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?

September Book Stack

Well friends, here we are in November. When I sat down to write about my (really small) October book stack, I realized I never posted my books from September!

What? How did that happen? 

Honestly, y’all, October was just a really strange month for me. First, we kicked it off with our annual family Disney trip; except Sarah had to quarantine at college at the last minute, so it didn’t really feel like a family trip for any of us. Then, the temperature outside kept bouncing between highs and lows, which was totally reflected in my mood. And because I couldn’t get out of my own head, I ended up spending WAY too much time scrolling on social media, and very little time reading or writing (or doing anything remotely productive).  

Thankfully, Sarah finally made it home for her first visit last weekend, and suddenly I feel like I can breathe again! Isn’t it crazy how we can be dealing with emotions internally and have no idea how they are affecting us? Apparently I was missing our girl way more than I realized. 

Anyway, a weekend of Heath Fam adventures was good for my soul. So, I am back in the game again! And my September book stack seems like a good place to start.

Here you go!

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Memories of Glass by Melanie Dobson

I added this book to my 2020 reading challenge after a friend recommended it. When I picked it up from the library, I was a little disheartened. I’m not sure if you can tell from the photo, but the cover consists of several old-fashioned glass perfume bottles, which screamed cheesy romance novel to me. Ugh! 

Thankfully, though, it turned out to be a historical fiction novel after all, with a little bit of mystery thrown in (and a smidge of romance on the side). The matriarchal grandmother and CEO of the family business has secrets from her youth that slowly begin to leak out, threatening the family’s reputation and relationships. As usual, secrets have a way of being found out, and in this case, they end up bringing people together. This story does contain some overt spiritual witnessing, for lack of a better phrase. Y’all know I am a Jesus girl and I am all for weaving Jesus into one’s writing, but in this case, several of these moments seemed to be awkwardly inserted, and more glaringly obvious than necessary. It would have been more effective, I think, to take a less obvious and more natural approach to the character’s faith. However, that’s a minor point for sure! If you like historical fiction, this was an enjoyable story and worth a read!

Persuasion by Jane Austen

Jane Austen is one of my favorite authors. Most people have read or are at least aware of Passion and Purity and Sense and Sensibility. However, Persuasion is not as well known, even though it was her last completed work. There is so much I love about this book! While I have read it before, her books never get old to me.

Anne Elliot is Austen’s oldest protagonist, and as so, brings such depth to the story. I love the premise of an unrequited love given a second chance, particularly when those involved have such strength of character and integrity. I find myself rooting for them all the way through the novel, no matter how many times I read it. If you don’t know the story, Anne and Frederick Wentworth were acquainted in their young adult years and formed a strong attachment. However, Anne’s father, Sir Walter Elliot, and her guardian, Lady Russell, did not approve of their union, feeling his financial and social status were unworthy of her position in society. Though Anne very much loved him, she felt it was dishonorable to continue the relationship without their approval. In letting him go, she felt as though she were doing the right thing, while also wondering if she had given up her one true love in life.

The actual story begins seven years later, with both characters still unmarried. Circumstance finds them once again dancing in the same circles, but this time with walls of hurt and regret between them. Austen has a unique and wonderful way of peeling back the layers of her characters throughout the novel, slowly revealing their strengths and weaknesses, and weaving their stories together as she goes. People are never quite what they seem, and in the end, their true character is revealed. Persuasion is no exception. By the end, Anne learns that while it is important to seek wise counsel, sometimes the best counsel comes from your own heart and mind. If you are an Austen fan but have never read Persuasion, put it on your list!

Into the Book of Light by Ted & Kara Dekker (Book 1 of the Series)

This middle grade book is the first in a series by Ted Dekker and his daughter, Kara. It reminds me quite a bit of Priscilla Shirer’s Warrior Series, which y’all already know I loved! In this series, the main character, Theo, is a middle school boy who is plagued by fears and finds himself the target of a mob of school bullies.  As he seeks refuge in a secret room in the library, an ancient book falls into his lap, and he soon finds himself transported to another world. 

In this new world, he meets strange creatures and new friends, and is sent out on a quest to find the 5 Seals of Truth. The authors use wonderful imagery to describe everything Theo encounters on his search for truth. There are dark bat-like creatures who aggressively hinder his progress and seek to deceive him. There is a black fog of knowledge which, when breathed in, only increases his knowledge of fear and blinds him to the truth. There is cleansing water and the characterization of God as a lion… and a boy. After a powerful encounter with Elyon, Theo is able to respond with courage in the face of fear, earning the first seal—the seal of Light.

It is a great allegory for many Biblical truths, and teaches children to turn to God with their fears, trusting He is big enough to handle them and take care of them. I have no doubt that my boys will enjoy this book, and I look forward to reading the rest of the series!

