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When I was given the chance to review Maria Morera Johnson’s book Super Girls and Halos: My Companions on the Quest for Truth, Justice, and Heroic Virtue I jumped at the opportunity.  Not only was I intrigued by the title, but who wouldn’t want to read a book by someone whose most recent prizewinning bestseller was entitled My Badass Book of Saints?

I wasn’t disappointed as the book lives up to its title.  It grabbed my attention right at the beginning when the author revealed one of her earliest heroes:  Lieutenant Nyota Uhura of the Starship Enterprise.  Anyone who knows me and my family knows how we feel about Star Trek.  I knew immediately that Mrs. Johnson and I were kindred spirits.

You will never read another book that explores saints and their virtues the way this one does.  Mrs. Johnson blends her personal stories and insights with tales of secular heroines and saints who together exemplify similar virtues.  The Cardinal Virtues of Justice, Prudence, Fortitude, and Temperance are revealed to the reader via the stories of such pop culture icons as Wonder Woman, Dana Scully, Hermione Granger, and Katniss Everdeen, along with the lives of saints like St. Clare of Assisi, St. Mary Magdalene, St. Cunegunde, and St. Kateri Tekakwitha.

These engaging stories are accompanied by explication of the virtues from The Catechism of the Catholic Church and steps for the reader to follow to strive to attain each of them.  And although readers will be learning a lot about saints and virtues, it will feel more like  listening to stories told by a friend.

In her introduction, Mrs. Johnson recounts a moving story of her father’s excitement while watching the first moon landing on television, and how he encouraged her to put her little hand on the screen so that she could touch the future.  She writes:  “My dad, who was my hero, had heroes of his own.  It was a small lesson with a big impact: grown-ups had heroes who were other grown-ups . . . today, grown-up me has lots of grown-up heroes.  I call them saints.”

Reading this book encouraged me to think about my own heroes, and specifically about the saints who have inspired me.  I was a little girl when I first read The Song of Bernadette.  Later I chose St. Bernadette to be my Confirmation saint.

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Bernadette Soubirous was a humble young woman, impoverished and uneducated, who did not aspire to renown.  She found within herself unexpected faith and courage after the Blessed Mother appeared to her.  Once these apparitions ended she was content to enter religious life and lived in seclusion until her painful death from bone cancer at 34.  She refused offers to travel to the miraculous spring at Lourdes, remembering Mary’s words to her: “I cannot promise you happiness in this world but only in the next.”  Unquestioning faith, obedience, and humility are virtues I have yet to achieve but hope to through her intercession and example.

Several bloggers received free copies of Super Girls and Halos from Ave Maria Press in exchange for honest reviews.  There are 15 stops on this blog tour, and a giveaway is part of the fun! Please click below to enter.

Super Girls and Halos Giveaway

To read more Super Girls and Halos Blog Tour posts, click below:

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Who are your secular heroes?  What about your Saint Super Girl?  I’d love to hear if you’d care to share in the comments!

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You might remember a little over a year ago when I reviewed–very favorably–Page Zaplendam’s Order of the Blood.  I encourage you to click over and read my first review, which also includes an interview with the author.

I enjoyed this far from typical vampire novel very much and so I was thrilled to have the opportunity to read an advance copy of the sequel, The Egyptian Elixir.  I was provided with a free copy in exchange for my honest review.

From the book jacket:  When John Grissom and Van Helsing find themselves witnesses to an assassination attempt on the Marquis of Wellesley, they discover London’s most notorious purveyor of stolen goods at the bottom of it.  But his ability to influence people is odd to say the least.  The vampire and the hunter investigate, but the Egyptian elixir may prove the undoing of them both.

John Grissom is a Catholic, and doctor, and a gentleman, who also happens to be a vampire.  Van Helsing (not THAT one, but rather his ancestor) is a vampire hunter.  They form an unlikely crime-fighting duo in Regency-era England.  Throw in some English aristocrats, a dimwitted giant, and a mysterious Egyptian pharmacist and you’ve got a fast-moving and engaging tale.

I don’t want to give away too much, but I will say that what I enjoyed the most about this installment of the Unofficial Chronicles was the budding friendship between Van Helsing and Grissom.  Henrietta Isherwood, Grissom’s erstwhile assistant and potential love interest, is physically absent from this installment but obviously remains on Grissom’s mind.  She returns in the next book but her absence here allows the author to focus on the “bromance,” a good choice for this volume.

Now THIS is exciting.  To celebrate the release of the new book, you can get a free Kindle edition of Order of the Blood right here.  After you read it I promise you will want to buy the new book, which is available at a very reasonable price here.

