5 on Friday: best fiction I’ve read this year

We’re nearly halfway through the year, and I’ve done a lot of reading already. And with summer on the horizon, maybe you’re looking for some good books to pick up for your free-er time in the next few months.

Here are five (in no particular order) I’ve read and would recommend without hesitation.sleeping in eden

1. Sleeping in Eden by Nicole Baart. I read this book early in the year and still can’t get it out of my head. Nicole’s literary writing style will grab you and not let go. It’s not a happily-ever-after escapist read, but it is a realistic picture of life and hope.

NobleGroom_mck.indd2. A Noble Groom by Jody Hedlund. For the historical romance reader, this book is swoon-worthy. So encouraging and uplifting. Jody is one of my favorite authors and she’s outdone herself on this one!invisible cover

3. Invisible by Ginny Yttrup. This is the antidote to the false messages about body image in the media. This story of three women discovering who they really are despite what they appear to be is challenging and encouraging. Ginny writes from experience with compassion and grace.

congo dawn cover USE4. Congo Dawn by Jeanette Windle. This one takes you into Africa to expose the effects of greed and corruption on a nation rich in natural resources. Jeanette’s books are well-researched and action-packed. forsaken dreams cover

5. I couldn’t choose between So Shines the Night by Tracy Higley and Forsaken Dreams by MaryLu Tyndall, so I’ll let you decide! Tracy’s is set in Ephesus during the time of the apostle Paul. The Bible stories we read and pass over come to life with her fictional touch. MaryLu’s book is also based in history, just after the Civil War, when Southerners fled to Brazil. A fascinating story, with two more books in the series to come.

so shines the night

This isn’t an exhaustive list of the great fiction out there, but it’s a place to start!

What are your recommended reads for the summer?

A rocky road to redemption: Review of Be Still My Soul and Though My Heart is Torn by Joanne Bischof

I’ve been reading a lot of buzz about Joanne Bischof’s books lately. Her first, Be Still My Soul, is up for several awards this year, and the second in the series, Though My Heart is Torn, recently released. So, I decided to check them out. I’ll review them both here. (Disclaimer: I received a copy of Be Still My Soul free through a promotion of Waterbrook Multnomah Publishing Group, with no expectation of a review, and a digital copy of Though My Heart is Torn through the Blogging for Books program, in exchange for my review.)

First, Be Still My Soul.

be still my soul It’s the story of Lonnie Sawyer, a shy 17-year-old girl living in an abusive home in Appalachia, who lets womanizer Gideon O’Riley kiss her while walking her home one night. When Lonnie’s father finds out, he forces them into marriage. Lonnie is relieved to be out of her father’s home but reluctant to enter a loveless marriage. Gideon resents everything about the arrangement and seeks to start his life over. He and Lonnie leave their homes for the promise of work in another  mountain town. They travel for days and Lonnie becomes weaker and weaker, unable to continue the journey at the pace Gideon has set. Pride and anger overcome Gideon and he takes it out on Lonnie. By Providence, they are rescued by a kind mountain man and taken in by him and his wife while Lonnie recovers. Gideon continues to feel trapped by his circumstances and has to decide whether he’s going to serve himself, as he has most of his life, or learn to serve his family.

Bischof artfully sets the scenes in this story. I have never walked through the Blue Ridge Mountains, but I can imagine the journey. The characters are full of emotion and flaws and the story held me from the start. I cried several times during the story, which isn’t my usual reaction to a story, but I felt so deeply for Lonnie and Gideon that I couldn’t help myself. I finished the book in less than day, a credit to Bischof’s storytelling. I didn’t want to put the book down. I had to know what would happen.

Two minor complaints: I couldn’t place the time setting of the book. In parts of Appalachia, I know time stands still, but I couldn’t tell you if this book was set in the 1800s, 1900s or present day. Maybe I missed something in my eagerness to read the story. It didn’t detract from my enjoyment, but I did wonder. I also didn’t know where in Appalachia they were until about two-thirds through the book. (The answer: Virginia.) Like I said, minor, but those were two things I wanted to know from the beginning.

Next, Though My Heart is Torn.

though my heart is tornWhat an appropriate title! I felt like my heart was being ripped out of me while reading this book. I don’t want to give too much away, especially if you plan on reading the series, but let me just say that it was probably a mistake to read these books back to back over two days. I set myself up emotionally and I haven’t been this involved in fictional characters’ lives since Downton Abbey Season 3. (It’s almost that bad, let me tell you.)