Mansions of the Heart: Exploring the Seven Stages of Spiritual Growth by R. Thomas Ashbrook

I absolutely loved this book! It is the kind of book that resonates when you read it and then stays with you, begging you to pull it back out and read it again. 

Based largely on the writings of Saint Teresa of Avila and Saint John of the Cross, Mansions of the Heart describes a modernized ancient framework of spiritual growth for Christian believers. It is, perhaps, the best book on spiritual formation I have ever read.

Asher takes great care to point out that spiritual formation is not linear in nature, while still giving us a basic road map to use as a guideline. He emphasizes that we can be in more than one stage at the same time, and that we often move in and out of a given stage for a period of time. Most churches and books on spiritual growth direct us towards prayer, Bible Study, and other spiritual disciplines, but with no clear path or picture of where/what our relationship with Christ is going. What often happens, in my experience, is we find ourselves in that stage, vascillating between periods of  silence from God and closeness with Him. When we are hearing Him clearly, we feel like we are growing, but in long periods of silence, we may question what we are doing wrong or if, perhaps, we’ve had it wrong all along. Most of the believers I know never make it any further than this, and live with ongoing frustration sprinkled with moments of closeness, or worse, settle into an apathetic faith.

What I appreciate most about this book is that it gives a further path beyond just prayer and Bible study. It validates these periods of silence, termed “dark nights of the soul,” and encourages us to not only expect them, but even to appreciate them for their place in the process of drawing our hearts to Jesus. Asher points out the stages often coincide in many ways with our overall maturity and the life stages we find ourselves in. I definitely find this to be a true and logical correlation. I am both intrigued by and somehow hesitant to embrace the mysterious, mystical elements of the later stages he describes. As a culture, we do not like to embrace things we don’t understand and can’t explain… and yet, isn’t that exactly who God is and how He works? Having experienced personally a few spiritual encounters of this nature, and having read of significantly deeper encounters than mine by “spiritual greats” who were much purer in heart and faith than myself (Amy Carmichael, C.S. Lewis, Brother Lawrence, etc.), I am compelled to believe there is certainly a path forward beyond what many of us ever realize. Reading this book has encouraged me to continue pursuing communion with God at a deeper level than I was beginning to think was possible.

All that said, this book is not for everyone. If you are fairly new to the Christian faith (or to actively growing in your faith—ie., Stage 1 or Stage 2 of spiritual growth as described in the book), I am afraid you will find this book overwhelming and largely irrelevant. In my opinion, it is better suited for people who are further along in their faith journey and already practice spiritual disciplines fairly consistently. Additionally, if you have a strong negative opinion of any sort of mystical element to Christianity, you will likely find this book a waste of time.

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Well, friends, those are my books from the month of September: Historical fiction, a Jane Austen novel, middle grade fantasy, and Spiritual formation. How’s that for variety? Ha! 

What’s on your nightstand?

Feel free to share suggestions or feedback in the comments! 

My August Book Stack

Hi Friends!

There are two things you will probably notice very quickly about my August book stack. First, I finally made it back to the library, as you can tell by all the stickers. And making it back to the library means my August book stack is full of fiction! Whoo hoo! 

Incidentally, that’s also why there are seven books. 

Want to know a secret? I am able to read fiction books much more quickly than, say, biographies, so they really help me reach my end-of-year reading challenge goal.  Shhhh! We all have our secrets, after all…

Anyway, let’s get started! Here are the details on the books I read in August.

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The Entitlement Cure by John Townsend

This book was not at all what I expected. Having four children and working with teenagers like I do, I honestly expected it to be targeted more towards the younger generation. While these principles can definitely be applied to teenagers, they are actually written more for adults, making it more difficult to apply them to children. That said, I really enjoyed this book!

I think understanding the principles of how to counteract entitlement can definitely re-shape the way we parent, which will be beneficial to our children. I also found it helpful in revealing my own entitled attitudes in ways I would not necessarily have noticed on my own. And because Townsend uses so many workplace illustrations, I think this book is particularly helpful to those in leadership positions in the workplace. So while I wouldn’t necessarily recommend it for someone struggling with an entitled 8 year old, I did find it worth reading for the general public and especially for those in the workplace.

False Memory Series by Dan Krokos

As most of you know, YA dystopian fiction is my guilty pleasure. I came across this series at the library and quickly checked out all three books. Oh, how I missed the library during quarantine! I was so happy to have a little mindless reading again. Well, this series did not disappoint on the “mindless reading” front… It turned out to be a YA science fiction series instead of dystopian, which is not really my jam. Still, the overall plot was interesting and the characters were likeable enough to keep me reading.

It has a kick-butt female protagonist with two heroic guy friends, forming the expected love triangle. As it happens, the teenagers were created (cloned) to “save the world,” but end up embarking on their own mission to save the world from their creators. For my teen friends, be aware there is some language and pretty intimate physical contact between the characters on multiple occasions. While it doesn’t come close to making my favorites list, it was still fun to have some mindless YA fiction to read again for a change!

