As one year ends and another begins, I am the girl who looks at my “to read pile” with excitement over the possibility of all of the stories and characters and insights waiting for me to uncover in the pages on my nightstand. But I am also, always, looking for new titles that will change and grow and educate and challenge and entertain me. So, if you’re anything like me, if you’re searching for that next great read, I thought I’d share my favorites in a large range of genres I read in 2015 in hopes you’ll share your favorites with me too. In no particular order these were my favorites across a wide range of genres:
The Night Circus by Erin Morgenstern
I’ve spent most of my life pounding on the backs of wardrobes and leaning into brick columns in train stations in hopes of stumbling upon Narnia or Hogwarts. Now, I sense I'll be scanning neighboring fields at night, hoping in my deepest hopes that the Night Circus has set up in my town, and that I may have the pleasure of experiencing its magic. This book is one of the most captivating novels I've read in a long time. It captures beauty and motion and flavors and textures so vividly I'd like to crawl into the pages. I believe what The Night Circus offers is something like a glimpse of heaven, a place where the kittens are fluffier, the caramel more delectable, the acrobats perfectly balanced and the bonfires brighter than our every day life on earth. A place where we feel more like our actual selves than we have ever felt before.
The Plans I Have for You by Amy Parker
The Plans I Have For You is one of those rare gems, which is more than a picture book—it is a life book. Leave it on your coffee table and this book will capture the attention of young readers time and time again as they enjoy the rhymes, find new details in the beautiful illustrations, and find hope and courage in the fact that God has plans for them, big plans, special plans. But this book will also captivate the adults reading the story, as it reminds us just how personal and important the work God has planned for each of us. Reminiscent of Dr. Seuss's Oh The Places You'll Go, but with deeper meaning and truth. Bonus: a devotional and journal to accompany The Plans I Have For You just released!
One for the Murphys by Lynda Mullaly Hunt
My twelve-year old daughter, Mallory, picked up this book at the library this summer and devoured it in two days. She insisted (against her brothers' protests) that it be our next "read aloud". After two pages we were all completely absorbed in this authentically raw and beautiful story of a foster child. Needless to say, as we reached the climax, I was sobbing so hard, my son, Max, had to remove the book from my soggy self and read the rest out loud for us. So touching and true -- filled with lessons of life and love and the importance of having someone believe in you. This is the best middle grade novel I've read in years!
For the Love by Jen Hatmaker
A friend in Nashville gave me this book right when it released. Only a couple pages in I was laughing uncontrollably. A few pages later and my eyes were wet with emotion. Yet other chapter in had me nodding at profound truths of faith. This is the first book I've read by Jen Hatmaker and not able to wait to read more, I ordered a copy of her book, 7, while cruising Amazon for Christmas gifts and am about 1/3 of the way in. Her writing style made me feel like she and I were old friends, hanging out on her porch and talking about everything from the fashion police, to trying to feed a house full of kids, to what we read in our Bibles that morning. Hatmaker's writing is hilarious and authentic. I found myself reading sections out loud to anyone who would listen.
The Nightingale by Kristin Hannah
What an exquisite book—a beautiful portrayal of two sisters and their lifetime searching for love and purpose. On a historical level, The Nightingale exposes the brutal and trying conditions the French people endured during WWII. As a Francophile I devoured every French countryside and phrase. I’m ashamed to admit, I had no idea the trauma the French women experienced during World War 2, as their cities were looted, their food was rationed, their safety was at risk, and soldiers took over their homesteads and places of work. Hannah's elegant writing was beautiful and made me incredibly grateful for so many things I daily take for granted. I would recommend this book to everyone.
I’ll Give You the Sun by Jandy Nelson
This story is electrifying, raw, honest, emotional, and sensory overloaded. It’s a book about twins and family and art and self-expression and grief and getting in and out of our shells and self-discovery. The colors ooze out of the pages, the distinct personalities of the original characters are perfectly executed, the intertwining and shifting of these characters is brilliant! I absolutely loved loved loved Jandy Nelson's exquisite, gorgeous, stirring writing and can't wait to read her other book!
The Armor of God by Priscilla Shirer
I’m blessed to have a compassionate, diverse, faithful group of women from my church that I get to do Bible studies with on Wednesday mornings throughout the school year. This year, my favorite study was The Armor of God. Shirer takes ten verses from the book of Ephesians (Ephesians 6:10-19) and creates an entire study about how we can utilize the armor God has provided for us to fight the enemy and stand strong throughout life’s battles. This study came at the exact right time for me. I had some life issues I was wrestling, and The Armor of God reminded me that God has already won. I need to stand firm in this truth, take up my shield of faith, dig my feet into the peace He offers and pray, pray, pray.
