Top 10 Tuesday: Hidden Gems Series & Standalones

I’m linking up with The Broke and the Bookish (which describes me quite well) for ten underrated/hidden gem books I’ve read over the last year or so. I adapted the topic slightly to suit the books I had in mind, making the focus here mainly series.

If my list is “more of the same” from me, it’s because hidden gems are a mainstay of my reading diet. Most of the books I review and blog about could be considered hidden gems. While I do read classics and books by major publishers with super-wide exposure, I concentrate my efforts on quality books by authors who publish independently or with independent publishers. I know self-published books have a bad rap in certain circles, but there are many, many excellent books out there. More every day.

Despite the fact I’m well acquainted with the fact that life is not fair (thank you, dear children), I still bristle when I come across poorly-written books selling into the millions with hundreds of fabulous reviews while excellent books remain lost in obscurity, struggling to cobble together a handful of reviews.

Here’s to the underrated book!

Hidden Gem novels

The Jane E series by Erin McCole Cup

Charlotte Bronte’s classic Jane Eyre modernized for the sci-fi era.

Theresa Linden’s Teen Fiction series

Realistic fiction for teens that deftly weaves the spiritual and material.

The Bennett series by Olivia Folmar Ard

Thoughtful, relevant women’s fiction with a moral compass.

Full Quiver Publishing books

Quality writing with Catholic and Theology of the Body themes in a variety of genres.

I Am Margaret series by Corinna Turner

Dystopian adventure amidst religious persecution.

The Liberty Trilogy by Theresa Linden

Dystopian adventure in a world where faith, family, and freedom are nearly eradicated.

Black Horse Campground Mystery series by Amy M. Bennett

Cozy mysteries (with well-drawn characters) that will keep you guessing.

The Half Killed by Quenby Olson

A reluctant spiritualist pulled into a murder investigation in the oppressive heat of London.

Full Cycle by Christopher Blunt

A father and son team beat the odds in cycling competition.

The Bird Face series by Cynthia Toney

A young teen girl copes with bullying, a blended family, and boys.

Name one hidden gem you’ve read in the past year.

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Interview with Romantic Suspense Author Therese Heckenkamp

Frozen Footprints, a Christian suspense thriller, includes some rather dark moments with a seriously-disturbed villain. The story, however, is never without hope. How do you balance the darkness and the light so that you allow the reader to contend with the horror your characters experience yet leave them with a satisfying, positive ending?

Frozen FootprintsWhile writing, I strive to find some positive moments amidst the hardships, even if they’re brief. Most readers will understandably give up on a story that goes too long without some kind of goodness or possibility of goodness occurring. Even if it appears to vanish for a time, there has to be some type of hope if I don’t want to end up with a novel of despair. (And I don’t! There are plenty of those out there.) How to bring in that lightness? It may be with another character, a positive perspective, a note of humor, an unexpected kindness, or a glimmer of faith. Similarly, a change in situation, or some form of comfort found in an unlikely place, may bring relief or an inspirational moment.

The balance is tricky, and certainly difficult to get right the first time around, which is one reason I find revision so necessary. Scenes can be added, rearranged, removed, or reworked to get the ratio right. Yet, as close to the story as I am, it can be challenging to judge that balance myself, and that’s where my earliest readers come in—they give such valuable feedback.

Still, for those who enjoy only very lighthearted stories, Frozen Footprints isn’t the novel for them. There are a lot of hardships and dark moments. It may not have a Hallmark kind of resolution, but by the time the end comes, the main evil of the story has been overcome. Sometimes plunging to the very deepest, darkest moments is what it takes for a character to rise to redemption or turn to faith and discover hope. As a Christian writer, I keep in mind there was a Good Friday with intense pain and suffering before the glory of Easter Sunday.

In browsing Christian fiction, it seems that romance and romantic suspense are more prevalent than thrillers. What inspired you to write a thriller, and do you think there’s anything inherent in Christian storytelling that either lends itself to thrillers or encounters with evil?

