My December Book Stack

Best laid plans, y’all… I was hoping to get this written and posted last week, but as it turned out, our kiddos have had virtual school the past two weeks. Unfortunately, this meant that my computer was in use most of the week for Zoom classes, so there were very few opportunities for writing. 

Normally I would make up for it in the evenings, but we did a Family Harry Potter movie marathon, so my evenings were booked as well. (That part of it was well worth it— most of the fam had not seen all the movies, so while the books are MUCH better, it was still fun to take that adventure together!) We even had a Hogwarts-worthy feast when we watched the 8th movie, complete with Pumpkin Pasties, Hot Butter Beer, Pumpkin Juice, and a “snitch” cheese ball.  It was a great way to spend some family time and make a sweet memory before Sarah heads back to school. 

All that to say, I’m sorry this took longer to write and post than I anticipated! Thank you for your patience— hopefully, this December book stack will be worth it. Two separate quarantine periods allowed me some extra reading time, and I am thankful to have made the most of it. So enjoy!

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A Sky Beyond the Storm (and Books 1, 2, and 3 of the “An Ember in the Ashes” series) by Sabaa Tahir

What do you do when you have to quarantine on Christmas day? You curl up with a bunch of really long fiction books, of course! I love Tahir’s An Ember in the Ashes series and have been waiting FOREVER for this final book to be released. I waited so long, in fact, that I needed to go back and re-read the first three books. I couldn’t remember some of the details or where the last book left off, so I was grateful for the extra free time to give myself a refresher before reading A Sky Beyond the Storm, which released in December. 

I found Sky to be a very satisfying end to the series. Tahir writes masterfully from different character’s POV’s and weaves them together to tell her story through a beautiful tapestry of different perspectives. After reading the first three books, I was ready for the battle. I longed for Laia to find her purpose, for Elias to find freedom, for Helene to find love, and for the Commandant to finally get what she deserves. The ending of this book was not unexpected, but it had enough surprises sprinkled in to keep it engaging. It got a little strange and far-fetched in some places, but that’s not unusual in YA fantasy. Overall, it kept me reading, wanting to know what would happen next. It is beautiful, haunting, and inspiring all at the same time.

One note of caution for younger or spiritually sensitive readers: This series gets a little dark. It deals quite a bit with the spirit world, and while good ultimately wins over evil, there were a few parts in the series that left me with an uneasy feeling. It wasn’t something I could put my finger on… it just felt a little off. Ultimately, I realized that underneath it all, the story has elements that do not fit well with a Christian worldview. For example, the Creator forces Elias to surrender his humanity, declaring love to be the greatest weakness of humans (yet, God’s love for humanity is what led Jesus to the cross). Also, in the climax of this last book, the creation becomes more powerful than the Creator; obviously, neither of these ideas is consistent with the life or teachings of Jesus. It did not ruin the series for me, but it is something to be aware of and a good thing to discuss with teen readers.

Keeper of the Lost Cities: Unlocked (Book 8.5) by Shannon Messenger

This middle-grade-turned-young-adult fantasy series by Shannon Messenger has been a favorite around our house for a long time. Shannon Messenger is a master at world-building, and her characters are easy to love (or hate, depending on the person!). This book is completely different than the others in the series; thus, the “8.5” title. It is 500 pages of facts and fun from all the previous books, followed by a novella, which will lead readers into Book 9. I’ll be honest—Shhhh!—Sarah and I both skipped the first 500 pages and went directly to the novella. We couldn’t help ourselves! And it was worth it. 

While I love this series, I have wrestled in the last two books with getting bogged down in the plethora of details, only to be disappointed in finishing them without much actually happening. For every “answer” given, there were several new questions left unanswered. Our lovable friend group didn’t seem to be making much progress. However, the tide seems to be changing! In only 235 pages, we received insightful new information, important character development, action scenes that move the plot forward, and still plenty of the witty and endearing interactions that we have grown to love and expect in a Keeper book. When I turned the final page of the novella, I felt at last like our young heroes are on the edge of something big. I am already holding my breath for Book 9—hurry up, Shannon!

**If you do skip ahead like we did, make sure you go back and check out the first part of Keeper of the Lost Cities: Unlocked. In addition to having detailed information on all the characters, there is also a pronunciation guide, glossary, fun fan quizzes, fantastic artwork (including a section with Keefe’s memory drawings and notes), and even some recipes for Sophie’s favorite elvin foods. Sarah and I especially enjoyed the Cinnacreme!

