Tuesday, April 30, 2013

Disillusioned But Plugging On


I've been asked to give a workshop on blogging at a women's retreat.  Preparing for it has made me somewhat disillusioned.  For starters, I'm feeling very unqualified.  My blog is hardly what I would define as successful.  Even though it meets my own expectations for my purposes in blogging, it doesn't attract much of an audience.

As I began to prepare my materials for the class, I decided to google some information about blogging.  According to Wikipedia, as of February 16, 2011, there were 156 million bloggers.  I'm pretty sure it must be over 200 million by now. One measly little book blog is like a single star in the Milky Way in such a scenario. It makes my efforts seem insignificant.

But, I don't plan to stop blogging (nor will I pass on the opportunity to teach others how to begin blogging).  I'm still convinced there is merit in what I do.  It continues to be a method for honing my writing skills.  It allows me a chance to voice my opinion about books I am reading and document my reactions to those books.  Moreover, I need a place to express myself (whether there is only one person listening - my mother - or more). In my isolated existence, the opportunity to set down words and hurtle them into the blogosphere is like a drop of water to a thirsty soul (although my brain still niggles that it is, perhaps, a mirage and not really providing the sustenance I truly need).

When I think about the blogs I enjoy visiting, I generally select small-time blogs written by women who are very like me - women who love books and are busy raising a family.  I am drawn to writers who provide me with further books to explore and who share the ups and downs of their own lives without putting a fine gloss on the stories or trying to appear better than the next person.  I'm drawn to authentic writers who are willing to put themselves out there and whose posts tend to encourage me in some way.  So that is what I will try to do.  I will continue to blog.  I will attempt to provide information on books others might select based on my recommendations.  I will seek to be relevant in what I share, while also attempting to share honestly, without arrogance (some of those immensely popular blogs wax arrogant quickly).

Parenting a Teen

Yesterday, I had a rare opportunity.  Bryce requested an I-Phone for his birthday present.  In order to upgrade from his current AT & T phone, he had to bring a parent along to sign for the required two-year contract.  Originally, my husband was supposed to accompany him, but he got held up at work yesterday and Bryce was loathe to wait another day to get his coveted phone (patience is not a strong suit for my two older boys).

Thus, we headed off in his car, with Bryce behind the wheel.  It was an amazing opportunity because I so rarely get one-on-one time with my oldest son.  Between his school and social schedules, not much time is left over for family (nor does he really wish to spend much time with his little brothers or his parents).

Suddenly, I had a captive audience (we were in the car for over an hour and he wasn't listening to his music while driving). We talked about many things ... his college and career aspirations, my own career aspirations (or the lack of clarity for my career aspirations), upcoming vacations and his desire to bail because it would mean three days stuck with his little brothers, my difficulty with spending money (I lost it in the store when the clerk explained how much the plan would cost - I insisted he call his father to okay the expense - Bryce insisted Dad would be fine with it ... and he was), and Bryce's hopes for the future.

As he talked, he explained that he hashes out his career aspirations a lot with his best friend's father.  This makes sense.  He spends a good deal of time at his best friend's house (where there are no younger siblings around to pester and annoy and where there is a perfect teen hang-out in the basement, as opposed to our house dynamics where everything is out in the open and Bryce's room is connected to the living room where the little boys tend to hang out). But hearing him talk about his conversations with this other dad made me feel sad and disillusioned.

I began to wonder if things would have looked different if we hadn't gone on and had the two younger boys.  Would we have more communication between us if they weren't in the picture (not that I'm wanting to wish them away)? Is it just a teenage thing to avoid family involvement and to seek out the opinions of peers and their parents?  Are we missing out on something that we should be enjoying (a closer relationship with our oldest son)?

I have no complaints about Bryce.  He is a great kid.  He is respectful and never gives us a lick of trouble.  He shares his successes with us and we cheer him on.  But, he is somewhat closed off. And, I'll admit it, I'm jealous of the conversations he has with his friend's father.  I want to be his sounding board.  I had a small chance yesterday and I am grateful for those few cherished moments.

