Sanctum (Guards of the Shadowlands, Book One), Sarah Fine

Mercy is not a right. Mercy is a gift from one to another. It can’t be earned. (p 368).

Sometimes, a book is just perfect. I don’t mean in the “it’s a classic for the ages and every generation should read and analyze it,” but in the “this speaks to my soul” sort of way. Sanctum is one of those books. I came across the first chapter by chance on Amazon and decided to get it since it was on sale, and then the rest of the novel ended up being off-the-rails awesome.

Fine wove her story around redemption and friendship, depression, suicide, hell, history – all without losing her sense of humor (not an easy task considering some of the subject matter she took on). The book broke my heart a couple of times too, and when I was done with it, I couldn’t stop thinking about the people I know who struggle with debilitating mental health issues. Novels that tackle the idea of teen suicide with such frank honesty gut me, and this one, despite being a fantasy novel instead of straight fiction, was right on point.

It was a book about healing, about using newfound strength to protect and to offer mercy, and about what it looks like not to be able to find that strength. No judgement there either, but rather an acceptance that healing is complicated, and messy, and sometimes incomplete. It’s a painful and  difficult idea for us to accept, and it’s rare for an author to capture the experience of living through it – from both the perspective of the person who feels hopeless and of the one who feels helpless – so well.

Fine also created a fantastical world that was horrifying while containing a kernel of truth that was inescapable. Her underworld felt like such a true place – a horrible, soul-sucking, and brilliant setting for this novel – that I’m almost disappointed that we might not get to see as much of it in the next book. That being said, she nailed the pacing and wrap-up of this first book in her series, and I can’t wait to read the next one.

For more about Sarah Fine, go here.

Choices, Tess Gallagher

I go to the mountain side
of the house to cut saplings,
and clear a view to snow
on the mountain. But when I look up,
saw in hand, I see a nest clutched in
most branches.
I don’t cut that one.
I don’t cut the others either.
Suddenly, in every tree,
an unseen nest
where a mountain
would be.

You’re pretty lucky this poem is speaking to me right now because otherwise this entire post was going to be about Last-Minute Meetings: 101 Ready-to-Go Games and Lessons for Busy Youth Leaders, by Todd Outcalt. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, but, well, that’s what I’m reading today, and it isn’t exactly Tolstoy.  I am just so desperate to figure out how to engage the teenagers I work with in some honest, ridiculous fun that I’ve pulled out the books my husband used with middle schoolers. Outcalt’s was simply at the top of the stack, and I’ve already dog-eared quite a few pages of ideas in the category of “maybe they won’t hate me if I try this.”

The thing is though, when I was a teenager, I really had to be in the right mood for absurd fun (as an adult, I’ll take it whenever I can get it), and if I wasn’t in the mood for it, I would feel a little betrayed – as though the adults around me didn’t respect the struggle I was going through – whether it be about school, work, friends, guys, or family. I worry now that because I’m so concerned about how little time these kids have to relax, I’m going about this all wrong. I wonder just how clueless I seem to them when I try to give them a break from the very real and exhausting struggles they face every day.

When I was reading Gallagher’s poem, I was struck by how  apropos the imagery was for this situation. Sometimes I’m just gobsmacked by the enormity nestled in these teenagers. I used to see it when I taught preschool too – in an unguarded look or the unexpected pause – all of a sudden I could see the intricacy that is personhood.

It’s both frightening and beautiful to have that moment of insight, of seeing how similar a person is to a thunderstorm, or a rogue wave, or a bird’s nest. When I experience it, I feel even less equipped to help than I did when all I saw was the flash and dance that is both toddler and teen. It makes me wonder if it’s even remotely possible to bring them a little joy while playing a game where everybody has to hop like a frog or try to hit sopping wet sponges with wiffleball bats. I don’t know. I keep reading and asking and trying because I think it’s important, even though the answer always seems to recede at the same pace I move toward it.

The Introvert Advantage: How to Thrive in an Extrovert World, Marti Olsen Laney

About a month after my husband and I started dating, he gave me, half-jokingly, a copy of The Geek Handbook: User Guide and Documentation for the Geek in Your Life, by Mikki Halpin. I read the whole thing that night, and the next day, I assured him I was surprisingly well-suited for geek care. Many of my closest friends are geeks from all over the spectrum (coding, gaming, fanning, etc), and I had plenty of experience with what those relationships can require.

