In August of 2019, I received the incredible blessing of serving at a wedding. The bride was my high school teacher, and she was fulfilling her dream of having her students play a vital role in the ceremony. Together with my classmates, I set up tables, welcomed guests, and prepared food.
That night provided a tiny glimpse of God’s kingdom on earth. Simple beauty abounded— from the venue in the forest to the elegant arrangement of Costco’s rotisserie chicken as we served it on wooden platters.
And in the midst of all that joyful service, I heard a song, a wedding gift written for the bride and groom. It’s called “Beauty in Our Eyes”, and even two years later it remains one of my favorite songs of all time.
I wanted to share it with you today:
It’s rich in appreciation of the goodness God offers. I hope you’ll enjoy it.
Last year, while in quarantine, I was reading through the book of Numbers when I noticed something weird: God gets mad at a prophet for obeying him.
At least, that’s how it appears at first glance. But I read the rest of the book, and some details stood out to me, details that made the weird bits make more sense. Today, I’d like to share what I learned with you.
The story starts in chapter 22.
Balak, the king of the Moabites, has a problem. A powerful nomadic nation has set up camp across the river Jordan, one too powerful for Balak’s armies to defeat. Two neighboring kings— Sihon of the Ammonites and Og of Bashan— have already attacked them, only to be destroyed.
So Balak seeks out supernatural aid. There’s a prophet nearby, Balaam, who has a track record of successful curses. A good, solid curse— that’s what Balak needs to stop the Israelite threat once and for all. He sends messengers to Balaam, loaded with gold and silver to pay the prophet for his services.
But Balaam— having been warned by God not to take the job— refuses. So Balak ups his offer, saying “I will surely do you great honor, and whatever you say to me I will do. Come, curse this people for me” (Num. 22:17).
Balaam considers, and this time, he gets a new message from God: “If the men have come to call you, rise, go with them; but only do what I tell you.”
This is where it gets weird. Because here’s the next thing the Bible tells us:
“Balaam rose in the morning and saddled his donkey and went with the princes of Moab. But God’s anger was kindled because he went” (22:21-22, emphasis added).
1) God tells Balaam to go
2) Balaam goes
3) God is angry
A look at the broader context of this passage reveals Balaam’s motivation and helps us understand God’s displeasure. Remember, God didn’t just tell Balaam to go— he also gave specific instructions to “only do what I tell you.” As later becomes clear, Balaam has a lot more in mind than simply following God’s instructions. He thinks he knows how God works, and he’s hatching a nefarious plan to remove God’s favor from the Israelites.
But before we explore that, we get to look at the most famous part of this story: the talking donkey.
Three times the angel of the Lord blocks Balaam’s path as he travels, and three times his donkey proves more perceptive than her master. Each time she turns from the road to avoid the angel, Balaam grows angry and hits her. The third time, she talks. “What have I done to you, that you have struck me these three times?” (22:28). Balaam, interestingly, responds as if conversing with his donkey were the most normal thing in the world: “Because you have made a fool of me. I wish I had a sword in my hand, for then I would kill you.”
Now something really unusual happens. The donkey reasons. She offers a calm, rational response that shows Balaam how foolish he is: “Am I not your donkey, which you have ridden all you life long to this day? Is it my habit to treat you this way?”
The donkey asks her rider to why she might be behaving differently than she has in the past. What it is about this journey that makes it different from all the other journeys they’ve been on together? In becoming angry with his steed, what truth has Balaam missed?
Balaam, perhaps chastened, answers with a simple “No.” Then, at last, he sees the angel of the Lord, and realizes the truth— his life was in grave danger, and he was only saved because the donkey proved smarter than he was.
“Why have you struck your donkey these three times?” asks the angel of the Lord. “I have come out to oppose you, because your way is perverse before me. If she had not turned aside from me, surely just now I would have killed you and let her live” (22:32-33).
God uses the donkey to steer Balaam toward repentance. By undermining one of his basic assumptions (that he knows better than his animal), God gives him a chance to review his other basic assumptions— assumptions about the character of God. Assumptions about the “perverse way” that he plans to ally with the king of Moab. Balaam has plans that are far astray from anything God ever intended, and here he receives an opportunity to rethink them.
