Q & A: Northern Fire

Hello again, friends! My sister, Hannah, and I sat down for a Q&A about Northern Fire, and I have also included some questions from some wonderful readers. Some are about the book, some are about writing in general, and some are about me! (Just a word of caution, if you haven’t yet read Southern Rain, there might be a few spoilers for that one! However, there shouldn’t be any spoilers for Northern Fire, and I encourage you to read the Q&A before you read it.) Here we go!

Hannah: What was the inspiration for Northern Fire? Was it hard to narrow down your ideas?

Tara: It’s all very hazy now, but I think the inspiration for the Torn Asunder Series came to me while I was taking a walk during my two-month intense isolation/study time for the Bar Exam. I had this idea for this historical heroine who leaves her husband, an absolutely shocking thing for the Civil War Era, and I really wanted to know how that would play out. Hmm, could I pair it with this modern storyline about a preservationist that had been floating in my head? Yes, I could! It’s not usually hard to narrow down your ideas because something always comes to you passionately and has to get out.

Hannah: What kind of audience do you expect to read Northern Fire?

Tara: The tendency is to say women who love Historical Fiction/Romance, but several men have read and liked Southern Rain, too. I think, between the history, the modern romance, and the Women’s Fiction dimension, there is something for everybody. I will refer you to the Q&A for Southern Rain for information about young readers/parents’ discretion, which can be found in its own special tab on my blog at http://www.teaandrebellion.com. As always, you can contact me if you have any questions.

Hannah: What should the reader know going into Northern Fire?

Tara: I think I always underestimated the series, in that, whether modern or historical, I thought it was going to be lighter than it was. There are some heavy topics, which may be difficult for some people. There are a couple of sad scenes and some overarching struggles that may be relatable for a lot of people, in both good and tough ways. I think the advantage of having a book that tends towards heaviness is that, wherever there is pain, there is also a lot of depth.

Hannah: How do you deal with difficult subjects? How do you strike the balance of far enough/too far?

Tara: It’s sometimes hard to know how much is too far. I have learned that a good rule of thumb for me is that if something makes me uncomfortable, I should probably take it a step further even from there and push the boundaries a little bit to experience the truth of the story. When a book does tend towards heaviness, the great balancer is always hope. Human life is so difficult, but there is such beauty in it, too. It’s important not to overlook either.

So many readers: Why don’t you just give Shannon and John Thomas a baby already?!

Tara: So sorry! This is probably the number one question I have gotten. It’s touching that everyone is so worried about their happiness. When I first started reading clean historical romance about twelve years ago, I found some truly talented authors, and many of those books have beloved spots on my shelves. But I noticed a recurring structure: boy meets girl, usual struggles ensue, they get together, happy ending equals healthy baby. That didn’t quite ring true to me. Historically speaking, a lot of couples struggled in conceiving (George and Martha Washington, James and Dolley Madison, Andrew and Rachel Jackson) or in carrying to term (Louisa Catherine Adams, Mary Church Terrell). Sometimes the mother died from something as simple as severe morning sickness during the pregnancy (Charlotte Brontë). If you could have a baby, the birth was an extreme ordeal for which you could thank God if both mother and child survived (Stonewall Jackson’s first wife died from a hemorrhage just after giving birth, and their child was stillborn). Lots of men had two families because the first wife died in “childbed” (Theodore Roosevelt). Many women made it through the birth only to linger and die from puerperal fever or physical complications (Thomas Jefferson’s wife) days, weeks, or months later. Of course, for those who did not have as many difficulties, families were often large due to lack of effective birth control methods, and I think that is perhaps where the idea that “everyone in history had eight kids” comes from. But even for those large families, it is difficult to think of a historical figure who did not lose a child to a childhood illness. All of that is a long way of saying that I’m not sure the notion, historically speaking, of a happy ending culminating in a modern-type birth where there are no worries quite passes muster. I kind of wanted to represent the full range of historical experiences in this story. Shannon struggles, while Marie has a whiplash-inducing honeymoon baby. And, while I won’t tell you here whether Shannon and John Thomas have a baby, or even whether they reunite (this is all just a matter of plot), I will tell you that their ultimate peace, if they find it, will be in acceptance of whatever situation in which God places them, of themselves just as they are, and of God just as He is, which is what I think we all must find before we can get down to the more trivial business of daily happiness.

Hannah: What do you think it takes to make a strong male character likeable, but also real? Do you think John Thomas and/or Adrian apply?

Tara: My sister and I (ahem) talk about this a lot. For me, a main male character (“MMC”) has to be loyal, and his love cannot waver. He also has to be gentle with the female character, physically speaking—there can be no love where there is any sort of fear. I don’t mind a good argument, but I don’t like a lot of yelling or any verbal abuse. I also like the MMC to be capable and to have a good grasp on his situation. I like to write male characters that you know are good ones, deep down. I don’t think that’s an unrealistic expectation at all (and if it is, we’re better off alone, girls!). Other than that, I think the sky is the limit! I love writing all different sorts of male characters. It’s totally okay for them to have their own struggles. They don’t have to be superheroes. Do John Thomas and Adrian apply to my criteria? Funnily enough, I’ve had several people tell me they don’t trust Adrian yet. So I hope this isn’t a spoiler when I say that: yes, they meet all of my main criteria. I will say that they both surprised me with the depth of their emotion by the end of the series, which I loved.

Hannah: Do you relate to Shannon or Adeline personally?

