Story Genius (If You Want To Write A Novel, Read This Book)

(Affiliate links below.)

There was a time when I wanted to try to write a novel.

That was a long time ago.

I shelved the novel idea because 1) I don't have the time, and 2) I really like the idea of reading novels better than writing them.  However, there is still a little part of me that is interested in the process of writing novels.  I've read enough of them at this point that there is a stark difference between a novel I am just plodding through and one that really grabs me - and when I get one of the latter, I always wonder "how did the author do that?"

Well, I think I finally understand a little bit about why certain novels are more compelling, thanks to Story Genius: How To Use Brain Science To Go Beyond Outlining And Write A Riveting Novel by Lisa Cron.  This book is written to aspiring novelists who are trying to really nail down their story and make it compelling.  Cron takes you through the process of identifying the underlying message of your novel, finding a "what if?" that will drive your story, and developing your characters so that everything they do involves a defined past that has an effect on the protagonist's current predicament.  She includes practical advice with her "Scene Card" system to help budding authors to think three-dimensionally and really layer all the aspects of their story together.

The author does go on a little side tangent in the first chapter about how stories helped us survive, evolutionary-speaking...I don't believe the theory of evolution, so I thought some of that chapter got annoying.  But you could pretty much skip the first chapter and be no worse for wear.

Also be aware that there is some language in this book, including the f-word in one of the example story scenes.

I'm still not planning on writing a novel, but now I find myself reading fiction in a whole new way.  It is interesting to think about past books that I've read and found really compelling, and to think about the way those authors applied some of these same concepts that Cron talks about in this book.  Warning though: reading this book may ruin you for underdeveloped stories or mediocre fiction!  I really enjoyed seeing the complexity behind writing a really good novel, and it makes me appreciate all the work and thought that goes into the books I read.  Very interesting, and if you are not like me and actually DO want to write a novel, I think this book would be of great value to you.

Note: I received a copy of Story Genius for free in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.

What Is Reformed Theology? (A Book Review, And A Brief Discussion By Me On Calvinism)

(Note: Affiliate links below.)

One of my book goals of the year was to read more books that will help me grow spiritually - and I realized in recent months that I have kind of neglected theological books in my reading plan this year.  Time to catch up!  I saw "What Is Reformed Theology?" by R.C. Sproul up for review, and I decided to request it.  I have some friends who go to a Reformed Theology church, and I generally agree with them on doctrine, but I really didn't know what was meant by "reformed theology".  I was hoping to learn more from this book.

It did not disappoint! The first half of this book goes through points of sound biblical doctrine that I think all Christians agree on, but the part I liked is that it also included the church history that involved each point - including past heresies, and biblically why some of the great theologians came to the conclusions they did.  

A Few Negatives

This book got a little sticky here and there.  The section on the different views of communion, while educational for distinguishing between different denominations, made the whole subject pretty confusing to me.  

I feel like the author had a habit of lumping people together in groups, perhaps not always fairly. He used the term "dispensationalist" in a way that I have not heard before, and I don't agree with how he characterized this group.  I have generally agreed with the (traditional) dispensationalist view of how to interpret Scripture, etc, but Sproul seemed to be picking on dispensationalism and contrasted dispensationalism with covenant theology.  I have never heard these two terms put at odds with one another like this, and I don't think dispensationalism and covenant theology are mutually exclusive, as he seems to imply.  He even says later that dispensationalists think that a person can be completely carnal and still a Christian because a new nature isn't necessarily given (in direct contradiction to Scripture) - I have never heard that and totally disagree.  I may have to research more, but I grew up around people who described themselves as dispensationalists and I never heard anyone claim that, so I feel like he was being too rigid by lumping everyone together here.  I have always just viewed dispensationalism as a way of interpreting Scripture literally that takes into account historical time periods; not as a complete theological system.

I also felt in reading this book that the author focused too much on intellectual arguments and quotes from the reformers - which were excellent - but I would have appreciated a greater focus on the Scriptures that back up these points as well.  There was plenty of Scripture in this book, but I just wished he had connected some of the points he was making to Scripture a little more clearly.

A Brief Digression On Calvinism And Evangelism

The second part of the book focuses on the five points of Calvinism, which is where the distinguishing feature of Reformed Theology lies.  This is where a lot of you may stop reading, but let me just say, I think Calvinism gets a little bit of a bad rap in Christian culture today.  This book explains the five points of Calvinism very well, I thought.  The truth is, I tend to agree with Calvinism, because the underlying concepts are firmly rooted in Scripture.  Even the doctrine of election, the one everyone likes to argue about, is really about who enables us to believe.  Is it from our own virtue and intelligence, or is it because God has stirred our hearts and given us the ability, even to believe?  I think the latter is what is in line with Scripture.  But I still hesitate to call myself a Calvinist, not because I disagree with any of their points necessarily, but because I think Calvinism gets a little too hung up on the intellectual and neglects the practical.  There is one point that I've never heard a Calvinist explain to my satisfaction, and I wish this book would have addressed it more clearly too - and that is the matter of evangelism.  

