Book Review: Engraved On The Heart by Tara Johnson

BONUS POST simply because this book has been on my mind since I finished it a few days ago.

Reluctant debutante Keziah Montgomery lives beneath the weighty expectations of her staunch Confederate family, forced to keep her epilepsy secret for fear of a scandal. As the tensions of the Civil War arrive on their doorstep in Savannah, Keziah sees little cause for balls and courting. Despite her discomfort, she cannot imagine an escape from her familial confines―until her old schoolmate Micah shows her a life-changing truth that sets her feet on a new path . . . as a conductor in the Underground Railroad.

Dr. Micah Greyson never hesitates to answer the call of duty, no matter how dangerous, until the enchanting Keziah walks back into his life and turns his well-ordered plans upside down. Torn between the life he has always known in Savannah and the fight for abolition, Micah struggles to discern God’s plan amid such turbulent times.

Battling an angry fiancé, a war-tattered brother, bounty hunters, and their own personal demons, Keziah and Micah must decide if true love is worth the price . . . and if they are strong enough to survive the unyielding pain of war.

This is Tara’s debut novel, and I’m really hoping she has something new coming down the pike. Her style and meaningful depth of writing make my heart so happy.

When I first started reading “Engraved on the Heart”, I was skeptical. Being a faithful resident of the South, I was defensive against the kind of light that was being shed on the Confederacy’s shortcomings that I prefer not to dwell upon. However, Tara had a way of tugging me into the story and look objectively (something I’m still learning to do as I write my manuscript, also set around the Civil War period).

What I loved most about this story, though, was the delicate way Tara wove story with history. She took the dark and dirty and gave it hope. I love that. I find that Christian books don’t go to the darkest parts like they should, but that was not the case for this book. Both my heart and my morals were invested in the story by the time I read the first few chapters.

Keziah reminded me so much of myself, with her timidity yet strong desire to do the right thing. I loved watching her grow and change for the better through the duration of this novel. Tara did a wonderful job developing a character that functioned on her own, apart from the love interest. Speaking of which, Micah is a total sweetheart. I wish I could put him in a jar and carry him around in my pocket. That’s all I’ll say about him, you should just read for yourself!

In conclusion, this novel is amazing and you should buy it! Support a debut author and join me in encouraging her to release another book soon!

What are you currently reading?

ACFW 2018: Nashville

Hey, guess what? I’m alive! I missed last Thursday’s post due to some personal problems (aka Caitlyn being a drama queen and wallowing in self pity), and the website has also gone under a major re-vamp… again. Trying to establish my brand here, and it’s easier said than done for someone who loves too many things to narrow it all down. Anyways, on to this entry!

Two weekends ago, I had the amazing opportunity to go to the American Christian Fiction Writer’s Conference in Nashville. It was the single best decision I made in regards to my writing since investing in a computer. Not only were the tracks and workshops super informative, but the community is absolutely priceless. When you sit down at a table for lunch, you don’t really know who you’re going to sit beside. I would never know that I sat beside an author who has 30+ published books had she not told me. The playing field was completely level and not separated by class or position in the writing journey. It was refreshing to be able to talk about the craft for hours and no one got annoyed/confused/bored. On top of that, there was a mutual love for Jesus that influenced the entire event. Each morning, there was a worship time that kicked the day’s events off and got everyone in the right mindset. Rachel Hauck was the worship leader, and boy can she SING. I’ve just purchased one of her books, and I can’t wait to dig into it. Overall, morning worship was one of the highlights of the event.

My favorite part, however, was that the conference was saturated in prayer. There was a prayer room, which I visited just before my first agent appointment to calm my nerves. There was a sweetheart of a lady there ready to pray with anyone who came through, and after her sweet prayer over me, I was able to get through the interview confidently and didn’t burst into tears until AFTERWARDS. (Those second-day conference nerves are REAL.)

The first picture of the conference was with Jenna, the girl I found in the lobby with her nose in a book. I marched right up to her and practically forced her to be my friend, but she was surprisingly compliant. This girl was my lifeline for this entire event. We fangirled over one another’s favorite authors, cheered each other on, and it was super hard to tell her goodbye at the end of everything. Jenna, if you’re reading this, you’re the MVP! She even took notes for me when I had to step out of Angie Hunt’s workshop for an appointment.

The inside of the Gaylord Hotel was absolutely stunning. It’s like an entire town within the building. What little time Jenna and I had to spare, we went exploring and located the essential coffee shops for future reference. Priorities.