I love reading thrilling stories that get my heart pounding, so I naturally felt drawn to that genre. However, my first draft of Frozen Footprints was less a true thriller and more a romantic suspense. It was only after the advice of another writer and editor that I took the story through a huge overhaul and was then able to find a publisher for it.

I definitely think Christian storytelling lends itself to thrillers or encounters with evil. After all, living Christianity means living a battle of good vs. evil every day. This converts very well into thrilling fiction and exciting plot possibilities. Souls are at stake. Will characters stand up for what’s right, will they compromise, or fall completely? If so, can they be redeemed?

Because this earthly world is not all there is, characters’ spiritual struggles are crucial. That extra level of reality can bring fiction to another level of intensity. Christian storytelling doesn’t mean limiting subjects to prissy, feel-good stories of fluff and no substance. On the contrary, Christian fiction can deal with any subject—some of the very grittiest—the key is how it’s handled to reflect Christ’s truths in a real and reverent way.

Your most recent release, After the Thaw, a Christian romantic suspense novel, is second in a series. Did you have After the Thaw in mind when you wrote Frozen Footprints or did the genesis for that story come afterward?

After the ThawAfter the Thaw wasn’t even a glimmer in my mind back when I wrote Frozen Footprints. It wasn’t until Frozen Footprints was accepted for publication that I began mulling over the possibility of writing a sequel. I’d certainly set the stage for the possibility of one, and the more I thought about it, the more I wanted to do it. I wasn’t sure if After the Thaw would actually turn into anything worthwhile, but I felt strongly that the characters and the readers of Frozen Footprints (once I started receiving feedback) both wanted more—and so did I. The characters had so much life, and so much more to give, and more adventures to find and more growing to do . . . and a yearning for redemption and love. How could I deny them that?

The faith elements in your novels are well-integrated into the characters and their experiences. What tips do you have for writers who would like to make faith a part of their story yet incorporate it seamlessly and unobtrusively into the story?

Keep faith in mind as you write, and ask God to guide your writing. If you have faith yourself, opportunities will naturally present themselves for including spiritual elements, whether with a prayer, a thought, or dialogue. Each character’s interaction with faith will be different, depending on his or her background and life experiences. How will the characters’ faith—or lack of—affect their thoughts, words, and actions? How will they deal with challenging situations? A great thing about tapping the spiritual aspects is that it offers an additional layer of story opportunities that secular fiction misses.

Again, balance is key so that the story doesn’t become overloaded with elements that distract and take away from the enjoyment of the story. Sometimes, less can be more, making the story more striking and memorable. Writers should keep in mind that they’re writing fiction, and the story should entertain, not preach. Small, well-placed, relevant snippets can be more powerful and memorable than long, preachy passages.

Feedback is important. My very first readers point out problem areas and I’ll reconsider whether the material should remain or be revised. Honest feedback is essential in helping me figure out how to strike the right balance of religious content in a story. Also, learn from reading other novels. When I’m reading and come across effective and seamless examples of faith woven into a story, I try to make a mental note of how it’s done.

Your first novel, Past Suspicion, reminded me so much of Daphne DuMaurier’s classic romantic suspense Rebecca in voice, tone, and the whole mood of the story. Did that novel influence you? If not, what inspired the story?

Past SuspicionThank you, that’s a very high compliment! Rebecca didn’t actually influence me (since I hadn’t read it yet); but interestingly, Daphne DuMaurier’s Jamaica Inn was a favorite of mine about that time, so it’s likely some of those same elements seeped into my writing style. I was also a big fan of Victoria Holt novels, so her writing also very likely flavored the voice, tone, and mood of Past Suspicion.

I actually began Past Suspicion as a short story, inspired by a dream. With time, it grew with possibilities, twisting and turning in directions that were as surprising to me as I hoped they’d be for readers. My main goal was to write the kind of story I wanted to read—but I also hoped that maybe someday, others would find it entertaining, too. I completed the first draft the summer before I started college, and many events and details from real life worked their way in. Whatever I experienced, I wondered how I might use it to enrich the story. As a result, and even though it was plenty of work, I had a lot of fun writing Past Suspicion.