A few months later, I was able to return the favor when his sister recommended The Introvert Advantage. If his Handbook was meant to prepare me for what loving a software engineer and life long tinkerer would entail, this book was what he needed to fully understand an introvert who came from a family of introverts! Of course, he’s one too, so you’d think neither of us would  require such a guide for proper tending . You’d be wrong.

After I read it for the first time, he and I talked a lot about the basic premise of the book (that introverts become re-energized by spending time alone, or in reflection, or by stepping back). On some level, I think I had always known this to be true, but since we had this conversation I have come back to think on it many times. Six years later, I’ve recommended this book to so many people, I’ve lost count. I’ve reread it myself three times, and I still can’t get over how much of a difference it’s made to me.

I recently pulled the book out again after talking to one of my best friends about a new relationship in her life. I’m one of those introverts who’s drawn to the energy and charisma of extroverts, and this friend is a shining example of that. She is a dynamic, energetic, brilliant woman who can easily function on five hours a sleep a night. She isn’t phased by the idea of having twelve weekends in a row booked by travel, weddings, and lunch dates; in fact, when Hurricane Sandy hit New York and she was forced to stay home for a few days, she longed to be back at the office, jumping in on meetings and taking clients out for drinks.

I’ll be honest – just thinking about her life makes me tired – yet we’ve been best friends for over twenty years. Although she lives three thousand miles away, we talk several times a week, and recently, our conversations have come around to the idea of stress on the relationships between extroverts and introverts.

Without knowing it, couples enter into relationships wearing their own temperament spectacles. Our lenses are ground from our genes, physiology, upbringing, emotional history, social class, education, and friends. Each lens has a precise prescription, so each view is true and accurate for that particular person. But only for that person. What is very important for a healthy relationship is to realize that you are looking at life through your spectacles. If we think that our view is the right view, then we have struggles in our relationships. (loc 1692)

This is one of those ideas that seems obvious on paper, but in reality, people constantly struggle to communicate a unique view of the world to others and get incredibly frustrated when they’re misunderstood. Although that particular passage comes from a chapter on romantic relationships, for me, the idea is a guide for all of my relationships.

For example, I come from a rather unusual situation – I grew up in a family of introverts. Maybe it should have been obvious to the four us before I read this book, but it wasn’t. I had always thought introverted equaled shy and quiet, and that didn’t really fit. When I realized what introversion truly was, my entire life made so much more sense! My family’s temperaments are especially tied to the odd way we approach activities like vacations or parties or visiting friends. On the one hand, we want to do it all because we’re curious, friendly people; on the other, we often are irritable about those same things because we subconsciously anticipate the enormous energy drain we’ll have from participating.

In one section of the book where Laney discusses working with introverted children, she mentions that being in a car can be stressful, and to counteract the overwhelming feeling of being physically close to others, a child could use headphones, a book, or a physical barrier (like pillows) to offer some level of protection from the stimulation. Growing up, my brother and I each had a Walkman to listen to whenever we got in the car. My father called it “plugging in,” but in actuality, I think we were unplugging. I even remember that my favorite vehicle as a child was our Colt Vista Wagon, which had two rows of back seats; my brother would sit in the first row and I would sit on the opposite side in the far back – this gave both of us physical and mental space that I realize now was crucial.

Introverted children show their need for physical contact in many ways. Like all children, they can enjoy being held or hugged. At other times, when they feel overstimulated, they may require distance. “He’s touching my leg,” they might whine in the car if they are tired. In a group, they often like to be at the back, front, or edge of the pack, rather than in the center….Introverts feel drained by having their physical space intruded upon. It takes energy for them to be around people even if they are not interacting with them. This is very hard for extroverts to grasp since space is not an issue for them. Cozying up doesn’t require energy. (loc 1997)

Even as an adult, I require a lot of personal space. I  prefer to stand on subways and to put as many seats as possible between me and other moviegoers in a theatre. It’s not that I can’t be close to other people; I just prefer to have a little separation. Friends often tease me about how I don’t like to give hugs ( I really don’t) or squish in with them on the couch, and it used to bother me. Now, I just shrug and agree. It’s part of my deal, and I don’t have to be ashamed of it.

