Book Reviews for January 2019

Long, long ago when it was spring,
I thought life was a lovely thing,
And now with snow on dale and hill,
I think so still.
-Minnie Case Hopkins

I don’t always see life as a lovely thing in the month of January, to be honest.

But it’s still a great month to snuggle up with a book, and what’s lovelier than that?

Here are my first reviews for the new year:

Text placeholder

The Gospel According To Harry Potter by Connie Neal

Published back in 2001, this is a book comprised of short, devotional-like chapters. As its title suggests, each one draws a parallel between the themes of Harry Potter and the Christian gospel message. There are some bright spots— I definitely saw the Sorting Hat in a new light, and Neal’s assessment of Professor Snape was very intuitive. Many of the chapters, however, stretched the imagination a little too far for me. I was baffled, for instance, by the author’s use of Fred and George Weasley to illustrate the principle of original sin. Their practical joking isn’t just innocent comic diversion, but an example of mankind’s depravity? What?!?

To the author’s credit, she freely disclaimed the liberties she was taking and does not misrepresent the intentions of J.K. Rowling’s writing. I also appreciate her defense of the books to those members of the Christian community who have been known to evaluate them unjustly.

Still, I think this could have been a much better book if it had been written after the whole series was complete. It would have allowed for an expansion on Harry Potter’s richer themes, and some of the more straw-grasping material could have been left out. Oh well.

Bottom line: Imperfect, but not unworthy. An easy read for Potter devotees and over-protective Christian parents.

Size Matters Not: The Extraordinary Life And Career of Warwick Davis, by Warwick Davis

I don’t often read in the celebrity memoir department. The genre usually strikes me as rather shallow and pompous. Sometimes, however, it is worth branching out and making exceptions. A footnote on the first page of “Size Matters Not” warns readers: “Brace yourselves: this book is pun heavy”. It was obvious from that point that I had not erred in trusting the apparent above-average coolness of Warwick Davis.

The actor’s story is full of fun anecdotes, written with exuberant charm. The puns, as promised, are not in short supply. There are some poignant anecdotes describing the struggle of Davis and his wife to start their family, but for the most part this is an easy-breezy type read.

If I take something away from this one, it is yet another reason to appreciate entertainment of the sci-fi and fantasy genre. Warwick Davis is a wonderful actor. How many non-fantasy films, series, etc., can you think of that offer wonderful roles for little people? Besides “The Station Agent”? This doesn’t say much for “real world” entertainment, but it does make me rather proud to be a geek.

Hats off to fantasy and science-fiction creators* everywhere, for opening those diverse doors.

*Not including Peter Jackson, who favors special effects over diversity. Pooh!

The Flight of Swans by Sarah McGuire

Sarah McGuire earned my attention with her rich and inventive debut novel, “Valiant” (based upon the tale of the Brave Little Tailor). So when I heard that she planned to follow it up with a retelling of The Wild Swans, I let my expectations skyrocket. If you haven’t read “Valiant”, I recommend doing so at once. Then see if you don’t feel the same going into “The Flight of Swans”.

The original is one of my favorite fairy tales, due in part to an animated film version narrated by Sigourney Weaver that I remember from my growing-up years. It centers around a girl who must not speak a word for years in order to save her six brothers from a curse which has turned them into swans. I like the story enough to have tackled retelling it myself.

Given all this, it is not too surprising that by the halfway point, I was completely disappointed. McGuire starts her story off in the middle of the beginning of the action. Which isn’t necessarily a bad idea, but in this instance I felt robbed of the opportunity to get to know and care about her characters. The retelling was almost too straightforward. Where, I began to ask myself, are the freshness and sparkle I loved so much in “Valiant”?

Just when I had despaired of their appearing, I got into the second half. And daggone if it didn’t snare me like an unsuspecting rabbit. I devoured the final quarter of the book, under the kind of page-turning trance that no one but a true bibliophile will understand.

In the downhill chapters, McGuire takes all the these elements I’d mistaken for boring or discordant and knits them into a perfectly harmonious big picture. The drama reaches perfect pitch without going over the top. The romantic element is spectacularly subtle. Almost no one does romance like that anymore, and such exceptions make even my supercilious, unromantic heart sigh and flutter.

I still like “Valiant” best. But, despite the initial letdown, McGuire really has pulled off another excellent fairy tale retelling.

My Plain Jane by Cynthia Hand, Jodi Meadows, and Brodi Ashton

Before proceeding with this review, I must admit to an unpopular opinion:

I do not like Jane Eyre.

Charlotte Bronte’s best-known novel may be a classic, and I understand why. But the brooding gothic atmosphere is simply not my cup of tea. And Mr. Rochester is the worst. I mean, just the absolute worst. If anyone wants to tell me how wrong I am, feel free. But you’re wasting you’re time, and Mr. Rochester will still be the worst.

Despite this long-held prejudice, I was pretty excited to get hold of My Plain Jane. The way the Lady Janies trio reshuffled English history in their previous collaboration, My Lady Jane, was a bizarre delight. Might not even Jane Eyre be a little fun, given the same treatment?

Spoiler alert: It was.

Imagine crossing the Brontes with Ghostbusters, and you’ll begin to get an idea of what My Plain Jane is like. There’s lots of fun-poking at the original, with the added charm of easter eggs and pre-Victorian humor. It’s a rollicking good read, really.

A little bird tells me a third book (My Calamity Jane) is in the works. Considering the possibilities (Jane Austen, Tarzan’s Jane, Miss Jane Marple, etc.,) I hope we’ll get to see even more from the Lady Janies in the future.

Everbody Always by Bob Goff

An encouraging, exuberant treatise on becoming love.

