Thursday, December 24, 2015

Book Review: Christmas Bells by Jennifer Chiaverini

From Goodreads:

New York Times bestselling author Jennifer Chiaverini celebrates Christmas, past and present, with a wondrous novel inspired by the classic poem “Christmas Bells,” by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow.

I heard the bells on Christmas Day/ Their old familiar carols play/ And wild and sweet/ The words repeat/Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

In 1860, the Henry Wadsworth Longfellow family celebrated Christmas at Craigie House, their home in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The publication of Longfellow’s classic Revolutionary War poem, “Paul Revere’s Ride,” was less than a month hence, and the country’s grave political unrest weighed heavily on his mind. Yet with his beloved wife, Fanny, and their five adored children at his side, the delights of the season prevailed.

In present-day Boston, a dedicated teacher in the Watertown public school system is stunned by somber holiday tidings. Sophia’s music program has been sacrificed to budget cuts, and she worries not only about her impending unemployment but also about the consequences to her underprivileged students. At the church where she volunteers as music director, Sophia tries to forget her cares as she leads the children’s choir in rehearsal for a Christmas Eve concert. Inspired to honor a local artist, Sophia has chosen a carol set to a poem by Longfellow, moved by the glorious words he penned one Christmas Day long ago, even as he suffered great loss.

Christmas Bells chronicles the events of 1863, when the peace and contentment of Longfellow’s family circle was suddenly, tragically broken, cutting even deeper than the privations of wartime. Through the pain of profound loss and hardship, Longfellow’s patriotism never failed, nor did the power of his language. “Christmas Bells,” the poem he wrote that holiday, lives on, spoken as verse and sung as a hymn.

Jennifer Chiaverini’s resonant and heartfelt novel for the season reminds us why we must continue to hear glad tidings, even as we are tested by strife. Reading Christmas Bells evokes the resplendent joy of a chorus of voices raised in reverent song.

The holiday season is in full swing, and for many it’s a time of joy, celebration and memory-making.  For others, it’s a time of stress, heartache and painful reminders of what is missing or what could have been. Henry Wadsworth Longfellow knew this keenly as he struggled with the death of his wife, faced the uncertainty and troubles of the Civil War and worked to maintain his career and family.  In 1863 he penned the now-beloved poem “Christmas Bells”, which ultimately would be set to music and sung around the world:

I heard the bells on Christmas Day
Their old, familiar carols play,
And wild and sweet
The words repeat
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!

The poem goes on to recount images and sentiments of Longfellow’s life as he felt despair, fear, but ultimately faith in light of all the calamity taking place around him and throughout the divided Union in the 1860’s. The novel Christmas Bells recounts a handful of these years as historical fiction, taking facts from Longfellow’s life and shaping them into an extended narrative. We see Henry as a doting husband, tragically made a widower by the loss of his beloved Fanny. He also plays the emotionally fragile father, desperate to keep his son from joining the army to fight alongside his peers. As a professional writer, he exhibits the struggles many have in putting pen to paper, eking out quality work in an effort to not only express himself, but also provide for his family. 

Christmas Bells also presents a later time period, our present day as seen in alternating chapters. Here we meet a wide cast of characters living in Longfellow’s hometown, all connected at least in part to St. Margaret’s, a historic Catholic church in Massachusetts.  We meet a music teacher, her accompanist, a faithful nun, a priest, a wife of a soldier in Afghanistan and others. Their stories all intersect differently, affecting each other in minor and major ways. In a metaphorical way, their lines form the verses as paired with the refrain of Longfellow’s story in the opposite chapters.

I thoroughly enjoyed Christmas Bells. It has the feel of a classic tale with the 19th century setting, but the modern aspect of it is also warm and inviting.  I found Henry’s story to be a melancholy one, seemingly beset with constant anxiety over his family’s situation. That said, it was not mood-lowering at all. Henry’s struggle to keep his son safe from the war, and then later to overcome battle-related problems was compelling for this mother to read. Although I enjoy most things related to that era, my interest in the Civil War has never extended much beyond Gone with the Wind, and even my love for that has waned over the years. While raised in the American South, I don’t side with many of the agendas that were advanced on this side of the Mason-Dixon line. The racism and ignorance that remain generations later is repellent to me, so I do not prefer to read novels that are sympathetic to the Rebel cause or any descendant of it. Thankfully, Christmas Bells is told from the Union side of the story, with allegiances for the North being more prominent. War propaganda is not the main power behind these chapters, however. The focus is on the Longfellow family, and in particular Henry Longfellow.