Again God repeats his earlier warning: “Go with the men, but speak only the word that I tell you.”
At first, Balaam seems to heed this warning. Three times, Balak asks him to curse the Israelites, and three times Balaam blesses them instead. Each time he reminds Balak— “All that Lord says, that I must do” (23:26).
After his third blessing, the Bible tells us that “Balak’s anger was kindled against Balaam, and he struck his hands together. And Balak said to Balaam, ‘I called you to curse my enemies, and behold, you have blessed them these three times. Therefore now flee to your own place” (24:10-11). But before Balaam can run away from the angry king, he must deliver one more message, a prophecy predicting Israel’s ultimate triumph over Moab.
The Bible doesn’t detail Balak’s reaction, but my guess is that if he was angry before, he’s absolutely livid now. Imagine you’ve hired a plumber to fix your sink. Not only does he break all the pipes, he also tells you that your septic tank is going to explode and spew human waste all over your house. Yeah... that’s pretty much what just happened with Balaam.
But wait— perhaps Balak threatens Balaam, or perhaps the prophet wants another shot at all that honor and wealth the king promised. Either way, Balaam hasn’t given up on the job of cursing the Israelites.
He ignores God’s warning.
And he puts his nefarious plan into action.
The Biblical narrative shifts abruptly, leaving behind Balak and Balaam to focus on the Israelites. Turns out they’re not doing so well at listening to God either.
“The people began to whore with the daughters of Moab. These invited the people to the sacrifices of their gods, and the people ate and bowed down to their gods. So Israel yoked himself to Baal of Peor” (25:1-3).
This is a fundamental failure on the part of the Israelites to be who God called them to be. The image of Israel’s yoke is one of bondage. The Israelite’s sexual immorality and idolatry has returned them to the state of slavery, as they were in Egypt before God called them.
What exactly is going on here? And why does this story follow directly on the heels of Balaam’s failed curse attempts?
The answer becomes clear in chapter 31, when the identity of the one who sent the ‘daughters of Moab’ is revealed.
“Moses said to them, ‘Have you let these women live? Behold, these, on Balaam’s advice, caused the people of Israel to act treacherously against the Lord in the incident of Peor” (31:15-16, emphasis added).
Balaam recognizes that he can never drive God away from Israel. That as long as God’s favor rests upon them, the Israelites will defeat the Moabites in every battle they fight.
And God will never leave his people.
But... I imagine him whispering in Balak’s ear after the failed cursing... but, if he can get the Israelites to leave their God...
And so he sends in women with orders to seduce. This seems the most likely explanation for why the angel of the Lord called his way “perverse”— he had this scheme in mind from the very beginning.
Balaam has an accurate understanding of God’s power. But he completely fails to grasp God’s love.
The scheme anticipates that God will no longer aid the Israelites once they start worshipping other Gods, thus leaving them open to a Moabite attack. But that’s not what happens at all. God doesn’t abandon them to be attacked by the Moabites.
Instead, he attacks them himself.
In their idolatry and sexual immorality, the Israelites have brought a terrible spiritual sickness upon themselves, one they’re unable to recognize. To open their eyes, God links their sin to a physical sickness, one that kills twenty-four thousand of them (25:9).
God raises up Phinehas, the zealous priest who purges evildoers from the tent of meeting and makes “atonement for the people of Israel” (25:13). He strikes down those among the Israelites who align themselves with the false gods, thus bringing an end to the plague.
God attacks the Israelites, not to utterly destroy them, but to bring about repentance and restoration. He pours out fierce anger, but not forever. The Israelites repent of their sin and are God’s people once more.
Balaam’s plan fails because he never accounted for God’s love.
In the end, Balaam causes the very outcome he was hired to prevent. With Phinehas at their head, the Israelites attack the Midianites in order to avenge their deception. Balaam himself is among those killed in the conflict (25:16-18, 31:8).