Secure in the Everlasting Arms by Elisabeth Elliot

I often read Elisabeth Elliot’s books as part of my devotional time. Since college, the Lord has used her solid teaching and faithful obedience to inspire me to live wholeheartedly surrendered to Him. I have no idea how many times I have read this particular book, but it found its way back into the rotation, and I am better for it. The short chapters make it easy to incorporate into daily reading, while still being deep enough to linger in your heart and mind as you seek to live out the truths of Scripture. This book contains sections on a variety of topics, including faith, contentment, suffering, singleness and marriage, knowing the will of God, and even some missionary stories (hers and others), and incorporates many great quotes and prayers by other authors. If you have never read any of Elliot’s books, Secure in the Everlasting Arms would be a great introduction to her overall style and teaching.

I have dozens of sentences underlined, but here is one of my favorite quotes from this book:

Jesus asks us to take up the cross—to take it up daily. What does this mean? Surely it is the quiet acceptance of disappointments, the willing performance of some hard task we’d prefer to avoid or some small duty which is distasteful to us. It is forgiveness to that one who has deeply wronged us and has not apologized (the Lord tells us to forgive those who trespass, not only those who apologize!). The cross is offered to us every day in some form, at times comparatively trivial, at other times real suffering, but it is always something which slashes straight across our human nature…  p. 106

The Garden and The Serpent- Book 3 and The Final Judgement- Book 4 (Dream Traveler’s Quest Series) by Ted and Kara Dekker

In these final two books in the Dream Traveller’s Quest series, our unlikely middle school hero, Theo, continues his pursuit of the five seals in the “other world.” He brings a new friend with him in the third book who happens to be blind, and who is instrumental in helping him figure out the third quest. At the end of book 3, their real-life bully, Asher, enters the picture and becomes part of the challenge they face in the final two quests. Annelee joins them again in the last book, and Theo finds himself faced with choosing between rescuing his friends and solving the quests. In the end, he is able to accomplish both, but only with the help of Elyon. Eventually he chooses love over fear, conquering the darkness and bringing light and love to an unexpected recipient. As mentioned in previous reviews, this is a great series for upper elementary and middle school readers. I found some of the spiritual metaphors in these two books a little more difficult to connect and understand, especially in the last book, so discussion is recommended. But overall it is a fun series with a great message, and my boys are loving it!

Becoming Elisabeth Elliot by Ellen Vaughn

Since this Book Stack was especially large and this blog post is already longer than usual, I have decided to wait and give this book its own separate review. For now, I will simply say that I loved it! Even having read as much of EE’s writing as I have, this biography gave me new insight into the woman who has probably shaped my faith more than anyone else. Becoming Elisabeth Elliot is a story worth reading, and I cannot recommend it enough.

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Whew! You made it! That was a lot to read, so thanks for sticking around. Hopefully you found something on this list to add to your own book stack. Stay tuned for a recap of my 2020 Reading Challenge List!

What’s on your nightstand?

My November Book Stack

I am obviously a little behind in posting my monthly book reviews, so I am going to use this week to catch up! 

Due to various Heath children being quarantined for direct COVID exposures—at different times, of course— I found myself with a little more time to read than I normally do at this time of year. I managed to get through four books in November and eight books in December! Whoo hoo! I am excited to share them with you.

Here’s what I read in November:

Storyworthy— Engage, Teach, Persuade, and Change Your Life through the Power of Storytelling  by Matthew Dicks

This book was recommended by several people in the H*W Facebook group, and it did not disappoint! It is a craft book, meaning it is written specifically to help train people in the art of storytelling. Matthew Dicks is an expert at what he does, and his personal stories engage the reader throughout the book. I found the way he breaks down his craft into simple, bite-sized applications to be super helpful. This book is very engaging and reads less like a text-book than many other craft books of its kind. I definitely recommend it for authors, pastors, teachers, and anyone else who enjoys telling a good story! 

Mirror for the Soul: A Christian Guide to the Enneagram by Alice Fryling

If you follow my book reviews, you may remember that I started learning about the Enneagram this summer. With my psychology background, I am always interested in things that help us better understand and relate to God, ourselves, and others. I have found the Enneagram to be a very useful tool for learning to understand the differences in the way people think and providing language to explain some of our internal motivations, while also shedding light on our personal weaknesses and blindspots. 

