Posted in Books, Life in General

When Calls the Heart

When Calls the Heart (Canadian West, #1)When Calls the Heart by Janette Oke
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I have a confession to make: I absolutely love When Calls the Heart. You know, the Hallmark show? The Christian historical romance that borders on cheesy where everything always turns out okay? Yeah, that’s the one. It’s one of my favorites. In this show, community is about celebrating together in the good times and supporting each other through the hard times. Faith in God is the norm, and that faith actually means something. And love always finds a way. The show idyllic and wholesome and just makes me really happy every time I watch it. It’s my visual comfort food.

Last week, Chris and I very unexpectedly became foster parents for two little boys. A couple of days ago, they just as suddenly returned home to their mom. Our emotions during this time went haywire; we were terrified because we’ve never been parents and didn’t know what to do, we were thrilled with the boys themselves and fell in love with them despite our efforts not to get attached, and we were a weird mix of devastated (for us) and relieved (for them) when they went home so soon. When they left and our house felt just the slightest bit hollow, I needed to disappear into a book. But the books I’m reading currently, while they’re great books, they were darker than what I needed. So I decided to read the book that inspired my favorite feel-good show.

The book wasn’t perfect. It was stilted and felt a tad forced in places. It was different from the show that I’ve come to love, even though they shared a common name and framework. But it was exactly what I needed when I picked it up. It was short and sweet and full of love and hope and Jesus. Though Christian historical fiction is not one of my favorite genres, it’s what I tend to turn to whenever I’m going through a rough patch in my life. I love how unapologetic the characters are about their faith, and how that faith permeates their lives. I also love how faith is just an expected aspect of life in these bygone eras. And in the vast majority of the books in this genre, you go in knowing that everything is going to turn out okay, and that a happy ending is almost inevitable.

Janette Oke provided me with exactly what I needed here. It gave me some of the hope I needed when I wasn’t feeling all that hopeful. Even though I enjoy the show more than I did this book, I’ll probably continue with the series at some point.

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Posted in Books

Sense and Sensibility

Sense and SensibilitySense and Sensibility by Jane Austen
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

Rating: 2.5/5 stars

Man, am I glad that’s over. And I feel terrible for saying that.

I don’t know what my problem with the book was. I’ve really enjoyed everything I’ve read by Jane Austen. Pride and Prejudice, Emma, Northanger Abbey, Persuasion, and Lady Susan were all immersive for me, and left me feeling satisfied when I finished the last page of each. But Sense and Sensibility just let me down.

Not that it was a bad story. It really wasn’t. It even had a healthier dose of complexity and depth than many of her other works. The plot and the characters and the settings were all well crafted, and the writing was lovely as always. It’s a classic for a reason; so what was my problem here?

The humor. Or, the lack thereof. When I read Austen, what keeps me enthralled is her wit and sarcasm. Her leading ladies tend to have wonderful senses of humor, as do the majority of their love interests. But in this story we have a more stoic heroine and, though she’s an interesting character, she’s not quite as compelling as many of her fellow heroines. There were moments of humor, of course; Mrs. Jennings can be incredibly amusing, and it’s hard not to laugh at the elder Miss Steele. But the humor in this story took a distant back seat to the relationship drama, which left me feeling discontented. I struggled reading this.

Was the book terrible? Of course not. I doubt that anything Jane Austen wrote can be fairly considered awful. And I know there are people who hold this as their favorite Austen novel, and I respect their opinions. It just didn’t do it for me, unfortunately.

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Posted in Deep Thoughts, Life in General

Blessed be Your Name

Almost exactly two years ago to the day, I remember singing through tears. It was a Sunday, and I had chosen to sing “Blessed Be Your Name” at church that day. In two weeks, I would be having a complete hysterectomy. Chris and I had tried everything we could to have children, but my body was poisoning itself and we couldn’t put the surgery off any longer. I was only twenty-six. Having to come to terms with the fact that I would never feel a life growing inside of me, that I would never see how my features and Chris’s would mingle in the face of our child, was the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.

The bridge of the song I sang that morning said: “You give and take away. My heart will choose to say, ‘Lord, blessed be Your name.’” And even though it was intensely painful, I meant those words with all of my heart. God had seen us through hard times before: when Chris was diagnosed with cancer for the second time, when we quit our jobs to do music ministry only to come back home to a frozen job market and no idea how to pay our bills, and through countless other smaller hardships, God was right there with us. Now, we’re not perfect; Chris and I both got pretty mad at Him when Chris had to go through the cancer nightmare a second time. But we learned from that. We knew that God hadn’t struck him down with cancer, but that it was just a part of living in a fallen world. We realized that we missed out on deepening our relationship with God during that time in our lives, because our anger built a wall between us and Him. Because of this, we vowed to try our hardest never to shut Him out again just because we were suffering. And so far, we haven’t.

