Top Ten Reads of 2016

To begin the new year with a theme of gratitude and celebration (and because I really, really, really like to share my favorite books), I’ve compiled a list of the ten most beloved books I’ve read this year which I will present to you in countdown fashion.

*Disclaimer: While most of these books are recent releases, they were not all published in 2016. That was merely the year they were discovered and read by me. Sorry if I’m late to the bandwagon.

978176015357110) See How They Run: Ally Carter

“But guilt isn’t smart. It isn’t logical. It doesn’t only live in the places it belongs.”

I love me some Ally Carter and, while I was not quite sold on the first book in this series (due to some vital revelations that come far too late in the story for my personal preference), See How They Run more than made up for it. Now that I fully understood Grace’s character, I was far more sympathetic to her plight. Take a broken teenage girl and put her smack dab in the center of some international espionage? Yes, please.

 

9) Out of Sorts: Sarah Besseyout-of-sorts

“In most of my church tradition, no one ever mentioned the holy work of staying.”

My mother loaned me this book with the disclaimer that she did not agree with all of the theology. While the author shared a few thoughts I questioned, this book overall was such a beautiful, thought-provoking read about sorting through our questions, reshaping our beliefs, and becoming a better Jesus-follower through it all. Plus, the author gives a shoutout to the holy work of staying, and naturally that knocked me off my feet this year.

 

bff-bucket-list-9109319-high-res-687x10248) The BFF Bucket List: Dee Romito

This review may be a little biased because the author won me over with sponge candy and Scrivener tips long before I read her words in print. Or maybe it’s merely a fact that Dee’s writing is as amazing as she is. The BFF Bucket List is an adorable coming-of-age story about two friends who are growing up and growing apart and trying to salvage their life-long friendship. Not only is this book cute, clever, and funny, it also teaches a valuable lesson about friendship that even full-grown girls need to realize.

 

velvet-undercover7) Velvet Undercover: Teri Brown

This novel is a page-turner, no doubt about it. Just when I thought I had the situation figured out, the author would turn the tables on me and leave me questioning the things I thought I believed. This book is a cute, simple read that maintains an air of mystery. Definitely worth your time.

 

the-kiss-of-deception6) The Kiss of Deception: Mary E. Pearson

“The truths of the world wish to be known, but they won’t force themselves upon you the way lies will.”

Forget the fact that the title sounds like a bad romance novel, The Kiss of Deception is a brilliant work of art. The story follows Princess Lia as she flees an arranged marriage. A few weeks later, two strangers walk into the tavern where she now works. One is the jilted prince, the other is an assassin sent to kill her. And you, the reader, get to spend a couple hundred pages trying to figure out which one is which. Most amazing part of this book: the way it continues to grasp the reader’s interest even after the big reveal. Read it now. Thank me later.

 

3192645) I Don’t Wait Anymore: Grace Thornton

“We weren’t made to want mundane. We were made to want more. And there’s a reason for that… There is more to be had.”

When I published Beyond Waiting, people seemed all too eager to shove singleness articles my way. The only one that matched my stance on the subject was Grace Thornton’s I Don’t Wait Anymore. That article became a book this year and its message sings to this single girl’s soul. Take Grace’s advice, dear friends. Don’t wait.

 

A Gathering of Shadows Final4) A Gathering of Shadows: Victoria Schwab

“…getting close to death is the only way to feel alive. And once you do, it makes you realize that everything you were doing before wasn’t actually living. It was just making due.”

What? My favorite author only made #4? That’s for the cliffhanger ending, Victoria. Seriously, guys, I’m not even going to begin to tell you all the things I love about this book. Victoria Schwab is no fluffy writer. In addition to telling a compelling story, she ponders the deep things, the hard things, the monsters no one else wants to face. And I love her for it.

 

spinningstarlight3) Spinning Starlight: R.C. Lewis

“That’s the point of art… It reminds us that thinking is well and good, but feeling is what makes us alive.”

Any rendition of The Wild Swans is deserving of my attention. Any rendition that is flawlessly executed is worthy of a five-star review. Because honestly, how does one go about retelling the story of boys who live as swans by night and the sister who cannot speak lest she destroy them? This is how. R.C. Lewis has managed to accomplish something even Disney has not figured out: staying close enough to the original story to do Hans Christian Andersen proud.

 

51wvnwplbbl2) It’s Not You: 27 (Wrong) Reasons You’re Single: Sara Eckel

“What if the only reason you’re alone is you just haven’t met your partner yet?”

