Monday, September 29, 2014

Book Review: The Forest for the Trees

The Forest for the Trees was a different sort of book for writers. Written by an editor, Betsy Lerner, it addresses the temperaments and propensities of writers. It isn't a how-to book. It is more of a reflective book about what writers go through and what editors think of the writing process. I thought it was very refreshing. Thank you, Sheila of The Deliberate Reader, for bringing this book to my attention.

The thing I gained most from this book was encouragement. Writers often get to the point where they want to just give up because their work isn't gaining the audience they desire.  Lerner writes at the outset, "It is my deepest hope that this book will offer helpful advice to beginning writers, but even more that it will inspire the late bloomers, those who have worked in fits and starts over the years but have never just quit or given up the dream completely. This is also a book for people who sometimes believe the worst about themselves when it comes to their writing..." Those words hit me square in the head.

I think self-doubt and rejection are the hardest aspects of writing that writers have to deal with. The author quotes another editor, Ted Solotaroff, who writes this apt analogy in his essay, "Writing in the Cold":

"Rejection along with uncertainty are as much a part of the writer's life as snow and cold are of an Eskimo's: they are conditions one has not only to learn to live with but also learn to make use of .... The gifted young writer has to learn that his main task is to persist."

For me, this was just the encouragement I needed to hear as I approach another Nanowrimo in November. I have no idea what I'm going to write about, but I know that I am going to attempt to shift out of my comfortable mode (writing young adult novels) into something which may stretch me but also may provide a wider door to publication (writing women's fiction). I have enough self-doubt to sink a ship. I go back and forth over the question of whether I should just give up on this dream or relegate it to the back burner and seek out employment instead of pouring myself into writing which never yields much in the way of results. Even when I give my novels away to others to read and provide feedback, I seem to wait months before I hear a word back (not an encouraging sign, but my husband asserts that it could be just a matter of the other person not having time to read it yet).

As Lerner forcefully asserts: "the only person whose rejection really counts is your own. No matter how many people return your work, the only one who can send you packing is yourself."

So if you are a writer plagued with self-doubt and ready to throw in the towel. Don't give up yet. Read this book about what editors are looking for and how editors perceive a writer. Read it for wisdom. Read it for encouragement. Read it as a lifeline when you think you might sink into the abyss.

Friday, September 26, 2014

Amazing Typewriter Artist

Happened upon a story of Paul Smith, a man with cerebral palsy who made amazing art using a typewriter:

Here's a video about his story:

If you'd rather read about him than watch the video, you can follow this link to a site called Hoax-Slayer, where the story is verified. Apparently, the artist has since died, but left behind quite an assortment of masterpieces. For more art by this artist, visit his website.

Wednesday, September 24, 2014

Book Review: The Selection

This book, The Selection, by Kiera Cass, was our young adult book club pick for the month of September. I loved it! It was a delightful and engrossing read. A perfect blend of romance and suspense. I fully intend to seek out the sequels, The Elite and The One. I did note also that there are two other novellas associated with the series, telling stories from other viewpoints. I'm guessing I will eat them all up.

In The Selection, we meet the musical performer, America Singer (not crazy about the name, but it grew on me), who is a Five in the caste system of her society. She is in love with Aspen, a Six, and therefore cannot admit to this relationship for fear of her family's response. While she is perfectly happy to step down into the life of the servant caste group, Aspen encourages her to submit her name for the upcoming Selection, a sort of pageant intended to provide the Prince with a suitable bride from among the people. He knows there will be monetary gains for her family and that by entering he will not feel guilty for holding her back from such an opportunity. She, however, looks upon it as a pointless gesture, since she is sure she will not be selected to be one of the thirty-five contestants.

Before the selection decisions can even be announced, Aspen breaks up with America because he is concerned about the possibilities of the draft and is also feeling guilty for not being able to provide for her as well as he would like. Thus, when America's name is called, she willingly flees to get away from the heartache of being around Aspen when he has pushed her aside. Still, she cannot enter into the games with her whole heart because, of course, her heart is divided.