I guess I'll just have to keep plugging away at trying to be there for him and drawing out what little conversation I can get with my teenage son. I'll seek out as many of those spontaneous opportunities for together-time as I can.  I'll continue to offer to take him out to his favorite restaurant (one of the few tactics that sometimes works).

And I guess I'm already thinking ahead. I want to create a space in this house (perhaps the basement) where my two younger boys can invite their friends.  I want to become the hang-out place for their peer group. I want to have the best snacks and the most inviting location.  Then, perhaps I will open up a doorway for communication with my teenagers and their friends.  If I can't provide that for my oldest son, perhaps I can get there by the time my 6 and 8 year olds are 13 and 15.

So, despite feelings of disillusionment, I plan to keep on plugging away.  I want to see a goal and do all I can to reach it.  I don't want to remain rooted in this moment of disillusionment.  Instead, I want it to propel me to seek better things for the future.  I'll acknowledge that things aren't exactly as I'd like them to be, but I can still give my best.  I'll keep on blogging and keep on trying to nurture a close relationship with my teen, despite times when it looks like I'm not even making a dent.

Saturday, April 27, 2013

Book Review: Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods

So far, this has been my favorite book in the series.  I really connected with this book and felt eager to continue reading chapter after chapter (in fact, kept putting off going to bed because I intended to read "just one more chapter").  This is also the book which provides the most social commentary on the human propensity for war, a subject Suzanne Collins treats often.

I'm not sure why I connected with this book more than the others or why I felt more accepting of Boots' (the toddler sister) involvement in the fulfillment of another prophecy.  This time, the book covers something called "The Prophecy of Blood."  It includes another cryptic prophecy and another daring quest, this time in search of a cure for a plague that is threatening all the warmbloods in the Underland.  Refusing to allow Gregor and Boots to return to the Underland alone, Gregor's mother insists upon joining them and ends up contracting the very plague they are seeking to cure (thus upping the ante for our hero).  Thus, Gregor and Boots and Ripred (the rat) and Temp (the cockroach) all head for the Vineyard of Eyes, where Nerissa promises they will meet someone who will guide them.

I think this book really benefited from riveting chapter endings.  Almost every chapter ended with some peril that caused the reader to want to press on further.  The plot development was perfect, even if the characters could have been fleshed out a bit more fully.  This book just held more suspense and action than the previous two in the series.  I am eager to tackle the fourth (and have already heard my friends rave that it was their favorite at that point).  This is definitely a series I would recommend to others (especially if you are looking for books to appeal to a wider age range - say kids from 7 all the way up to teens).

Thursday, April 25, 2013

Book Review: Mended

I'm thinking, perhaps, I read this book in the wrong way.  It is intended to be read in chapters, once a day for a month, as a devotional experience.  Instead, because it is due back to the library shortly and there is a line of people waiting behind me to check it out, I had to read it in three or four sittings over the space of three days.  Not the way it was intended.  Thus, I don't think I benefited fully from the book's message.

I will say that the most interesting bits, to me, were where the author referenced the story of her daughter, Audrey, who lived for just two and a half short hours, but impacted many lives.  The rest of it, while interesting, just didn't hold me as fully as the story of this grief experience. I think, perhaps, I read the wrong book by this author (for me, anyway).  She has another book, dedicated entirely to the story of Audrey's birth and death, called I Will Carry You.  For some reason, that book sounds more appealing to me.

In this book, Angie Smith, tries to get women to see that even our brokenness is used by God to show His glory through the cracks of our lives.  In the first chapter, she speaks of breaking a pitcher and putting the pieces together again as an exercise of learning that God intended the brokenness and promises to do the mending. She encourages readers to get a pitcher or pot and break it themselves to work through this significant process internally and externally.  Although I will not attempt this exercise, I can see how it might be helpful to a woman who is struggling with spiritual issues and wanting to feel whole again. The heart of her message is one I like, "Your life does make a difference - because of how He is magnified in the cracks."