This book addressed evangelism in a cursory way by referring to the "external call", and then focusing on the Spirit's "internal call" that leads someone to salvation, but I wish it would have focused a little more on what we, as Christians, are to do as far as evangelism goes.  In Scripture there is a clear call to evangelism, for Christians to tell others about the "good news" of Jesus and His sacrifice for our sins.  This is a pretty vital piece to the puzzle in how someone comes to know Jesus, and Scripture doesn't minimize it's importance. 

"How then will they call on him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, “How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!”" Romans 10:14-15  

I feel like Calvinism in practical terms seems to minimize the importance of evangelism, when it is clearly something we are called to in Scripture.  The focus seems to always be on the point of election (which to be fair, is forced upon Calvinists because other Christians are always attacking them on this point), and I wish we could all just chill out a little and remember that God's ways are not our ways and His thoughts are not our thoughts.  His actions do not have to make perfect sense to our little human brains, but He is always righteous and good, and He owes explanations to no one. 

God told us what He needs us to know in His Word, which is truth, and it's just our job as Christians to believe His Word and do what He says, and pray and ask for clarity when something is confusing.  I think there are some on the anti-Calvinist side who would do well to get back to a focus on and understanding of Scripture instead of rejecting the (biblical) concept of election outright because it doesn't jive with their own sense of justice.  Our focus should ever be on Scripture because that is where the truth lies, and Christian culture today seems to be poorly lacking here.  And I think there are some on the Calvinist side who would do well to stop hitting others over the head intellectually with the election concept and instead point other Christians to Scripture and pray for the Holy Spirit to make His truth clear.  And we all need to recognize and remember that the concept of election has no bearing either way on the call to evangelism toward those who are still lost in their sin.  Scripture makes it very clear that we are to proclaim the truth of the Gospel.

So there you go, a little opinion on the Calvinism debate.  Back to the book.


This book addressed the "justice" concern of some who don't agree with Calvinism very well, better than any other piece I've read on the subject.  I like this quote:

"The concept of justice incorporates all that is just.  The concept of non-justice includes everything outside the concept of justice: injustice, which violates justice and is evil; and mercy, which does not violate justice and is not evil.  God gives his mercy (non-justice) to some and leaves the rest to His justice. No one is treated with injustice.  No one can charge that there is unrighteousness in God." pg. 187-188

I thought that explained really well why it is not correct to say God is not just when He chooses to save only some.  Like I said, this book overall explains Calvinism (and Reformed Theology) better than any other book I've read.  Whether you are a Calvinist, or have just been confused by any points of Calvinism in the past, I think this is a great resource if you really want to understand the beliefs of Calvinism clearly.

And as for Reformed Theology, the defining point touches on something I mentioned earlier - the distinction between unconditional election, and conditional election. Conditional election says that God calls those who He foresees will accept Him, and this is where that point gets sticky: who gives those people the ability to accept Jesus?  Is it something good in themselves that allows people to accept Jesus?  I'd have to say no - based on Scripture (many of the supporting Scriptures are shared in this book), it is the Holy Spirit who calls the believer and enables them to believe, and without the Holy Spirit working in us, none of us would believe.  We'd go on choosing our sin.  Unconditional election (which is what distinguishes Reformed Theology) says that it is nothing in ourselves that enables us to be saved, but it is by God's grace in working in us to enable us to seek Him and find Him.

In case you think that is a nit-picky distinction, you should be aware that this book is very intellectual and breaks each doctrine down to its elements, which I found very interesting, and very well done (though it perhaps falls into debating things that aren't as important here and there as well).  If you have ever wanted to know more about the basics of Christian doctrine and how we get those basics, and what the Reformation was all about, pick up this book for the first half.  If/when you want to learn more about where Calvinism gets it's five points, dive into the second half of this book.

I think I'll just wrap up this review with my favorite quote from this book:

"I cannot adequately explain why I came to faith in Christ, and some of my friends did not.  I can only look to the glory of God's grace toward me, a grace I did not deserve then and do not deserve now." pg. 177

That's the bottom line, isn't it?  For me, this book was a great reminder that it is not through any virtue of mine but only through His power and grace that I am saved, and that is a strikingly beautiful thing.

Note: I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.

How To Take Better Pictures Of Your Family This Christmas (+ A Black Friday Deal!)

(Note: Affiliate links used in this post.)

When Wyatt was one year old, I bought a DSLR camera.  I really didn't know what I was doing at the time, I just knew that I wanted to take better pictures of my son.  I wanted to capture the details of his babyhood in a way that my point-and-shoot camera just wasn't letting me.

I have never regretted that decision to buy a "big camera", and after a lot of trial and error I finally figured out how to use it!  My favorite time of year to take pictures is finally here - Christmas time!  I just love all the sparkles and colors and festivities this time of year - the "December" picture folder on my computer is always a little more full than the others.