I fell in love with the main character. She is gutsy and brave, honest and loyal, beautiful and humble. Page by page fell away and I couldn't get enough of the story. It is just such a sweet, lighthearted story. Even though it is a common theme of a girl's wish to become a princess, it is told in a new and fresh way (for starters, America is the only one there who doesn't hope to win the competition). The writing was seamless and the characters vivid and true. The plot draws you in and makes you want to come back for book two to discover who the Prince chooses and even, who America decides to choose for herself. I simply really enjoyed this book. If you're looking for a deep read or something thought-provoking, this won't fit the bill, but for a simple, sweet romance, it hits the spot.

Monday, September 22, 2014

Book Review: Emma's Wish

There are any number of ways for a writer to get the creative juices flowing. Back when I belonged to a writer's group in Illinois, we had a member who always used props to motivate and guide her writing. She crafted little stories for her grandchildren from the stepping stones of little characters and knick-knacks she could tangibly touch. Another member of my writer's group, Anne Peterson, took her inspiration for this beautiful little children's book, Emma's Wish, (aimed at ages 8-12) from the illustrations provided by her artistic daughter, Jessica. Working from the art, Anne has crafted a simple little story that tugs at the heart strings and opens eyes to a world unseen.

I cannot rave enough about the hauntingly beautiful illustrations in this book. I read the book in digital format, but would have loved to have had the actual illustrations in hand while reading this simple tale. The story showcases the art in a beautiful way and the art is magnificent!

Emma's story engages all of the senses. It is the tale of a young girl who meets a difficult challenge and mystically receives encouragement from the moon. I love how the color bursts into the illustrations after Emma's crisis. It is as if she is given a new, more glorious way of seeing. This touching tale will encourage all readers, young and old.

The book launches today (with a one day sale in Kindle format for only 99 cents). If you are looking for a children's book with outstanding art, look no further. Here is a trailer promoting the book (gives you a good feel for the illustrations in the book):

Sunday, September 21, 2014

Cautionary Tale: Don't Play With a Ball on a Treadmill

I thought about titling this Trevor and the Terrible, Horrible, Not-so-Good Day. He was already having a rough time because he had to eat a lunch he didn't like (perish the thought). Then, he tried to invite two different friends over to play, but both of them were not at home or not available. After complaining about the day, he went off to the guest room with his rubber 4-Square ball, bouncing away (the only safe room for such an activity).

Apparently, he turned the treadmill on and began rolling the ball against the motion of the treadmill. Somehow, the ball got wedged between the treadmill and the floor and Trevor says that he tried to get it out and, in doing so, managed to get his own hand wedged between the running treadmill and the floor. He had to yank to pull it out. He quietly ran to the bathroom and we heard sobbing. The first thing he did was begin to apologize for getting hurt (as if we would be upset with him for getting hurt). The first thing I did?  FREAK OUT!

I am not a smooth operator in the midst of crisis. No, I crumble into a shrieking mess. I took one look at the wound and screamed "Oh, no, Trevor! Oh no!" John took a brief look at it and thought that he had rubbed the skin off clear down to the bone (because of the white bits we could see - we didn't realize that these were just areas of deeper skin layers). At this point, he did begin screaming and begging for the pain to go away.

Looking back, I can see how my own reaction only compounds the moment. It wasn't as bad as I made it out to be. It is bad, but it is just equivalent to a deep carpet burn (so says the doctor who looked at it at the emergency room). I felt like the workers at the emergency room felt it didn't warrant a trip to the ER. Still, I was thankful for a nurse to numb the area before digging out any dirt (that would have been quite a procedure if I had tried to handle it on my own with a screaming boy).
(This photo is from today. Yesterday, it was quite a bit more raw-looking. Amazing how the body quickly begins to heal itself!)

Hopefully, he's learned his lesson. No balls on treadmills. No hands near the moving parts of a treadmill. Ever.

Saturday, September 20, 2014

Book Review: At Home

I'm a long-time fan of Bill Bryson's writings. He's often hilarious, and when he's not being funny, he's just downright interesting. While this book wasn't one of his humorous contributions, it was delightfully intriguing. He covers such a gamut of topics that it is hard to believe it is all pulled together around the theme of such an elemental framework as the home. At times, it felt like he was following rabbit trails, but even the rabbit trails were historically interesting (although many Amazon reviewers gave it low marks for historical inaccuracies so I'm not sure all of it can be taken as fact). For anecdotal history buffs, this is a must-read.