In this clever little handbook for the single woman, Sara Eckel combats all the well-known “reasons” people are single with a healthy dose of realism. If you ever need a pick-me-up that is not completely overboard with the “yay you, single-woman-hear-you-roar” statements, this is book for you. Every page is quotable, and the message Sara delivers is truth.

 

1) My Lady Jane: Cynthia Hand, Brodi Ashton, Jodi Meadows

my-lady-jane-by-collected-authors“For everyone who knows there was enough room for Leonardo DiCaprio on that door. And for England. We’re really sorry for what we’re about to do to your history.”

As a child, I loved the cartoon Hysteria—a series that twisted history into humor and distorted many of the facts in favor of more fun alternatives. My Lady Jane is the novel version of Hysteria. I cannot remember the last time I devoured a book with such delight. I giggled. I squealed. I mentally high-fived the authors for references to classics such as Shakespeare, Monty Python, and The Princess Bride. Ladies, you had me at the dedication. I can only hope to see more books like this in the future.

 

 

 

 

 

 

2016: The Side Effects of Living

I have never met a year so widely despised as 2016. Every time I get online it seems there is something new to blame on that silly string of numbers: Dear 2016, why you gotta do me like that?

This whole year, according to the internet, has been the worst. It has been one thing after another, tragedy upon tragedy. A girl can’t even catch her breath. People are counting down the days until the year is over, praying 2017 brings relief from the horror.

I understand. I’ve spent the majority of this year striving against the hardships, wishing for a different kind of life than the one I’m living now.

It’s easy, I think, to focus on the tragedies. Why is it that bad things seem so much more substantial than the good?

Because if I take a step back to see this year for all it has held—triumph, tragedy, and everything in between—2016 has had its fair share of beautiful moments. In fact, one might even say that 2016 was Bucket List material.

In 2016, I tried snowboarding for the first time. When I wasn’t any good at that, I tried skiing instead. And since I was already well on my way to the Winter Olympics, I took figure skating classes and learned how to twirl. I’m still a little ungraceful and haven’t managed a waltz jump yet, but I’ve accomplished my goal of dancing on ice.

I’ve had random first-time adventures with friends. Like eating out of a taco truck with Dave, rolling down that huge hill at the Reservoir with Makayla, and letting Stephen steer me around a pond in a little rowboat with a motor attached.

I went to Mexico.

I got my first apartment.

I finally learned to hold my own in Call of Duty.

I met the New York Times Bestselling Author that I’ve been following since the unsung Book One.

I read an unpublished manuscript and told the author how she could make it stronger. (Y’all remember the name Annie Sullivan. Her stories are going to be on shelves one day and you don’t want to miss out.)

I visited the Columbus Museum of Art.

I fired an official FBI handgun.

I completed my Goodreads Reading Challenge with four days to spare.

I gained a niece, a nephew, a sister-in-law, and four perfect little cousins.

How could I ever convince myself that 2016 was anything less than beautiful?

Because I wrenched my knee while attempting to snowboard?

Because I sprawled out across the ice more times than I care to count?

Because I failed at crossovers and spent an afternoon limping through Walmart?

Because I missed a whole string of flights and spent the night in the Charlotte airport?

Because the latest draft of my novel is not anywhere close to where the story needs to be?

Because I don’t have any control over what is going on in the world around me?

These are mere side effects of being alive in the world. But I am alive, and that’s a gift. If I fail at something it means that I’ve tried. If I keep persisting it means that I’m slowly getting better.

I can look at this year and hate it for all the ways it was not so good, or I can choose to celebrate the moments where I accomplished something, no matter how small.

Personally, I’m going to choose joy. I’m going to choose thankfulness. I’m going to choose celebration.

No, I am not out of the woods yet, but you know what? It’s kind of magical here.

While I’m not much of one for New Year’s Resolutions or the ever-popular Word of the Year, I think it’s safe to say I’ll be making gratitude a theme for 2017.

Because I am tired of living a life this full while letting myself believe that it’s empty.

Here’s to 2016.

Here’s to a lifetime of moments such as these.

And here’s to learning to cherish them.

A Jump in My Waltz

My instructors failed to tell me how quickly I had advanced before I signed up for this last round of figure skating lessons, so I signed up for a class that is below my skill level. My classmates consist of four middle-aged women who are only just learning to navigate the ice. Naturally they are impressed by my simplest of spins.

“It must be easier when you’re young,” the oldest of my classmates observed. “You’re probably not afraid of falling.”

If I were not afraid of falling, I would be jumping by now.

