Reading books with children in the house is a bit like trying to brush your teeth while eating Oreos.
Finding time to read has been a challenge since I took on the title of “Mom”. Where once upon a time I devoured books, now I simply nibble at stories here and there. Bedtime is my favorite time to read, but many days I find myself so exhausted by the time I lay down that my eyes close just minutes after cracking open my book.
In recent months, I’ve made more of an effort to fit reading back into my days. My reasons have been two-fold: First, I just miss reading. I miss getting lost in a book. Second, I want my kids to see me reading.
With the onslaught of social media, and the ever present electronics, I’ve found that motivating my children to read has become increasingly difficult. Too may other things vie for their attention, and reading is a chore. It is one more thing to check off the list so they can have their electronic time.
By sitting down in the middle of the room and reading in front of them, I hope to show my kids that reading is actually an acceptable, and even enjoyable, pastime. If I only read before bed, then they naturally assume that I never read books, either. And if I don’t do it, why should they?
It’s a huge challenge, but the effort has been worth it. I finished three books in January, which isn’t necessarily brag-worthy, but it’s something!
Below, I’m going to leave my review of the most recent book I finished, Everyone Brave is Forgiven. But first, tell me: When do you find time to read? Do you set reading goals for yourself each year, or just see what happens? Do you try to read in front of your kids?
I’m honestly still processing this book, trying to discern how I feel about it.
On one hand, it might be one of the most beautiful books I’ve ever read. The story in and of itself wasn’t overly impressive or unique, but the language used to tell the story was achingly poetic and rich…most of the time.
Sometimes, I simply didn’t know what the author was saying.
Chris Cleave is undoubtedly an incredibly talented writer. His use of language to describe a scene is awe-inspiring, and there were several times that I found myself rereading a paragraph just to soak in the description again.
“She laughed then, brightly and without complication, and he laughed too, and for a moment the war with its lachrymose smoke was blown away on a bright, clean wind.” (Everyone Brave is Forgiven, pg. 173)
Besides the face that I had to look up “lachrymose” to see what it meant (“tearful”), it was descriptions like this that often gave me goosebumps.
Sometimes, however, the descriptions were so wildly cheeky, I couldn’t for the life of me figure out what was being said.
“Rubble to build on caught no one’s attention but theirs. It did not catch the light, having no promise but what the brought with them. He tried not to be afraid. London was a lightening of the sky. It was the bloody last hour of a milk tooth. It was a city dying to begin.” (Everyone Brave is Forgiven, pg. 402)
I think I know what he was saying there, but I had to read that entire page several times before I finally just gave up and moved on.
As for the story itself, it was a sad one, but the war was a sad time, wasn’t it? My American sensibilities are constantly in conflict with the painful reality of history. Happily ever after is a notion that doesn’t fit well into the back drop of World War II, so as stories go, I appreciated the realism, even if I occasionally wish things could turn out differently.
In the end, I would recommend this book to others on the caveat that you may want to keep a dictionary nearby. And understand that this isn’t one of those quick beach reads. This is more a book to be savored, read slowly and digested carefully.
When working on Like a River From Its Course, I knew that I wanted to give as historically accurate a glimpse into World War II Soviet Ukraine as I could while still offering myself plenty of creative license with the stories. Having so many real life stories to draw from helped shape many of the characters and their narratives, but what about the side stories?
What about the real life men and women responsible for the heinous acts of the 1940’s?
Writing a book about World War II is daunting. The market is fairly saturated with stories from that era, so how would I write about those days in a way that was fresh and new? I needed to add an element of realism to make those wretched years come alive.
I spent countless hours researching the events that took place in Kiev, Ukraine, with the largest tragedy occurring at Babi Yar, the “killing ditch” where roughly 34,000 men, women, and children were killed in just two days time.
The mastermind behind that horrific event was a man named Paul Blobel.
A wicked, wretched little man, Blobel not only took credit for ordering thousands of Jews killed, but he was known to speak highly of his involvement in these mass executions.
In one of the books I read, a story was told of the day that Blobel and one of the Gestapo leaders drove past Babi Yar. The decomposing bodies of the Jews lay smoldering in the narrow ravine, and as the story goes, Blobel looked at the smoke, rising into the air in plumes of heartache, and said to his comrade, “This is my ditch. Isn’t it grand?”
The level of hatred that this one man possessed, and the demons that operated from his shell of a body were hard for me to comprehend. There were days when I had to swallow hard the bile of anger as I considered his actions, and those of the many like him.
It is these aspects of the book that make the story gritty and tough to read. I couldn’t possibly gloss over the sheer darkness of those days and somehow honor the fallen. If we are to respect their memories at all, then we must respect the wretched ways in which they died.
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Including some of the real life characters in the book gave me a chance to show the extreme depravity of these men. But it also shined a light on the beauty and resilience of those who fought and survived those years.
Juxtaposed against Paul Blobel’s ugliness was the beauty of Ivan Kyrilovich, a man who was willing to give his life for his Jewish neighbors. Maria Ivanovna was willing to take a beating for her friend. Luda Michaelvna chose love over hatred after being assaulted. Sergei Ivanov worked as a partisan, despite the danger it put him in.
