Poetry Tuesday – Out There

As the dim winter morning sun shines

Upon the jagged, ice-peaked mountains,

I glanced at the other side of the sky

And can still see glittering stars…

And beyond that–infinite beauty

That radiates under my skin,

Into my soul.

And from this moment, I know

A glistening truth

Long hidden and forgotten

By most people.

What started as a single, quiet bell

Gradually expands itself

Into millions of ringing choirs,

Bellowing for my hand to reach out,

For my mind to open,

For my eyes to finally see

That out there is something

Far grander, better, and truer.

-written in 1999

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Excerpt from Hannah’s Rainbow

“Well, it’s done.  I gave away my oldest.  No one told me it was this emotional.  I guess I know how your father must’ve felt now.”

Hannah smiled fondly.  “Yeah, Pa was glassy-eyed, that old softie.  I was thinking about them last night.”

Edward wrapped an arm around Hannah.  “If you need to cry, let them be happy tears, darling.  Do you hear that soft rustle of the wind through the branches?”

“Yes.”  Hannah listened beyond the voices around her and gazed up to find the trees dancing delicately.  If she hadn’t been looking or listening for it, she would have missed it.  “Sycamores, just like the old house.”

“We have some time for a short walk, I think.  We’ll meet everyone back at the church in a little while.”

“Brenda was smart to keep the reception at the church and keep it simple, but yes, a walk would be perfect right now.”

Edward’s hand sought Hannah’s, and without a word, they detached from the crowd.  With the passage of fifty years, Madison Avenue had changed.  Many of the homes had the wear and tear of decades, and many of the trees lining the street had grown tremendously.  When they reached Hannah’s childhood home, they stopped.

“I see that large rock is still by the driveway,” Hannah remarked.  “I haven’t been back here much since Ma moved out, but it looks mostly the same.”

“I thought it might do you some good to see it again.  You can hear the wind in the leaves better here, not so much commotion.”

“I used to go outside in my yard whenever I needed to be alone and at peace.”

“I figured a walk was in order for a bit of peace today, even though it’s a happy day.  When I asked you back at the church if you heard the wind in the trees, it was meant to be a reminder that your loved ones are never far from you.”

“Thank you, Eddy.  This place holds many memories for me, but it’s the past.  Brenda getting married is the door to the future, to possible grandchildren of our own.  I think it’s time we headed back and celebrated what’s to be and keep in our hearts what once was.”

“I like that idea, very much.”

As if they were walking together for the first time, Hannah and Edward held hands and returned to the church.  Behind them, trees overshadowed that quaint house on Madison Avenue, lost in the voices of the past, but in Hannah’s heart, she could still open the door to find Ma and Pa to welcome her home.

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My new novel, A Laughing Matter of Pain, is now available for pre-order here.My novel, Lorna versus Laura, is available for $4.99 here.

My novel, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, is available for $5.99 here.

Passion, Love, Memories Speak Across Time – How Vincent Van Gogh’s Life Inspires

Yesterday’s room next door–that feeling of being in a room, separated by a simple wall that might as well be a chasm, from the room right next door, only that room belongs to yesterday. The echoes of voices, the dim music, words on yellowed paper, dried paint, a brush of a kiss, the faded picture of a loved one, the extinguished lives of those gone before…memories.

I press my ear to the wall.
The voices come muffled at first,
But if I listen closely,
Their love stories become clear.
The distant piano music always plays in the background,
But its song still has a story to tell.
Photographs hang from this old wall,
Frozen smiles where laughter’s echo lingers;
A feather-light finger touch caresses those tender faces.
I close my eyes and see more openly
As the wall fades away.
I reach, step, grasp, hold.
I hug every precious memory thread,
Knitting a fabric of a life that embraces me in return
As I sing along with the piano
And write rainbows onto black and white pages.
You see, yesterdays are all blended into today –
And I wonder what story my children will one day tell
Of my today in what becomes their yesterday’s room next door.
-Yesterday’s Room Next Door by Cynthia Hilston, 05.28.16

The first time I read something that made me wish I could reach across the vast expanse of time and talk to, touch, hear someone long dead was when I read Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte. That was in 2006. I reread her novel last year, and Charlotte’s words still hold in my beating heart. I read her words, words penned 170 years ago, yet she felt as close as a breath. I longed to know her like an intimate friend and mourned the loss of someone I had never actually met…and yet we had met in a way. I did know her.