The Wedding Dress by Rachel Hauck

This book has been on my list for awhile, so I was glad to finally be able to get it from the library. For some reason, the description led me to believe it was historical fiction, another favorite genre- a vintage wedding dress is found in an old trunk at an estate sale, which leads the protagonist on a search to find out the mystery of it’s origin and reappearance. She traces the dress to three different women, seemingly unconnected, from different generations. Intriguing, right?

Well, it turns out the book is really a Christian romance novel, so I was a little disappointed. However, it was well written and the mystery of the dress was still a fun story line, so I’m glad I read it! Again, it won’t make my list of favorites, but if you like Christian romance, you should definitely check this one out.

The Raft by S.A. Bodeen

I also found this book at the library, and honestly, I was drawn in by the cover. A girl floating half-dead on a raft in the middle of an ocean screamed high adventure.  After months of being confined in the same place, that was just what I was looking for! This is a YA fiction book, definitely intended for a middle to high school audience. It was a quick read, and enjoyable, though very predictable. There were some political agendas woven pretty obviously throughout, but I have come to expect that in YA fiction. Overall, it wasn’t a very-well developed book, but it was a quick read and an enjoyable story! (FYI- there is a mild “attack” encounter in the beginning which may be a trigger for girls who have been assaulted)

Intimate Moments with the Savior by Ken Gire

I have read this devotional book multiple times over the years. I bought it shortly after I graduated from college and find myself drawn back to it every now and then. Ken Gire has a beautiful writing style, which brings the Scriptures alive. He has a unique way of drawing a bridge between people who encountered Jesus and how we encounter Him in our own lives. In this book, we come face to face with Peter, Mary and Martha, Nicodemus, and others, and are able to learn from their experiences how to become more intimate with Jesus. I pulled this out after reading an excerpt in an old prayer journal about His encounter with Peter, and after all these years, that particular chapter is still my favorite. This is not deep, theological reading; it is the kind of writing that draws your heart to the Lord in an intimate way. It’s a classic, and you can be sure it will end up in another book stack of mine down the road.

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Well, as you can probably tell, August didn’t turn out to be my favorite collection of books. It has actually dampened my desire to read this month, so you can expect a smaller selection for September. But as far as I’m concerned, an okay book is better than no book! Just like you have to kiss a lot of frogs before you find a prince, maybe you have to read a lot of books to find those few that really resonate with you. It’s worth it!

So friends, what’s on your nightstand? I’d love to know what you’ve been reading lately! Share in the comments!

My July Book Stack

Y’all, how is it August already?? 

2020 has proven to be the strangest year. At least it is passing quickly, right? I’m not going to bore you with what we have and haven’t been doing. Instead, we’ll just jump right in! Here are the books I read last month:

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Start with Your People by Brian Dixon

Brian Dixon is one of the co-founders of Hope*Writers, the online writing community I joined several months ago.  I bought his book after listening to him on a podcast. He shared his story of how God changed his heart from valuing productivity to valuing people, and I was hooked. I am all about people! He shares his story more in depth in this book, so you’re in luck!

This is a great book for everyone, whether you are leading a family or a company. His premise is simple; our productivity won’t matter if we neglect people along the way. The best way to reach people is to serve them… (Hmm, that sounds a lot like Jesus!)

I appreciated his emphasis on all relationships, especially family relationships, as that is often lacking in business-focused books. And he gives some great application steps at the end of each chapter.  I read through this book pretty quickly. If you tend to focus more on accomplishing things than on your team, you should definitely read it- it may actually be life changing for you! Or at the very least, life giving. 

The Winter War by Priscilla Shirer

This is the sequel to the Prince Warrior series I wrote about in April. It was great! Young readers will dive back into the story head first. Shirer weaves powerful metaphors of deep spiritual truths all throughout this series, which can open the door to great conversation. If you haven’t read the earlier books, you can read about them here. I highly recommend this series for both boys and girls. If you have a reluctant reader, try reading it out loud together. It will hold their attention and is definitely worth your time!

Present Over Perfect by Shauna Niequest

There are so many deep, powerful truths in this book. Niequest shares her journey of moving out of the rat race of productivity and accomplishment into the simplicity of connecting deeply with God and others. I love this quote: 

Sometimes being brave is being quiet. Being brave is getting off the drug of performance. For me, being brave is trusting that what my God is asking of me, what my family and community is asking from me, is totally different than what our culture says I should do. Sometimes being brave looks boring, and that’s totally, absolutely, okay.” (p. 126)

While I enjoyed it, I found this book a little lacking in structure. Many of the chapters are repetitive, especially early on, and I found myself almost drowning in her desperate emotions. Let’s just say I was ready to move on, and wasn’t really sure if we were ever going to get there. However, though I am not currently in that place, I have lived through similar identity crises, and I can appreciate her struggle. This is a great book for women who feel like they’ve lost themselves and are struggling to find themselves and connect with God. 