Tara: I always say that there is a little bit of me in all of my characters. I relate to Adeline’s love for history, desire to keep the peace, and awkwardness. I don’t relate to her laid-back personality, or her ability to not overthink things, unfortunately. I think every human being can relate to Shannon, since she kind of represents the human condition, that knot of tension that grows in all of us from childhood on, through numerous and varying causes. She also represents the choice we have of letting those dark forces overtake us or of overcoming them through the only way I know how—clinging to God.

Hannah: You put a lot of work into side characters. Do you ever wish the main plot had followed them instead of your MMC and MFC?

Tara: I know you’re asking this because you love Frederick and Marie. Sometimes, I wish I had made Frederick’s story on equal par with Shannon’s. However, sometimes, there is something enticing about a side-character only when the person is a side character, so I think it worked out fine.

Tammi: What other interests do you have, in addition to history and crafting stories?

Tara: That’s a great question! My day job is a lawyer, and I’m fortunate enough to work with my brother. I do a lot of property law, but my favorite thing to do is estate planning. I read a lot of historical fiction. I watch pretty much any historical drama that comes on Netflix, Amazon Prime, or Hulu. I really enjoy Audible for books that I would love to read but don’t really have time to dig into, like historical biographies and religious/theological books. I have been studying Contemplative Prayer and have found a lot of meaning in learning to listen for God’s voice in new (to me) ways. I love antiquing, particularly buying old furniture. Of course, I absolutely love touring historic homes. I just bought an old house, so there is always something to keep me busy. The History Chicks Podcast and Ben Franklin’s World Podcast have become something I love to have on in the background while I’m cleaning or working in the house.   I like to listen to music and have several playlists on Spotify. I played piano in another life and would like to get back to that soon. I like Royal Watching and follow the “From Berkshire to Buckingham” Instagram page and blog for fun analysis. I love going to plays and am fortunate to have three excellent amateur theaters nearby. I’ve recently gotten back into shopping/fashion in an effort to step up my wardrobe. And I have been dieting for about four years now and in the course of that have picked up a lot of healthy eating habits, so I’m always looking for great vegetarian or organic options.

Josette: What is your favorite historical book?

Tara: I always have trouble narrowing this down because I love so many. For historical fiction, I’ll have to give you four, loosely in order of my preference: A Bride Most Begrudging, by Deeanne Gist, Bath Tangle by Georgette Heyer, The Silent Governess, by Julie Klassen, and America’s First Daughter, by Laura Kamoie and Stephanie Dray. For books that were written in historical times, I would have to say: Persuasion, by Jane Austen, The Tenant of Wildfell Hall, by Anne Brontë, and The Blue Castle, by L.M. Montgomery.

But if I had to pick an absolute favorite, that would probably be A Bride Most Begrudging. I’ve read it so many times, expecting it to disappoint as I get older, but it never does.

Tammi: Do you listen to music while you write?

Tara: I make a playlist on Spotify for every book or series. Sometimes I listen, and sometimes I prefer silence. I always play a song which I’ve chosen as a kind of theme for the book when I write the last scene and just push replay over and over until the scene is finished. I really like music with choir or strings and piano. I love The Piano Guys, Scala & Kolacny Brothers, Paul Cardall, Helen Jane Long, and 2Cellos. I had never heard of a lot of them until I started listening to the Scala & Kolacny Brothers Pandora Station (after hearing their music for the Downton Abbey trailers), and now they’re some of my favorites!

Tammi: How much time do you spend writing each day?

Tara: I used to spend about an hour or two writing every day, even while I was in law school. Now, sometimes I’m not able to do that because of eye strain from said law school. So I usually end up writing on the weekends. I like to write in bulk and might write for eight hours one day and none for the next four days. If I’m really feeling inspired and am able, I usually write for about two hours per day.

Tammi: Where do you write?

Tara: In my living room. I like a room with lots of windows and light. I have a desk that I wrote three novels on in college and still sit there sometimes, but I often write on my couch now.

Tammi: How did you become interested in writing historical fiction?

Tara: My mom would bring me home Christian Historical Fiction books that she had bought on the sale shelf at our local Hastings bookstore. I absolutely devoured them (Deeanne Gist, Julie Klassen, Lynn Austin…) One day, I said, “I just love these!” And my mom said, “Why don’t you write one?”

Tammi: When did you start writing?

Tara: When I was seventeen, pretty much right after that conversation with my mom. 🙂 That’s been about eleven years now. My first manuscript was written in a composition notebook and was set in Nineteenth Century England. It was terrible. 🙂

Tammi: When did you develop your love for history?

Tara: My mom was a 5th and 6th grade Social Studies teacher during my childhood, and my dad likes history, too, so my siblings and I grew up in a very history-friendly household. My mom would tell us fascinating historical tidbits. My parents knew how to make history fun, taking us to Washington, D.C. and Charleston when we were little, with the emphasis always on history. I remember one Sunday, they took us (after wrangling us all to church and back, no less!) with the grandparents to Belle Meade Plantation in Nashville. I remember when we walked through the door and the docent directed our attention to the ruby glass above the door. “Pretty,” she said, “but there to serve no other purpose than displaying the Harding family’s wealth.” Me: Oooh. My brother and I found that fascinating. Then came the time for the trip down to the mausoleum. (I should note that in Middle Tennessee, mourning customs were heavily followed and are always a huge part of most any tour.) I was petrified. I was not going down there. Luckily, my grandpa felt the same. Skirting the cooling pad (yes, where they laid out the bodies—it was just lying in the hall, for crying out loud!), he found a bench and said, “Sissy, I think I’m going to sit right here.” My response: “Me, too, Pa!” That trip is one of my fondest childhood memories.