That’s my review. The rest of what I have to say is merely in response to some of the criticisms I’ve seen about this book. The gist of said criticism is that Everybody Always, while not completely unprofitable, is not relatable to the average reader. It is true that some of Bob Goff’s ways of showing love to the world are not attainable for the rest of us. He has been financially blessed, which others believe makes him out of touch with the rest of us. Typical upper-class white male privilege, etc., etc.,

I still wanted to read the book, despite the warnings. I braced myself to filter out the more adverse material. Only, I didn’t really find any. I can understand why other readers felt the way they did. My perspective is just different.

Some years back, I was rather startled to discover that a lot of Christian women have really struggled with the scripture of Proverbs 31. They look at it as a checklist of impossible standards that must be met in order to be a real woman. I suppose this is the natural result of living in a culture fueled by comparison. But I’ve never believed Proverbs 31 was meant to be interpreted that way.

I’ve always thought that the Proverbs 31 woman was given as an example to us because she was simply using the gifts she’d been given to the best of her ability. The point isn’t that we have to plant vineyards and hand-stitch quilts in order to please God. Not all of us have been given the gift of vineyard planting, after all. No, the point is that we’re all meant to use our unique gifts to his glory. We must use what we’ve been given. We must start from where he’s put us.

I think it’s the same story with Everybody Always.

Does Bob Goff appear to have more than an average share of wealth? Yes. (On a side note, I think God knew exactly what he was doing when He bestowed this particular blessing upon Bob. Material riches wouldn’t be a blessing for most of us at all. It’d ruin us. If anyone should have it, it’s generous, genuine, whimsical people like Bob.)

Nowhere did it seem to me, though, that Bob was suggesting you have to be just like him in order to love others. The book is written from his own perspective (because, duh). Does that make it exclusive to people of lower economic brackets? To my mind, it did not. To my mind, the book is about pursuing a life of extravagant, selfless, agenda-less, Christ-like love. As far as I can tell, that’s what it was intended to be. You don’t need money in the bank to be love to people, and Bob isn’t suggesting otherwise. We all have to come from where we are.

And, hey. Those who disagree can always just take it up with Bob himself, since he literally gives out his cell phone number in the back of his books. How can you not wish more people were that crazy?

Book Reviews for December

If any day of the calendar year feel like one for reflection and anticipation, it’s December 31st. We look back at the triumphs and disappointments of the last 364 days, and think of how we can try and make the next a little better.

I’m not one for making resolutions, in general. But I usually do set some reading related goals. At the beginning of 2018, I set a goal of reading 65 books. As of yesterday, that goal was met.

With 2019 staring me in the face, I have a new goal:

Read less.

That’s not a typing error. This year, I don’t want to achieve some great number of books by the skin of my teeth. I don’t want to cram in as many as possible so I can look impressive. This year, I want to read for the joy of it. I want to go for quality over quantity. No putting off titles that I really want to read because they’ll take too long and I have a quota to fulfill.

Perhaps my review quality will even increase.

… Don’t count on that one, though.

Here’s the final installment of crunch-time book reviews for 2018. Crunching aside, it really has been a good book year.

jonathan-knepper-402531-unsplash

Dandelion Fire and The Chestnut King by N.D. Wilson

This is my second read-through of the 100 Cupboards series, and I just want to take a minute to call attention to something. I noticed it the first go-around, but it stuck out even more this time. I am referring to N.D. Wilson’s rare and remarkable ability to write children’s fantasy stories with compelling roles for parents/adults.

Why is this so rare, so difficult to achieve? My guess is because in real life situations, it is the grown-ups who are generally in control. Kids in trouble and danger are going to head to Mom and Dad for help. In a fictional story, however, young characters will not hold much interest to readers if they are not forced to face challenges on their own, to change and grow.

This is probably why fiction breeds so many orphans, why parental figures so rarely play a major part in children’s books. It’s a tricky game, keeping the focus on a young character if they have that safety net of trustworthy adults beneath them. There’s not a lot of drama in that.

But Wilson somehow escapes all the pitfalls, incorporating great adult characters into his books, while at the same time never letting them detract from his younger heroes and heroines.

Anyway. Brilliant characters. Brilliant book. Brilliant series.

The Princess And The Goblin by George MacDonald

One of my all-time favorites (though I actually like the sequel best).

A long term dream of mine is to see this classic adapted into a quality screenplay. Maybe even to write it myself, if no one better gets around to it first.

It’s been done before, but it could be done better.

A Royal Masquerade by Allison Tebo

On the one hand, I was skeptical of this Goose Girl retelling. My loyalty to Shannon Hale’s treatment of the same fairy tale (one of the finest of the retelling genre) was firmly established long ago. On the other hand, Miss Tebo’s The Reluctant Godfather, a fresh take on Cinderella, was the most purely delightful indie read of the year.

The other hand didn’t lead me wrong.

A Royal Masquerade takes the classic tale (which, let’s face it, is pretty dark and melodramatic) and turns it into a lighthearted, madcap romp. Think: less horse murder, more enchanted skunk hi-jinks.

Anyone who enjoys the combination of humor, fairy tales, and baked goods are strongly advised to look into this and Allison Tebo’s other stories.

How To Be A Perfect Christian: Your Comprehensive Guide To Flawless Spiritual Living by The Babylon Bee

It’s tricky to write a clever review for a clever book.

My solution? To not even try.

Anyone familiar with the Babylon Bee doesn’t need to be told that this is a satirical work. Yet I found that this particular breed of sarcasm is better suited to the Bee’s traditional news articles than an entire book. It also seemed that they were lumping the progressive, truth-schmooth, love-conquers-all variety of church-goer together with the more traditional gun-toting, Republic-voting, teetotalling Christians. I think of these more as opposite extremes, so the characterizations often seemed a little inconsistent.

