Friday, July 31, 2015

The Prince of Fishes, by Suzannah Rowntree

Guess what? Suzannah Rowntree has provided another fairytale retelling to delight the hearts of bookworms! This time, it's a Byzantine tale entitled The Prince of Fishes.

Isn't that cover gorgeous? I love the purple font (especially the font) on the yellow background. Vivid and complementary combination. This is my favorite of the three she's done so far.

The Book 
Humble fisherman Micheal lives with his wife Eudokia and two children in the stinking alleys of the city of Constantinople. When a magical fish crosses his path, promising him anything his heart desires, he and his wife see a chance to better themselves. But one wish is never enough, and as their thirst for power grows, so too do the consequences to themselves and their nation. Set during the wars of 700s Byzantium, this book weaves theology, history, and fantasy masterfully together.

Novella, approximately 33,000 words, based on the fairy tale, The Fisherman and His Wife.

My Thoughts 
I knew the original fairy tale from watching Rocky and Bullwinkle cartoons, and felt like I finally had an edge going into this story. :) Suzannah shows a more-than-competent grasp of the setting and time period. I don't know a lot about Byzantium, but as I read, I had no doubt she did. It shone out especially in the warfare scenes, where she named ship parts and weapons like nobody's business, and also in the palace, with the clothing styles and titles of the various men. The Iron Hand and passing mentions of clockwork servants and sea serpents added a fun twist to the tale.

Eudokia deserves five stars for most colorful character of them all. The ambitious fisherman's wife, she's funny, terrible, impetuous, and constantly cracked me up. The way her husband would carry on imaginary conversations with her was brilliant. I knew she was full of faults, but I loved her. I wouldn't have minded seeing more of the daughter, Anna. She felt unnecessary to the plot, especially for a short story. Micheal (the fisherman) had a perfect character arc, and artistically it was well-done. But what kept me from loving him was the fact that he reacted to almost everything instead of taking steps of action as the story progressed. That, however, ties to a good thing, which follows.

It's always interesting to see what theological things Suzannah's going to tackle next, and with this book, it's no exception. The war over icons in the church further ties into and supports the richness of the setting. That was the obvious one. A not-so-obvious, but just as good plot, is what happens when a wife forces her husband to agree to her every whim, and a husband meekly does things he doesn't approve of for the sake of peace.

While Pendragon's Heir and The Rakshasa's Bride I found historically vivid and personally compelling, I wasn't emotionally gripped by The Prince of Fishes until the very end. The last two scenes, however, had me riveted, and provided a startling, just, and satisfactory ending. I wondered how she was going to resolve the hole the characters had dug themselves into. But she did it just right.

The Prince of Fishes released today, so you can run out and grab your own copy of this excellent fairytale retelling for $2.99 on Amazon.

I received a free copy of this book from the author in exchange for an honest review.

P.S. Want more of Suzannah Rowntree's titles? Check out my review of Pendragon's Heir

Tuesday, July 28, 2015

Bonhoeffer (Student Edition), by Eric Metaxas

Those of you who have hung around this blog for a while know that Dietrich Bonhoeffer is one of my historical heroes. A brilliant theologian, friendly man, and committed Christian, his worship of God led him all the way to laying down his life for his convictions. He wrote many books, including The Cost of Discipleship, which I reviewed here. A biography released about him last year seeking rather poorly to prove he had a closet homosexual leaning.

But the biography I keep coming back to is Eric Metaxas' Bonhoeffer: Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy. This book encompasses his theology, his history, and the times he lived in a masterful mix. When a student edition of this book released, I had an opportunity to read it, and I grabbed at the chance.

The Book
[From BookLook Bloggers] In his New York Times bestseller Bonhoeffer, author Eric Metaxas presents the fullest account of Bonhoeffer's heart-wrenching 1939 decision to leave the safe haven of America for Hitler's Germany.

Now abridged and adapted in student-friendly language, Bonhoeffer, Student Edition tells the story of one of Christianity's most courageous heroes. The student edition will share Bonhoeffer's inspirational testimony with children in a compelling and relatable way. Young readers will enjoy learning about the fascinating life of the man who had the courage to follow his convictions into Nazi Germany and stand up for others because of his radical faith.