Thousands of years later, Jesus would utter some words that summarize the warning Balaam ignored: “Temptations to sin are sure to come, but woe to him through whom they come! It would be better for him if a millstone were hung around his neck and he were cast into the sea than that he should cause one of these little ones to sin” (Luke 17:1-2).
Because God loves his people, he wants to free them from sin. And his love can never be stopped— so anyone who tries to interfere with a believer’s struggle to become righteous is bound to be defeated.
That’s one lesson I drew from the book of Numbers last year— that, and the lesson that donkeys are sometimes smarter than people.
I recently became aware of a mystery that lies deep in the human mind— a mystery I’m only aware of because of the bizarre behavior it produces. You see, I was in a casual conversation with a couple of my female classmates, and they mentioned that they’d watched a vapid and cliched chick flick recently. Because they’d hoped for a good movie and were disappointed? No! To my horror, I realized they’d turned on this movie fully aware of its awfulness.
At first, I thought this must be a bizarre form of self-flagellation associated with occult rituals, and wondered if I should inform the faculty. Fortunately, my classmates clarified that it was perfectly normal, saying “sometimes you just want to turn off your brain for a couple of hours, you know?”
I prefer books to film, but I feel the same way. Sometimes I don’t need a masterpiece. I don’t always look for complex themes or characters a dozen layers deep or exquisite prose. Sometimes a good story is good enough.
There are few transcendental masterpieces in this world; there are many good stories. Enough that you should never have to read a truly bad story, even if you’re just looking to relax. Relaxation is good. Relaxation while reading a good story? Even better.
When a random author emailed me out of the blue and asked me to review her novel, I wasn’t sure what to expect. But I had some time to fill in between homework assignments, and E.B Roshan is a fellow Christian as well as a fellow author, so I agreed. She sent me a mobi file of her story, For Better and Worse, and I dove into it.
It was a good story.
Not life-altering, but good. At 50k words, it’s in the gray area between novella and novel— short enough for me to read in an evening. Which I did, enjoying the relatable characters and well-paced plot.
Boris and Anna are a married couple running a catering service in the midst of a war-torn city with their first child on the way. They struggle to love each other despite the conflict building between them— Anna wanting to flee to a safer city, Boris wanting to stay. Things only get worse when Boris rashly stands up to injustice and draws the attention of the local mob boss.
The worldbuilding is weird— we get a couple brief mentions of World War 3 ending, so it’s set in an alternate universe, but not one with any distinctive features. Dor is a generic war-ravaged city. But unless you’re looking for an intricate, well-thought out alternate history, this won’t be a big problem. The setting doesn’t explore many interesting questions because it never raises them in the first place.
It’s a romance— the relationship between Boris and Anna serves as the story’s emotional core. But it has the distinction of featuring an already married couple, which I enjoyed.
Oh, it’s also the fourth book in a series. I read it without having read the other three, and it stands alone just fine.
Next time you feel the urge to watch a chick flick, read For Better and Worse instead. The title says it all. Better: this book. Worse: super dumb movies that somehow people still pay money to see. Why would you want a worse thing when you could have a better?
Last week, I witnessed the biggest torrential downpour of my life.
The sky broke open and vented the full force of its fury. At times, the world seemed to be at the bottom of a waterfall. At others, the rain stopped, but the gray clouds kept constant watch, ready for the next outburst.
Lightning flashed from the east to the west. Thunder hearkened back to the Civil War, echoing the artillery shells that exploded on Franklin’s battlefields. Or, if you prefer a more peaceful analogy, think of it the way my friend Emily desired it: God was rearranging the furniture. And he broke the plumbing in the process.
I’d seen rain before, but not like this. In California, the sky holds a grudge. Its rain comes slow but steady, drizzling for as long as a week straight. The world becomes grey and damp. The rain falls and falls, but almost never heavily, until the storm finally peters out.
Not so in Tennessee. Here, the sky lets its anger out all at once. Clouds darken, thunder booms, and it pours. Great sheets of rainwater pelt the ground. Then just as quickly as it started, the storm relents, and the sun emerges once more.