I fully believe that the world would grind to a halt without its extroverts. (Fortunately, about seventy-five percent of the population identify as extroverts, so there’s little fear of a shortage.) Without my best friend, I’m pretty sure my wedding never could have happened – not to mention school dances I wouldn’t have attended, people I never would have met, and midnight adventures that would have gone un…ventured! After basically imprinting this book on my soul, I’m comfortable enough to know what it takes to be the happiest, healthiest introvert I can be. It’s  made me love and appreciate extroverts like her so much more (not to mention allowing me to help beloved introverts get some much-needed peace and quiet!). It’s rare to find a book that can so completely redefine a person, but for me, The Introvert Advantage is absolutely it.

For more about Marti Olsen Laney, go here.

Fun Camp, Gabe Durham

There is definitely something distressing about reading a book about sleep-away camp in the dead of winter. The very quality of sunlight mocks the idea. Summer? Ha! There is no summer here, and it will be months before those dark, bitter mornings and soul-suckingly short afternoons begin to fade into the soft melody of spring. And yet Fun Camp is the book I chose halfway through January  – or as I like to call it, the longest month of the year.

What can I say? Amazon knows me too well. It’s like I’d already told it about all those summers I spent hundreds of miles from home, subsisting on peanut butter and jelly sandwiches and the care packages all the nice parents (mine included) sent. One year, of course, was bad (I believe it was just after seventh grade, but it may have been just after eighth – thankfully, all those awful junior high experiences sort of blend together after a while), but mostly, I adored that precious week of independence every year with a near religious fervor.

In fact, I remember wishing that my parents could send me away for a month at a time because I enjoyed hiking and making ugly crafts and singing songs around the campfire so much that one week was just not enough for me. As an adult, of course, I realize that camps are pricy, and if I had gone to an awful one for four weeks, I’d probably still be lugging that emotional baggage around.

And, hey! Maybe my parents weren’t actually sick of me three days into summer vacation…although that doesn’t seem right. My brother and I were happy enough to be left alone until shots were fired and the battle spilled down the stairs and into my mother’s office. (I really don’t understand how families handle summer vacation. My parents worked full-time, and summers were far more stressful than the school year in terms of coordination and execution of care.)

Basically, I saw camp as a chance to escape being a bratty little sister for a few days while doing things that freaked me out (trust falls, eating questionable looking meat, kissing boys) in a safe but less supervised environment. Fun Camp is a look back at that experience through the slightly jaded perspective of adulthood. Durham’s book is a mix of speeches, letters, and one-sided conversations from narrators we only really get to know through biased and often ridiculous excerpts. It isn’t a novel, per se, although it does tell its own fractured story.

Durham’s perspective occasionally borders on hostile, although it’s tempered with moments of unexpected joy, and his sense of humor is spot on. He ultimately does the experience justice, and by the end of the book, I felt myself transported back to the hot, buggy days of my youth. There were the boys who thought they were really getting away with something because they didn’t shower, the stupid pranks that often ended up with someone in the infirmary, the surprisingly passionate best friendships that burned out as quickly as they had ignited.

The feel of camp was just something out of the ordinary. Some people might get a similar experience out of going away to college or joining a band, but for me, I was always the best version of myself – the coolest and the most fearless – during those precious summer weeks. Even though Fun Camp wasn’t exactly the book I hoped it would be, I love that it brought me back to a place and time that was so formative for me. Was it a perfect execution of a difficult format? Probably not, but it found its footing by the end and delivered a surprisingly powerful punch I hadn’t anticipated. Sort of like a week at summer camp does, come to think of it…


For more about Gabe Durham, go here.

Bonus Monday post!

For the last ten months, I’ve been co-authoring a novel with nine other writers (seven from the UK, one from Brazil, and one from Washington, DC). The project is called Ten to One, and it has been an amazing experience to write a novel with this talented crew.


ten to one

The premise of the project is that, as a group, we produce ten chapters, each of us writing a section of each from the perspective of a single character. The catch is that after every chapter is written, we post the sections on Facebook, and the audience (and a panel of judges) vote. The character with the fewest votes (combined with the lowest judges score) is eliminated after each round (hence the name Ten to One!).

