Christmas in a Minor Key

On Friday, I played the piano at a memorial service. The interior of the building was already decorated for the season, and we sang against a backdrop of velvet, garlands, and twinkle lights. The experience served as a reminder that while we delight in the gifts of the season, an undertow of sadness often pulls beneath the surface.

Any number of special situations might bar us from experiencing the sort of powdered-snow enchantment of greeting cards and Hallmark movies. While we’re aware deep down that spun-sugar holidays exist only in the realm of imagination, we can’t help but want them for ourselves. Such longings intensify when our pain runs counter to these expectations.

Last week, I wrote elsewhere about what Advent means for believers, and how the Christian discipline of meditating on Christ’s work can shift our approach to this season:

Amid all the festivities, it’s easy to forget that while Advent signaled hope for the human race, it also signaled the beginning of sorrows for our Savior. We suffer during the holidays when  the cultural celebrations hold stronger sway in our hearts than the person and work of the Lord Jesus.

Jesus did not come as Incarnate God to secure the fleeting comforts of the “holiday season.” He was born to suffer and die, rejected and alone, to secure eternal comfort for all saints.

For this reason, I’m thankful for Christian writers, musicians, and artists who create works acknowledging these realities. We follow a nail-scarred Savior through a life of tribulation along a narrow way. Works acknowledging sorrow, suffering, grief, and lament absolutely have a place in the life of the Christian–yes, even during Advent.


Goodness gravy, somehow it’s December already!

Two orders of business:

First, if you haven’t had a chance, be sure to sign up for my 2019 Year of Books!joanna-kosinska-470407-unsplashEach month during the coming year, I’ll be sending a recommended list of fiction and non-fiction titles for you to check out. There won’t be any discussions, homework, or anything like that. Just fresh recommendations casually delivered to your inbox every month: fiction, non-fiction, classics and new releases, accessible theology, well-known authors and debut writers, you name it.

Second, as I was writing this post, I couldn’t help but think about my friend and colleague Stacey Weeks. If you’re the type who likes holiday romances but yearns for something with a bit more substance, Stacey’s new book might be right up your alley. Mistletoe Melody released over the weekend, and one thing I really appreciate is that the storyline acknowledges both physical and emotional pain. I was pleased to get my hands on a pre-publication review copy, and I’m glad this book is now available to everyone.

Finally, I’ve appreciated your patience as my blogging momentum has slowed way down during 2018. As the year draws to a close, I have a few more posts planned. Keep your eyes peeled for some Advent meditations as well as my year-in-review book post, which is currently in draft and spiraling out of control as usual. Because what would this time of year be without its fun traditions?

Happy Monday, everyone! May your coffee be hot and your hearts warm.

For Those Who Can Only Handle Being Moderately Creeped Out (2018 Update)

I’ve never been one to enjoy being scared on purpose. I don’t watch horror movies, relish psychological thrillers, or visit haunted houses.

Occasionally, however, on a long fall evening, I will curl up with a book that matches the season; or while out on a late-evening walk, I will listen to something that will creep me out–but only a little.

If you like to cover similar emotional territory, you’ve come to the right place.

I’ve been keeping a list for people like us.

Here’s the update.

Books

Bird Box, by Josh Malerman

The author had me right where he wanted me, held captive with nothing but my fear of the unknown propelling me forward. I think I read it in a day, finishing during dinner just before it got dark.

Wildfell, by London Clarke

Creepy Gothic suspense with a modern twist. Romance, travel feels, and things that go bump in the night. Yes, please.

11/22/63, by Stephen King

This isn’t the only Stephen King book I’ve read (his book On Writing is excellent) but it was the first, largely because I was told it “wasn’t too scary.” And it really wasn’t. Just super intense and psychologically twisty. Because…Stephen King.

The Historian, by Elizabeth Kostova

This is not only a vampire book for people who aren’t into vampire books, but it’s also a creepy book for people who can’t handle creepy books. If that sounds like you, go for it.

Podcasts

Lore, hosted by Aaron Mahnke

I actually gave this one up recently because it started scaring me too badly when I was out running in the early morning or late evening. If I only listened to podcasts from the safety of my home, though, I’d probably still be hooked.

Dr. Death, reported by Laura Beil

Fair warning: this is real life. You may find yourself avoiding medical care after listening to this one.