A few of my friends were interested in learning more about the enneagram, so we decided to a study together. While I really like the descriptions and explanations found in Ian Morgan Kron’s book, The Road Back to You, I chose this book instead specifically because of its Biblical framework.

Fryling does a great job of reminding her readers that while the enneagram is a useful tool that God can use to help us live more fully into who He created us to be, it is ultimately just that— a tool, and nothing more. There are many people who take the enneagram into a mystical realm, giving it more power and weight than it deserves, so I appreciate that Fryling keeps it in the proper perspective. While she does a great job explaining the various “numbers” and descriptions, as well as how they overlap in both positive and negative ways, she always brings it back to Scriptural applications. I especially enjoyed her Biblical reflections at the end of each chapter.

If you’re looking for a study on the enneagram with a very solid, Biblical foundation, this is a great choice!

The Curse of the Shadowman (Dream Traveler’s Quest, Book 2) by Ted & Kara Dekker

I read the first book in this series last month, and was looking forward to reading more. This book continues where the first one left off, following our unlikely middle school hero, Theo, as he embarks on another quest in the “other world.” This time, his classmate, Annelee, joins him. This particular quest sheds light on how quick we are to (wrongly) judge ourselves and others. By the end, they learn to see themselves through Elyon’s eyes, building on what they learned in the first quest. This is a great series for upper-elementary and middle school readers, particularly boys. The spiritual allegory continues, and the books are filled with great spiritual metaphors to help middle readers better understand their faith journey.

The Gospel According to Satan: Eight Lies about God that Sound Like the Truth by Jared C. Wilson

I was so excited to read this book! A dear friend recommended it, and I found the topic so intriguing. The introduction outlined the Biblical account of Adam and Eve, emphasizing how Satan was able to deceive them using lies that sound like truth, and makes the case that we are still vulnerable to the same tricks. Each chapter confront a cultural “lie” that sounds like truth, and breaks it down to reveal the ways Satan uses it to draw us away from God.

Unfortunately, in my opinion, the introduction was the best part of the whole book.  I really liked the first 2 chapters, but after that, I felt like Wilson was reaching. I didn’t necessarily disagree with him; in fact, I actually did agree with most of his points. But I feel like his focus often wasn’t the best application of the “lies” he chose, and he seemed to continually create unnecessary conflict in ways that actually detracted from his real points. He said a lot of good stuff; it just got lost in all his words and arguments. Also, he likes to slam others and tout himself (and his books), which annoys me. 

Still, it was an interesting read, and I am glad I read it. It introduced me to some theological viewpoints and ideologies I was not familiar with. And I always appreciate learning from voices and perspectives different from my own. If you ascribe to Reformed theology, his points and arguments may really resonate with you. Otherwise, you can decide for yourself whether to take or leave this book. I probably wouldn’t recommend it.

And that’s it for November! Stay tuned for my December Book Stack and my Year End Review & Recommendations. Hopefully both will be published in the next week or so!

What’s on your nightstand?

What I Learned to Embrace in 2020

We are two days into the New Year, and I find myself needing to wrap up 2020 somehow. I wish I could put a great big bow on it, but it wasn’t exactly that kind of year. Still, there was a lot of joy and a lot of growth, and I don’t want to accidentally leave those gifts behind.

I have never been one to choose a “word for the year” like so many others do, but last year a word chose me. I don’t even remember how it happened. I just know that as I prayed about whether or not I should consider choosing a word, God began to whisper the same word over and over to my heart. 

Embrace.

He whispered it in other places, too— songs on the radio, conversations with friends, in the pages of my devotional reading. Again and again the word appeared…. Embrace.

Immediately, it resonated with me, likely because I was filled with so much dread for 2020. Our oldest daughter was graduating from high school, and I was dreading all the “lasts”: her last show, her last prom, her graduation. And I couldn’t even begin to imagine driving her six and a half hours away to college and leaving her there without us! 

But God was telling me to EMBRACE those things, to soak them in and find joy instead of dread. 

So I learned to EMBRACE THE MOMENTS.

I prayed for time to slow down (and, boy, did it!). When the quarantine began, we were suddenly all home together, and I was prepared to embrace every moment. We baked cookies and made scones and watched movies together. We went on family hikes and made more cookies. We created videos and completed schoolwork and yes, we made more cookies. And we ate them. All. 

