Book Review: The Day The Angels Fell

I love YA literature even as an adult. Authors have freedom within the genre to do so much more than with books marketed for adults in most cases.

I don’t know if this is because the audience is more willing to suspend disbelief or more open to new ideas, but there’s more for a writer to play with that still has a greater chance of being published. That said, Christian fiction has been in a YA drought for a while.

I was worried that works like Lewis’ Chronicles of Narnia and L’Engle’s beautiful works were past us. Instead, there are romance primers for girls and next-to-nothing for boys and that’s been the case for many years now.

So imagine my relief and excitement when I heard about Shawn Smucker’s debut novel The Day The Angels Fell.

Smucker’s magical realism novel explores themes of death, good vs. evil, friendship and family. He tells the story of Sam, a twelve year old boy whose mother has just passed in a freak accident in his place. Immediately he decides that he must go on a quest to find the mysterious Tree of Life he’s heard from mysterious characters in town and his best friend, Abra, is along for the ride with him.

Smucker’s writing is clean and his voice is strong. I loved the images he colors his scenes with and his characters are complex and relatable. I was right along with him the whole way.

I often find that contemporary childrens and young adult literature in CBA gets quite preachy or at least harps on the “moral” far too much, but this is not an issue with Smucker’s novel. His themes are clear, but have such a depth. He trusts his audience and I think that will be appreciated by young readers and adults. He—and his characters, for that matter—don’t talk down to the reader. He’s pacing alongside the whole while with some truly profound insights tucked naturally within the story. I was often sent racing from the couch for a pen to underline some absolute gems. (See the meme below!)

I would recommend The Day the Angels Fell to fans of Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane and L’Engle’s a Wrinkle in Time.  At turns dark and others heartwarming, Smucker’s world is original, heart-wrenching, and profound.

Pick up your copy here!

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Reading Outside My Box

Something I really wanted to challenge myself with in 2017 was reading genres I have typically avoided in the past. Whether intimidating, “boring”, or just not my preference, I’ve decided to prove myself wrong. Here are some books among my summer reads that have been pleasant surprises from genres I don’t usually gravitate towards:

Dark Matter—Blake Crouch

Genre: Sci Fi

I know there are a lot of sci fi sub-genres, but I had written them all off until this year. Between Red Rising and this title, I have been pleasantly surprised by the grit, adventure, and creativity that accompany science fiction.

You can read my full review for more, but I was not put off by the physics involved in Crouch’s plot, but was instead blown away by its relevance to the plot. I’ve been recommending this book to anyone who will listen!

You Are What You Love—James K.A. Smith

Genre: Philosophy

Philosophy is intimidating to me. I can enjoy the thought exercise in listening to intellectuals spout theories, but in discussion I can ask follow up questions and get to a point of understanding. Reading philosophy doesn’t always extend that benefit.

When I joined a book club reading Jamie’s book, I was nervous, but was very much into his concept: We are beings of affection and repeated behaviors, so how does this impact us spiritually.

You Are What You Love has taken me on an important spiritual journey, looking at the practices I hold dear in my daily life and how that points to my true affections. I’ve had to be honest and have had to make some changes, but I’m grateful for the help this book has provided in this.

The Green Mile—Stephen King

Genre: King is a genre all his own—when you write that much, you earn that right

Many of the writers, songwriters, and general people I look up to in my world LOVE Stephen King.  His memoir On Writing is great, but I had never read any of his fiction. (True, sad story, I know.) I am not a horror fan, and that kept me away from his work. I knew horror was not his only genre, but I really wasn’t sure where to start. The whole multi-verse thing was intimidating and there are just sooo many options when it comes to King.

While bumming around a bookstore a few weeks ago, a close writer friend of mine walked me through some great entry points into King’s work and I chose The Green Mile.

I’m still in the middle of this one, but am captivated by his writing every time I pick it up. I don’t know where he’s going with this (no, I haven’t seen the movie), but I’m excited to find out. Any prediction I’ve had has been wrong by a mile and it’s really fun to be wrong. (Not to be arrogant, but once you’ve read enough, you get really good at predicting plots.)