Happy Face, produced by HowStuffWorks with Melissa Moore

In 1995, Melissa Moore learned that her father was the Happy Face Killer. In this podcast, she reviews her childhood and adolescence, analyzing her life through the lens of this knowledge, understanding her past in a new way. It’s early days still (I’ve only listened up through Episode 3) but can already attest that it’s gripping.

Individual Podcast Episodes

From Stuff You Missed in History: “The Hagley Woods Murder” 

Truth is always creepier than fiction. I mean…who did put Bella in the witch elm?

From This American Life: “House on Loon Lake” 

Enjoy shivering your way through this account of one man’s lifelong obsession with an abandoned house. I first listened while road-tripping home in the middle of the night during a thunderstorm. Perfectly creepy conditions.

From Criminal: “A Bump in the Night” 

What would you do if you realized someone was living in the crawl space above your bedroom…and that he might be in the house right now…? As a single woman who lives mostly alone, I found this true story almost too much to handle.

From Fictional: “Give Him a Hand” 

A creeptastic modern retelling of the classic short story “The Monkey’s Paw.” I first listened one blustery night as I walked through my neighborhood at dusk. Palm branches flailed against low clouds and raindrops dribbled down the back of my neck as I shivered my way through this. I was never happier to get back to the house.


Are you the type who can only handle being moderately creeped out? If so, and you give any of these recommendations a try, do let me know how everything works out. I want all the shivery details.

Also, let me know what my lists are missing! I look forward to hearing your suggestions in the comments below. Remember, only medium creepy suggestions.


Happy October! While the majority of North Americans are enjoying sweaters, scarves, and pumpkin spice coffees, we here in Florida are still just sweating it out, dealing with soaring temperatures and tropical storms.

Whatever the weather, the days are getting shorter, both in terms of daylight and the number of squares left on the calendar in 2018.

So.

Two important notes:

  1. This week my debut novel Collapsible is enjoying a publisher’s discount on all major e-book distribution channels, including Amazon Kindle, Apple Books, Barnes & Noble, Google Play, and Kobo. From now until October 17, 2018, the e-book is just $.99–spread the word and snap it up!
  2. Very soon, I’ll be sending out my fall update. It will include news about my writing life, publication updates, planned appearances, and some personal stuff. Be sure you’re signed up so that you don’t miss out.

Happy Monday, everyone! May all your sweaters be cozy, your apple-picking delightful, and your favorite seasonal blend brewed to perfection.

Backstage Pass

In celebration of Collapsible‘s One-Year Bookiversary, I’m here to offer you access to a unique, never-before-published scene which was originally cut from the final draft of the novel.

It’s almost pure comedy, yet because the scene appeared early in the story, my editors thought it best to move the narrative along quickly rather than engage in indulgent silliness so soon. (My words, not theirs.)

They were right, of course, but that didn’t keep me from dying a bit inside when I had to say goodbye to the scene.

When you read it yourself, you’ll understand why.

The Scene

In the scene, which was originally slated to be Chapter 2, the girls race from the gym to the hospital. Ann decides to piggyback Rachel into the emergency room, and things go decidedly wrong. Because of course.

The Deal

Once Collapsible has reached 50+ reviews on Amazon, I’ll be releasing the scene right here on the blog.

Why It Matters

Reviews help consumers make purchasing decisions, of course, but they also move books up in Amazon’s rankings. When that happens, Collapsible will be more likely to be recommended by the algorithm when people purchase similar products. Then everyone wins.

How to Help

If you’ve read Collapsible and haven’t already posted an online review, drop by Amazon’s product page and post a short response. One or two sentences with a handful of stars is really all it takes.

Of course, if you haven’t even read the book yet, you also know what to do.

Let’s get cracking!

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Celebrating Collapsible [Events+Video!]

This week, my debut Collapsible: A Novel of Friendship, Broken Bones, Coffee, Shenanigans, and the Occasional Murder celebrates its first Bookiversary!

Last fall on September 29, 2017, this little gem was first released into the world. I couldn’t have been more vomitously excited.

Join me for a week of events marking this momentous occasion.


Collapsible’s One-Year Bookiversary

Celebrations

Monday – Bookiversary Kickoff & Catch-Up Reading Day

If you’ve been meaning to read Collapsible, or if it’s been a while and you want to brush up on the story before the week’s festivities begin in earnest, today’s your day. Grab a copy and get cracking.