Okay. Your turn. I want to hear what your favorite books you read last year were? I need to put together a new pile.
Do you know that old Rod Stewart song, “Every Picture Tells A Story (Don’t It)”? I’m understanding more and more that every person has a story, and they’ll tell it to you, and it will blow you away. All you have to do is ask.
I recently experienced an amazing event in Nashville called STORY. The experience was filled with presenters sharing their stories and inspiring attendees to explore and share theirs. Abigail Washburn the Mandarin speaking, banjo playing woman from Illinois, who just returned from a tour along the Great Wall of China with Yo Yo Ma was a stand in for a sick presenter. What? This was the sub?
And Jeremy Cowart, celebrity photographer who has taken photos of everyone from the Pope to the Kardashians to Sting, yet uses his celebrity to launch amazing humanitarian projects such as Help-Portrait, which offers free portraits to people who have never had their picture taken, and campaigns in Haiti, Rwanda, and Uganda to raise awareness of the devastation these people have endured and funding to help them rebuild. This guy was the guy who struggled through high school. This was the guy whose mantra growing up was, “I can’t”. But his parents repeated to him, “I can do all things through Christ who gives me strength” (Phil 4:13). A reminder of truth that WE CAN, despite what the world tells us, despite what our achievement tests score us. Look what he’s become! Think what you can become.
Jon Guerra appeared on stage plucking his acoustic guitar and breaking into a soulful melody “We are stained it’s true, but when Your light shines through, we all look like stained glass windows to You.” And there was the lady who played the bassoon and the woman I bumped into at an after party in a warehouse who made a cotton candy tree full of wishes. And James Rhodes, world renowned classical pianist and composer, who played Chopin so beautifully it made me weep, then proceeded to share openly his story of being sexually abused as a child and how music saved him.
Not to mention the fact my sweet friend who I attended Story with and I, stayed up late in an artsy Nashville hotel wearing our pj’s watching Taylor Swift videos. We all have stories.
I could go on and on. But you get the idea. Stories. We all have them. Each and every human being was knitted together in our mother’s wombs (Psalm 139:14) by God, our Creator, with skills and fears, hopes and hiccups, weaknesses and joys, leaps and bounds, whispers and screams. And God takes all of those marvelous little details and writes our stories. It’s like an Encyclopedia Brown mystery, in that God gives us the opportunity to choose if the hero (you or me) will pick A or B, will they give up or keep going, will they try harder or stop trying, will she dream bigger, smile broader, take a different path when the first one is blocked? Will he or she trust in the Author of their story for a happy ending even when the villain seems menacing and the tornado is twisting and they’re locked in a closet? Will they tap into the courage and peace their God has to offer? Will you?
What’s your story? What’s the story of the person next to you, the one you’ve never talked to, the kid who sits in the back of class, or the woman on the far side of church, or the person who always shows up late and leaves a minute early at boot camp? Are you willing to ask them? Are you willing to share yours? Because when we hear other people’s stories, we see their true reflections, often for the first time. And when we share ours, we let other people see ours. And they are all beautiful.
Have you ever become unexpected friends with someone?
On my first young adult novel, Skinny, I had no idea how the whole editing/publishing process worked. I received an email from a woman named Amy Parker, the editor assigned to my book, saying she had sent me a previous email but hadn’t heard from me, and our deadline was approaching. I was intimidated just by the word editor. And WHAT email? How had I missed it? And deadline? Yikes! How could I have already messed things up?
I typed back with shaking fingers a giant apology, begging to chat on the phone, because I was a rookie and was clueless as to what was expected from me and when. I was anticipating someone firm, hard-edged, in a suit with black glasses. Too many movies, maybe. Instead a comforting, friendly voice packed with Southern charm and smiles filled my ear with reassurances, “no problem,” “plenty of time,” “minor changes,” “no big deal.” My shoulders relaxed. I smiled, too, even laughed, and we completed the project on time (much improved with her edits).
Amy was assigned as editor on my next two novels, Hot and Angry. And through the process we learned about each other—our shared love of coffee, chocolate, Jesus, Jack Johnson, and family. We discovered we both had a passion to share our faiths through the written word: we didn’t want to be pushy, we just longed to be genuine, and we strived for our work to be quality, to stand out.
Because God is God, Amy’s family vacation brought her within an hour of my home. We met for mochas and true confessions. Since then we’ve attended a writer’s conference in California together, she hosted me in her home, her writing brought her back to Ohio, and we’ve chatted on countless Skype sessions waving dictionaries, Bibles, and laughter. God knew I needed Amy Parker in my life. In many ways she helped launch my writing career, because she encouraged me back on that first novel to keep writing the kinds of things I was writing. But way beyond helping with my writing, she’s become one of my dearest friends. Her heart fills the room. Her faith is even bigger. And her passion for others is a result of the enormity of her heart and faith.
