Diary of a Teenage Girl: Becoming Me by Melody Carlson

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 Summary
Sixteen-year-old Caitlin O’Connor is pretty sure that her life is too boring to write about in a journal. But at the start of a new year, Caitlin begins to chronicle her day-to-day life as she encounters the drama of peer pressure, popularity, and dating. Her life becomes more interesting than she bargained for when she uncovers a dark secret about her dad and when she gets caught between the attention of more than one popular high school boy. As she abandons old friendships, makes new ones, and asks where God is in her life, Caitlin struggles to find out who she is and who she wants to become.

Pros
Written through diary entries, Caitlin’s voice is realistic, candid, and relevant to young adult audiences. She doesn’t hold back how she feels about the cute boy she know she shouldn’t like, or how she isn’t sure how she feels about God anymore. In her diary, Caitlin is completely open about her experiences, even when she is making excuses for her actions.

Caitlin’s story explores various issues that teens face today, such as teen drinking, peer pressure, teen sex, and affairs. Many young adults will be able to relate to different aspects of Caitlin’s story and appreciate her honest voice throughout the novel.

Cons
While Caitlin’s voice is realistic and honest, I didn’t personally like Caitlin. Perhaps this is because I am a bit more removed from this age, but I found her to be rather whiny, self-centered, and not terribly interesting. That’s just me. I’m sure that other readers, be they adult or young adult, will find Caitlin’s brash journal entries engaging and will like her for that reason.

Conclusion
While this book didn’t tickle my fancy, there is certainly merit in the way the content connect with a young adult audience. This is a great read for young adults struggling through the dramatic high school years, or those trying to make sense of what they believe about God.

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The Shack by William P. Young

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For the past three years, Mack has struggled to keep his faith in God and to maintain healthy relationships with his wife and children. A horrible tragedy took the life of their youngest child, damaging Mack’s ability to trust that God truly loves him and loved his child. But when Mack receives a note from Papa, the name he and his family use to refer to God, asking him to meet at the location where tragedy struck, Mack knows he must respond. There, Mack has a first-hand encounter with God and the opportunity to change the course of his life. But will Mack be able to overcome the years of bitterness that have calloused his heart?
Pros
This novel is all about searching for God in the chaos of human life, seeking answers to the questions that have plagued us through the ages. Where is God in our pain? How can a good God, a loving God, allow innocent children and people to be so severely harmed? Through straight-forward, honest language, Young seeks to grapple with these questions through Mack’s suffering. The conversations that Mack has with God in the persons of God, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit, offer a logical and thoughtful discussion of these questions.
The story of loss, suffering, and forgiveness are universal. So many people can relate with what Mack has endured and have asked the same questions he asks. This novel offers a means by which people can see God in their suffering, and understand where suffering, free-will, and God’s love intertwine.
Cons
Some readers may be more than taken aback by the descriptions of God in this novel. In my personal opinion, it is good to consider how we’ve established our vision of who God is physically. Are these ideas Biblical, or simply accepted ideas? It is important to remember that this is a work of fiction; Young is not asserting that this is what God looks like, but simply imagining how God could reveal himself to a human in special need of his presence.
That said, my qualm with this novel is that it is presented initially as truth. The novel’s Forward message claims that Young is ghostwriting this novel for his friend, Mack, and that all of the events are factual, though seemingly far-fetched. The Author’s Note after the novel explains that the novel is actually completely fictitious, that some of Mack’s experiences are based on the author’s own suffering. Originally, Young claims that he wrote the novel for his family and wrote the forward about ghostwriting as a joke for his family. My issue with this is that most readers may not read the author’s note and that this story is presented as factual. I appreciate the perspective and ideas that this novel offers, however, I believe the forward should have been removed and the story completely presented as a work of fiction.
Conclusion
The Shack is a moving novel that touches on questions that so many Christians and non-Christians have had over the ages. It certainly is a creative take on the personage of God and how he reveals himself, but I would argue that C.S. Lewis does something similar in The Chronicles of Narnia. The difference is, Lewis presented his work as fiction. I still recommend this novel as an important read for those seeking God, with the qualification that this is a fictitious work. Mack’s experiences, while not factual in regard to this story, do represent experiences of many grieving fathers and families, and the questions raised are still pertinent to Christians seeking truth.
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A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