About the Author
Eric Metaxas is the author of the New York Times bestseller Amazing Grace, Everything You Always Wanted to Know About God (But Were Afraid to Ask), Everything Else You Always Wanted to Know About God, and thirty children’s books. He is founder and host of Socrates in the City in New York City, where he lives with his wife and daughter. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Atlantic, Washington Post, Books & Culture, Christianity Today, Marks Hill Review, and Fist Things. He has written for VeggieTales and Rabbit Ears Productions, earning three Grammy nominations for Best Children’s Recording.

My Thoughts
Bonhoeffer is always inspiring. In today's culture, even more so. This student edition captures his commitment to the integrity of the church in a time of government control. The editors still use his personal letters and lots of quotes from men during that time, going through Bonhoeffer's childhood, education, engagement, and imprisonment. Mostly it was a nice, compact view. The only part that suffered from the abridgment was his time in America, which provided a turning point for his relationship with Christ, making him "fall in love with Jesus." 

The student edition gives a fun code treasure hunt, definitions of long words, a glossary of important people and terms, and boxed paragraphs explaining different things such as what a political prisoner is,or hymns sung at Bonhoeffer's memorial service, or different points of theology he believed. Each chapter includes discussion questions at the end, which is a great resource for parents looking to continue the conversation throughout the day. Personally, I think they would be great to use at the dinner table, in the car running errands, and at other times. 

In this decade, I consider it more important than ever that every person meets Bonhoeffer. This book provides a great family read-aloud for all ages, and will inspire children to be that faithful, uncompromising witness of truth in the days to come. Whether you're a student, or just want a shorter view of his life, this edition fills a gap. I heartily enjoyed it, and can't wait to give it to my sister and other people I know.

I received this book for free from Thomas Nelson in exchange for an honest review.

Find out more about the book, including purchasing information, here.

PS. More exciting articles in the works! Be sure to come back Friday for a review of Suzannah Rowntree's upcoming novella, The Prince of Fishes

Friday, July 24, 2015

Heartless, by Anne Elisabeth Stengl

This week I finished my first foray into the Tales of Goldstone Woods. I've heard nothing but praise for years, and when I finally laid my paws on a copy, I couldn't wait to get started.

The Book 
Princess Una of Parumvir looks forward to the day when her first suitor will come to Oriana Palace. In reality, it's not so glamorous as she expects. When the fairy prince Aethelbald of Farthestshore comes to ask for her hand, she can't get past his plain face and stern demeanor to the man underneath. He's the first in a long line of suitors; Prince Gervais, the Duke of Shippening, and more, some of whom capture her fancy and prove unworthy, some of whom never capture her fancy at all.

They come and go, but Prince Aethelbald remains, unwilling to accept her refusal. He warns of a coming danger to Parumvir, one that threatens the very heart of the Princess. But King Fidel is too incredulous, and Una too unwilling to accept.

And instead of giving her heart to a dashing prince, she finds it wrested from her by a horrifying force of evil.

My Thoughts
First of all, the covers are gorgeous. I know it's been said many times, and I'll join the chorus of sea unicorns (you'll get that when you read the book) and hum their praises. So beautiful. I wanted to read these books just by the covers alone. However, the beauty of the cover led me astray into expecting a different kind of book. Una was so beautiful and serene, that I didn't expect the darkness and ugliness she wrestled with throughout the course of the story.

First, the characters.

Una's character arc was excellent. She has a lot of maturing to do, and Stengl's ability to allow her to make natural choices, and strength of mind to give her the requisite consequences, takes a lot of courage. Monster was a dear. I loved him from his two poor blind eyes to the tip of his plumy tail. Refreshingly sensible, genuine, and cuddly. Actually, he was my favorite character, and the only one I liked all the way from the beginning to the end. Felix, too, I thought remarkably well-drawn for a fourteen year old boy, and I appreciated the testing and refining of his competition into a greater manliness. Jester was the most vividly drawn of the suitors, but all of them had different, vivid characteristics that set them apart.  Aethelbald was honorable, but I wouldn't have minded a little more dimension and character development on his part.

Fidel seemed really passive and weak for a king. In many instances Felix showed tons more spirit (if also more impetuosity) than he had. Even in the beginning, letting his daughter make such poor choices, he seemed uninvolved at best. I do understand that he breathed in the dragon poison, which affected him for the latter half of the book, but his spurts of bravery were ill-timed and far between. Nurse, also, felt like she didn't belong in this genre of story. She acted more like an English nursemaid clucking over normal little scamps than the nurse of a princess, and jarred me out of the world with her authoritative scolding.

Then, the plot.