This storm came in fits and bursts. When I went out for my morning run on Saturday, I thought I’d be fine because it wasn’t raining. By the time I got back, I was so soaked you could’ve wrung me like a dishrag.
But by the next day, the last of the clouds had cleared— and left behind a wondrous sight.
This time, I had to alter my morning run because my typical route was flooded. But it was worth it. I loved seeing the park in a totally new way.
I saw some very happy ducks
This bench would form the perfect scene for two lovers— just sitting together, bare feet dangling in the water, enjoying the rich scent of a world reborn.
Trees rising over the water like sentinels
A new peninsula is formed. Imagine if the entire park were ruled by various nations of tiny people… how would the drastic changes in geography wrought by the flood force them to change?
Sunlight gleaming off the water… it looks like fairies could live here. Perhaps the tiny people will have the seek the help of magical creatures to in order to learn the ship-craft they need to survive in this strange new world.
Those two little tiny black dots sticking up out of the water are turtle-heads. I tried to get a picture of one closer to the shore but they always swam away when they saw me coming.
I didn’t make it to church Sunday morning because the country issued a flash flood warning, advising against driving anywhere. I decided to stay home rather than risk getting stuck in something like this:
Since I couldn’t attend church, I spent a couple hours in the park, praying and reflecting on God’s goodness. Then I went on a long walk and explored new parts of my neighborhood. It turned out to be incredibly refreshing. My social life is now more active than ever before, so it was good to spend some time alone.
The biggest storm I’ve ever seen thus far has passed, and I ended up grateful for it, even though getting soaked was annoying. I’m thoroughly enjoying spring in Tennessee. The fresh air and longer days invigorate me like nothing else.
I strolled through the living room of my childhood home on a sunny California afternoon. A random book my 11-year old brother had pulled off the library shelf lay on the table, and I picked it up. The premise— a boy caring for his autistic sister in a magical garden growing rapidly out of control— piqued my interest, and I started to read, having no particular expectations.
And I was completely blown away.
Mighty Jack and its sequel, Mighty Jack and the Goblin King, are perhaps my favorite graphic novels of all time. They’re written for a middle-grade audience, but I’ve enjoyed them just as much as my younger siblings. The characters are fascinating, the worldbuilding full of mystery, and the artwork fun to look at.
Our hero, Jack, is instantly sympathetic, as we see his love for his financially struggling single mother and autistic sister, Maddy. He finds himself in way over his head after Maddy inexplicably instructs him to buy seeds that turn out to be magical. His headstrong neighbor, Lily, gets involved— followed by dragons and ogres. Things only get worse until the climactic disaster that leads into the second book.
And this is where the series really stands out. In Mighty Jack and the Goblin King, the stakes are so real that the characters’ fear, anger and love bleed right into your own. The story successfully melds the looming darkness with age-appropriateness for its target audience, and thus becomes capable of seizing the imaginations of young and old alike. The final triumph of goodness is so much more powerful for the genuine threat posed by the monsters our heroes must overcome.
One aspect of Mighty Jack that makes it so compelling is the familial love on display. Jack’s primary goal is to protect his sister, and although his own fear and selfishness sometimes conflict with that, his love for her shines though in the end.
The climactic battle in Mighty Jack and the Goblin King has a few panels of blood and violence. My siblings weren’t bothered by it at all, but some Amazon reviews said it gave their little kids nightmares.
The two Mighty Jack books are delightful in every way. I’d recommend them to any child or adult looking for an excellent story in graphic novel format.
There’s a third book, Mighty Jack and Zita the Spacegirl, which is a crossover with Ben Hatke’s Zita the Spacegirl series. My brother and I eagerly awaited its release, but were sorely disappointed. The plot makes no sense, character development is out the window (except for one touching moment with Lily) and the intimidating villains of the last book are reduced to oafs. On the plus side, the artwork is awesome— I loved seeing portrayals of our characters as a few years older than we last saw them.
Mighty Jack and the Goblin King provides a satisfying ending to the series, and in my headcanon, it is the final book.
“Boys, handle the military. Mommy will be right back.”