Unfortunately December is also a difficult time to get good pictures, between the freezing cold weather that may make it hard to go outside, less daylight, a flurry of festivities, and kiddos that just won't sit still.  I've got a few ideas for how you can get some pretty adorable pictures even amidst the Christmas hustle and bustle, but point #1 is what you need first if you are going to get those Christmas-y pictures you might envision.

1. Know your camera.

The thing about owning a DSLR is that it really is no better than a point-and-shoot camera unless you learn how to get off auto.  Do you want that beautiful background blur in your Christmas photos? Do you want to capture the Christmas lights twinkling in the dark? Do you just not want the flurry of present-opening to result in a bunch of blurred photos? Then you need to know how to use your DSLR camera.

I bought my DSLR already knowing it was going to take a lot of trial and error to figure out how to manipulate the settings to get the pictures I wanted, but I am really excited to share a resource with you that I really think will help you figure it out faster!

Erin from Digital Photography For Moms has launched a photography course called Guided365.  It is a monthly subscription course, and each day of the month you will get an email that explains a different photography concept and gives you a prompt to practice your skills. This isn't a list of photo ideas, these prompts focus on techniques that will help you to learn your camera, learn how to get the perfect focus, find the best light, and so many other things!  

Erin was sweet enough to let me try out the course, and I've worked through the first couple weeks so far.  It really is excellent.  She starts out slowly to help beginners get off "auto", but I think people with intermediate skills (like me) can also get a lot out of even the beginning lessons and really hone their technique.  Even with just the first couple weeks, which I thought would mostly be review, I was reminded of a couple of bad habits I had fallen into with my photography.  

I am so looking forward to working through more of the course, and I hope you check it out!  And Black Friday Deal Alert: If you sign up before December 2nd for the year 2017, you will get 50% off your first month subscription!  Use the code "Confidence" at checkout!  You any cancel or pause your subscription anytime you need to as well, but if you are wanting to learn more about how to use your DSLR, this is the most thorough resource I've found so far!

2. Be aware of the light and plan accordingly.

December is the month of the year with the least light, and low light situations are the trickiest when trying to get good photos.  This is when it is really important to know how to use your camera (see the first point), because that will help you know how to pick the right settings to get a good picture...but I'm not going to lie, that doesn't always guarantee those low-light pictures are going to turn out exactly right.  So my advice?  Plan your picture-taking around daylight hours.

What I mean by that is to try to do as many of those photo-op activities as you can during the day.  We usually set up our Christmas tree in the morning or early afternoon because I know we'll get good light from the windows (for you smarties out there - we decorated our tree in two stages this year, at night and in the morning, so I have both day and night pictures in this post! This was kind of an unusual year).  I don't try to take Christmas jammie pictures at night - I gather them up in the morning while the light is good.  You can't do this with everything you might want to photograph, but when you can, try to think about the light.

3. Think about the details.

Try to notice the little details you want to capture during the Christmas season.  Some of my favorite Christmas time pictures are of little things, like my son's little hands wrapped around a hot chocolate mug, my daughter's face when she is concentrating on decorating a Christmas cookie perfectly, my littlest baby on the floor surrounded by ornaments, or the way my two-year-old sticks out his tongue while hanging an ornament (see above).

Think about your favorite moments from Christmas last year, including all the little details that made it cozy, magical, or special.  Then I recommend mentally planning how you might be able to capture those details this year in photos - and that way, when the opportunity presents itself, you'll be ready!

On a similar note, don't just take the posed pictures - keep your camera nearby and take the spontaneous photos of those precious little details or moments in time.  Let your family interact as normal, but keep your photographer eye ready.

4. Fake It.

I'm about to tell you my dirty little secret of taking pictures of my family.  You don't have to take magical, perfect shots right when the action happens.  You can fake it.

Sometimes in the rush and hurry of Christmas festivities, I may miss my chance to get a picture that I really wanted to take of the kids.  So what do I do?  We stage a little reenactment.  The kids are used to me by now and think it's fun to see the pictures of themselves, so it's usually not too hard to get them to do something again later so I can take a picture.  We took a few tree-decorating pictures this way this year because I wasn't around to take them the first time.  I don't know about you, but my kids don't need any cajoling to put more ornaments on the tree.

Is this inauthentic?  I don't view it that way because we actually did do these activities in real life, and we enjoyed the activities.  Having pictures is wonderful, but sometimes it's important to be in-the-moment with my kids instead of worrying about getting a good picture.  This is how I accomplish that and still get whatever shot I wanted.  And that leads to my last tip...

5. Remember that it doesn't have to turn out exactly like you envisioned.

I almost always go into a Christmas activity thinking about which photos I want to get and when, but I rarely get the exact photo I was envisioning in my head - but sometimes the photo I end up with ends up being even better.  It may not be technically perfect, but it's my family, in that moment.  It's us.  Everything doesn't always go as planned, complications (or catastrophes) arise, and I think the mark of starting to become a good photographer for your own family is being able to roll with it.  