Qualms aside, How To Be A Perfect Christian does offer it’s fair share of laughs, along with relevant and pointed criticisms of cultural Christianity.

Recommended for believers who value truth, and can take a joke.

Book Reviews For November

You guys, I think these are literally the first words I’ve written since last month’s book reviews (apart from some sparse journaling, but that’s different). Isn’t it sad? I do have a lot of ideas for intriguing future posts, though, so stay tuned and we can hope I find the mental energy to actually write them.

For now, to the books.

annie-spratt-454816-unsplash

What Good is God? by Philip Yancey

When most of the world thinks of Christians, they tend to see us as head-in-the-sand, holier-than-thou hypocrites. Unfortunately, they’re not always wrong. I think that’s the reason I like Philip Yancey so much… because he is the opposite of the stereotypical 21st century westernized Christian. Everything he writes exudes common sense, humility, compassion. It is so ridiculously refreshing— even for someone who knows that the negative stereotypes are not all true.

In What Good Is God?, Yancey recounts a handful of experiences he’s had around the world, from meeting with Chinese leaders of the underground church, to surviving a rash of terrorist attacks in Mumbai. He takes us along to a conference of former prostitutes, A.A. meetings in Chicago, the Middle East, Cambridge, and Virginia Tech.

The insights are as poignant and grace-filled as I’ve come to expect from Yancey. Let me share this passage that I dog-eared (and may even underline in the future):

“Do you pray for a change in the government?” I asked the Chinese Christians. “No,” they replied, “we assume there will always be persecution. We pray for the strength to bear it.” In Eastern Europe, I interviewed a young man from Moldova who told me of the days of persecution when he held clandestine prayer meetings in a smelly outhouse, the one place neighbors did not suspect. He said, “Now that we are free, though, the church has lost its passion. Some of us are voting for the Communist Party to return to power, in order to help purify the church.”
I hear stories like these and then return to the United States where the news seems to revolve around gun-toting rappers and confused celebrities like Britney Spears and Paris Hilton. I challenge you to watch a television network like MTV four hours straight and then reflect on the fact that we are spreading this big-screen message across the world. The United States, arguable the most blessed nation in history, must confront the sad fact that privilege does not solve everything.”

So.

If you want your thoughts provoked, your heart stirred, I do not hesitate to recommend this, or any of Philip Yancey’s other excellent books.

Emma by Jane Austen

This is my second reading of this Austen classic. For some reason, I was bored by it the first go around. That was a long time ago, so I don’t remember what might have been wrong with me to think such a thing.

No one brings characters to life like Jane Austen does. No one is so deft at dissecting the virtues and foibles of humanity. These gifts are on full display in Emma, as are her signature wit and grace.

Since this is a classic, and I expect most have read it, I will refrain from any further attempt at justice to its literary genius.

Quick side note: If you’re looking for the best film adaptation, go with the 2009 BBC Romola Garai version over the older Gwyneth Paltrow vehicle. I always liked Jeremy Northam as Mr. Knightley and the comedic timing in that one, but it is truly inferior in almost every other way.

tumblr_p5yit7o7n51x49j2do2_250

Through The Shadowlands: The Love Story of C.S. Lewis and Joy Davidman by Brian Sibley

Any devotee of C.S. Lewis must be familiar with his unlikely marriage and love affair with the former-Communist and American divorcee, Joy Davidman Gresham. They’ve chuckled over the ironic title of the autobiography he wrote before he even met her. They’ve read about it, and probably even watched the film version with Anthony Hopkins and Debra Winger.

I am one of these people, and despite my familiarity with the facts of Jack and Joy’s romance, I enjoyed this book very much. It didn’t present much I didn’t know already, but was written with warmth and respect for its subjects. It’s also a fairly quick and easy read, not some bogged-down scholarly work, which is exactly what the subject material merits.

Through The Shadowlands is well worth the read for both those new and old to its beautiful, heartbreaking true story.

100 Cupboards by N.D. Wilson

This is the second second reading for this month. Scandalous, I know. There are so many books out there in the world that I want/need to read, sometimes it feels wrong to revisit old ones. And yet C.S. Lewis was quoted (somewhere?) as saying that he never got any good out of a book until he’d read it two or three times. So perhaps there is no cause for shame. November and December are cozy months. They make me want comfort food and comfort books, so it’s likely I’ll be doing more re-reading before the new year.

I thought it might be too soon to revisit this one, but I was wrong. At least half of it had slipped away from my recollection in the intervening years. But I loved it the first time, and my admiration has not dimmed.

If you’ve never been introduced, 100 Cupboards is sort of like The Wizard of Oz meets The Lion, The Witch & The Wardrobe. Only told in Wilson’s rollicking, robust narrative voice. It is both dazzlingly magical and comfortably commonplace. What else could a story that revolves around cats, Kansas, baseball, magic cupboards, and evil witches be?

N.D. Wilson has possibly become my favorite living writer. If you’ve yet to be introduced, 100 Cupboards is a great place to start.

jeff-nentrup-nentrup-100-cupboards

Book Reviews for October

“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers.”
-L.M. Montgomery (Anne of Green Gables)

By the books, it’s been an eclectic month. I’ve been from North Korea, to fairy land, to ancient Egypt, to dystopia. There’s no frigate like a book, as Emily Dickinson reminded us. Meanwhile, it’s actually gotten around to feeling a lot like autumn.

Ain’t life grand?

Check out my reviews for October, then go enjoy it.

karolina-badzmierowska-796597-unsplash

Dear Leader: Poet, Spy, Escapee—A Look Inside North Korea, by Jang Jin-Sung

This is one of those reads I want to just pepper with adjectives. It was spellbinding. Tragic. Moving. Chilling. Suspenseful. Intense. Lyrical. Inspiring. Heart rending. The writing is as beautiful as the story is compelling.