For all the horror of World War II, there was a whole lot of hope, and when you start mining through all these stories you find that the wretchedness of men like Paul Blobel cannot withstand the ultimate beauty of the human spirit.
We live in a day when fear is ever present. Tensions are high around the world, and there’s no better time than now to look at the past and to remember that the spirit of a man cannot be so easily quenched.
There’s still time to enter the Kindle Fire Giveaway if you haven’t done so yet. It’s quick and easy to enter, and the prize is great! You can win a copy of Like a River Form Its Course, a Kindle Fire with the case of your choice, and a $30 Amazon gift card.
After years of research. And a few more years of seeking representation. And then a few months of seeking publication. And then another year of editing and marketing and incessantly talking about the book.
HERE IT IS!
Like a River From Its Course officially launches today. This is the day I’ve been waiting for since I was 22 years old. This is the day I dreamed about.
These are the stories I wanted the world to hear.
I pray I’ve done them justice. I pray that the men and women who are represented by this book are honored, because my deepest heart’s desire is to prove that there are still stories we haven’t heard.
In a world that feels unpredictable and frightening, I wanted to offer a book that gave hope. Four years ago, I visited Tanzania with Compassion international, and in the deep red soil of Africa, the Lord imprinted upon my heart the words that would become my life’s anthem:
The evidence of that truth becomes more and more clear to me with each passing day. Hope is slow. But oh my friends, hope is alive. It is so alive, and it’s real, and when the world feels dark and scary and uncertain, we can cling to the fact that hope is here.
We need the stories in this book for such a time as this. We need to be reminded that man cannot be so easily broken. We need to recall a time when people rallied against a greater evil. We must remember the men and women who put their own lives on the line so that they could protect their neighbors.
We need these stories. And we need them right now.
I don’t know if I’ve done a good job with this book launch. I don’t know if I’ve become annoying with all the promoting and marketing. I don’t know if I’ve spoken to the right people. Maybe I’ve been too forward. Maybe I’ve been too timid.
I’ve made mistakes along the way, and I’ve learned a whole lot in the process.
But today I know that none of that matters. Today is a celebration because today the book is officially out in the world.
Today I can finally say I delivered on my promise to share these stories.
Today I can say I’ve seen a dream fulfilled.
Today I give these stories as a gift to you. Please treasure them because they’re precious.
And today I say thank you to all the people who have cheered me on.
Thank you to the people who wouldn’t let me give up when I wanted to throw in the towel.
Thank you to the people who were waiting at the finish line with chocolates and cheers of excitement.
Setting a historical fiction novel in World War II Soviet Union might just be crazy.
When I set out to write my novel, I wanted to develop a story that was as historically accurate as possible while still offering myself creative license. This proved to be an overwhelming task given the vast history of those years, and the many different conflicting accounts of what happened.
There were times when I wanted to give up altogether.
Other times, I wondered if I should just make it Science Fiction. Hitler could be a Vampire, and all his cronies would be various forms of the undead.
It would’ve been a hot seller, but the premise sounded dumb, so I pressed on.
When it came to writing the Ukrainian characters, the stories flowed (almost) easily. I knew their stories, and so fictionalizing the tale didn’t feel like a chore. But writing the story of Frederick Herrmann, a young Nazi soldier hell-bent on carrying out the mission and task that his country and set before him left me almost paralyzed at times.
I am a bit of an idealist. The actions of the Nazi soldiers was something I couldn’t quite comprehend. How could so many young people follow so blindly the ideology of a clear tyrant and psychopath? How could they kill so robotically? And how did they live with themselves later?
I needed a reason, and so I set out to find one, but the research often led me to images that were so horrific, I had to step away. There were days when I hated Frederick and all that he stood for. I didn’t want to write of such atrocities, because I didn’t want to believe that people could really be that evil.
Frederick is the only purely fictional character in my book. While all of the other characters are based on the stories of men and women I met in Ukraine, Frederick came a little more reluctantly from my imagination.
I fought for Frederick. I wanted to redeem him somehow. I wanted there to be a reason for his wickedness, and in the end I think there was some redemption for his character, though it wasn’t what I expected when I began writing.
I won’t spoil the story for you, but I will tell you that Frederick eventually became one of my favorite characters to write. By the end of the story, I no longer hated him. I pitied him, and I pitied all the boys like him – the real ones who believed that they were right and justified in their mission.
I have to believe that there were lasting effects. I have to believe that for many, though I suspect not all, of those young men, the images that they saw, that were caused by their own calloused hands, haunted them for the rest of their lives.
How could they not?
Frederick Herrmann was a young man swallowed by the ideals of his country, and by a desperate need to please his father. His story may have been fictional, but many of his surroundings and experiences were not. The names of his commanders are the names of actual German leaders in Kiev in those years.
I set out to write a historical fiction story that stuck as close to fact as possible. Though Frederick is fictional, his story is not so unlike many of the young men from those desperate days.
In the end, Frederick became as real to me as any of the other characters.