I have not been frightened, but instead mystified. It’s refreshing to be in awe of a piece of fiction you weren’t expecting to take you by surprise.

Just Look Up—Courtney Walsh

Genre: Christian Romance

I readily admit that romance is not my jam. I love a great love story, but I’m out for something else on top of it. Put Christian in front of it and I get a little skeptical that you’re mixing Jesus in with your emotional fantasy.

But when I found myself at a Christian Fiction event for work, I was quite taken with how kind and friendly Courtney Walsh was and really wanted to read her book after seeing a few internet friends speaking so highly of the work.

Romance is still not my jam, but I cannot deny that Walsh is a very talented writer and was going beyond the basic CBA romance formula in her latest novel, Just Look Up.

Yes, the love story of the plot is central, but there is more going on. The female protagonist if flawed in a relatable but specific-to-her way—she’s not the empty heroine of your stereotypical romance. The secondary characters are fleshed out and added to the conflict in interesting ways. There are a lot of external pressure on the protagonist that are keeping me engaged in the story and hoping she will succeed.

I can see where the plot is going, but I don’t mind Walsh taking me on the ride to get there. I’m not eager to head into another romance novel, but Just Look Up gives me hope for the future of the genre in CBA—it’s thoughtful, well-rounded, and just general fun.

Like The Green Mile, this is a read in process, but I can’t wait to finish it this weekend. It’s been a good summer read to close out the season.

In other news, I’m changing some of how I run/produce my content and talking about it during a live Facebook event! If you can, join me on my Facebook page this Tuesday the 29th at 8 p.m. EST! It’d be splendid to have you there!

Book Review: Dark Matter

Total honesty: I’m reviewing this book because someone needs to read it so I can talk about it with them.

It’s that good.

I have been trying to broaden my reading horizons by reading genres I’ve shied away from in the past: sci-fi, memoir, philosophy—namely things I found intimidating as a young reader.

Pulling up my big girl pants at last, I have certainly found some of my new favorite books as a result. Case in point:

Dark Matter by Blake Crouch.

After I finished this relentless sci-fi thriller, I flipped back to the copyright page to see if it was a first edition. I was and I honestly contemplated asking the library if I could buy their copy because it’s good enough to be worth something some day. (Jury is still out on if I’ll buy it from the library. It smelled like cologne which was weird…)

The book centers around Jason Dessen, a college physics professor and family man who once had the potential to be a great scientist, but gave it up to raise his son alongside his beautiful wife who gave up a promising art career to do the same.

After celebrating the scientific achievement of an old college roommate who has eclipsed him professionally, Jason is on his way back home and is kidnapped. His abductor drugs him and keeps asking him if he is happy with his life or if he has any regrets. Jason is drugged and falls unconscious.

Once he wakes, he finds he has never been married to his wife, his son was never born, and he’s made scientific strides far beyond what he thought was possible. I don’t want to spoil anything more, but I promise that the stakes only get higher and the plot even more engaging.

Crouch moves fast, spinning a truly original plot with healthy doses of suspense and humanity. He delves into physics in a way that is graspable, interesting, and tightly intertwined in the plot. (He had me interested in physics—a near miracle!)

Dark Matter takes you in and doesn’t let you go, so don’t start this unless you’re ready to devote pretty much every free moment to it.

I’ve been pleasantly surprised by the sci-fi genre and Dark Matter has certainly helped with that. If you read it, let me know! I’m dying to discuss with someone!

Book Review: The Imperfect Disciple

If you haven’t realized that the unifying theme of all of my blog posts is that I do not have my act together, well…then you probably haven’t been poking around here for very long.

When I ran across Jared C. Wilson’s latest release, The Imperfect Disciple, I knew immediately that this was a book I needed to read. “Grace for People Who Can’t Get Their Act Together,” the subtitle boasts. Yeah…might as well have titled it, “The Stuff that Jesus Has Been Trying to Tell Lex for A Long While Now.”

Wilson writes with a straight-to-the-point style that is at turns both humorous and heart-wrenchingly honest. Reading this book was like having a late-night talk over beers with a friend who pulls no punches.

