Every year for the last several, I’ve kept a log of the books I read in my planner. I started tracking them one January when Abigail was a preschooler and I realized that I hadn’t read ANYTHING for fun in ages. I was in a rut — I read parenting books and breastfeeding books (I was a peer counselor for nursing mothers at the time) and Bible study books and that was it. I made myself a goal to read one fiction book per month that year. Not only did I hit that goal, but I got my reading mojo back!

As a kid, I used to check out book stacks as high as my little arms could stretch, pinning the top book with my chin on the walk out to our car. I’d devour them in a few days and beg my mom to go back to the library. (And repeat, ad nauseam.) After that first year making myself a reading goal, I was back, Jack.

Nowadays, I regularly read 60+ books per year. Some of those are parenting, Bible study or spiritual formation still. (I’m no longer a peer breastfeeding counselor, so that topic is off my shelf for now.) Some are craft books, as I try to expand my understanding and skill as a fiction writer. Some are fiction, some are nonfiction. I try to hit multiple genres and revisit old favorites for re-reads.

One of the awesome things to come from tracking the books I’ve completed is that it facilitates making book recommendations to friends. I love being able to tell someone to check out certain titles or authors — and before, I was prone to forgetting names. (It isn’t helpful to say, “Oh, Jane, you’d love this book I read last summer! It was about a woman. And there’s a dog in it. And, um, the cover is green. Good luck tracking that down!”)

Here are a few of my favorite reads so far this year, in no particular order. (There’s still a stack about 24″ high on my nightstand, and I usually get several books finished during the lazy days of Christmas break. I guess I’ll have to add those to next year’s list.)

1. The Seven Husbands of Evelyn Hugo, by Taylor Jenkins Reid

This author is a masterful at creating characters you’ll love –or at least, won’t be able to look away from, even when they’re making cringe-worthy choices. Evelyn is a glamorous, old-Hollywood star; the character conjured up images of Marilyn Monroe and Elizabeth Taylor. There’s a bit of steamy scandal in this one, so if you prefer your books squeaky clean you might want to skip it. But if you do, go check out some of Reid’s other titles – they’re all pretty fabulous.

2. The Hideaway, by Lauren K. Denton

Ahhh. This book is sweet and Southern and full of family drama. I loved the setting, which is practically a character in its own right, and the intergenerational viewpoints are a blast to read.

3. The Peculiar Miracles of Antoinette Martin, by Stephanie Knipper

If you enjoy anything by Alice Hoffman, I think you’ll like this story by Stephanie Knipper. There’s an element of magic along with a gripping narrative of a mother and daughter who can’t always communicate – but who need each other in really beautiful ways.

4. The Funeral Dress, by Susan Gregg Gilmore

This book totally slayed me (in a good way). It’s everything I hope to be someday! The folks in the Appalachian town are relatable and realistic. The friendship between two women – one young and one older – is poignant. This book handles pregnancy, loss, grief, and love with skill.

5. Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race, by Reni Eddo-Lodge

Ms. Eddo-Lodge is British, and her take on race is brutal, honest, and a needed piece of the conversation. Particularly if you’re one of my white friends: go read this book.

6. The Atomic City Girls, by Janet Beard

This novel is historical fiction, and it’s just a ton of fun. Even though the setting is deadly serious (a camp where Americans worked, unknowingly, on the atomic bombs that would later be dropped in Japan), the interplay between characters is dramatic and engaging. Every point-of-view character is well-written and leaves you wanting to hear more from their side of things.

7. An American Marriage, by Tayari Jones

People of color are disproportionately sentenced for crimes they didn’t commit. This true fact of American life is painted into an incredible novel – it centers around a young Black couple from Atlanta, only married a short time, when the husband is wrong convicted of a crime. Epistolary chapters trace their relationship during his incarceration, and I can’t give away any spoilers but you’ll WANT to hang on until the ending.