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“Bah, Humbug!” grumps Ebenezer Scrooge, a crabby old miser with little more in his life than work and a cash-box. It’s Christmas Eve, and Scrooge wants nothing more than to go on with routine—eat at the tavern and return home to his quiet abode. But when he sees the face of his deceased partner on the doorknob, the unused bell rings for the room next door, and he begins to hear the clanking of chains down the hallway, Scrooge knows this will be no ordinary Christmas Eve. Visited by four ghosts, Scrooge is forced to face the life he has built for himself and the legacy of apathy he is doomed to leave behind, unless he finds the inspiration and the courage to change his course and embrace Christmas for the joy and goodwill it brings.

A Christian Perspective
This story is one of the most beloved Christmas stories of all time. What’s beautiful about this story is that readers can appreciate it for different reasons at different stages of life. As a child and young adult, I loved the idea that someone as bitter and lonely as Ebenezer Scrooge could find joy again in the fellowship of others. As an adult, the power of this story is in the ability for someone to change.

Scrooge shows little to no compassion in the first stave of the novel. With his love of money and his stringent work ethic, Scrooge believes he is entitled to what he gets and that others should follow his example and work to achieve the same financial security. There is some merit to Scrooge’s endeavors. Hard work is important, but what he fails to see is that some are less fortunate or are unable to work at the same level or in as well-paying a profession as he is for various reasons. With backstory, The reader glimpses the life of an underprivileged boy who had little in life and believed that financial security and hard work would give him peace. As Scrooge goes back in time, he sees how other people poured joy and love into his life asking nothing in return, how people with much less than he experienced mirth he had long forgotten. With each ghost’s visions of Christmas, Scrooge realizes how cold he has been toward others and the wasted opportunities he had to serve others.

Joy is found in serving, as Jesus taught us through his example; “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.” (Mark 10:45) Scrooge sought contentment in wealth but found in the end that real life is in love, in relationships, and in giving to one another. As Christians, this story provides an important reminder that we find real life in Christ, in His sacrifice that enables us to live freely in love—unafraid for our futures, knowing that God will provide for our needs. As Scrooge sees others living in that unfettered love, he learns to love again, to open his heart to people and to give of himself  with money, time, and love.

Conclusion
It’s important to keep the true story of Christmas at the forefront of our minds and hearts over the season, but stories like these are important if we are going to learn how to live out the joy that Christmas brings: With Jesus Christ coming into our world, we have hope for our salvation and a bright future. Jesus taught us through his life on earth the importance of caring for those in need—whether that is someone in physical need, like the Cratchits, or someone in emotional restoration, like Ebenezer Scrooge.

Over the holiday season, I encourage you to experience the redemptive story of A Christmas Carol in a new way. This short classic packs plenty of drama, suspense, humor, and Christmas Spirit to refresh your appreciation of the season and our reason for celebrating.

What do you think?
So many of us are familiar Charles Dickens classic story of Christmas, through reading it as a student, watching the numerous film adaptations, and re-reading the novel as an adult. How have your perceptions of the story changed over time? How do you think this story is relevant to modern audiences? Leave your thoughts and comments below!

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Paige Torn by Erynn Mangum

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Paige Alder has a problem: She can’t say no to anyone. Whether it’s helping her best friend plan a party for her parents’ anniversary, or volunteering to teach two-year-olds at church. Not to mention the fact that she is still doing secretarial work at the adoption agency she works at, a position her boss loves to see her complete to perfection, though her degree qualifies her to take on actual cases. As she helps her best friend plan for her upcoming wedding, Paige learns that there is only one thing she can say no to- the cute guy at church who would like to take her to lunch. The reason? Too busy. Paige believes that serving is the best way to utilize the single years of her life, but when her busy schedule starts to keep her from devotional time and grocery shopping, Paige has to re-evaluate her priorities before she loses her sanity.

Pros

Paige is a charming, funny character who wins the readers heart and attention from the very beginning. Her struggle to balance doing good things while caring for herself is an important, relevant lesson for young adult readers today. Erynn Mangum’s novel is full of light humor, witty dialogue, and laughs.