One of our visits was when Amy was in Columbus, Ohio. The zoo’s annual Fete, a fundraiser to protect Rwanda, the land of the gorillas, brought her to town, and I got to be her date. Amy introduced me to a man named Frederick. Frederick’s smile is as bright as a full moon on a dark sky. Immediately upon being introduced, he embraced me in a tight hug. He showed me his beautiful, colorful paintings of his homeland, Rwanda. The fete was also helping support Frederick’s foundation, a place where Rwandans disabled by the genocide can find life again, where they are taught life skills, and learn to play sports, and are given food and shelter, and most importantly, hope. Oh, did I tell you Frederick had his arms severed in the aftermath of the genocide?
Yup, that’s Frederick, grinning from ear to ear, helping others, fighting the good fight, even though he was left for dead on the side of the road. Painting bright images, embracing people he’s just met, and riding his bike around the country to raise money to help others, even though he has no hands. And, Amy, with that passion I told you about, has written with Frederick his story. You know what they named it? Frederick: A Story of Boundless Hope.
Where are you today? Does something seem too big? Are you unsure? Nervous? Overwhelmed? Defeated?
Hang in there. A friend like Amy Parker is just around the corner. A man like Frederick is changing people’s lives, when he could have given up on his. Read their story. Find hope again.
I was blessed to speak last week at an amazing event called Stand Up, Stand Out at Missouri Institute of Science and Technology. We ran out of time at the end of the talk for the usual Q&A session, but several of the college sorority women who were in attendance wrote down questions and handed them to me. Not only were they great questions, but a lot of the questions were things I get frequently asked. Since I didn’t have a chance to answer them then and there, I thought I’d answer them here and now. There were so many great questions; I’m running it as a two-part blog.
So imagine you’re sitting at a round table at a ballroom in a university student center. Picture the autumn inspired orange and gold streamers draped across light fixtures. Grab a handful of the brightly colored M&M’s from the glass dish and listen to them tap against each other, and get comfortable for part one.
Q: What inspired you to write about/speak to college girls?
A: My memories of college life are movie-like. If you ask me about college, a montage with a soundtrack consisting of songs ranging from R.E.M. to Sinead O’Connor to James Taylor plays through my mind. I attended Miami University, which has a picturesque campus. My roommates were my best friends. I was involved in student life, took a summer to study abroad and laughed all the time.
That’s the movie version, and the things that first come to mind.
But the reality is there were other times to. Memories that would be left on the cutting room floor. Like when my roommates and I fought, and it left me feeling raw and alone, because these were the girls I cared about most, and sometimes I let them down, and sometimes they didn’t understand me, and sometimes I felt isolated. Except for when my strenuous business major called for all-nighters, and team meetings and presentations and I had to schedule my life in fifteen minute intervals, so I would be where I was supposed to be and do what I was supposed to be doing all day, and I was so stressed I felt like I might implode. Except when I had a series of bad relationships and felt sad and dejected and unlovable, and there were more tears than smiles.
Now I live in a college town, and am surrounded by beautiful, bright young women full of potential. Girls who are embracing life, and seizing opportunities, and struggling to keep it all together, and look perfect on the outside while they’re dealing with hard-hitting issues on the inside. They confide their stories in me. And so I write for them and speak to them. To share what I learned. To prove to them that they can get through. To let them know they’re not alone. To inspire them. To remind them that they are beautiful and unique and capable of moving mountains.
Q: Do you ever get writer’s block?
A: I actually have the opposite problem. I have way too many ideas bumping around in my head. I have books I want to write, characters I long to create, blog topics I’m itching to get down in words. There are certainly times when I’m writing, when I get stuck on a word or a phrase or a scene, but (knock on wood) I’ve never run out of ideas.
Q: How did you still believe in love after your parents’ divorce?
A: Man, I never once stopped believing in love throughout all of their separations, fights and finally their divorce. My parents’ divorce was about dishonesty and selfishness, insecurity and greed. It had nothing to do with love. If anything it made me crave real love, the kind that builds each other up, communicates, believes in each other, supports one another, edifies one another – the kind of love I’ve found with my husband. My parents’ struggles showed me what I wasn’t looking for, and therefore what I was looking for. And my faith in God has given me the reassurance that God always has and always will love me. He’s shown me an example of perfect love, of sacrifice and concern and compassion.
Come back next week for part two. Until then, How about you? Do you have any questions for me?