Matthew M.: How did you get interested in the American Civil War?

Tara: I actually started out with an aversion to the Civil War. I always liked history, but I remember looking at pictures of the battles in my 5th grade textbook and feeling horrified. I kind of stayed away from the Civil War until I needed to fulfill my history credits at Tennessee Tech, and one of Tech’s history professors was teaching his nearly-famous course on the Civil War and Reconstruction. He really brought the Civil War alive for us. It was an intensive course, with multiple books, articles, papers, etc., and we were required to learn battle movements and plans for all of the major battles and recite them in narratives on our tests. We covered all aspects—the home front, the lives of the enslaved, theories that developed in the post-war era… After that, I wrote a series which follows several siblings in Civil War Era Virginia. I think setting a family drama in that era and researching minute details for so long is what finally tipped me over the edge for the Civil War. The opportunities for drama are boundless, the range of human emotions breath-taking. We see the best and worst of humanity, and, as an author, that’s exciting to explore. I realized that if I could get a little braver in dealing with a very tough time period, there was a wellspring of experiences to be discovered and retold!

Matthew M.: Do you use any primary source material for your novels?

Tara: Yes, I absolutely love getting my hands on a letter which gives special insight to the time period. You can find some great letters in online archives, and I have a book called War Letters: Extraordinary Correspondence from American Wars by Andrew Carroll, which has been great. I also find that docents are excellent to read you parts of letters when you tour historic homes. And touring historic homes is something I love to do to get a feel for the time period, and, if it’s close enough to my setting, the place. Seeing an antique from the time period can really ground you in the era, too. I also read diaries and recipes from the era, and I look at a lot of photos or portraits for the fashion.

Reaching out beyond that, I also look at scholarly works or biographies. For the Torn Asunder Series, some of the books I read in preparation were:

At the Precipice, by Shearer Davis Bowman
The Civil War at Sea, by Craig L. Symonds
An Antebellum Plantation Household, by Anne Sinkler Whaley LeClercq
Grant, by Ron Chernow

Hannah: Not all authors enjoy the subjects of their own books. Would you devour this one?

Tara: I would read it, yes, and I think I would enjoy it. I have written other books that are more to my taste. I think this one is geared more towards my sister’s taste (wink). But there is, I hope, always an element that I strive to put in my books that makes you want to keep reading or read the next one. Can I tell you a secret? There’s another cliffhanger in Northern Fire! Gotta run now before readers attack me!

Stop by the Southern Rain FAQ Page for some more questions answered about the series and my writing in general. As always, if you have any questions, feel free to contact me!

Review: Denise Hunter Books

Review: Summer by the Tides and Lake Season by Denise Hunter

I’ve been a huge Denise Hunter fan for about ten years. If she writes it, I read it. I actually delved into Summer by the Tides, a stand-alone novel that comes between the Blue Ridge and Bluebell Inn Series, back in July of 2019 while I was on vacation, but I never got around to reviewing it. I’m actually glad, because I think the two books are good to review together, since both represent new literary angles for Denise Hunter.

Okay, you know the drill by now. I always try to let you know my biases up front so that you can judge for yourself how seriously to take my review. 😊 I was fortunate enough to begin my Denise Hunter journey with The Convenient Groom. It was exquisitely magical. I followed it up almost immediately with Surrender Bay. It was perhaps even more enchanting. I loved the books so much that I, as a high school senior, broke surreptitiously into my mom’s Christmas stash, where I knew a copy of Seaside Letters was just sitting there, waiting for me, unread and lonely. I had a third of it read between getting home from school and driving to volunteer at a Kids of the Community Christmas event. Needless to say, the Nantucket series set the bar pretty high for me. It has, unfairly, always been the measure by which I judge every new Denise Hunter book.

Now, you should know that I devour every new Hunter book as soon as I get it in the mail. They’re always eminently readable, another reason she is one of my favorite authors. But for me, there are tiers of Denise Hunter Books. In the top tier are those in which what I have termed “Denise Hunter Magic” are present and include: The Convenient Groom, Surrender Bay, Seaside Letters, Dancing with Fireflies, Falling Like Snowflakes, and The Goodbye Bride. There’s just a little something special to these books, a certain tightness of plot, deep romantic chemistry, and a little fairy dust. The second tier are those books which are still better than any other modern books and have a great romantic plot, but which are lacking in said fairy dust. Those include: Sweetwater Gap, Sweetbriar Cottage, Blue Ridge Sunrise, On Magnolia Lane, Just a Kiss, and Married ‘til Monday.

The third tier are those in which there is less romantic chemistry for me. I still buy them, I still read them quickly, I still enjoy them – they’re just not soul-stirring. Unfortunately, both Summer by the Tides and Lake Season fall into the third tier for me. That being said, I want you to keep in mind that this is all just a matter of taste. I could really see a lot of people going crazy over these two books, especially Lake Season. We all come to the table with different backgrounds and biases, and I’ve already told you that my bar is extremely high, and I’m guessing you’ve realized by now that I’m also an extremely picky reader. Neither of these books should be easily written off, and that’s why I’m going to give them both a review. Here we go!