As the back cover proclaims:

"The bathroom provides the occasion for the history of hygiene, the bedroom for an account of sex, death, and sleep, the kitchen for a discussion of nutrition and the spice trade, and so on, showing how each has figured in the evolution of private life. From architecture to electricity, from food preservation to epidemics, from the telephone to the Eiffel Tower, from crinolines to toilets - and the brilliant, creative, and often eccentric talents behind them - Bryson demonstrates that whatever happens in the world ends up in our houses."

My favorite bits were the stories of engineers who changed the world by solving various problems, including the fascinating one of sewage (full of stories of horrifying deaths, like the individuals who went down on a sinking cruise ship and were overwhelmed by toxic gaseous sewage). I also enjoyed the tales about mice and rats and other creatures which disturb our domestic domains. Every little tidbit is presented with such flair that it all swirls together into one highly interesting tale of the history of the development of aspects of our homes. It is a book I will gladly turn to again as there is no way my brain will manage to contain all the fascinating details presented in this tome (and it is a tome - in audio form, it was 13 compact discs long, at a total of 16 hours and 33 minutes).

Thursday, September 18, 2014

Posted for Me?

I was gobsmacked the other morning when I logged onto Facebook and saw that Bryce had updated his profile picture:

After thinking about it for much of the morning, I triumphantly explained my wonder to John. "He must have done it for me!" I asserted. "He hasn't updated his profile on Facebook since he took a junior high picture. He told me that none of his friends are even on Facebook anymore, preferring to use Instagram. He posted that picture JUST FOR ME!"

Later that afternoon, I received an email from Bryce asking if I could pick him up on Friday night after the initiation for a Fraternity that he has been accepted into. It is Madisyn's birthday and he wants to get home in time to deliver flowers to her before the evening is over. A short while later, he sent another e-mail briefly declaring "that's why I updated my Facebook profile because most of the information for the Fraternity events will be posted on their Facebook page and I will need to keep up with it."

HA! So much for my idea that he posted the photo specifically for me! Delusions of grandeur!

Wednesday, September 17, 2014

Book Review: One Thousand White Women

The author states that the germ for this novel grew out of "an actual historical event: in 1854 at a peace conference at Fort Laramie, a prominent Northern Cheyenne chief requested of the U.S. Army authorities the gift of one thousand white women as brides for his young warriors. Because theirs is a matrilineal society in which all children born belong to their mother's tribe, this seemed to the Cheyenne to be the perfect means of assimilation into the white man's world." In attempting to determine whether such a suggestion ever really was made, I could not find conclusive evidence on-line to either support or detract from the assertion. Regardless, such a contingency of brides never really entered the Cheyenne tribal fold, so the novel is an entirely fictitious answer to the question of "what if the government had indeed supported this idea by sending a covert group of women to meet the demands of the Cheyenne?" Many great novels spring from such "what if" questions.

It is quite clear that the author immersed himself in research for this book and has presented an authentic vision for life on the prairies in this difficult time for Native Americans. It is presented as the journals of one May Dodd, a woman whose own parents had her institutionalized for loving a man they felt was beneath her, thus branding her "promiscuous," which was ample cause for incarceration in a mental institution at that time. The pages of the book purport to chronicle her adventure as she volunteers (in exchange for freedom from the insane asylum) to participate in the "Brides for Indians" initiative. She tells of the hardships, the bonds of friendship formed, and the love interest discovered on her journey to the Indians. She is torn between two worlds - the world of the white man, where she has suffered betrayals and atrocities, and the world of the Cheyenne tribe, where beauty lies alongside hideous brutality. I appreciated that the author chose to cast each side with positive and negative attributes, not glorifying one side or the other, but revealing human weaknesses and strengths equally.