Then that thick, impenetrable wall cracks. Bit by bit, pieces of drywall, wood, brick, stone, whatever material the imagination can conjure, it falls. Passion, love, memories…they speak across time, and yesterday’s room next door becomes one with today’s room. We all inhabit one Earth.

vangogh1As I finished reading Lust for Life by Irving Stone (1934), the biographical novel of Vincent Van Gogh, tears blurred the words on those last pages. Van Gogh is dead. I know that. He’s been gone for 128 years. And yet…yet I was walking with that small group of mourners behind a black hearse on the day the few people who appreciated and loved him in life buried him. I followed up the hill, through the cornfield in Auvers–one of many Van Gogh painted. They buried his body, yes, but his passion would never be buried. How can you bury such passion, after all, when he has painted it into being with every brushstroke imbued with life? He lies under sunflowers, those faces of gold and orange he painted so tenderly, painting the life the flows through all of creation.

I often gaze upon my large print of Starry Night as I lie in bed. Van Gogh painted this most famous of his paintings while he was in the asylum at Saint-Remy-de-Provence. He was there in June 1889, a little over a year before he died. This print is a cheap imitation of the real thing, yet it’s the closest physical item I possess to one of his creations. Again rears the feeling of removal from the past. (Note: I plan to visit New York’s Modern Museum of Art at the end of September, where this painting is housed.)

He saw beauty in the ugliness of the world, in the common, the everyday, the struggles. He suffered mental illness, disease, starvation, being a social outcast, never receiving the accolades for his hard work during his lifetime. Seven people mourned at his grave.

Now millions visit art galleries across the globe to gaze upon his paintings, those priceless works of art.

When he painted, the need to create poured out of him–unbridled, wild, free. He could just a soon stop painting as breathing. I understand that urge, that desire, that drive, that passion. When I write, it pours from me like water from an overflowing cup. I’ve been asked how I can write whole books. To people who are not writers, they cannot grasp how I can write so many words. I reply, “I can’t not write.” Vincent couldn’t not paint.vangogh2

Van Gogh tried many professions, all of which led to failure, to a feeling of self-doubt, of feeling worthless. He was an art dealer, a teacher, a minister, but none of those jobs were his livelihood. When he began drawing at age 27, he found his niche and never looked back, even when life continued to be a struggle.

Now, I haven’t had the life of poverty that Van Gogh lived–often by choice. I majored in biology in college and worked in a research lab for several years before having kids and becoming a stay-at-home mom. My kids are still young, so I continue as a homemaker. I wrote fan fiction for many years, afraid of writing something original. Yet the urge to write original works of fiction nibbled at my soul for years. I could no longer ignore it, and since 2015, I haven’t looked back. I’ve embraced my passion, my raison d’etre, just as Van Gogh did. And I love it.

Van Gogh’s life inspires passion, but his ability to take his pain and turn it into something beautiful drives deeper. He loved, felt, lived deeply, passionately. He didn’t shy away from ugliness, but rather embraced it and created imperfect wholeness from brokenness.

I weep for the lost love this remarkable man experienced, for his misery, for his agony, but I also cry in happiness at his legacy, his imprint on this earth. He saw no separation between the ground on which we walk and the people who trod it. All was one. All is one–one amazing, gorgeous creation under a whorling ball of lemon sun.

In Lust for Life, Vincent is visited by a mysterious woman named Maya, which means “illusion.” She says she’s been following him throughout his journey as a painter, but he asks her how this is possible. He even grows angry at her when she persists that she loves him. He has longed to receive a woman’s love all his life, so why now? She tells him his works will one day be on display throughout the world. He, of course, doesn’t believe her, for why would anybody want to buy one of his paintings after his death when they never did during his life?

Oh, Vincent, how wrong you were. Maya was real.

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Remembering Grandpa by Creating Him

We stood in the basement of my grandma’s old house, the place I visited every Sunday afternoon as a child. I was now an adult. While I knew she had passed away years ago, as had the man with me, the moment felt so real.

