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CLASSIC REVIEW:  A Soldier’s Heart by Kathleen Korbel

CLASSIC REVIEW: A Soldier’s Heart by Kathleen Korbel

Cleo is an artist, designer and avid reader. She’s been reading romance for more than thirty years. She reads almost every type of romance, except those with vampires, serial killers or jerky heroes.

kathleen korbel a soldier's heart

Dear Ms. Korbel,

When I read Jane’s call for reviews of classic romances, I knew that I wanted to review your book, A Soldier’s Heart. I read it in the mid 90s and it stayed with me. I finally tracked it down and re-read it last year and was impressed with how well it held up. It’s the first romance with protagonists with Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) that I ever read. Twenty years, and many PTSD romances later, I still think it’s one of the best I’ve read.

The book opens with a prologue – an unnamed army nurse saves the life of an unnamed marine sergeant in an evac hospital during the Vietnam War. The story begins some twenty years later, with the marine, Tony Riordan, working up the courage to go introduce himself to Claire Maguire Henderson, the nurse who saved his life. Seeking out Claire is part of Tony’s healing – he’s spent years laying to rest his ghosts from Vietnam. He unintentionally sets off a crisis for Claire, who hasn’t dealt with her past trauma yet. Tony realizes that his appearance brought up repressed emotions that Claire’s not quite ready to deal with, so he comes up with a way for him to stay in town and help if possible. Claire’s renovating an old inn, and he just happens to run a construction company, and offers to do some of the renovations at cost. I liked Tony so much that I was willing to accept the convenient coincidence. He’s upfront with Claire, and everyone who wonders what he’s doing, that he’s there primarily to help her heal. He’s also honest with himself that he’s attracted to Claire.

Most of the story takes place over a period of several weeks, while Tony works on the inn. There’s not a lot of external conflict – most of the story is about Claire facing her past while falling for Tony. I loved reading about two adults cautiously, and then not so cautiously, start a new relationship. Tony and Claire are both forty-something single parents, with careers, support networks and responsibilities, and they act like grown ups. There’s a sub-plot involving Claire’s older child, 17-year-old Johnny, who’s learning to fly and wants to enlist in the Air Force. The story’s set during the UN intervention in Somalia in 1993 or 1994, and the build up of US troops in Somalia triggers both Johnny’s desire to join the military and Claire’s PTSD symptoms. While the main story arc is Claire moving from denial to asking for help with her PTSD, it’s not a dark story. It’s emotional, but there’s also humor and sweetness.

I really like the portrayal of PTSD, which is almost a separate character. I have PTSD (from childhood trauma, not military service). I can only speak for myself, but this book rang emotionally true. The focus of the story is on Claire. We see her dealing with nightmares, flashbacks, and rages. We see her telling herself that she has no right to be upset, and that she’ll be fine as long as she keeps busy. We get hints of Tony’s past struggles too, but he’s further along in his healing, and it’s not really his story. I suppose I could be annoyed by the fact that the story is set up so that the man knows more than the woman, at least about dealing with PTSD. But Tony’s character is written in such a way that he doesn’t feel like an overbearing romance hero, who knows what the heroine needs better than she does. He doesn’t come across as thinking that he has all the answers, either for her or for himself. I love that he seeks out help for Claire almost immediately, but waits until she asks before telling her about the resources he’s found for her. As he says, “I’m like the library Claire. Information’s all there for the asking. But I’d never walk into your house and demand that you read.” (p 181) I’ve played variations of both Tony’s and Claire’s roles in my life, as the giver and receiver of help recovering from trauma, and they both resonated with me.

Treatment for PTSD has changed in the past twenty years, so before I re-read A Soldier’s Heart, I wondered if it might seem dated. Because the story focuses on Claire’s feelings, and on her journey from denial to asking for help, rather than on her actual treatment, I didn’t find it outdated. Some of the discussions about women and PTSD, however, did strike me as old-fashioned. Tony’s surprise that women who served in Vietnam also had PTSD made me roll my eyes. For example, here’s a passage from Tony’s first conversation with his vet center counselor about Claire and his concerns about how to help.