Tuesday – Collapsible-themed Read-and-Tweet-a-Thon

Starting at 3:00pm (EST) and continuing through the evening, I’ll be reading through the novel and live-Tweeting thoughts, insider stories, and favorite lines. I haven’t read the book since final proofs last summer so this will be a treat for all of us. Be sure you’re following me on Twitter to join in.

Wednesday – Books in the Wild

I’ll be posting a thread on Facebook asking for pics of Collapsible going through the day with you. Show us Collapsible in its natural reading habitat! Pictures that earn the most likes will be featured later in the week.

Thursday – Facebook Live Q&A at 4:30pm (EST)

Come with your questions and sassy comments about Collapsible, researching, writing, and whatever else you’d like. It’ll be an open forum. I’m ready! Be sure you’re following me there so you don’t miss out.

Friday –  Backstage Pass

Here on the blog, I’ll be posting information about how you can access a hilarious deleted scene from Collapsible‘s cutting-room floor.

It’s one of my favorite scenes, but because it fell early in the book and didn’t sufficiently advance the plot, my editors suggested its removal before the final cut. Be sure you’re following this blog to learn how you can get it in front of your beady little eyes.

Saturday – Collapsible officially celebrates its one-year bookiversary! 

Keep your eyes peeled for surprise bonus content to drop through Instagram. Be sure you’re following me there to see it!


As you can see, we have lots to look forward to this week. For everyone who’s already read the book, thank you so much. For everyone who’s intending to, thank you in advance. I know there are many great books out there. I’m grateful you’re spending some time on mine.


Happy Bookiversary, everyone! Settle in, brew a cup of coffee, and enjoy this dramatic reading from Chapter 1. (LOL, that close-up, though!)

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Great Read-Aloud Recommendations for Kids [UPDATED 9/18]

My current day job involves reading aloud to kids. Every few months, I like to update this post to reflect where we’ve been spending our reading time. What we read is not purely my choice but is often responsive to what they’re learning/where they’ve been traveling/what we’ve been discussing. Please make note of the caveats below. Happy reading!


How I Choose Books 

When the time comes to start a new book with the Podlings, my decision process goes something like this:

1) Have I read it and enjoyed it? I can’t over-stress the importance of this step. I don’t care how lauded or “important” or “valuable” the book is. If you don’t care for it, the kids you’re reading to won’t care either.
2) Will they understand it and like it? I balance toward the older ones in the group. The littles get what they get — which is generally more than I expect.
3) What does the author do well? Humor, drama, storytelling, dialogue, characterization, suspense, research, twists? I require at least one standout category per book but don’t expect perfection in all areas for every read.
4) Does the book match the season? I’m all about reading the right book at the right time, which is why–as you’ll see below–we sometimes take a break in the middle of a series to read something that matches the season.

How You Should Choose Books

1) Take the advice of the readers in your life (under advisement). Definitely accept recommendations from your friends who read, but don’t take them blindly. Not every book is for every person.
2) Read the book first yourself. Don’t skip this step. No matter how highly the book has come recommended or how much your friends or their kids may have liked it, that doesn’t mean a) you will like it (which is so important, since your enthusiasm can make or break the enterprise), or b) you will find it appropriate for your bunch. So be responsible about this and only start books with them that you know you’ll have the wherewithal to complete. Stopping halfway through a book and not finishing it breaks a child’s trust.
3) Decide how you’re going to handle questionable elements. I’m not the type to throw the baby out with the bath water, but if I’m going to read children a book with a little language in it (or another brief or mildly questionable element), I definitely take some steps. First, I tell them about it ahead of time (“Jimmy’s grandpa swears a few times.”), and I also tell them how we’re going to handle it (“When that happens, I’m just going to say ‘Grandpa swore.'”) That way they don’t have a false view of the book (or of life, for that matter), but we’re also not normalizing the words themselves. Again, you may decide to take a different approach to this. Bear your approach in mind as you make decisions.
4) Don’t worry too much about whether the book is considered “important” or “educational” or “valuable.” Those categories are so subjective. Just pick a good read and get cracking. Reading aloud to kids has great value in itself.