The book offers up much fodder for discussion (making it an excellent book club choice): Is it believable to think that a government could support such an underhanded mission? Who were the real savages in the story? To what depths do both sides stoop in this battle for ownership and dominance over the land? Is May Dodd a hero or victim? What role does religion play in society? or restated, Why does every culture, including savage ones, construct some system of beliefs concerning a higher power? Moreover, how much missionary effort is, in actuality, a thinly-veiled exercise in ethnocentrism? To what extent was the story believable or unbelievable?

For my part, I would have to say that at the beginning I was merely slogging along because it was a book club selection, but toward the middle, I began to really care about the characters and feel an investment in what might or might not happen for them. The beginning tended to drag a bit for me and several of the characters felt like stereotypes. Moreover, it was clearly written by a man because I would find it difficult to believe that a woman would have filled a journal intended for the eyes of her offspring with titillating details about her sex life or graphically represented episodes of rape. Really? Still, overall, it felt like a mostly worthwhile read and I would say that I got some positive things from the book, if not just a chance to immerse myself in what life might have been like in those times and regions. It would certainly be of interest to those who are interested in fictionalized accounts of Indian/Caucasian interactions based on historical research. And again, kudos to the author for coming up with a plausible and enticing "what if" question.

Tuesday, September 16, 2014

Book Review: The Person Called You

It was the final part of the subtitle of this book which grabbed my attention - The Person Called You: Why You're Here, Why You Matter & What You Should Do With Your Life. I've been hovering around this question for so long now, I begin to despair that I will ever really know what I should do with the rest of my life. Somehow, I just want the perfect job to jump into my lap without really doing the hard work of going out and making my future happen. Laziness, I know.

As helpful as this book was, I would probably gain so much more if I went through the process he provides at the end of the book (tasks to help you identify your "giftedness"). It isn't that I don't have the time to do that. I merely think I'm already pretty tuned in to my giftedness. The hard part for me is knowing where exactly to use that giftedness and how to tap into a satisfying job while still allowing time for my writing (which is a big part of my giftedness, I believe). Moreover, it is clear that motivation is an issue for me. (My husband wants me to take a job as an instructional aide at the local primary school, a job I used to really enjoy back when we lived in DeKalb. I'm just not sure that is what I want to do, especially when it would require a full-time commitment. My thought is to go back and train to become a school librarian - this would allow contact with students, interaction with faculty, and immersion into some of my favorite things, books and recommendations of books. However, I'm kind of stalled out in thinking about any of it, focusing more on November, when I will write another novel, this time perhaps a women's novel.)

So, what is this "giftedness" the author keeps mentioning. Well, it is the sum of what makes you distinctive. It is the little things which bring you pleasure. The times in life where you are firing on all cylinders. The tasks which energize you. The methods by which you function best. Giftedness is what makes you ... well, you!

Bill Hendricks has made his life work the goal of assisting people in defining why they're here and what they were made to do. He is gifted in this endeavor. He gains great pleasure when he succeeds in that task. Thus, a whole book devoted to helping people discern where they fit and what they should be pursuing (not for financial gain, mind you, but in order to be living out the calling which our unique giftedness has prepared us for).

If you are looking for some instruction on determining a direction for your life, this is a fairly decent Christian book for pursuing such a goal (it is not a neutral book ... Christian concepts hold up the framework of his purpose in pursuing this very important subject). It is certainly a different method than the standard personality or aptitude tests which people often turn to. Relying on reflection over the important stories of your life, the author encourages you to isolate and identify the key attributes which you want to tap into in your pursued line of work. Your life stories contain the key to where you should be headed and what you should be doing with your life. This book also provides a great pep talk if you are wondering if your life really matters or makes a difference.

Sunday, September 14, 2014

Book Review: Jack Staples and the Ring of Time

After finishing Mark Batterson's excellent book on prayer, The Circle Maker, and recommending it to everyone who would listen, I was shocked to discover a children's book co-written by Batterson and Joel N. Clark, called Jack Staples and the Ring of Time, available for free download, in exchange for a review, through the Story Cartel website. (It is available there for about another week.) I eagerly snatched it up. I decided to try it out on Sean to also register his response to the book.