Back to the song. When I was singing this song, I knew I was entering into a “take away” period of my life. But I knew that God was right there with me, and that He mourned with me, so my heart truly did choose to say, “Lord, blessed be Your name.” Ecclesiastes says that He makes beauty from ashes, and I decided to believe that He would somehow do that for us. He’s a big God, far bigger than infertility. And if having kids wasn’t in the cards for us, I was sure that God still had big plans for our lives.

Fast-forward to this past Sunday. Once again, I was singing “Blessed Be Your Name” at church, and once again I was struggling to sing through tears. I still meant every word of the song, and sang it with every fiber of my being. But this time, instead of mourning, I was praising. I feel like we’re leaving the “take away” period and entering into a period of blessing. We never thought we would be able to afford adoption, so we had decided to just be the best aunt and uncle we could be. But God started speaking into our hearts, leading us to become certified foster/adoptive parents through the state, even though we feel no call to become foster parents. And if you’re not going to foster or adopt a teenager, the certification seems almost worthless. However, a family member has decided that he wants to cover the cost of private adoption for us, and because of the certification we received we already have a home study ready and waiting. We never dared hope we’d be able to adopt a baby, but it’s seeming more likely and more real everyday. The possibility of getting to experience first steps and first words is exciting beyond words. No, nothing is final or set in stone, but I feel more hopeful than I have since my surgery. I trust that God is working on a miracle for us.

Lord, blessed be Your name!

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Posted in Books

The Magnolia Story

The Magnolia StoryThe Magnolia Story by Chip Gaines
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have a slight addiction to HGTV. It’s not a constant addiction; it merely flares up from time to time. However, there is one HGTV show that I always watch as soon as an episode airs, and that show is Fixer Upper. I love Chip and Jo’s relationship, and the family dynamic they have with their four kids. I love seeing little snippets of their life on their farm and how Jo handles Chip’s endearing but exasperating dorkiness. I love how involved they are in their community, and how supportive they are of artisans in their area and how they do their best to promote them. I love their lifestyle, laid-back and kind of old-fashioned and unapologetically Christian but in a way that loves instead of judges. And, obviously, I love their designs, how they take a run-down house that others would bulldoze without a second thought and make it a home that is perfect for their clients.

When I saw that Chip and Jo had written a book, I honestly just picked it up because I love them and want to support them. I’m not a big nonfiction reader, so I wasn’t sure that I’d ever actually read it. But I needed something bright and positive and inspirational, and this tiny book was exactly what I was looking for. Here is a couple who has faced hardships and muscled their way through with prayer and unflagging optimism. From a really rocky start after returning from their honeymoon to becoming HGTV’s darlings, they’ve worked incredibly hard for everything they have. (They’ve never even owned a television!) What I loved most about this book was seeing the evolution of their relationship with each other, and how it’s the foundation upon which they built every aspect of their business. Even in the pages of the book, each of them was present on every page, with Chip and Jo each having their own font. It was adorable.

The Magnolia Story was so inspirational to me. It focused so much on family and helping each other follow their dreams. If something is your passion, share it with those you love most and start working to attain it. That’s not to say that there won’t be highs and lows. There will be seasons of feast and seasons of famine, seasons of celebration and seasons of mourning, in every life. Because that is life! I know personally, I appreciate the highs in life so much more for my time spent in the trenches. But sometimes that fixation on hills and valleys can lead up to putting off our dreams until the perfect moment. Forget someday; dive in now. You never know where God will take you.

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Posted in Books

Treasure Island

Treasure IslandTreasure Island by Robert Louis Stevenson
My rating: 2 of 5 stars

In the words of Italo Calvino, “a classic is a book that has never finished saying what it has to say.” These are stories that have stood the test of time, that communicate a thought or weave a tell that has touched deeply a multitude, and continues to do so decades and centuries after its inception. But that doesn’t mean that every single “classic” work of literature will strike a cord with anyone who picks it up. Unfortunately, this book is now an example of that in my life.