Divergent by Veronica Roth

I read this series years ago and pull it out again almost every summer. It is still one of my favorites! My girls and I watched the movies last month, so I couldn’t resist. Just being honest- I totally have a thing for Four. Don’t tell my husband. (Well, he already knows, but still… we probably shouldn’t draw attention to it!) 

Divergent is your basic dystopian fiction story: the world as we know it has ended, and mankind has found a way to re-start civilization in a unique way. In Roth’s world, peace is maintained by everyone being assigned to one of five factions. The factions are based on an “innate” character trait of what one deems most valuable- intelligence, honesty, kindness, selflessness, and courage. The premise, of course, is that a balance of all these traits will keep the world at peace. (Unless, instead, they end up fighting for control.) At the age of 16, each person may choose to stay in their faction or join another one. 

The story begins the day before the Choosing Ceremony in which we meet our protagonist, Beatrice (Tris). I imagine most of you have read it, so that’s all I’m going to say. If you haven’t read it, you should!  Full disclosure- I HATED the third book. No, really, I HATED it. Not so much for the ending (though you’ll probably hate that, too) but for a number of other reasons. But that’s a post for another time.

Love Does by Bob Goff

This was my first encounter with Bob Goff. I had been told by countless people that I needed to read his books, and now I know why! This is a feel good book at its very best. Goff has an endearing and inspiring way of looking at (and living) life. He is a storyteller at heart. Each chapter is a story- well, a tale, really, of someone interesting he met or someplace interesting he travelled, or maybe something not so interesting that happened in real life that becomes interesting when he tells it. I found myself laughing hysterically in one chapter and had to read it out loud to my boys! He uses stories to shed light on simple truths about God and life. Some of them were a little bit of a stretch, and I’m not sure I agree 100% with some of his connections, but it’s his book, not mine, so it’s fine. All in all, it was a fun, uplifting book. And he definitely seems like someone I’d want to be seated next to on an airplane!

A Lamp Unto My Feet by Elisabeth Elliot

Now, this one is kind of cheating, because it already appeared in my February book stack. However, it is a six month devotional, so I finally finished it and thought I’d give it a quick review. As always, God used the words of Elisabeth Elliot to fix my eyes on Him and breathe life into my soul. Her boldness in speaking hard truths resonates so much with me. This devotional, however, did not carry the weight for me that her other books have. I think her words have more impact and meaning within a bigger context. I am used to reading her work and having the Lord speak to me on every single page. In these shorter snippets, I found they were hit and miss- as many devotionals are. So, would I recommend it? Absolutely! But I think I’ll stick with her longer form writing myself.

Choosing a Life that Matters by Dennis Rainey

This last one is a tiny book I bought on sale. I thought it might be good to give to my graduating Seniors, and I wanted to read through it first. I’m glad I did! Rainey draws from his own experiences and gives some great insight into what really matters in life. His concepts are right on target and great advice! However, it was a little deep for my small group girls. He wrote it with college and seminary graduates in mind, and obviously, my girls aren’t quite there yet. But I read it as a devotional, one chapter a day, and found his reflection questions insightful and thought-provoking. So this would make a great devotional or graduation gift for a young person entering the “adult” world!

And that’s it! I have several great books on my list for August, but I always love hearing what you recommend. 

What’s on your nightstand?

My June Book Stack

It’s summer.

Long, lazy days hanging out by the pool. Hot afternoons with my toes in the sand. Hours upon hours with no one around and nothing to occupy my time except the book in my hand…

Okay, well it sounded good anyway! 

Yes, it is summer, and while I have spent a few afternoons relaxing in the sunshine and dangling my feet in the water, mostly my days have had more of the same crazy twilight-zone-feel as the previous months. 

Usually my summer book lists are filled with fun, easy reads: dystopian fiction, historical fiction, YA fantasy… and maybe a spiritual book or two. I love spending an hour browsing through shelves in the library, choosing random books and, if I’m lucky, stumbling upon a new Young Adult series I haven’t read yet.

This June, however, my trip to the library consisted of a curbside pick-up of books I reserved on-line; no browsing, no discovering, no surprises. So my book stack feels a little different, too- not as fresh, a bit more serious, much like most of us feel if we’re honest.

So let’s get to it.