I do things that I know are bad and I avoid doing things that I know are good. This makes me imminently unqualified to write one of those awe- some, take-the-next-hill, “be the change you want to see in the world” books on discipleship churned out ever-presently by the evangelical leadership-industrial complex.

But on the other hand, it makes me uniquely and distinctly qualified for the hope Paul offers in response to the crushing predicament bemoaned by Romans 7.

His premise of the book comes out of Romans 7 and 8—namely Romans 7:15, “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.” Wilson digs into this tension and does not let it go, bringing to light the full hope of Romans 8.

I’ve been doing a lot of thinking so far about discipleship and worship and how I do—or don’t do—both. The Imperfect Disciple hits on the honesty we need as we figure out how to live out our faith!

Living in light of the gospel is often messy because we are broken people trying to work out the reconciliation we’ve been given with God—the holy creator of the universe! As Wilson describes it, our relationship with Jesus is like bringing home a fiancé who is “a much better catch than anybody, including yourself, ever thought you’d end up with.” (Seriously, this is his writing style. I laughed often while reading—couldn’t hold it in!)

We are broken and so in need of saving—saving that has only be done! Now we partner with the spirit in the work of sanctification. We surrender to what God is working out in us so that we may look more like Jesus. This is a daily putting on of the gospel. This is a daily reminder of the story that I have been grafted into. It is getting down on my knees, getting in the word, and accepting the great, expensive grace lavished upon me like it’s cheap.

How often I forget. How often we let ourselves become desensitized to what Jesus has done and the spirit is doing. Wilson’s book was a refreshing, honest reminder. I loved this book!

Here’s the heart of it: “Jesus is looking specifically for the people who can’t get their act together.” That you and me. And that is why so many of us need Wilson’s message.

I’ll leave you with one last nugget from the book to think on:

You and I come to Jesus looking for some kind of pick- me-up, and Jesus offers his flesh. We come looking for Jesus the life coach when what we really need is his glory. We need to behold him.

This is really the point of following Jesus—to become like him. And in order to become like him, as Paul says in 2 Corinthians 3:18, we must behold his glory.

Purchase your copy here

Book Review: At Home in the World

When trying to hunt for my vacation reads, I was at a loss of what to bring in the non-fiction category. I always bring both a fiction and non-fiction book when I travel. My only requirement is that I have to be able to read it in a distracted state—during airport people-watching, or driving to the next destination.

I discussed my predicament with my friend and boss and she instantly had a title for me. She was on the launch team for Tsh Oxenreider‘s latest release At Home In The World and she could not say enough good things about it.

My friend and her family lived abroad as missionaries for a time and is very well traveled, so with that stamp of approval, I was so down for a good travel memoir.

Tsh’s story is so intriguing to me.

She and her husband made a pact shortly after their third child was born that they were going to take their family on an around-the-world trip once the youngest could carry his own pack. They made good on that promise and Tsh document’s their journey in this fantastic book.

For nine months, the Oxenreider’s ventured through Asia, down to Australia and New Zealand, over to Africa, and then up through Europe. Tsh describes both the adventurous explorations of their trip as well as the everyday things they needed to do to keep their family rolling on their trip—schooling, booking the next leg of the journey, replacing lost flip-flops.

All through the book, she unpacks the tension between feeling wanderlust and the urge to stay home. She is ultimately trying to discover what is home and what does it mean to live in a world we are ultimately told is not our home.

Oh, how I felt her quandary! So often, I’m dreaming up that next trip, but while I am traveling, I often find myself longing for a good book and tea at home. I think about how to capture the place I am in order to bring pieces of it home to my people. I think many of us simultaneously carry the urge to explore and belong.

I so appreciated how Tsh described her predicament post-college and even as a young parent. All of her friends got married, but she didn’t want to because she wanted to see the world. Once she was married with children, she and her husband found that that didn’t take away their wanderlust. They still wanted to venture out and explore the world—just now with children.

I decided I wanted to travel before settling down, but the more places I go, the more places I discover I have yet to see. Travel only brings a desire for more travel. This is something I will probably always desire.

And like Tsh, I will also always desire a cozy night in with an engrossing novel and my wool blanket. This is a tension many of will wrestle and I think Tsh unpacks it well.