My local library has a summer reading program. My kids' school is trying to get into the Guinness Book of World Records for most hours read in the summer, no lie. High schools have assigned reads ranging from To Kill a Mockingbird to The Fault in Our Stars, sigh. And me, I have my usual stack of delectable books that I can not wait to dive into. In fact, I already have. My stack appears random to a passerby, but to those who really know me, each title makes sense at some level or another. I was at the beach last week, translation, "Let The Summer Reading Begin." I read Sara Zarr's How to Save a Life - loved it! And then totally changed it up with C.S. Lewis's Screwtape Letters - blew my mind, had a copy from the library, need to get my own copy, so I can underline it like crazy! Next in my pile are Lock and Key by Sarah Dessen, Seeing Through Stones by Rajdeep Paulus and Pulitzer Prize winner, Goldfinch by Donna Tartt.
If you're still adding to your stack, Playlist Fiction has an a-ma-zing deal for you this week! Five phenomenal young adult titles for only $5! Actually slightly less, they're only 99 cents each! What? It's true. So, fill up your Kindle or phone, or iPad, or whatever device you read on with these great titles from ground-breaking young adult authors Laura Anderson Kurk, Rajdeep Paulus, Jennifer Murgia and Stephanie Morrill. And, oh yeah! My book, It's Complicated is only 99 cents this week too!
How about you? Any suggestions for my summer reading pile? What's on your summer reading list?
I am so excited to share with you my latest release, It's Addicting. It's Addicting releases July 14 in both print and e-book formats from Playlist Fiction.
This third installment of the Status Updates series finds four college sophomore roommates finally getting comfy with the routines of dorm life. But Kat, Claire, Palmer, and Hannah soon begin to feel the nagging ache of innocent addictions pulling them away from their true selves. Still, obsessing over perfection, exercise, or a super-cute boyfriend could never be a bad thing—could it? Hang out with these four roomies to see if they can—or even want to—ditch these sneaky little hang-ups before they take over their lives.
'I'm so glad to see Laura L. Smith writing about such serious and important issues. Kudos to her for being brave enough to write the truth. ~ New York Times Best Selling Author, Tosca Lee
It's Addicting tackles real-life issues with raw honesty. This book is something every high-school and college-aged girl should read.
~ Nicole O'Dell, author, speaker, and founder of Choose NOW Ministries
Laura L. Smith writes with precision and honesty in the third book of her popular Status Update series. It’s Addicting asks readers to consider their own lives and the blinders we all wear. The college roommates in this book struggle with the most authentic of issues—the sometimes subtle but often overwhelming addictions we all cling to. In the end, the answers aren’t easy or pretty, but Smith, with characteristic gentleness, pushes readers to see that clarity and hope come from one place—a God who seeks us as fiercely as we seek Him. ~Laura Anderson Kurk, author of Glass Girl and Perfect Glass
Last April a brand new Young Adult imprint launched. Playlist Fiction was formed because a group of authors and literary agents wanted to offer great young adult titles that would make you laugh and cry and turn the page. We wanted to offer clean fiction, simply great stories, that didn't sound or look like anything else. Just like your playlists are yours and yours alone, we wanted our fiction to be personal and different. We believed that life's playlist is full of hope, love, anger, and loss. It's an emotional cadence that hurts one moment and fulfills the next. We knew that life is crazy and complicated and confusing and unique. We knew because those were the kinds of things we experienced and those were the kinds of things we wrote about. And so we launched a place where we could offer you those kind of stories.
One year later, we're celebrating our first birthday. We've released nine contemporary titles (including my books It's Complicated and It's Over, with a new release on the way). The experience has been unreal. You, the readers, have blown us away with your support, your willingness to dive into our characters' lives as if they were your own. You've drawn and painted pictures, made YouTube videos, written reviews, blogged, and read and read and read.
The authors have had the privilege of seeing our stories come to life. But there's been so much more. The most impactful thing that's happened to me through this experience has been the relationships I've formed with the other authors. They've become everything from prayer partners to partners in crime (the fictional kinds of course). Laura Anderson Kurk, Jennifer Murgia, Stephanie Morrill and Rajdeep Paulus inspire me, support me, and keep me writing on days when it would be easier not to.
It didn't seem right to have a birthday without celebrating. And it wouldn't be a Playlist party without music (plus virtual cake is so unsatisfying). So, here are two of my favorite birthday songs dedicated to my fellow Playlist authors. Happy Birthday! Here's to an amazing year of learning, laughter, growth, friendship and of course, books.
What songs are on your birthday playlist? What's your favorite kind of cake?
