In Broken Places- Book Review

In_Broken_Places-681x1024 I have the great privilege of reviewing another great work of art by Michèle Phoenix.

In Broken Places was previously published as Shards of Shell by Dog Ear Publishing, but was picked up this year by Tyndale House (to the benefit of all, if I don’t say so myself!)

The back cover of the books gives a snippet of who Michèle is and why she writes what she writes. But just a snippet.

Born in France to an American mother and a Canadian father, Michèle Phoenix is an international writer with multicultural sensitivities. A graduate of Wheaton College, she taught writing, music, and theater at the boarding school for missionaries’ children she attended as a teenager. She currently works for Global Outreach Mission as an advocate for “third culture kids,” helping them transition back to North American culture and educating stateside churches and missions about the special needs of this people group.

The missionaries’ school mentioned here refers to the one in Kandern, where I currently live. My husband teaches grade five at this school, Black Forest Academy, where a portion of the story In Broken Places occurs.

In fact, I teach the Creative Writing class the Michèle once taught.

In Broken Places follows a young women, Shelby, as memories and fear of her troubled childhood come back to trouble her present. Shelby has to decide whether “ashes” can be made beautiful in her own life, or whether to flee from all the things that trigger her trauma. In a moment of courage, Shelby decides to move across the world with her new four year-old daughter in order to start life afresh. She takes a teaching position at a missionary school, Black Forest Academy, in the southern Black Forest of Germany. Here she comes face to face with the ways her past can strengthen her… or forever maim her from enjoying everything good in her life.

This is a story of overcoming deep and painful struggle.

The weighty plot elements are driven by loveable, relatable characters. A number of the characters brought the faces of people I know to mind… the everyday people in my life. This made me realize just how “normal” these characters are… and how their quirks, flaws, strengths… are all part of our general life stories. Or of those we know.

The style of writing is artistic, with a flow that keeps it “real” but also intelligent. The voices are distinct, each with their own bit of humor, which helps to lighten a difficult topic. I love Shelby’s brother, Trey. I’ve always wanted a Trey in my life. Always. But that’s more about me (and perhaps a post for another day, called “Phantom Big Brothers). Regardless, Trey is a sidelines hero and, though Michèle didn’t originally plan him as part of the story, he convinced her of his place, and rightly so.

As you can imagine, I enjoyed this book with great bias. I could picture everything… the theatre practices, the town, the hikes in the woods to nearby castles. When a local village was mentioned, I smiled. When Shelby grappled with transitioning to a new culture (both that of Germany and that of the missionary community), you would’ve caught me nodding my head in agreement, or chuckling at how Shelby’s experience, at times, was such a mirror of my own.

It’s not a fast-paced book (though it is a fairly quick read). It’s not filled with catastrophic possible world-endings or mass destruction of millions (or a handful) of people. The energy that keeps the book moving forward is simply that of a wounded, traumatized person trying to understand life. When twists and turns threaten to rock the carefully controlled stability, fear of re-opened wounds, or propagating and repeating history, and of losing control, take front and center stage. Because you love the characters and care about their journey, you keep reading. Isn’t that why anyone ever keeps reading? Because you care? Well, when you read In Broken Places, you will care a lot about Shelby, Shayla, Trey, Scott, and a handful of others.

Even if you have no connections to Kandern, Germany, or even teaching-as-a-missionary life… this is a great book. If you are someone who has fears, obstacles, a past you don’t want to repeat… this book is for you. You’ll relate deeply with Shelby’s process. You’ll cheer for her… and as I found, in essence, your cheers will be as much for your own journey as hers.


You can purchase the book at Barnes N NobleAmazon, and a handful of other places which you can find here. You can also get a digital version from either of those places. Now get reading! 🙂

Reviewing Tangled Ashes by Michele Phoenix

TangledAshesCover I had the deep pleasure of reading and reviewing a book by Michele Phoenix, an alumni and former staff at Black Forest Academy.

Wow, that sentence seems so small compared to the magnitude of her time, energy, and entire person involvement with the community at Black Forest Academy, and Third Culture Kids worldwide.

I met Michele during a one week training with TeachBeyond at Wheaton College in 2010. I listened to her speak, looked over the books sitting on her table, and was moved by her heart for missionary children and their families.

We’ve stayed in touch on Facebook since that time… and unfortunately, her departure from BFA (after 19 years!) happened to coincide with our arrival… so we still don’t get to live in the same place.

How my writer’s heart longs for a local community of writers!