8. The Marriage Pact, by Michelle Richmond

I think this one qualifies as a psychological thriller. (If that’s not where they’re selling it, they should!) This story is creepy, in the best possible way. An engaged woman invites a work client to her wedding as a joke, and the gift he gives the new couple spirals them into a cult-like world. Your heart will race and you won’t be able to put it down.

9. The Almost Sisters, by Joshilyn Jackson

Joshilyn Jackson is one of my favorite Southern writers. This novel has generational secrets and family ties, a surprise pregnancy, and a cosplay Batman at a comic convention. It’s funny and tender and rings true.

10. The Gospel Comes with a House Key, by Rosaria Butterfield

This book wrecked me. It challenged every little part of my introverted Christian heart, and has forced me to consider some new ways of living out the Gospel. I highly recommend it.

11. Southernmost, by Silas House

Silas House’s writing is lyrical and magnetic. His southern settings are gorgeous and vivid. This story is about a preacher whose family and congregation condemn him when he refuses to kick a same-sex couple out of the pews of his church. That in turn sends him on a journey that reveals both his past and his future.

12. Big Magic, by Elizabeth Gilbert

Every creative everywhere needs to read this book. Moments of “I’m not alone” abound, along with more than a few kicks in the pants.

13. Every Waking Moment, by Chris Fabry

Fabry is a prolific author, but this is the first of his work I’ve read. It was beautiful and sweet, full of faith without being preachy. I’ll be back for more of his novels.

14. The Sacred Enneagram, by Chris Heuertz

2018 is the year I discovered the Enneagram, which I’ve already blogged about a bit. This book was the first one I read, and it was life-changing (which is not hyperbole). Discover your type, and go deeper than that – discover how Christian spiritual practices can undo the personality mask you’ve been hiding behind, and how you can live more fully as the person God created you to be.

15. Everybody, Always, by Bob Goff

Love ‘em all. I decided that Bob Goff is an all-around Great Guy and Person I Wanna Be Friends With when I read Love Does a few years ago. His newest work confirms that. Love everybody, always. The essays in this book are light in a world full of darkness.

16. A Spark of Light, Jodi Picoult

Ms. Picoult has never shied away from tough subjects. This  novel takes place in reverse chronological order, with the first chapter describing a moment with an active shooter at an abortion clinic. Each chapter thereafter spools backward, hour by hour, telling the story of the police negotiator outside, the shooter inside, and a number of others who are in the clinic for varying reasons. People of faith are represented well, and the ending will not be what you thought it was. It’s challenging, but worth the read.

17. Home to Holly Springs, by Jan Karon

I think I read my first Mitford novel back in 2002. I’ve loved Jan Karon’s mythical town since that first moment I met Father Tim, his gigantic dog Barnabas, his boy Dooley, and the rest of the characters who call Mitford home. This book (which was published a few years ago, but I got off track with the series so I’m playing catch-up) carries us along with Father Tim back to his hometown of Holly Springs. It’s more than backstory – this novel stands on its own, but if you love the characters Karon has created, you’ll love this book.

18. Inside the O’Briens, by Lisa Genova

What a story! Irish-American cop stares down a difficult medical diagnosis, and then watches as each of his adult children grapple with what it might mean to have a hereditary condition in their family history. This is a guy you’ll root for.

These aren’t ads or affiliate links, just some books I loved. If you care to share something great you read this year, I’m always adding to my TBR pile! Drop me a comment.

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I wanted to share one of my favorite tools for organizing life as a mom: time-blocking. This approach has worked for me in so many stages of life – when I was a new stay-at-home with little kids, when I was homeschooling, and now as a stay-at-home mom with school-aged kids who are away from the house for a few hours each day.