The security of his arms around me, the steady rise and fall of his chest, his breath warm in my ear as he whispered, “I know you never knew me, but I wanted to tell you I love you.”

He wasn’t much taller than me, if at all. His voice was kind, gentle…grandfatherly.

I woke in awe, a tear in my eye. I never knew my grandfather, yet he had spoken to me through a dream.

babygrandpa
My grandfather in 1903

I have seen many pictures of my grandfather. He passed away four years before I was born. Being nearly 11 years older than my grandmother, he would have been well into his seventies by the time I came along. My grandparents were older than most in that generation, she at 28 and he at 39 when they married in 1942. My uncle was born in ‘46 and my mom in ‘49, so my grandfather was 46 when my mom came into this world. With my grandparents being older, especially my grandfather, I don’t suppose chances were favorable that even if he had lived longer, I would have remembered him much or known him long… But I digress. It’s a sad reality, but true, and I cannot undo the past.

So, that dream held and holds significance for me, seeing as my grandfather was just a man I knew from pictures and from my grandma and mom’s memories of him. He was among the tallest in his extended family. All of the Grundmans were short, so at 5 feet 9 inches, he was a veritable giant! His mother passed away from breast cancer shortly before my grandparents married, and his father was never in his life. His parents divorced when he was a baby because his father was an alcoholic. His mother remarried a man named Samuel Winhold when my grandfather was seven. Samuel must have passed away some 20 years later, as he no longer showed up in pictures.

grandpawithparents
My grandfather, his step-father, and his mother (Amelia) in 1923

My grandfather was Howard Grundman. That’s a good, strong German name, isn’t it? In fact, my mother’s side of the family is completely German, although they have been living in the United States (on both sides) since the 1880s. What’s funny is that when growing up, I often referred to my grandfather as “Howard” when talking about him with my mom or grandma. We visited my grandma every Sunday afternoon for many years, and one of the things we often did was get out all the old pictures and look at them at her dining room table. I had an interest in my heritage from an early age, asking my parents and grandmas to tell me the names of their direct ancestors, so I could write them down. I had a family tree going back to my great-great-grandparents when I was eight, and since then, I have done extensive genealogy research, but that is another topic.

Getting back to my grandfather, or Howard, I feel the need to make the distinction of personalizing him. He will be Grandpa going forward, as it has been in my head and in my writing that I have remembered him in a roundabout way.

grandparentswedding
My grandparents on March 21, 1942

I was fortunate to know my grandma, Emma Grundman, until I was 15, when she passed away. I was close to her, as we saw her weekly. When she died, a void opened in my heart that I spent years (and still do) trying to fill. How can you replace a loved one? You can’t, of course, but you can help them live on by remembering them, by sharing stories, writing down memories, looking at pictures. I am a writer, and writing a story based on my late grandma’s life was inside me. I didn’t know it until 11 year later, when at age 26, I woke with a fictional character’s name on my lips: Hannah Rechthart. Hannah would become my grandma in the story, and her husband would be Edward (Howard).

I wrote a couple of chapters and then a couple more over the next few years, but nothing came of that story until March 2015. I was tired of waiting: waiting for inspiration to strike, waiting to achieve my dream of writing the story and maybe even publishing it. So, I sat down with the intention of writing for at least fifteen minutes a day. That’s it, I told myself, 15 minutes. And do it every day.

I stuck to that, and in the process, the fictional name of Edward Grunner became a character who seemed to breathe and walk off the page. He shared a lot in common with my grandpa: being raised mostly by his mother, being an only child, working in accounting, marrying later in life, being drafted during World War II but only serving for three months, and in love with his dear wife. Edward was an admirable man in many ways. He was kind, patient, and supportive. He was a hard worker and went to church with his family every Sunday. But doubts of being a good father figure plagued him because of his own lack of a good fatherly role model. He questioned his ability to be the type of dad his children needed, especially where his son was concerned.

grundmanfamily
The Grundman family in the early 1950s

For the first time, the ache of not actually knowing Grandpa hit me. I looked at the old pictures of him with my grandma and their kids as if for the first time. I wondered what he sounded like. What was his laugh like? There’s a picture of my grandparents sitting on the couch laughing, and the sound almost escapes. It’s like a phantom room right next door, but I just can’t enter.