It doesn't have to look perfect.  The point is to be fully there, in these moments with your family, and learn how to capture the moments that you can while being flexible enough to let the rest go.  Enjoy your family. Enjoy this Christmas with them.  Don't make it all about the photo, make it about the memory.

If you are fairly new to your DSLR, or if you have yet to venture out of auto or program mode, don't forget to check out Guided365 and learn how to get the most out of your camera!  It will definitely be worth your time!

Do you have a DSLR?  Do you shoot in manual or auto?  For my fellow mom-photographers, what tips would you add?

Black Friday Kindle Deals You Might Want To Check Out

You get a bonus post today!

I don't actually have a Kindle, but I have the Kindle app on my iPhone and iPad - and I love it because you can so often get a better deal on Kindle versions of books.  Which means more books for me!  I really should stop buying Kindle books at this point and just read the ones I have, because they'd probably last me a year.  But I always feel like I have to snag the interesting books while they are on sale so they will be waiting for me when I am ready to read them.

(This is actually a really bad habit.  I should probably read the books I have before buying more.  I am okay with this particular vice though.  I'm sorry if I am enabling some of you with this post!)

Since it's Black Friday week, there are so many good books on sale!  I kept scrolling through and wanting to share so many of them on my Facebook page - so I decided to just round them all up in a post instead!  These are books I have either read and enjoyed, or that I may end up buying myself, because I wanted to share the Kindle-deal joy!  Here are the ones I recommend you check out before they are no longer on sale!

(Note: Affiliate links used below.)

Sister Dear by Laura McNeill - I saw this one come up for review on Booklook a while back, but never got a chance to request it.  It's a suspense novel - Allie was convicted of a crime she didn't commit, and her sister knows sounded kind of good.

Double Minds by Terri Blackstock -  I feel like I may have read this one a while back, but Terri Blackstock writes suspense, and her novels are always so good. This one involves the Christian music industry and a stalker.

Driftwood Lane by Denise Hunter - I haven't read this one in particular, but I have read several of Denise Hunter's books.  She's one of those authors that keeps you turning the pages.  In this one a woman named Meredith is given guardianship over three siblings she doesn't really know.

The Children Of Hurin by J.R.R. Tolkien - For all my fellow Lord Of The Rings fans out there!  This one is a story set hundreds of years before LOTR.  I might end up buying this one.

Be Frank With Me by Julia Claiborne Johnson - I just started this one on audio, and I think it's going to be a fun one!  Alice goes to the home of a reclusive author to watch her eccentric little boy while his mother writes a new novel after decades of hiding away.  I'll let you know what I think of it when I'm done.

Stuff Matters: Exploring The Marvelous Materials That Shape Our Man-Made World by Mark Miodownik - This book just looked really interesting to me.  It explores questions like "Why is glass see through?" and "Why is elastic stretchy?"

Natural Hospital Birth by Cynthia Gabriel - I read this book when I was pregnant with Clyde in preparation for trying for a natural birth in the hospital.  I thought it was really good, and gave a lot of good tips for making it more likely to achieve the goal of a natural birth in a hospital setting. (Also, here are more of my favorite resources for natural birth.)

Honey For A Child's Heart by Gladys Hunt - This is always shared as recommended reading for those who like the Charlotte Mason home education philosophy (read about which homeschool philosophies I like best here). I have it on my Kindle already, I just haven't been able to read it yet!

Killing Christians by Tom Doyle - I read this a while back, and while the stories are intense, I think it is important for Christians in America to know what our brothers and sisters in Christ go through in other parts of the world because of their faith in Jesus.  Read more about this one in my post "Do Something For The Persecuted".

God's Crime Scene: A Cold Case Detective Examines The Evidence For A Divinely Created Universe by J. Warner Wallace - I love J. Warner Wallace! I haven't read any of his books yet, but he is a "Christian case-maker" as he likes to call himself, and his podcast and Youtube channel are great.

Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas - I read this a while back (review here) and got a lot out of it.  It was a great book to remind me to be thinking about marriage in biblical terms.

If You Can Keep It by Eric Metaxes - I am reading this one right now, and it is excellent.  I'm a Metaxes fan, and in this book he discusses America and how we need to go about continually "keeping it".  A great post-election read.

Squanto And The Miracle Of Thanksgiving by Eric Metaxes - I'm snagging this one to read with the kids before Thanksgiving tomorrow!

The Legend Of The Candy Cane by Lori Walburg - This one is a children's book that caught my eye, especially with Christmas right around the corner!

Have you found any other Kindle Deals this week that you are excited about?  Please share!

A Thanksgiving Outfit Idea (And Other Musings)

Thanksgiving is tomorrow!