I left the theater in April 2019 with a feeling of satisfaction. The movie I’d just finished watching, Avengers: Endgame, was a lumbering behemoth, with glaring flaws to match its moments of sublime beauty and sheer awesomeness, but it offered the one thing I wanted most out of Marvel’s storyline: a conclusion. The character arcs of Captain America, Black Widow, Iron Man and Hawkeye had all come to together in a fitting climax. With that, I resolved to let the end be the end, have none of this Phase 4 nonsense, and exit the Marvel fandom.
Then Marvel released a sitcom mashed with a psychological thriller, starring two of my favorite characters.
The opening episodes of the new series WandaVision so utterly defied Marvel’s typical formula that I (against my better judgement) took my sister’s recommendation and let myself be sucked back into the franchise. And, wow, am I glad I did.
The concept is wildly innovative (if it seems too weird at first, hang in there. All shall be revealed in good time).
Character development is excellent. I really enjoyed Wanda’s internal transformation, and how each of the side characters forced her to change and grow.
There are NO fight scenes for the first eight episodes (the finale features the epic battle that is the sine qua non of any Marvel story). Instead of physical combat, we get tense confrontations and deeply meaningful family interactions as Wanda struggles to love her husband and children while navigating the moral minefield she’s placed herself in.
And did I mention the humor? The first few episodes had me laughing my eyebrows off.
The final episode is about as good as I could reasonably expect it to be, given that it’s made by Marvel. There’s enough resolution that I could watch it and be happy— no need to follow the franchise across another 800 movies to find out what happens to these characters. Several loose ends are left as teasers for future productions, but I’m fine with never seeing those tied up.
WandaVision contains some troubling themes, mainly regarding ambiguities as to what, exactly, constitutes a human person. In the show, new life is created by unnatural means, and the moral implications of that aren’t seriously explored.
However, that’s something I have to put up with, as I live in a culture which seems to only be getting more and more confused about what it means to be human. I can still enjoy WandaVision while acknowledging its flaws.
In fact, if I want a better story, I’ll have to just write it myself. And so I will.
On a positive note, the show does an excellent job portraying Wanda’s struggle with her grief, how she handles it poorly, and how she’s able to face it by the end of the show. Even villainous characters help her change for the better, which I enjoyed.
A few raunchy jokes, but nothing particularly concerning. One character is a ‘witch’, although one who flies around and shoots colorful balls out of her hands rather than engaging in actual occult practices.
If you’re willing to give Disney your money, WandaVision is a good reason to do it. All nine episodes are currently available on Disney+.
Ideas abound in an author’s brain, but weaving them together into a coherent novel is taxing work. A novel is like a 3D puzzle with dozens of extraneous pieces. It’s not enough for an idea to be interesting by itself. Each piece of the story must tie into the others, advancing the plot, complicating character relationships, deepening theme.
But what about those rejected ideas, the ones you love but just can’t find a place for in your longer stories? Many of my own ideas have found homes in flash fiction— focused stories in 1000 words or less. Over the past two years, I’ve had twenty pieces of flash fiction published through the ezine Havok. My third, One Shot, was chosen for publication in Havok’s first print anthology. Flash fiction is the ideal medium through which to hone a single idea into a complete story.
Writing good flash fiction, however, requires more than simply tossing a cool premise or engaging character on a sheet of paper. Although three-act structure doesn’t apply to such brief tales, considering how plot, character and theme manifest in flash fiction can greatly improve your writing. Introduce emotional stakes with compelling character relationships. Intrigue your readers with creative premises and clever plot twists. And finally, use change to communicate theme and give your story lasting significance.
The heart of your story lies in your characters: specifically, the relationships between them. Whether between a mother and daughter, a romantic couple, or a man and his own conscience, compelling flash fiction contains at least one relationship. True, you could a write a story about, say, a lone detective solving a mystery and rely on the cleverness of your plot to make your story entertaining, but complicating your protagonist’s crime-busting quest with a messy relationship would make it much more so. The best stories appeal to both heart and mind.