I wanted so badly to love Treasure Island. Here is a tale of pirates and buried treasure and gun fights and a young boy named Jim Hawkins who seems to be the center of everything. Here is the origin of Long John Silver, one of the most famous pirates in literature. This novel is one of the ultimate classic adventure stories. And yet, I couldn’t connect with Stevenson’s writing at all. For such a small book, it seemed to drag on forever, with little resolution. I just couldn’t make myself care. Jim Hawkins annoyed me, with his propensity for getting into trouble that somehow ends up saving the day. For a tale of piracy and mutiny, everything Jim “stumbled” into and out of seemed awfully convenient to me. The most three dimensional character in the book was Silver, who I’m pretty sure Stevenson never meant for his readers to like. Every single scene in the book also felt overblown to me, too fraught with emotion compared to the circumstance. I guess it just struck me as overly dramatic, like a literary soap opera from a bygone era.

While this story didn’t speak to me, that doesn’t mean it was a bad book. Classics just tend to be hit-or-miss, and though it was a miss for me, I know plenty of people who absolutely loved it. The wonderful thing about books is that we all read them differently. So don’t let me experience deter you. It just might draw you in!

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Posted in Books

When She Woke

When She WokeWhen She Woke by Hillary Jordan
My rating: 4 of 5 stars


Warning: Due to the heavy religious tone of the book, this review is going to be religious in nature and will in large part be a discussion of my faith. If you’re offended by this, please feel free to skip reading this particular review.

Some books disturb you psychologically. For authors like King and Koontz and Barker, that psychological fear is their bread and butter, and many of us will pay good money to be frightened. But then there are the books that disturb you on a moral level. A spiritual level. And often, though I’m sure not always, these books are not written with marketing in mind. These books are written because the author has something to say and will burst if they don’t get to vent their anger and concern and fear onto paper, and it doesn’t really matter to them if no one ever reads a word of it. But books like this, like 1984 and The Scarlet Letter, Brave New World and Fahrenheit 451 and The Handmaid’s Tale, will always be picked up but a like-minded reader and passed on to like-minded friends, and perhaps even friends whose minds have rusted shut at the hinges, hinges that creak open reluctantly with every page they read. Because the unknown is always questioned and feared, and what greater unknown is there than the future? If we read to know that we’re not alone, we also read (and write) to know that we’re not alone in our questions and our fears.

When She Woke disturbed me on a moral and spiritual level. Here is a society where religion is king, and has begun to mandate law. I’m a Christian. I believe that God is real, that He created everything that exists, that He is involved in our lives, that He sent His Son to die so we could have freedom and eternity, that life is sacred, that I have been blessed beyond measure, that He has been there with me in my darkest hours and that I will never have to suffer anything alone. I believe all these things with all of my heart. And yet the only thing that scares me as much as a world where religion is outlawed is a world in which religion is THE law. God created us with free will, with the inalienable right to choose for ourselves whether or not we will follow Him, and that’s a right that no government on earth should have the power to take away. To quote the book itself:

“You don’t have to stop thinking and asking questions to believe in God, child. If He’d wanted a flock of eight billion sheep, He wouldn’t have given us opposable thumbs, much less free will.”

I’m not going to get into the plot of the book itself here, though I will say that the comparison made on the back cover claiming the story is “The Scarlet Letter by way of The Handmaid’s Tale” is completely accurate. It was a well-written, thought provoking story that will stick with you long after you finish the last page, and I’m glad I read it. I will say, however, that this book made me incredibly sad. It’s hard to see your faith twisted in such a way that it ruins the lives of others, even if those lives and others are fictional. Christians can be some of the most unforgiving and judgmental people on the planet, which has to infuriate Jesus. He spent His time with fishermen and tax collectors and prostitutes and beggars, with the poor and the broken and those rejected by society. He was despised by those who should have recognized Him, and He died for it. Thankfully, that death couldn’t hold Him and He rose again three days later, but that doesn’t negate the pain and torment He endured at the hands of the very people He had come to save. And if He had chosen to come a couple thousand years later, I think He would have met the same fate; it just would have been televised. Todd Agnew wrote in one of his songs that “My Jesus would never be accepted in my church; the blood and dirt on His feet might stain the carpet.” Harsh, but true.

Jesus told His disciples on the night of His arrest, “A new commandment I give to you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” (John 13: 34-35) THAT is supposed to be how the world knows we’re Christians. Not by the words we spout or the bumper stickers on our cars or the way we look down or noses at others. And I hope and I pray every single day that people see the love of Jesus in me when I interact with them, not judgement or hatred. Because Jesus doesn’t hate. God doesn’t hate. God is love. And if we remember this, if we do our best each day to live this, then the future forecast in this book will never become a reality.