Reading this book was like being on the trip alongside them. I was amazed, I cried, I added all sorts of locations to my must-see list and I could not put this book down even though I was in the midst of my own traveling adventure.

You need to add At Home in the World to your summer reading list stat!

Book Review: Think Again

I am not great at many things. I am okay at many things, good at even fewer, but “great” can only be reserved for a very limited number of abilities on my resume.

Over-thinking may be the only thing in that category.

Yes, I can use overthinking to my advantage. It can help in being prepared, trying to see situations from every vantage point, building fictional worlds in my writing.

Mostly it’s just a hindrance.

My neuroses lead to massive amounts of over-thinking, which I try to overcome through introspection and the cycle continues until I have thoroughly beaten myself up and have begun to loose touch with reality.

So when I read the description for Jared Mellinger‘s debut book Think Again, I knew I had to get my hands on it.

“I’ve written to help those who know the burden of introspection, and who find themselves worn out from looking in.”

Think Again was a gentle wake-up call to the subtle self-focused, self-diminishing thought patterns that have been sucking me dry for years. When I have noticed a sin-pattern in my life, I have often thought that if I observed and thought on my behavior long enough, I could change it.

But this is not how God works! Sanctification does not happen through my own power or introspection. It happens through time with the Lord, looking at Christ as my mirror.

“We know ourselves by gazing away from ourselves.”

Think Again was short, easy-to-grasp, and powerful. I recommend it for introverted over thinkers as well as those close to introverted over thinkers. Mellinger’s humor, reliability, and direct writing style are such an encouragement in a topic that could be condemning. The book comes in at around 167 pages, so this would be a great book to take to the beach this summer, or commit to read with a friend and discuss over coffee.

I greatly enjoyed the book and hope to see more from this author in the future.

Book Review and GIVEAWAY: A Trail of Crumbs

After a not-so-long wait that couldn’t end soon enough, the sequel to A Cup of Dust is out and ready for readers! (Please note that I did not review Cup as it released during the hiatus…) A Trail of Crumbs lives up to every ounce of anticipation.

Susie Finkbeiner’s historical fiction series centers on Pearl Spence, a young girl growing up in the dust bowl during the great depression.

A Trail of Crumbs picks up exactly where Cup left off—Palm Sunday—known in the dust bowl as Black Sunday.

I won’t give anything away, but tragedy strikes the Spence family,  sending them reeling both emotionally and across the country. We watch Pearl grow up as the Spences settle into a new community in Bliss, Michigan. (Go MI!)

The story is told in first person from Pearl’s perspective. The author uses Pearl’s child thoughts to build suspense and speak honestly in the ways an adult narrator could not. Her literary sensitivity is demonstrated not only in the point-of-view, but also in her subtle use of symbolism and sensitivity to the emotional pitch of a scene.

There where so many times when reading when I could’t guess where the author was headed, but I was thrilled to be along for the ride. Bliss felt so real and the characters reminded me of people I know. It was a pleasure to read.

Finkbeiner’s fourth novel leans into territory that Christian fiction rarely does and I am so grateful for it! Her honest story is relatable and real—something so many readers are craving.

Her storytelling risks are something I want to see more of in an industry that has been so scared to make any big moves. Readers aren’t looking for pretty people’s pretty stories to be wrapped up with a nice Jesus bow in the end. Instead, we are looking for mess, ambivalence, and most importantly hope. These are what our lives are made of. These are what make fictional stories interesting and true. Finkbeiner provides all three in spades—especially hope.

Giveaway

Enter to win a copy of A Trail of Crumbs! There are multiple ways to enter both by plugging into both Susie’s and my social media pages. Only those within the US are eligible (Sorry, Canada!) and only one winner will be chosen. The giveaway runs from today (April 14, 2017) to next Friday (April 21, 2017).
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It should be noted that the publisher gave me a copy in exchange for an honest review.

It should also probably be noted that the author and I spend an inordinate amount of time together being neurotic. Her neuroses results in good novels. Someday hopefully mine will do the same…For now it just lends itself to obsessive Parks & Rec watching…

Pray A to Z

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Being downright honest here, I’ve felt a lot of tension with the church as of late.