What a weird year it has been for us.  I was about to type that the year seems like it has gone by really fast, but in other ways it has seemed like a long year too.  If you were in my house today, you'd probably see me scrambling around, making pink fluff salad and sweet potato casserole for our family gatherings over the next couple days.  Little ones would be crawling around at my feet, or asking me what I'm doing, or pestering me for a cookie.  

And maybe I'd tell you a little bit about how thankful I am to have these children, how thankful I am to have a hard-working husband, who has the blessing of a good job. I'd be thankful for our house renovation this year, and doubly thankful that it is mostly finished headed into these winter months.  I'd be thankful for a good church to worship the Lord in, and a good country that offers us the freedom to live out our faith, and I'd thank God for both even as I pray for peace and wisdom for our leaders of both.  

Today we bake, and tomorrow we gather with family and friends and give thanks to God for all He has given us - and most of all for the gift of forgiveness of sins and salvation through Jesus. What a sweet time of year this is.

I'd probably have flour on my clothes, and my counters would be a mess, but I'd stick the sweet potato casserole in the oven and sit down and ask you what you are thankful for too.

And then after you shared, we'd probably talk about something frivolous and silly, like what you are going to wear to Thanksgiving dinner (which believe it or not is what I originally sat down to write about).

I weirdly always feel like I need to match my clothes to the season, particularly the outdoor natural colors of the season.  So in Winter I like white, black, navy, and ice blue, in Spring I go with pastel-flowery colors, summer gets all the brights, and in Autumn I go with colors that you might see on a tree.  Thanksgiving is in the fall, and has a lot of colorful foods on the table, so those are the colors I gravitate towards.

Please tell me that's not as weird as I feel like it sounds?

So here you go, a little Thanksgiving outfit idea for you today.  I may or may not be wearing this tomorrow, but it struck me as a Thanksgiving-like outfit.  You know, I can match the cranberries.

Shirt: Forever21 (this year)
Jeans: Forever21
Shoes: JustFab (only $15 right now!)
Earrings: Can't remember.

What I like about this outfit for Thanksgiving:

-The aforementioned cranberry color.

-The jeans that don't look like they are made out of stretchy material.

-The flowy shirt, so no one can see the post-dinner pooch.

Our Thanksgiving dinners are pretty casual, but if you wanted to dress up you could switch out the sweater for a blazer or the jeans for faux suede or leather-paneled leggings.  I went with my strappy shoes for warmer days, but with the weather turning cooler I'd probably switch them out with boots instead.

So what ARE you wearing to Thanksgiving dinner?

Four Ways To Recognize Advent As A Mom

I mentioned recently how last year I felt like I just barely survived the Christmas season - thriving was out of the question.  I think part of the problem was that all the Christmas details got so overwhelming that I couldn't even focus on the reason we celebrate in the first place!  Amidst the stress of the season, I missed the meaning and beauty of Christmas - which is that God became a baby in Jesus, and lived a sinless life on earth so that He could die to save me.  Obviously I knew this in my head, but I didn't take any time to reflect and let that beautiful truth settle in my heart last Christmas.

Advent is traditionally a tool for focusing our attention back on what Christmas is truly about - our Savior! As moms we tend to make Advent about driving home the meaning of Christmas to our kids, but this year I want to create some sort of personal Advent tradition.  I think sometimes we can get so focused on making sure the kids "get it", that we forget that we need that time of refreshment that comes when we refocus on the Lord in the middle of the bustle!  When we are taking the time to fill ourselves up with God's truth and joy in this season, it is that much easier to do the same for our kids.

I have a few ideas for how to recognize Advent this year for myself, as a mom.

1. An Advent Bible reading plan.  

I've done a couple Advent reading plans in the past, but it's been a while.  I want to find a plan for reading Bible verses that relate to Advent as part of my devotions this December. She Reads Truth often comes out with an Advent plan, so I might check that out.  Any other recommendations for an Advent Bible reading plan?

2. Memorize Bible verses.

I have been majority slacking on Bible memorization this year, even after writing last year about why moms should memorize Bible verses -  and I feel it.  I would love to choose a passage to work on through the Advent season.  I am thinking John 1:1-18 or Mary's prayer of praise in Luke 1:46-55 .

3. Christmas Music.

What better than music to get you in the Christmas Spirit, right?  And Christ-focused music is also something that really touches my soul at Christmas time and helps me to remember the greatest gift from God - our salvation.  I'll share some of my Christmas favorites soon, but you can see some of my favorite Christmas albums in this oldie-but-goodie post!

4. Christmas Adult Coloring Book.

I was so thrilled to receive a Christmas coloring book to review!  But this book has truly exceeded my expectations.

(Note: Affiliate links below.)

All Is Bright: A Devotional Journey to Color Your Way to Christmas is not just a coloring book, it is also an Advent devotional.  I have already read through most of the devotions, and they are excellent!  Each devotion focuses on different aspects of Christ's birth, and is biblically based.  I am going to go through it again in December this year and use the coordinated coloring pages to have a little quiet time to focus on Jesus birth!