My character, Nell, is a young widow trying to escape her past who has recently moved to Skegness (a small, dingy seaside town in England) from Virginia to live with her aunt and waitress at a chip shop. She’s an amateur boxer and a former EMT who has gotten mixed up with murder and mayhem through the thugs running her gym (and an illegal fight club), and while her situation is getting messier, the lives of those around her, including her only real friends in town – a sword swallower and a dangerous mafia wannabe – are falling apart.

Unfortunately, the chapters are extremely difficult to read on Facebook (the spacing is all off and it’s not collated with the other writers’ sections, so if you’re interested in a better reading experience, check out the archives here. If, however, you would simply like to vote for me (and Nell), all you have to do is go HERE (or I might be reduced to truly humiliating levels of begging. Scroll to the bottom of the post and click LIKE to cast your vote. Don’t be fooled by the LIKE button on the top of the post – it’s connected to the Ten to One page instead of my specific post (I have no idea why – Facebook is a mystery to me).

Now, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking your vote doesn’t matter, or that others will vote so you don’t need to. Not true! There are over 11,000 of you hanging out at Books j’adore, and last round, I think I had 92 votes. The guy in first place had 164. Take a minute to ponder the arithmetic there, and then go vote. I promise it only take twenty seconds and would mean the world to me!

Besides, how can you say no to this face?

Nell, as envisioned by one of my ridiculously talented best friends, Jeannine
Nell, as envisioned by one of my ridiculously talented best friends, Jeannine

Silent Echo, JR Rain

For me, the new year almost always comes in with a whimper and not a bang. Over the years, I’ve had frostbitten feet, legendary colds, emergency room visits, friendships fall apart, and of course, the requisite hangovers from nights (and years) I just needed to forget. The holidays that weren’t terrible have mostly been dull, with the exception of a few years, like this one, that were simple – board games, good people, and more food than we could possibly eat. I cherish a New Year’s Eve that allows for quiet conversations and reflection about the past year, and on Tuesday night, I got both. It capped off a remarkably good holiday season, and after taking time to think about the last 365 days, what was probably one of my best years ever.

Judging from the posts and articles I’ve seen across the web in the last week, I feel like I’m sort of on my own in thinking that 2013 was a year for the record books. Aside from the friends I have who are perpetually thankful for their health and families (don’t we all know and love people who are just so earnestly delighted by the world that even a terrible year has a silver lining for them?), I’ve seen a lot of “thank goodness for a fresh start” messages. While I’m grateful that a year that began with a nasty case of the flu and the passing of my grandmother has resolved itself so wonderfully, I just want to say, to those of you desperately looking ahead, I feel you – I’ve been there, and I know exactly how needed January can be some years. I very much hope that, regardless of what 2013 has held, this next year will have exceptional highs for each of us.

One of the most amazing things about reading is that sometimes it’s possible to find just the right book at just the right time totally by chance. Silent Echo was a free novel I picked in November as an Amazon Prime kindle member (excellent perk, by the way). I’d never heard of the author, and all I had to go on was a blurb by the editor. It turned out to be a fabulous book to end my year on.

Rain’s protagonist, Jimmy, is a private eye living on borrowed time. He’s dying from an incurable AIDs-related cancer and has given up working until he’s approached by a high school friend with a case. It turns out to be one he can’t refuse, tied as it is to the unsolved murder of his younger brother. This case catapults Jimmy out of his near-death ennui into an incredible journey that’s part thriller and part examination of the bittersweet relationships that evolve at the end of life. Jimmy is in no way a faultless narrator, but Rain weaves a compelling story right from the start, and by Christmas Eve when I finished the book, I was weeping satisfied tears.

Silent Echo takes its genre to a better place. This murder mystery gave me pause during a season of reflection. Jimmy’s physical struggles and psychological scars made me appreciate the pleasures I often take for granted. Look how I can get off the bed and walk! I can use the bathroom without help, and when I want to see a friend, I don’t have to wonder if they’ll shy away from my touch. I can chew and go to the beach and drive my car. I can do a thousand things every day, and while they seem like nothing to me – washing my hair, buying a cup of coffee, having a conversation – they are, in fact, precious.

I don’t think I can be reminded of that too much, especially during this dark winter month when I need to regroup for the year ahead. I doubt I could appreciate more a novel that manages to tell a great story and nudge me to take stock at the same time.

New year. New chapter. Time to take advantage of what we can do – or at the very least, read a great book.


For more about JR Rain, head over here.