So, how do you craft compelling relationships? First, keep your cast small. In general, flash fiction should have no more than three characters, or one for every 350 words. I sometimes use the following blueprint for picking my characters: a protagonist (who wants to achieve a goal), a relationship character (the reason he wants to achieve it) and an antagonist (who’s stopping him from achieving it). For example, in One Shot, my protagonist wants to kill a vampire. His friend and partner in vampire-hunting, Kray, makes his quest more personal: if he fails, the vampire will kill Kray. My antagonist, of course, is the vampire, Lord Dreadsower. These three characters are all I need to tell an engaging story.
Of course, the above blueprint is a general guideline rather than an absolute rule. A character’s inner struggle, for example, could substitute for an external relationship. Whatever you do, don’t make it easy! Real relationships are never simple, and an additional layer of conflict ratchets up your story’s stakes and helps suck readers in. For example, in One Shot, the friendship between the two vampire hunters is threatened by a dangerous secret kept by the protagonist.
Your protagonist needs a clear and relatable goal. In flash fiction, he should pursue that goal from the very first word. You don’t have time to introduce him in his ordinary life and then hit him with a plot event that forces him to act. Ideally, the goal should connect to a relationship character. Either he needs the other character in order to achieve his goal, or he pursues his goal because of that character. Alternatively, his goal could bring him into conflict with someone he loves, and he’s torn between the two of them— in this case the relationship character and antagonist could one and the same.
Say you have a dynamic duo for your story— a father and son on a quest to slay a dragon. They want to slay the dragon to prevent it from eating all their cows and causing their family to starve to death in the winter. Relatable, right? Now, you could simply write the story as one big fight scene, ending with the dragon’s death. However, such a straightforward plot is boring. While relatable characters help engage reader’s emotions, a creative plot engages the intellect. Most readers have heard tales of heroes slaying monsters before. Give them something more complex. Maybe both the son and the dragon are seriously injured, and the father must choose between saving his son or finishing his foe. Or maybe a seemingly insignificant piece of information from the first few paragraphs turns out to the key to defeating the dragon.
Foreshadow plot twists early. An unexplained reference in the first or second paragraph will raise questions in your readers’ minds and make them want to read more. If your plot twist is that water dissolves the dragon’s armor, weave a subtle hint into the narrative. Perhaps your protagonist notices that none of the villages by the lakeside have been ravaged and sends his family to take refuge there.
Keep it simple. Typically, flash fiction only has room for one major plot twist. If you want to reveal that the dragon dies to water and your hero’s long-lost brother is alive and have his son be mortally wounded by the dragon’s talons, you’re looking at seeds of a short story or novella.
A unique plot makes your story stand out. If you combine one with a compelling character relationship, you have the core components for a powerful piece of flash fiction.
Just because you spend relatively little time with the characters and setting of flash fiction doesn’t mean they should stay the same. Change is the engine through which your story’s theme plays out. Through change, you elevate your story from mere entertainment to something that makes a lasting impact in the lives of your readers.
In flash fiction, you don’t have time to carry out a whole character arc, so choose a moment of crisis for your story. Introduce your protagonist in a situation where he will be forced to make an irreversible decision. Whether a father sacrificing his life for his children, or a lover revealing a secret he fears will jeopardize his relationship, these moments of intense transformation sear themselves into our minds, not only when we experience them personally, but when we vicariously experience them through fiction.
Your character doesn’t have to undergo a major change in his beliefs every time, but if he doesn’t, his beliefs should change his circumstances. Maybe he resists a corrupt government— and receives a death sentence. Or maybe he witnesses the heroism of a martyr and is inspired to also resist tyranny. A general rule for all storytelling, not just flash fiction, is this: If your characters are virtuous, make them suffer. If not, make them change— either by embracing goodness and abandoning their old lifestyle, or by spiraling deeper into corruption and reaping the consequences.
Not every flash fiction needs dramatic decisions and huge personal stakes. You could write a lighthearted tale and do just fine. In general, however, stories with greater tension will leave a stronger impression on your readers.