He’d somehow always thought of the victims as men. The men had suffered and the women had soothed. The women had appeared like a gift in Nam, bright-eyed and brash and smelling like Dove soap. A reward for having survived the time back in the boonies, a reminder that somewhere in the world there was still grace and compassion.

He hadn’t considered, all these years, that the women had brought home their own nightmares home.

Well, he thought it now.

Tony sighed, wished he were a lot smarter. A lot.

“We’re stupid, aren’t we?” he finally countered….“I really screwed it up, man. Tell me what to do.”

“Same thing you do with any of the guys you’ve run across. Just be there until I can get you extra help.” (pp. 48-9)

The thing that made it work for me is Tony’s self-deprecating sense of humor and the fact that he’s helped other, male, vets before. This isn’t just about saving the poor little woman. I also really liked that once Claire admits she needs help and finds someone at her local vet center to work with, Tony consciously backs off and lets her heal without becoming a crutch for her.

A few things bothered me as I was re-reading it for this review that I don’t remember noticing the first two times I read it. I thought the beginning was slow and the initial set up requires a suspension of disbelief – if I didn’t know that Tony was a romance hero, I’d worry that he was acting like a creepy stalker. Some of the supporting characters seemed one dimensional or cartoonish, particularly Peaches, Claire’s overprotective, ex-con pastry chef. And the writing style isn’t to my taste. It reminds me of Nora Roberts, particularly 1990s era Nora Roberts. I’m not sure how to characterize it except that I find it a bit choppy and distancing. Here’s an excerpt.

Claire turned her attention to her surprise houseguest. He was a dangerously good-looking man, filling out that apron and T-shirt with disconcerting effect. Well-honed muscles and long, lean lines. The glint of a well-worn chain and medal around his neck, worn for purpose rather than decoration, betraying his lack of pretension. The kind of man any sane woman would want in her kitchen cooking her pasta. (pp. 58-9)

But while I noticed some problems, I didn’t really care about them, because I LOVE THIS BOOK. I was completely emotionally invested in the characters and swept away by the story. I love the two main characters. I love their honesty, vulnerability, and subtle humor. I love how Tony helps Claire face her past and begin to heal so they can have a future together. Hell, I even love Tony’s mustache. I completely believe that they’ll live happily ever after. I’m not a crier and A Soldier’s Heart had me crying in public.

I’ve read quite a few romances with characters with PTSD in the past 20 years, some good and some really bad. In my opinion, they can go bad in two ways – either by taking the PTSD much too seriously or not seriously enough. Either the past trauma completely defines and overwhelms the heroine’s or (more often) the hero’s identity to the exclusion of everything else, or it’s magically cured by true love and/or hot sex. A Soldier’s Heart avoids both pitfalls. Re-reading it reminded me why I keep reading PTSD romances, despite the duds that I’ve encountered, because when they’re done well, the emotional payoff is incredibly rewarding. This is a lovely book. Thank you for writing it. My grade is an A-.

Sincerely,

Cleo

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DA3 Interview: Favorite Conference Speakers

DA3 Interview: Favorite Conference Speakers

With reader and writer “conference season” upon us, I thought I’d bring to Dear Author a few authors who also make great presenters on panels and workshops. Grace Burrowes was a wonderful discovery to me last year–I didn’t know her when I went to see a panel of headliner historical authors last year, but her wise words on craft and publishing had me seeking out both her other appearances and her books by the end of the session. Dani Collins and Cathryn Parry were another accident: Because I wasn’t familiar with all the auxiliary audio controls on my car, I ended up listening to lots of sessions on the RWA conference flash drive I might have otherwise skipped. Dani and Cathryn’s joint presentation was one of those, and I was happily captive to the honest, moving stories of their journeys before and after publication. Finally, Courtney Milan will be well known to the regular DA readership. I recently made the suggestion to “follow Courtney Milan” to someone who was asking for advice about publishing. She asked, “You mean on Twitter?”and I replied, “However you can, as much as you can.”