Cons

While I enjoyed reading Paige’s story, the truth is- nothing really happens in this book, or hardly anything at all. Besides Paige’s romantic dalliance, there is next to zero tension or rising action in this novel. What’s more, the minor storylines don’t resolve themselves. Paige’s issues with time management and saying no are relatable to readers, but these problems don’t speak deep into Christian living. As a personal preference, I prefer books that speak to bigger issues that Christians face today.

Conclusion

Despite the fact that this book was pretty fluffy, I can’t deny the fact that I enjoyed reading it. Paige’s voice is bright, cheerful, and often hilarious. If you want a book that will give you plenty to laugh about but nothing too deep, you will likely enjoy this first title in Mangum’s Paige Adler Series.

Get your copy from Amazon or at your local library!

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How Sweet the Sound by Amy Sorrells

Summary

The Harlan family, known for their affluence and their best-selling pecan pies, appears to be the perfect family. But thirteen year-old Anniston knows that isn’t the case. Thanksgiving night, her family comes apart at the edges, frayed from years of deception, buried secrets, and broken hearts. A domestic shooting takes the lives of two of the Harlan men—Cole, the first-born, illegitimate son of Princella Harlan, and Rey, Anniston’s beloved father. Devastated by the violence, the loss, and the town-gossip, the Harlan family strives for normalcy, though Comfort, the third-born, no longer leaves the house. As Anniston begins to learn more of her family history, she finds strength and faith, instilled by her father’s memory, and a desire to bring hope and love to the most desperate of people.

Pros

The setting of this coming of age novel is vivid and engaging. The Harlan family has run their pecan plantation for years, and reading about their land and the small town surrounding them—including the biases, misconceptions, and gossip that shades every conversation—is realistic and engrossing.

Written in rich, descriptive language, Amy Sorrells tells the Harlan’s story through changing viewpoints. Through Anniston’s point of view, we learn all the secrets of the family as she does. Through Comfort’s story, we learn all the heartache and wounds that plague the family. Both women are strong, engaging characters with moving stories and beautiful voices.

Sorrells doesn’t shy away from difficult subjects, and she writes beautifully about characters dealing and healing from rape and abusive relationships, as well as judging people before you know them, suicide, alcoholism, and the dark, dangerous sin of gossip.

Cons

The opening pages of the novel are heart-wrenching and sudden, leaving the reader shocked and dismayed by what she has read. While the events were engaging, it was jarring as a reader to have so much happen right away, and it also made the pacing drop off afterward. The story slowed down dramatically afterward, dipping into the everyday life of the characters dealing with the aftermath. Then, toward the end of the novel, the events seemed a bit cinched in, too tight to allow the characters to breathe and respond.

With the emotionally heavy content, some of the storylines get a bit lost in the upheaval. For one, Anniston’s summer love with foster kid Jed who works on the farm, disappears part way through the book, leaving the reader to wonder how Anniston is coping with the loss of friendship. These are minor, subjective issues.

Note to the reader: Because the novel deals with multiple emotionally heavy situations and storylines, there is some content that is a bit graphic for younger readers. In addition, there is some strong language and innuendo.

Conclusion
How Sweet the Sound is a stunning coming of age novel with real characters, true stories, told through rich storytelling. If you enjoy character-driven fiction with a message of grace and hope, this is a book you won’t want to miss.

Get your copy of How Sweet the Sounds through David C Cook or at your local library!

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“Hidden Blessings” by Kim Cash Tate

Summary

Kendra Woods has everything—her dream job as partner at an affluent law firm in D.C., a bright future, and an upcoming wedding to her prince charming. But when a bruise on her chest causes her to make a doctor appointment, leery after her late mother’s battle with cancer, Kendra learns that she has stage IV inflammatory breast cancer. And it’s terminal. Stepping away from her career to undergo chemotherapy, Kendra also loses her fiance who isn’t willing to plan a future with someone who might only live a few more years. Kendra’s world is completely destroyed. She returns to her hometown to work with a doctor she trusts, and to stay with her estranged brother in her absent father’s home. But there’s little peace at home where her brother parties, does drugs, and Kendra is reminded of how her father disappeared after her mom died, only after his affair pushed her mom over the edge.