If you want to learn more about Page’s work, and keep an eye out for her future stories (hint: there’s another book coming soon!), you can find her website here.

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Even when I was a little girl who still enjoyed getting toys for Christmas, I also looked forward to receiving books.  Then as a teenager I remember enjoying Christmas night, after all the festivities were finished, finally getting to lie on the sofa to read whichever book I was most excited about receiving.

Well, that hasn’t changed.  These days, if anyone asks me what I want for Christmas, I will have a list of books ready even if I cannot come up with anything else.  Usually these are the latest installment of favorite series that tend to appear in November.  I resist the temptation to buy them myself, eagerly anticipating receiving them as gifts.

I read very fast, so I’ve already finished most of my Christmas books, and am ready to share them with you!

This is the latest of Patricia Cornwell’s novels about Medical Examiner Kay Scarpetta, a series I have been enjoying and collecting for years.  Sadly, Cornwell seems to have peaked years ago, at least as far as this series goes.  Long gone are the detailed autopsies and absorbing stories I enjoyed.  While this one was better than some of her recent work, and I did enjoy it just because I care about the characters, I am tired of hearing about the same villain over and over again.  These days, all the attacks are against Kay and her family.  I’d like to see her get back to fighting criminals and being a voice for victims.  I’ll keep reading these, though.

Here’s another series and author I love, and was again disappointed with this go-round.  For one thing, I have been wondering for YEARS what the title of this book would be.  Ever since A is for Alibi Sue Grafton fans have tried to predict her titles and of course everyone could hardly wait to see how she handled this most difficult letter.  What an anti-climax.  She didn’t play by her own rules! I enjoyed the book–I still love the main character–but again it felt a bit like the author was phoning it in.  It seems like she has lost interest and is just trying to get to the end of the alphabet.  Even the way she peppered the story with unnecessary encounters with just about every one of the protagonist’s former love interests seemed forced, like a sop to fans.  Again, I’ll read the rest of these and hope that this was an anomaly because this is the first time I’ve felt disappointed in one of these.

I wrote about my desire to read this book in a very popular post last year.  While I have not yet put its principles into practice, it has definitely inspired me to declutter and tidy.  If I really end up following Marie Kondo’s method, I will let y’all know how it works out!  Unexpectedly, one thing I’ve enjoyed about it is small glimpses into Japanese culture (like offhand mentions of the problem of storing kimonos and items for tea ceremonies).  I do find myself talking about this book a lot, which tells me that parts of it resonate with me and I am being inspired to think about “things” in a different way.

Okay, so this one is a bonus.  This isn’t mine (it’s Emily’s) and it wasn’t a Christmas present (she bought it herself).  But I did read it, so I thought I’d tell y’all about it.  Now, I don’t expect a whole lot from movie novelizations.  The best part of reading them is finding little tidbits of backstory that were cut from the final script, and this does deliver on that score.  But oh my gosh, y’all, the purple prose!  The speechifying! The dialogue!  It was BAD.  Read the book if you loved the movie, by all means, but be prepared to laugh at what are supposed to be some solemn moments.

I’ve got two more Christmas books to read, which I will write about at a later time.  What have YOU been reading lately?

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“Sometimes I think, what if I don’t feed

When a vampire’s abilities and defects never fully develop, taking on the head of England’s biggest vampire sect could be a bad idea.

Ever since he was turned, John Grissom, bacteriologist, has worked to find a cure for the disease. A powerful peer of the realm approaches him about research into the immunological properties of vampire blood, but Grissom discovers a far more gruesome scheme at play. He, his newly acquired assistant Henrietta, and the Prussian Van Helsing, a veteran vampire hunter in the employ of the Foreign Service, must seek out the elusive vampire lord before he sets in motion a domino effect leading to Napoleon’s successful arrival on British shores.

I recently was offered the opportunity to read and review Order of the Blood:  The Unofficial Chronicles of John Grissom by Page Zaplendam. (Full disclosure: I received a free copy of the ebook but my opinions are my own.)

Now, y’all know I love to read.  And I have always enjoyed historical romances and fantasy.  This book has both.  Still, I was a little skeptical when I began to read.  After all, there have been a lot of vampire novels written recently.  What more could there be to say?

But John Grissom is not your typical vampire: debonair, bloodthirsty, seductive, and headed straight for hell.  Nor is he a modern vampire: gorgeous, angsty, tortured, all-powerful.  Instead he is a Catholic gentleman of the past (England, 1809), a scientist living with what he believes to be a disease, subsisting on the blood of animals and feverishly researching to find a cure.  Moreover, he still needs his glasses, is not super-strong or super-fast, and has no problem with daylight.