I struggled with it, not because it was done poorly, but because it was so well done. The story is so true and biblical in its portrayal of darkness that I could only read a few chapters at a time, and then I felt like I was drowning in the darkness and had to put it down.What Una became as the fires of her heart were intensified, and what the Dragon was, are horrible. Sin is horrible. Our hearts are filthy, dirty, wicked, and Heartless does a great job of forcing the reader to acknowledge that in a very unobtrusive way. It was not an entertaining or a relaxing book. It was a challenging, grappling kind of story that I had to force myself to finish. I did let out an inner groan when I saw the dragon claw on book 2; I'm not sure how much more struggle of good and evil I can handle.

The truth of Gospel was so unflinchingly and truthfully portrayed, that in spite of my own difficulties, I want everyone to read it. The darkness showed just how dark our hearts can be. I liked that. I saw my own darkness through it. But it was hard. After the non-stop tension and despair of the last half, I desperately needed the ending Stengl chose to heal in the finish.  Even so, I think I'll space out the next book before I pick it up again.

All in all, Heartless contains classy writing, unconventional romance, and bold truth, three elements that make up successful Christian fiction. It deserves commendation, and I hope to feature more Goldstone Woods stories here on the blog in future!

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

How to Be a Spy: Training Manual

Recently I posted a stiff and scholarly article on writing thoughtful book reviews. Today I'll break the rules. This book delights my inner geek.

(#soexcited #thisisawesome)

If you ever need to attack an armored enemy vehicle, overpower someone who's holding you at gunpoint, or drop by parachute into a country where no one should know how you got there, this book is for you.

Hey, wait. Don't leave yet.

I have read various sections aloud, much to the perturbation and amusement of my family members. As my mom said, "Sometimes she'll pull out something that will surprise you." Yup. Reading of choice this last week has been the SOE spy training manual for Allied spies, and lots of times it beat out my current fiction as more enjoyable, less traumatic, and tons of fun.

Even if you're not trying to write spy novels, like I am, you'll still love this book. I think it's the most unique book I've ever reviewed on the blog, and it gets 5 stars for sheer awesomeness.

The Book (From Amazon)
During World War II, training in the black arts of covert operation was vital preparation for the “ungentlemanly warfare” waged by the Special Operations Executive (SOE) against Hitler’s Germany and Tojo’s Japan. In the early years of the war, the SOE set up top secret training schools to instruct prospective agents in the art of being a spy. Soon there was an international network of schools in operation in secluded locations ranging from the Scottish Highlands to Singapore and Canada.

Reproduced here is one of the most comprehensive training syllabi used at SOE’s Special Training Schools (STSs) instructing agents on how to wreak maximum havoc in occupied Europe and beyond. A staggering array of unconventional skills are covered—from burglary, close combat, and silent killing, to utilizing propaganda, surveillance, and disguise—giving an unprecedented insight into the workings of one of WWII’s most intriguing organizations.

These files, released from the British National Archive, put covert history in readers’ hands. Uncover an exciting, little-known part of WWII history and delve into the inner workings of a real spy network.

My Thoughts 
One of my goals in writing a homefront spy novel is to showcase some unsung heroes of the war effort. Soldiers get a lot of glory (as well they should), foreign spies get a lot of novels--but those who spied on the homefront did just as much work for the safety of family and friends, and they deserve to be thought about.

If you write books with any kind of espionage, whether in the Middle Ages, or a fantasy world, or WW2, then this manual would be an excellent research book to read. While some weapons are strictly WW2, most of the book contains universal spy lore that can apply in any situation you would like it to. It's an easy read, and will give you a wealth of plot inspiration and finely honed techniques for your characters to use.

Even if you're not a writer, and just a history buff, this book gives a cool sneak-peek into the lives of homefront and foreign spies. Training was detailed, and I don't know how they remembered everything they needed to know. The mindset that spies had to have both to deceive and in many sobering instances, to kill, always leaves me wrestling.

This book will teach you all kinds of clandestine knowledge. How to break into a house. How to successfully enter a house full of enemies who want to kill you. How to apply first aid to burns, gunshots, and knife wounds (and yeah, I'm pretty pleased with the way I handled sucking chest wounds in one story). Probably the most sobering sections were on how to kill guards with knives, guns, or hands. Such knowledge is never to be lightly sought out, but in endeavoring to write realistic fiction, this book is useful without including gratuitous violence. It will give you what you need to know in frank, straightforward words that cut right to the core of the issue.