The Agent Panel on the first night was a huge lifesaver. It eased my nerves about pitching to the two on the far left, and also gave me wonderful insights into the industry. It definitely kept me from making a fool out of myself in the future.

LOOK WHO I RAN INTO! Mary Connealy is one of my all-time favorite authors, and I love how she weaves humor and romance together so seamlessly. She was so gracious to stop and talk to me for a moment, in spite of the hectic schedule of the conference. I thoroughly embarrassed myself at dinner by running up to her table like a tween at a Justin Bieber concert. “I LOVE YOUR WORK!” I said. Classy, Caity. Real classy.

That’s a wrap for Day 1!

Brandilyn Collins was the emcee of the event, and she did a wonderful job! Here she is introducing the band on Day 2 at breakfast.

Dan Walsh speaking to us about “the struggle” in the Newbie Track.

Debbie Macomber (you can’t really see her, but she’s there) was our Keynote Speaker. We laughed and laughed at her stories and our hearts strengthened under her encouragement. She was wonderful!

My reminder before my first agent appointment to keep things in perspective. “Lord, this was Your story before it was ever mine. Do with it what You will”. The appointment was very fruitful, complete with some hard-to-take advice that strengthened my confidence once I was through being overwhelmed with a reality shock.

I had to miss some of Angie Hunt talking about story and structure, but Jenna hooked me up with the notes. Sitting under her was like sitting under a waterfall of knowledge. She is a genius. Emilie Hendryx taught on platform and branding, hence the website update. Go follow her on Instagram @createexploreread!!

Then, I went to my hotel and slept and slept and slept.

When I walked into the Historical Fiction workshop on the final day, I saw Karen Witemeyer and just about had a come-apart. Since I was 13 or 14 years old, this lady’s books have kept me writing. I emailed her when I was 15, talking about my dreams to pubish. She responded with a truck load of kindness, taking me seriously and telling me to join the ACFW. Well, here we are 5 years later and I finally took you up on that, Mrs. Karen! She was so sweet and kind. She even let me take a video of her waving to send to my friend. I’m telling you, these people are the absolute best.

Remember that meltdown I kind of had on the second day? This sweet lady, hyped up on Benadryl, sat with me and talked everything out with me until I was able to go back to my workshop and not be completely overwhelmed. She was so kind to me through the whole ordeal, and never once told me I was being ridiculous. (Special thanks to Camille, who is not pictured, who also sat with me until I wasn’t such a wreck!)The Romance Panel was a huge help (I had another agent appointment in the middle of it, but what I got to hear was so helpful!) Pretty much all of these workshops were top-notch and I could have learned something from any and all of them. Seeing as to how I’m always a little embarrassed to admit that I write romance novels, this workshop was the companionship I needed and made me realize that I had nothing to be ashamed of. It was such a blessing! The Plotter vs. Pantser workshop was hilarious with Lynette Eason and Carrie Stuart Parks. I’m a pantser through-and-though, but was able to glean some good info from both sides. (Can I just say how I love Joy Massenburge as well? Her happiness is so infectious.) I learned a bit about writing suspense as well, which was much needed for this girl.

img_9382The last workshop, Engaging the Culture through Fiction, was like meeting with Jesus. Rachel Hauck, Colleen Coble, and Liz Curtis Higgs led this workshop and spoke about how we represent our Savior through our writing and how He can infiltrate every single aspect of the process. They talked about Jesus’ story structure, how we approach the deep and dark subjects, and basically lit a fire under us to DIG DEEPER. This was my favorite workshop of them all, and I left with a full notebook and an even fuller heart.

The following are some photos from the Awards Gala later that night.

The best part was that there was coffee after every meal. I mean, this is a professional event and that coffee was a lifesaver. “OH HEY MRS CONNEALY CAN WE GET ANOTHER PICTURE?!?!”

Honestly, this conference was a priceless blessing. I am so thankful for this opportunity to met so many amazing people. It was super hard to leave, but that’s the thing about authors. You never really tell them goodbye, you just go home and revisit them in their books!

Before heading home Sunday morning, we roamed around a rainy downtown Nashville and did some sightseeing.

The exhaustion is real in this face.

Ya know, when in Nashville, you HAVE to eat barbecue. It was perfection, and I would almost make the 3 hour drive just to go back.

Thank you for joining me in revisiting this wonderful event! Now, I have to get back to writing. Lots of edits to make for this girl!

“But what will they think?”