Humor strengthens any story. Melding it with a serious crisis can produce in just 1000 words is difficult, but if done well, results in an immensely memorable story. I’ve found an excellent example in an early Havok story, A.R Hildebrand’s Of Life and Breakfast, which uses an absentminded Grim Reaper to drive home the importance of using our limited time well— and too make us laugh.
Without change, the theme of any story will fall flat. With flash fiction, you can distill a theme into one choice and the consequences of that choice. Show how either your protagonist changes, or how his decisions change the world around him. In doing so you have an opportunity to exhort your readers to joy and virtue and warn them away from wickedness, and in doing so change your own world for the better.
A couple of relatable characters. A clever plot twist or creative premise. An irreversible decision and its fallout. With these, you have the bones of an evocative piece of flash fiction. True, staying concise while including enough details to entice readers is a tricky art to master. However, with flash fiction even more so than other mediums, failure is an option. A entire story can be written in a day, and each failed draft only contributes to your overall skill. So I encourage you, the next time you have a good idea that just don’t fit into any of your longer projects, don’t throw it away. Instead, see if you can meld those outcast characters and discarded plot devices into something new, and perhaps you’ll end up with a piece of flash fiction you can be proud of.
Chris Fabry’s June Bug tackles the unique challenges of writing a child protagonist head-on and masters them. The story takes its name from its nine-year old heroine, who lives the life of a vagabond, traveling in an RV under the loving care of the man she assumes is her father. As a viewpoint character, June Bug is both realistic and compelling, all without be an orphan (well, sort of). Even from before the moment when she sees her own face in a poster for missing children, she forms the core of the engine that drives the novel’s plot, changing the lives of the characters around her.
Along with To Kill a Mockingbird, June Bug falls into the category of one of my favorite type of novels— those with a convincing child protagonist, yet targeted at an older audience. The story delves into some dark areas, mainly while in the viewpoint of the sheriff investigating the disappearance of the girl in the poster. However, the love between June Bug and her father-figure, John Johnson (there’s an important reason he’s named that) shines a light throughout— even when the mysterious circumstances that led to Johnson becoming June Bug’s guardian put a strain on their relationship.
Here, as in the other one of his books I’ve read, The Promise of Jesse Woods, Fabry excels at portraying Christian characters in a homestead, nuanced way that flows naturally from the story. No preachiness, no overly sanitized body of Christ that are the only people to give the protagonist good advice, not even any conversion scenes— just realistic Christian characters, living with the spirit of God inside of them, yes, but going through the same struggles anyone else might.
June Bug and her father-figure form the best part of this book. I found other plot lines, like the one about the sheriff and the grandmother of the missing girl, less compelling— not bad, just falling short of the ‘I will follow this character anywhere’ level.
A couple of quotes that made me laugh, to show you June Bug’s awesomeness:
“Dad drank his coffee black, which I could never understand because I tried it once and it tasted like drinking week-old rainwater out of a shoe.”
“The man sighed like I’d just told him the world was coming to an end on Thursday and he was going fishing on Friday.”
Although June Bug contains no graphic sexual content, it does touch on some sexual perversity. The sheriff interrogates a suspect who is implied to possess child pornography, and later listens to an account of a woman who used her sexuality to bribe a man into committing a crime.
No objectionable language.
Some moments of intense peril and descriptions of a veteran’s PTSD, but nothing really to worry about.
More concerning are graphic descriptions of cute puppies. Be wary of giving June Bug to your wife, sister or mother, unless you’d like to increase your home’s canine population.
June Bug is a compelling story with a vivid and lovable heroine. Highly recommended for anyone who likes contemporary Christian fiction, Les Miserables, or who is simply looking for a good story.
Today snow fell upon my home for the first time ever.
I grew up in the desert, but this afternoon I realized that my new home in Franklin, Tennessee is one of those places with frozen atmosphere water falling from the sky. The white specks dotted the air around my school, blown sideways by the wind and vanishing as soon as they hit the ground.
I've seen snow before, of course. Idaho and my cousins' mountain abode in Northern California both have copious amounts of it. But in those places I was a guest who would soon return to a hometown seldom afflicted by anything more than a thin layer of frost that vanished by midmorning. Now I have to figure out how to live with this stuff.
