Sunday, May 17, 2015

The Happy Christian by David Murray

A few months ago, before the wretchedness of another freezing cold winter finally melted into the beautiful spring I see outside as I write this, I did something I don't do a whole lot of, I accepted a Christian book for review.  It probably doesn't make any sense for my blog, I don't share a lot about my Christian faith here, even though it undoubtedly means a lot to me and is at the heart of who I am (and want to be!), so I know I probably don't have a big audience for such a review here.  That said, I am a Christian, and this past winter I was struggling with unhappiness in a major way for no especially apparent reason, so when the pitch for The Happy Christian: Ten Ways to Be a Joyful Believer in a Gloomy World appeared in my mailbox, I suspected it could be just the sort of book I could benefit from reading.  I don't intend to preach at anybody, but I hope you'll bear with me while I share about a good book that's not my usual fare.

It's tough to be happy, even in a time and place where a lot of people have relatively more peace, more wealth, and more freedom than ever.  We live in a world where, thanks to the 24 hour news cycle, we can be bombarded by bad news literally all the time.  Time or distance no longer separate us from the pain of the world at large, which is great if we can pray and even physically lend a hand, but can also lead to sense of hopelessness as images of catastrophe and injustice come to us from all over the world.  Even without that, there's our own brains that start to work against us, trained from a young age to critique and pick out the bad and set about the project of correcting it, it's not always easy for us to zoom in on the good in any situation.  In our daily race against the clock to accomplish all the things on our to do list before another day is lost, it's all too easy to get down and depressed about all the things we're not doing and all the less than ideal situations we can't fix until pessimism is always the order of the day.  Murray observes all this in The Happy Christian and then gets down to applying gospel truths and modern positive psychology in a series of "formulas" meant to help us escape from the downward spiral of hopelessness it's too easy to get trapped in.

Murray's decision to marry up psychology with biblical teaching is an interesting and effective one.  Murray's chapters are filled with the scientific value of optimism, prescriptions for how much negativity can be mixed with positivity to still live a hopeful, happy life, and scientific evidence for the daily practice of more positive habits that can be exercised by Christians in conjunction with their faith.  In the course of it all, Murray makes a good case for how modern positive psychology is is right in line with God's will and promise for our lives.

Though I appreciated the psychology aspect, I was much more in tune with the chapters that leaned more on biblical teaching.  The chapter about our daily duel with our to-do lists that always ends in disappointment was cast in a different light when Murray reminds readers that Jesus's work, the hardest and most important, is already done.  Additionally, the chapter about taking more joy in our work by doing everything with passion and honesty to the glory of God, and how that can give meaning and purpose to even the most insignificant of jobs, really hit home.  Murray even closes with a very prescient topic for this day and age: diversity.  In this chapter he makes a great case for God's desire to reach all nations and for how diversifying our communities and our churches is key in future joy as we each stand to reap the benefits of plugging in every race and culture's strengths into a united church.

On the whole, I was impressed and encouraged by Murray's book and came away with some great insights.  Additionally, I was impressed that Murray, in addition to providing solid reasoning and theology, took the next step and provided readers of The Happy Christian with practical and often biblical ways to start introducing more hope and positivity into our lives, a practical aspect missing from too many Christian books.  I'd encourage anybody who is wondering why happiness seems to be a little too hard to hold onto, to give Murray's book a read and hope that it changes your perspective the way it changed mine.
Whatever you will complete or not today, rest in the only work that will never need to be done again.  Rest in the fact that Jesus has done the most impossible job in the world, done it perfectly, and made it available.  Take it.  Enjoy it.  Build your life on it.  Let it change your whole view of your life and work.  Use His work to put your work in perspective.  Believe His work is counted as yours.  Despite all that you fear and dread about the next ten hours - a critical boss, a vicious competitor, a looming deadline, a complaining customer, an impossible sales target, unrelenting children, monotonous drudge - you have Christ's perfect work credited to your account.  Yes, it is counted as yours, as if you did it.  Are you humble enough to receive it?

(Thanks to the publisher for providing me with a free copy for review consideration.)

Sunday, May 10, 2015

Loose Leafing: Reading, Mommies, and a Giveaway!

It's been a week, I'll tell you.  I screwed up my back like I do last Sunday and spent the week recovering at a glacial pace that's still glaciering a long even now.  Luckily (?), I have a job where I can work from home if the situation calls for it, and the situation called for it all week long.  The only upside of the busted spine situation is how much extra reading time it afforded me.  Happily, just as I was destroying my spine, I was also starting a run of great books.  The Sunshine Crust Baking Factory by Stacy Wakefield, Girl Underwater by Claire Kells, and Those Who Save Us by Jenna Blum have kept me great company this week, distracting me from the misery of a major spine failure.  I'll write more about these after my spine heals a bit more and I find my missing blogging mojo.