We’re talking about the authors’ latest releases and their workshop approaches (and their own favorite conference presenters), so read on…

BurrowesCollinsMilanParry

A six-word memoir for your protagonist:

Grace Burrowes: Love is lovelier the second time….

Dani Collins: Brave and tender, devoted to family.

Courtney Milan: I’m in ur genetics, making ur discoveries.

That looks like seven, but I use the word ur twice, so it’s really only six words.

Also, I know ur is not a word.

Cathryn Parry: Committed to her community and Malcolm

 

The heroine:

Grace Burrowes: Makes living things heal and grow beautiful.

Dani Collins: Is in hotel management

Courtney Milan: Is a countess. That’s where she makes her money, such as it is. But she’s also a geneticist, which nobody knows about.

Cathryn Parry: Is an Industrial Engineer for a small body-care-products factory in Vermont.

 

Readers will fall in love with the hero because:

Grace Burrowes: Real men hurt, fail, stumble, and try, try again when true love is in the balance, even when the odds are against them.

Dani Collins: He’s terrified of babies and rallies to love his son unreservedly.

Courtney Milan: How can you not love Sebastian? He’s funny, always in charge of a situation, and yet willing to sacrifice anything to support his dearest friends.

Cathryn Parry: Malcolm is a strong Scotsman, willing to risk it all for his love of Kristin

 

The first kiss happens:

Grace Burrowes: On the threshold between the beauty of the gardens and the loneliness of the house.

Dani Collins: In the hero’s suite in his family’s hotel chain.

Courtney Milan: In his house, right after a bath.

Cathryn Parry: On the heroine’s snowy Vermont front porch after a (Scottish) Burns Night celebration

 

Let’s say you’re going to use this novel as an example of something you’ve taught or discussed in one of your presentations. What would you tell the audience about it?

Grace Burrowes: Get creative with your reflection characters, particularly if you want to emphasize that your protagonist is emotionally isolated. The horse, the dog, the portrait, the gravestone, the roses growing riot… an interesting conversation can be had with any one of them, and they won’t need a backstory or a book of their own. They can express themselves in wonderful symbolism—using bodily functions, for example—and most readers will enjoy them.

Dani Collins: I touched on the writing/day job balance in our Joy Of Writing workshop in Atlanta. It’s such a tough situation to be in. When I was writing this book, I was looking down the barrel of two other deadlines for fifty-thousand word books, all due between October 31st and December 31st. I was working fulltime at a day job and was unexpectedly asked to fly to head office for two weeks.

Obviously you need a support structure around you if you’re trying to launch one career while holding down another. If my husband, kids, parents and friends weren’t willing to pitch in with cooking, driving and heck, even folding laundry—thanks, Mom!—I couldn’t have done it.

I won’t say that every day was joy during that spell. It was a lot of work and more than one anxiety attack, but I learned a lot.

First of all, it’s important to find the lesson in any adversity, that way you’re turning a negative into a positive. This is a huge step toward returning to your place of joy. The faster you reframe something, the quicker you move into a happier head space.

That situation showed me how much I could accomplish under the gun, but also taught me not to bite off more than I could chew. I found my limit and can protect myself from burn-out in future.

Also, we should all be less terrified that publishing is temporary. I took a long time to sell and knew plenty of authors who went through dry spells even after they were published. This means I feel (felt!) a certain pressure to get my life’s work out yesterday. We all need to relax. Readers will always be there and will always be hungry for books. If it takes an extra month or two to put yours out, that’s okay. Give yourself time to enjoy the process.

Courtney Milan: Enhhhhh. I never use my own books as examples of good writing in my presentations. I really prefer to use other people–it doesn’t smack of hubris as much, I can be both objective about their work (in terms of breaking things down) and subjective about their work (being able to say “I love this!”) in a way that I can’t do with my own books.