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I Am Malala by Malala Ousafazai 

I Am Malala is an autobiography written by a teenage girl about her experiences growing up in Pakistan and her passion for girls to have access to education. Published in 2013, this book has actually been lying around our house for a few years waiting to be read, and I uncovered it while doing a little “pandemic cleaning.” Malala is a normal, delightful teenage girl who happens to also be extremely brave and passionate about education. I enjoyed reading her story, particularly her experiences with the Taliban and her relationship with her father. She seems like the kind of person I would invite over for dinner; only, before long, she’d be beating everyone at board games and asking us to pop some popcorn. Sure, she can drop names as easily as Oprah, but her accomplishments at such a young age speak much more to her character than the people who’ve had the privilege to meet her. This is a great book for American children to read to gain an appreciation for the freedom and privilege of going to school.

When All is Said by Anne Griffin

I saw this fiction novel on someone else’s book list recently, and I was so intrigued by the plot description, I immediately added it to mine. 

“If you had to pick five people to sum up your life, who would they be? If you were to raise a glass to each of them, what would you say? And what would you learn about yourself, when all is said and done?”  (Goodreads, book description) 

This is the story of an old Irish gentleman named Maurice who is sitting at a hotel with five different drinks. With each drink, he offers a toast to a different person who made a difference in his life… and that’s all I’m going to tell you! It was an interesting read, a bit melancholy, but sweet. The character development was fantastic, and I felt like I was overlooking his Irish farm all throughout the story. I was not a fan of the ending, though, so if you don’t like sad endings, you might want to avoid this one. I think maybe I would like to write a book similar to this myself one day.

One Woman Can Change the World by Ronne Rock

This book was a complete surprise- literally! Around two months ago, I applied to be on a launch team for a fellow Hope*Writer’s new book (which involved pre-ordering a copy) but I never heard anything back. Fast forward a few weeks, and this beautiful book arrived in an Amazon package on my doorstep- I had completely forgotten about it!

Seriously, y’all, I love everything about this book. If you have a heart for missions and love to see God using ordinary people in extraordinary ways, you need to read this. Ronne Rock takes us on an adventure to meet several women she has encountered in different parts of the world. She shares their stories, and along the way, we get to glean from the lessons they have taught her about God’s love, His faithfulness, and His purposes for each of us. This is not a book about “Girl Power”… it is a book about God’s power flowing through the lives of His girls. You will fall in love with these women and their stories, and you will feel empowered and inspired to live with purpose and grace wherever you’ve been planted.

I loved this book so much, I bought an extra copy and used it for a giveaway in my private Facebook Group, The Surrendered Life Community. Let’s hear it for happy surprises!

The Road Back to You by Ian Cron and Suzanne Stabile

If you have heard of the enneagram, you have probably heard of this book. The enneagram is an ancient tool with uncertain and somewhat sketchy origins. It is similar to a personality test, but instead of focusing on behaviors and actions, it is designed around core motivations, longings, and “deadly sins” (emotions that hinder our relationship with God and keep us from being our healthiest selves).  

Cron and Stabile do a good job of explaining the overall concepts and exploring the deeper meanings of each number from a Christian perspective. The chapters give detailed descriptions for each type, with the goal of helping us better understand ourselves and those around us, as well as how we relate to God and what hinders our spiritual growth. 

With my background in Psychology, I find the enneagram fascinating and helpful. It is not magical or concrete or infallible- it is simply a tool, which like any tool, can be misused or can be useful for helping us become all God intends us to be, particularly in how we relate to Him and others. It has already helped me better understand some things about myself, my hubby, and our children. It’s definitely worth a read! 

If you enjoy it, I also recommend Annie Down’s podcast, That Sounds Fun! She has some terrific interviews that have really helped put skin on some of these more abstract concepts for me.

Celebration of Discipline by Richard Foster

A Christian classic. I have wanted to read this book for a long time, but find I sometimes shy away from more theological books. I never went to seminary, though I considered it for a few years. However, all my spiritual leaders and many of my close friends were seminary trained, so I feel like I pretty much got the education, just without the extra debt! 

In any case, this book has been recommended to me more times over the years than I can count. Jeff happened to pull it out a few weeks ago as a resource for the college ministry we lead, so I quickly snatched it up and decided it was now or never. I’m so glad I did!

This book covers all the basic Disciplines of spiritual growth (meditation, prayer, fasting, Bible study, etc) plus several others that I was not as familiar with, or had never really thought of as spiritual disciplines, such as simplicity. I think I copied half this book into my prayer journal, and there are a few chapters I need to go back and read several times so I can fully grasp them. If you want to go back to the basics but in a much deeper, more authentic way than ever before, this book is definitely worth your time!

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So that’s what I was reading last month! Have you read any of these books? What’s in your beach bag or sitting on your nightstand?

I’m always looking for recommendations!

My May Book Stack

Friends, the past few weeks have been crazy, to say the least!

There is a lot going on, and it has been difficult to know what to post. Then suddenly I realized I had not yet shared my May book stack with you!

So here it is. 