Denise Hunter - Summer by the Tides

Summer by the Tides:

When I picked up this book by the pool in Florida, I read it really quickly and enjoyed it quite a bit. Summer by the Tides is Denise Hunter’s first foray into Women’s Fiction, which is characterized by putting all or most of the emphasis on the female protagonist, with a lot of attention paid to female friendship or family relationships. There is usually a romantic thread, but it takes a back seat to the woman’s journey or growth. I love Women’s Fiction. I think it’s actually more realistic for most people than a heady romance. I loved that Denise Hunter was flexing her writing muscles in this modern direction – go Denise! But because of the biases I discussed above, I want romance from Denise Hunter, doggonit! 😊 I fully acknowledge that this is not fair at all.

There was romance in the book, and I actually remember liking the male lead quite a bit. But…that’s about all I remember about it, to be honest. I has been only about nine months since I read the book, and I couldn’t remember a single thing about the book or the female lead, which is very unusual for me. So I had to go back and refresh myself.

Once I did that, I was actually quite impressed. There was a lot of work put into the characters and into the storyline. I think it was just that I was longing for the romance to be the focus, coupled with the fact that, while the Women’s Fiction element was good  (the female lead’s relationship with her sisters), it actually felt a little formulaic to me, like a plot from a Women’s Fiction generator. By that, I mean that I’ve seen very similar things done in Women’s Fiction books several times; there wasn’t a fresh angle.

But if you get a chance to go on vacation this summer, take it, read it, enjoy it. Your reading experiences might be so different from mine that it will be your perfect book. It will be a great summer read, either way.

Denise Hunter - Lake Season

Lake Season:

Lake Season represents another departure from Denise Hunter’s norm. This is actually a time-slip novel, in which we alternate between present day and the 1960’s. Someone correct me if I’m wrong, but, while we’ve seen flashbacks in a character’s own life, I don’t think there has been a Denise Hunter book yet which follows a historical thread of different characters. I also thought there was a general difference in atmosphere: this book was a little moodier, almost putting you in mind of a Nicholas Sparks book.

Speaking of Nicholas Sparks…the male lead, an author, definitely draws some inspiration from him, and there are references to The Notebook throughout. I liked Adam. He is a beta hero, which is always endearing. I also liked Molly. However, I don’t think Molly was ever three-dimensional for me, and there was just something lacking in the chemistry between the two. The kissing scenes were great. Other than that…no sparks.

I think the modern story line put too much dependence on the historical storyline. Even though the modern portion really constituted the bulk of the book, there just wasn’t enough substance there, not enough emphasis on the emotional things of the present day. It focused almost entirely on the historical mystery, and, frankly, I guessed the secrets, all of them, about the historical storyline almost immediately. The historical part suffered from being a really predictable plot.

The beginning of the book plods along, but the second half is, admittedly, quite a bit better. Every one of the elements for a really moving book were there in the strong finish, but somehow, it just didn’t all come together for me. But again, it might for you!

There are going to be two more books in the Bluebell Inn Series, with one set to release on May 19, and another this October.

Featured Image By: Tara Cowan

Photo Credits in Body: DeniseHunterBooks.com

Review: Emma (2020)

Last night, my mom, sister, and I had a movie night.  Since we are all huge Jane Austen fans, we decided on Emma, which, even though the movie wouldn’t normally be out of its theater run, has been made available for streaming from various sources since theater-gathering is currently discouraged.

Emma is one of my favorite Jane Austens, largely because of the extremely cozy village she was able to create in Highbury and because Mr. Knightley definitely rivals Mr. Darcy in swoon-worthy gentlemanliness.  I have read and enjoyed the book, and this is the fourth film adaptation of  Emma I have seen, so I was coming into this with some rather pre-conceived ideas about what a successful adaptation of the story should look like.  So there you go: I always try to let you know my biases up-front.

There were things the 2020 adaptation did better than any of its predecessors.  For one, the cinematography is excellent.  The vistas and ballrooms are stunning, and I have heard that a lot of work went into choosing an appropriate and eye-catching color palette, which was a creative idea.  You leave with an impression of color in your mind’s eye, and take away beautiful and cheery lighting.  My only reservation was that, just occasionally, the color could be slightly too much, and you felt like we had strayed into candy land.  But that was only very occasionally, such as when there was a big fluffy cake sitting on the table or when we’re shopping for ribbons in a lollipop of color.  The outdoor scenes are unrivalled in beauty, though.

The costumes are exquisite, and I noticed particular attention was paid to the shoes.  You could tell the designers really looked at fashion plates from the Regency Era, because there is nothing (except maybe one pair of earrings) that jerks you out of the time period.  In addition, there are special details on the dresses, etc. that are very Regency-appropriate that I’m not sure I have ever seen any other Regency film use.  In short, 10 out of 10 stars for the costuming department.  My one question was whether Mr. Knightley would have worn his shirt collars quite so high.  Georgette Heyer has led me to believe that only dandies wore their collars so high that they had difficulty turning their heads.  But in contrast to being a dandy, Mr. Knightley always struck me as a country gentleman, a man of sport and the land, preferring to ride a horse to fancy dinner parties than take his carriage.  However, I do not profess to be an expert on the subject of all of the subsets of Regency gentlemen (dandies, Corinthians, fops, etc.) and Georgette Heyer is admittedly my only source.  And maybe my vision was clouded by the fact that this particular Mr. Knightley was ten times as handsome when we could glimpse his neck. 🙂

The next thing that was well-done was attention to historical details.  We get to see a lot of antiques and how they were used.  We see (humorously) the function of fire screens, and we also get to watch a very fun parlor game in progress.  Also revealing was the intimacy that dancing induced (I had forgotten that one was supposed to stare into one’s partner’s eyes).  It was a little easier after watching a dance performed in that way to understand why there were so many rules of etiquette surrounding the art of dancing, and why so many feathers were ruffled when the rules were broken.  I love when visual history explains something we wouldn’t otherwise understand!

