Category Archives: Daily Special

2014 Whitney Awards: Historical Finalists

Historical fiction — what an ideal way to explore the past! The current stack of books on my nightstand spans a variety of categories, from non-fiction to classics to religion. But I love to throw in a historical novel here and there to immerse myself in an era from days gone by.

This year’s crop of five Whitney historical finalists skillfully illustrates periods from the beginning of time (Adam and Eve) to 1800s Scotland to World War II, with a Civil War story and an 1880s Western thrown in. Here is our brief review of the 2014 Whitney Award historical finalists.

Softly Falling, by Carla Kelly (Sweetwater Books, an imprint of Cedar Fort Media and Publishing)

softly falling by Carla KellyThe intriguing Lily Carteret is transplanted from her privileged life in England to the rough Wyoming Territory, only to learn that her alcoholic father has gambled away his cattle ranch. As Lily adjusts to the harsh conditions of her new home, she’s befriended by a number of charming characters — especially Jack, the handsome but illiterate cowboy who quickly falls for Lily. The bulk of the story takes place during a very long, grim winter (known a century ago as “the big die-off”), where Jack, Lily, and the others on the ranch work tirelessly to save the cattle and themselves.

Kelly’s characters and historical details were the highlights of the book for me. The drama of the terrible winter provided constant tension, but the pacing of the story was slow. It was a long, long winter, and the reader definitely feels this (for better or for worse). The action was also rather sluggish, but with just enough blips of excitement to keep me going. The dialogue between the protagonists felt contrived, at times, but the characters overall were engaging and fun to follow.

Eve: In the Beginning, by H.B. Moore (Mirror Press)

Eve in the Beginning by H.B. MooreThis fictionalization of the story of Adam and Eve dives into the struggles of our first mother, first in the seemingly perfect Garden of Eden and then in the harsh and pain-filled real world. The tale includes the basic stages we’re familiar with from the Bible — Eve partakes, Adam joins her, and they are cast out of the Garden. But Moore throws in a number of possible scenarios that I found to be very thought provoking, like a tragic miscarriage, incredibly challenging weather and living conditions, and problems between Adam and Eve as they attempt to become united in marriage.

I really liked the voice of Eve — she was curious and inquisitive, yet largely faithful amidst her trials. Adam, though much more rigid in his obedience, was not self-righteous in his devotion to Elohim, and I appreciated the way he cared for his wife even when he didn’t agree with her. Lucifer was present throughout the book and was as eerie as one would expect, providing constant confusion and manipulation. I was surprised (as were Adam and Eve) by the overwhelming silence of Elohim — I kept waiting for him to come to the rescue and make it evident that He was mindful of them. But, such is life. The story was well crafted and really nicely written, though there were a few moments that felt redundant as Adam and Eve blundered along, trying to find their way.

An Ocean atween Us, by Angela Morrison (self published)

An Ocean atween Us by Angela MorrisonThe first book in a new series, “An Ocean atween Us” tells of 19th century Scottish coal pits, young love and heartbreak, physical hardships, and family bonds that are put to the test. Will Glover leaves the love of his life and begrudgingly joins his family in a grueling journey across the ocean for a new start that is every bit as disappointing as Will expects it to be. The new opportunity in North America is filled with hardship for the entire family, and it is ultimately left up to Will to care for the family and bring himself out of his estrangement from happiness.

In her author’s note, Morrison said she spent more than a decade researching her family’s Scottish history for this novel, including trips to coal mines in three countries. Her desire for authenticity is readily apparent — the book’s narration uses a flavor of the Scots language  (which, for some readers, will be a little too authentic, as the brogue at times feels distracting), and the historical details were on point. I loved this story’s strong family bonds and the importance of home, which remained constant despite the protagonist’s choice to wallow far too long in his self-inflicted pain. Though Will’s pining after his first love grows old quickly, the book’s overall narrative is skillfully crafted and consistently engaging.