Some of the knowledge you could use even if you weren't a spy. If you like target practice, there's a section on common stance errors that will cause your aim to be off center. There are cool sections detailing various ciphers, and they were so confusing I figured that if anyone wanted to get a message past me, they probably could. ;) Here and there the instructor writing the syllabus inserts wry dashes of British wit that cracked me up. But overarching it all was a sense of seriousness and urgency. They cared about equipping their agents to do their work well, and to survive while they did it. Here and there, side notes to instructors reminded them to be patient with slow learners, to avoid unnecessary information, and to remind them not to take foolish risks.

This book rekindled my excitement for my espionage work-in-progress, and gave me an even better knowledge foundation for my characters' secret lives. An entertaining and informative read.

Friday, July 17, 2015

The Liebster Award 2 + Favorite Screen Characters

Random pretty summertime photo to start blog post. 

Hey, friend and fellow bibliophiles! I have two tags to catch up on, and as I can never resist a good tag, I hope you'll join me for a morning of fun. I have some deep posts in the works, but it's been a deep thinking kind of week, and I need to relax.

Here we go!

The Leibster Award 2 (Thanks to Nathasha!) 

1. Who is your favorite character from your WIP? Why?
Good thing I recently changed my WIP so I can keep the old one a secret. :) Anion, from Homeschool Diaries, is a novice angel and about as cute as they come. He's a mix of gullible and mother hen-ish.

2. Outside of writing, is there anything that you really, passionately love doing?
I told Mr. E I could do without two carriages, but without writing my life would be a blank. Seriously, though. I also love going to conferences and getting together with friends. If I didn't write, I would probably go in for education in becoming a counselor.

3. What made you want to start your blog?
I loved books and wanted to give people vision in reading books--to chew through themes and content and worldview as they read. I wanted it to be a place, not just of book reviews, but teaching articles of how to read a book.

4. What is one of your funniest childhood memories?
When I was two, I persisted in sweeping the snow off the sidewalk, much to my brother's distress. He wanted to sled down the hill, and after warning me, proceeded to do so. There was a collision, and for four years I didn't have my two front teeth. If you want proof of my stubborn streak, there is your evidence.

5. Do you have any pets? If so, what are they?
No, we do not. Unfortunately.

6. Is there one particular trait that most of your characters have? If so, what is that?
HA. Angst. Oh wait, let's do something positive. 

Can't think of anything positive. Any ideas, folks who've read my writing?

7. If you could be any type of mythological creature, what would you be?
I don't know much about mythological creatures, and I probably wouldn't want to be one, but I have always deeply loved unicorns. And I love baby dragons as well.

8. You have been handed a blank check by a billionaire. What do you do with it?
Hand it to the billionare I'm secretary for. Really, it couldn't be for me, could it? But if it was, I would save some of it for a trip to Ireland and Australia, put some of it in the bank, and give some of it away.

9. If you could live absolutely anywhere in the world, where would it be?
Heaven is the only place I would much rather be, in all seriousness. Until then, I am content to live in America.

10. Plotter, pantser, or plantser?
Plantser. I'm too impatient to completely research and plot before I start a book, but I don't like to swing it without any prior planning. I have a couple of basic outlines I go through to plan a story. Ironically enough, they're from my 10th grade English book.

11. Do you keep a journal/notebook? If so, what is it about?
I keep three random scribbles books in three different places, so whenever I need to write something down I can. They are full of story plans, lists of things to remember, phone numbers, and other whatnots. 

Favorite Screen Characters (Thanks to Shantelle!) 

Albert (The Young Victoria)

I think he's one of my favorites ever. (Which is probably why he made this list.) I loved what he stood for: a strong husband, a visionary thinker, and a tender lover.

Frodo (Do we need a film title?)

I love his character. I love his film version character. So there.

Arthur Clennam (Little Dorrit)

I always thought Matthew MacFadyen had potential for Darcy, if only they would give him a decent haircut and a better actress for a love interest. Thankfully my beliefs were fully confirmed in Arthur Clennam. Everything I was hoping for, and then some.

Mr. Tulkinghorn (Bleak House)

Six star acting for awesome, awesome portrayal of Dickens' original character. A pleasure to see him perform.

Barbara Spooner (Amazing Grace)

Spunky. Tender-hearted. Refreshingly funny. Daring.

Jeremy Brett (Sherlock Holmes)

Guys, this sarcasm is priceless. 