The metaphorical verses contained within the modern chapters took me by surprise. When beginning Christmas Bells, I thought my preference would be to remain solely within Henry’s time, as that is what drew my interest to the book initially. However, Jennifer Chiaverini constructs such an interesting piece with the many voices of her modern narrative. I thoroughly enjoyed spending time with her characters, both old and young. Their individual stories were compelling, and their corporate interactions were much the same. I was keenly impressed with how she managed to bring their voices in and out, much like a musical concert. My only complaint is that I desired more time with each one. As their individual stories concluded, I found myself wanting more. This was particularly felt in the tale of the musical director and her pianist. When their chapters ended, I was keenly disappointed that we didn’t have more details in their conclusion.

For those who adore the Christmas season and for those who anticipate it with at least a small sense of anxiety, Christmas Bells is an excellent choice for the holiday and weeks surrounding it. Moreover, it can certainly transcend the Christmas season. This is a tale of family, faith, and history. It is not so much an Advent story, but one of love in times of trial and uncertainty. I now have a greater appreciation for Longfellow’s classic poem, and will keep the verses presented in this novel in mind as I sing his lyric for years to come.  In a modern world of calamity and uncertainty, we can all have the hope and confidence that God is not dead. He does not sleep. Right will prevail over wrong in the end, “with peace on earth, good-will to men.”

About the Author

Jennifer Chiaverini is the New York Times bestselling author of several acclaimed historical novels and the beloved Elm Creek Quilts series, as well as six collections of quilt patterns inspired by her books. Her original quilt designs have been featured in Country Woman, Quiltmaker, Quiltmaker's 100 Blocks Volumes 3-5, and Quilt, and her short stories have appeared in Quiltmaker and Quilters Newsletter. A graduate of the University of Notre Dame and the University of Chicago, she lives with her husband and two sons in Madison, Wisconsin. About her historical fiction, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel writes, "In addition to simply being fascinating stories, these novels go a long way in capturing the texture of life for women, rich and poor, black and white, in those perilous years."

Coming 2016

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

Book Review: The Sparkle Box by Jill Hardie and Christine Kornacki

For the past couple of years we’ve made an effort to teach our boys about community service and giving to others.  This began with “Blessing Bags”, giving out gallon Zip-loc bags full of supplies that would be useful or enjoyable for those in need.  When we moved to Greensboro, NC about a year ago, we got involved with Families in Action, a local service group. Through FIA, we have prepared meals for the needy, baked cookies for local servicemen and women, worked on a landscape crew for an immigrant school and much more. There have been so many blessings as we have done these projects together as a family. Honestly, I think I enjoy them more than a group trip to Disneyworld, because in serving, the focus is off ourselves and onto those who could use some help and/or encouragement.

As we enjoy the Christmas season, sometimes it’s easy to get ensnared in all the material parts of this time of year—the gift giving, the food, the spectacle.  And while all of those things are fine and good, the most important thing for us to remember is that we are celebrating the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ.  It’s very common for Him to get lost in the shuffle of all of this. A new picture book has ventured to remind us of this fact in a very tangible way: What are some gifts that we would not buy for ourselves, but that we would instead give to Jesus?  Obviously He has no need of material things.  He mainly wants our hearts and our love. In The Sparkle Box by Jill Hardie and Christine Kornacki, a family uses a pretty box on the mantel to illustrate how our acts of kindness and charity can also be seen as gifts to Jesus, much like when he said in Matthew 25:40, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

Sparkle Box has lavish full-page illustrations at every turn, and while they are not the best artwork I’ve ever seen, Christine Kornacki's work still of high quality and heartfelt. The text by Jill Hardie is well-written and an appropriate length for the given audience. It’s long enough to craft the meaning of The Sparkle Box, but it’s short enough to keep the attention of little ones’ minds. And to top it off, at the back of the book is an envelope holding pieces which when assembled, make up a Sparkle Box that you can have for your very own.  What a great way to directly apply the lessons taught in this lovely book. 

As the main idea of The Sparkle Box is to fill an actual box (or another container) with scraps of paper, upon which are written “gifts” you have given Jesus, now would be a great time to introduce the box to your family. It could be kept out all year long, and at Christmas 2016 you would have the opportunity to relive your year and share all you have given to Jesus for His birthday.  These acts of charity should not be done in order to pat ourselves on the back; they are to be gifts for our Savior, as we act as His hands and feet in a world in need.

If you'd like more information on The Sparkle Box, 

plus free motivational materials, activities and more, stop by 

Monday, December 14, 2015

New Venture: The Odyssey Adventure Club


Adventures in Odyssey is a program that my family has been enjoying for years.  Primarily a radio show, it is an entertaining, educational and spiritually nourishing collection of dramatic stories, set in the fictional town of Odyssey.  There are hundreds of episodes, as they have been produced for decades now.  My ten year-old son in particular has been riveted for the last couple of years, listening to these 25-minute programs whenever he has the opportunity.  While the episodes are still broadcast on the radio around the world, there are many other ways to enjoy them, and he has primarily obtained them through borrowing CDs from our local library and in the collection found at our church.

