Thursday, May 14, 2015

The ABC’s of Discernment: P is for Past

We all have a past.

That past may be pleasant, full of joy and good memories. That past may be dark and checkered, full of pain and regret. Or, most likely, your past may be a mixture of the two. The point is you have one, and it has influenced how you see and react to the world around you.

As a result, understanding how those experiences impact today will help you set your personal boundaries. Sometimes those experiences will skew your perspective (and discernment), and you will have to limit where you go, much like a recovering alcoholic “limits” himself by steering clear of a bar. Other times your past may provide clarity and insight, opening doors barred to others: Often someone who has suffered a tragedy—such as the loss of a child—is specially equipped to minister to someone in similar circumstances. 

However, the experience doesn’t have to be “big” or life-changing to be influential. When I was a young child, I saw a part of a Murder, She Wrote episode, which terrified me. That feeling has stuck with me. So although I love the show, watching it at certain times can disrupt my sleep and induce nightmares to this day, even though I can enjoy shows with higher thrill factors during that same period without the negative effects. 

So whether big or small, pleasant or painful, our experiences are powerful, and by understanding the past we can better discern in the present. 

Stirring the Pot:
What is one event, positive or negative, you’ve experienced, and how does it affect your perspective today?

Due to that experience, what are you more sensitive to? 

Which doors have closed to you as a result? Which doors have opened?

Wednesday, April 29, 2015

The ABC’s of Discernment: O is for Others

Very few of us live as hermits in this world. Indeed, the fact that you are reading this indicates you are probably not a hermit. And if you are not a hermit, this means you interact with other people: friends, family, coworkers, acquaintances, enemies.

Now people affect other people. Sometimes the effect is positive and sometimes it is negative. The influence can be largely one direction, and you may be the influencer (such as in mentoring a student) or the one influenced (like when you sit under a pastor). Or the impact may be mutual, as in a close friendship.

What difference does this make with our personal limitations?

On one hand, it means limiting ourselves for the sake of other people. Most of us want to be good influences and set a good example. Moreover, we are instructed to love one another and treat others as we want to be treated. At times, this will mean not doing things we would otherwise be free to do, especially around someone of lesser physical or spiritual maturity. You would not consume alcohol around a known recovering alcoholic, nor would you take a six-year-old into an r-rated movie. Likewise, you might need avoid discussing some controversial theology in front of a new Christian or box some books until your kids are older.

On the other hand, people’s influence on you may also require extra limitations on your part. For instance, spending time with a family member may reinforce an old lie or fear you fight, or working with a coworker may consistently expose you to a bad habit or wrong way of thinking. This does not mean you must cut ties with such people, although on a rare occasion, such extreme measures might be necessary. Rather, avoiding additional reinforcement of the negative—especially in media—might be the way to go. You will also want to implement counterbalances, like memorizing extra Scripture to counter the lie or spending time with a friend who can help you “detox.”

And so by being aware of the influences around us and of the influence we exert, we can strengthen our relationships in a healthy manner, both for others and us.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

CSFF Tour: Storm Siren Review, Part 2

Title: Storm Siren
Series: Storm Siren Trilogy #1
Author: Mary Weber
Genre: YA Fantasy

Yesterday I discussed Storm Siren and how well it was crafted, concluding the story was phenomenally written. However, that is only one half of the equation, which brings me to . . .

The Content: There are basically two types of Christian novels on the market.

The first is what many associate with “Christian fiction.” These novels have a clear gospel message, Christian characters dealing with spiritual matters, strong allegorical parallels to the spiritual, or some other predominate Christian element that pushes Christ into the center of the story’s focus.

The second is more subtle. In these novels, God often works behind the stage, and Christ is the foundation of the story, not the focus.

Neither style is wrong, nor is one better—or more Christian—than the other. They simply approach life, story, and readers from different angels.

Storm Siren seems to lean toward the latter style, at the moment. While God’s presence is acknowledged and is even integral to the climax of the story, He remains mostly in the background, possible because the main character’s notion of Him is somewhat hazy. This means the story’s style could shift in the coming books; it will be interesting to see how it all plays out.

As a result, Storm Siren raises many questions while answering only a few. The characters wrestle with issues as diverse as what makes a person good or bad, free will versus predestination, the depravity of man, how you handle a gift (especially its dark side), penance, honoring others, and forgiveness of self.

Concerning other topics of common concern, there is no graphic sexual content, but several sexual innuendos and references to rape. A fair amount of swearing/cursing occurs, but it uses a fantasy vocabulary, which most find less offensive, probably because its odd wording inhibits its use in the real world. Violence is very strong, dealing not only with typical fantasy battle violence, but also with more personal violations, such as demonic possession and especially the issue of cutting.