Look at me, fightin’ the hypothetical. I recognize this question is supposed to allow me to pimp my books to the DA audience, so let’s just do that directly. Buy my books! Some people think they’re good, and who knows, maybe you will, too.

(Also, I realize this is a lie–I did a panel with friends called “The Seven Deadly Sins of Second Books” where I did talk about my book, but it was really more in a “Let me be an example to you” kind of way, and not at all of the “Hey, this book rocks” variety.)

Cathryn Parry: Keeping the joy in writing can be challenging, particularly if a writer has written a number of books to deadline and the process seems to be getting a bit stale.

The Sweetest Hours was written in a different, special way for me.  During the revision stage, my husband and I took a vacation in Scotland. I brought the manuscript with me, physically carrying it in a tote bag over my shoulder as we drove across the Highlands and explored castles, battlefields, and lochs, while meeting and talking with the delightful Scottish people.  Each night, I edited the story with the romantic feeling of Scotland still within me.  This brought a spark to my writing that still inspires me today.

After I’d turned the book in, I knew I had to create more stories in that fictional world.  The point is, to keep up my joy in writing, I needed to shake up my routine a bit and make it more personal.

 

What motivates you to do workshops or panels?

Grace Burrowes: I learn a lot with every presentation, both as I reflect on the material to be presented, and when I’m at the mike. It’s also great fun to be with writin’ buddies, and an elegant question can spark all manner of creative and useful pondering.

Dani Collins: I haven’t done a ton of them. Self-promotion is definitely one of the motivators, but the workshop at RWA-Atlanta was definitely born out of feeling like an expert on the topic of finding the joy in writing.

Cathryn and I were having one of our pep talk chats in Annaheim the year before. We realized that after years of rejections, and navigating the other ups and downs of publication, we have both developed really strong coping strategies. I think I jokingly suggested we should do a workshop and somehow we made it happen.

Courtney Milan: Forgetfulness and the inability to say “no.” Every year I tell myself I’m going to travel less and speak less, and every year, I end up doing MORE. Usually when I decide the subject matter for a workshop it’s because I hear people discussing a problem that I’ve grappled with more or less successfully. I think to myself, “Huh, I think I’ve dealt with that one before and I maybe have something useful to say.”

Cathryn Parry: I try to give talks at organizations that have in the past inspired or helped me, and I try to speak on topics where I feel I can further help or inspire those members.  RWA has been a big part of my life for the past 15 years, so I give talks at chapters whenever I’m asked.  And the joint workshop with Dani at the national conference in 2013 was so much fun, I’m hoping we can speak together more often in the future!

 

Your top two or three tips for delivering a killer presentation: 

Grace Burrowes: Humility first. If I’m presenting to a room of fifty writers, chances are good their combined experience adds up to centuries of writing. They’ve read dozens of craft books I’ve never seen, they’ve attended scads of workshops I haven’t, they’ve read enough fiction to stock a library. I’m there to share a few insights, and encourage everybody else to share theirs. I’m not the last word on anything, and collectively, a group that size commands a lot of wisdom and potential for mutual empowerment.

Honesty also first. When I don’t know something (which is often), I say so. When conventional approaches didn’t work for me, I say that too (also often). A good presenter inspires as much as they inform, and writing well is often about courage and persistence rather than any particular craft recipe.

Humor first too. Writing is hard, it can be lonely and frustrating. As Julia Quinn says, luck plays a significant role in success and failure (in financial terms). If you can’t occasionally laugh or neener-neener at the whole business, that will probably show up in your stories (and nobody will want to be your CP for long, either).

Dani Collins: Preparation. Know your material and be confident in the delivery. My goal is for the audience to leave with a sense of well-being, either feeling armed for the task, or more confident and reassured that they’re on the right path.

