look at that handsome face of his. 
(And then I cringe a little when I look at mine, remembering how unlovely I felt when this was taken!)
Absence, in our case, really did make the heart grow fonder.  And by the end of our sophomore year, he knew what I'd known all along: that we were headed for marriage, and the only thing standing between us and the start of our life together was two more years of undergrad studies...900 miles apart.

But we persevered.  And we racked up enormous phone bills.  And we visited each other's campuses on our breaks, which were never the same weeks, and reconnected every Christmas and every summer vacation.  And I grew my hair out again.  And I stopped eating so much pizza, even though those extra 20 pounds were never a deal-breaker in his book.  And we did it, we made the long distance thing work.  And we had the happily-ever-after ending everyone roots for, when we were finally joined in Holy Matrimony--in the hometown where we'd met--in December of 1980.  And even though I've always felt I got the better end of the bargain, that saint I married, that guy who is the best helpmate I could have as I navigate the thorny path back to the Father who made us both, likes to say that he "married up."

Now what about Tom and Grace?  Does their story have a happy ending?

I guess you'll just have to read the book to find out!  ;)

(P.S. Finding Grace has a Facebook page now.  If you'd like to stop by there for a second and "like" it, you'll be my best friend forever.  Pinky swear.)

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.


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.


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!

Monday, April 4, 2016

Not Quite Living Dolls

I used to attend a porcelain doll-making class on Wednesday nights, many years ago.  This isn't the first time I've talked about dolls here at String of Pearls, and I'm sure it won't be the last time, either.  Perhaps my extreme love of dolls stems from that fact that I raised all boys and never had the joy of finding new baby dolls from Santa under the tree on Christmas morning!

It's been about 20 years or so since I carefully cleaned my last greenware (hardened clay) head and limbs, had them fired in the kiln, painstakingly painted them, and then had them fired again.  It's been about 20 years since I chose the perfect wig for a sweet little doll face, constructed a body out of wire, stuffing, and cloth, and sewed together the perfect miniature outfit. Even though I gave most of the dolls I made away (as gifts or special orders filled for family and friends), I still have a number of porcelain beauties on the built-in shelves my husband crafted for them on either side of the fireplace in our living room.

My favorites are the antique reproductions of early 20th-century German "character dolls," which were meant to look like real human children--unlike the wide-eyed, bow-lipped, idealized dolls produced in the 19th century.  (If you'd like more information on character dolls, this old post is helpful.)  For example, this rather pensive looking, chubby-cheeked German lass, a Kammer & Rhindehardt creation, is known as "Gretchen."

I made Gretchen's Bavarian costume using a combination of new and vintage materials.  The ivory blouse and apron are scraps of antique fabrics that my neighbor's mom (a fellow doll/antiques enthusiast) gave to me.  This same woman gave me Gretchen's very old black leather doll shoes.  As you might know (if you've stopped by lately), I recently returned from a lengthy stay in Germany.  While I was there, I picked up a little souvenir plate at the airport in Frankfurt, thinking it would fit very nicely into this little fräulein's hands.  And I'm happy to say that it does.

When this same K & R mold is used to make a boy doll, he is referred to as "Hans."  I made my Hans a towhead, since most of my boys were very blond when they were youngsters; and I fashioned an early 1900's outfit of knickers and flat cap for him.  The vest is an antique doll garment gifted to me.  And notice that Hans carries a Rosary in his pocket (how thrilled I was to find a perfect doll-sized set of plastic beads!).
Another favorite German character doll from that same era is called "Hilda," by J. D. Kestner.  I decided to dress my Hilda as a boy, however, and made him a replica of the sailor suit in which all of my sons were photographed between the ages of one and two.

At one point, after making a set of small dolls that were supposed to represent our five sons (check them out here), I decided to make a pair that looked like my husband and me when we were children.  Both of the molds I used are German.  The little girl (dressed the way I was in a photo taken on Easter in 1961, when I was almost three) is Kestner's "Century Baby," circa 1920's.  I chose this mold because of the round cheeks and tiny eyes, two facial features yours truly shares with this doll.

The nameless little boy I used for my husband's doll is by Johan Huebach, also circa 1920's.  I thought he was the ticket because he has a rather high forehead, a trait that my husband inherited from his Irish grandfather, and one which is shared by several of his siblings.  I gave this doll his dreamy light blue eyes, his thick eyebrows, and the freckles he had on his nose as a boy.  (I regret now that I didn't try to paint front teeth with a nice big space between them, to make the resemblance stronger!)  I dressed this little guy in a plaid flannel shirt and Chuck Taylor-style black sneakers, two wardrobe staples of my husband's.

These sweet German character dolls are all the more beautiful to me because of their not-quite-perfect, very realistic features.  Each has his or her own unique look, just like real children do.  I think the doll artists who sculpted these exquisite doll heads over a century ago were incredibly talented people.  And I'm so thrilled that some the original dolls survived long enough so that molds could be made from them, making it possible for modern doll-makers (and doll-lovers!) like me to create replicas of these pieces of history to love and pass on to future generations.