From the very outset of the story, the reader is sucked into intense action. Jack Staples is at a circus performance where a young girl walks a tightrope above pouncing lions. When the tightrope breaks and the girl falls to the ground, pandemonium breaks out and eventually the tent catches fire. Jack is miraculously saved by one of the lions (who gave his life, in the fire, to save Jack) and is revealed to be "The Child of Prophecy."

I couldn't read the sentences fast enough. The action moved from event to event with such rapidity that I could barely keep up with the frantic pace of the story. The intensity swept us along like we were on a raging river going over rapids. Sean seemed equally riveted. We read the first 100 pages in a large chunk on Saturday afternoon, then another fifty pages later in the afternoon. Sadly, after that, whenever Sean asked to be read to, he requested the Harry Potter series instead of the Jack Staples book. I can only guess as to why this book didn't hold him.

My thought is that the writing is paced to be just too frantic. I found myself thinking the book needed some comic relief to offset the intensity of action. The characters are well-drawn (including a feisty young girl named Alexia who becomes somewhat of a "wild thing" when her parents die and the curiously-interesting Mrs. Dumphreys, who spouts wisdom and guidance in colorful phrases like "Perseverance and Stupidity may attend the same ball, but Wisdom only dances with one.") and the plot coherent, but the pacing is just too extreme. Moreover, at times it is difficult to keep track of what is going on and where it is all leading. The story shifts back and forth among the characters with the initials of each character presented to clarify which one is the focus at the moment. The tale is fanciful and feels like an elaborate analogy (something intended to be along the lines of Lewis' Chronicles of Narnia). It is clearly a battle of good versus evil and the characters fall in line with the Christian understanding of this battle (with a Satan character, The Assassin, and a God figure, The Author). Alexia and Jack are both proclaimed to be children of prophecy, with an unusual twist that foretells one destroying The Awakened and one saving The Awakened, though we do not discover who is responsible for either the destruction or salvation. I liked the image of The Awakened as individuals who have had scales removed from their eyes to see more clearly a multi-dimensional world for which time limits the perspective.

As the pace continued, never letting up, I felt sure we were headed for the final showdown and the resolution of the many questions stirred in the tale. However, I sadly discovered this is just the first installment. To continue the story, I must wait for the next installment, entitled Jack Staples and the City of Shadows. Given the fact that the book was published by David C. Cook, and that Batterson already has an established name in the Christian community, I was surprised to see this book in the Story Cartel offerings. I suppose this is partly because the book is his first venture into fiction ... children's fiction, at that. While I do hope he secures many readers for this interesting tale, I think the rest of the books would benefit from some breathing room for the reader and a bit less frantic pacing. Yes, it was a page-turning book (which is a good thing), but just a bit over-the-top and that is why I'm guessing my seven-year-old lost interest in the tale.

I haven't given up. Perhaps I will try again when the second book comes out (since Sean loves to get engrossed in series fiction). The stories will definitely interest young boys, and girls will likely identify with the strong character of Alexia. There is certainly good fodder for discussion after reading such a tale. Overall, I was quite impressed.

Here is the first riveting chapter, read aloud by Joel N. Clark:

Friday, September 12, 2014

Trevor's Recent Art

Poor Trevor is such a boy of fits and passions. For so long, he was completely absorbed in art. He started his own blog and posted things there from time to time. Alas, his blog has been silent for far too long and his followers have dwindled to one (which is neither his mother or grandparent, I should say - but one faithful art enthusiast). He barely thinks of art these days but is more preoccupied with the Jordan's shoes he wants for his birthday (Jays, so he says they're called) and fast cars he thinks are cool.

In cleaning the living room today, I happened upon three drawings he's done recently and thought I would post them. I'd suggest he put them on his blog, but I doubt he'd bite. We shall see.

I love this first one. He said he wanted to put it up on the refrigerator with a small round magnet so that it would look like the guy was hanging.

Then there's a picture of a Lamborghini:

And some other hot car:

I hope he doesn't just abandon his art, the way Bryce has abandoned his drums (doesn't even play them on the weekends when he's home ... and yes, he's been home every weekend since he started at Purdue. He comes to see his girlfriend, not us or his drum set!).