“Dear Leader” is the seventh book centered around North Korea that I’ve read in two years. Mostly, I’ve stuck to defector stories, being endlessly fascinated by how ordinary people live in the DPRK, and how a fortunate minority have managed to escape. The inner workings of the government are of less interest to me. As a highly privileged (by DPRK standards) poet and counter-intelligence agent, Mr. Jang offers heaps of information about the latter. I admit to skimming some of these passages, though others likely find them to be the most engrossing part of the book. For my part, I was thoroughly enraptured by Jang’s account of his life in North Korea, his pursuit of truth, and his harrowing escape.

One thing that has really convicted me over the course of my reading on this subject is the portrayal of Christian (or perhaps I might say, “Christian”) attitudes towards North Korean escapees. In “Dear Leader”, the author describes being directed to two different churches with the promise of their help. In both cases, his supplications were hatefully and forcefully refused. In other accounts, I have read of defectors being extorted by “missionaries” who refuse aid unless they convert.

These are not prejudiced anecdotes related to make Christians look bad, as one might expect to find in certain quarters these days. No, they are honest stories of real individuals, related without the taint of bitterness or conceit. They are convicting and thought-provoking.

Are we, as Christians, willing to help the helpless, even if it means risking our own security? Apparently, for the majority, the answer is a resounding no. What is sadder, I don’t think a lot of us in free countries are willing the help the helpless, even when it poses no risk to us at all. “Dear Leader” and other narratives of its kind are a challenge to live out our faith more truly and boldly.

For that, even if for no other reason, I am glad to have read this remarkable book.

The Witch’s Boy, by Michael Gruber

Three of my favorite components to any story include snarky prose, fairy-talishness, and redemptive themes. This book, The Witch’s Boy, relies heavily on all three and yet I did not love it. In fact, I did not even like it.

The snarky prose dissipates into plain darkness after a few chapters. The incorporation of various classic fairy-tales and characters feels clunky and forced. Nor did I care enough about the title character to celebrate his ultimate redemption.

There is no clear line between good and evil, which doesn’t sit well with me. Witches are presented as predominantly good. But what is good, in this world? A pair of characters based on Hansel and Gretel are “good”, too. It is revealed that they basically cannibalized their own father, but hey. He was a jerk, so I guess that makes it alright.

The author attempts a number of things that are hard to pull off just right— a talking cat, for instance, and a blend of lightheartedness and dark themes— and, well… he doesn’t pull them off. He also attempts to turn the classic roles of hero/heroine and villain on their heads. This works in stories like Neil Gaiman’s The Sleeper & The Spindle. Again, I’m afraid, not so here. Perhaps had the focus been narrowed, The Witch’s Boy would have fared better in my esteem.

Then again… maybe not

Seal of the Sand Dweller, by R. Rushing

Fact one: The story of Joseph is my favorite of the Old Testament.

Fact two: R. Rushing’s “Seal of the Sand Dweller” is a novelization of that story.

Fact three: It was absolutely nothing like what I would have originally expected from such an endeavor.

Fact four: It was infinitely better.

This is a true epic, folks. Rushing begins her narrative not not with the coat of many colors or brotherly betrayal, but in the Egyptian court with Joseph (Yoseph) interpreting the king’s dream. From here, a richly detailed and intricately woven story unfolds. It is familiar, yet surprising… formidable (at over 500 pages) yet seductive.

I was riveted.

Follow the link to go and get you a copy.

Into The Embers by Jacqueline Brown

This is the fourth installment of Brown’s The Light series, and probably the weakest. It didn’t offer much in the way of plot or action, but felt more like a bridge between the last book and what will follow after. Most of the focus ended up being on the romance… not my personal favorite aspect (in The Light, or most other books). This isn’t intended as an insult to Brown, or any other writer. My standards are just astronomically high when it comes to fictional love.

A fair amount of moral exploration also found its way into this one, mostly in the form of dialogue. The author has thought provoking ideas to share on everything from objective truth, to good and evil, to marriage. I’ve always admired her focus on personal and moral themes in the dystopian setting. Somehow, all the puzzle pieces in this once just didn’t fit together quite right for me.

Nevertheless, I remain a fan of the series and look forward to the next (final?!) book.

While this review may sound negative, I definitely still recommend this series to those who enjoy dystopian and Christian fiction. Click away to give it a gander.

Packing Shoe-boxes for Samaritan’s Purse: What I’ve Learned in 20(ish) Years

I couldn’t tell you which was the first year I ever packed a shoe-box for Operation Christmas Child, or what age I was. But I can recount with the precision set aside for warm, happy memories what it felt like.

It happened at my church, and it was dark outside. I stood over what any Westernized Christian child would call a church table (which I think is known as a folding table to the rest of the known universe). Before me, a cardboard shoe-box lay open, wrapped in festive, star-spangled paper. I was surrounded by a cheerful bustle of other packers, but I selected items to place in my box quietly, with utmost care.

I didn’t pay my own money for any of that box’s contents. I don’t even think I was involved in shopping for them, back then. But in my little heart and mind, that box was mine. It was special. I thought about the little girl who would receive it, and though I would never personally know who she was, my heart overflowed with love for her.

The packing system and environment has changed for me over the years. But the feelings of warmth and love remain the same. Because preparing these gifts generally goes down in the fall, I’ve never closely associated it with Christmas. If I did, though… this would probably be my favorite part of it. After all, as scripture says, it is more blessed to give than to receive.

As a veteran shoe-boxer, the idea of this blog post occurred to me yesterday. Why not share the joy? And maybe a few tips and inspirations I’ve picked up over the years? So, here we are!

black-blackboard-blank-1303095

What is Operation Christmas Child?:

I assume most of my readers are familiar with this ministry, but in case any aren’t in the loop, here are the nuts and bolts of it.