Tuesday, April 23, 2013

Music Touches the Soul

I'm a sucker for Salvation Army brass banding.  I just love the sound of the brass instruments blending together to convey music to fortify the soul.  Thus, this morning, when I chanced upon these 15 year old twin Salvationists playing the soulful Gowans & Larson song, "I'll Not Turn Back," I had to link to it on my blog.  It is definitely worth a 3 minute listen.  But, if you are unfamiliar with the song, the words behind the music really stir the soul:

"I'll Not Turn Back

If crosses come, if it should cost me dearly,
To be the servant of my Servant Lord,
If darkness falls around the path of duty.
And men despise the Saviour I've adored.
I'll not turn back, whatever it may cost,
I'm called to live, to love and save the lost,
I'll not turn back, whatever it may cost,.
I'm called to live, to love and save the lost.
If doors should close then other doors will open,
The word of God can never be contained.
His love cannot be finally frustrated,
By narrow minds or prison bars restrained.
If tears should fall, if I am called to suffer,
If all I love men should deface, defame,
I'll not deny the One that I have followed,
Nor be ashamed to bear my Master's name."

This song makes me tear up every time. In fact, it is especially appropriate on the heels of my most recent read, Dalaina May's Yielded Captive. I couldn't find any video of the song being sung, but here's a video meant to accompany the singing of the lyrics. And again, I tear up when I try to sing along. The words are so meaningful:

Saturday, April 20, 2013

Book Review: Yielded Captive

If the last book I reviewed offered no redemption or positive take-away, Dalaina May's book, Yielded Captive, provided enough redemption and hope to make up for two books.  I laughed at the wonderful comic bits (like one line where a prospective father tells the mother she should probably be lying down, to which the mother replies, "how many times have you given birth?") and cried at the end when the resolution seemed fraught with difficulties and uncertainties. This book is what all Christian fiction should strive to be - relevant without being preachy, intense without being overbearing, and led by the story-line without relying solely on the message being conveyed.  The message woven through Yielded Captive is one every reader could stand to hear and one which will stir the hearts of unbelievers and strengthen the hearts of believers.

Writing from her own missionary heart for Peru, Dalaina weaves this tale of Eric and Allison Carter, a couple who have devoted their lives to reaching the elusive Shampiri tribe in the jungles of Peru.  But God's direction seems to come into question when Allison sees Eric with an arrow through his back and when she is immediately captured, along with her infant son, by the Shampiri tribe.  By all outward appearances, it would seem that God has abandoned her, but Allison clings to her faith and endures untold suffering.  Wanting to escape or die, but refusing to leave behind her son, Isaac, Allison wrestles daily with God's purposes and provisions.

While this is not an easy tale to read, it is one that rings true and parallels so many of the circumstances believers find themselves in when they question God's designs and purposes for His people.  Sometimes God asks hard things of His own, but He always promises to carry them through if they will yield to His purposes.  The title is apt - even when we are held captive by some circumstance or other, we must yield to His will and His provisions in the midst of difficulties. It caused me to ask myself if I would continue to follow, no matter the cost.

I cannot wait to pass this book on (first to my mother-in-law, who is coming for a visit shortly, and then to my mother).  I literally couldn't wait to write this review.  The writing is so good that you forget there is a writer telling the tale.  The characters are so real that you feel as if you are eavesdropping on their lives.  The pacing is perfect and sweeps you along into the story deeper and deeper. Moreover, the take-away is a message well worth taking in. Kudos to Dalaina May for an excellent debut novel.

Thursday, April 18, 2013

Book Review: The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand

In Gregory Galloway's book, The 39 Deaths of Adam Strand, there is an image presented of the boys keeping watch over the rotting carcass of a dead cow in the river. It just decays further and further. Reading this book was a lot like that image. Why did I keep reading?  I think I wanted to like it.  Perhaps I wanted to be able to recommend it to some teen reader.  I think I was hoping for a different process through the book. It was an interesting premise but didn't play out to any great end.