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Book Review: Gathering Shadows

The cover art on Gathering Shadows swept me in. I have never heard of the author's name before, but could tell from a label on the spine that this would be "Inspirational" Christian fiction. I could also tell that it is the first in a series (none of the others have been written since this is a fairly recently released book). I am glad it will be a series, because I will happily enter the world of Sanctuary again. The story was enticing and kept my interest throughout.

When Wynter Evans, a St. Louis television reporter, chances upon a photo from a small, isolated Mennonite town in Missouri, she is in shock. The boy in the photo looks remarkably like an older version of her brother, Ryan, who disappeared nine years ago. Convincing her boss to allow her to follow the trail of a story about tiny, untouched Missouri towns, Wynter longs to follow the clues of sideline research to determine if the boy in the photo is, in fact, her long-lost brother.

The clues are teased out in a gradual manner and the tension builds throughout the story. Wynter Evans clearly is in danger. With each shocking revelation, the reader grows closer to unlocking the key to the mysterious disappearance of her brother.

One of my pet-peeves with Christian fiction is that so often the message is emphasized and over-shadows the story. Thankfully, in this book, the story comes first, with unobtrusive mentions of Christian concepts only occasionally breaking through. It was a well-paced mystery with the extra benefit of reminding the reader of God's love and desire to work in our lives. It also provided the welcome caution against allowing one incident of life to define the rest of our existence and negatively impact our faith in God. This was a beneficial take-away.

Sunday, September 7, 2014

Book Review: The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches

I don't know how to write this review. I want to explain what made the book so enjoyable, but I don't wish to provide any spoilers for those who might be reading the series in order (my recommendation). I had already mentioned before that reading the back cover description on the audio version of The Dead in Their Vaulted Arches led me to an important bit of information which was the climax of book five (thus taking away some of the suspense for me). Thus, I will have to talk around the story and not really provide a summary to entice a new reader.

Flavia DeLuce, a precocious eleven year old girl with an enduring love of chemistry, is at it once again, solving murder mysteries. This time there are two dead bodies to deal with and a world of intrigue behind their demise. Moreover, the tale hits a bit closer to home for Flavia. Told with a great deal of emotion, this story outlines the thought-processes of Flavia very well. We get inside her head and her heart. Included in the tale: an appearance by Winston Churchill, a cryptic message ("the gamekeeper is in danger") by a man shortly before he is murdered, a plane ride, an attempt to revive a body, and a secret message written in invisible ink (unearthed ten years later).

I love how all of his titles come from lines within classical works of literature. I love the character of Flavia. I love learning more about chemistry (even if none of it really sticks with me for very long). This is just such a fun detective series with an interesting main character.

I loved the ending of this book and cannot wait to see if Alan Bradley has more stories up his sleeve for Flavia. She is about to embark on a new adventure and it will certainly provide fodder for more intrigue and chemistry lessons. I did google the question of whether or not more Flavia books are in the works. Here is the best answer I found, from Rebekah Scott's review of the book for The Times-News on January 26, 2014:

“The Dead in their Vaulted Arches” is the last in Bradley’s originally planned six novels, and it definitely shows as this book feels like the end of a journey. But he does have another four Flavia titles in the works, so it’s not the end of her adventures. He’s given us another thoroughly entertaining entry in her story, and although each previous book can be read as a standalone novel, “The Dead in their Vaulted Arches” really needs the foundation laid in the earlier titles to fully appreciate everything that Bradley has been building up to.

Besides, it’s much more enjoyable to start from the beginning in “The Sweetness at the Bottom of the Pie” with Flavia and follow along with her to see where her journey takes her. And as Flavia prepares for the next chapter in her life, readers should look forward to seeing what is in store for her next.

I am certainly eager to see what is in store for Flavia next as she moves on to this new adventure. I hope the author does indeed write four more Flavia books.

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Book Review: Seven Weeks to Forever

I received this book, Seven Weeks to Forever, from Story Cartel in exchange for an honest review. I was a bit worried I wasn't going to manage to get it read in time for the deadline for the review (since I downloaded it last weekend just before I went away to a church retreat and promptly forgot about it until I received a reminder notice in my inbox). But once I returned to the book yesterday afternoon, the story sucked me in and I was pleasantly absorbed in the tale.