The supernatural elements in Storm Siren also play a major, as the premise of the story indicates. However, the supernatural seems to be handled correctly. Much of the power is genetic, and much like other natural talents, it can be augmented spiritually by either God or Satan. The other supernatural elements which go beyond this are clearly shown to be either from Satan or God, with the appropriate qualities (e.g. a gift from God is uncontrollable).

Finally, these areas of concern combine with the themes to give the book a dark cast overall. It is not excessive, nor is it inappropriate given the target audience and the topics tackled. However, it may be a difficult read for those with a heightened sensitivity to darkness in fiction or with personal connections to the topics dealt with, such as the cutting.

Summary: Storm Siren is a wonderfully written book that deals with some tough issues and asks some hard questions. It is not the type of story I would recommend for anyone, and indeed, this book is not recommended for those under thirteen. However, depending on your background, level of discernment, and personal limitations, many will find this an insightful and worthwhile read.

Ratings: Craft—5, Content­—3, Overall—4.2 out of 5 stars. 

Tuesday, April 14, 2015

CSFF Tour: Storm Siren Review, Part 1

Title: Storm Siren
Series: Storm Siren Trilogy #1
Author: Mary Weber
Genre: YA Fantasy

Excerpt from Chapter 1 of Storm Siren:

“Fourteen circles for fourteen owners.”

I shade my eyes to block the sun’s reflection off the distant mountains currently doused in snow and smoke and flesh-eating birds. The yellow flags above me snap sharp and loud in the breeze as if to emphasize my owner’s words that yes, she’s quite aware such a high count is utterly ridiculous.

Waiting for it . . .

“Fourteen?” the sweaty merchant says.

Ha! There it is. Eleven years of repeatedly being sold, and it’s sad, really, how familiar I’ve become with this conversation. Today, if Brea has her way, I will meet my fifteenth, which I suppose should actually bother me. But it doesn’t.

Brea nods. “Fourteen.”

A teen with the gift of controlling the weather is trained for war.

The Crafting: Storm Siren provides a phenomenal story with a strong driving plot and unpredictable characters.

At least, that’s my opinion. It is possible some will see the story as derivative: characters who wield the forces of nature are not unheard of in the various realms of science fiction and fantasy. Indeed, there’s character from the Marvel Comics universe who is also a female with white hair (Storm).

Does that make Storm Siren a copy cat? Or is the author merely drawing on the collective imagination to move quicker into her story by using what will be familiar to some, if not many of her readers? It is difficult to say.

After all, there is little that annoys science-fiction and fantasy readers, including me, faster than stories which are merely knockoffs of another. Why would I want to read another Narnia series when I can enjoy the original by the master, often for cheaper?

Yet, the science-fiction and fantasy genre expands across a vast universe, and most of the stories are far removed from our familiar, everyday world. This can cause these novels to become weighted down in description. But by relying upon images already embedded in the reader’s imagination—such as the basic feel of Star Trek’s spaceships—fewer details are necessary, and the reader can get to what is more important much sooner: the characters and the action.

So derivative or streamlining—which is Storm Siren? Personally, I lean toward streamlining. However, that could be due to my unfamiliarity with the mythos she plays off of, and other readers may strongly disagree with me.

However, lacking that inhibitor, I found Storm Siren to be strongly written. The world is vividly drawn; the characters are very human in their virtues and flaws, yet remain accessible and empathetic; and the plot’s tension keeps the pages turning, placing the caliber of this book’s craft on par with many secular series. 

Stats for the April Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Tour

Book: Storm Siren
Author: Mary Weber
Series: Storm Siren Trilogy #1
Genre: YA Fantasy


Julie Bihn
Lauren Bombardier
Beckie Burnham
Vicky DealSharingAunt
George Duncan
April Erwin
Carol Gehringer
Victor Gentile
Ryan Heart
Timothy Hicks
Janeen Ippolito
Carol Keen
Emileigh Latham
Simone Lilly-Egerter
Jennette Mbewe
Shannon McDermott
Meagan @ Blooming with Books
Rebecca LuElla Miller
Joan Nienhuis
Jalynn Patterson
Audrey Sauble
Jojo Sutis
Steve Trower
Phyllis Wheeler
Michelle R. Wood

Wednesday, April 8, 2015

The ABC’s of Discernment: N is for Neighborhood

Neighborhoods come in many shapes and styles. The buildings may be sleek and ultra-modern or simple and old-fashioned. An area can be primarily industrial, retail, or residential. Some of us thrive in the urban and some of us prefer suburban, while others enjoy the rural or small town.

Whatever the type, whether or not it’s to our taste, we all live, work, and play somewhere, even if in a vacuum like dust bunnies and astronauts. Why is this important? Because the time we spend in these environments will naturally impact us, both for good and for evil. Live where harsh criticism flows freely and you may find the same jumping to your mind, if not your lips. Work among those who want success at any cost, and that mentality could easily infect you.