DOWNLOAD THE DRAMA TO WIN THIS SUMMER BEACH BAG LOADED WITH GOODIES
During the month of July, Enter to win this fabulous beach bag blast by doing any of the following:
1. Download any Playlist Fiction title (Between These Lines, Glass Girl, It's Complicated, It's Over, Perfect Glass, The Revised Life of Ellie Sweet or Swimming Through Clouds) and email us the receipt
2. Create a Pinterest board for Playlist Fiction and email us the link
3. Scan our book info and email us a few sentences on which Playlist character you'd like to meet most and why
4. Create a 15 second or longer YouTube video about why you love Playlist Fiction and email it to us
No purchase necessary
Enter as many times as you like from July 1-July 31. Just email us your name, email address and one of the four ways to enter listed above at email@example.com . Winner will be selected through www.randomizer.org. Winner will be selected and notified via email the first week of August 2013. One grand prize winner will receive one Tommy Hilfiger water resistant beach bag; a matching towel; a Rove 20 oz. reusable travel tumbler with nontoxic, reusable cubes; a purple Playlist ice cube tray; and a pink journal to record and reflect on your own summer stories. $115 estimated value. All items are pictured. No substitutions. Restricted to U.S. residents.
SCHOOL'S OUT FOR SUMMER, for Palmer, Claire, Kat and Hannah at Clarkston University, the fictitious setting for my Status Updates series. To celebrate, the four college roommates in the books are offering you their first book, It's Complicated, for only 99 cents!
For less than a song on iTunes, less than a pack of Claire's bobby pins, less than a slice of pizza at Clarkston's Ragazza, less than even a small cup of coffee from Corner Cup, you can get an entire novel! Just click on this link and download: http://www.amazon.com/Complicated-Status-Updates-Series-ebook/dp/B00C2BXK6Q/ref=cm_cr_pr_product_top
(if you don't own a Kindle, no worries, the App is free on the Amazon site for most phones, tablets and laptops)
OR if you don't have access to a Kindle or Free Kindle App, visit Smashwords and enter promo code WK68Z prior to checkout. Offer expires May 16, 2013.
"I absolutely love love love this book!!!
Here are 3 reasons why...
#1 FAB FRIENDS- these characters are unique, fun, funny, and wonderful! It's hard to pick my fave! There's super-athletic KAT, fashion-forward PALMER, boy-crazy HANNAH, and the serious quiet type CLAIRE. I love them all!!
#2 ISSUES & DRAMA- author Laura L. Smith doesn't shy away from issues that real teens are dealing with today, and when you put four friends together you know there's gonna be some drama!!
#3 IT'S A SERIES!!! I soooo can't wait to read more about these girls. It's Complicated is a totally awesome start to what promises to be one of my fave series ever!!!" JoJo's Corner
Slide on your flip flops and shades, grab a Tazo or an iced latte and enjoy a summer read that will take you to the beach, the soccer fields and Paris before it's time to dive back into next school year. All for less than a dollar.
Tingling all over with the announcement of the second book in my Status Updates series, It's Over, releasing April 19!
HOW CAN YOU MOVE ON WHEN IT'S OVER?
When four college roommates lose pieces of their lives, the pain isolates and the tension rises. Emotions are hard to hide and even harder to tackle. How can the girls move forward, when there is so much pain in letting go? Together, Claire, Kat, Palmer and Hannah learn to lean on God and each other, and through it all they learn loss is a part of life.
"In It's Over, Laura L. Smith confirms the truth we've been told that we are never alone in the midst of heartache and struggle. In fact, she takes us to a place where we not only get to see, but feel deeply the truth of the fact that every single one of us has a story. Every single one of has experienced pain. But more importantly, that every single one of us has great hope. Laura L. Smith's writing strikes a deep chord in my heart. It makes sense. It's real--and in my opinion, that transparency makes all the difference." ~Holly Starr, Christian recording artist
"Laura Smith speaks for the broken. With a voice that’s warm and true, Laura gives words to those rendered speechless by issues that high school and college girls should never have to deal with—but so many of them do. In writing that’s raw, relevant, and real, Smith goes where few authors dare to go: straight into the heart of today’s young woman."
~Amy Parker, bestselling author of Courageous Teens
"YA author, Laura L. Smith crafts another story that will appeal to all girls, because no one is untouched by heartache in all its forms. The grace Smith extends the four girls in It's Over will touch readers in deep ways, as they follow these characters through some of the worst parts of life. Best of all, they'll cheer when the girls lean on one another and find ways to be thankful in everything. This is a fantastic read, one that will resonate with teens, college girls and their mothers."
~Laura Kurk, author of Glass Girl
Laura L. Smith