The characters were also jazzed-up a little.  At first, I was a little nervous about the changes that I knew were going to be made to Mr. Woodhouse (Emma’s father) and Miss Bates.  But I would go anywhere Bill Nighy and Miranda Hart want to take me.  I cannot think of better or more trust-worthy choices if you are going to change up well-known characters.  And, while I am a stickler for following a book exactly, I actually didn’t mind these changes.  They weren’t drastic, and both were in keeping with the spirit of the characters.  If I’m being honest, I actually enjoyed these characters more than ever before because, in the real story, while we love them and appreciate their absurdities, they can be a little tedious.  Here, they were delightfully quirky and provided excellent comedic relief.  I like the idea of Emma’s father having all of his hypochondria while still being spunky, and maybe even a little wired.  I think that was a reasonable interpretation of his character, even though most have interpreted him as a more feeble old gentleman.  And when Miss Bates screams suddenly, and out of nowhere, at her deaf mother, that “Miss Woodhouse has invited us to Hartfield!!!” we were all in giggles.

And what to say about Mr. Knightley?  We see a lot more of his personal life than we ever do on the book, and than we ever have in any other adaptations.  We get to see him dressing, which was certainly a gift. 🙂  We also get to see the moment his feelings started to change for Emma and the agony that leads him to suffer over the next few months.  I think I actually like that, and here’s why: I believe they simply showed the emotions Jane Austen knew he was having but we don’t know about until the end of the book.  The scene where Emma and Knightley dance at Christmas is shown as the moment they both start to shift their feelings for one another, and I think that is accurate, at least for Mr. Knightley, although it has been a while since I’ve read the book.  But every other adaptation has made this attraction quite subtle.  Here, though, we see Knightley throw himself on his drawing room floor in frustration.  It’s not in the book.  But it actually made me understand a little more why Knightley invited his Highbury acquaintances to pick strawberries at Donwell soon thereafter, and why he said something about only allowing Mrs. Knightley to manage his house, once she is in being: he wants Emma in his house, and he is contemplating, for the first time, there being a Mrs. Knightley.  I had never thought about that aspect of his psychology, so that was a great hidden nugget.  On the whole, I liked Johnny Flynn’s interpretation of Knightley, even if I was initially thrown off by his blonde hair.  He handled the role quite delicately.

And that brings us to what I didn’t like so much.  I’m usually not this direct, but I will just have to be honest: I did not like this interpretation of Emma’s character.  Anya Taylor-Joy is lovely, and I like that her acting reminded us that Emma is only 21 and also showed how her wealth has left her in a spoiled cocoon.  Further than that I cannot say, because this interpretation made Emma absolutely unlikeable.  Jane Austen’s Emma is a deeply flawed character, and I love that about her.  But Austen was careful to give Emma redeeming qualities and a certain maturity that balances her over-confidence, privilege, and snobbery.  Here, she was drawn as petulant, which I don’t remember that Emma ever was.  While there was a certain immaturity to Emma’s course of action in the real plotline, she never acted like a simpering, pouting child.  While she could be sharp-tongued, and while that trait often led her into scrapes, she was never crabby/irritable just because she seemed to be that way by nature.  I’m not sure if the goal was to make Emma more coy, or what, but she actually lost almost all of the nuances to her character and was kind of boiled down into a one-dimensional incarnation of the snotty rich girl archetype.  Not my cup of tea.  And the main reason is that we cannot for the life of us see what Mr. Knightley sees in her.

Another thing that I was not a fan of was the overall production.  You really need to go into this adaptation with a basic knowledge of the intricacies of the plotline, because you won’t get them from watching this film.  It felt, actually, more like watching a play or, more accurately, perhaps, an opera.  A great deal of attention was put into theatricals, such as ladies lining up with the flourish of the background music, and overly-loud music accentuating the feeling we were supposed to get from the dialogue.  The music playing during scenes really distracted and took away from the storyline.  I just kept wishing we could settle in on a scene, like a real movie, and enjoy acting and character nuances instead of flitting here and there.  With music playing overly loud, and some of the actors being forced to deliver their lines overly-dramatically, you’re sped through the scenes and don’t get the details of a very intricate plot.  But what was really odd was that somewhere in the middle of the movie, we did slow down and take a breather, almost as though we had switched directors.  The music stopped being as frenzied, and we enjoyed a couple of stable scenes.  Which I found…odd.  I like consistency, even if I don’t agree with the choice made.  Without it, the production doesn’t feel polished/tight.

Another oddity was the choice in music itself.  I’ve already mentioned that it was often too jaunty and loud.  But even more bizarre was the choice to put in chorals here and there.  Don’t get me wrong: I love anything sung by a choir, and these were really beautiful.  They were just totally out of place.  I’m sure the songs were time-period-appropriate (although I would have to look on a couple), but the presentation was not (by this, I mean that the arrangements reminded me a lot of O Brother, Where Art Thou?).  It’s weird to be travelling in a carriage and just randomly start hearing a hymn sung dramatically by a choir, no?  At least, it was in Emma.

But in the end, there were enough things that I did like that I will probably watch it again.  The over-all grandeur and urgency being slightly hyped-up was very well-done, and very compelling as a viewer.  I found myself wishing that I was a master movie-maker and could pluck parts from all of the adaptations of Emma and make the perfect movie.  Which leads me to a ranking of the Emma adaptations that I have seen, which might be useful if you are wondering where to start.  I’ll rank from least-favorite to most-favorite.