And he isn’t the only unwilling vampire attempting to live a virtuous life–indeed, the opening scene of the novel takes place at a support group meeting for the Afflicted, which will look very familiar to anyone who knows the format of an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting! It is there that he first spots Dr. Isherwood and his daughter, Henrietta, who will become his assistant and ally and possibly more than that in the future–I’ve been promised there are sequels on the way!

Besides introducing us to the main characters, including an ancestor of the famous Van Helsing, the novel is full of political intrigue and plotting that Grissom, an unlikely action hero, must attempt to thwart.  Zaplendam knows how to paint a picture of the era–the characters are clearly of their time (while still being relatable) and I loved all the little details such as the use of appropriate slang terms.  You can tell the author did her homework–she didn’t just plop modern characters into an old-fashioned setting.  I also appreciate that Grissom is a moral vampire whose Catholic faith and the state of his soul are important to him

This is a short novel, but every word counts.  A lot happens in this book and I am impressed by Zaplendam’s ability to world-build and create distinct–and likeable–characters with such economy.  I was sorry to see the story end and the first thing I asked the author was if there would be sequels.

I don’t want to spoil the story for you by saying any more.  Instead, I’ll share what I learned from the author herself when I interviewed her after reading the book.

Q: How long have you been writing fiction? Is this your first published work?

A: I have been writing fiction with the intent of becoming an author for at least seven years. It’s been difficult to fit it in when I have so many other time commitments. This is my first published fiction piece, the first of many.

Q: Why have you chosen to use a pen name? 

A: For a variety of reasons, but mainly to protect my family – publishing is so very public – and because I write in multiple genres.  Like other authors, I decided to use a pen name to help with creating and maintaining a specific author identity. Once I publish in a different genre, it will be under a different pen name.

Q: How does your Catholic faith inform your writing?

A: Excellent question. In regard to this book specifically, it always bothered me that in the vampire narrative, there was no exercise of free will. Our faith teaches us that we have free will; we can either cooperate with God’s graces or deny them. But becoming a vampire via the usual method – where one is turned against one’s will – seemed unfair and simplistic. 

Imagine a Catholic man, a hard-working, Mass attending father of a family. Coming home late one night he’s victimized by a vampire – and all of a sudden he’s an evil, murderous vampire? Not only does the individual not will to become a creature of evil, participating in evil, but how many people do we know that are evil for evil’s sake? We are far more complex than that. 

So I wanted to show the struggles that are likely were the vampire narrative actually a possibility. I re-imagined it this way, as a disease, because our faith teaches us that it is an impossibility for anyone, even Satan, to make our moral choices for us. A disease was the most rational explanation for vampirism, in order to explain how an individual could be affected by vampirism without it inhibiting their ability to exercise their free will. 

Ultimately, we must choose the good. Faced with the difficulties of requiring blood to survive, the age old moral question of taking another’s life for the sake of maintaining one’s own life, comes into play. Given the recent revealing videos on Planned Parenthood, I find this question to be especially relevant since it is one of the biggest justifications for abortion (life of the mother).

In the broader sense of how Catholicism informs my writing, I have to say ‘treatment of subject.’ As a Catholic writer, the final outcome of a story must be a moral outcome. Even if the writer is dealing with immoral elements, or temptations to sin, or perhaps even engages in sinful things, or is torn about the immorality of a given situation, the final conclusion, the takeaway as it were, must be reflective of objective morality (which Catholicism has the exclusive right to determine). In that respect, a Catholic writer can never justify premarital sex or divorce in their writing, or write about it in such a way that it would propose an occasion of sin for the reader. At times, it can take delicate handling, more so when using romantic elements. 

Q: What are your literary influences?

A: There are so many, but in particular Jane Austen and Charles Dickens. I don’t know that they have influenced my writing so much as they have influenced me and the things I love (which in turn influence my writing, so I must think there is a correlation there.) One can’t escape modernity though. We are a product of our age. And I really like that we can write things now in ways that would have been considered unacceptable in times past. I can start a sentence with ‘And,’ I can have my characters express what they are really thinking without the imposition of social restraint (as one sees in 19c novels for example). Of course, there is a certain artistry to being able to write within given parameters, no doubt. But I really enjoy being able to write in my own voice, which finds a lot of humor in a realization of the obvious.

Q: Why romance? Why vampires?

A: I was torn about what genre to place this in. Is it a historical? A paranormal? A romance, per se? The romance aspect of it was intended from the outset to be a side story, and I think I accomplished that. What can I say? At heart I am a romantic. I especially love the idea of how complicated life could get for an individual suffering from a disease that might endanger the loved one. There’s a lot of fodder there for conflict and drama, a writer’s dream really. 