Deadly Alliance, by A.L. Sowards (Covenant Communications)

Deadly Alliance by A.L. Sowards“Deadly Alliance” is the final book in a trilogy, though it works just as well as a stand-alone novel (which is how I read it — I actually had no idea there were two other books). Like “An Ocean atween Us,” it was abundantly clear that Sowards had done her due diligence on the time and place she wrote about — World War II in Italy and Yugoslavia. The novel follows Peter Eddy and his commando team as they drop behind enemy lines, unaware that they’ve been deployed on a suicide mission. Meanwhile, Peter’s girlfriend Genevieve, an OSS spy, finds herself battling new enemies as well. With heart-pounding plot twists and turns aplenty, Peter, Genevieve, and their various comrades experience plenty of action, with true-to-the-era violence and even death.

“Deadly Alliance” drew me in quickly and kept me hooked right through the last page (although the far-fetched finale disappointed me slightly). The history was, at times, hard to follow, but it didn’t detract from my interest in the book. The characters were well drawn and appealing — or hateful, in the case of the enemies who played significant roles. I appreciated the believable dialogue and the relationships that felt so genuine. Overall, this book was my favorite in the category — strongest writing, most intricate plot, realistic narrative, and great characters.

Gone for a Soldier, by Marsha Ward (WestWard Books)

Gone for a SoldierPart war story, part love story, “Gone for a Soldier” features a range of characters (11 members of the Owen family, plus a few love interests and fellow soldiers), with each chapter rotating between different characters’ perspectives. Rulon Owens, the central figure, moves quickly to enlist in the war after Virginia secedes from the Union — but not before asking for the hand of Mary Hillbrands. Off at war, Rulon sees and feels it all — his tent-mate threatens him regularly, he aches to be with his new wife and their new son, and he struggles physically through battles with the impossible-to-defeat Union army. At home, Mary faces her own battle for independence from parents who disapprove of her marriage.

Like a few others in this category, this novel was rich in historical details and authentic in its language, relationships, and descriptions of day-to-day living. The narrative became increasingly realistic as well-loved characters faced death and debilitating injuries, leaving relationships and situations unresolved, which was surely the case during the Civil War as lives were cut short or changed dramatically. I enjoyed the flow from chapter to chapter with the focus on different characters and different storylines, and at times I found myself growing anxious to get back to Mary’s situation or Ben’s adventure to learn what would come next. “Gone for a Soldier” kept me engrossed and tugged at my emotions more than a time or two — which doesn’t happen easily.

Sabbath Revival: “Who Is It Can Withstand Your Love?”

This Sabbath Revival post is so beautiful and full of depth. I hope you have time to really ponder it. ‘Twas originally posted May 17, 2007 by Kristen

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In 1986 English professor Gene England goes to New York City for Easter Weekend to present at a conference, and see several plays with an old friend. Passing some street hustlers playing the three-card shuffle con-games on the side of the street and seeing a tourist get taken advantage of, he stops to watch, and discovers that he guesses the right card every time. The patters notice this too. They invite him to bet.   He declines, even though he ends up guessing the right card each time the tourist loses.

The patter sympathizes with him, tells him he’s so good, he should just go ahead and bet. The bets are raised, he decides to bet—he’s been right the last 10 times. He bets $60. He loses. Shocked and dazed, he tries to pull away. He’s bitter, panicked, betrayed…yet still feels the desire to win. He keeps watching. Time after time, he guesses right, looking over the shoulder of the tourist who keeps losing. The patter turns to him again, and says he owes him one, and that if he bets again, he’ll make it up to him. Gene put down $60 more dollars.

He guesses wrong.

He leaves feeling humiliated, violated, racist. He spends the rest of the weekend punishing himself. With his remaining few dollars, he does not buy more than a pretzel and a loaf of bread to eat. He does not tell his friend about his plight, or ask for help. He simply doesn’t eat. He feels like a hypocrite when he goes to present his Shakespeare paper, which was focused on Shakespeare’s preoccupation with Christian ideas on healing the soul.


Who is it can withstand your love?

Why don’t I want to feel the love God has for me, sometimes? Why do I push it away, believing that I’ve got to follow a set of silly rules I’ve created—before turning myself towards him to receive his love and mercy? Sometimes I feel that I would crumple and wither…if I did not first see justice served. That is—my sense of justice. Perhaps that is the problem. My sense of fairness. Perhaps I do not recognize the justice that already takes place when something happens…because I am trying to impose a different set of rules upon myself. Even when it is not a matter of erring—but simple sorrow, confusion, pain. Regardless of the situation…in times of emotional confusion, I try to figure things out before feeling love.