I know some of you have read the book – what did you think? What are your thoughts on Frederick (without giving spoilers, please!)?
We sat around a long table inside a very small room. It was hot and loud, all the sounds and smells mixing together in a cornucopia that threw my senses into overload.
They’d made pizza for me, because I’m American and they felt pizza would be a comforting reminder of home.
They weren’t wrong.
I’d been invited to this private meeting because I’d shown such an interest in Maria’s story. I’d peppered her granddaughter, Alyona, with so many questions that she finally offered to bring me to her grandmother so I could ask my questions in person.
As soon as I met Maria, I fell instantly in love, and it wasn’t hard to see why. She was a small woman, her bright silver hair pulled back into a loose bun. Her blue eyes sparkled when she spoke, and the lines that crinkled her face revealed years of tenderness and laughter.
Her family called her Baba Mysa, an affectionate term combining the tender form of “grandma” with a word that translates “little fly.” When Baba Mysa spoke, the room got quiet. We wanted to hear what she had to say, wanted to soak up her grace and wisdom.
As I wrote my story, I knew I wanted to tell Maria’s story, but I also wanted to honor the Maria that I knew – the grandmother who exuded warmth and strength. I wanted readers to know both versions of the same woman.
The character of Maria Ivanovna is loosely based on my Maria’s story of survival during those dark years in the war. But the character of Baba Mysa is based upon the older, wiser Maria who gifted her story to me.
And I fell madly in love with this character.
Baba Mysa’s background and story is entirely fictional, but her mannerisms, humor, and strength are not. Baba Mysa exudes dignity, hope and survival. I adored writing this character because through her I was able to honor the woman who endured indescribable hardships and refused to dwell on them.
Today, I’m sharing a brief excerpt from my upcoming novel, Like a River From Its Course. In this section, Baba Mysa is sharing her story with Luda, encouraging her not to get wrapped up in the pain of the past, but to dwell in the beauty of the present.
For more information on the book, visit the book page where you’ll find more links to some of the history that inspired these stories, as well as Pinterest-worthy images, and links where you can preorder your copy!
Be blessed, friends.
Like a River From Its Course: An Excerpt – Baba Mysa
Baba rocks slowly and rhythmically back and forth in her rocking chair, her hands moving in perfect rhythm. The yarn begins to take shape, a perfect hat for Sasha’s tiny head.
“I want to tell you a story, Luda,” she says. Her voice is soft and warm. I sigh as I melt back into my chair nodding my head in concession.
“I was born a long time ago, deep in the heart of Ukraine. My father was a farmer, and my mother was his strong and doting wife. I grew up among the rows of wheat and vegetables that my father grew.”
Setting her work in her lap, Baba Mysa leans back and a serene look overcomes her face.
“I can still smell the scent of the cherry trees that surrounded our small country house. I feel the cool air of fall and remember every bit of peace as I walked along behind my father through the rows of potatoes. Everything about that time was simple and sweet.”
She pauses, and I look at her impatiently. I enjoy hearing a bit about her childhood, but I don’t understand what she’s trying to communicate.
“When I was ten years old, my father took me into the fields to harvest the potatoes. For hours, we pulled plants from the ground and filled baskets, which we lined up in a long row at the edge of our field. My parents would clean the potatoes later in the day and sell most of them in the local market. At least, that’s what they did every year before this one.”
Baba Mysa’s voice trails off, and I study her face. Her eyes are bright and clear as she stares hard at the wall, the memory playing out before her on an invisible stage.
“On this day, as father and I neared the last row, he told me a joke. I don’t remember what the joke was, but I wish I did, because those were the last words he ever spoke to me.”
My eyes focus in tight as I absorb the shock of her story. Her eyes remain still on the wall, wide and pained.
“As I laughed at his silly words, a man on a large horse rode quickly up to us. He shouted something about danger coming and told us to run. My father told him to take me, and the man scooped me up and fled with me. My last vision of my father is the sight of him standing in the fields, covered in dirt, his arm up in a solitary wave good-bye. I never saw him again.”
It’s quiet for some time as I process Baba Mysa’s story. She wipes her eyes several times, and I don’t speak in order to give her time and space. After a few moments, I finally work up the courage to say something.
“I’m so sorry, Baba,” I say quietly. “I’m so sorry you had to go through that terrible ordeal. But . . .” I pause, unsure of how to proceed without sounding harsh. “I’m just not sure I understand what that story has to do with me,” I say, and then I cringe. The words sound so selfish coming out of my mouth, and I immediately regret them.
Baba Mysa turns her head and studies me closely. She nods in approval at my acknowledgement of, and reaction to, the selfishness in my statement and she waits a beat before responding.
“It has nothing to do with you, child,” she says firmly. “But you can learn from it.” I nod and wait for her to continue, figuring it’s best to remain quiet at this point.
Baba Mysa sighs, and her fingers begin moving in and out of the yarn on her lap once again. “Life is full of heartache and hardship,” she says. “Very rarely will life make sense, and it will almost never seem fair. But if you remember that pain and heartache aren’t unique to only you, that you’re not the only one mired in circumstances that seem too great to bear, you’ll do much better in life.”