Not knowing that Kendra returned home, Kendra’s father offers a room in his house to Lance Alexander, a youth minister, in hopes that he will have a positive influence on Kendra’s brother, Trey. Lance disrupts life at the house by becoming a servant to both Trey and Kendra, cooking, cleaning up after Trey’s parties, and sharing how the love of Jesus changed him from an ex-criminal into a youth pastor. As Kendra and Trey begin to heal from the past, Lance starts a Bible study, bringing in neighbors and familiar faces from the past. The more Lance takes care of Kendra, the more she realizes how much she cares about him, and Lance sees how much he wants to take care of her—for better or worse, so long as they both shall live.

Pros

Kim Cash Tate’s moving novel covers a lot of hard-hitting questions Christians struggle with today. Why is there pain and suffering if our God is good? Why would God allow us to go through difficult trials instead of healing us? As Kendra deals with the disease ravaging her body, she finds hope in something greater, in life beyond the flesh, and love greater than death. This poignant story follows well-developed characters who struggle with different flaws. Even Lance, the “saint” of a preacher struggles to let go of the past, and the friendships formed through the novel challenge common stereotypes.

Cons

While I admire the author’s willingness to grapple with multiple emotionally taxing storylines, some of the development was lost in the story. Each character has a lot of baggage, which is true to life, but some of them seemed to change a bit abruptly with little struggle. Kendra’s progression through the novel was believable, but some other more minor characters got short-changed in the telling of the story.

Conclusion

Hidden Blessings in a compelling novel that forced me to stop and think about the value of life—living each day to the fullest, but also, maintaining an awareness of the life beyond death. Definitely a worthwhile read!
You can get your copy of Hidden Blessings through Thomas Nelson or at your local library.

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“On This Foundation” by Lynn Austin

Summary

Nearly thirty years after his parents were murdered, Nehemiah, now a cup-bearer for King Artaxerxes, is visited by his younger brother. Nehemiah learns that the cities walls of his hometown are in shambles and the people are suffering to survive the famine and high taxes placed upon them by wealthy landowners. With this information, Nehemiah feels compelled by God to return home to Jerusalem to rebuild the wall.

Chana, a young woman whose fiance was killed because of the lack of security in Jerusalem, feels pressure to accept the advances of a wealthy vineyard owner, Malkijah, to free her younger sisters to marry. When her father volunteers to help with the rebuilding of the wall, Chana insists on helping, hoping to rebuild her faith and heal from the past.

Nava works with her family on a small piece of land, but with the famine, her father doesn’t have enough money to repay the landowner, Malkijah. Though she wants nothing more than to marry her sweetheart, Dan, when Malkijah asks for payment, Nava agrees to go with him as his bondservant for six years to repay the debt. While missing her family and Dan, trouble follows Nava when Malkijah’s mischievous son begins to follow her around the vineyard.

Many oppose the rebuilding of the wall, especially local politicians who view the positive attention Nehemiah receives as a threat to their own political agendas. As these men attempt to thwart the project, all are challenged to have faith and trust, in God and in each other.

Pros

With great historical detail, Austin tells the story of Nehemiah and the rebuilding of the wall around Jerusalem. There is so much insight into the building procedure and ancient tradition, especially in regard to the Torah. The characters come alive in this well-researched, and well-imagined world, as do their struggles.

Despite the length, the story remains fairly fast-paced throughout as the characters’ struggles and storylines overlap. The narrative switches between multiple perspectives which also makes it an engaging read. In addition, though this book is third in Austin’s The Restoration Chronicles Series, I had no difficulty picking up where this story began and getting to know the characters.

Cons

While I liked the switch between different characters’ perspectives, some of the characters emerged at the end of the story a bit underdeveloped, simply because there wasn’t much time to spend with each character.

Tension built throughout the story as different politicians, attacks, and unforeseen circumstances threatened the building of the wall. In the end, the story fizzled out a bit, in my opinion. There are certainly historical restraints, but I hoped that a story with so much buildup would end with more gusto.

Conclusion

On This Foundation was an engrossing read full of interesting storylines and history. Despite the ending, it’s a great Biblical story that teaches the importance of trusting in God at all times.

Get your copy of Lynn Austin’s On This Foundation at Bethany House or your local library.

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