And vampires because I haven’t yet come across a vampire narrative that really satisfied me. Vampirism is an extremely old narrative historically, almost medieval, and it was a response to the inability of medieval man to explain certain events. Vampires were among the ‘bogeymen’ of old. As far as folk villains go, a vampire is nearly iconic. As one who really loves folklore and fairy tales, that in itself was enough to intrigue me. 

Q: Vampires are ubiquitous in popular culture.   Is it a fair criticism to say that there’s nothing new to say about them?

A: I’ve often asked myself that same question about fiction as a whole. There are just so many books out there. What new thing could possibly be written? And the truth is, we aren’t writing new things in the sense that we are bringing something new to the table. It’s more like discovering a new facet of the same gem. We are dealing with the same old human nature, but we can arrive at new insights into that nature. That is the artistry of being a writer no matter the genre, no matter the subject matter. And all the more reason for fiction to be written from a Catholic moral perspective. Of anyone, Catholic writers are in the best position to understand the human soul and human nature, because we have the true (Catholic) understanding of it. 

Vampires are ubiquitous, sure, but in so far as a re-imagined vampire narrative can act as a platform for revealing the complexities of what it is to be human, I think there is room for development. 

Q: What about the sexual undertones of vampirism?  (SPOILER) At the same time that John assured Henrietta’s father that nothing happened between them—meaning nothing sexual—I felt that the intimacy of the sharing of blood was akin to the intimacy of a sexual act.  

A: That’s a provocative question (no pun intended), thank you. Part of vampire lore includes the power of the vampire over the victim, his ability to influence his victim and subject him. It is an invasion, not only physically, in the sense that the person is physically subjected against their will, but it is also a psychological invasion. I didn’t want to discount that aspect, but I wanted to be able to explain how it worked to some degree. 

While nothing happens between John and Henrietta that would endanger her physical purity or mental/spiritual innocence, we see a sudden jump in their knowledge of each other. This jump would normally come after greatly increased association with each other (which in turn would typically only occur if they were courting), so it puts an unorthodox (for the time period) sort of intimacy between them that creates tension. Not only do we have a physical attraction there (we are attracted first with our eyes), we also have increased awareness of what makes the other person tick. Evil vampires are going to use this to their advantage. Grissom, as a man of honor, feels like he knows more than he has a right to know.

Q: Some Catholics would opine that to write about vampires is to dabble in the occult.  How would you answer such a criticism? 

A: I think a thing is what it is, only if that is what it is. 

In other words, if something is in se occult, than it can’t be otherwise. If one were to present a Ouija board, something which in se deals with the occult, as possibly not such a bad thing, yes, it would be dabbling in the occult. But I don’t believe vampirism necessarily falls under ‘occult.’. First, because vampires begin as humans. In my book, they retain their humanity. Like I said, the idea that man can lose his free will through no fault of his own is actually against Catholic teaching. The Unofficial Chronicles is a recognition of that by re-imagining vampires as humans with a free will. 

Secondly, would we say that a movie such as the Exorcism of Emily Rose dabbles in the occult? It deals with the demonic, it’s for entertainment. The occult, so far as I understand it, requires a glorification of or at least an impartiality towards the demonic. But treatment of subject. A writer can have a character who is a satanist – as long as that satanism is presented as an evil and that satanist as a sinner. In the Exorcism of Emily Rose the demonic is unquestionably recognized for the evil it is and the possession case is merely the vehicle, the background, to the greater drama of the trial. It is because of that that it is acceptable to Catholics. Juxtapose it against the The Exorcist, which relies on the sensationalizing of a possession case for its entertainment. 

I think those are the major differences between my novel and many of the vampire novels that are out there. In my novel, vampirism is not in se part of the occult, but a disease which does not in se produce a demoniac, and it’s the vehicle by which the greater story is revealed. 

Q: What’s next for John Grissom? 

A: Like the first book, book 2 has mystery, suspense, and bit of romantic drama. We see him using his defects as strengths and discovering new things about himself. I decided to go North into Derbyshire, for several reasons, one among them being that that’s where Pemberley is and I wanted to give a nod to Pride and Prejudice, one of my favorite books since I was a teenager. But the thing I am most stoked about is the new paranormal threat Grissom will be dealing with. It’s very exciting. And a shade gruesome, like book 1.

Page Zaplendam is the pen name of a writer of speculative and fantasy fiction. Page does not believe in vampires, or that the world will end in the immediate future. Then again, truth is always stranger than fiction.