Let me preface this article by quoting Proverbs, “where no counsel is, the people fall: but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.” When we seek out other opinions, we should be careful how we approach it. We seek council for perspective, not approval. Naturally, I just want to make people happy. I want them to like me and to be proud of me. The “I don’t give” mindset does not come naturally to me, and not mad about that. However, being a chronic people-pleaser has it’s own downfalls. Here’s how I try to combat those downfalls…

“I can’t write about that!”

“I can’t say that!”

“My character can’t do that!”

“Oh, but what will they THINK?”

Am I the only one who has these kinds of conversations in my head? Daily, it’s a war between what my heart wants to say and how receptive people will be to it. By default, I am driven by fear. Fear of being unloved, unheard, unwanted, and also eaten by creatures who live just beyond the treeline at night.

Even when I have an amazing idea, my first thought always goes to, “but what will the others think of this? Is this going to affect how well I am loved?”

There are 3 questions that I ask myself when these thoughts start popping up.

Question#1: Who wears the pants? 

No, seriously. Who makes your decisions for you? At the end of it all, whether you fall or fly, who will you answer to? The ones who didn’t like your idea? No, you will stand alone before the King. No one will hold your hand when you have to face the music for the decisions you have made. So… why are you letting their approval influence you? Why do they get a say? If there is a story burning in your heart, isn’t it your responsibility to write it? I’m a firm believer that not every story is meant to be published, but that doesn’t mean that every story isn’t meant to be written. We grow personally through the stories we write. We find out what we believe and where we stand. Those are high stakes to hinge on someone else’s approval.

 Question #2: So what?

So what if someone close to you hates what you have to say? So what if no one sees the beauty in the world like you? Does that make your words matter less? No! I will never understand my tendency to tiptoe around other people as if what they think has any substantial weight. Because here is the truth. If just one person reads what you write and feels something, even for a moment, then you are successful. No, it’s not when you’re swimming in millions like J.K. Rowling, it’s not when your book gets turned into a movie, and it’s not when you make the New York Times Bestseller list. It’s when one person, curled up in bed on a Monday night, reads the words that YOU wrote, and thinks “hey, maybe I’m not as alone as I thought.” That is when you know you’ve done something real. This world has forgotten how beautiful it is to feel things deeply. God gave us the ability to be influencers, creators, dreamers, builders, and doers. He gave us the capacity to use that ability to get inside someone’s head and start moving things around. We wield such a strong power that we have to be mindful of how we use it. That’s where our relationship with God and the Spirit comes into play.

But I digress. Bottom line, don’t let anyone influence your message but God. No one else has the authority.

Question #3: What are you going to do about it?

There is a course of action to accompany every problem you face. Even when you don’t take action, there are still repercussions for whatever you do or do not do. When I face criticism at the hands of either myself or someone else, part of me is hurt. Then, the stronger part of me is grateful. Why? Because no one grows without adversity. No one knows what grit they have until they have to power through some obstacles. I’m not used to obstacles, and that’s why I’m shocked when they come along. Not because I do everything so amazingly that I am above reproach, but because I’ve never done anything worth someone objecting to it. So, when someone doesn’t like what I do, then I know I’m doing something worthwhile and I let it grow me. I let it thicken my skin… after I wallow in a shallow pool of self pity and loathing (working on that). Regardless of where you’ve been or where you’re going, there’s a way to grow. There’s a way to get stronger, smarter, and better.

 

In conclusion, don’t change your message to cater to some muggle who doesn’t care about your magic. When you cross over into eternity, you are not going to be holding their hand and championing their approval. You will go alone, holding nothing but the bleeding heart you kept on your sleeve. We spend so much time worrying about approval when we are running out of time! You don’t get rollover minutes. You don’t get to cash in the effort you saved in your life. This is all you get. Life is happening now, right before your eyes. Seconds are ticking by, and each one takes another opportunity with it.

You’re chasing approval. Stop it! The time is now. The people are the ones in front of you. This is the day.

Carpe the dang diem already!

Does God Care About My Novel?

I’ve encountered this question several times as I’ve written stories.

Does God really care about this story? I mean, it has no eternal consequence, right?

Doubt crept into my mind and I backed away from telling stories. Novels weren’t “big” enough for a ministry. They weren’t flashy like a nonprofit, or a church ministry. They had no weight to them because they were just… stories. I tried finding my “niche” outside of writing – outside of what I knew was my calling. It’s no surprise that I came up empty handed. This went on for 2 years, until I eventually came back with a story burning in my heart. This story, was the beginning of “The Insurrectionary Gray”. Three years ago, I was on my way home from visiting my brother on a military base, and I thought of an idea. I wanted to write about a soldier. So, I pulled out my notebook and began writing the premise, just like that. It took next to no thought as I began feverishly penciling the backstory of my main character. Then, I was home.