Time-blocking is a way to give yourself a routine that includes plans for all the major things you need to get done every week – without setting a rigid, minute-by-minute schedule. Here’s my current time-block layout for this school year:

YES, I know: I’m an ultra-nerd who likes color coding and owns a lot of pens and highlighters. You can do this with pencil and the back of your kids’ school newsletter, though. (Well, maybe keep the school newsletter on the fridge so you won’t miss the Book Fair. But you know what I’m saying. It doesn’t have to be fancy. Use what you have.)

I like using a legal pad because I can do 3o-minute time slots from the time I wake up until my kids’ bedtime. I write times down the left margin and the five weekdays across the top. (I don’t currently time-block our weekends, but you could if that fits your family!)

The first thing I write in is school drop off and pick up. These are the rails on the road of my kid-free time, so I need to respect the time they take. Next, I put in two hard and fast time commitments: my volunteer afternoon at my kids’ school, and the Ladies’ Bible study I joined in the fall.

Then I considered time for fitness. I have been attending a group fitness class, so it went on the weekly grid, and then I added two days to run and one day to bike.

On Wednesday, I typically try to schedule errands and appointments in the morning while our housecleaners are here working their deep-scrubbing magic. I like seeing them and chatting each week, but then I try to get out of their hair because they work as a great team and I don’t want to disrupt their flow. When I get home, the lovely clean house makes me want to tackle my chores – I stumbled across an Instagram friend who calls the day she manages all the home stuff that tends to pile up her “lady of the house” day. It cracked me up and I borrowed it!

That left me with Tuesday, Thursday, and Friday afternoons wide open. Thursday is Chris’ day off, and we don’t get hang out and go on dates every week – but I like reminding myself of the opportunity. So it’s penciled in for day dates! Then I have blocks on Tuesdays & Fridays I labeled for chore catchup (’cause let’s be honest, there’s always a few more chores to tackle!), hobbies, projects, and friends.

Y’all. That has been the very best investment I’ve made in my mental health this school year. I’ve been more conscious to schedule time with friends – a few coffee dates, breakfast dates, lunches, walks, and just hanging out with people – every week. The reality is that I can’t spend three hours, two days a week, just chilling with my homies. I do have some adulting to do. BUT having that reminder in my time block reminds me to try to get together with someone each week. It’s also reminded me that the projects and hobbies I love don’t just happen – I have to carve out time to do them.

Back to the blocks: at that point, I had two tiny spots in my school-day that were blank, so I filled them with “write.” I haven’t used them as consistently as I would like until November started and I jumped into another NaNoWriMo. But that big block at 5:00 a.m.!? I’ve been writing almost every single day thanks to this commitment. It’s been wonderful! And at 6:00 a.m., I step away from my fictional world and start my morning routine. (It actually also includes my quiet time – prayer and reading my Bible – too. I can’t remember why I didn’t write that down initially.)

The after-school/evening section undergoes the most shifting. When I created this page, my youngest was playing baseball. That season has ended, but in a few weeks she is heading back on the ice for skating lessons one night a week and her big sister is starting art lessons one evening a week.

This tool has been so wonderful for me. I love the flexibility — if a certain doctor can’t see me on my preferred Wednesday, then I try to shift all my errands to whatever day the appointment needs to be, so that I can still focus on utilizing one day to be out of the house a bunch and another day to stay home and do my projects or chore catchup.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share more of the ways I stay personally organized and keep my family organized! Check back soon.

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“I’m so glad I live in a world where there are Octobers. It would be terrible if we just skipped from September to November, wouldn’t it?” -Anne Shirley, Anne of Green Gables by L. M. Montgomery

When I was a girl, I adored Anne Shirley. I hadn’t her tragic background nor her dramatic flair, but I loved the exuberant way she expressed herself. Those monologues, when an enraptured Anne would go on and on about something she loved, charmed my socks off. That was how I talked, too — inside my head.