BUT. This is book two of three, and the middle book of a series is sometimes forgettable without much plot of its own, a bridge between book one and the conclusion. Not so, here. As hard as it was to read, I enjoyed Though My Heart is Torn more than Be Still My Soul. It is one of the best middle books of a series I think I’ve ever read.

Just prepare yourself. I was reading it on my Kindle. If I had been reading a physical copy of the book, I might have thrown it across the room. (I did startle my husband when I yelled, “THAT’s how it ends!” when I was done. He thought I’d seen some critter in our living room.)

The road to redemption is rarely pretty but always worth it.

And now I am counting the days until the series conclusion releases this fall.

When I forget to remember

I don’t always know what to do with Memorial Day.

The kids aren’t in school yet and usually my husband has to work, so it’s not all that different than any other day for our family. We don’t have a personal connection to anyone who has died while serving in the military. And though my husband is a veteran, he downplays his active-duty service and cringes a little when someone wishes him a “Happy Memorial Day.” (A bit of contradiction there, maybe. Would we say Happy 9/11 Day? Happy D-Day? Happy Holocaust Remembrance Day? I don’t think so.)

So I’m torn. Do we celebrate? Do we mourn? Do we have a backyard barbecue with friends? Do we go about our business?

Yesterday, the kids and I went to a Memorial Day parade and service, both of which were in our neighborhood and required almost no effort on our part. It was a nice day. We needed something to do outside of the house. So, we went.

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And the kids waved at fire trucks, picked up candy and let American flags flap in the wind. We listened to a high school band and a Highland bagpipe group and retired officers tell us why this day is important.

Later, we did the backyard cookout thing with friends who are missionaries to Spain and returning there soon, but we probably would have done that even if it hadn’t been Memorial Day.

I don’t know if we did right by the day, if we honored the dead or paid homage to the living.

But I know that I’m grateful for a day that reminds me to remember.

Because I am forgetful. In mind and spirit.

As Ann Voskamp writes in One Thousand Gifts, “I am beset by chronic soul amnesia.”

I forget history, who I am and where I’ve been. I forget the works of God in my life and I forget the events that brought our country to where it is today. I forget about people if they aren’t right in front of me. I forget prayer requests and pressing needs.

I forget. I forget.

So I need to be reminded to remember.

The other day I read these words in Deuteronomy, fitting words for a weekend to remember:

Only give heed to yourself and keep your soul diligently, so that you do not forget the things which your eyes have seen and they do not depart from your heart all the days of your life, but make them known to your sons and your grandsons. (4:9)

The things which my eyes have seen …

On Memorial Day, I remember that freedom is costly, no matter what “side” you’re on. Hundreds of thousands of soldiers have given themselves in service to the cause of freedom over the years. And sometimes others pay the price. In innocent lives. In infrastructure destroyed. In chaotic reign afterwards. Freedom isn’t free for anyone.

And not everyone is free. We need people who have seen bondage and slavery and tyranny firsthand to remind us that freedom is not universal yet. That our way of life is not the way for everyone. That even those living in a “free country” can be enslaved to addictions, attitudes, behaviors, other people. That slavery did not end when the Civil War ended.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERAAnd ultimately freedom comes, not from the flag of a country, however “great” or “blessed” it might be, but through Jesus, who said he came to “proclaim release to the captives … to set free those who are oppressed.” (Luke 4:18)

I need to be reminded to remember.

I need a spiritual memorial day. A personal memorial day. To remember the workings of God in my life and the life of those who have invested in my life. To remember who I am and where I’ve been and how God has seen me through impossible challenges.

It is good to remember.

It is good to tell the story.

Not just on Memorial Day.

But every day.

Saturday smiles: I’ve got the joy edition

There’s a little something bubbling up inside of me right now, and it’s got nothing to do with indigestion.

Call it hope. Joy. A little happy, happy, happy for the Duck Dynasty crowd. 🙂

I can’t pinpoint a reason and maybe I don’t need to.

But here’s what happy looks like in our house.

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The only good thing about drinking hot chocolate because you’re cold after a walk in the last week of May is this amazing chocolate moustache.

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Sadly, though, when you “drink” your hot chocolate with a spoon, you don’t get a moustache. But you’re still awesome. (Mom: Do you think we’ll fly away because it’s so windy? Izzy: No! We have bones, so we won’t fly away! Note: She must be learning this from PBS because I never really liked science.)