What was his favorite food? Did he enjoy Grandma’s pork chops as much as the rest of the family? Did he play that old Monopoly set from the 1930s that Grandma had, the one where I only wanted to play the banker because I didn’t want to lose? Did he sit in the pew and listen to his wife play the organ in church like Edward did in my story? What did he think of his in-laws? Were his grandparents really as stern as they looked in their pictures?

grandparentshappy
My grandparents laughing in 1956

So many questions and only my imagination to answer them!

I mourned Grandpa as if he had just died in 2015 instead of 40 years earlier. For me, by making him alive in my story, I felt that loss penetrate me in a way I never had before. I remember setting an extra place at the table at times when I was a child and we’d be at my grandma’s. It was for my grandpa. Now I have set a place in my heart for him.

I remember him in this way. It’s all I’ve really got.

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The book I refer to in this post, Hannah’s Rainbow: Every Color Beautiful, is available for $5.99 here.

My other book, Lorna versus Laura, is available for $4.99 here.

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Review of The Beat on Ruby’s Street by Jenna Zark

rubySynopsis: The last thing eleven-year-old Ruby Tabeata expected to happen on her way to a Jack Kerouac reading was to be hauled to the police station.

It’s 1958 and Ruby is the opposite of a 1950s stereotype: fierce, funny and strong willed, she is only just starting to chart her course in a family of Beat Generation artists in Greenwich Village. Ruby dreams of meeting famous poets while becoming one herself; instead, she’s accused of trying to steal fruit from a local vendor and is forced to live in a children’s home.

As Ruby struggles to return to family and friends, she learns her only choice is to follow her heart.

Join Ruby’s journey as she finds unexpected friendships, the courage to rebel against unjust authority and the healing power of art in this inspiring middle-grade novel by Jenna Zark.

Note: I was given a copy of this book in exchange for an honest review.

The Beat on Ruby’s Street is a novel intended for middle-grade students, as the protagonist is an 11-year-old girl named Ruby, and the story is told from first-person point-of-view. Ruby’s voice is realistic for a girl her age, and I think this book reads appropriately for kids around the same age.

The details of New York in the late 1950s and the Beat Generation of the time are also fleshed out well in the backdrop. There’s a certain freedom to being a kid 60 years ago that I feel no longer applies nowadays. A girl like Ruby can wander the streets with her friends for hours at a time and be safe. I am reminded of stories my mom told me about how far she’d ride her bike or how she’d ride on public transportation when she was about Ruby’s age and be gone all day, yet her parents didn’t have to worry.

Ruby is also an aspiring poet. She wants badly to meet famous poets like Jack Kerouac and is on her way to one of his readings when…

The freedom Ruby experiences is threatened when she is accused of stealing fruit, however. A social worker steps in and begins to question Ruby’s home life. The reader discovers that Ruby’s parents aren’t married. Their apartment isn’t kept up. Her dad, Gary Daddy-o, is a musician who is on the road for weeks at a times. Her mom, Nell-Mom, is an artist is is oblivious to the comings and goings of Ruby and her brother, Ray. Ruby and some of her friends attend “school” at a store called Blue Sky, where they learn some stuff from the owners, Sky and Blu, but they aren’t being properly educated.

Everything Ruby thought was true and normal about her life is suddenly threatened. She spends some time in a children’s home. Her childhood innocence is ripped away from her. To see the shortcomings of adults through a child’s eyes is a unique perspective. I remember when I was a kid thinking my parents knew everything and that I would understand everything about life once I was grown up. To have that worldview shattered, to realize your parents are far from perfect and that your home isn’t the nice place you thought is scary and also realistic, a part of growing up.

This is a quick read. Being much older than the intended audience, I found the novel had its charms and was good for middle-grade readers, and yes, it reminded me of what it was like for me when I was 11 or 12, but I didn’t get much else out of this novel. It’s a good story, but not great. It doesn’t necessarily stand out from much else I’ve read, but it was enjoyable enough.

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Old Family Pictures & Genealogy: Our Connection to the Past

grandma2I can still remember sitting at the dining room table in my grandma’s house and looking at old family pictures. Those days were at least 25 years ago now.