The epitome of Sherlock Holmes. Can't wait to watch all of the episodes someday.

Barney Fife (Andy Griffith Show)

Probably the most unique character to make this list, but our family has a beloved and battered collection of the entire Andy Griffith set, and episodes with Don Knotts are by far the most popular.

Estella (2014 Great Expectations)

Mike Newell captured a brand-new side of Estella in the film; the child who had never had another child to play with; the woman with the hardened heart, taught to hate what would most help her. A rich and poignant performance.

Gilbert Blythe (Anne of Green Gables)

I do love his film character. It was kind of strange watching it recently and knowing that he wasn't alive anymore.

Herbert Pocket (1980s Great Expectations)

Herbert is my favorite sidekick in the history of ever, and the 1980s Herbert is the only one I consider canonical.

Ike (Runner From Ravenshead)
Adorable 2 year old, and really well done indie film. He makes us smile whenever we watch it. (He's in the goggles at the bottom and also on the far right.)

And now I just realized that was 11 instead of  10. Bonus! ;) Thanks, ladies, for inviting me to join. :D

PS. Looking for more book goodies? Check out my 4th of July book sale finds exclusively uploaded to my Facebook page

Tuesday, July 14, 2015

Peter Pan

A few months ago I kept seeing Peter Pan quotes on Pinterest--and they were heartbreakingly, ethereally beautiful. They reached the deepest ache of the soul, like Mrs. Darling's kiss that no one could have, and touched it. So when a chance came to pick up the book, I grabbed at it. I didn't know anything about the story. Years and years ago our family watched the cartoon version of Peter Pan. I don't remember much of it--nothing, in fact, except the crocodile, Hook, Wendy, Peter, and Tinkerbell.

I'm still trying to figure out what I think of it. But I suspected that would happen before I read the book, and I'm OK, for once, with not knowing. If this review seems rather on the contemplative side, it's a result of my attempt at processing the trickier portions of the book.

The Book [from Goodreads]
Originally told as a tale by J.M. Barrie to five brothers and first produced as a play in 1904, Peter Pan is the beloved and classic story about the boy who never grows up. Follow the Darling children- Wendy, John, and Michael- as they fly over the rooftops of London to Neverland and have adventures with the Lost Boys, Tinker Bell, Tiger Lily, mermaids, and the dreadful Captain Hook and his band of pirates.
My Thoughts 
There is so much beautiful in Peter Pan. “When the first baby laughed for the first time, its laugh broke into a thousand pieces, and they all went skipping about, and that was the beginning of fairies.” Who wouldn't love a fairy made from a baby's laugh? The sheer, adventurous courage of Peter's "Leave Hook to me." Peter and Wendy pretending to be mother and father to all the Lost Boys. Peter's bright, glorious, cocky personality that will never mature or improve, because he will never grow up. Flying over the ocean and past the stars. Peter saving Wendy's life from drowning at the risk of his own. It's easy to see why Wendy fell under Peter's spell.

Peter Pan is, in many ways, about the grief of losing childhood. In some ways that's dangerous. We're raising to be adults, not children. But in some ways, it would not resonate so deeply, and ache so much, if there was not a reason behind it. Is it the lose of faith? The loss of hope? That grown-up, jaded cynicism that seems so inevitable except in the souls of a fortunate few? I don't know. Perhaps a little of all three, that we never want to have, but slip into in spite of ourselves.

As far as flaws, there were a few. Mr. Darling is a particularly inept example of fatherhood, and I found him disturbing and contemptible. Tinkerbell's vocabulary is not always lady-like for small children to be hearing. The story seems to teach that those who live faithful, quiet, normal lives are less well off than those who throw responsibility to the winds. But the actions belie the narrative, and the boys who end up with mothers and school and stuffy adulthood end up better off than Peter Pan, for all his brittle sparkle. He doesn't want a mother, believing that his own mother betrayed him. He tries to prevent the other boys from wanting mothers too. But in spite of that, his life is still saved or bettered by several sacrificial mothers in this story--the bird, Wendy, and Mrs. Darling.