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I love flowers, though my thumb is definitely black more than green. These beautiful roses greeted us on our way to the library, a lovely reminder that even though it was a gray and dreary day, colder than we expected, the weather early in the week made these pretties pop.

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And this kid wanted to carry his books home from the library. There are moments, as a parent, when your kids seem older than they are and you get a vision of how they might be as older children, teenagers, maybe even adults. This was one of those moments. Big Man on Campus, anyone?

What’s got you happy this week?

5 on Friday: Words for marriage

On Sunday, Phil and I celebrate six years of marriage. Last year’s anniversary was a big deal for us, and you can read my reflections on that here. We don’t have anything extra special planned this weekend and though I believe every year of marriage is important, some years are more low-key than others.

This is one of those years.

I could probably write a book about what I’ve learned through marriage in six years, but in keeping with the low-key spirit of things, I’m focusing instead on five words I’ve found to be important to our marriage.

1. Grace. Lots of people will tell you that all you need for a successful marriage is love. I think love is important but it’s not always enough. We all need grace, married or not, and grace has been a key player in our marriage.

2. Yes. There’s a place for the word “no” in every relationship and “no” can be healthy. But “no” can also be a door slamming in your face. No, I won’t try that. No, we won’t do that. No, I’m not open to doing it differently. “Yes” is an open mind, a bridge, full of possibility.

Robert Proksa | Stock Exchange | www.sxc.hu

Robert Proksa | Stock Exchange | http://www.sxc.hu

3. Today.  We come into marriage with the baggage of yesterday and dreams for tomorrow. And sometimes today gets lost in between. We have to deal with the past but not live there. We have to hope for the future but we’re not there yet. Today is important and special. I don’t want to miss out on what today has to offer because I’m looking back or ahead all the time.

4. Us. That whole two-becoming-one thing is something I don’t fully understand, but what I do understand is that Phil and I are a team. And we’re on the same team. And while we still have individual personalities and goals and interests, we are part of something that’s bigger than either one of us separately. And the decisions we make are for the good of our family, the four of us living in the walls of this house, and for the good of our marriage. Maybe one time when an us-versus-them mentality is okay.

5. Help. We learned the hard way that we can’t do this on our own. We need God. And married friends who have been married longer than we have. We need teachers, pastors and counselors. (And babysitters; how could I forget babysitters?) Our marriage is personal, yes, but it’s also meant to be communal, as in part of a community. We need help to navigate the seas of marriage because otherwise, we are sunk.

What words have been helpful to your marriage journey?

Charmed by the past: Review of Gone South by Meg Moseley

gone southI don’t usually judge a book–for good or bad–by its cover. I’m more interested in the story summary. But let me tell you, the cover of Meg Moseley’s Gone South grabbed me before I had a chance to read an excerpt. The girl on the cover looks like she’s playing dress up, and in a way, her story is one of self-discovery.

On a whim, Tish McComb visits her family’s ancestral home in Noble, Alabama, after moving her mother to Florida. The house is for sale and Tish makes an impulsive decision to buy the place and move from Michigan with no job prospects or friends. Named after the woman whose husband built the house in the Civil War era, Tish expects to reconnect with her past in the town tied to her heritage. But she soon discovers that the name “McComb” won’t win her any friends. She adds to her ostracization by befriending Melanie Hamilton, a young girl with a troubled past whose family won’t let her back into their lives or their home. Together Tish and Mel, along with the help of local antiques dealer George Zorbas, work to prove themselves to the community and do right in the present, even if they can’t change the past.

I was almost 100 pages into this book before I realized I’d read that much. It’s charming like the South itself, and the kind of story that keeps you turning the pages to find out how it’s all going to work out. Tish, Mel and George are all likeable characters with realistic problems and reactions to life’s problems.

This was the first book of Moseley’s I’ve read and it won’t be the last.

Click here to read chapter one.

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In exchange for my review, I received a free copy of Gone South from Waterbrook Multnomah Publishing Group through the Blogging for Books program.

What if God is like boxed mac and cheese?

A couple of months ago, we had a friend over for a play date. She and her mom had driven up from their house and were staying for lunch. We hadn’t seen them in a while, but the kids got along well.