Now our instant reaction to such environments is to get out, and sometimes, when a place becomes exceptionally poisonous, that is exactly what we need to do. Most of the time, however, such an extreme move is not necessary. Indeed, it may not even be desirable. After all, no place is perfect. We live in a broken world with broken people. We must deal with that wherever we end up—we must practice discernment, separating good from evil, tossing the bad, and storing up the good.

So don’t run from your current position. Study it:

What is good? Almost every place has something positive about it. Find it and imitate it. Think up ways to encourage more the same.

What is bad? Even the best of places has dangerous points. Working exclusively among Christians, for example, can cause you to lose perspective. So what counterbalance can you implement to prevent the bad seeping into your life? How might you encourage the opposite good? E.g. Using the gossip chain to build others up instead of tearing them down.

What are the pervading attitudes/worldviews? Understanding what others think helps you avoid absorbing their views unconsciously and can provide a bridge to talk about God’s truth.

Then as you better discern the environments you interact with and their impact on you, the better you can set the appropriate boundaries so that you might walk in the truth and shine God’s light brightly into the dark world. 

Tuesday, March 31, 2015

January & February 2015 Reading

The hard part of springtime for me is the prep which goes into the homeschool conferences I vend. Numbers and business detail absorb much of my time, and not much writing gets done, including my blogging. However, the good news is that I’m often piling through books during this time too, trying to catch up on the latest releases. So here’s a glimpse of what I’ve been consuming of late:

Series: #1 in untitled series
Author: Bryan Davis
Genre: Rhyming children’s picture book

Synopsis: A young boy wrestles with his bed—literally—when it’s time to sleep.
Review: The rhythm and rhyme of this story is a bit stiff and even awkward at times, but the humor of a young child struggling with bedtime will endear this story to many kids.

Girl in the Gatehouse
Series: Stand alone novel
Author: Julie Klassen
Genre: Adult historical romance (Regency)

Synopsis: Dogged by scandal, a hopeful novelist retreats to an old gatehouse and catches the eye of the captain leasing the estate.
Review: Rich in historical detail, this vivid story provides colorful characters and a delightful plot. Especially pleasing for those who are Jane Austen fans.

The Tide of Unmaking
Series: The Berinfell Prophecies #3
Authors: Wayne Thomas Batson & Christopher Hopper
Genre: Teen fantasy / alternate reality
Synopsis: Seven eleven lords must an evil army before two worlds blink out of existence.
Review: An open-ended conclusion to the trilogy, The Tide of Unmaking, though not a favorite book of mine, will be mostly satisfying to the reader. On other notes, it contains a slightly higher-than-normal amount of violence, and the spiritual thread is somewhat forced.

Brentwood’s Ward
Series: Bow Street Runners #1
Author: Michelle Griep
Genre: Adult historical romantic suspense

Synopsis: A member of the early London police force gets more than he bargained for when he’s hired to protect an heiress hunting for a husband.
Review: Larger-than-life characters mix with a plot full of intrigue and humor in this novel. Great for the Austen romantic who doesn’t mind a pinch of mystery thrown in.

Knox’s Irregulars
Series: Stand alone
Author: J. Wesley Bush
Genre: Adult Sci-fi (space opera?)

Synopsis: A sudden invasion places a reluctant solider in charge of an underground militia.
Review: This is definitely a military story targeted for adults with its very strong violence content, which is more graphic than most Christian novels. However, the violence fits the story with its high tension, rapid-firing plot, and this may make it a good read for men who like the military thriller-styled book.

Season of Wonder
Series: Remnants #1
Author: Lisa T. Bergren
Genre: YA Dystopia

Synopsis: Supernaturally gifted teens seek the rest of their prophesied group under the eyes of a government who wants them dead.
Review: Not my favorite as far as dystopias go, but this novel (which is very reminiscent of Bergren’s adult series, The Gifted) still offer plenty with an intriguing mix of the supernatural and the dystopic.

Series: Alaskan Courage #5
Author: Dani Pettrey
Genre: Adult Romantic Suspense

Synopsis: A dog trainer races to locate her kidnapped cousin before her uncle reaches the end of the Iditerod.
Review: An entertaining mix of romance and suspense with the fun interactions of a tight-knit family, very similar to Dee Henderson’s O’Malley series.

A Plague of Unicorns
Series: Stand alone
Author: Jane Yolen
Genre: Midgrade fairytale

Synopsis: A boy full of questions is sent to an abbey plagued by unicorns
Review: A light but fun fairytale-styled story.

Storm Siren
Series: Storm Siren Trilogy #1
Author: Mary Weber
Genre: YA Fantasy

Synopsis: A teen gifted with the ability to control the weather is trained for war.
Review: A dark-edged fantasy dealing with some heavy topics. It has some strong writing which draws deeply from the collective imagination of the sci-fi/fantasy world. I hope to post of full review of this complex novel later in April.

Now your turn: With which books have you kicked off 2015?