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Posted in Life in General

Changes

So, life’s been a little crazy lately. We’re now certified foster parents, and have been for a couple of months. We don’t have any kiddos yet, since we’re pretty much just looking to adopt, but we’re currently searching for the kids God has waiting for us somewhere out there. All of my friends are having babies, including my sister-in-law; my little brother is going to be a daddy come August, which is both awesome and incredibly weird. After a long hiatus, Voices of the Broken (the Christian rock band I sing and play guitar for) is starting to look for shows again. And there are other potential changes coming down the pipe soon. As crazy and, honestly, uncomfortable as changes are, I’m thankful for them. Without change, we never grow. Without change, we stagnate.

I know this blog hasn’t been seeing as many posts lately. There’s a reason for this. As you know if you’ve spent any time here, the vast majority of my posts are book reviews, because books make me happy and I like to share that with whoever I can. Which leads me to some fantastic news: I’m now a reviewer over at Booknest, an international book reviewing blog! And I’m ridiculously excited to be part of a team.

Because I’m now a reviewer at Booknest, most of my new book reviews will be posted there instead of here. That doesn’t mean that Celestial Musings is sentenced to become a ghost blog. I’ll still be posting here; I’ll just have to start making extra time to write things other than book reviews, which is something I need to do anyway. So (hopefully) soon, there should be new movie reviews, general posts on life and deep thoughts, as well as new short stories and poetry to be found here. And at the end of each month a plan to have some little blog post about the books I’ve read and loved that month, with links to my Booknest reviews. Bear with me as I work on adjusting to these changes. And if you have any topics you’d like me to consider, please feel free to message me. Happy musings!

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Posted in Books

Lincoln in the Bardo

Lincoln in the BardoLincoln in the Bardo by George Saunders
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

I wanted to love this book. I really did. And all I could manage was deciding that it was okay, that I respected the story Saunders was trying to tell and the research it required. But I just couldn’t make myself love it.

Not that there weren’t aspects of the story that I liked, because there were. There was real emotion here, deep emotion. There were philosophical questions on death and what lies beyond the grave, thoughts on war and parenthood and religion. Racism and sexism were addressed in ways that were harsh and real. Saunders also provided a plethora of quotations from various historical documents on Lincoln, on his personal life and appearance and presidency, on the state of the White House and the state of the Union while he served as Commander in Chief. And he provided readers with some great information on Willy, the poor Lincoln son who died too soon. This was Willy’s story, and Lincoln’s story, and the story of a nation represented by ghosts in a graveyard.

This all sounds like the makings of a new literary classic. And it probably is, or will be. But it fell flat for me. There were some descriptions and language that felt uncomfortably overdone, as though Saunders included them for shock value alone. (I never want to hear about a ghost’s grotesquely swollen member ever again, for example. And the Barons! Good grief at the mouths on that couple.) It could be that I’m a prude, and others probably wouldn’t be bothered as much. Also, some of the writing just felt so pretentious which is my problem with a lot of literary novels. Again, this might just be me, and I can’t put my finger on a particular example because I listened to the audiobook and thus can’t flip back through.

Speaking of the audiobook, listening instead of reading is likely the only reason I finished this. The vocal cast was phenomenal including the talents of Nick Offerman, David Sedaris, Lena Dunham, Ben Stiller, Julianne Moore, Susan Sarandon, the author himself, and many more. There were 166 voice actors in all, which is quite possibly a world record. (Penguin Random House Audio has applied to Guinness for exactly that.) And, had I not made it to the end, I would have missed a pretty great ending. Which is why I settled on three stars here. A lot of people are going to love this book. It might even be life changing for some. Just because it wasn’t for me doesn’t mean it isn’t for you.

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Posted in Books

Silence Fallen

Silence Fallen (Mercy Thompson, #10)Silence Fallen by Patricia Briggs
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

4 entertaining stars.

I don’t believe in guilty pleasures. If I enjoy something, I see absolutely reason to be embarrassed of that enjoyment. Years ago, before I came to that conclusion, Urban Fantasy was one of my guilty pleasures. Now it’s simply a genre I enjoy spending time in, especially when I need something lighter. How is it that urban fantasy is “lighter,” you might ask. Many series in the genre, such as the Dresden Files and the Hollows and the Mercy Thompson series, of which this book is one, follow the misadventures of one particular individual over the span of multiple small books. So going in, I am almost certain that the main character is going to be okay, no matter what happens. It’s like visiting an old friend, hearing about terrible situations they had found themselves in some time past, but because they’re here now, telling you the story, you know everything must’ve worked out alright. So, compared to epic fantasy where even central characters are fair game, visiting the urban fantasy genre is fairly relaxing.