I think it now time to admit that I have passed the line of Cries Rarely, and now Cry Like a Sucker at everything beautiful or heartbreaking. (spoilers follow) When Peter left Wendy--when her heart ended up being more faithful than his, and he forgot her for years, only to come back and find her grown up--I just crumpled up and cried. (end of spoilers) 

In the end, the book left me concerned, not for readers or for Peter or Wendy--but for J.M. Barrie himself. I walked away wondering how to unlock the childish, broken, jaded soul that wrote this book. It seemed to me that it was conceived and written from profound unhappiness. That something had gone wrong--and J.M. Barrie vacillated between pure flights of imagination and bitter, bitter nostalgia. Peter Pan was a way of showing people the innocence that ought to be, while at the same time taunting them with the knowledge that they would inevitably break the goldenness of their innocence. I think perhaps he lost the mother he wanted when his brother David died, and never recovered from it. Peter Pan seems to be grappling with a problem for which he never found an answer, and so it is a mix of all parts beautiful and terrible and unresolved.

There were a couple of short stories, Peter Pan in Kensington Gardens, and The Blot On Peter Pan. Peter Pan in Kengsington Gardens had too much fairy and weird paganism for me to really find it enjoyable. It's tragic to think of a boy trying to live like a bird because he thinks he is one. But the Blot on Peter Pan was a funny, wonderful way to end off the book. The sarcastic narrative was simply priceless.

Peter Pan is a story about the need for every child to have a home. The joy of every child's ability to believe in what they cannot see. The adventure that no one, young or old, should lose a taste for. A strange mix of childish illogicalitys and beautiful, beautiful imagination, all mixed with a heavy dose of paganism that requires wiser heads than mine to sort out.

I am glad to have read it. But sometimes I wonder why I willingly subject myself to such heartbreak.
“There could not have been a lovelier sight; but there was none to see it except a little boy who was staring in at the window. He had ecstasies innumerable that other children can never know; but he was looking through the window at the one joy from which he must be for ever barred.” ~Peter and Wendy, by J.M. Barrie

Friday, July 10, 2015

Why I Take Book Reviews Seriously

I love hanging out on Goodreads and looking at various review styles from people there. Some are brief, one sentence reviews of a re-read. Some are pithy paragraphs pinpointing its virtues and its flaws. Some (OK, mine) are several paragraphs explaining, flaws, virtues, and personal reactions. All those styles I use in writing my own reviews. One I don't.

Gah, I can't even. < 3 [Tags personal friend who MUST READ this book] 

Don't get me wrong, I love a book that gives you feels. I have lots of feels over books. In Skype chats and Facebook messaging, I'll sometimes give way to fangirling (Oh, yeah, totally, Schuyler, we've seen a lot of that from you. Lighten up.)  and I admire friends who can be funny and write an informative book review at the same time. On the blog, however, it's straight business. Here's why.

1. I'm recommending a use of your time.
This is time you could spend going to the beach. Reading to your little sister. Reading your Bible. Writing that magnum opus. Exercising. Taking voice lessons. Visiting friends. I want to be a good friend, and not suck you into random, immature reasons for using that time. We all struggle with that enough as it is. Totes adorbs is cool and all, but I want to help you make reasonable, meaningful choices for the books you read.

2. I'm recommending something that will shape your doctrine. 
By doctrine I don't mean theology. I mean the way you think about life, and act out that thinking. Books change you, and I want to make sure as far as I'm responsible that they change you for the better. I want to be as proud recommending a book six months from now as I am in the heat of the moment. I want to leave you a better person for having read it, not plant cynical, shallow, or irreligious thoughts that might grow into some pretty strong seeds. I want to be careful. Just because it didn't affect me doesn't mean it won't affect you. And as a side note, I'm always willing to discuss my recommendations with you, to find out how my review enhanced or damaged a life.

Recommending a book is a serious business, whether it's fiction or nonfiction. I want to make sure, when I'm reviewing a book, that I  have a concrete, positive reason why I think you should read it. Here are some reasons I use.

1. Conviction
If it changed my life on a spiritual level, I'm likely to write a book review about it. It might change you, too. (Though targeting specific people isn't wise in book reviews, so don't review a book to change one person.) If it enlightened my understanding of God, Scripture, or my own spiritual state, I consider it worth passing on.

2. Learning
There's a lot to learn about in life. Galaxies and science and art and the Crusades and Richard III and how to write a good book and how to raise children. Bugs and fish and Africa and foreign missions and World War One. Passing along books that inspire learning is something I want to do. After all, someone did it for me, and it expanded my horizons.