I didn’t say the words aloud. I’m not even sure I could have forced them from my dumbstruck mind if I had tried. Because as I sat there with the words tucked safely within my thoughts, I wondered if they were true. Is my fear of falling the only thing keeping my blades on the ice? Could it be as simple and yet as complicated as a mind game?

My instructors seem to believe so. I hear their voices filtering through my thoughts.

Elaine: “You’re holding back.”

Austin: “You’re overthinking it.”

Gary: “It’s all in your head.”

It is not “all in my head,” there’s quite a bit in my uncoordinated feet, too.

(For whatever reason, Gary has always been the easiest to argue with.)

But the truth remains that I am afraid of falling. I don’t like sprawling across the ice. I am not fond of limping through Walmart after a particularly grueling lesson. And while purple is one of my favorite colors, I’d rather not see it blooming in bruises across my knee.

As far as I’ve come since I first walked into the Chiller and strapped my mom’s old skates to my feet, I have definitely not arrived. I still don’t fully trust my skates, or my feet, or my balance.

So I hold back. I overthink it. I go through all the motions, but I still won’t put a jump in my waltz. Because I’m afraid the landing might be painful. What is meant to be a three-step routine—waltz, waltz, jump—turns into an endless cycle of waltzing in circles thinking this time I might risk it.

But I never do.

And it’s not only on ice that I feel this way. I let fear cripple me in just about every aspect of life.

My heart says to take the risk, make the leap.

My mind asks, “But what if I fall?”

I think too far ahead. I analyze every possible movement. I worry over the ending before I’ve even begun.

I waltz and waltz and waltz in continuous circles never finding the courage to jump.

When it comes to making the great leaps in life, we could all use a change of perspective.

You could fall. You really could. You could collect a few more bruises, leaving you to limp through life another day more.

Or you could stick the landing. You really could. And just think of how glorious that will be.

Some questions will never be answered until we take that leap.

“But what if I fall?”

Oh, but darling, what if you don’t?

What if you land this? What if you check right into that perfect glide?

Let us all be brave enough to put a little jump in our waltz.

Stay

“In most of my church tradition, no one ever mentioned the holy work of staying.”

One minute I’m kicked back in my chair and the next I am scrambling upright, paying rapt attention to the book in my hands, trying to get closer to these words and the way they sing over this current season of my life.

I’ve never been one to pick a word of the year, but I selected one quite by accident on the first day of 2016. I thought the word was Fearless, only redefined. The kind of Fearless that makes you Stay when all you really want to do is Pack Up and Go.

“By all means, be Fearless,” I’ve whispered to myself while tucked into the darkened corners of 2016, “Just make sure it’s the Staying kind.”

So I read on, wanting to know what else Sarah Bessey had to say about the holy work of Staying.

“It’s a different kind of fearless,” she wrote.

I flailed. I squealed. I scrambled for my phone so I could Instagram the moment into a mantra for the masses. (It is 2016, after all.)

The girl who penned that blog post on the first of the year did not know what it meant to Stay. She knew Fearless only in the form of jumping on a plane and traveling to foreign lands and adventure is out there if only you are willing to chase it. Those things didn’t scare her the way they did many others. She felt quite content and at ease walking the streets of Mumbai and clasping hands with little, beggar children.

But ask her to Stay… Ask her to Stay and she trembles like a leaf trying to free itself from its mother branch, hoping to abandon herself to the whims of the wind. Why would she want to remain anchored to the tree when she could go for a swim along a breeze?

Hannah Brencher likens Staying to a monster that hides in the closet once you hit adulthood. She showed up in my inbox just this morning to remind me of how scared we all are of that word. And here I thought it was just me.

But it’s not just me. Sarah Bessey and Hannah Brencher stepped in to say, “Me, too. I’m learning how to be the Staying Kind of Fearless, too.”

Maybe you’re there with us. If so, welcome to the club.

The worst thing we can ever do to ourselves is believe that it’s just us. That we are alone in the world. That no one else has words that they give teeth and claws. That no one else pulls the blankets up over their heads to hide from the monsters we fear. That the monsters are entirely our own and no one else finds them as terrifying as we do.

I dedicated 2016 to becoming the Staying Kind of Fearless, but I didn’t really want to. If I am going to be perfectly honest, all I’ve wanted all along was to Pack Up and Go. I’ve looked to the heavens more times than I can count, asking, “Why am I still here?”

Because this isn’t what I wanted for myself. I never wanted to unlace my world traveling shoes and settle into Smalltown, USA.