Gene struggled with this concept as well. That is what I most love about his personal essays. The same things kept him awake at night. He says:

It hurts very much to think of you. How could you suffer not only our pains but also our sicknesses and infirmities? Did you actually become sick and infirm or did you merely feel, with your greater imagination, something like what we feel when we are sick and infirm?…And if you did literally experience our infirmities, did you know our greatest one, sin? Everyone says you didn’t sin, that you were always perfect. But how then could you learn to help us?…I don’t want to hurt like this, like I do now..Yet I want you to know the worst of me, the worst of me possible, and still love me, accept me—like a lovely, terrible drill, tearing me all the way down inside the root until all the decay and then all the pulp and nerve and all the pain are gone.

Can’t you tell us directly, without all the pain and contradiction, if what I feel is right? Could it be that your very willingness to know the actual pain and confusion and despair..to join with us fully, is what saves us?…How can I refuse to accept myself, refuse to be whole again, if you..know exactly what I feel and still accept me?…Who is it can withstand your love?

Thankfully, I have never, no matter how hard I’ve tried, been able to withstand God’s love. I cannot resist it. He always finds a way to slip it in the backdoor. Lately it has been starting with me going outside to peer over the railing to see if any gladiolus sprigs are poking through the soil and I feel the heat of dawn and a new day, and at the same time a tiny desire to talk to Him. It continues when my daughter takes a longer-than-normal nap, and I find myself wandering around for a few minutes fighting the thought to go and just say a quick prayer. I don’t want to know what He may have to say to me. I’m not ready for it. Because I have not yet figured out what He is supposed to be teaching me, about why I miscarried our baby on Sunday. I feel like I have to be one step ahead, or I won’t be able to fully accept the love He could give me.

I am full of irrational thoughts and an intense drive to discover the “lesson” I am supposed to be learning in all of this. So far, I cannot bear to fathom that this is an act of love. That is why I am trying so hard to withstand His love with everything I’ve got. If there’s a lesson to be learned, why, I’ve got to get to the bottom of it. But not by first feeling love. That won’t provide any answers for me. I feel like a child whose father is trying to comfort her after having taken, or having allowed to be taken, something so precious to her. She does not want to look to him for love or comfort. Perhaps she is curious and respectful to know what she may derive from all of this. But love and comfort? She has been looking elsewhere.

My favorite part of Gene’s essay is when the narrator switches to an earlier ancestor, George England, for whom Gene was named.

This is my report. I have been assigned to George England, one of my descendants, for thirty years now. He carries my own name but does not use George often, though that is his first name. I have protected him well, but I do not understand him. I think I should remain on this assignment for at least one more ten-year term.

The main problem is that George understands what is right but does not do it. He knows more about the Atonement than I did–…He writes constantly about it. Many people praise him for what he says. They write letters to him saying how he has helped them live the gospel better and helped them understand repentance. But he still does terrible things. It is still hard for him to be honest. He covers over his mistakes with lies. He pretends to know things or remembers people or has read books when it is not true. I think he loves to do right, but has a hard time being honest or kind when the chance to do so is sudden or embarrassing or when he is painful or lonely. If he has time to think, he is often very good, but is not when he is surprised.

When I helped him marry Charlotte Ann you know how much better he was for a while. He began to learn from her to be generous before he thought about it. He even began to be honest like she is, without toting up the cost. But after all that self-pity when he lost his job..ten years ago he began to be a hustler, to cut corners, to take advantage. I was able to use that car accident to help him know that he was good….

I am certain that he is not praying enough. He is worried, though, and wondering—sometimes frantically, I think–why there is not someone to help him as he has helped some who have needed him. He does not seem to be able to ask for help. Perhaps something will happen that we can use. I hope so. My heart reaches out to complete the circle.

I feel like this! Not because I did something wrong…but because I do not really want to withstand Heavenly Father’s love, yet I’m doing it anyway. Just like Gene knew the right thing to do, but did not do it. God used a terrible car accident to re-awaken the deepest part of himself. The part of himself that knew that he was good.

