I am interested in escaping the Christian bubble.

I live in an area that has more churches per square foot than any other area in the world. I worked for ten years at a Christian bookstore. I now work at a Christian publisher that is part of a worldwide ministry. I attend church every Sunday. My friends are mostly people I know through work (Christians) or church (probably Christians) or my writers group (also Christians). Blah blah blah. Continue reading

I Am Battle Dancing Unicorns With Glitter

EngineofaMillionPlotsFor those of you unfamiliar with Five Iron Frenzy, do yourself a favor and pick up their latest album, “Engine of a Million Plots”. It is an awesome record and I will think more highly of you for owning it.

I’d like to talk about the eighth track for a moment. Indulge me.

The title is “Battle Dancing Unicorns With Glitter” and these are the lyrics:

Shut your face /  high school jerks /  We’re about to show you how this works
Are we cool? /  Laser beams /  We’re about to awesome all your dreams
And you’ll say, “What are you, some kind of computer?”
and we’ll say, “A cyborg pimp from the future.”
And I’m going def for sheezy /  I’m feeling a bit uneasy.

Let’s get this straight: /  oh yeah, we are the champions
We’ll be battle dancing unicorns /  oh yes /  Battle dancing unicorns
It’s not too late /  you could gamble on the heavy hitters
while we’re battle dancing unicorns /  with glitter

Twelve-o-clock? /  Party rock /  We’re hip- hoppin’ and we can’t quite stop
Aggro hair /  Grizzly Bear /  Bet you’ve never met a thousand-aire
Then you’ll say, “Whatever, I think you’re moronic.”
And we’ll say, “Not really, we’re only bionic.”
And you’re still in high school /  but have to acknowledge
that we are professors at Robot Spy College.

To be what I just can’t /  impale myself upon the horns
I’m fighting just to be relevant /  I’ll battle dance some unicorns

I’m battle dancing unicorns /  with glitter.

I love this song. It is everything I’ve come to expect from Five Iron Frenzy. It is clever, sarcastic, and steeped in emotion.

To give you some background about the band and this album in particular, Five Iron Frenzy, or FIF, rode into popularity (at least in Christian circles) on a (short-lived)wave of ska enthusiasm in the late 1990’s. With passionate messages dipped in acerbic wit, they’re songs inspired a dedicated fan base that stayed loyal, even when the band disbanded in 2003.

Then in 2011, a miracle happened. When a countdown to a new website design was misinterpreted as a countdown to a band reunion, the former members of FIF began to discuss seriously the possibility of a comeback tour. And when they launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $30,000 in order to record a new album, their fans met that goal within the first hour of launching and raised over $200,000 by the end of the 30-day campaign. Thus was the new album born.

In “Battle Dancing Unicorns With Glitter”, we get to see the deep-seated insecurities of a band whose popularity is somewhat anachronistic. Is it possible for a band whose heyday was a decade ago to be relevant to its original target audience of high schoolers? In an age where fads pass faster than ever, FIF decides to give it a try, even if they get impaled.

Perhaps the reason this song speaks to me so strongly is because of my interest in writing Young Adult Fiction. Can I be relevant to kids whose language I struggle to understand (for sheezy?), much less speak? The only thing I can do is what Five Iron Frenzy did. Try.

I’ll just ignore the fact that there is no pent-up demand for the release of any books from me in the same way that there was a demand from FIF’s loyal fans. Because some times you just need to bluff it until you make it, right? I mean, am I cool enough to write in the first place?

“Laser beams.”

On Why Christian Musicians Can Scream Too

lacey_and_two_joshs

Josh Mosey, Lacey Sturm (nee Mosely), Josh Sturm. I love the symmetry of this photo.

I recently attended an event in the publishing world where a few authors flew in to present their newest book projects. Among the guests was Lacey Sturm, co-founder and former lead singer of Flyleaf.

Flyleaf-FlyleafI first heard about Flyleaf when I was the music buyer for Baker Book House (I was responsible for keeping our bookstore’s music shelves appropriately stocked with CDs that would sell). That was a lifetime ago when music still sold in stores instead of everyone downloading it or pirating it or whatever. Just kidding, plenty of people were ripping copies from their friends CDs back then too. Even Christians.

But I digress.

I didn’t immediately recognize the name Lacey Sturm at the publishing event because when I knew her, it was by her maiden name of Lacey Mosely. We’re practically cousins! Anyway, whether I recognized her new name or not, I recognized her voice. She has one of those amazing voices that make any song sound better. And for being rather petite, she’s a powerhouse when it comes to screaming.

Back when I ran it, the music department in Baker had a separate sound system from the store. So when boring piano music was playing everywhere else, I was rocking Flyleaf in my department. And I think I was talked to more than once about my penchant for playing Flyleaf’s music. It was always because someone took issue with the screaming in the songs.