In light of some words and actions of the evangelical body during and after the election, I am really uneasy taking on that label. (Though this great statement from Fuller Seminary has provided some encouragement) I have felt shamed and discouraged, while simultaneously left angry and speechless.

And I have no influence.

As I watch my church become more of a family ministry center, I find that I’m not sure where I, as a single young woman, fit in. I can easily fall for the lie that I have nothing to offer and no place to serve because, somehow, having a husband and children somehow equips you to be a better disciple. I can feel isolated and alone.

I can feel like I have no influence.

I long for things to be made right. I long to have a place at the table, a voice in the conversation. I long for young adult women to know that they are not alone and are valued exactly where God has placed them right now.

I am a knot of wants and desires, but so much of what I long for is outside of my circle of control.

But there’s the thing:

I do have influence. I have the ear of the king.

I have often struggled with prayer feeling passive, but that is a lie! Prayer is the most powerful thing we can do in dark times, when the brokenness closes in, when we are discouraged and our community around us is disheartened and disillusioned.

prayatoz-707x1024Amelia Rhodes book Pray A to Z fell into my hands at the right time. When I was feeling most powerless, this book was an invitation into the throne room.

I am only one woman. I cannot do much. But I can get down on my knees.

Each letter of the alphabet is represented through three prayers of petition and two of praise. Rhodes has covered topics so thoughtfully. So often I would turn to a new section and think that topic didn’t apply to my community, but as I read her description and prayer, God would bring a situation or a need to mind.

As I search for a place to serve my community, I am finding that it is in the quiet moments. It is in those moments of prayer that God pulls me out of myself and reminds me of the needs of those around me.

No, I may not have much influence in a physical sense, but God has still asked me to come to him.

Pray A to Z has been a wonderful tool in my prayer life. You can read more about the book and the original blog series here.

You can purchase your own copy here! This is a great Christmas gift for anyone on your list.

Fitzgerald and the Wish-Dream

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I have been auditing a class this semester as 1) a trial-run for a masters program and 2) a new outlet to chase my obsession with the expatriate modernist writers. It’s a class centered on American lit from the reconstruction period up to the start of World War II.

Since I’m auditing, I don’t have to do the class work outside of the readings. As such, I don’t get to write the papers (because I’m that person.) While reading The Great Gatsby this past week, I’ve had some musings that may not be totally up your alley, but I have a point. Trust me, I do.

In reading the book for the third time, I have to say it is a pretty damn near perfect novel. If you have not read Fitzgerald’s bird-flip to the jazz age, I highly recommend it. (March is national reading month, after all.)

The descriptions, the symbolism, the balance, the prophetic nature—the heaviness of graceful prose. I cannot wax enough.

What really strikes me though is his grasp on reality in the midst of what could be. He gives it all away on the second page of the novel:

No—Gatsby turned out all right at the end; it is what preyed on Gatsby, what foul dust floated in the wake of his dreams that temporarily closed out my interest in the abortive sorrows and short winded elations of men.

This is his thesis. This dust in the wake of dream—it’s what each of the characters are caught up in. It’s what Fitzgerald is finding himself surrounded by. It’s where many of us find our lives headed.

You see, Gatsby—and I believe Fitzgerald to an extent—was chasing a wish-dream. The novel rides the tension of the fantasy Gatsby has created to live in reality and the reality that cannot keep the fantasy alive.

I think Fitzgerald was exploring if the wish-dream of his time. Was avoiding the heavy despair of the war with the gayety and whimsy of the twenties sustainable? Could the party and the money and the booze last forever without consequence?

But we all know what goes up must do something.

The characters are all avoiding consequence in one capacity or another. They run from mourning, or refuse to accept loss, or simply just want to think of nothing but their own pleasure for however long they can. Fitzgerald chases his suspicion that this cannot be maintained.

Gatsby was published in 1925, four years before the stock market crash—before the roaring twenties came to a roaring halt. But the novel was written like he knew all along.