4. Emma (1996) with Gwyneth Paltrow.  I have heard many people say this is their favorite, so know I am in the minority here.  But there is just something annoying about this version to me.  There’s also no chemistry between Knightley and Emma or any of the characters, really.

3.  Emma (2020). [Discussed above.]

2.  Emma Mini-Series (2009).   This is a 4-part mini-series that goes into great detail and follows the storyline pretty closely.  This Emma still annoys me slightly, but she is the least-offensive of the three I have mentioned.

1.   Emma (1997) with Kate Beckinsale.  This adaptation is phenomenal.  It is the reason, probably, that I’m so hard on all of the other adaptations.  I have watched it over and over and never leave disappointed.  I love the nuance Kate Beckinsale brings to Emma’s character.  She fully explores her flaws but shows all of the redeeming qualities, too.  I love the passion Mark Strong brings to Knightley’s character.  No one tells Emma off quite the way Mark Strong does.  He makes all of the other Knightleys look weak, with the exception of the most recent 2020 Mr. Knightley.  He shows Knightley’s hot temper but also his great kindness and depth of feeling.  And as far as the village feeling – there could be nothing cozier.  It accomplishes in one movie all that the above-mentioned mini-series attempts to do in four episodes.  The cinematography is not beautiful or sweeping, so I think that might be the reason this one is often overlooked.  But I promise you won’t notice that once the actors take the story into their hands.

In the end, it doesn’t matter which Emma is technically more accurate or delicately-handled, I suppose: it is which one you enjoy watching that matters.  I do recommend that you watch the new Emma.  It’s a great way to pass the time, and if you have enough people in your home quarantine, it’s actually cheaper than going to the movies would have been.  I streamed it for $20.00 from Amazon Prime.

Enjoy!

(Note: if you have children in the room, there is one little nudey scene where Knightley is dressing, and another slight one when Emma is, just to give you forewarning.)

Photo Credit: screenrant.com

-Tara

 

 

 

Review: Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow

I was sitting in a law school classroom when it first hit me. It was my third year, and I was taking a class titled Law and Literature. We would read a piece of literature and then come to class and discuss the great questions of life and humanity that the readings provoked, much like a college English class (which was bliss to me!). I was surprised when I saw multiple Old Testament readings on the list.

We were a class made up of believers and skeptics, atheists and agnostics, the dormant and the devout. And when I opened my Bible to read the passages, that fact was all I could think about. For the first time in my life, I was having a Bible study with people who hadn’t been taught to think the “right” way. They were from all over the country, from deeply varying backgrounds, and a lot of them were reading those passages for the first time. And suddenly, that was how I was reading the scripture, too. I was stripping away everything, all of my own preconceived notions, every sermon I had heard preached on the passage, and every point I had ever felt compelled to prove, and I was just…reading. Because I knew when I got to class the next day, absolutely no one in that room would carry the same lenses to the table. And that was when it finally struck me: this was what I should have been doing all along.

What does this have to do with Amanda Hope Haley’s latest book, Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow: How to Trust the Bible When Truth and Tradition Collide? Everything. God’s revelation to me that I was reading scripture with “lenses” set me on a course of laying aside everything and simply searching for His character in scripture. What I didn’t know was that my cousin (yes, cousin!) was writing a book on that very topic!

Amanda delves deep into the very structure of the Bible, exploring how the holy manuscripts were written, compiled, and translated and teaching us to cherish each passage for its unique literary structure and voice. That contribution alone would have been enough, because she lays out that complicated history in such an easy-to-understand format that the reader leaves enlightened rather than overwhelmed.

But she goes deeper, teaching us how to view science’s relationship with the Bible in a healthy manner (the passages on creation literally made me tear up!), how to look at scripture in context rather than “cherry-picking,” how to read slowly and carefully, and ultimately, how to strip everything away, everything you have ever heard, everything you are “supposed” to read into scripture, and just listen.

Particularly helpful, I thought, was the chapter entitled “Too Many Cookbooks in the Christian Kitchen,” which talks about the problem, not new to our generation, of preferring to follow a doctrine, or a denomination, or legalism, or a man, which is so easy for us to do, isn’t it? I think a lot of times these problems start as we try to boil our beliefs down into a teachable message to take out into the world. But we forget to fluff the stew back up again to learn God in the fullness of His glory. Amanda does a wonderful job reminding us of just how important it is to do that.

Her tone is conversational and easy-to-read. I found that the scripture she used as examples throughout was particularly well-chosen. You feel like you’re in a really fun classroom and she’s the teacher at the front with a blackboard breaking it all down into understandable language. And finally, I will add that what Amanda does is more than just teach hermeneutics (a word we learn in the last chapter!). She presents the beautiful, awe-inspiring picture of God’s plan. It seeps in when you least expect it, moving you to emotion and prodding you to reflect on what an awesome God we serve.

Highly recommended! Mary Magdalene Never Wore Blue Eye Shadow: How to Trust the Bible When Truth and Tradition Collide is now available! See below for a link to your favorite retailer.