But I stayed. Maybe I’ve been more begrudging than fearless, but I’m still here. And I’m showing up where I’m at, and being present in the moment, and learning to go deeper instead of wider. I’m realizing that maybe I don’t need to leave pieces of myself scattered across the globe; maybe I just need to throw my whole self into one place.

Staying is the kind of ministry that takes a vulnerability I have never learned. But I am learning now. Slowly, but surely I am figuring out what it means to be the Staying Kind of Fearless. Even if, for now, that requires sorting through a whole bundle of fear.

Hunting Unicorns

“You are far more complex than I realized.”

I shrug in response to the statement. “People are complex.”

“No,” he says. “People are not that complex. You are.”

But people are that complex. Every single human being that walks this earth consists of many layers, multiple facets. Whether we are lovers of fairytales who are the furthest thing from romantics (Who, me?) or admirers of magic living in an ordinary, mundane world, we are all walking contradictions. Some of us just don’t realize it yet.

Me? I’m a writer—an artist, if you will—and artists tend to delve deeper into life than most people dare to go. That doesn’t mean the others are not capable of such feats; it simply means they haven’t been curious enough to explore.

Sometimes I consider how simple my life might be if I had never left this town. I have tried (and failed) to wrap my mind around what it would be like to have gotten married right out of high school and given birth to those six kids my childhood self thought I wanted. What would I think and feel and believe had I settled for what was right in front of me and never explored the expanse of the world?

I think I could be quite happy there, in my simple life, not knowing any different. Because, you know what they say: ignorance is bliss. I, however, never afforded myself that luxury. I reached for something bigger, deeper, different.

I got a taste of the world and now I cannot go back to being a small town girl. It’s a beautiful thing; it’s a terrible thing. It’s where I am right now.

And last night, my current predicament led to a long conversation with a middle aged man about how I am a genuine, one-of-a-kind, there-is-no-one-else-even-remotely-like-me-in-the-world. Despite my protests that I am not “looking” for anyone, thank you very much, he insists that I am looking for something that does not exist. There are no such thing as unicorns, he says.

At this point in the conversation, I am still more amused than annoyed, so I smirk. “You think I should settle for a horse and just glue a piece of antler on his head?”

Herein lies the real problem with people who tell you that you need to lower the impossible standards they imagine you to have: they are never clear about where the mysterious line is drawn. What is the perfect amount of compromise? Where do my standards switch from high to impossible?

I am still trying to figure out why in the blazes that if what I want is this…

unicorn-dimensions-unicorns-17788267-1024-768

…I should have to settle for this?

grinch2bdog2bfallen2bwith2bantlers

(I’m sorry, Max, that’s not fair. I love you. You are my favorite. But you are not a unicorn or a reindeer. You are a dog—the very best of dogs. Keep being a dog.)

I’m going to be honest here. I don’t think I demand anything unreasonable out of life. I want to write books, but they don’t have to be number one bestsellers (although I obviously would not complain if they were). I want to bounce around the world for years to come and maybe have a flight experience where nothing is delayed or cancelled or otherwise complicated. And if I ever do get married, I just want it to be to someone who thinks and feels about the world the same way I do.

If I am looking, it is for someone to share in an adventure. I don’t want a small life. I don’t want safe, comfortable, or conventional. I don’t want the shallow, the superficial, or the daily grind. I want to always search bigger, dig deeper, and see beyond what most people dare to dream.

Perhaps what I want is unreasonable after all—a life lived entirely Beyond Reason. A life fully abandoned to faith. And trust. And perhaps a touch of pixie dust.

Honestly, I’ll be okay if I never find a unicorn, so long as the journey is magical.

My Idea of Church

I went to church last weekend. I gathered in a circle with twenty-some people and we shared our stories. We laughed together, encouraging one another, but we also made sure to point out where each person could grow better, stronger, bolder.

It was a time to hear and be heard. To grow and help grow. A time when everyone was excited and accepting and eager for more. A time to let down our walls, exposing pieces of our souls to strangers. A time to fall in love with those strangers because of it.

“This is the way church is supposed to be,” I thought.

But, of course, I can’t remember the last time church has looked like this for me. Because this experience I had last weekend didn’t take place in a sanctuary; it took place in a Student Center at Ball State University. We weren’t talking about Jesus; we were talking about writing.

And before you ask, yes, that is a spiritual experience for me.

I carried it with me—this definition of church—through the remainder of the weekend. You might think it would be hard to even consider a word so sacred and spiritual while playing Cards Against Humanity, but that’s where it hit me the hardest. As the owner of this filthy game struggled to remain somewhat respectful for the sake of her good little Catholic companion, it was hard to imagine anything but the Holy Spirit at work.