Because we all know that when we avoid the heaviness, when we cover our brokenness, when we never take the chance to mourn, that it all begins to come crashing in. The wish-dream is not all it appears to be and by avoiding consequences, new ones emerge.

To embrace when we’ve lost, to accept what is, rather than trying to continually rev the engine of our car despite the missing wheel—it’s necessary. It’s hard by healthy.

In this life, we do not get the dream. We do get a chance to embrace what is in front of us with grace and courage. We get the chance to risk in what is, rather than hide in what could be. And as I believe Fitzgerald realized too late, we are the better for accepting that.

As Fitzgerald mourns a lack of nobility in his world, we can find that that kind of courage is still available to us. But are we willing to accept was is?

The Stories that Help Us Grieve

As I writer, I rarely find myself without words. After my mentor passed, words were hard.

I didn’t write for months and socializing just seemed a little too daunting. It was an odd season in which I

definitely felt displaced.

And eventually I began to process what had happened and how I felt and I began to heal. The words returned and I was able to embrace a new normal. Still, there were parts of what I was experiencing  that I still didn’t quite have the words for.

Narrative is a powerful thing. I’ve heard it described as a tarnished mirror. You see what is happening on the surface–the characters, the conflict– like the marks on the glass’ surface. But if the narrative is truly doing its job, you begin to see beyond the marks on the glass and actually glimpse your reflection. You see a little bit of your own heart and nature as you observe the joys and griefs of the characters. The injustice makes you angry, but it also forces you to observe the injustice in your own mind.

There is something in the power of narrative that is humbling, eye opening, and, at times, earth shattering.

About a year and a half after my mentor passed, I encountered a book that achieved this for me.

I’m sure you’ve heard all the buzz surrounding The Fault in Our Stars this summer. John Green wrote a fabulous novel about two cancer-riddled teens falling in love. A lot of kiddos believe it to be a great love story that pulls at the heart-strings, makes one run out of kleenex, blah, blah, blah.

But there was something in the way Green wrote Hazel’s narration. He got it. It was all there. The tension of living with someone who is dying. The pain, the awkwardness, and even the humor–because there is a humor that comes out of it. John Green had happened upon something I hadn’t in a long long time.

The words.

And it was so clarifying and freeing. After I finished the book, I continued to sit and I just cried. Tears of grief because I missed her, tears of joy because I know where she is, and tears because I had been given a little bit of myself back.

I’m forever thankful for that novel.

In his review of the movie made from his brother’s book, Hank Green said this:

I cried. I cried a bunch of times, but not because it subtracted from me, but because it added to me. It opened up the mysteries of life and love and hurt for examination and for understanding and I think that’s something that world needs more of.

I agree deeply with this statement. Sad things for the sake of sadness take from us. They take joy and hope and balanced outlook. But then there are sad things that better us. That give us hope, renew our trust in God, and bring us closer to truth. That’s what The Fault in Our Stars was able to do for me.

A dear writing friend of mine, Susie Finkbeiner understood our need for understanding of hard things as well as the need for that to add to us rather than subtract from us.

Her book, My Mother’s Chamomile, explores the journey of a family of funeral directors in a season of loss. Susie used her own grief as well as those graciously shared with her to make a beautiful story that rings true and brings hope in the midst of sadness. I cried many times through the course of reading, but in the end, I was added to. God was able to expand my capacity for hope in the midst of pain as well as my understanding of the human heart.

I so appreciate Susie’s willingness to go to the hard places of her own pain as well as her passion to tell a story dripping with truth. She has done a fabulous job and I would love it if you would take the time to read it.

So why am I writing about this? Well, for starters, starting on Thursday, My Mother’s Chamomile is $0.99 for Kindle readers and I think you should buy it. But also, I think it’s important to know what narrative can do for us. That God uses all things for his glory including fiction. And sometimes that fiction can be healing.

Stories that reach into the depth of our nature when we feel the most human do something to us. We are being invited to be added to. To understand the pain of someone else, but also to understand our own hurt and hope. This is why I love what I am called to do. I hope one day to be able to write something that will provide what these stories have provided me.

What stories have been powerful in a dark season for you? Do you have a story that helped you in the grieving process?