I really love each of the illustrations in this book.  As far as coloring goes, they are just unique and detailed enough to be challenging, but not so detailed that I lose a little bit of my sanity.  I don't know that I'll get through one of these gorgeous pages each day (I'm a slow colorer), but I will read through the devotions and enjoy a little coloring time while focusing on God's gift to us in sending Jesus to save us.  This is the personal Advent tradition that I am really looking forward to this year!

And another plus to this book - in the back is a section with Christmas coloring pages for kids, Bible verses, and family discussion questions!  I love that while this book is a great tool for moms to personally focus on Advent, it also has sections to encourage us to include our kids as well.  I can't wait to get some printed up for the kids!

Do you have a personal Advent tradition as a mom?  Tell me more!

Note: I received a copy of this coloring book for free in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.

Larger-Then-Life Lara (A Middle-Grade Book Review)

5/5 stars (for adults - I really enjoyed this one).

4/5 stars for kids (I think you should know your child before handing them this book, because it wouldn't be a great one for every kid with some of the difficult themes).

Do you ever order a book and then realize later that it is actually a children's book?  Don't tell me I'm the only one.

When I ordered Larger-Than-Life Lara by Dandi Daley Mackall, I honestly thought it was a novel for an adult audience, but then I started to suspect that maybe it was more of a middle-grade novel - and it arrived, and indeed it was.  The characters in this book are in the fourth grade, so I'm assuming it is meant for that age group, but I have to tell you, I loved this book.

Plot: The book is narrated by a fourth grade girl, Laney, who is trying to write a book about something significant that happened in her class.  She jumps into the story telling us about a new girl who arrived, named Lara, who is overweight but incessantly joyful.  Even as the other kids bully her, there is something about Lara that can't seem to be beaten down.

All of this is told from Laney's perspective, and she "writes" the book by breaking each chapter down into each story element, like "minor characters", "setting", "climax", etc, which I found really charming.  She also keeps insisting that this story is about Lara, not about her, which is cute because as a reader you know it really is about her, and how Lara affects her life.

Content: Laney does not have an easy life though, and there are some elements in this book that might warrant some guidance if a fourth grader were to be the one reading it.  Laney's family is poor and her dad does not take good care of them.  Laney's dad is an alcoholic, and her three older brothers cuss at her (not spelled out in the book) and call her mean names constantly.  There is a reference to magazines that her father does not want her brothers to see.  At one point we find out that Laney's dad slapped her on the cheek. This is the extent of physically abusive behavior from her dad that is spelled out in this book, but some more sensitive kids might find this disturbing.  

Aside from Laney's troubles at home, most of the story revolves around Lara being bullied at school because of her weight, and it got pretty cringe-worthy.  She handles it all with grace and kindness, which is an inspiring aspect to the story.

Spiritual Aspect: Even though this book is published by Tyndale, the Christian message in it isn't spelled out.  Parents, you are going to have to do that for your child yourself.  Verses like Matthew 7:12, Proverbs 31:26, and Matthew 18:21-22 come to mind.  Positive themes that you could expound on would be kindness, forgiveness, and joy.

My Thoughts:  The ending of this book was really good and believable.  Not everything is resolved at the end of this book - Laney ends with a better relationship with one of her brothers, which means she now has an ally at home, but none of her other home problems are resolved.  However, the whole class learns a lesson about bullying, and the example of kindness from Lara in this book would form some great basis for discussion.

As an adult reading this book, I was really invested in the characters and worried about what would happen to them - and the ending left enough strings untied that I still find myself thinking about Laney and worrying about where her life will go.  I really kind of wish there would be another book, because I would definitely read it.  For kids though...I don't know if I'd let my kids read this before age ten at least.  I think it would depend on the kid and how much real-life "hard stuff" they were able to handle at that age.  Great book for discussion between parents and kids though - I'd suggest reading this one together.

Note: I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.

Improbable Planet Review (*Sigh*)

Note: I'm not here to have a debate about "young earth" vs. "old earth", so please, let's not waste time.  This is just a young earth proponent's perspective on what I did read of this book.

So I'm going to tell you right from the start that I did not "read" this book.  I skimmed.

I saw Impropable Planet up for review and read the brief description, and I thought it sounded like a book that would give scientific facts about how our planet right now is perfectly positioned and equipped to support the wide array of life that we see.  

Then I received the book in the mail and saw the author's name, Hugh Ross, and read the subtitle (which I somehow missed before) "How Earth Became Humanity's Home", and my heart started to sink.  Then I started reading it, and my suspicions were confirmed - this book is really not about the facts of what makes our planet uniquely able to support life, it is about the big bang/evolutionary theory of earth and life's origins, which Ross ascribes to.