Because that’s what blew my mind. That we were so very different at our cores and yet… Our experiences didn’t matter. Our worldview didn’t matter. Our politics and religion and culture didn’t matter. We were all storytellers, and that bound us together in a way that would be impossible in any natural realm.

I wish I knew of an actual church that worked like that. Maybe then I’d make an effort on Sunday mornings. Maybe then I wouldn’t find myself wishing for excuses on Wednesday nights. Maybe then church would actually make a difference in my life, rather than be that mandatory thing on my schedule.

I’m sorry to say that is what church has become in my life—an obligation.

In the movie Evil Roy Slade, the protagonist is a villain who falls in love with a pretty girl and decides to abandon his lifetime of crime. Only he has a hard time leaving the past in the past. One day, Roy has a relapse and confesses to his beloved Betsy, “My idea of a 9 to 5 job is 9 men robbing 5 men.”

I think my idea of church is comparable. Not because I believe in robbing people, but because my idea in itself is so drastically different than the cultural norm and, frankly, a lot more exciting than a church built on tradition.

Because if church looked anything like that circle of writers clutching pages of their stories within their trembling hands, I would feel differently about it. I would crave it like I crave waking up to Jacqueline Faber’s manuscript in my inbox. (Let’s make that a reality, Jacqueline.)

I do crave it. Not church as it is, but church as it should be. Church like my writing community. Because, I swear, if someone would talk to me about Jesus the way my coworker talked to me about Anita Blake the other night, I would be on a spiritual high for a month, hallelujah.

I just want a church that pushes past the fluff and the tradition and the agenda, and gets straight to the heart of it. I want a church where people ask their questions and share their stories and dare to risk rejection only to find acceptance instead.

I want a church that isn’t divided over experience and worldview, politics and culture. I want a church where we can overlook and even accept these things. Where we can learn and even grow from these things. Because no matter what our other loves, we are all lovers of Jesus.

And that binds us together in a way that would be impossible in any natural realm.

Where is God?

Wednesday night Bible Study. We talked about how easy it is to read some books of the Bible and how difficult it is to push through the others, but how necessary both are.

“Right now I’m reading 2 Samuel,” my friend said. “People are slaughtering each other and it’s hard to find a loving God in that.”

I think it must be a very hard thing to read the entirety of the Bible if you are just looking for love. If you are looking for all of the traits of God you already find familiar. If you are trying to summarize Him, to tie Him nice and pretty with a bow.

“God is Love.”

You’ll find those words on wall plaques and church signs. You’ll hear them tumbling off the lips of Christians near and far. They’re the words we use to win others over—the first introduction to our beliefs. While they are not untrue, they are not the whole truth either.

Yes, God is Love, but that is not all He is.

Way back in the book of Exodus, God introduced Himself to Moses as I AM WHO I AM.

Not I AM LOVE. Not I AM JUSTICE. Not I AM PEACE or LIBERATION or FREEDOM THROUGH THE AGES. When the Creator of the universe elected to introduce Himself to a human being, He chose the title I AM.

It means nothing. It means everything. Even after years of pondering that statement, I struggle to understand it. I’ve never met anyone else who could introduce themselves simply as I AM.

But God is. He encompasses everything. More than love. More than justice. More than peace or liberation or freedom through the ages.

Today, as I consider the conversation from Wednesday night, I cannot help but think of how well my friend’s words fit not only 2 Samuel, but the world in which we live today.

“People are slaughtering each other. It’s hard to find a loving God in that.”

Maybe it’s also to find a just God or a peaceful God or even a God of liberation.

Maybe it’s just plain hard to find God. Period. Where is God in all of this?

My neighbors talk of the end times. They tell me I should be afraid. Afraid to go to concerts or conventions or, really, even to work. It’s a crazy world out there. Crazy people. Anything could happen.

But I’m not afraid. Even though I “should” be.

“For God has not given us the spirit of fear; but of power, and of love, and of a sound mind.” (2 Timothy 1:7)

So if you’re asking where God is, He’s right here. When Jesus ascended into heaven, He sent the Holy Spirit to dwell among His people.

Christians, you are not allowed to ask where God is in all of this; you should already know. He should already be present in your heart and in your home.

You don’t get to be the ones sitting inside, trembling in fear. You get to be the hands and feet of Jesus in a broken world. You get to be Love. You get to be Justice. You get to be Peace and Liberation and Freedom Through the Ages.

You get to be I AM.

And if the world still can’t see that a loving God exists, then we have failed them.

So, where are you taking God today?