Until, then, there are still more exciting things lurking in this post.  It's Mother's Day!  I'm not one, but I have one, so I'll be spending today celebrating her and my grandmother as well.  One of the things I'm the most grateful for about my mom is that she's a big reader, too!  We enable each other's book habits by pointing out the sales on and traveling to all the area library book sales, where we usually get more books than we can carry.

In honor of all the mothers who read, I've got a great giveaway from Penguin/Viking for a few titles they think will be big hits with moms.  I haven't read any of them yet (for shame!), but I'm excited to do so (as long as I don't have to hurt my back again to do it - LOL)!

I've got a copy of each of the following to give away (one winner for each book to increase your odds of winning!):

The Invention of Wings by Sue Monk Kidd - Freshly released in paperback, I know this novel based on the life of abolitionist and suffragist Sarah Grimke has been a favorite of a several of my blogging friends.

One Plus One by Jojo Moyes - A bunch of bloggers also loved this one, which is about a down on her luck mom taking her kids on an ill-fated road trip to the Math Olympiad, who finds an unlikely rescuer along the way.

Cut Me Loose by Leah Vincent - I haven't heard as much about, but it sounds interesting. It’s a memoir of a young woman’s self-destructive spiral after being cast out by her ultra-Orthodox Jewish family.

You can enter to win one of these books in the form below until next Sunday, May 17th at 8 PM EST.  The publisher is doing the shipping, so I'm afraid the giveaway is U.S. only.

Is your mom a reader?  If so, did you get her a great book this year?

Thursday, May 7, 2015

In a World Just Right by Jen Brooks

When Jonathan Aubrey was just a young boy, his family was involved in a plane crash that he miraculously survived.  Growing up an orphan in his inattentive Uncle Joey's house, Jonathan discovered he had a power - a power to make worlds from his own imagination, worlds that he could actually travel to and leave the pain of the world he knows behind.  Smart, beautiful track star Kylie Simms is the girl of Jonathan's dreams, but untouchable in the real world, where Jonathan is all but invisible.  It doesn't matter, though, because Jonathan has created a mirror world of his own, one where Kylie loves him unconditionally, one where he has friends and runs track and lives the "normal" life that he might have had.  Everything is going along okay in Jonathan's worlds until the day he mistakes one world for the other and approaches the real Kylie for a kiss.  All the sudden, everything Jonathan thought he knew about his life and his power is called into question, and maybe none of Jonathan's worlds are quite what they've always seemed.

I really enjoyed In a World Just Right.  It starts out as a sweet, if misguided, romance between a boy who's lost everything and the girl of his imagination.  Then it morphs into a much more intriguing story as the mystery behind Jonathan's power to create parallel worlds for himself is uncoiled and the implications of it for the worlds he manipulates becomes startlingly clear.  Jonathan is a sympathetic character, wishing to blend in and forget in the real world but desperately wanting to be a hero or the boy he could have been in the worlds he creates.  He's very realistically drawn, not ruined by the tragedy of his life, but always existing with an unspeakable grief just below the surface.

The best part of the book, however, is the end.  I wouldn't for a moment chance spoiling it for anybody, but I will tell you that I was surprised, I ugly cried, and it made a middle of the road romance with magical leanings blossom into something much more profound.  Brooks' debut is everything I'd hoped and more, a pitch perfect novel about love that shows up in many forms and the courage it takes to face every day in the real world.

(Thanks to the author for providing an advance copy for my honest review.)

Monday, May 4, 2015

Acceleration by Graham McNamee

Acceleration was a great little YA book for me to indulge in while I was taking part in an activity that I very rarely do, reading more than one book at once.  I know some of your jaws just dropped, but I, my friends, do, in fact, try to maintain book monogamy.  I've found it helps me enjoy the book I'm reading more and read it quicker.

On occasion, however, one wants to read some non-narrative non-fiction and needs brief and less brain intensive breaks to intersperse with it. Acceleration, a book a lifted from my mom's bookshelves that probably comes with the high recommendation of some enthusiastic BookTuber I've never watched, was just the ticket.  Thanks, mystery BookTuber!

Acceleration is the short tale of Duncan, who lives in a low rent apartment block in Toronto called "The Jungle" and has secured, for the long hot summer, a job rooting through the lost and found objects of the Toronto transit authority.  Among the assorted and unexpected detritus left behind on subways and city buses, Duncan uncovers the diary of a man who Duncan supposes is a serial killer, or at least about to become one.