The Samaritan’s Purse project Operation Christmas Child collects shoebox gifts—filled with fun toys, school supplies and hygiene items—and delivers them to children in need around the world to demonstrate God’s love in a tangible way. For many of these children, the gift-filled shoebox is the first gift they have ever received.

Since 1993, Operation Christmas Child, the world’s largest Christmas project of its kind, has collected and delivered more than 157 million shoebox gifts to children in more than 160 countries and territories.

In 2018, Operation Christmas Child hopes to collect enough shoebox gifts to reach another 11 million children in countries like Peru, the Philippines, Rwanda and Ukraine. Nearly 11 million shoebox gifts were collected worldwide in 2017, with more than 8.8 million collected in the U.S

For more information on and resources for OCC, you can follow this link.

Now, for a few of my personal do’s and do not’s:

DO include handmade gifts, if that’s your jam.

I’ve never learned how to knit or sew cute things. But I often see people putting handmade hats and pillow-case dresses in their boxes, and I think that’s extra special.

DO shop throughout the year to find the best bargains.

I have a box reserved for shoe-box items, and add to it year-round. It’s the way to go, especially if you’re packing more than one or two boxes, and on a budget. Stock up on school supplies when they go on sale at the end of summer. Take advantage of seasonal clearance sales. You’ll save a ton of money and feel like a champ.

DON’T be a miser.

I mean, I do the bulk of my box-shopping at Dollar Tree, because it’s the best ever. What I’m saying is, don’t have a stingy attitude. It’s good to be thrifty, but don’t be cheap. Don’t give what you can’t afford, but give what you can with a generous heart. For me, what this really means is not skimping on wash cloths. There are some truly nasty wash cloths out there. Please don’t buy nasty wash cloths.

DO be as colorful as possible.

I like my boxes to burst with color! As far as there are options available for the items you’re selecting, be bold and extravagant.

DON’T forget relevant accessories.

If you’re packing pencils, remember to include sharpeners. Extra erasers, too, because you know how useless those #2 erasers can be. If you pack a flashlight or calculator, throw in extra batteries. It’s easy to overlook stuff so readily available to us, but (believe it or not) not every village in Ecuador or Mongolia has a local WalMart. Be mindful!

DO include a personal note and/or photo.

Infuse all the love you can into that box. Jot down a mailing or email address, too. I’ve never heard from anyone who received one of my boxes, but you never know!

DON’T think you can’t afford it.

Studies say that the average American spends over $900 every year on Christmas shopping. Even those who fall below that average probably have room to rearrange their budgets to include a child in the third world. You don’t have to break the bank to fill one shoe box!

DO get a group involved, if you can.
The more the merrier, so rope in whatever friends, neighbors, or church-family you can! Make a party of it. You’ll have a blast.
That said…

DON’T feel like you need a group.

It’s totally fun to do on your own, or with just your immediate family, too. As an introspective packer, I’ve always enjoyed working solo the best.

DON’T worry about your box’s destination.

That is, don’t think you can’t put in a pair of socks, because what if they end up in some equatorial region where no one wears socks, and kids hate getting socks anyway. OCC does not control your box’s destination, meaning those socks may very well end up in the hands (or perhaps I should say on the feet) of an Ugandan child. They’ll probably still be more delighted by them than you or I have ever been by a pair of socks. So don’t worry about stuff like that. Trust God to direct both box and socks to the boy or girl with whom they belong.

DO pray.

Probably the best thing you can do for the child who will receive your box is pray for him or her. Ask that your gift will be a true blessing. Thank God for giving you the opportunity to do something sweet and special for one of his children. If you follow OCC on social media, you’ll find they provide lots more direction for your prayers.

A couple more thoughts…

How To Pick An Age/Gender:

This is easy if you have kids of your own. They will have the most fun choosing items for a boy or girl their own age. And what a great way to teach them to love giving! But what if you’re childless (waves hand in air)? Or your kids are grown?

I used to do an equal number of each gender and age group. And you could do that, if the idea tickles your fancy. Honestly, though, it’s a lot more work. Keeping track of stuff, and trying to have every box come out somewhat even is a huge organizational challenge.

Thus, when I learned several years back that OCC receives the fewest boxes for its oldest age-group (the 10-14’s), I devoted my efforts to that category alone. It makes shopping and organizing much simpler.

Of course, it really doesn’t matter what you choose. Packing for any child will be a blessing.

operation-christmas-child-gifts

A few of my favorite (shoe-box) things:

– The shoe box itself! I like to start with a durable plastic box (although there’s nothing wrong with a good old fashioned cardboard one, if it’s sturdy enough and spacious).

– Water bottles are the hot new thing to pack, and it’s no wonder. You can find them at Dollar Tree, and stuff them with other items to save space. This was a revelation for me last year.

– School supplies. Maybe it’s because I was home-schooled and never really got in on the traditional back-to-school shopping thing. Maybe it’s because I know how much more non-American children are likely to appreciate protractors and crisp notebook paper. Either way, I major on school supplies. And especially, drum-roll please….

– Backpacks! Last year, I hit the jackpot at the Green Valley Book Fair, finding legit good-quality (but also flexible/foldable!) backpacks for two bucks each. No such luck this time around, but I still made sure to include an easily-packed, affordable drawstring rendition in each box. Along with the water bottles, these are a new fav.

OCC - Philippines Flood Affected kids

National Collection Week is November 12th through 19th! That means you still have plenty of time to pack a shoe-box in 2018. Go forth and seize thy opportunity!