When you’re a kid, time almost seems to stand still. Those Sunday afternoons at Grandma’s house seemed like they would never end.

Now I cannot believe how much time has passed.

The photo to the right shows my grandma’s family around 1921. My grandma is the girl in the front, about 8 years old here. She grew up in a family of nine (her younger brother hadn’t yet been born here) in Cleveland, Ohio.

grandma4
My grandparents in 1942: Love the hat!

Those old photographs now belong to my mom, but I have scanned several of them. They reside in a box in the closet, on my computer, and in my heart. I look at them now with an awe and appreciation I couldn’t as a child. Now I’m a mother. My mom is a grandmother, and so the cycle continues.

Seven years ago, I dove into genealogy and researching my family tree on both sides. I used Family Search as a free resource to find a lot of my information, but I was also fortunate to have documentation of my own. I used My Heritage to build my family tree online and share it with my family. Next week, I will share more about my experiences with family tree creation, so come back to check that out!

I wanted to update and document my family tree, as heritage is important to me. Knowing where I come from is part of who I am. When I see old pictures of family members, I can look into their eyes and smile with them, feeling that connection. I am transported back in time, and Grandma is sitting next to me at her dining room table again, telling me who all those people are in the photographs.

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Review of Dark Territory by Jerry Hunter

darkterritorySummary: From the Civil War battlefields of England and Ireland to a mystery lost in the forests of North America, this is both a roaring adventure and a timely commentary on the dangers of religious extremism.

Rhisiart Dafydd is a zealous Roundhead who embraces Oliver Cromwell’s New Model Army and the violence it entails. But can his convictions survive the atrocities of the English Civil Wars and Parliament’s campaign in Ireland? Called upon by his former commander to voyage to America to seek out a missing group of Welsh Puritans, he must first survive the journey, and then – if he can find the community – see whether they really have created the Kingdom of Heaven on Earth.

An epic historical adventure set during one of the most turbulent periods in history, this gripping thriller also poses questions about violence, power, religious extremism and rejection of difference which are chillingly relevant to our world today.

Note: I was given a copy of this novel by the publisher in exchange for an honest review.

If history teaches us one thing, it’s that humanity never really changes. We don’t seem to learn from our mistakes. History repeats itself.

Dark Territory is historical fiction and was written in Welsh, originally published under the title Y Fro Dywyll, and was translated by Patrick K. Ford.

The novel opens with a former soldier named Rhisiart Daffyd walking through the noisy, sometimes harrowing, streets of 1656 London. Among the sights and sounds of the living, death stares back through mounted heads on pikes, a stark reminder of where we are all headed. The climate is chilling, despite the children running through the streets, the vendors selling their wares, and life continuing on as a man who has seen his fair share of death walks these cobbled streets. I am right there with Rhisiart, an invisible set of eyes on his shoulder. The description of the streets of London is done so vividly, with such beautiful detailed language, that the reader really gets a sense of what life was like then.

Rhisiart Daffyd served in Oliver Cromwell’s Army of the Saints and has come to London under the summons of his former commanding officer, John Powel. Powel has gotten word of a settlement in America that has drifted from the Calvinist views being upheld in Cromwellian England, and he wishes to send Rhisiart to the new country to investigate and report back to him.

Rhisiart boards the ship Primrose. He is surrounded by Englishmen, the only other Welshman an older man named Owen Lewys. Some of the best dialogue in the book occurs between these two during the voyage. Having witnessed, and taken part in, so much death during the war, Rhisiart questions his beliefs. The faith he once adhered to is no longer true for him. He and Owen, who his a Quaker, discuss passages in the Gospel of John, where the light within every man is written about. Rhisiart dismisses Predestination, believing it ludicrous that God would select some souls for damnation and others for salvation prior to their births. Rather, he believes now that God’s light shines within all people, even though humanity is flawed. He keeps quiet about his views aboard the ship, however, as he and Owen are in the minority.

A storm rages at sea as the ship approaches land. It hits rocks, leaving Rhisiart and a black tom cat named Nicholas the only survivors.