Adam Strand can't exactly give you a reason for his desire to kill himself, apart from the fact that he just feels drawn to the silences between the attempts.  And there are many attempts - 39 of them.  Each time, he comes back and seems no worse for the wear.  He just can't seem to make it stick or survive long without trying again.

Here's what I didn't like.  The tone was depressing.  This alone could have killed it for me (no pun intended).  Every sentence hung heavy and pulled the reader down. I found the tale to be devoid of any sense of hope whatsoever. I can take a depressing book if it ends with some sort of redemptive meaning or message.  This book had none of that.  No redemption. Towards the end of the book, the protagonist assists an ill girl.  I suppose this was meant to be hopeful, but it seemed unrealistic.  The character doesn't even want to help; he is just roped into it by the adults who want him to provide assistance. Furthermore, in the final pages, the character sounds like he might give up trying to kill himself, but it is only a "might," and not a "definite."

The passages were disjointed.  Instead of telling the story chronologically (after all, the main character attempts unsuccessfully to commit suicide 39 times), the author chose to jump from present to past in a hodge-podge manner. It was divided into three sections. I still don't get what prompted the divisions or how they were meant to divide the story.

Moreover, the book glorified things which are dead ends - endless drinking to get drunk, totalling a car, and pulling pranks.  I figured the author was attempting to appeal to a teenage male reader, but still, I found these things to be a drag.  Perhaps it was being realistic to today's teens, but that makes me even more depressed. 

And, of course, it is very unrealistic.  Those who attempt suicide often don't get more chances.  As the saying goes, "suicide is a permanent solution to a temporary problem." To cite statistics and write of a character who, without even a reason, attempts suicide over and over again seems to beg for some sort of hopeful ending ... some counter reason to encourage readers not to take the path of Adam Strand. I am not an objective by-stander to this tale.  My own brother-in-law took his life almost three years ago and another relative recently made a failed attempt.  Would I have recommended this book to either of them, knowing they had suicidal thoughts?  No.  I don't believe they would have found any solace or even would have been able to relate to the protagonist in this story.  They didn't just wish for oblivion.  They longed for release from a very difficult life.  This book would not have changed their minds.

I guess my primary complaint is that there is no take-away from this novel.  I don't gain anything from having read it.  In fact, I can't wait to read something that doesn't plunge me into the depths the way this book did.  I hate to write a completely negative review, but I cannot think of anything more to say other than the characters were well-drawn. Not a book I can recommend.  Not even to reluctant teen readers who are looking for some sort of gimmick to pull them in. Sorry.

Tuesday, April 16, 2013

Book Review: Engagement from the Start!

A few years ago, my friend Mary told me about Guy Kawasaki.  She explained that he's a front-runner, a guy who is making things happen.  She also told me we should write a book highlighting Guy Kawasaki's theories and methods.  Alas, we never wrote the book and now someone else has.  Frankly, I wouldn't have been the right person to write the book anyway.  But, it did get written.

Danny Iny, of Firepole Marketing, put together this book, Engagement from Scratch!: How Super-Community Builders Create a Loyal Audience and How You Can Do the Same! He approached the movers and shakers, like Guy Kawasaki, and asked them how to go about building a loyal audience.  Then he compiled their wisdom into this quick, easily-read book.  I was interested for several reasons.  First, I am thinking about the future, when I will hopefully need to build a loyal audience for the young adult books I have written. Second, I am with many others who wish their blog attracted a more steady audience of readers.  And finally, I was interested in reading the advice in preparation for teaching my workshop on blogging in May.

The book did not disappoint.  I read the whole thing this morning (it took not quite two hours) and gleaned quite a bit of useful tips.  Here are a few of the nut-shells:  From Brian Clark - "If you want to build an audience, teach people something valuable or entertain people. Preferably both."  From Guy Kawasaki - "The three pillars of enchantment are 1) likeability, 2) trustworthiness, and 3) quality." From Steve Scott - "12 Steps to Getting an Audience: 1) Have a Game Plan (or a focus), 2) Be Real, 3) Think About the Reader, 4) Find Others (interested in same things), 5) Be Everywhere, 6) Always Reply, 7) Be Likeable, 8) Good Content (try to be link-bait), 9) Social Media, 10) Be a Content Curator, 11) Find a Tribe/Community, 12) Gain Feedback and Adjust Accordingly."