Tirelessly, I worked on this story and became wrapped up in it. I wrote 6 chapters or so, then started over because it needed to be first person to really pack a punch. In with new subplots, out with the old. I loved it, and I couldn’t wait to show the world my masterpiece. When it was over,  I shared it. Then, with reader feedback, I began editing. I edited it again and again, then the familiar doubt returned.

This story had no eternal consequence. The message I wanted to convey would surely fall on deaf ears and people would close the book in the exact same mindset with which they started. My characters, stories, and themes would be forgotten as soon as people read “The End”.  I didn’t want to see it again. I poured two years of my life into this story, and now my mind had convinced itself that it didn’t matter. What a waste!

With time, I came back around to the story and reread it. Slowly, I fell in love with Kade Jordan and his story. I loved his message, and I convinced myself that it “mattered” again. Now, I was serious about publication. This was it, this is what I was called to do!

Then, guess what came back around again as I was preparing for my first writer’s conference? Doubt. Fear.

Frantically, I set out to keep polishing the story and making sure it was shining. There was no time for thinking now! I was already committed to this thing, and I was going to follow through! Shoving the doubts into the back of my mind, I kept them locked up and refused to deal with them. That worked for a while, but then I knew I could not hide them away any longer. I had to do some serious soul searching.

While I was searching, my writing was my “protected thing” from God. It was unconsciously saying, “No, God. This is mine, and You have to wait until I’m ready before I let you have it. What if you tell me not to go through with it? Then where will I be? My life plan will be ruined. Everyone will start giving me that smug look they usually do when they find out I’m just coasting again. They’ll think I’m pointless just like they used to.”

Slowly, the Lord nudged at my heart. I was reminded of the verse in Colossians, which now serves as a banner for me.

“… that in all things He may have the preeminence.” (Col. 1:18)

Did God have preeminence in my writing? Had I surrendered that part of me to Him? Was my heart saying, “Just use me, Lord. Even if you have to ruin me first, just use me”?

It was not.

“But this is ME, God! This is the one thing that is MINE that no one can touch!” I said, ignoring the truth that God was speaking into my heart. He reminded me that if I held something up between me and Him, then He had more than enough power to take it away. He is a jealous God, and will not compete for the throne of my heart with anything.

Surrender was hard. It still is. Some days my prayers come out as, “help me to be successful” instead of “use me if You will”. It’s a perspective shift that hasn’t come full circle yet, but isn’t life just like that?

Then, I began to read stories and I noticed how my thoughts changed because of them. I saw a change within my heart at the end of a story that had a good, moral meaning to it. I experienced how a fiction novel changed my heart, and then it all started mattering again.

I still feel the peace that washed over me when I realized that it was not up to me to get my life in order. It was not up to me to make my book marketable, it was not up to me to make sure I was likable enough to be able to pitch the book well, and it was not up to me to make myself a success.

Why? Because this was not my story. This was God’s story that He planted in my mind to be told, and I just carried out whatever ideas He allowed me to come across. If I fall flat on my face, well then guess what? Jesus will pick me back up and show me where to go. With God, there are no dead ends. There are no pieces too broken. There is no “too far gone”. Sometimes, though, there’s a “that’s the wrong way, Caity. Come on back now”. My job is to tell the story as best as I can, and let the Savior do the rest.

So, does God care about my story? Yes, because this book was His long before it was mine, just as I was His long before this story came into my mind. If The Insurrectionary Gray never becomes published, well then guess what? I’ll be fine, and it will not be a waste. It started out between me and God, and that’s how it will end. I poured my heart into every word and every sentence. I prayed, I studied, and I deserted. I put the story before God, then gave it back to Him. Through it all, this story has grown me closer to Jesus. I am His, and He is mine. Whether or not His story gets told, I reckon that’s up to the King. It’s the same way for you, too! Whether it’s a story, a career, a ministry, etc. It’s not up to you to be anything but faithful.

We worry so much about things that God has already worked out in His way, we just have to press into Him.

Leaning > Leading.

What I Read in August

Confession: I’m a super slow reader. Not as in, “the… dog… chased… the… orange… cat…”

I’m more like, “the dog chased the orange cat… hmm. Why did they list the cat’s color but not the dog’s? What about the dog’s backstory could possibly contribute to the reason he is chasing the cat? Will this be revealed later in the story? Oh, I lost my place. Where was I? Well, might as well start this paragraph over.”