Cassidy is living her second life. She has come back a second time with the mission of seeking out and assisting someone before she can sort of "earn her wings." She knows when her second life will be extinguished and when she will enter the "Life-After" if she completes her task successfully. Thus begins the countdown to arriving at her moment of truth. The real wrinkle is that she wasn't expecting to fall in love with the subject she is supposed to assist prior to entering the "Life-After."

The book gives readers plenty to think about: grieving death, the afterlife, the purpose of our existence, why letting go is essential to truly loving, etc. While I don't share the same perspective about reincarnation and the afterlife as this author, I think she was quite successful in bringing her teen audience to the table for discussion. There were moments when it felt a bit preachy, but on the whole, I think the author provided a character with a strong teen-friendly voice. The dialogue was realistic and the love story was tender and sweet. The reader will root for Cassidy to make the right decisions and to help someone in an unselfish manner. I would be willing to read more from this author.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

Book Review: The Circle Maker - Highly Recommend

My first introduction to Mark Batterson was in his book, In a Pit With a Lion on a Snowy Day, reviewed by me here. The title alone intrigued me and the book, about David's bodyguard who valiantly fought a lion in a pit, made quite an impression on me. I finished the book wanting to discover what pit and lion the Lord had in mind for me to face. Now, Batterson has done it again, with his book, The Circle Maker: Praying Circles Around Your Biggest Dreams and Greatest Fears.

Drawing on inspiration from a Jewish legend about a man named Honi who drew a circle in the sand and prayed a bold prayer for rain, declaring he wouldn't leave the circle until his request was answered, Batterson urges readers to be circle makers in their prayer life. He declares that "who you become is determined by how you pray." He boldly asserts that this book will "show you how to claim God-given promises, pursue God-sized dreams, and seize God-ordained opportunities." He promises that "God will honor your bold prayers because your bold prayers honor God."

I was hesitant, at first, because I worried the book would espouse some magical trick used to force God to give you what you want, a "name it, claim it" kind of theology. I was afraid it would be focused on what we receive rather than on who we receive it from. I am happy to say that this book is firmly centered on prayer and encouraging readers to make the most of their prayer life by "working like it depends on us and praying like it depends on God." It emphasizes a big God who has big plans and all the power to carry them out. We just get to go along for the ride and watch God go!

Batterson starts with the essential truth that "100 percent of the prayers I don't pray won't get answered." He talks about spiritual priming, by telling the tale of a New York psychologist who did a priming experiment on students by introducing rude words versus polite words in a script, then requiring the students to go down to see someone who is strategically involved in elaborate conversation with an actor. "82 percent of those primed with polite words never interrupted at all." This "testifies to the fact that we had better be good stewards of the things we allow into our visual and auditory cortices.... starting the day with God's Word ... primes our hearts." I had to read that passage aloud to Trevor because I'm always encouraging him to consider the adage "garbage in, garbage out," when he is wanting to claim that hearing bad words won't influence him to say bad words.

Here were a few more note-worthy quotes from the book:

"Like the sound barrier, there's a faith barrier. If you allow them to, your disappointments will create drag. If you allow them to, your doubts will nosedive your dreams. But if you pray through, God will come through and you'll experience a supernatural breakthrough."

"The Aramaic word for prayer means 'to set a trap.' Prayer is the way we take thoughts and dreams and ideas captive."

"Sometimes we act as though God is surprised by the things that surprise us, but by definition, the Omniscient One cannot be surprised. God is always a step ahead, even when we feel like He's a step behind. He's always got a holy surprise up His sovereign sleeve."

"Drawing prayer circles is nothing more than laying our requests before God and waiting expectantly. If walking in circles helps you pray with more consistency and intensity, then make yourself dizzy; if not, then find something, find anything, that helps you pray through."

His firm advice is to "Dream big. Pray hard. Think long." This is a very inspirational book about prayer. It was such a needed encouragement to my soul. I hope that I take the lessons learned in this book and apply them to my prayer life. I hope that my prayer life grows by leaps and bounds and that I will dream big, praying to a big God.