Mercy, our coyote shapeshifter and VW mechanic who pals around with werewolves and vampires and all manner of other paranormal creatures, is always getting into trouble. In her defense, it’s often through no fault of her own. And Mercy is not some hapless, helpless damsel, waiting for some man to come to her rescue. This little coyote can save herself, thank you. In this book, the tenth in the series, she finds herself in Europe, cut off from her wolfpack and, worst of all, her husband. This installment was a bit different from its predecessors, providing both Mercy and Adam’s perspectives, instead of staying focused on Mercy. Seeing the different sides of the story was a fun change.

All in all, this was an entertaining and comfortable read. There weren’t many surprises, but that’s exactly what draws me back to the story; knowing that everything is going to turn out alright is a good thing sometimes. Also, there was a recurring Doctor Who reference as well as a brief Star Wars reference, which made my little nerd heart happy. Now, excuse me while I go prowl the internet for news of Mercy’s next adventure.

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Posted in Books

Malice

Malice (The Faithful and the Fallen, #1)Malice by John Gwynne
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

4.5 stars, rounded up. (Half-star taken off for a slow start. But man, did that ever change.)

Move over, Martin, because Gwynne is here to steal yo’ girl.

The A Game of Thrones comparisons here are completely understandable. As in Martin’s series, there is a varied cast of characters from whose perspectives we witness this story unfold. There is no time travel here, no resurrection for those who die. Death is final, and it is an equal opportunity reaper, not caring how good or bad a person is, how likable, or how important. As with Martin’s work, no one is truly safe here.

However, Gwynne has already surpassed Martin in my mind, even though I’ve thus far only read this, Gwynne’s first novel. (Side note: I do really like A Song of Ice and Fire. This is in no way me dissing Martin. So don’t yell at me.) Martin is a king of backstory and plot twists, but Gywnne was far more successful in crafting characters that I care about. They aren’t just well polished pieces on a chess board; they breathe. The love and are loved and fight and mourn and laugh and rage. These people are as real as ink and page can produce. Their physical appearances aren’t touched on much, but I was actually okay with that. The characters took on the features of people in my life who shared their personality traits, causing me to care even more about their well being.

I also really appreciated Gywnne’s choice of setting. The Banished Lands weren’t overwhelmingly large, and I enjoyed the smaller scope of the story because of decision. The effects of disagreements between kingdoms was more immediately felt than in a larger fictional land like Westeros. And the Scottish feel of the setting, of the society, of the names, was wonderful. It gave a weight to the story that some fantasy series that focus more on unique setting and societal norms tends to lack, in my opinion. The many kings of small neighboring kingdoms, the importance of and methods of warring, the names of both places and people, all whispered of Scotland as I read, but with enough differences to plant this solidly in the fantasy genre. As far as I know, there aren’t actually giants or wyrms or saber-toothed wolves in Scotland.

Something else than made an impression on me was the mythos of the Banished Lands. The creation myth, beginning with the God-War. Asroth, Elyon’s beloved first-created and captain of the Ben-Elim, sowed seeds of discord and split the heavenly host. When Asroth was defeated, he turned his hatred on Elyon’s new creation: man. He wreaked havoc and Elyon, in his rage, almost destroyed the world. The He realized what He had done and almost done, He grieved. In the aftermath, Elyon vanished, turning His back on all creation to mourn. The Ben-Elim still seek to protect it, out of love for their Creator, while their fallen brethren still work toward destruction. The Judeo-Christian influence here is overwhelming, and I loved contemplating the theology here. The parallels are fantastic; Elyon is even a Hebrew name for God, meaning “Most High.” I don’t believe that He has abandoned us, as I’ve felt His presence in my life, but I understand how His disappearance works better for the story Gwynne is telling here. The Bright Star/Black Sun prophecy was also a big draw for me, the Bright Star as savior and the Black Sun as antichrist. The idea of a Chosen One is a trope as old as storytelling itself, but it was deftly handled here, and gave me all kinds of theological and philosophical goodies to chew on as I read.

One other thing Gywnne did incredibly well was present a wide variety of relationships. We were given fantastic friendships, mortal enemies, beautifully close families, and their dysfunctional counterparts. We see kings interact with subjects, warriors interact with their leaders and each other, and mentors training younger generations. And best of all, we see some incredible kinship between man and beast. The animals in this book had so much personality, and their relationships with their humans was beautiful to behold. Family was so important in this story, whether that family was formed by blood or bond, and some of these animals were truly part of an amazing family.

I’ve read some truly stunning debut novels in the past, but the best of them are standalones, and sometimes it’s many years before the author puts out another book. If ever. And often that next book is a letdown after the masterpiece that was their first book. But rarely have I read a debut as fantastic as this one that was the first in a series. A series that I have it on good authority only improves with each successive book. I am undeniably impressed. Congratulations, Mr. Gwynne; you’ve earned yourself another fan.

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