Book Reviews For September

“The goldenrod is yellow,
The corn is turning brown,
The trees in apple orchards
With fruit are bending down.”

-Helen Hunt Jackson

Another month is almost in the books.

That means another list of books to summarize the month.

Here are the highs and lows of September— along with everything in between.

sept books

Fawkes by Nadine Brandes

When I mentioned the “highs”, I was thinking of Fawkes.

I was too impatient to sit on a review, so if you missed it, you’ll have to go back here.

Light In The Shadow of Jihad by Ravi Zacharias

In essence, a challenge to the Islamic community to condemn acts of evil committed in its name… not merely the overwhelmingly tragic demonstrations of terror, but the less publicized persecution of dissenters in Muslim nations.

The weird thing is, I had no idea this book was Zacharias’s answer to September 11th. And by pure coincidence I just happened to find myself reading it on September 11th. Strange how things like that happen.

The Class of ’86 by R.A. Williams

A 40-something wishy-washy “Christian” guy has a brain aneurysm and dies right after discovering his wife is pregnant with their first child. Instead of going to heaven, he is given the opportunity to re-enter his life as a high-school graduate and “fix” the biggest mistakes he made.

Think: Back to the Future meets It’s A Wonderful Life. A premise interesting enough to have tempted me into buying this indie e-book.

Unfortunately, the execution of said premise is poor (at times, excruciatingly so).
The exposition is clunky. The characters are humdrum. The picture of Christianity is like a bad stereotype. I expect characters of my faith to be portrayed as fusty, judgmental hypocrites by popular culture… not by someone who is, presumably, a fellow Christian.

I hate to be so critical of an indie author, but this was some cringy stuff.

Anne of Avonlea and Anne of the Island by L.M. Montgomery
Though a longtime admirer of both the original Anne of Green Gables and Kevin Sullivan’s film adaptations, I have somehow never read Montgomery’s sequels until now.

Towards the end of Anne of Avonlea, I began to fear that the episodic narrative was getting old. By the end of the next one, though, the charming idealism won out.

“The little things of life, sweet and excellent in their place, must not be the things lived for; the highest must be sought and followed; the life of heaven must be begun here on earth.”

*Sighs*

40843577531_91f01b55d5_b

Ask A North Korean: Defectors Talk About Their Lives Inside the World’s Most Secretive Nation by Daniel Tudor

Presented as something new and different from the usual defector narrative. It isn’t really, but that doesn’t mean portions are not still illuminating and worthwhile.

The tone within these pages is a lot more hopeful than those I’ve encountered before. The author and most of his interviewees seem to take the view that the reunification of Korea is imminent.

Though I may be a little more cautious in my optimism for this event, it is impossible not to feel compassion for the people of North Korea, and long for their freedom. I am fascinated by and concerned about the possibilities. And will likely continue to read every book about the subject I can get my hands on.

My Heart Is Where My Treasure Lies

“Don’t store up treasures here on earth, where moths eat them and rust destroys them, and where thieves break in and steal. Store your treasures in heaven, where moths and rust cannot destroy, and thieves do not break in and steal. Wherever your treasure is, there the desires of your heart will also be.”
-Matt. 6v19-21

pexels-photo-1050244

I like the word treasure. It gives me a mental image of pirate booty, a chest overflowing with gold coins and gaudy gems. Mind you, the riches of my mental image are not authentic. More like something you’d see in an Oriental Trading catalogue, or a low budget adventure movie. Something that only has value when viewed through the lens of one’s imagination. Imagination, I guess, is a treasure in its own right.

But that’s not my intended subject for today. No, today my thoughts are centered around the definition of earthly treasures versus heavenly ones.

The treasures of this earth, as referenced by our Lord in the gospels, are easily defined. There’s money, of course, along with any conceivable shape and size of material thing. Swimming pools. Lamborghinis. Refinished hardwood floors. Tiffany lamps. Throw pillows. Starbucks. A magic washcloth you picked out of a bin at Dollar Tree. Even (*wince*) books.

We might prefer to think of earthly treasures in terms of expensive, luxury items that we can’t afford. The sad fact is, anything that makes us feel comfortable and at home in this world has the potential to be a stumbling block. There’s nothing wrong with owning fluffy bath towels, or a sweet LP collection. We just need to be mindful, to make sure our possessions occupy the proper place in our lives.

Fluffy bath towels might be quite useful in drying us off after a soak in the tub. They might even be the most massively useful thing an interstellar hitchhiker can possess. But even the fluffiest bath towel in the universe will lose its fluff eventually. We can’t take it with us when we leave this life, and in the meantime, it’s not gonna help to get us where we (hopefully) want to go.

As Colossians 3v2 has it, we are to set our affections on things above. Not on earthly things.

The dangers and identities of temporal treasures have always seemed fairly obvious to me (not that I’m boasting… God doesn’t give everyone the gift of seeing through the wiles of fluffy bath towels.)

My question is, what does scripture mean when it talks about treasures in heaven? To my mind, this has always been a more mysterious consideration. Probably you ignorant bath towel people know all about this already. I didn’t, and until recently, I never bothered to deepen my casual pondering of the topic, or to study it.

If I was sure of one thing, it was that treasure in heaven is defined differently from that on earth. Even those among us who really appreciate the shiny gadgets and creature comforts of this world must be able to imagine greater things awaiting us in the next.

What we so often think of as treasures here are usually material things. Junk, in essence. I cannot claim to tell you much of what Heaven will be like, but one thing I will say with authority: Heaven is not a glorified junkyard.

What is most valuable is not material. It’s true here on earth, as well as in Heaven. Even the great majority of those who do not share my Christian beliefs value their children, their friends and neighbors, more highly than their stuff.