Books I’ve Read Aloud to the Podlings

  1. The Teacher’s Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts, Richard Peck
  2. Derwood, Inc., Jeri Massi
  3. A Dangerous Game, Jeri Massi
  4. The Bronze Bow, Elizabeth George Speare
  5. The Lion, The Witch, and the Wardrobe, C.S. Lewis
  6. Prince Caspian, C.S. Lewis
  7. The Horse and His Boy, C.S. Lewis
  8. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson
  9. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (unabridged)
  10. The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, C.S. Lewis
  11. The Silver Chair, C.S. Lewis
  12. The Last Battle, C.S. Lewis
  13. A Light in the Attic, Shel Silverstein
  14. Summer of the Monkeys, Wilson Rawls
  15. Summer of Light, Dennis M. Van Wey
  16. A Wrinkle in Time, Madeline L’Engle
  17. The Teacher’s Funeral: A Comedy in Three Parts, Richard Peck (again by request)
  18. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, L. Frank Baum
  19. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
  20. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson (again)
  21. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (abridged this time; I learned my lesson)
  22. The Hobbit, J.R.R. Tolkien
  23. The Fellowship of the Ring, J.R.R. Tolkien
  24. The Two Towers, J.R.R. Tolkien
  25. The Return of the King, J.R.R. Tolkien
  26. C.S. Lewis: Creator of Narnia, Sam Wellman
  27. Classic Myths to Read Aloud: The Great Stories of Greek and Roman Mythology, William F. Russell
  28. Long Walk to Water, Linda Sue Park
  29. Long Way from Chicago, Richard Peck
  30. The Magician’s Nephew, C.S. Lewis
  31. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane, Kate DiCamillo
  32. The Witch of Blackbird Pond, Elizabeth George Speare
  33. A Single Shard, Linda Sue Park
  34. A Year Down Yonder, Richard Peck
  35. Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, Roald Dahl
  36. The Hiding Place, Corrie ten Boom
  37. Flora & Ulysses, Kate DiCamillo
  38. Daddy Long-Legs, Jean Webster
  39. Winnie-the-Pooh, A.A. Milne
  40. Peace Child, Don Richardson (Note: Get the updated anniversary edition. Trust me.)
  41. Legends in Sports: Babe Ruth, Matt Christopher
  42. The Velveteen Rabbit and Other Tales, Margery Williams
  43. The Prodigal God: Recovering the Heart of the Christian Faith, Timothy Keller
  44. The Sword in the Stone (The Once and Future King, Book 1), T.H. White
  45. The Phantom Tollbooth, Norton Juster
  46. The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, Barbara Robinson (yes, again)
  47. A Christmas Carol, Charles Dickens (abridged)
  48. The Sugar Creek Gang #1: The Swamp Robber, Paul Hutchens
  49. True Stories of the Second World War, Paul Dowswell
  50. The Force Awakens: A Junior Novel, Michael Kogge
  51. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: In the Midst of Wickedness, Janet & Geoff Benge
  52. The Princess Bride, William Goldman
  53. Endurance: Shackleton’s Incredible Voyage, Alfred Lansing
  54. The Kite Fighters, Linda Sue Park
  55. Bound for Oregon, Jean Van Leeuwen
  56. Benjamin Banneker: Astronomer and Mathematician, Laura Baskes Litwin
  57. The Forbidden Schoolhouse: The True and Dramatic Story of Prudence Crandall and Her Students, Suzanne Jurmain
  58. Heroes in Black History: True Stories from the Lives of Christian Heroes, Dave & Neta Jackson
  59. Strawberry Girl, Lois Lenski
  60. The War that Saved My Life, Kimberly Brubaker Bradley
  61. Life with Father, Clarence Day
  62. Sackett, Louis L’Amour
  63. The Watsons Go to Birmingham–1963, Christopher Paul Curtis

Possibilities Still on Our Horizon:

  • Red Scarf Girl, Jiang Ji-li
  • Hatchet, Gary Paulsen
  • The Giver, Lois Lowry
  • The Great Wall of Lucy Wu, Wendy Wan-Long Shang
  • Anne of Green Gables, L.M. Montgomery

Have some great read-aloud suggestions of your own? I’d love to hear them. Share in the comments below!


In other news, I’m happy to announce that in honor of Pain Awareness Month, I’m offering a free 5-day e-mail course designed to encourage both those who suffer chronic pain and those who support them. It is written from a Christian perspective and will run September 17-21, 2018.

Chronic Pain
Lessons are short, practical, edifying, and designed for discussion and application. Be sure to sign up and refer a friend to take the course with you.

 

Happy Monday, everyone! May your spirits be high, your pain levels low, and your coffee just the right temperature for sipping.