3. Refreshment
Sometimes I make a recommendation because the book is beautiful, or funny, or true. In spite of my seriousness, it doesn't always have to be deep. The brain cannot handle being immersed in deep things all the time. Sometimes it needs healing or resting through lighter things. That's where Grace S. Richmond, lots of adventure authors, and How Mr. Nary Got Published come into play. If a friend needs refreshment, there must be a nice book in my collection they can relax with.

5. Another wise opinion.
Sometimes I don't know what to think of a book. I'll suggest it to my friends and ask them to tell me what they think. Two heads are better than one, and they can see things my blind spots can't. It's okay to recommend books you're not completely sure of, as long as the other person knows that going in. When you can't make sense of it, find someone and try to make sense of it together.

My reviews, in part, shape the mindset you'll approach the book with, and set you up for serious thinking or casual entertainment. They also shape your first impressions. I've had my reading experiences ruined by cynical reviews, or too much praise. I've also had some enhanced by an excited, thoughtful reader who wants to pass on the thoughtfulness to me. That's why I put thought into my reviews, changing, adding, subtracting, mulling over things before I hit publish to make sure it's worthwhile and true.

It's completely OK to include plenty of hearts and fangirling in Skype chats, comments, and Facebook messaging. We're only young things, after all. But underneath all that, book reviews are a serious business. After all, a book reviewer is the gatekeeper for a brand new world. It might seem like a small job, but actually it's a pretty big one. It's one I've always loved, and will always try to fulfill to the best of my abilities.

Tuesday, July 7, 2015

A Season of Shadows, by Paul McCusker

In the golden age of spy novels, John Buchan stands out as a master of plotting and story.

But unknown to many readers, Paul McCusker does too. Well known for his work with Veggie Tales and Focus on the Family Radio Theatre, or even his help with the Revolutionary War film, Beyond the Mask, perhaps his books are overlooked. A Season of Shadows deserves a spotlight. I've read it twice now, and it was just as crisp, classy, and wonderful as the first time.

The Book
Julie Harris has everything...a huge house, a husband with the blue blood of Washington elite, and a life full of everything she wanted. Until everything goes wrong. Her husband drugs her at a party, and when she wakes up, he is dead, crashed in a car with another woman. His love, their decadent existence, and her reason for living, is gone.

Approached by an old family friend for help in the war effort, Julie trains with MI5 and transfers to the American Embassy in London. Officially: to file paperwork. Unofficially: to infiltrate a group of Facists called the Thursday Group. Her husband helped out the Thursday group in his Oxford days, and died in company with an undercover female spy. Something doesn't click, and they want to know what he was up to. With the help of the swanky Colonel Mills, the daredevil Anthony, and a Chesterton-loving priest, Father John, Julie navigates a brand new world of double lies.

But the truth is devastating. And the lies aren't pretty. Soon she finds that the escape she seized has led to an imitation existence more frightening than the sham life in Washington. Set during the Blitz of 1940, this spy novel is sure to keep you on the edge of your seat.

My Thoughts
First, the plotting. I can appreciate this book as few probably can, both as a writer of fiction, and a writer of spy fiction. It's far from easy, and Paul McCusker's effortless, twisty, breathtaking plots are the result of years of hard labor, I'm sure. His experience as a writer shines through in just how wonderful and tight this book is. He gives you everything you need to know and then fits the puzzle in an entirely new way from what you would expect.

Second, the character journeys are fantastic too. It didn't occur to me until the end of the book that Julie spends the whole book as a non-believer. She's so normal, unlike what most Christian authors would portray as an non-believer--not a curmudgeon or a despot--simply a very normal, lovely, conflicted woman. Her journey to realizing her blindness is relatable and natural. The love of Christ shown through Father John is true and inspiring. I love the faith McCusker portrays in this story.

Third, the war atmosphere tightly weaves into the plot. Not only the Blitz, but everything from the restaurant shortages to the water rations in the bath. Rarely does an author manage to strike a happy balance between plot, characters, and time period. McCusker hits all three right out of the park.

Not only that, but he also touched on the conflict of living a double life in a spy's world, and the pain of agents knowing that they are dispensable pawns for the war effort. All the right notes, hit one after another. A joy to read.

This book includes mature content. Julie has to investigate her husband's affairs as part of the spy plot. She meets some of the women he's been involved with. While it's handled appropriately, and demonstrates just how empty their lives are as unbelievers, it would be a better book for 16 on up in that regards. Some mild swearing is included, but not much.

If you're looking for a great summer read, this is it. Suspenseful, thoughtful, high-quality Christian fiction. I highly recommend giving it a try.