If you are interested in building a larger audience for your blog, books, or products, this is a book to read.  It is full of tips and encouragement for along the way.  You will come away with several key ideas to jump-start your efforts.  While it may not grow my own audience immediately, it has provided me with plenty to think about for the future. You can purchase the book here, or download it for free, as I did, here.

Thursday, April 11, 2013

Book Review: The Revisionists

I don't think I would have read this book if it weren't a book club selection.  For one thing, it is long (435 pp.).  For another, it is about time travel (not that I am against time travel books, per se, but I don't seek out time travel books) and I expected it to be somewhat political in nature, for some reason.  I was pleasantly surprised.  I enjoyed the book.

In a future perfect society (ha!) they have mastered the art of time travel.  Some historical agitators ("hags") have chosen to use this knowledge to go back in time and attempt to alter bad scenes from history.  The main character, Zed, is an agent sent back to ensure that history plays out just as it did, so that the perfect society will be achieved just as it was.  (O.K. - the perfect society bit is hard to swallow and how could altering the bad episodes, like the holocaust, really endanger the arrival of this supposed perfect society?)  Zed is determined to protect events that lead up to something called "The Great Conflagration" (never quite sure what that means).  This means he must take out quite a few hags, while trying not to alter things too much by his very presence in our present.

Zed ends up getting intertwined in the life stories of several contemporaries (the present day people): a former CIA agent doing some espionage work, a Washington lawyer trying to piece together more information about her slain military brother, and an oppressed nanny for a foreign diplomat who is key to the events leading up to the "Great Conflagration."  These characters, and their side stories, are woven through Zed's own story as he comes to grips with his mission and with his past and future.

If Mullen hadn't been a great storyteller, my interest would have waned.  He manages to pull together the divergent pieces slowly, without losing the interest of the reader.  He gives the reader much to think about (race, politics, religion, fate). In the end, most of the characters are likeable and the future looks hopeful, despite Zed's own shift in understanding of his role in history.

The story was far more lighthearted than I had expected. While I am curious to know what the other group members thought of this novel, I'm not sure I'll end up attending this month's book club meeting because it takes place the night before my husband and son are due to travel to Arizona for a family wedding.  Glad to have read the selection anyway.

Monday, April 8, 2013

Book Review: The Gift of an Ordinary Day

I first ran across the seven minute video someone posted on Facebook highlighting Katrina Kenison reading bits from this book to a room full of women.  It was poetic and beautifully moving.  Thus, when I saw the book on audio, I snatched it up at the library.  I was certainly not disappointed.  The book, like the circulating video, was just as poetic and moving.  It seemed like every word was crafted with precision to pack the most powerful punch.  I could relate to much of this author's story (the shift to having a teenager, the shift in moving to a house in the country and questioning whether it was the best decision, the shift in going from a working life to a life at home, writing).  I revelled in her expert storytelling and found myself coming away with nuggets of wisdom I had to write down.

As the back cover proclaims, "The Gift of an Ordinary Day is an intimate memoir of a family in transition - boys becoming teenagers, careers ending and new ones opening up, an attempt to find a deeper sense of place, and a slower pace, in a small New England town.  It is a story of midlife longings and discoveries, of lessons learned in the search for home and a new sense of purpose, and the bittersweet intensity of life with teenagers - holding on, letting go."  All I can add is that the book was moving and inspirational.

Here are a few of the nuggets I wrote down: from theologian Howard Thurman - "Don't ask yourself what the world needs.  Ask yourself what makes you come alive, and then go do that, because what the world needs is people who have come alive."  From Maryanne Williamson - "The difficulty of the journey sometimes turns out to be its blessing."  From the author - "Trust that what is meant to be, will be."