I want to know what I have been lacking in my mortal journey to cause me to need a miscarriage. A little bit of ingratitude, perhaps? Lack of faith? Selfishness? Patience? If I only knew, then I could feel much better about saying to God, “Okay, I’m ready for your love and comfort. I learned from this, now can you help me feel better.”

Of course, the deepest part of me feels that I am completely wrong about all of this. That I don’t have to learn anything before starting to heal. That I am a good person and can feel loved with no strings attached, without having to present my portfolio of “What I Needed to Learn,” to Heavenly Father. But that part of me feels so diluted and hard to reach. It’s hard to reach because my sense of logic screams that there must be something rational in all of this sorrow and heartache. Why are my natural thought tendencies—my “natural man” so contrary to the mercies and tenderness of my Father in Heaven?

I was able to use that car accident to help him know that he was good.

Maybe Heavenly Father has to use painful experiences–tragedies, in fact—to love us. I can hardly bear to write that. But there—see? I’ve done it again. I’m trying to wrap my head around what I should be learning. And the deepest part of me is saying that it’s okay just to feel loved. That just feeling loved is enough.

So maybe, just once…starting today….I will stop trying to withstand his love, stop trying to see the lesson before feeling that the deepest part of me can be loved, and is good.

How do you withstand, or accept, His love? How do you make stay the deepest part of yourself?

2014 Whitney Awards: Young Adult Finalists

I’m pretty open about the fact that I love young adult fiction, both as a reader and as a writer.  I know the same is true for a lot of my friends, largely because books written for teens are less likely to include gratuitous sex scenes and excessive violence (though this is changing, particularly in edgier books geared at older teens). But I think there are other compelling reasons to read young adult literature.

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As Sarah Burnes (a literary agent at the Gernert Co.) wrote for the Parisian Review:

When I read YA and children’s fiction, I feel knit together with the person I was and who I am, still, becoming. It feels, in Gilligan’s words about girls’ relationships, like a “continuing connection” with my past internal selves—especially my reading selves, my favorite selves.

I like too, what Neil Gaiman says about reading for pleasure (which is where most YA books fall for me):

And escapist fiction is just that: fiction that opens a door, shows the sunlight outside, gives you a place to go where you are in control, are with people you want to be with(and books are real places, make no mistake about that); and more importantly, during your escape, books can also give you knowledge about the world and your predicament, give you weapons, give you armour: real things you can take back into your prison. Skills and knowledge and tools you can use to escape for real.

I think this year’s Whitney finalists for young adult literature (non-speculative) do just that: they provide a window on the world, they allow readers to experience (or re-experience) the pleasures and pains peculiar to being a teenager, and (mostly) they offer hope.

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How To: Find Comfort in Times of Trouble

Sunshine spreads across the breakfast table, glints off my cereal bowl. I fish for oatmeal squares in milk then set down my spoon to read. The boys race in and out of the kitchen, clacking plastic swords as I move Elder Holland’s book to my lap:

“One of the unfailing facts of mortal life is the recurring presence of trouble, the recurring challenge of difficulty and pain… Though we have received great promises regarding the lifting of our burdens, the weight of them is still often ponderous while we wait for that relief. It was for just such days of opposition, such ‘times of trouble,’ that the biblical psalms were written” (3).

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Already I am wiping tears. It began last night and continued after waking. Moments of weepiness as I placed dishes in the dishwasher, moved laundry, hung up a new towel before showering.

Yesterday, my Mother had an MRI to determine the status of a second brain tumor she has been battling since 2008. In the last twenty years she has had four brain surgeries, several rounds of chemotherapy and radiation, and a bundle of miracle years. While we thought the tumor was in stasis, recent imaging showed it is growing again. Continue reading

How To: How to Write (and Publish) a Book

The quarterly theme at Segullah is on how-to–and given that it’s the last week of the semester and my life is full, the only things I feel like I know how to do are the things I’m currently doing. And even then, I’m not sure.

But it occurred to me that many of our readers might also be writers (most writers start with a love for the written word), and some of them might be interested in something I’ve recently spent a lot of time learning how to do: writing and publishing a book.

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