How do you carve out time for writing and all the other tasks attendant to book publishing amidst your other responsibilities?

Therese Heckenkamp

Therese Heckenkamp

How, indeed? I’m still trying to figure this out! Honestly, I’m not very good at it, and I’m sure you could give me some great tips. I go for long stretches of time without doing much writing, and I wish I could be more consistent.

When I’m immersed in a project that I’m excited about, I squeeze in what I can—usually at the price of something else, like sleeping or cleaning. When my kids are napping or watching TV, I might manage an hour or so of writing. Once they go to bed for the night, I might manage another hour or two (or four, if I’m really into the story and ignoring my need for sleep). Thankfully, when I stick with it, these little bits of time eventually add up to a completed manuscript.

So I guess it comes down to self-discipline, prioritizing, and snatching time when I can. Even for this interview, I broke it down to answering only one question a day. I try designating certain times for certain tasks—including some downtime/relaxation time (for sanity!). Life’s responsibilities seem never-ending, but when I really want to write, I find a way to make it happen.

Therese Heckenkamp’s Website





My reviews of  Past  Suspicion, Frozen Footprints, and  After the Thaw.

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Seven Quick Takes

7 Quick Takes

Farm Show Fracas Edition

While we live close to the state capital, where the Pennsylvania Farm Show is held each January, we’ve only been there several times, all more than a decade ago. It’s something like a local family tradition/institution, and I’ve been wanting to take the kids for years, but weather, basketball, or something else has interfered. Since my oldest daughter joined 4H, I decided this year we’d go. On Sunday, later in the morning than I’d anticipated, I took the three youngest children to the show. Here’s how it went down. Continue reading

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Shrinking in the Distance: My Kids Are Growing Up and Away

The day after Christmas, we enjoyed a short winter reprieve. Temperatures soared. With my 13-year-old’s brand-new drone fully charged, we headed to the park, where he could fly it in wide open spaces without worrying about entangling his new toy in wires or treetops. All of the pre-Christmas bustle had ceased and for once, we didn’t have holiday travel plans. Our visit to the park was sheer fun.

I took this picture of my children chasing after the drone in the distance. From our vantage atop a hill (at this time of year, it could as easily be the sled riding hill), they seemed so small. My oldest is only a few inches shorter than me, but in this picture, he might as well be the size of his three-year-old brother. Continue reading

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An Open Book

An Open Book CatholicMom

Welcome to the January 2017 edition of An Open Book, hosted both at My Scribbler’s Heart AND!

As of this writing, I’m trying to hit my 2016 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal, and I’m only a book away! I think I’ll make it. As the new year begins, I’m looking forward to reading some paperbacks that have been piled around the house and some NetGalley review copies that  have been burning up my Kindle. Now, on to January’s books.

Resisting HappinessAn anonymous parishioner provided each family in our church with a copy of Resisting Happiness by Matthew Kelly for Christmas. This one was already on my husband’s book pile. I read Matthew Kelly’s Rhythm of Life many years ago, but haven’t gotten around to any of his books since. My 13-year-old has been watching Kelly’s Decision Point Confirmation Program video series with his classmates at school, and while I think he’s a bit weary of the “be the best version of yourself” mantra, we’re still going to give this book a go.

Unearthing ChristmasBecause it’s still Christmas, I’m reading Unearthing Christmas by Anthea T. Piscarik. I’ve sold books alongside Anthea at several diocesan women’s conferences, so it’s about time I got around to reading her book! So far, I’m enjoying the back and forth between Christmas 1955 and 2015. I think the characters will soon be descending into a bomb shelter, which should make things interesting. VanishedI’m also about to begin the final ebook in the Memories of Jane E, Friendless Orphan series: Vanished by Erin McCole Cupp. I’ve loved this series so far, and once it’s done, I’m probably going to be re-reading the classic Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte with a small group of friends online. I have to say again how much I love the covers of these ebooks!