Although he has listened to literally hundreds of episodes, he still wants to take in more of them.  Fortunately, Focus on the Family (Adventures in Odyssey’s parent company) has come up with the Odyssey Adventure Club (OAC), a portal to all things Odyssey.  There he can peruse any of the episodes that have been produced, even obscure ones he hasn’t been able to listen to yet.  He was especially excited this weekend when we first accessed the Club, as he was able to listen to an all-new episode that is a part of their latest collection of stories, Head Over Heels. This CD set will be released in March 2016, but as members of the OAC, we have the ability to listen to exclusive episodes like “Words from the Wise” from Head Over Heels.

The Odyssey Adventure Club offers much more than just Adventures in Odyssey episodes, some of which can be seen in the offerings below. If you’re a parent or loved one of a school-age child, a membership in the Odyssey Adventure Club would make an excellent Christmas gift. Not only will they have a great time in a safe online environment, but they’ll be educated and nourished spiritually along the way. Check out more details below for more information.


Tired of the Christmas shopping, the baking and sugar overload, the Christmas festivities that keep you away from your family during the season? Take time special time to spend with your loved ones and invest in your community—with Focus on the Family's help!

You can download a fun gift to give to your friends, family, and community! Each Christmas stocking stuffer card directs you to a special place to hear an Adventures in Odyssey Christmas episode. Plus, you’ll be able to read a special excerpt from Imagination Station #12, “Danger on a Silent Night.” Sign up here to download the free cards.

Plus stop by this page for a slew of crafts, recipes, and stories to share with your family during this special time of year!

If you're still looking for one last gift to give your kids this year, give the gift of the Odyssey Adventure Club (OAC). It offers safe and free content for everyone in your family, including an Advent calendar, a broadcast download with tips to create a memorable Christmas, AIO cutouts, and Christmas stocking stuffer cards. Membership to the OAC costs just $9.99 a month — or even less if parents make a six-month or one-year commitment. Enrollment provides more than enough content to keep kids engaged throughout the year:
  • Access to exclusive content and first looks at books and select Radio Theatre dramas.
  • On-the-go access to the OAC app for both iOS and Android users.
  • 24/7 streaming access to nearly 800 AIO episodes.
  • A new, members-only AIO episode every month.
  • A subscription to Adventures in Odyssey Clubhouse Magazine, and more.
To learn more about the Odyssey Adventure Club, visit, Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest.


November/December 2015 Highlights

  • The Android app is now available! (Click for the iOS version.)
  • Exclusive content and early access to books and audio dramas every month
  • You can now choose to pay $9.99 each month, or you can pay for six months or a full year in advance with automatic renewal.

Things of Note

Saturday, December 12, 2015

Then Comes Winter Blog Tour Stop: Excerpt and Giveaway

Edited by Christina Boyd

Authors Beau North & Brooke West, Melanie Stanford, Natalie Richards, Erin Lopez, Sophia Rose, Anngela Schroeder, Suzan Lauder, Maureen Lenker, Denise Stout, Linda Gonschior, and Lory Lilian 

“Then comes Winter with bluster and snow, that brings to our cheeks the ruddy glow…” Gertrude Tooley Buckingham

If you long for a toasty snuggle on a cold winter’s night, this compilation of original short stories inspired by the magic of the holiday season—and more than a nod to Jane Austen—is fancied as a sublime wintertime treat. On the heels of the summer anthology, Sun-kissed: Effusions of Summer, and in concert with some of Meryton Press’s most popular authors, this romantic anthology introduces more promising writers. With a robust mix of contemporary and Regency musings, Then Comes Winter rekindles passionate fires with equal wonder, wit, and romance.

Welcome to the next stop in the Then Comes Winter blog tour!  Meryton Press has put together another anthology of fun short stories, and I believe several of them will please those of us who enjoy Austenesque fiction.  Today's post features an excerpt from the story Winter's Awakening by Anngela Schroeder.  It seems that Elizabeth is beginning to struggle with her thoughts in regard to Mr. Darcy.  After the excerpt, scroll down to our Rafflecopter widget and enter to win one of four paperback copies of Then Comes Winter to enjoy this season.  Thanks for stopping by, and best wishes to all the contest entrants!

The ladies of Longbourn exchanged looks as Darcy removed his greatcoat, jacket, vest, and cravat—remaining in his shirtsleeves.