Amazon link:

Barnes & Noble link:
https://www.barnesandnoble.com/w/mary-magdalene-never-wore-blue-eye-shadow-amanda-hope-haley/1130410625#/

Books-A-Million link:
https://www.booksamillion.com/p/Mary-Magdalene-Never-Wore-Blue/Amanda-Hope-Haley/9780736975124?id=7747825568139

Target link:
https://www.target.com/p/mary-magdalene-never-wore-blue-eye-shadow-by-amanda-hope-haley-paperback/-/A-78288182

Wal-Mart link:
https://www.walmart.com/ip/Mary-Magdalene-Never-Wore-Blue-Eye-Shadow/229907139

French Huguenots in South Carolina

History Behind the Story #1: French Huguenots in South Carolina

In celebration of the recent release of Southern Rain, I announced that I would be doing a series on the History Behind the Story.  Today, I bring you the first in the series: a look at French Huguenots in South Carolina!

It was very subtle in Southern Rain, but there were a few indications of the heritage I chose for the lead family, the Ravenels. I was surprised during my research of the Charleston aristocracy of the 19th Century to find that a huge proportion of them were descended from French Huguenots.  That was a bit of a head-scratcher: how did a people go from being oppressed, persecuted, and run out of their country to being at the very top of the food chain and oppressing others in just a few generations?  But first, what is a Huguenot?

Think 16th and 17th Century France.  A little event called the Protestant Reformation was happening after the bombshell dropped by Martin Luther. The ideas that were being espoused were things like personal faith rather than church intervention and that scripture alone was authoritative.  Obviously, the desire to reform the Catholic Church stirred up a lot of tension and threatened the power structure of Europe.

It’s important to remember that, while they were religious minorities, most Huguenots in France still had a great deal of wealth and power. The very term “Huguenot” is ethnoreligious and cannot be translated purely into the word “Protestant.” The Protestants in France, while largely ethnically similar to the Catholics, became almost a separate ethnic group, but one in which many of the members had aristocratic ancestries similar to the noble Catholic families.

In certain areas, tensions ran high, forcing the Huguenots to give up their faith or flee France as refugees.  A war was begun with the Massacre at Vassy, in which royal troops ambushed and murdered or injured hundreds of Huguenots in their place of worship.  Political intrigue and death ensued. Mass slaughters of Huguenots were enacted throughout France.

Happily, this conflict ended in the Edict of Nantes, which granted a great deal of concessions to the Protestants. For a time, there was peace (sort of). The peace was ruptured utterly by the Edict’s revocation by Louis XIV (The Sun King), which resulted in cultural or literal genocide of Huguenots, either by forced conversions, executions, or what many saw as no choice but to flee.

Do I see Charleston in the future of many of the Huguenots?  Yes!  Now, Huguenots were fleeing all over the world by hundreds of thousands, so the Lowcountry was just one refuge.  But it was a refuge that ultimately stuck for those who did immigrate to the area. A Huguenot Church was quickly established there and is in operation to this day!

The Huguenots settled throughout the Lowcountry near Charleston along the Ashley and Santee Rivers and near the Sea Islands. Anne LeClercq says of those who settled there, “The French Huguenot had come to Upper Saint John’s after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and found in the somber beauty of the Santee Swamp, with its forest walls of oak and cypress, an area inhabited only by wild animals and widely separated villages of Santee Indians.”[1]  They were no longer oppressed.  In fact, they thrived.

Those who settled the area were either of elite heritage or were highly skilled artisans and tradesmen. They quickly assimilated, often intermarrying with other settlers, and were very prosperous because of a mixture of hard work and industry, a background of knowledge of what it took to amass power and wealth, and a dogged determination to make something of the second chance they had been given.  In short, while the elite in Charleston were made up of families from all over Europe, the Huguenots quickly became one of the largest groups that made up the elites.  LeClercq names a few of the family names: “Porchers, Gaillards, Mazycks, Palmers, Ravenels, Cordeses, Marions, Dwights, and Gourdins.”[2]  I chose the surname Ravenel from a list of French Huguenot names since I wanted the central family to be of that heritage. The way I have heard it pronounced in Charleston in present day is Ravv-uh-nell, with a slight emphasis on the first syllable.

The Huguenot assimilated in another way, too: they affiliated with larger Protestant denominations and, in a generation or two, largely lost their Huguenot ties. You’ll notice when you read Southern Rain that the historical Ravenels are Presbyterian. You might be wondering about that, since that denomination is largely associated with Scotland, but that was one of the churches into which the Huguenots poured over in America. For one, they had the same roots (Presbyterianism also grew out of the Reformation), and they also maintained similar beliefs.

And what about the fact that the Huguenot and their descendants became some of the largest slaveholders in the South?  One would almost guess, based on the Huguenots’ oppression and commitment to faith, that they might have been friends of abolition, and perhaps some were. But in large part, they were not. The amassing of wealth and aristocracy in South Carolina happened quickly, but its full fruition did occur over the course of several generations. For instance, from the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 to 1859 when we see the height of the Ravenels’ wealth, five or six generations have passed, and the descendants were probably very similar in their beliefs to the majority of South Carolinians of European descent.  And yet, that isn’t to say that slaves weren’t owned by those of Huguenot heritage generations before the Civil War, or even by that first generation.  While one can’t say with certainty what initiated the slaveholding status of Huguenots, Nancy Maurer sees it as another evidence of the assimilation necessary to achieve wealth and status.[3]  And that may be largely true, since it quickly became obvious that the most successful occupation in the Lowcountry was that of planter.  By the third generation, nearly all South Carolinians of French heritage (and South Carolinians in general) were slaveowners.[4]  We’ll talk about the enslaved people of the Lowcountry in the next article, including their heritage and daily lives.

Many sources seem to indicate that the Huguenots assimilated so effectively that they lost all cultural identity as French and all cohesiveness as an immigrant group.  I don’t find that to be true. You have only to visit Charleston to find French influences in everything from architecture to naming, and especially in its unique and wonderful cuisine.