Monks and Mystics, Volume 2: Chronicles of the Medieval Church 

I bought this series by Mindy and Brandon Withrow many years ago as part of our Church History curriculum when were homeschooling. This is the second book in the series, and it relates the stories of medieval Christians such as Boniface, St. Francis, Thomas Aquinas, and John Wyclif, as well as outlining events like the Crusades, the forming of Universities, and the Councils of the Medieval Church. Since it is written with the intent of making history come alive for older students, I find it is very readable and way less boring than most church history accounts! There were several stories I was not familiar with that were quite encouraging. This is a great book (and series) for anyone wanting to learn about the path of Christianity through the ages or for middle/high schoolers studying Church history.  

Eleanor Oliphant is Completely Fine (Gail Honeyman)

This was such a fun book! It reminded me quite a bit of The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry. It took me a bit to get into it, but I’m so glad I stuck with it! The character development was terrific, and it was thick with British humor. It covered the subject matter brilliantly, and while I had a pretty good idea where the plot was going to end up, it took a few twist and turns getting there. Overall, it was a beautiful tale of not judging a book by its cover, while addressing delicate issues such as depression, loneliness, and friendship in a unique and charming way. (Trigger warning: If you have suffered abuse, this book may not be for you.)

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes (Suzanne Collins)

My oldest daughter, Sarah, made a special trip to the store just to surprise me with it because we are both big fans of The Hunger Games series. (Thanks, Boo!) In this prequel to the original book, Collins takes us back to when President Snow is a teenager, living in the Capitol, struggling to survive after losing both parents in the war. He is chosen to be a mentor in the 10th annual Hunger Games and is assigned- you guessed it- the girl from District 12. Y’all, I loved this book! I don’t want to give any spoilers, so I’ll stop there, but Collins does a great job of weaving in so many elements from the original series, which made it an extremely fun read. The climax at the end felt just a little bit rushed (kind of like the end of Mockingjay, in my opinion), but overall, I definitely recommend it to Hunger Games fans!

The Next Right Thing by Emily P. Freeman

This book has been on my list since I joined Hope*Writers a few months ago. The title stems from a poem often quoted by my favorite author, Elisabeth Elliot: “Do the next thing.” Freeman takes it a step further by reminding us that there might be many good choices in front of us, so we need to find the next right thing. While this is a book about making life decisions, I love that it is not a “5 step formula to choosing the right thing” type of book. Instead, each chapter shares a different approach for discerning your next right step. So while they may not all apply to every individual, something will surely apply to everyone! Some of my favorite chapters were Name the Narrative, Look for Arrows, Know what You Want More, Quit something, and Stop Collecting Gurus.

Since the chapters are short, I decided to use it along with my devotional time in the morning, which worked really well. Each chapter ends with a prayer and a “practice” section, which helps the reader apply what they are reading.  There are so many good things I got out of this book, but if I had to pick one quote for how God spoke to me, it would be this one from p. 53:

God often gives a faint vision of things before they ever come to be. It’s not a full form, more of a shadow, not focused or clear… Instead of those black-and-white answers we tend to love so much, what if we began to look for arrows instead?”

Emily P. Freeman, The Next Right Thing

Arrows instead of answers. Yes!! This is a great book to read if you find yourself in a place of transition and need a little help discerning your next right step.

And finally, Where the Crawdads Sing (Delia Owens)

I loved this book, too! It was a good month for fiction reading. J This is the story of Kya, a young girl who is abandoned by her mother and older siblings and eventually by her abusive, alcoholic father, left to fend for herself in the North Carolina marsh. It is a coming of age tale; a beautiful story of abandonment, love, trust, betrayal, and friendship. Oh yeah, and then there’s a murder mystery, just for kicks! Seriously, the world building, character development, and storyline of this book are all top-notch, and the writing itself drew me in from the beginning. My favorite scene is when Kya’s friend, Tate, is teaching her how to read: 

“Slowly, she unraveled each word of the sentence: ‘There are some who can live without wild things, and some who cannot.’”

(He goes on to encourage her that now that she can read, she’ll never not be able to read again, to which she answers:)

It ain’t just that.’ She spoke almost in a whisper. ‘I wasn’t aware that words could hold so much. I didn’t know a sentence could be so full.’”

Delia Owens, Where the Crawdads Sing, p. 135 (Large print edition)

Maybe it’s the writer in me, but that is such simple and beautiful truth.

I definitely recommend this book. It would make a great read for the beach or pool!

Well, friends, those are the books I read in May! Not a bad one among them. Summer is here, and we all have a little extra daylight, which hopefully will include a little extra time to read, too!

What’s on your nightstand or in your beach bag? I’m always looking for suggestions. Feel free to share in the comments!

My April Book Stack

I really thought I would have a huge book stack to show you for April with all this time on my hands, but as often happens, much of that time has been filled in other ways. On top of that, our library has been closed due to COVID restrictions, which means my reading options have been limited to what I have on hand…

So, friends, here is what I’ve been reading this month and some thoughts about each book!