Moreover, I could fully relate to her worries about friendship in a small, rural town.  She writes, "I've often wondered if I'd find deep, enduring friendship in this small, close-knit country town, where it seems that everyone already knows everyone else, bound by common memories and a local history that I was not a part of and can never hope to absorb.  I've worried that I might be too late ... that no new mid-life connections could begin to match the intimacy of our old suburban neighborhood or the passion and urgency my friends and I once shared in the daily struggles of motherhood."  The author did find a friend.  For me, I am still in the wondering and worrying stage.

If you are looking for a stirring memoir about the transitions of life and approaching the empty nest, you couldn't go wrong with this book.  It was an absolute pleasure to listen to and learn from.

Saturday, April 6, 2013

Book Review: It's My Life

This is the second installment in Melody Carlson's "Diary of a Teenage Girl" series, following the life of Caitlin O'Conner.  In this book, Caitlin's life is turned upside down when she goes on a mission trip to Mexico.  Having spent a summer doing mission work in the Philippines when I was a teen, I could fully relate to this aspect of the book.  As in the first book, Caitlin struggles with friendship and with her decision to set aside dating.  The book is full of realistic, engaging episodes in the life of this character who could be a real teen stepped into the pages of a book.

Once again, Melody Carlson has nailed a believable teenage voice for her main character, Caitlin O'Conner.  She places Caitlin in situations which cause her to grow and stretch.  Moreover, Caitlin causes those around her to grow and stretch as well.  Hopefully, teen readers who find themselves caught up in Caitlin's tale will be equally challenged and edified.

Still, I'm not sure I'm eager enough to continue on with this series.  It seems like more of the same sentiments hashed again in a second episode.  Although I think Caitlin is a believable character, I'm not sure I'm enamored with her enough to want to keep plugging away with the series.  I would not hesitate to recommend them to young Christian women looking for an edifying read, though.

Tuesday, April 2, 2013

Book Review: If You Find Me

Emily Murdock's first published novel, If You Find Me, certainly doesn't read like a novice's novel.  It has a fantastic opening paragraph, amazing sense of pacing, compelling characters, and deep story content.  As I read this book, I thought, "Man, I wish my first novel could be as engrossing and real as this!"  The endorsements on the back cover gave fair warning, with comments like: "deeply affecting story ... A compelling narrative," "a painful, hopeful ... book that charts the best and worst of humanity," "hurt my heart and will probably haunt my dreams," and "grabbed me by the heart on page one and didn't let go till the very last word."

From the soulful eyes of the girl on the cover to the intensely personal narration by the protagonist, the reader is swept into this tale of two sisters found in the woods.  Fifteen year old Carey and her six year old sister, Jenessa, have been surviving alone in a camper in the woods for almost six weeks when Carey's father turns up with a social worker.  Their mother, a meth-addict with bipolar disease, repeatedly abandons them.  Now, she has finally acknowledged that she cannot care for them and that she kidnapped Carey from her father a full decade ago.  Suddenly, the girls are swept into a whole new world, full of good food, new clothes, school and perplexing relationships.  While they hunger for life as they knew it, they attempt to silence the demons that have plagued their past and caused Jenessa to go mute.

This novel was gripping and, yes, painful.  The story will linger in my brain for a long time, I'm sure.  I would probably have a hard time allowing a pre-teen daughter to read this, since the content is quite mature and disturbing in parts.  But it is so well written that I'm loathe to say anything that would turn a reader away.  I appreciated the fact that the author didn't paint the picture with crass terms and graphic descriptions.  The images are horrifying enough in the imagination, but necessary for the telling of this "painful" yet "hopeful" tale.  With characters as endearing as Carey and Jenessa, the reader cares intensely about their final outcome and roots for good to triumph over evil.

I don't know how long Emily Murdoch has been honing her craft, but I definitely hope to see more from this fine author.  She has a tender way of pulling you into the story and a strong sense of voice.  She develops characters that are real and puts them in situations that force conflict and resolution. Her similes are always fresh and fitting.  She is truly an outstanding writer, capable of weaving an important and compelling story.