I’ll leave you with a bit of a cliffhanger! You’ll notice that in Southern Rain, Frederick Ravenel, who is the ancestor of the modern Ravenels, says with all of the political incorrectness of his era, “I wouldn’t want Catholic children,” and seems to hold to that determination throughout.  Yet, we know that the modern Ravenels are, in fact, Catholic. Hmm…how did that happen? Guess you’ll have to read the second book in the Torn Asunder Series to find out! 😊

[1] LeClercq, Anne Sinkler Whaley, An Antebellum Plantation Household (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006), pp. x.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Maurer, Nancy, The Evolution of French Identity: A Study of the Huguenots in South Carolina, 1680-1740 (2006), pp. 12.

[4] Ibid, 66.

Sources:

Reformation (2019), https://www.britannica.com/event/Reformation.

Huguenot History, https://www.huguenotsociety.org/heritage/history/.

LeClercq, Anne Sinkler Whaley, An Antebellum Plantation Household (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2006).

Maurer, Nancy, The Evolution of French Identity: A Study of the Huguenots in South Carolina, 1680-1740 (2006).

Protestant Immigration to Louisiana, https://www.britannica.com/event/Reformation.

Image Credit:

Carolina, The French Huguenots, https://www.carolana.com/Carolina/Settlement/french_huguenot_settlers.html.

*P.S. I tried to include both scholarly and more readable sources. I have many more.  If you would like them, just ask, and I’ll get the links to you!

History Behind the Story Series

To celebrate the release of Southern Rain tomorrow, I am launching a series of fun articles dealing with the history behind the story.  I thought it might be fun to look at some the circumstances that molded the plot lines for the book and give you an opportunity to ask any historical questions you might have.  Right now, I’ll give the list of topics I’m planning to cover.  Let me know if there’s a topic you would like to see that isn’t mentioned, and I’ll cover it, too!

  1. French Huguenots in South Carolina
  2. Enslaved People of the Lowcountry
  3. Fashion on the Brink of the Civil War
  4. Societal Rules and Quirky Charleston Customs
  5. Kissing Cousins – Did People Really Marry Their First Cousins?
  6. A Break-down in Civilities – Rhetoric Before the War
  7. The Congregationalist Church in New England
  8. Abolition in New England
  9. The Navy Before the Civil War
  10. Rose O’Neal Greenhow

Happy National Read a Book Day!

Reading has always been a part of my life.  I was fortunate enough to be born into a family who made reading a priority (and who was patient with my bookworm ways!).  My mom is an elementary school principal who believes very strongly in the cognitive, social, and emotional benefits of reading to children from their earliest years.  She wears a lanyard which says “Read 20 every day,” encouraging parents to read to their children for at least twenty minutes.  Just yesterday, while babysitting my two-year-old niece, we read no less than ten books together.  And the really neat part is: she LOVES it and seems to think there’s something magical within the covers.  Her parents read to her all the time, so she will probably always have a love for reading.

I strongly believe that the benefits of reading are just as huge for adults.  It keeps our minds active, calms us, opens our eyes to new worlds, piques our interest, gives us something to think about, and, often, it changes us.  There are books that have altered the entire way I view the world.  Books give us empathy, whittle away at our prejudices, let us walk in someone else’s shoes.  Then there are humorous books that lift our spirits and have us altering our bleak outlook and realizing that everything is going to be okay.  And finally, there is the sheer enjoyment value.  There’s nothing like a really good book to spark the joy of living.  And the best part is, if you don’t have a background as a reader, it is absolutely never too late to start!

And so, in honor of all of this, I thought I would give honorary awards to books that have meant something to me.  Here we go!

Best Young Children’s Book:
The Snowy Day,
by Ezra Jack Keats

Best Intermediate Children’s Book:
The Doll People,
by Ann M. Martin

Best YA Book:
Stormbreaker (The Alex Rider Series), 
by Anthony Horowitz

Best Historical Christian Fiction:
A Bride Most Begrudging, 
by Deeanne Gist
Ties with
The Lady of Milkweed Manor, 
by Julie Klassen

Best Modern Christian Fiction:
Surrender Bay,
by Denise Hunter

Best Christian Suspense:
Shadows of Lancaster County, 
by Mindy Starns Clark

Best Mystery:
The Lord Peter Wimsey Series,
by Dorothy L. Sayers

Best Mainstream Historical Fiction Biopic:
America’s First Daughter, 
by Stephanie Dray & Laura Kamoie

Best Perspective-Shifting Book:
The Blue Castle, 
by L,M. Montgomery

Most Heart-Changing Book:
Redeeming Love,
by Francine Rivers

Most Hilarious Book:
Now That You Mention It, 
by Kristan Higgins

Best Mainstream Historical Romance:
Bath Tangle, 
by Georgette Heyer

Best Literary Romance:
Persuasion, 
by Jane Austen

Best Historical Biography:
Thomas Jefferson and the Art of Power,
by John Meacham

Best Historical Non-Fiction
Flyboys, 
by James Bradley

Best Nonfiction Relationship Self-Help:
Who’s Picking Me Up from the Airport (and Other Questions Single Girls Ask),
by Cindy Johnson

Best Book on Prayer:
Open Mind, Open Heart, 
by Thomas Keating
Ties With
Discerning the Voice of God, by Priscilla Shirer

Let me know which books your awards would go to!  Happy National Read a Book Day!

-Tara