When Sarah’s Senior girls trip to Texas was cancelled, we went to the beach and swam with dolphins instead. When she missed our family Disney trip due to a Covid exposure, we snuck back down to the Mouse House for a couple days after Thanksgiving (yay for annual passes!). When yet another direct exposure ruined our Christmas day plans, we waved sadly to the grandparents and then embraced the moment, choosing to make a fun memory instead (it had something to do with chinese food and a crispy duck, but that’s a story for another day!).

And when Jeff and I dropped her off at college and I felt like my heart had been ripped out of my chest, I embraced all the things I was grateful for— that she was still able to be on campus with Covid, that she was making new friends and thriving, that she missed her crazy family after all…

So I am grateful that God prepared me to embrace each of those moments. However, my word ended up applying to so much more than just Sarah! The Lord had many other lessons for me to EMBRACE.

When the world shut down, life changed drastically in our home. We went from everyone going in different directions every evening to having dinner (and lunch… and breakfast… and dessert!) together at home every day. Days turned into weeks, and weeks turned into months.

I learned to EMBRACE REST.

There were so many projects I could have done around the house. There were closets and cabinets and a basement full of stuff calling my name. But my soul needed something different— rest

And so, contrary to my normal nature, I embraced it. I left the clutter where it was and curled up in a chair with a book. I snuggled on the couch with the kids and watched movies. I laced up my sneakers and took long walks. And I spent extended time talking and listening to my Father

The strangest thing happened, y’all— my soul began to breathe. It was as if I had been on a ventilator for a very long time, maybe years, and was suddenly beginning to breathe on my own again. It was shallow at first; uneven, gasping, gulps of air followed by periods of holding my breath; but eventually, as I embraced my new normal, it began to settle into a more consistent rhythm. 

I also learned to EMBRACE WRITING.

I have always found clarity through writing my thoughts. Stacks and stacks of prayer journals line my bookshelves. There are even a few (hilarious!) middle school “diaries” thrown in the mix. I have written hundreds of letters to friends over the years, and I have a folder of (mostly embarrassing) poetry hidden in my closet that will hopefully never be read by other humans! 

But around Thanksgiving last year, God began to stir in my heart the urge to write more consistently… and to share my words.

There is something extremely vulnerable about sharing my words with others. I want them to be real, not contrived or impersonal. I want them to touch people, to inspire and encourage and help those who read them. And if I’m honest, I want people to like them (stupid pride). But mostly, I want them to draw people’s hearts to Jesus, just as He draws my own heart to Him. 

And I don’t often know how to do that. 

But suddenly I had nothing else to do except EMBRACE what God was calling me to do. So I wrote about a lot of random things, praying God would use them. I published things faithfully on my blog, even though I had no idea if anyone was reading it. I joined hope*writers and began to learn about the discipline of writing, the craft of storytelling, and the machine that is involved if one ever hopes to publish: building a brand, a platform, a social media following, an email list, etc. 

It still overwhelms me! But through the process…

I have learned to EMBRACE GROWTH. 

I have tried new things and failed. I have written pieces and cringed after I published them. With the help of some friends, I designed a totally new website— that I still haven’t launched. I even submitted two articles for publication, both of which were rejected. But I did it! 

(And I was actually just featured as a guest blogger on a fellow hope*writer’s blog, so that’s fun! You can read that article here.

Overall, I have learned so much. I have even been able to share some of it with others, and it is all a result of embracing something new, of not being afraid to try.

Above all else, I have EMBRACED JESUS.

This year has given me the gift of time and space to just be with Jesus. I have had the freedom to study the Word; to read deep, reflective books; to pour out my heart to my Father; and to sit at His feet and listen. He has convicted and encouraged me, and faithfully been present. I have asked Him for answers and direction, and He has repeatedly reminded me to open my hands and trust Him. So I embrace His goodness, his faithfulness, His love; and I place myself in His hands, like clay in the hands of the Potter. Have your way with me, Lord!

Looking back, it’s funny to think of 2020 as a year to be embraced. Yet, that is exactly what God asked me to do, and I am so grateful. Think of all I would have missed out on if I had stayed focused on what I was losing and if the world had not shut down! 

“And we know that God causes everything to work together for the good of those who love God and are called according to His purpose for them.” —Romans 8:28 (NLT)

God has given me a new word for 2021 (I’ll share it here soon!), but I intend to continue embracing whatever He places before me, and I pray you will as well!