“It is the long-standing tradition for Darcy men to chop down the tree themselves,” Georgiana explained.

“Of course,” Elizabeth said breathlessly, seeming not to know where to look.

“Not at all.” Miss Bennet shook her head and bit her lip to control the unabashed grin seeming to spread across her face.

“Only once a year does Darcy have to do such strenuous activity.” Bingley rubbed his hands together and laughed. “Believe it or not, I think he revels in it.”

Darcy bowed to the ladies, quickly brought the ax up, and began chopping at the tree.

Elizabeth was unable to remove her gaze from Mr. Darcy’s form. Other than her father’s tenants tending their fields, she had never watched the work of a man—and certainly never a gentleman! She admired Mr. Darcy’s arms as solid as the steel on the end of the ax blade. His sweat had dampened the fine lawn of his shirt and caused it to stick to his skin, defining his shoulders. He is magnificent. She tried valiantly not to stare but could not stop herself. After his next swing, you must look away, she would tell herself again and again, but to no avail. Finally, his swing powerfully knocked the tree over, and he turned to smile, his dimples winking at her. He caught me! She felt the heat rise to her cheeks at his penetrating gaze. The black pools of his eyes, which she once believed were examples of disgust, bore through her, and she realized they were far from it. Her heart raced, and she looked down quickly. However, her eyes settled on his chest, which was more splendid than his back, and she let out a gasp. Attempting to control the unladylike thoughts, she chirped, “It is a shame Miss Bingley could not come today.”

“Yes. Pity.” Mr. Darcy expelled a deep breath, handed the ax to a young woodsman, and picked up his coat from a nearby stump.

“Her business in the village must have been of some import.” Miss Darcy picked up her book and reticule while the two women followed her example and stood to begin walking back to the manse. “She has never missed the opportunity to come with us and hunt for our Christmas tree. She always seems to enjoy the activity.”

I can understand why! Elizabeth flushed and closed her eyes, shaking her head quickly to remove the vision of Mr. Darcy in his shirtsleeves. It is something I would not miss either if I could help it. She was surprised at her bold thoughts and attempted to dismiss them before they were conveyed across her face.

“Are you well, Miss Elizabeth?” he asked softly, his voice caressing her name as it rolled from his lips. He had silently fallen in step beside her, causing her to start.

“Yes, sir. I am quite well, thank you.” Her voice broke before regaining control. She could not look at him, for all she could see in her mind was Mr. Darcy, informally dressed, participating in the savagely masculine act of moments before. Her pace increased as she quickly caught up to Miss Darcy and linked arms with her. Indeed! Caroline Bingley must have had something of import to take her away from Pemberley this morning.

As I have not read Then Comes Winter, I inquired about the content of the book as a whole. The promoter informed me that the book would probably be rated PG. Love scenes happen off the page, only a few kisses and no F-bombs. I mention this for my fellow conservative readers, in case there was any concern about this issue.


Meryton Press has generously offered up several paperback copies of Then Comes Winter. Use the Rafflecopter widget below to enter to win!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

About the Author

Anngela Schroeder lives in California with her husband of 15 years and her three rambunctious sons.  She has a degree in English with a concentration on British Literature and a Masters of Education. She has a slight obsession with Jane Austen and all things British.  She enjoys traveling, baking and making her family's world a magical place.  She has published two other novels, “The Quest for Camelot”- Book one in the Daughter of the Roundtable Series, and “Affections and Wishes,” a Jane Austen inspired modern day romance.  Follow her on Anngela Schroeder-Author on Facebook, and on Twitter.

Then Comes Winter Blog Tour Schedule

11/30: Guest Post & Giveaway at FLY HIGH
12/1: Excerpt & Giveaway at So Little Time…
12/2: Character Interview & Giveaway at More Agreeably Engaged
12/3: Excerpt & Giveaway at Jennifer Vido
12/4: Guest Post & Giveaway at Liz’s Reading Life
12/5: Excerpt & Giveaway at Best Sellers and Best Stellars
12/6: Guest Post & Giveaway at Delighted Reader
12/7: Review at Just Jane 1813
12/8: Review at Babblings of a Bookworm
12/9: Review at My Kids Led Me Back to Pride and Prejudice
12/10: Review at From Pemberley to Milton
12/11: Review at Diary of an Eccentric
12/12: Excerpt & Giveaway at The Calico Critic
12/13: Review at Margie’s Must Reads
12/14: Author/Character Interview & Giveaway at Austenesque Reviews
12/15: Author Feature at Songs and Stories
12/16: Author Feature & Giveaway at Tome Tender
12/16: Excerpt & Giveaway at Chick Lit Plus
12/17: Author Feature at Skipping Midnight






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