Treachery and TruthTimed perfectly to the Feast of St. Stephen (December 26), my son just completed Treachery and Truth: A Story of Sinners, Servants, and Saints, the true story of Good King Wenceslaus, by Katy Huth Jones. When I won a paperback copy of the book, I knew my son would be all over this since “Good King Wenceslas” has always been his favorite carol. I’d catch him singing it at random times throughout the year. (It didn’t hurt that the Phineas and Ferb Christmas Special included its own adaption of the song by Buford and Baljeet.) AhsokaRealizing he’d not had enough forethought to ask for the new Star Wars book Star Wars: Ahsoka by E.K. Johnston for Christmas, my son brought me cash to order it for him on Amazon Prime since Ahsoka Tano has always been one of  his favorite characters. (I suspect he may have had a crush on her years ago, but this kid is really tight-lipped about that sort of thing.) This book is geared right at his age level (grade 7 and up) and has good reviews. I may read this one myself.

Farmer BoyMy third grader continues to read the Little House series. She’s currently enjoying Farmer Boy by Laura Ingalls Wilder, one of the few books in the series I haven’t read. It apparently has a lot to do with that team of calves on the front cover that seem to keep Almanzo out of school. SounderI’ve also begun reading Sounder by William H. Armstrong aloud to her and whomever else cares to listen. I read it several times in elementary school but can’t recall much beyond it being a sad dog story somewhat like Old Yeller (which I read to my kids a couple of years ago). It’s also a Newbery Medal winner. These books have helped fill my daughter’s reading BINGO card over Christmas break, and in order to cross off another block, she read an entire book of classic fairy tales.

A Squirrel's TaleThe little kids are enjoying the books that we got them for Christmas. I purchased both of these at an online Usborne Books & More party hosted by a friend of mine. Usborne sells high quality books for children of all ages. My son, a big fan of Honey Bee’s Busy Day, which I linked to in September’s “An Open Book,” is enjoying A Squirre’s Tale, also by Richard Fowler. The Human BodyMy daughter snatches her dad’s flashlight for her new book, Shine-A-Light: The Human Body by Carron Brown and Rachael Saunders. This is a very cool concept – shine a light behind the page to see “inside” the illustration. Perfect for glimpsing skeletons, muscles, nerves, and unborn babies. (If you’d like to contact an Usborne representative, let me know, and I’d be happy to refer you.)

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Want more details on An Open Book? You can also sign up for An Open Book reminder email, which goes out one week before the link-up. No blog? That’s okay. Just tell us what you’re reading in the comment box.


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Relevant Fiction Reviews: Best YA Books of 2016

Relevant Fiction Reviews

As 2016 comes to a close, I’ve collected reviews of the best Young Adult (YA) fiction I’ve read over the past year. Some of these titles are Christian fiction, some secular, but all are “clean” and appropriate for teens. (And for the enjoyment of old fogeys like me too.)

I did not include The Lunar Chronicles by Marissa Meyer here only because that series isn’t in need of more visibility. It’s an excellent series that fans of Star Wars or classic fairy tales will particularly enjoy. Fast-paced and tightly-written, there’s enough adventure, humor, scifi, and romance to please almost any reader.

At the end of this post, you’ll find some other YA favorites of 2016, including other books written by the authors featured below. (I stuck with one book featured per author.)

If you’re looking for more great books for teens, sign up for the B4CT (Books for Catholic Teens) newsletter! Continue reading

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Seven Quick Takes

7 Quick Takes

Keeping Sunday Special Edition

Inspired by Erin McCole Cupp‘s monthly Sabbath Rest Book Talk, I’ve been thinking about how our family does (or doesn’t) make Sunday special. I’m not too young to remember when most stores were closed on Sundays, which in itself set Sunday aside as different. These days, it’s business as usual, and I’m often surprised at how crowded the grocery stores are on Sunday mornings when we stop in to grab something.

In re-reading what the Catechism of the Catholic Church has to say about the Sabbath, I was struck by these lines: “It is a day of protest against the servitude of work and the worship of money.” Not much support from the culture on that one.

Here some ways we try to keep  Sunday special in our house and in my home growing up. Continue reading

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