Even as I write these words, my skyporch bears a blanket of snow. It's actually quite idyllic, viewed from my heated apartment. The idyll comes with a cost, though. Walking outside has grown complicated. No longer can I simply step out my own front door. No-- I must prepare myself with many layers of soft armor to ward off the piercing cold.
I visited Hillsdale College in Michigan last February. Now I am very glad I did not end up there; I would freeze to death.
My fellow writer in the Iron Project, Marybeth Davis, will probably laugh when she reads this. Because of her I am forced to make this concession: snowflakes are not just frozen menaces. She visited my college this morning, and after class let out called attention to the beauty of a single snowflake. Perfectly symmetrical, with six intricate flowery points.
I should get used to making such observations. I intend to settle in Tennessee for several more years at least. These bitter winters will be part of my life, and I only stand to gain more joy if I learn to see the beauty in them.
At least this way I'll be better at writing inclement weather in my stories.
I typically don't get along with YA contemporary fantasy, but when my sister Maddie charged me with reading Kara Swanson's Dust, I gave the genre another try. Maddie's view proved correct: I thoroughly enjoyed Dust, letting the story grab my attention for hours during the road trip to Tennessee.
The premise: Claire, a nineteen-year old orphan with mysterious dust that flakes continuously from her skin, travels to London in a desperate gamble to find her twin brother. Meanwhile, Peter Pan has been kicked out of Neverland, and needs Claire’s help to get his old life back. Kara uses the original Peter Pan as backstory, although I found myself enjoying this one more— Dust replaces Barrie’s extremely disturbing omniscient narrator with a first-person, present tense POV that alternates between Claire and Peter. The two narrative voices are distinctly developed, so much that the chapter headings declaring the POV are almost unnecessary.
Kara’s reinterpretation of Tiger Lily, who voluntarily leaves her home in Neverland to accompany Peter after his fall to earth, was the most striking character in the book for me. She functions as a mentor figure to both Peter and Claire, which I appreciated, as it is rare for a girl (other than a love interest) to be the voice of truth in a male character’s arc. Tiger Lily and Peter have a deep, meaningful friendship, although without so much as a hint of romance. This makes sense, considering that Tiger Lily is light-years ahead of Peter in terms of maturity.
Dust ends in a way that both satisfies all major promises made earlier in the story, and leaves us with a cliffhanger that sets up the second book in the series. Claire’s arc wraps up a chapter earlier than Peter’s. For a moment I prepared myself to turn the page into the acknowledgements and declare, “that was not a good ending!”. However, one final chapter from Peter’s POV sets all things right.
Kara Swanson is a Christian, but the Christian elements in Dust are implied rather than stated. Both lead character undergo powerful transformations. Peter is forced to confront the sins of his past and begin the long, hard journey toward growing up. Claire must learn to accept love despite finding herself worthy of rejection. Both characters’ journeys take us deep into their souls, and watching Claire and Peter grow helps the same growth take place in our own souls.
Some fighting, but without much detail. Passionate kissing.
Although I normally don’t enjoy YA contemporary fantasy, Dust proved an exception. If you’d like to start with something shorter (and without a cliffhanger ending) try Kara Swanson’s earlier novella The Girl Who Could See. This basically serves as Dust-lite, with a similar premise and cast of characters, but a less complex plot.
Now that I think of it, Kara’s short story Seaglass also has a similar premise, but on an even smaller scale. Almost as if her entire career has been building up to Dust. Interesting. This makes me eager to see where she’ll take her work next.
Disclaimer: Up until my move to Tennessee a couple weeks ago, I attended the same church as Kara Swanson. I never knew her on a personal level, but my sister talked with her quite a bit. Anyway, Kara is one of Maddie’s favorite people, and Maddie is one of my favorite people.
Progress on The Lore of yore, Second draft:
Progress on The Lore of Yore, third draft:
"In truth, by leaving, I was seeking only one thing. A journey."
-Oathbringer, pg 981