The most valuable thing in our existence is our relationships. Many different kinds of relationships fill our lives, and they’re all worth a great deal. But the most valuable relationship of them all is the one we share with our Creator.

Consider Job 22v25:

“If you give up your lust for money, and throw your precious gold into the river, the Almighty himself will be your treasure. He will be your precious silver!”

Though I’d pretty much figured out what “heavenly treasure” meant before I read this verse, it sealed the deal. The Almighty is our treasure. And one greater than we can yet comprehend! We fortify this treasure here and now, by getting to know Him better and living as he calls us to do.

I like The Message translation of Matthew 6v21:

“It’s obvious, isn’t it? The place where your treasure is, is the place you will most want to be, and end up being.”

When we desire Christ above any treasure this world has to offer, He will not fail to fulfill that desire. He will bring us home, into His presence. And I imagine every last shred of mystery that hides behind the idea of heavenly treasure will vanish as we are exposed to the all-powerful light of His love.

I want to close by sharing this great song by the South African band Tree63. The title, appropriately, is Treasure.

My heart is where my treasure lies
My great reward is in Your eyes
My every breath belongs to You
You are my treasure.

Book Review: “Fawkes” by Nadine Brandes

Usually I lump a month’s worth of book reviews into a single post, but every once in a while you read something exceptional enough to warrant one of its own. Such is the case with Nadine Brandes’s historical fantasy Fawkes, released in July.

Reviews have never been my forte. Until this year, they weren’t something I even attempted. It’s too hard to do a good book justice. But I’ve been trying, and shall try again now. Not because I expect to do the many merits of Fawkes justice, but because I am a writer. And a reader. Sharing good literature is my business, as well as my pleasure.

ruvim-noga-711147-unsplash

So, apparently, Nadine Brandes is one of those authors who grabs your attention with a plot that promises intrigue, and then knocks you over the head with the power of what she sneaks between the lines. I expected a good story, and ended up with a goose egg, to boot.

Let’s consider that intriguing plot first, shall we?

As stated above, Fawkes is a historical fantasy. Not just any historical fantasy, though. Nope. This is the kind populated by characters who were real people, filled with events that really happened. Gutsy, right? Brandes takes the Gunpowder Plot that smoldered in the unrest of early 17th century London and adds a unique fantastical flavor. The magic system revolves around color (and so does the all the cultural conflict). Everyone wears masks. And the plague kills by turning people to stone.

It’s more than enough to pique one’s interest. It’s more than enough to make for a compelling, satisfactory read.

But I’ve still got this knot on the back of my head to explain.

Fawkes is more than it’s plot. Much more. It is subtle, and layered, and relevant. It is about redemption, and reconciliation, and sacrifice. It is about digging through the muck of our prejudices, assumptions, and deepest values and finding something better: truth. Look past the trimmings (fine as they are) and you will find truth to be the beating heart of Fawkes. Truth fought, then sought, then ultimately found and embraced.

In a world consumed by the subjective, a work of fiction that extols such ideals is about as expected as a cloaked figure hidden in the dark with a big club. Hence my headache (one of the most refreshing and delightful ones I’ve ever had the pleasure to experience).

If you are a Christian, Fawkes should make perfect sense to you. If you are not, you can still enjoy it, and perhaps see Christianity in a new light. I didn’t even know the book contained faith-elements before reading it. Brandes weaves them into her tale with enviable beauty and precision. This is a “Christian book” at its very, very best. Meaning it isn’t a “Christian book” at all. It is not offensive or exclusive. It is not preachy or heavy-handed. Instead, Fawkes is a good story that knows where it came from.

With so many others strengths, it would have been easy for the characters (and the relationships between them) to fade into triviality. Brandes avoided this pitfall with a cast of characters as strong as any other element in her story. She incorporates villainy, father/son drama, friendship, and romance.

Though the romantic element is hardly the driving force behind the story, I want to comment on it. Because it is there, and honest to goodness it’s the best I’ve read in recent memory. I mean, a guy and a gal who have concerns beyond their own relationship? Whose first acknowledged purpose is to serving a force outside themselves (as opposed to prioritizing their own heart’s desires)? Goodness gracious. Here is a love that is true, indeed.

Added to all that, this book had something invaluable to give me, as a writer.

Fawkes isn’t exactly a page-turner from chapter one. I mean, it’s plenty good enough to make you want to keep reading. But the plot is not the action-packed, twist-a-minute sort. It takes its time to gather momentum. By the end, of course, i was totally glued to the pages. For at least the first half of the book, though, I didn’t experience that can’t-put-it-down compulsion familiar to all of us who read.

This is not an insult. On the contrary, it thrilled me. Here’s a book that relies heavily on subtlety and patience, and people love it. The plots of my own stories are not explosive. If suspenseful, they are quietly so. To see a work similarly written succeed, well! My little writer’s heart is just fit to burst.

Not, to be clear, that I am comparing my own endeavors to Brandes’s. Dear me, no. I do not expect anything I produce to be this good, or this succesful. It’s just delightful to realize that a potential audience is out there. That you don’t have to compromise your story-telling principles in attempt to appeal to the masses (not that I would anyway, but y’know…)

So if you’re an aspiring writer who doesn’t rely on the flashy stuff, or a reader of fantasy, or a consumer of quality faith-based fiction, or simply a lover of beautiful, complex stories… Get you a copy Nadine Brandes’s Fawkes. Odds are, you’ll savor it as much as I did.

Happy Birthday (To A Book Baby)

When I woke up on September 3rd, 2012, a strange and life-altering thing happened.

The previous night, a fanciful image had played through my pillow-cushioned head. This was not unusual. My imagination often helps lull me to sleep with such fancies. Ninety-nine times out of a hundred, they fade out as soon as I do, lost forever in a land of dreams. But this time was different.