I remember worrying from a very young age that the monologues and scenarios I imagined in my head were an indicator of a mental health problem. (Back then, before I learned that ‘crazy’ is a pejorative, I would’ve put it like this: “I talk to imaginary people a lot. Does that mean I’m crazy?”) When I was around 10 or 11, I picked up on the  notion that what separates the mentally ill from the mentally healthy is that the latter may have an imaginary friend, but the former talks to imaginary friends and they talk back. That was probably supposed to make me feel better. I was supposed to think, “Well, golly, I’m 100% sure that this is all in my own imagination. It doesn’t feel like a separate entity no one else can perceive is speaking to me, so I’m fine.” Instead, my little brain warped it so that I thought, “Hmm, sometimes when I engage in these long conversations in my head, I really do imagine what the other people say back. Maybe that means I AM crazy.”

So you see, it felt like it was only a matter of time before my parents and the rest of the world figured out I was insane. I was sure that the clock was ticking and when they discovered my secret, I’d be in trouble at best – or at worst, hauled off to an asylum for some good old-fashioned shock therapy. (I was a weird kid and had read some admittedly unhelpful books on the subject of mental health.)

I wish I could remember having a moment of epiphany, but instead my late teens and early twenties simply gave me a gradual slide to a state of comfort with the way my mind worked. I stopped fretting about a clinical diagnosis (and I learned not to throw around the word ‘crazy,’ even in my own mind about my own self) and accepted the fact that I have an active imagination.

I eventually realized that the way I’m wired keeps my sense of wonder and laughter close to the surface – which is definitely part of what makes me a great teacher of young kids. I realized that my imagination sometimes works against me, when it manifests as generalized anxiety, and that I can control that part with medication, therapy, and mindful practices. (So: interestingly enough, I do have a mental health diagnosis, just not the one I feared when I was a kid.) I realized that my imagination is like a puppy with a lot of energy, and if I set it to the task of writing –dreaming up an entire novel-sized world of people and places and situations– it’s a lot less likely to bother me by misdirecting that energy*.

So. Like the effusive Anne Shirley, I’m glad to live in a world where we get to enjoy Octobers. This time of year is beautiful here in western Kentucky, and autumn always seems to renew my energies. I’m thankful for what I’ve learned about imagination, because embracing mine opened up the path for me to explore writing. Even if my novels never hit bookshelves, the act of writing them has been wonderful in and of itself.

Because, as Anne Shirley would say, “when you are imagining, you might as well imagine something worthwhile.”

 

 

 

*for more on that notion, I highly recommend Big Magic by Elizabeth Gilbert. Her analogy about creativity as an overactive dog sparked an instant sense of “hey me too!” in my heart and you might enjoy it, also.

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It’s nearly that time again, y’all. It’s about to be November, and that means NaNoWriMo is upon us! National Novel Writing Month is a really fun, inspiring initiative where folks sign up to attempt to write a 50,000 word novel in the 30 days of November.

It’s frantic. It’s beastly. It’s exhilarating. It’s insane!

I’m doing it again. I ‘won’ Nanowrimo in 2015 (anyone who completes 50,000 words by November 30th is declared a winner) and took that manuscript through another 40,000 words, beta readers, critique partners, edits and rewrites, queries and submissions and revise-and-resubmits to literary agents… and now it’s literally shelved in my office. Maybe someday I’ll pull it out and polish it up and send it back into the query trenches. Maybe it was never meant for the world’s eyes. I’m not sure, but it was a wonderful experience and I finally feel ready to try again.

I’m not quite playing by the official rules, however. Nano encourages writers to start fresh with a blank page and a brand-new idea on November 1st. They tell people to do some research, character sketches, outlining and such – but no writing until the month begins.

A few months ago — after lots of non-writing around these parts– I was laying in bed, about to drift off to sleep, when a Perfectly Formed First Line came into my head. I sat straight up and said it out loud, then tapped it into my notes app on my phone. Eventually, I daydreamed up the person behind that first line, and I got a tiny sliver of a notion of who she was and what she wants out of life.