Creativity, Inc. by Ed Catmull, was recommended to me awhile back by my friend, Will, who thought I would love it. He was right! Ed Catmull is the co-founder and retired President of Pixar animation (creators of Toy Story, Incredibles, Up, and more), and his book is filled with tremendous wisdom. While I found myself getting lost in the tech talk at times, the struggle was worth it. This book is especially beneficial to those in the creative arts field, but should be read by CEO’s and moms alike- anyone who manages or is part of a team. His insights on creating an environment conducive to creativity and open discussion, expecting (and even celebrating) failure, and watching for weak areas are just a few of the many takeaways in this book. I highly recommend it!

The Prince Warrior Series by Priscilla Shirer was not on my reading list for this year. However, our youngest son was given the first book for his birthday, and he enjoyed it so much, I ordered the next two for his Easter gift. I have been reading them ahead of him so we can talk about them, and they are great books! They fall in the Christian fiction/fantasy genre for middle readers, and are great for upper elementary through middle school. The story follows a group of middle school boys and girls (and one younger brother) on their journey through a portal into the unseen world of Ahoratos. There they claim their titles as Prince/Princess Warriors and earn various pieces of armor while listening to their Guide and fighting the enemy. These books are full of action and adventure, and will be loved by both boys and girls. Priscilla Shirer also has a children’s Bible Study, “Unseen: The Armor of God for Kids,” and a 365 day “Unseen” devotional, which make great companions to this series.

Four Dead Queens by Astrid Scholte. I just happened to pick this YA fantasy book up from the Library right before it closed, and it was an enjoyable read. The murder mystery plot and intriguing characters drew me in quickly, and the unexpected twist at the end, while a little underdeveloped, was still interesting. The world-building was reminiscent of Divergent, which was kind of fun. As with most YA novels these days, there was a semi-prominent LGBTQ theme, just FYI. Overall, it was a good book, but not one I would necessarily recommend or read again.

Be Still My Soul by Elisabeth Elliot. For those of you who don’t know, Elisabeth Elliot is my all time favorite author. She has mentored and discipled me through her writing since my college days, and her books strongly influence my faith and my writing. This was not my first time reading Be Still My Soul, but it was still just as impactful. This book is about suffering well (she defines suffering simply as “having what you don’t want or wanting what you don’t have”), about accepting our circumstances as within the will of the Father, and allowing them to shape us more and more into His likeness. If you are pursuing a life lived in full surrender to Jesus, this book (and any of Elisabeth Elliot’s books, really) need to be on your nightstand.

Well, that’s what I’ve been reading this month. I’m going to have to order some books if the library doesn’t open back up soon, so let me know if you have any suggestions! What’s on your nightstand?

My March Book Stack

Well friends, one of the good things about being at home indefinitely is that it frees up my evenings for reading!

I entered the month of March with several of my February books unfinished, so I wasn’t sure how this month was going to go. Fortunately, I have had plenty of time to catch up! I was even able to sneak in a quick trip to the library before everything shut down, so I grabbed a few YA fiction books (my guilty pleasure!) to get me through this month. I just found out our local used bookstore is offering call-in purchases with curb-side service, so I plan to utilize that in April!

I lightened up my list a little this month with some fun books, and I even read one authored by a longtime friend of mine! So exciting! Here are some quick reviews for those of you looking for books to add to your reading list.

Made to Move Mountains: How God Uses Our Dreams and Disasters to Accomplish the Impossible by Kristen Welch. I so enjoyed reading this book! Kristen Welch has a gift for communicating her heart in a very authentic manner, and Made to Move Mountains is no exception. I love that she doesn’t try to wrap her stories up in shiny packaging and pretty bows, because how often in life is that really the case? No, one mountain often leads to another, and we rarely have time to recover before we are forced to start climbing again.

And yet, we don’t climb alone. Kristen continually points our eyes to Jesus and His faithfulness, reminding us of His invitation to deny ourselves, take up our cross, and follow Him. Kristen’s books always challenge me to live beyond complacency, and this one is no exception! Reading it on the heals of David Platt’s book, Something Needs to Change, made it even more impactful!

The Cage Series (which includes The Cage, The Hunt, and The Gauntlet) by Megan Shepherd is a trilogy in the YA Fiction/Fantasty/SciFi genre. The first book drew me in quickly with likable, well-developed characters and great world-building, and the plot carried well throughout all three books. I found myself especially drawn in by the action in the third book! Overall, the characters and writing were engaging enough to keep me reading, which is exactly what I look for in this genre!