But alas, God has plans for her that are equally wonderful and life-changing… and need to occur stateside.

On to her books.

She has three: Tangled Ashes, Edge of Tidal Pools, and Shards of Shell.

She had been self-publishing her work… and after some divinely appointed circumstances, Tyndale House picked up two of her books! Considering the very few books they publish each year, this was incredible! From my side of the screen, I did a little dance and cheer for Michele.

And now I have the privilege of reading them! Edge of Title Pools was loaned to me by a dear friend as I prepared to enter the world at BFA of missionary children and third culture kids. I read it on our final road trip of fundraising this last July. It is very well written and felt clearly to me, a way that Michele was processing some of the harder aspects of her own life and ministry. And, as she writes, from the experiences of her friend who actually lives on the island and shares many experiences with the main character of the story.

I recently read Tangled Ashes. Having only read Edge of Tidal Pools, I sort of expected the same kind of dark themes and heavy writing. However, I was pleasantly surprised to find a whole new kind of writing from Michele. This book is quite different from Edge of the Tidal Pools.

I won’t give you much of the content of the book (you’ll have to read it yourself) however it is a historical fiction set in World War II France. She beautifully weaves together the stories of multiple characters and time periods, bringing true-to-life places from her childhood into the role of core setting for her story. One of my favorite things was going to her website after reading the book and viewing the photo album of the places she had written about. I loved that! Of course, reading this book while living in Germany only made it that much more exciting… to know that the contents of her story happened to close to the very places I curl up, entering into a world that was not too long ago and held major ramifications for the world and this part of it specifically.

The reading was not as heavy or dark as the former book I’d read, but still so powerful in communicating the messages of pain and redemption for believers and unbelievers alike. I also appreciate that the story doesn’t end with a neatly tied bow on every person’s struggle… because that is not how life works. Yet she leaves enough hope that your soul isn’t dragging on the floorboards in grief either.

Tangled Ashes is a great story and I truly recommend that everyone read it. Especially if you like historical settings and events, cross-cultural stories, and wonderful story-telling.

It should be noted that I don’t do many book reviews from this site… so count it high that I’ve taken time to do one today! That’s how much I think of Michele and her books.

On that note… I’ll let you go get your book and start reading.

Happy St. Nicholas Day!



One Word Life Themes & Less Stuff

I reflect on our 2011 challenge (see it here). To get rid of HALF the things that we own.

I would like to report that we have INDEED passed on half of our belongings. More than half. 

Mostly because of something we didn’t realize at the time- we are leaving for Black Forest Academy in June and now must get rid of… well, anything that won’t fit in our luggage.

The irony is that we determined this “challenge” for 2011 to simplify- having no solid idea of our upcoming trek across the world. Isn’t God funny?

I haven’t decided what 2012’s “challenge” will be (though there are already plenty in my future… learning German, acclimating to a new culture, helping my children transition to their new lives, becoming fully funded by June, and so much more!)

Perhaps I don’t need to add to my already growing list of challenges for 2012!

I did run across the blog post of Mari Smith and her idea for a One Word Theme for 2012. This got me thinking.

My word leapt into my mind.


I want light to inspire my every moment through this year.

  • The “Light” of Christ to shine through me as I learn to love the German people with their love-languages, the children of missionaries within their unique wirings, and the staff and families I’ll be serving alongside.
  • The “Light” that keeps my life free from any guilt or deception as I choose to live transparently, hiding nothing, and remaining a person of integrity.
  • The revealing “Light” that lights the path of decisions, making known things hidden in the darkness and encouraging decisions filled with insight.
  • The “Light” that frees me to fully bloom into the woman and person that I am created to be.
  • The “Light” that liberates others to the same kind of freedoms (to be who they are meant to be) that I know (or will know 🙂 ).

“Our greatest fear is not that we are inadequate, but that we are powerful beyond measure. It is our light, not our darkness, that frightens us. We ask ourselves,who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, handsome, talented, and fabulous? Actually,who are you not to be? You are a child of God. Your playing small does not serve the world. There is nothing enlightened about shrinking so that other people won’t feel insecure around you. We were born to make manifest the glory of God within us. It is not just in some; it is in everyone. And, as we let our own light shine,we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same. As we are liberated from our fear, our presence automatically liberates others.” -Marianne Williamson


I encourage you to pick a word theme for yourself in this next year. You can read Mari’s blog post for inspiration or examples (words she’s chosen in previous years).

What is your word theme for 2012? How did you do with any challenges you set for 2011?