I sat down and started writing. At the end of September, I had about 15,000 words. Enough to know that I really love this character and this setting. I’m a pantser (as opposed to a plotter, one who plots and outlines each scene before writing; I fly by the seat of my pants) so I had very little idea what the story was about in a big sense. I had no elevator pitch, no back-cover copy. But I loved this girl, as broken as she is, and I was watching her fight for redemption, and I loved it.

I set a goal to double my word count by the end of October. If I added 500 words per day, I could hit 30,000; then if I play along with Nanowrimo and add another 50,000 words, I would have a complete (or very nearly so) first draft by November 30th. Today is October 24, and I have 28,625 words in this manuscript. (I know, if you’re a nonwriter that is total gobbledygook! I apologize. It’s about ten chapters, or not-quite-100-pages in an average sized novel.

If you need me, I’ll be up every morning for the next six weeks at least at 5:00 a.m. making coffee, stumbling to my computer, and trying to dream up the resolution to this drama that has played out in my brain. (And then midday I’ll probably be napping on the couch because writing plus full-time momming wears me out.)

Anyone else trying Nano? Let me know if you need a Writing Buddy!

 

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I believe in the power of story.

I love once-upon-a-times and remember-whens and me-toos and what-ifs.

I believe that writing down, speaking up, typing out all give life and color and meaning to ideas that need to be shared.

I love when a turn of phrase or a perfect analogy lodge in my head for days.

I believe that stories give us connections – to our past, to our future, to folks we’ve never met halfway around the globe or the guy on the corner or the lady down the street.

I love pressing a book into someone’s hand with an urgent “you have to read this” and I love retelling my favorite memories with my favorite people for the hundred-millionth repetition, with no urgency at all.

I believe that my heart contains sparks of story that are begging to be told, shared, repeated & remembered.

I love storytelling.

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Last time I blogged, I wrote: I’m praying for full healing of Susannah’s kidney cyst, or that if it’s still present when we get to nephrology that they’ll decide it’s a simple cyst which needs no intervention. I’m praying for the results of her echocardiogram, that it would show her little heart beating in perfect rhythm. I believe God is able to give us both those good gifts.

And in the past 21 days, God has answered both of these prayers. On June 28, Susannah had her echocardiogram, and the results were completely normal. No arrhythmias or anatomical problems. Her heart is perfectly healthy. Praise the Lord!

On July 19, we met with the nephrologist about her kidney cyst. It is small (6mm x 7mm) and appears to be simple. (This terminology is in contrast to a complex cyst, which is more likely to be precancerous than a simple cyst.) At this time, the cyst does not require intervention or treatment. Praise the Lord!

However, simple renal cysts are rare in children. So Dr. Shah has recommended the following plan:

–immediately discontinue the use of ibuprofen/Motrin/Advil (because anti-inflammatories can be nephrotoxic; she may still use Tylenol/acetaminophen for pain or fever)
–monitor blood pressure any time she is seen by pediatrician (our pediatric clinic already does this because they are the best)
–encourage her to stay hydrated and to not “hold it” when she needs to urinate

plus:
–blood work (a renal function panel) and urinalysis (checking for protein in urine)
–renal ultrasound (to have baseline measurements of the cyst)
–follow-up visit in 6 months to include repeating labs & ultrasound.

 

If her labwork now is normal, we maintain the care plan until her 6 month follow-up. At the 6-month visit, if the labwork is still normal and the cyst is unchanged, then she will need only yearly or biennial monitoring.

So, how can you pray for us? Please pray: that Susannah’s bloodwork would show healthy renal function; that her ultrasound would confirm that the cyst is simple in structure and size; that her blood pressure would remain normal; and that the cyst will not grow or duplicate. 

 

“Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.”  ~Philippians 4:6-7

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Meet the author

MICHELLE NEBEL

I write uplifting women’s fiction woven with threads of faith, grace, and Southern hospitality. My blog is where I share a glimpse of my life, and I hope you’ll find the thoughts here encouraging!

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