The Cowboy’s Twin Surprise is a romance novel written by my dear friend and amazing author, Stephanie Dees. I do not typically read romance novels, but I have wanted to read Stephanie’s work for a long time and finally got around to ordering one of her books. It did not disappoint! This was a sweet, well-written story with many layers beyond just romance. Reading it felt like watching a Hallmark movie! Stephanie did a great job tackling some tough, real-life issues with compassion and hope. If you like romance novels, you definitely need some Stephanie Dees books in your life!

And finally, Living Prayer by Robert Benson. This is another book that has been on my list for awhile, and I am so glad I finally ordered it! It is, in essence, Benson’s journey into the world of liturgical prayer and what he has learned about faith and God Himself through the rhythm of the Ancient prayers. I’ll be honest… I wasn’t sure I was going to like this book. But it is rare that I am unable to find something redeeming in a book, especially when I like the author, so I kept reading.

Y’all. There is so much good stuff in it, I don’t even know where to begin! My prayer journal is filled with quotes and passages that have been speaking to me as I read, and I have been reminded of experiences along my own journey which have paved the way to my understanding of prayer. I have one chapter left- I have been reading a chapter a day during my God Time- and I am actually sad to finish it; it’s that good. Benson kind of has a folksy flair to his writing (and life), so if that style irritates you, then maybe you should skip it. Otherwise, I highly recommend it!

And that’s what I’ve been reading this month! What’s in your book stack? Any books you recommend? Feel free to share in the comments!

My February Book Stack

Can you believe we are already over halfway through February? Where does the time go? My daughter, Sarah, mentioned last week that we are only 14 weeks from her high school graduation. What?? (Cue the crying!!)

Anyway, I have had a few people ask me what I’m reading now, so here is my February book stack, a little late. Sorry about that!

Debt-Free Degree by Anthony O’Neal is endorsed by Dave Ramsey as a resource on how to attend college without going into debt.

When I was growing up, I just assumed that I would go to college. My parents used language like, “When you go to college,” and “After you graduate from college,” so I never realized it was an option to not go to college. Not only that, but I also knew it was going to be up to me to pay for it. My dad was stationed in Germany throughout my middle school/early high school years, which gave us amazing opportunities to travel around Europe. My parents told us they decided it was in our best interest to take advantage of those opportunities rather than saving for college (which I am thankful for), so we would be responsible for our own college expenses. 

That was thirty years ago (yikes, I’m old!), and college was much less expensive than it is now. With Sarah going to college in the Fall, and three more in line behind her, I am hoping this book will be beneficial to our family. The truth is, while I am so grateful my parents raised me to value the importance of a college education, with the way Universities and the work force have changed over the past few decades, I no longer believe college is essential for every student or the best path for every young adult to take. I am curious to see if anything in this book changes my mind or just reinforces that opinion.

In Something Needs to Change: A Call to Make Your Life Count in a World of Urgent Need, David Platt shares about how a trekking trip through the Himalayas “opened his eyes to the people behind the statistics and compelled him to wrestle with his assumptions about faith.” (amazon) David Platt is the real deal; his ministry is both authentic and compelling, and I find myself consistently challenged by his messages to be more like Jesus (and not just talk about it). This is definitely the book I am most excited to read this month! Especially since I am almost finished reading the next book on my list…

The Poisonwood Bible by Barbara Kingsolver. This is a historical fiction book about a (warped) fundamentalist-Baptist missionary who takes his family to live in the Congo in the late 1950’s. Kingsolver does a great job of paralleling the traumatic events of a nation with the equally traumatic events of their family. While I am definitely enjoying reading it, I need to finish it and process a bit before I decide whether or not to recommend it. Reverend Price’s application of Christianity and the Bible is certainly not portrayed in a good light (nor should it be), but thus far, it seems easy for readers to assign that same assumption to all Believers and the Christian faith as a whole, which would be both misleading and unfortunate.

10 Gifts of Wisdom: What Every Child Should Know Before They Leave Home by Sally Clarkson is a book I’ve had on my list for awhile. I pulled it out to read before we send Sarah off to college, and plan to start it once I finish The Armor of God for Teens (which I am still reading from last month’s stack, since I am doing it as a study with my Senior SG girls- and loving it!!).

I am also currently reading The Mysterious Benedict Society with my 6th grade son for school.  He is not a big reader, but he is enjoying this story so much! And with my affinity for middle-readers and young adult books, I decided just to read the whole thing as well. It is a great fantasy story with a young male protagonist that encourages teamwork, good morals, and kindness, among other things.

 Finally, A Lamp Unto My Feet is a devotional by Elisabeth Elliot. Though I never met her, she has been one of my greatest spiritual mentors since college through her writing. I thought I had read all her books, but recently found several I somehow missed along the way. This is one, and I am grateful to have her insights into Scripture speaking into my life once again!

So, there it is. These are the books in my stack this month.

What about you? What did you read last month worth recommending? What is currently on your nightstand?