The novel then gives us the backstory of Rhisiart, from the time he was a boy and lost both of his parents, raised by his sister Alys and his uncle, to when he started apprenticing under a blacksmith. There is lovely narrative about Rhisiart working words into the objects he crafts. It is during this time that he develops his belief in what Cromwell professes. He marries the blacksmith’s daughter, Elisabeth, but he soon goes off to war.

When he returns from war a broken man who now questions everything he believed in, having witnessed atrocities, including the Battle of Naseby in 1645, he hopes to settle down. The “little plague” darkens his family’s doorstep, killing Elisabeth and his unborn child.

I was devastated right along with Rhisiart. Despite the atrocities he has participated in, he is still a man who loves and thought he was doing right for his homeland. It’s no wonder he takes on the mission Powel entrusts him with, seeing as he has no one keeping him in England any longer.

The book switches back to 1656. Once Rhisiart comes ashore, he is cared for by some Native Americans. There aren’t many of them at all, and the one who speaks English tells him how many of their tribe died from diseases from the settlers. The kindness of the Native Americans toward Rhisiart shows more of true Christian (or otherwise) charity than any of the characters in the book, despite they aren’t Christian. This truth is resonates with Rhisiart and does with me as well. It is heartbreaking to look back on history and see how the Native Americans were driven from their land, in some cases, and how such things still occurs today, both in America and globally. The refugee crisis in the world today comes to mind. To show kindness and generosity to your fellow person is in the spirit of what is at the heart of Christianity, the whole to do what Jesus did. To show mercy, understanding, love.

I think this is what strikes Rhisiart, both in his discussion aboard the Primrose with Owen Lewys and with the Native Americans. More than ever, he doesn’t believe in the Calvinist doctrine. He sees it for the manmade construct it is, not a divine ordinance…although he still has a mission to see through.

He regains his strength while in the care of the Native Americans. They give him a map to the settlement Powel told him to seek. Rhisiart travels several days through the woods in the dying fall and arrives at New Jerusalem. By the name alone, you can be sure this settlement believes it is God’s kingdom on Earth.

Rhisiart settles there for several months, befriending some (blacksmith Griffith John Griffith and his son, Ifan, and young, pregnant widow Rebecca) and at odds with others (namely the Elder, Rhosier Wyn). He learns some secrets about the corrupted ways the leaders of New Jerusalem carry out what they believe is divine justice. His beliefs are challenged more every passing day, and as Rebecca’s pregnancy nears its end, dread overcomes the reader, wondering how this is all going to end.

We have seen the crimes and wars done in the name of religion over the centuries, including the accurate historical representation in Dark Territory. So much unnecessary violence and death has resulted over disagreements. The whole “I am right, you are wrong” mentality and the pride of believing one’s way is the only true way puts up walls between people, between nations, and it tears down the Golden Rule. In theory, it should be simple to follow the path of love, to treat others as you wish to be treated, even in our human imperfection.

We can look at the serious nature of the English Civil Wars of the seventeenth century and the harsh beliefs of the Puritans in America and believe we have come so far from those ways of thinking, but a quick look around the world today paints a different story.

Dark territory, indeed. This novel shows the journey, the struggle, the life of one man in the midst of religious wars and tyranny. It forces us to look deep within ourselves and examine our hearts, our beliefs, to trod the path today through dark territory.

This novel is one of those rare gems that hooked me from the beginning. The themes are important for anyone to realize and think about. This is one of those masterpieces that will stay with me for the rest of my life.

5 out of 5 stars

Favorite quotes: “He imagined that silence would roll down the corridors like mist on the surface of a river, that quiet would collect in the chambers like water gathers in a fountain’s pool, turning sound to vapour and dulling the ear, keeping secrets secret.”

“He tilts his face to the sun, his eyes closed, and all the sounds of the ship are like a whisper in a dream. This is the world, he thinks, and this is the life I have lived. The heat he feels on his face has the warmth of skin: like another cheek pressing against his own cheek. Living fingers playing with his hair, a hand caressing his skin playfully.”

“Is the way that the most insignificant instincts lead an animal to its death essentially different from the way that most men follow their instincts to the end?”

“‘I do. He knew that I… had lived the life… had believed… had done. And he knew that I now doubt many of the things I used to believe in. And he saw value in that.’”

Purchase Dark Territory on Amazon

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