Friday, July 3, 2015

Homeschool Diaries: Meet Josh

Welcome to the monthly character feature! This is where I interview a character from a story I'm currently writing. Right now I'm working on Homeschool Diaries, a diary kept by a recording angel about the escapades of a not-so-perfect homeschool family. To read some snippets, click here. To meet Audrey, click here

Today we're interviewing Josh--a 15yo homeschool boy. Brown-haired, blue-eyed, and the put-upon youngest sibling, he's been fun to hang out with this week. :) 
Jill took a nap this afternoon. Woke up feeling groggy and complaining she never got enough sleep. Josh was sitting on the couch with Apple Jacks and milk when she got out. “You’re not tired, Mumsie,” he said cheerfully. “You’ve just got sleep state misperception."
“Josh, you’ve kept me awake since you were born. I do not have sleep—misperception.” Jill found her reading glasses and picked up the stack of teacher’s manuals to grade schoolwork.

What is their full name?
Joshua Brian Van Alstyne

Is there something he or she is afraid of?
Josh is afraid of spiders. He won't admit it, but he hates spiders.

Does he or she write, dream, dance, sing, or photograph?
Josh draws anime. He's very good at it, and he even draws it in church on Sunday mornings. He's won a couple of online contests with his work.

Favorite season of the year? 
Summer. He likes warm weather and being off school and going to the beach. 'Tis the season for pizza and ice-cream and staying up late. And every week during the summer the Van Alstynes have Friday movie nights, which Josh is quite fond of.

How old is he/she?

What does he/she do with his/her spare time? 
Plays video games. Reads science books. Mows the lawn. Builds model cars, but rarely finishes them. Is recently getting into designing video games.

What kind of music does he/she like?
Christian contemporary. Meredith Andrews, Hillsong, Andrew Peterson, Matt Redman, Chris Tomlin, and Casting Crowns.

Is he/she independent, or needs others to help out?
He needs other people. He's the baby of the family and likes other people to give him a pat on the back now and then. He's also an extrovert and needs society to recharge his batteries.

What is their favorite food?
Chocolate chip cookies. Macaroni and cheese. Hotdogs.

Can they cook?
Very little. Like, out of a box.

Do they believe in love at first sight?
He has never considered that question.

What do they like to wear?
Blue jeans. Loose blue jeans, relaxed fit. Button-up shirts, un-ironed and un-tucked. Sometimes he combs his hair--on Sunday mornings--when anyone notices. A black leather necklace with a cross on it.

What is their backstory and how does it affect them now?
Saved at 6. Grew up in a Christian family. So he knows what's right, and he doesn't like hanging out with the wrong crowd, or doing wrong things with his friends. Obviously being homeschooled he didn't have as much interaction with other kids, (wink) but he always had church and co-op. He had more time after school was over to video game and read science books, as well as developing his anime skills. Growing up with two sisters makes him pretty at ease and fearless around girls.

How do they show love? 
He'll give a compliment. A lot of times it's a back-handed and clumsy compliment, but he gives it to try to make people feel better about themselves.

Are they well-paid?
Josh has a lawn-mowing job in the summers and sometimes gets paid for amateur IT tech work, but
not a lot. Enough to save up for a better computer, buy himself a t-shirt now and then, and pick up video games when they release

How do they feel about people in general?
Folks are nice.

What do they think about when nothing else is going on?
"I wonder if there are any cookies?" "Maybe I should get this homework done." "I wish my family would be more relaxed." "Maybe I'll go see if I can beat my high score; after all, it won't take long. Then I'll do the homework."

What are his/her quirks?
He quirks an eyebrow when he smiles. He likes wearing a cross necklace now and then. He remembers all his family's birthdays, and gets excited about them. He sleeps without a pillow, which his parents say will give him neck trouble. He wears shoes around the house. He'll help take care of dishes without asking.
Josh turned the key and floored the gas pedal. The engine let off a vroom like the roar of the monster Grendel. David’s eyes magnified at least three times.
“When you step on the gas pedal you step very gently,” he said.
Josh tried again. Nearly finished the brake lines, and the minister's wife had a narrow escape, crossing the parking lot after the missionary luncheon. All in all a good day. Guardians a bit exhausted, though. Halion gave them free time to recover. 
Want more updates on Homeschool Diaries? Follow me on Twitter for writing updates and occasional snippets!  
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