Faced with police that don't seem to care and a desire to atone for the last time he failed to be a hero, Duncan feels a responsibility to seek out the author of the morbid book.  As the summer wears on, Duncan and his friend Vinny embark on an ill-advised quest to find the near-felon that has haunted Duncan's thoughts ever since he laid eyes on the book.  In the end, of course, Duncan gets much more than he bargained for when he decided to take the law into his own hands.

The first thought I had upon finishing Acceleration is that, in a world where a lot of YA seems to cater to a female audience, Acceleration is definitely a book that would hold a strong appeal for boys.  It's a short, quick-reading mystery populated with well-written and believable male characters out to prove their worth in a world that doesn't promise much to them.  For me, it required a bit more suspension of disbelief than I had to offer, but for its target audience, there is more than enough realism to satisfy.

Acceleration is also a great book for all the Criminal Minds fans out there.  McNamee, it seems, wrote an interesting mystery about profiling serial killers before profiling serial killers became big entertainment.  Along with offering a fast-moving story, McNamee introduces the basics of criminal profiling in a way that is instructive without being boring.  While Acceleration probably won't be in the running for my favorite book of the year, Duncan's world, for one summer at least, is vivid and dangerous and makes for quick, enjoyable reading that is still highly recommendable. 

Thursday, April 16, 2015

Just Listen by Sarah Dessen

Hola, blog readers!  I have, once again, drifted into absentee bloggerism.  I do this sometimes. 
Sometimes I just get tired or busy or tired and busy or tired of being at the computer in my spare time when I'm at it all the time for work.  Sometimes I become a good reader and read books with reckless abandon to the exclusion of the blogging.  I'd like to think this has been one of those times.  Also, I've been, you know, tired....and busy.

The laws of random reading for the decision-impaired nearly landed me in a reading funk about a month ago.  The randomizer picked and I dutifully began and discarded a couple of books, which is good in the grand scheme of "I have ever so many books and must get rid of some, but also I read at a glacial pace" things, but not so great because after a few in a row, you're like, "Uh oh, do I just not like books right now?  Any books?"  Happily, just as I was reaching my saturation point with not liking books, the randomizer awarded me Just Listen by Sarah Dessen.  I won't say I'm a crazed Sarah Dessen fangirl - honestly I found Dreamland to be kind of a disappointment as far as YA issue novels go, but I had a fantastic experience with The Truth About Forever, so I was happy when Just Listen's number came up.

When I got to my own face, I found myself starting at it, so bright, with dark all around it, like it was someone I didn't recognize.  Like a word on a page that you've printed and read a million times, that suddenly looks strange or wrong, foreign, and you feel scared for a second, like you've lost something, even if you're not sure what it is.

Annabel Greene is the girl who has everything, or at least she plays one on TV.  When the commercial she features in starts popping up on TV screens, Annabel feels like she couldn't be less like the smiling girl in the pictures who is having the perfect high school experience.  Instead, something happened during the summer that she can't talk about, that is the talk of the school, that has sent all her best friends packing to avoid becoming a social pariah like Annabel.  Things are no better at home where her mother is struggling with depression, her middle sister is recovering from anorexia, and Annabel has no choice but to maintain the facade to keep her precarious family's boat from rocking.

Instead of letting the truth out, Annabel is limping through her senior year friendless and sick with worry.  That is, of course, until she meets the guy.  Owen Armstrong's not exactly a social butterfly either.  He's got kind of a frightening reputation for anger and a habit of always using his headphones to block out the world, but it turns out broody, honest to a fault Owen is the only one who can rescue Annabel from her own act and help her tell the truth, even to herself.

There is definitely something special about a Sarah Dessen book.  It's not that I relate terribly much to her trying-to-be-perfect teenage main characters or expect that an unexpected guy will always come to the rescue when life goes south.  However, Dessen does a great job of turning a "perfect" untouchable girl into a normal person with normal problems whose life isn't as great as it seems.  Annabel's life, in ways, is perfectly typical, filled with sisters who are rivals; loving, if distracted, parents; and a childhood friend or two who got dropped along the way.  It's that true-to-life high school experience that really helps Dessen's characters jump off the page and become truly lovable.

The romance that brings an unlikely couple together is satisfying, but more importantly serves as a way to draw out Annabel's character and her coming of age story.  Admittedly, Dessen books have a bit of a formula to them, but I think it's a great formula, and when Annabel finally comes to terms with her secrets, I was crying right along with her. Just Listen is a touching, satisfying romance with a musical bent and a main character who is learning just how much the truth can set her free.

There comes a time in every life when the world gets quiet and the only thing left is your own heart.  So you'd better learn to know the sound of it.  Otherwise you'll never understand what it's saying.