Courtney Milan: Be just prepared enough that you know what you’re going to cover, what you need to say, how long to spend on each issue, and what to cut if time runs out. (Time always runs out.)

Cathryn Parry: Preparation, like Dani said!  My second tip is to go into the workshop feeling relaxed and inspired—try to find a secluded place to sit quietly and meditate for a few minutes prior.

Don’t be so prepared that you’re speaking by rote because that’s boring.

 

Recommendation, please: If a reader or writer asked you who she should go see in person, what would you say? Is there someone who has been particularly influential or inspiring to you as a writer?

Grace Burrowes:  Donald Maass and The Breakout Novel Intensive workshop that he puts on with Free Expressions Seminars has been a real boost to my writing. Don has studied the books that hover on the bestseller lists for months—a commonsense approach to honing craft most of us don’t have time to do. He focuses on what’s working and what isn’t, from scene structure, to characterization, opening hooks, closing hooks, micro-tension, symbolism, and much more. It’s a challenging curriculum, but well worth the investment, and Don brings to it the perspective of reader, agent, editor, and author.

Dani Collins: Lori Wilde blew me away in Atlanta. She not only knows her stuff, but delivers it in a way that the bulb comes on immediately. Jenny Crusie is always fun and incredibly smart.

Courtney Milan: Nora Roberts. She is funny, irreverent, and doesn’t pull any punches. Also she is hugely successful and hardworking.

Cathryn Parry: Recommendations for writers:  Michael Hague, for in-depth discussions about story structure and the way character arc intertwines with external plot.  Debra Dixon, for character GMC, especially conflict.

For readers and writers: I am a big fan of Dr. Wayne Dyer and his books, videos and tapes about inspiration.  I haven’t seen him in person yet, but I hope to someday!

 

Obviously, I’d recommend people come see you! Any upcoming chances for them to do that? 

Grace Burrowes: I’ll be presenting at the Central Ohio Fiction Writer’s Conference on October 10 and 11 in Columbus, along with James Scott Bell (whose workshops I’ve also really enjoyed).  Link: http://www.cofwevents.org/

Dani Collins: Cathryn and I are putting together a proposal for Romantic Times 2015 in Dallas. Still deciding the topic. I suggested love scenes. Maybe your readers have a topic they would like to see us cover?

Courtney Milan: I’m going to be at RT in May, the Crested Butte Writer’s conference in June, RWA in July, RWNZ in August, and the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writer’s Conference in September. Do you remember the part where I said I can’t say no? But since I’m going to be at all these things, come see me!

Cathryn Parry: Thank you, Alison!  :)   I’m presenting “Rediscovering the Joy of Writing” at the New England Chapter RWA Conference on May 2nd.  (Sadly, Dani won’t be with me, just because we live so far apart.)  I’m keeping fingers crossed that Dani and I can present together at RT in 2015.

 

Your favorite book when you were ten years old: 

Grace Burrowes: The Decameron, probably. I didn’t understand much of it, but I knew it was naughty and clever and forbidden. (This will happen when you have older siblings in college.)

Dani Collins: Anne of Green Gables.

Courtney Milan: Ten years old was a weird book vacuum in my life. I was living in a foreign country and we had almost no English-language books with us, because apparently my mom preferred to bring clothing. (Priorities. Pfft.) My eldest sister, who was not with us, sent us books for Christmas after general whining about our booklessness. We read those books over and over and over. None of them returned to the US with covers. Of those books, my favorite was Over Sea, Under Stone by Susan Cooper.

Cathryn Parry: Anything from the Nancy Drew series.  Also, The Witch of Blackbird Pond, by Elizabeth George Speare.

My thanks to Grace, Dani, Courtney, and Cathryn–for sharing your insights as well as for the interview. Connect and find more about the authors:

Grace Burrowes: Website   Facebook   @GraceBurrowes

Dani Collins: Website  Facebook  Twitter 

Courtney Milan: Website

Cathryn Parry: Website