It’s exasperating, but I am what I am.

In the month of August, I read only 2 books, both of which are now on my “all time favorites” list. I will review both of them for you in this here blog post.

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Okay, let’s just jump right into it then.

#1 The Sentinels of Andersonville by Tracy Groot.

Near the end of the Civil War, inhumane conditions at Andersonville Prison caused the deaths of 13,000 Union soldiers in only one year. In this gripping and affecting novel, three young Confederates and an entire town come face-to-face with the prison’s atrocities and will learn the cost of compassion, when withheld and when given.

Sentry Dance Pickett has watched, helpless, for months as conditions in the camp worsen by the day. He knows any mercy will be seen as treason. Southern belle Violet Stiles cannot believe the good folk of Americus would knowingly condone such barbarism, despite the losses they’ve suffered. When her goodwill campaign stirs up accusations of Union sympathies and endangers her family, however, she realizes she must tread carefully. Confederate corporal Emery Jones didn’t expect to find camaraderie with the Union prisoner he escorted to Andersonville. But the soldier’s wit and integrity strike a chord in Emery. How could this man be an enemy? Emery vows that their unlikely friendship will survive the war―little knowing what that promise will cost him.

As these three young Rebels cross paths, Emery leads Dance and Violet to a daring act that could hang them for treason. Wrestling with God’s harsh truth, they must decide, once and for all, Who is my neighbor?

There are many reasons that this is an amazing book. I’ll narrow down to the main ones, though.

First of all, the raw truth in this story is unrivaled by any other fiction novel I have read. There’s a weight to the suffering of the Andersonville prisoners that tugs at your heart strings and makes you beg for their salvation. I loved that Tracy didn’t shy from the truth. Second, the symbolism in this story is my favorite thing about it. The people of Americus would rather turn a blind eye while their enemy is suffering in the most inhumane way. It’s descriptive, detailed, and stomach-churning while still not being able to touch all of the horror that was the Andersonville prison. However, while giving descriptive detail of the horror, Tracy adds wit and humor that made me lough out loud at 11:00 at night when I should have been sleeping. Thanks to Mrs. Groot, the phrase  “How unchristian! Do go on,” is now a regular patron of my vocabulary. Lastly, I especially loved how the characters had a “philosophical bent” to them. I would not have appreciated Dance Pickett near as much without his beautiful words.

The only grievance I had with this book was the ending. **SPOILER ALERT** I would have liked to read about Dance’s recovery from his brief time in the prison, but we are transported past all of that and to the epilogue. Now that I think on it, who am I to complain? At least he lived!

Final Thought: Buy it. Read it. You will not be disappointed.

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#2 Redeeming Love by Francine Rivers.

California’s gold country, 1850. A time when men sold their souls for a bag of gold and women sold their bodies for a place to sleep. Angel expects nothing from men but betrayal. Sold into prostitution as a child, she survives by keeping her hatred alive. And what she hates most are the men who use her, leaving her empty and dead inside.

Then she meets Michael Hosea, a man who seeks his Father’s heart in everything. Michael obeys God’s call to marry Angel and to love her unconditionally. Slowly, day by day, he defies Angel’s every bitter expectation, until despite her resistance, her frozen heart begins to thaw.

But with her unexpected softening comes overwhelming feelings of unworthiness and fear. And so Angel runs. Back to the darkness, away from her husband’s pursuing love, terrified of the truth she no longer can deny: Her final healing must come from the One who loves her even more than Michael does…the One who will never let her go.

A powerful retelling of the story of Gomer and Hosea, Redeeming Love is a life-changing story of God’s unconditional, redemptive, all-consuming love.

I’m not going to spend a lot of time on this book, but I am going to refer you to my friend’s website, where she reviews this book and does it justice. I picked up this book from the library after Hannah and her sister both recommended it to me. Let me just say, this book will change your life. It will make you cry your eyes out and make you feel like you haven’t a thimble full of love in your heart, after all. This book has lasting effects, trust me. Go find it as soon as you possibly can.

All in all, here are my final thoughts: Well done, Mrs. Rivers. Well done.

Now, I have more books to read in September! There’s a lot going on this month (not to mention turning 21 *insert party emoji here*), but I will try to make it through at least 2 novels this month! It’s bad when a writer has to force herself to slow down and read, but “it be what it be”.

What books have you read this past month? Leave a comment and let me know!