To learn more about Page and her writing, check out the links below:

Website: www.pagezaplendam.com Facebook: www.facebook.com/pagezaplendam

And I encourage you to purchase the ebook!

Either here: Buy Order of the Blood (ebook) or Paperback from Amazon

Or here:  Buy Order of the Blood from Smashwords

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Hi, y’all, and welcome to the final day (saving the best for last and all that!) if the If Only Blog Tour.  In my capacity as an Off The Shelf Blogger for Beacon Hill Press, I’ve been given the opportunity to read If Only: Letting Go of Regret by Michelle Van Loon.  (My advance copy was my only compensation, and, as always, my opinion is my own.)  This time, instead of reviewing the book, I was asked to write a personal reflection on regret.

Of all sad words of tongue or pen, the saddest are these, “It might have been.”

~ John Greenleaf Whittier

In Madeleine L’Engle’s A Swiftly Tilting Planet, Charles Wallace Murry is given the responsibility, with the help of  a time traveling unicorn, of saving the world from imminent nuclear destruction by finding and changing the right “Might Have Been” in the past.  Charles succeeds, and the world is saved.  The rest of us aren’t so lucky.

Because all of our lives are littered with “might have beens.”  Whether for good or ill, every choice made excludes all the other possible choices.  Everything we do–or leave undone–has repercussions.  In If Only, Michelle Van Loon writes of how regrets can divide our hearts, trap us in the past, and damage our relationships with God and with one another.

Regrets, I’ve had a few, but then again, too few to mention . . . That’s the first thing that comes into my mind when I try to reflect on my personal experience with regret, but I’m not sure whether it’s true or just a comforting story I’m telling myself.  Van Loon writes of people who have submerged their regrets so deeply that they don’t even realize the damage these unresolved feelings are causing in their current lives.

Most of the time I tell myself that there is no point in regret, because I can’t really know what would have happened if I had done things differently.  Like those well-meaning time travelers in just about every book or movie you’ve ever seen on the topic, what if I had made things worse by doing (or not doing) whatever it was?  Is wishing I could go back and change things not a rejection of everything good that has happened since?

I think about our house burning down.  If only I had insisted on having a professional deal with the electrical box situation instead of the handyman employed by our landlord (not that it ever occurred to me at the time).  Then the box wouldn’t have exploded and the house wouldn’t have burned down and I would still have all my things.  But what about the lessons and the love and the new home and new friends we have now?  And who’s to say that if we had stayed in that house, we might not have died in a car crash on the way home one night?  This is why it’s a good thing that we are not God and that time travel remains the stuff of science fiction.

If only I hadn’t wasted so much time and energy on sorting and storing all the things that I had.  If only I hadn’t gotten so upset over various things getting broken or ruined by floods in the basement or careless children.  But I couldn’t have known what was going to happen–all I can do is try to be better going forward.  Which is definitely one of Van Loon’s points–that our regrets can be a tool for us now if we acknowledge them and own them instead of burying them.  And her book supplies tools to do that, with discussion/reflection questions, scripture, and prayer.

Where she really got me was when she started talking about her experience as a parent of grown children: “My empty nest echoed with the sound of regret.”  My nest is still quite full (will any of them EVER leave?), but three of my babies are legal adults.  Without implying that there is anything seriously wrong with any of them–don’t get me wrong!–of course they have their struggles and I cannot help but think there were things I should have done differently.  I can’t help but remember how far short I have fallen–and continue to fall–of the perfect mother I just knew I was going to be.  I regret deeply–I can’t tell you how much–that I didn’t enjoy them enough when they were little.  I never heard that saying “The days are long but the years are short” until my kids were already big.  I wish I had.  It won’t do any good for me to tell those of you who still have little kids that they will be grown up before you know it but it is true.

So I guess that is a pretty typical regret to have with kids who are almost but not quite launched, but it’s the one I am really struggling with right now, and I hope that going through some of the reflections in If Only will help me.

Would you like to have a copy of If Only for your own?  Leave a comment below, and one week from now (July 10) I will choose one of you randomly as the lucky winner!  I know there are all kinds of fancy technical ways to do giveaways but I am going to write all your names on pieces of paper and pick one at random and you will just have to trust me on that.

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Would you like to know more about Michelle Van Loon?  Her website is here.

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For more on If Only, please visit the other stops on the Blog Tour: Day 1 Day 2 Day 3 Day 4  Day 5 Day 6 Day 7 Day 8 Day 9 Day 10 Day 11 Day 12 Day 13 Day 14 Day 15  

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