Tuesday, September 2, 2014

Book Series Review: The Boys Against the Girls Series

I'm happy to be able to say that I have at least one child who is deeply interested in reading and loves our read-aloud times. Sean is currently heavily involved in several series books and begs for me to read more daily. His classroom teacher sent home a reading chart encouraging students to read for at least 400 minutes in the last three weeks of August. We logged 1444 minutes of read-aloud time! We are on book 4 of the Harry Potter series (although I'm not sure I'll go on beyond this book until I pre-read books 5-7 to make sure they are appropriate for his listening ears). We are on book 8 of the Just Grace series by Charise Mericle Harper. This series really surprised me because the book covers are so completely girly, I was sure he would balk at continuing the series, but he is unabashed in his interest in the books. We are contemplating starting Jerrry West's Happy Hollisters series (not sure where I heard about these, but purchased six of them from E-bay and have access to another twenty or so through various local libraries).

Although Sean would say that his favorite is the Harry Potter series, we just finished Phyllis Reynolds Naylor's Boys Against the Girls series and he was anxious for each book to continue the tale. She has a great knack for creating interesting adventures and getting into a child's mindset. We loved each and every book in the series and couldn't wait for more. The war could have gone on and on and we would have been thoroughly content. As it is, the war between the boys and the girls only lasts for the space of one year. Sean even said last night that he wondered if the author would ever create a book about the kids when they have grown, showing Caroline on Broadway and Wally in some interesting thoughtful career.

The series revolves around the antics of the Hatford brothers and the Malloy sisters. The Hatford boys are disgruntled when they learn that their best friends, the five Benson boys, are moving to Georgia for a year while their father takes a coaching position in a different college. Coach Malloy has come to fill the position and rent the Benson's house. Instead of getting more boys for neighbors, the Hatfords revolt when they discover Coach Malloy has three daughters. The boys are determined to make the sisters so miserable they'll want to move back to Ohio, but the girls are not about to take the mischief of the boys sitting down. They fight back in their own clever ways and throughout each book in the series there is a rivalry which drives the plot again and again.

Each of the characters stands out in their own particular way. The boys have dubbed the girls "The Whomper, the Weirdo, and the Crazy," because the eldest sister, Eddie (short for Edith Anne), has a fantastic pitching arm, the middle sister, Beth, reads spooky books, and Caroline, the youngest, has a dramatic flair which leads to downright crazy behavior. As for the Hatfords, the twins, Jake and Josh are athletic and artistic, Wally is the middle boy, with a thoughtful bent, who always gets stuck with the dirty work, and Peter is just the adorable youngest, who actually likes the girls and especially enjoys their cookies.

Some of their antics include pretending to dump a dead body, Halloween tricks to scare the girls, news of a mysterious creature known as the "Abaguchie," a bottle race down the Buckman River, and the discovery of embarrassing pictures of the boys. Full of pranks galore, the two sets of siblings are constantly stirring up trouble and their parents shake their heads in wonder with each upping of the ante between the kids. The rivalry creates no end of unexpected adventures and the reader is thoroughly sucked into the world of these not-so-neighborly neighbors.

I'm with Sean in thinking Naylor has plenty of material to reintroduce a new series of books based on these fighting sets of siblings. There are twelve books in the series: The Boys Start the War, The Girls Get Even, Boys Against Girls, The Girls' Revenge, A Traitor Among the Boys, A Spy Among the Girls, The Boys Return, The Girls Take Over, Boys in Control, Girls Rule!, Boys Rock!, and Who Won the War? We loved every minute of reading this series.

The author indicates the germ of the idea for this series, saying "I was waiting to speak to a large group of students, and as they noisily entered the gym, one of the teachers yelled, 'If you don't quiet down, I'm going to seat you boy-girl-boy-girl.'" We think Naylor struck gold with that idea. Boys and girls do have a natural sense of rivalry and this series will appeal to any dynamic of siblings (either families with both genders represented or families like ours). They would make excellent read-alouds for the classroom, as well. The ages of the characters range from seven to eleven and the chapters provide brief chunks of action (shifting back and forth from the girls' perspective to the boys' perspective, focusing on the middle kids, Caroline and Wally). If you tackle this series with your kids, I'd love to hear their reaction.