Book Review: Of Stillness and Storm

Hello friends!

I have the great pleasure of reviewing Of Stillness and Storm by Michèle Phoenix, a leading voice for Missionary Kids (having been raised as one herself). You can read more about Michèle here.

Michèle also has history with Black Forest Academy, which is how our paths originally crossed. Learning that we are both writers, love Jesus, and love MKs, we’ve stayed in touch over distance and time.

Here’s a synopsis of Of Stillness and Storm: 

“I felt torn between two worlds. Each with its own mystery. One more captivating than the other, but the other more real and breathing.”

It took Lauren and her husband ten years to achieve their dream—reaching primitive tribes in remote regions of Nepal. But while Sam treks into the Himalayas for weeks at a time, finding passion and purpose in his work among the needy, Lauren and Ryan stay behind, their daily reality more taxing than inspiring. For them, what started as a calling begins to feel like the family’s undoing.

At the peak of her isolation and disillusion, a friend from Lauren’s past enters her life again. But as her communication with Aidan intensifies, so does the tension of coping with the present while reengaging with the past. It’s thirteen-year-old Ryan who most keenly bears the brunt of her distraction.

As a mother serving in the mission field, this story hit close to home at times. No, I’m not in Nepal and my living conditions are considerably better (though you’d wonder on days where my internet services feels even less available than Lauren’s in the story).

Even so, this story has something for any person pursuing a life of purpose or calling or meaning. At what cost will we pursue that ambition? Whether we believe our “mission” is from God or we have a self-determined drive, what are we willing to give, or sell, or lose in the process?

That is something Michèle processes through her story of a family serving in Nepal. Even though the signs are everywhere, that their son is struggling, the she is struggling, her husband can only believe that God will work it out since He has called them to this service.

What do we do in these situations? How many well-meaning families have ended in divorce, suicide, depression, or complete burnout for the sake of what one or all believe is God’s purpose for their lives? How do we determine the difference between the God whose call trumps the health of the family, and a God who loves each and every one? The God who Himself rested? These are hard and deep questions, and while not given an absolute answer within Michèle’s story, are certainly addressed and played with.

Which makes it terribly uncomfortable.

Before that sends you running, let me explain.

Good and important themes often make us uncomfortable. And they probably should. They make us confront hard realities, stories we’d rather ignore or shove down, possibilities we want to believe don’t exist. What? A family serving God while having to deal with emotional affairs? Physical affairs? Troubled and rebellious children? Mental illness? Medication for depression? Suicide? Divorce? While not all of these present in the story of Lauren and Sam, the themes of their story make us look long and hard at the cost some families are paying in the name of “calling.”

Setting the mission aspect aside for a moment, Of Stillness and Storm also deals with emotional boundaries in a marriage and outside. Lauren finds herself in conversation with an old friend, right during a time where her heart toward her own man is muddled. Sam is gone a lot, serving the indigenous in their host country, leaving her to single parenting, transitioning into the new culture, and bearing the weight of a life that keeps catching her off guard.

Then comes Facebook and a new message.

Oh man, how I’ve had to guard my own heart at every instance in my marriage. How easily the enemy sneaks in with whispered promises of “better” or “more” or “see?” and how those lies can devastate whole families. Lauren knows this, of course, but refuses to really acknowledge the way her heart is moving toward this old friendship. This dangerous clinging to naivety only furthers her along the road of strain in her own marriage, family, and heart. Again, another issue that Michèle tackles with rawness and which, of course, made me uncomfortable. 🙂

But not so uncomfortable that I could put the book down.

No, the realness of their story kept me attached and I couldn’t let this sweet family go. I had to know what decisions they’d make. I had to know if Lauren would hand her heart over. I had to know if Sam would save his family or the villagers. I had to know if Ryan, their son, would finally adjust to life in this foreign country or if he’d crash and burn. Partly I had to know because my heart wants to know, too, what I think about God. Am I in a place to give my heart slowly and ignorantly to the destruction of my marriage? Do I believe God calls us to sacrifice our marriages and children for what we believe His causes are? Would I choose my children or our mission?

While I still have much to process in these themes, I found the story riveting. It wasn’t meant or written in such a way that I feel obligated to make big decisions for my life right now. But it did raise these themes to my awareness, themes that I’ve watch from the sidelines in some of the families I’ve served alongside… the quiet divorce and the family silently leaving the field. The expelled child whose actions send the whole family away. An affair amidst emotional and verbal abuse. It happens. And I hate that it happens. Of Stillness and Storm is one story of one family walking these tightropes.

It’s a worthy read. It’s an important read.

You can get it here.

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.

[youtube http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mMnBywfJJsE?rel=0]

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!