I don't buy evolution or the "old earth", millions of years theory, and I find that most people who do believe in this theory tend to claim their theory as fact...instead of the theory it is, and Ross is no exception.  It really bugged me how he would list a known fact about the earth as it is, and then insert part of his theory into the same sentence as if it was also a fact that we know to be true.  There is no scientific way to KNOW how the world and life formed because science is about observation, and no one was there to observe this happening - and the creation of the earth and life is a unrepeatable event, so there will never be a way we can observe it.  We can only form theories as to how everything we see came to be and choose which one we would like to believe.  From a scientific standpoint, there is just as much evidence (more in the opinion of some) for a young earth as there is for an old earth, and for a literal six-day creation as there is for evolution, and many scientists acknowledge this - which is why it is arrogant to explain your theory as if it were fact when it is not based on anything that we can actually repeat or observe.

Most of the chapters in this book cover how Ross and some other scientists think the earth and life formed - which might be interesting to me if I believed in this theory, but I don't.  The main point of the book is how unlikely it is for the earth to have formed using a big bang/evolutionary model (but still the book insists that this is what happened).  Indeed through reading this book it is obvious that scientists working under this theory seem to have to often resort to cataclysmic events in order to explain the universe and earth we see today.  Coming at it from a biblical creationist worldview, this all just reinforced to me how unlikely it seems that the earth could have formed this way, how little actual evidence they seem to have, and how much faith it takes to believe in an old earth, as opposed to just taking the creation account in Scripture at face value.

There were a few facts about the actual earth as it is today and it's unique position to support life, such as how the Milky Way Galaxy is the ideal galaxy to support life, a spiral galaxy, not too big or small, and "exceptionally quiet".  Our solar system too is perfect for life, with a Sun that remains relatively close to the galactic plane keeping our planet's temperature constant, and large gaseous planets nearby to shield us from meteors.  These are the kind of facts that I was looking forward to reading about, but they were few and far between long theoretical explanations of what happened in earth's "distant history".  I ended up skipping around and skimming because this book just wasn't what I was hoping for.

The last chapter was Ross's best, as he recognizes the improbability of the very existence of earth and life without a divine hand, and answers the question of why we are here - to make known the good God who placed us here, redeemed us by Jesus's blood, and is coming back again to take us to "our Father's house".  So he got that part right anyway.

If you want some science resources coming from a young earth/creationist perspective, In Six Days is a book I started and enjoyed before I had to return it to the library, and Ken Ham is always a great resource for further reading.

Note: I received a copy of Improbable Planet for free in exchange for a review, and this is my honest opinion.

3 Ways I'm Preparing For Christmas Before Thanksgiving

Last year in December I literally broke down crying, wishing Christmas would just be over already.

I don't think I've ever been such a "scrooge" in my life, but I was behind on all things Christmas, and all of our weekends and evenings were booked solid so I had no time to catch up.  On top of that I had a new baby and a touch of postpartum depression, and I just wanted life to feel normal for one day (which is pretty much impossible in December, at least around here).  The whole thing left me trudging through the holiday festivities with little to no Christmas spirit.

Most years aren't quite that bad, but over the last few years I have realized that Christmas can be downright stressful and un-fun for adults - in particular for moms.  At least in our family, almost all Christmas prep falls to me, and if I don't get on top of it the whole holiday feels like a chore to cross off my list instead of the sweet celebration of Christ's birth that it's meant to be.  

That's just sad.

So this year, I have been determined to get ahead of the Christmas to-do's well in advance so that when December rolls around I can hopefully just sit back and enjoy it all - and maybe have enough room to breath and reflect on the why of the celebration in the first place, which is the gift of our Savior!

Some things, like baking, obviously have to wait until December, but I have three things I would like to have accomplished before Thanksgiving this year.

1. Buy and wrap all Christmas gifts.  

There is a part of me that wants to save some wrapping for the actual Christmas season, but I am reminding myself that there are a lot of other Christmas activities that I never seem to have time for.  Things like making a gingerbread house with the kids, making hand-made ornaments to give to grandparents, or sitting down for a bunch of read-aloud Christmas books.  Do I really need to save shopping and wrapping for December to get into the Christmas spirit?  I think not.

2. Get Christmas cards ready to mail.  

I already have our Christmas card picture, and I am just waiting for VistaPrint's 50% Christmas card sale to pull the trigger on printing.  The goal is to get the cards ordered and addressed and stamped before Thanksgiving so I can just drop them in the mailbox on Black Friday and (hopefully) wait for the obligatory reciprocal Christmas card mail to roll in. (Hint: PLEASE SEND ME CHRISTMAS CARDS! They really make my day.)

3. Iron out any kinks in our Christmas budget.  

One of the major stress factors for me at Christmas time is the fear of going over budget, and I am determined not to let that happen this year.  I came up with a preliminary Christmas budget already, and since I have already started shopping I know there are a few little budget kinks to iron out.  As I get the rest of my shopping done I want to adjust the budget as necessary, think through our obligations, and set aside the money I will need for extra Christmas expenses.  My hope is that at the end of all this planning, December will feel like any other month financially.