I hadn’t been to the store and was a little low on groceries, but I had enough to make mac and cheese, a homemade way, with boxed pasta covered in a flour-butter-milk sauce with melted cheese. I told the little girl who was visiting that we were having mac and cheese for lunch, and she was super excited all morning because let’s face it, mac and cheese is a pretty great promise.

macaroni

Shannah Pace | Stock Exchange | http://www.sxc.hu

But when lunchtime came, she expressed disappointment about what was in her bowl.

“Mommy, I don’t like it!”

I can’t remember if she tried it, and really, it wasn’t my best effort at homemade mac and cheese. Fortunately, her mom came prepared with a microwavable bowl of the Kraft kind, and she ate that like a champ.

Nothing against boxed mac and cheese. I’ve eaten my fair share of that in my lifetime, and my kids like it when we have it.

Still, it’s not “real.”

We’ve been starting to make some changes in the food we eat and buy, opting for more “real” and “natural” ingredients. The coffee creamer I use is made with milk, cream and sugar. This revelation came when I bought some non-dairy stuff off the shelf at Dollar General, and I thought, “What exactly is this stuff?” The answer: a bunch of things mixed together to taste like creamer.

Our favorite ice cream maker has a new line of all-natural ice creams. One night last week I tried a salted caramel variety and I kid you not, it was like tasting ice cream for the first time.

I’ve been eating fake food for so long I’ve forgotten what real food tastes like. 

It might take some time for my palate to readjust. Or maybe not. Every summer I swear I’ll never eat another store-bought tomato when I’ve tasted the sweet juiciness of a homegrown one from the farmer’s market. Until winter comes and I want tomatoes and all I have available is the reddish, tasteless tomato-shaped fruit in the store.

Then I settle for something less than real.

And I fear the Church, and my faith, may suffer the same taste preference as our 3-year-old friend: We prefer the fake to the real because we don’t know what real is.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.

Words from a Psalm, and yet do I believe it? That God is good.

A member of the local Jehovah’s Witness congregation periodically stops by our house, mostly to talk to my husband, but since he’s not around as much because of his work schedule, I’m the one who ends up talking to him. This week, he handed me the weekly literature, which posed the question, “Is God cruel?”

“What do you think of that question, Lisa?” he asked.

“Oh, I don’t think God is cruel,” I said. And in my heart I added, He is far better to us than we deserve.

Words my head affirms but the truth is I have shaken my fist at God, doubted His goodness and demanded He do things my way. As recent as last week, I threw my hands up in the air and said, “Don’t You see what we’ve given up for You?”

As if God owes me anything.

Boxed mac and cheese is quick, easy and it tastes good enough to eat, even if it doesn’t provide much in the way of nutrition.

And sometimes I want a quick, easy faith that makes me feel all warm and cozy.

Not the kind that requires patience and preparation and that might be bland if I rush it and skip a step.

And sometimes God gives me what I want, but it leaves me feeling empty. Hungry for something more.

I think of the song we’ve sung for fun at camp:

I wish I had a little white box

to put my Jesus in

I’d take him out and kiss, kiss, kiss

and put him back again

Maybe it’s all fun and nobody takes it seriously, but I wonder how many of us have Jesus in a box and we only take Him out of it when it suits us? How many of us are living a faith that is only a shadow of the real thing?

And I’m not talking about not being saved or a member of the church or a faithful disciple. Even those who followed Jesus while He was on earth got it wrong, creating in their minds a Savior of a different kind.

I’m talking about opening the box and letting Jesus out, even if we’re not sure we’re going to like what He has to say or wants us to do.

Taste and see.

Yesterday was the Day of Pentecost, the day the church marks as the birth of a movement that would spread worldwide for thousands of years. The Holy Spirit arrived and Jesus was no longer limited to his earthly body.

The Spirit moves today.

But sometimes we put Him back in the box, choosing to believe only what is safe, comfortable and palatable.

What if we’re missing something?

Something real. Wholesome. And good.

What if I’m not really following Jesus at all but just a cheap substitute?

Taste and see.

5 on Friday: things every writer needs

1. A group of writers. Mine meets tomorrow, and I look forward to this monthly get-together almost every time. When I stopped working as a journalist to be a stay-at-home mom, I lost my group of people who understand what it’s like to live in a writer’s head. Don’t have one of those? I used Google to find mine.

Photo courtesy of Stock Exchange | http://sxc.hu

Photo courtesy of Stock Exchange | http://sxc.hu

2. A supportive family. I’m finding among writers a common element: husbands (or wives) who encourage, support and sometimes even push their writer spouse to follow the dream. They watch the kids, give up the computer and say “yes” to hare-brained ideas.