Six years ago today, my eyes blinked open to a new morning, and I remembered.

This memory, this image, quickly morphed into a full-blown idea. Shirking whatever other responsibilities might have had a claim upon me that day, I threw myself into the task of fleshing the idea into a story. A story in a magical world, populated by unique characters.

Shortest day of my life.

And I haven’t looked back since.

The image-turned-memory-turned-idea became my first completed novel, Men & Dragons. Granted, this birthday might feel a lot more meaningful if it were published by now. But perhaps by next year. ‘Til then, I continue to think of this as the day that launched my “career” as a writer of fiction. Which is still kinda special.

Thanks to all the friends and family who have read my stories, and encouraged me along the way. My debts to you are incalculable.

I tried to think of some little goody I could offer my readers for this occasion. Some fun Easter egg, or “deleted scene”. Something to amuse those who have already read my book baby, and pique the interest of those who have not. Unfortunately, this little gallery of sketches is the best I could do for now.

This slideshow requires JavaScript.

(Nothing is more impossible than trying to satisfactorily render drawings of one’s own characters. At least when one’s artistic abilities are limited.)

Book Reviews For August

Usually, I write (or at least sketch out) my reviews as soon as I’ve finished the books I’m reading. This month, I was lazy and did not do that. I did tally eight titles read in August, though. So at least I was just writing lazy, and not reading lazy.

Either way, prepare yourselves for a vague and inconsistent batch of recaps.

pexels-photo-913138

1. No Longer A Slumdog: Bringing Hope to Children in Crisis by K.P. Yohannon

This could have been a good book. Parts of it were worthwhile. Unfortunately, the stories of India’s most impoverished and needy children were overshadowed by the author’s incessant pandering for financial support of his ministry.

There are tactful ways to appeal to people’s hearts and minds without making it seem you’re really just interested in their money. It’s really a shame that Yohannon didn’t realize that.

2. Before The Silence (A Light Series Short Story) by Jacqueline Brown

A nice little bite-sized treat for fans of Brown’s The Light series (which, if you’ve read my past reviews, you know I totally am).

3. River Running by Eden Reign

Jane Eyre meets Gone With The Wind in this sweeping, atmospheric gaslamp fantasy page-turner. (I really wanted to work the word “lush” into that opener, too, but you can only squeeze so many adjectives into one sentence. The writing is lush, just so you know.) The world is intricate, alluring. The magic sizzles and storms off the pages.

For lovers of fantasy, history, and romance, River Running is a can’t miss.

4. The Reluctant Godfather by Allison Tebo

Did the world really need another snarky fairy tale reinterpretation? If you’d asked me in July, I would have said no.

… But then I read this one.

… *Coughs* My July self stands corrected.

The Reluctant Godfather is an easy, breezy read that made me smile just about every single page. Furthermore, I could not have been more gratified to (FINALLY) find a Cinderella story that addresses the issue of the glass slipper not un-magicking like the coach/pumpkin, mice/horses, etc.,

Recommended to anyone who loves creative takes on classic tales, and/or the word “reconnoiter”.

5. To Own A Dragon: Reflections On Growing Up Without A Father by Donald Miller and John MacMurray

One of my goals this year was to read more books from my own shelf. They tend to accumulate there more quickly than I have time to peruse them. And the library has so many options, too. In short, I possess quite a few books that I have not yet read.

Check this one off the list, anyway.

I bought it because when you find a Donald Miller title you haven’t read for less than a dollar at the thrift store, buying it is what you do. Especially when it has the word “dragon” in it. It sat on the shelf for a year or two because it isn’t actually about dragons. Having been raised in a stable family myself, a book about fatherlessness is not the most obvious reading material for me.

Having once picked it up, I discovered that I was even less the intended target audience than I thought. A tactful apologetic note in the introduction states that the book really isn’t intended for women. It was written by a guy, for other guys. No offense intended.

I took none, and read on anyway. Nor am I sorry. Doubtless, the fatherless boys of the world have gotten more out of “To Own A Dragon” than I did. But Don Miller never really disappoints, and this was no exception. Fathered female, or no.

6. Living Well, Spending Less by Ruth Soukup

Too self-helpy and self-promoting for my personal taste. Probably better suited to wives and mothers who are just beginning their foray into budget-conscious, mindful lifestyles. As a single woman who was basically born a bargaining connoisseur*, this book had little to offer me.

*For future reference, I prefer “bargaining connoisseur” to “cheapskate”.

7. The Flight Of The Falcon by Daphne DuMaurier

Meh. It’s not hard to see why Alfred Hitchcock didn’t turn this one into a movie.

My previous forays into the works of DuMaurier (Rebecca and The Birds) were enjoyable. The Flight Of The Falcon fell short for me. The suspense was, for the most part, entirely imagined. I kept expecting things to happen, but they never really did. Perhaps if my expectations had been different, it would have been better. I expect it still would have been a rather plodding read.

Side note: This book might have been written and released in the 1960’s, but that’s not an acceptable excuse for the attitude towards rape that was portrayed within its pages. It stunned and disturbed me that any woman could ever write such a callous depiction.

8. Babe: The Gallant Pig by Dick King-Smith

Just plum darling.

Also, for what its worth, I believe the film version is one of the best book-to-screen adaptations ever achieved.

Advisory: Apparently, some other reviewers are not aware that bitch is a perfectly correct and harmless term when applied to a female dog. This is a lovely story, and I hate to think that anyone would discount it merely because it does, in several instances, include this word. Parents who aren’t interested in having a discussion with their children about inappropriate words and the importance of context in language are free to simply censor their out-loud reading and say “dog” or “collie” instead.

babe-movie-pig

Once upon a time, movies about talking pigs received Best Picture nominations. It was a simpler time.