A perk of all this early Christmas planning is that it is actually giving me a little early dose of the Christmas merriment that I was so desperately missing last year.  It's hard to feel the joy of the season when you are stressed with a load of obligations, and taking some of those away by getting a good head start has made me start to look forward to Christmas earlier than I usually do.  When the season gets here I'll have less stress and really be able to enjoy the goodwill and peace of the Christmas season, celebrating Christ's birth!  

My only question now is why did I not start planning Christmas in October years ago?

Do you start Christmas early, or are you a procrastinator?  What is your Christmas strategy?



Time for With Grit & Grace!  Link up with YOUR goals for November below!

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UnInvited Review (Didn't Love It)

2/5 stars.

So, I'm just going to go ahead and give you the bottom line right from the start - I was rather disappointed in this book.

I read The Best Yes by Lysa Terkheurst a while ago, and I really found it helpful, so I thought I'd pick up her new book.  I generally think that Terkheurst is a good writer, but this book really fell flat for me, I think for a few reasons.

1.  This was not a great time in my life to read this book.  I was trying to remember my own past rejections as I read, and trying to evaluate whether the book would have been helpful to me in those times when I was feeling rejected in the past, or when I face it again in the future...but I really didn't get much out of it.  I can't tell if this is because the book really wasn't as helpful as it should have been, or if it was just that I am not currently feeling rejected which might make it hard to relate to what she was saying.

2. The book didn't seem focused.  I felt like she was trying to be too broad with the subject of this book.  Feeling "unloved","less than", "left out", and "lonely" are pretty different problems in my opinion, each of which probably deserves it's own book.  There are different types of rejection, and I felt like she lumped them all together and tried to address them all at once. I think we would have been better served as readers if she broke it down a little more clearly.

I probably should have just known she was going to try to tackle all this from the subtitle of the book, but I went into this book thinking the topic was "rejection" because I heard Terkheurst speak about it before I picked it up. However, I kept losing track of what we were even talking about, and I had to remind myself that "Oh yeah, this book is about rejection".  As a reader, I find it annoying when I keep having to remind myself what the author is talking about.  It felt all-over-the-place to me, and I felt she was really stretching trying to make some of these topics fit under the umbrella of "rejection".  It wasn't what I expected.  

3.  I was frustrated at how she used Scripture in some places in this book.  To clarify, I did like a lot of the verses she included and thought they could be helpful, so I'm not picking on every Scripture use in this book. But there were a few places where I just thought "huh?".   

For instance, she has a chapter about abundance and scarcity - I've heard her speak on this before, and it is an interesting psychological concept, but she explained it poorly and over-spiritualized it.  She included a quote that referenced the story of Joseph and the famine in the Bible - and the quote implied that there was abundance in all the world before this (not true - there were at least a couple famines before Joseph - Genesis 26:1), and then blamed all the scarcity in the land on Pharaoh, which isn't an accurate representation of what happened at all.

In another chapter she writes about Jesus being tempted in the wilderness, but she talks about how Jesus was feeling rejected at this time - and I don't know where she is getting that.  While I like the idea of applying Scripture when we are feeling rejected, it was a stretch to use that story to illustrate her point.  The passage is talking about temptation, not rejection.

Another example is when she is using the olive tree as an illustration in Chapter 15, talking about being "crushed" and how God can use that to bring about good in our lives - but then she includes 2 Corinthians 4:8 which says we are pressed, but not crushed.  Following that is a confusing monologue about being crushed, but at the same time we're not crushed, and I honestly had no idea what she was trying to say anymore.  The whole thing was self-contradictory.

And somewhat related, she also used the words "revelation" and "divine insights" in a few places where she was really talking about her own insights, and I didn't like that.  The Bible is our revelation from God and the only writing that is "divinely inspired".

4.  Too much "romantic" spiritual language.  This is a personal pet peeve, but I get tired of the romantic analogies of our relationship with Jesus.  Jesus is our God, not our boyfriend.  To reduce our speech about him to romantic terms takes away some of the power of the fact that we are loved and valued by the Creator of the Universe.

So, for something positive - Terkheurst's writing is engaging, which is always a plus, and her personal stories really add color to her topics. This book missed the mark for me, but I wouldn't say I didn't enjoy it at all. 

Overall, I know what she was trying to do in this book, but it felt like "too much bread, not enough butter" - ie. she was stretching too much out of her topic, and definitely stretching with some of her Scripture applications.  Use discernment with her Scripture applications if you do read  this one, but I don't know, I wouldn't say I recommend this book, and honestly, I don't know if I'll pick up another book by Terkheurst.  She lost some of my trust with point #3.

Note: I received a copy of this book for free in exchange for a review.  This is my honest opinion.
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