3. A creative space. My desk is a mess and we have no extra rooms in our house. I want to believe that my creativity would bloom bigger and brighter if I had a room where I could close the door and escape into my fictional world. There are some good ones here.

4. A library of books. I was a reader before I was a writer, although probably not much before. Good stories inspire me to write good stories and how me how it’s done. Bad stories inspire me to write better stories and show me how not to do it. Reading is essential to learning the craft of writing. Click to tweet.

5. A foolish determination. I say “foolish” because often the pursuit of publication, the writing of a novel, the house spent putting words into sentences and paragraphs, looks like wasted time and effort. People will mock. And discourage. And reject. And judge. But the writer who knows what she is called to do and can’t not do it won’t let those things stop her. She might be momentarily discouraged and let doubts fill her mind, but in the end, she will passionately pursue the story.

What would you add to the list?

How you can help others by selling your stuff

Garage sale season is gearing up. And if your neighborhoods are like the ones where I live, then it’s only a matter of weeks before garage sale season reaches its peak. Once school is out, it seems everybody and their neighbor takes the opportunity to declutter and make a little cash.

If you’re considering having a garage sale this year, let me offer you an opportunity through Help One Now to declutter AND help fund projects in Haiti and Uganda.

The details and resources are here, and you can read stories of how other people have hosted their sales.

Like this 7-year-old boy who wanted orphans in Haiti to have Christmas. So his family helped him organize a sale in November that raises $1,400.

Or this woman who decided she might not be able to do much but compared to what she was doing, she could do a whole lot more.


Here’s what’s true: We, Americans, have way too much stuff.

Just look at these statistics from the Self-Storage Association:

  • There are now approximately 49,940 “primary” self storage facilities in the United States as of year end 2011.
  • One in 10 US households (HH), or 10% (10.8 million of the 113.3 million US HH in 2011) currently rent a self storage unit; that has increased from 1 in 17 US HHs (6%) in 1995 – or an increase of approximately 65 percent in the last 15 years.
  • There is 7.3 sq.ft. of self storage space for every man, woman and child in the nation; thus, it is physically possible that every American could stand – all at the same time – under the total canopy of self storage roofing.
  • The self storage industry has been one of the fastest-growing sectors of the United States commercial real estate industry over the period of the last 35 years.

We have “houses” for our stuff, and worldwide, there are people who don’t have houses for themselves.

We can do better, can’t we?

So, if you’re planning a garage sale this summer, make it a win-win for you and global poverty by donating your garage sale earnings to one of Help One Now’s projects.

This site makes it easy to plan. So, grab some stuff, grab some friends and make a difference!

 

A stroll through the Gospel of Luke: Review of Jesus the One and Only by Beth Moore

I enjoy Beth Moore’s group Bible studies and video series because I get an “aha!” moment out of just about every week. Her teaching reveals new insight into familiar passages, and this trade paperback version of her study of the Gospel of Luke, Jesus the One and Only, was what I expected from Moore.

jesus one and onlyThe stories of Jesus’ life can easily become commonplace in the life of a Christian. What Moore does with this study is slow us down and focus in on a scene or a chapter of Luke’s Gospel. She sets the background and through word studies of the original language gives us context into what is happening.

I couldn’t tell you how many times I’ve read through Luke but while reading Jesus the One and Only, I felt like I was seeing it all for the first time.

It’s not designed like the group studies, but it’s perfect for individual study or daily devotional readings. The chapters aren’t long and you could read the portion of Luke she references as part of your daily Bible reading. I didn’t plan it that way, but another Bible reading plan I’m using is directing me toward Luke right now. So, I felt like my readings were enriched by each other.

The study is well-researched and full of insights for practical living. I would read it through again for deeper contemplation and application.

Read a sample chapter here to get an idea of the book’s style.

About the Author:
Beth Moore is a best-selling writer, teacher and founder of Living Proof Ministries. Her numerous books and Bible studies, including “A Heart Like His” (B&H Books), “Breaking Free” (B&H Books), “Believing God” (LifeWay Christian Resources), “The Patriarchs” (LifeWay Christian Resources) and “James: Mercy Triumphs” (LifeWay Christian Resources), have been read by women in Beth Moore Bible study groups all over the world. Her Living Proof Live conferences have reached women in all 50 states in the United States.

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In exchange for my review, I received a free copy of the book.