Sturm_TheReason_wSpineB.inddBut back to the present. At the publishing thing, Lacey shared a bit about the book that will be coming out this fall, The Reason. It is the story of how she went from being a suicidal atheist to a Christian rock star who works with the likes of Billy Graham. She told us about the kids that would come to her shows (Flyleaf toured almost exclusively with mainstream groups like Korn) and how her heart breaks for the kids who are as lost as she once was.

And she told us about some encounters she had with Christians who took offense to the dark tones and screaming that are present in her music. My ears perked right up. I knew the people she was talking about. They are the same ones who would complain about my playing Flyleaf’s music at the bookstore.

“How can you play such dark music when God is light?” they would ask. “How can you sound so angry when you have a loving God inside of you?”

And I loved her answer. “There are plenty of things for Christians to scream about,” she said.

It’s true. We live in a broken world, and it doesn’t help anyone for us to put on a happy face when we encounter real darkness. There’s a lot of legitimate reasons for Christians to scream, to rage against injustice, pain, and sin. Perhaps the question we should be asking isn’t why a Christian would scream in a rock band, but why more Christians aren’t screaming in their everyday lives.

Book Review | A Draw of Kings by Patrick W. Carr

9780764210457In A Draw of Kings, we complete the journey of Errol Stone. From his inebriated beginning in A Cast of Stones, Errol has certainly come a long way. Battle-worn and burdened with unfair truths, Stone staggers back from Merakh to find the kingdom of Illustra in the hands of an evil usurper. And though his actions from The Hero’s Lot deserve a hero’s welcome, Stone is greeted with a set of manacles and the promise of death.

This final installment of The Staff & the Sword series is page-turning high-action fantasy. Carr arrests your attention and keeps it held tight as Errol escapes from frying pan to frying pan, edging ever closer to the final fire. With stakes that couldn’t be higher, Errol struggles with the demands placed upon him in ways that make him both real and tragic.

If there is anything negative to say about the conclusion of this epic tale, it is that 450 pages is not long enough to explore the richness of the world Carr has created. The story could have been well-served by another installment in the series, though I’m guessing the publisher may not have had the confidence in it to justify the risk. And so, the final battle, though beautifully written and with surprising twists, leaves something to be desired as the reader runs from fight to fight wondering where the half of the warriors went.

With such rich action and grand writing, one might be surprised that Patrick Carr teaches Math instead of English. Though if he brings the kind of intensity to algebra as he does to sword fighting, I have a feeling that his students are some of the finest mathematicians in his home state of Tennessee. I only hope that his teaching career leaves him enough time to keep writing, as his debut series leaves this reader reeling and wanting more.

Pick up your copy of A Draw of Kings at Baker Book House today!

Book Review | The Hero’s Lot

9780764210440In novels, as in life, no good deed goes unpunished.

The Hero’s Lot, second in The Staff & The Sword series, picks up right where A Cast of Stones left off. Fresh from rescuing the kingdom, Errol Stone is arrested and given a likely death sentence. Compelled to travel deep into enemy territory and kill a nearly-omniscient foe, Errol assembles a band of Illustra’s finest warriors. Adventure ensues.

Author, Patrick W. Carr, has hit his stride. Having developed the characters in A Cast of Stones, Carr is free to expand the scope of the story, revealing new races and ancient history. The tension grows throughout and readers will grow to love the world that Carr creates. This book could easily have been twice as long and no one would have complained.

In fact, my only complaint is that I have to wait until February 2014 for the next book (A Draw of Kings) to release.

Though published by a Christian publisher and with specific theological parallels, The Staff & The Sword series stands on its own merit as worthy of reading. In fact, some conservative folk may have issue with the amount of violence and substance abuse within these books. But readers willing to take a chance on this new author will be rewarded with a tale of redemption fraught with true-to-life struggles against the powers that control us. All without being preachy, which is nice.

If you haven’t read A Cast of Stones, do that first, but follow it quickly with The Hero’s Lot. Chances are good that you will have just found a new favorite author.

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Read my review for A Cast of Stones here.

The New, Improved Baker Book House

It is finally here. After many long months, phase 1 of the construction at Baker Book House is complete. We have occupancy of the new sales floor and our bookstore actually looks like a bookstore from the road. Here is a video collection of the changes at Baker Book House. You can tell when things really got busy because there is a large gap in the time between videos.

If you are in the West Michigan area, please stop by and check it out for yourself!

These videos make it seem like this was a speedy process. It wasn’t. And really, it isn’t over yet. We’ve still got phase 2 of the construction to get through before it is all said and done. And that is the part that I’m really looking forward to (since that is when my new office will be built!).

Anyway, this is a beautiful new building and we’ll be making the most of it. This was built with the mindset that we are here to serve our community. So if you are in our community, please come in so we can serve you!

8 Questions | Meet Author Ben Avery

It was lunchtime, and since our bookstore is in a state of massive renovation, the book buyers were having a sales meeting in the break room where the rest of us eat lunch. I was attempting to ignore the ordering discussions by reading the second in the George R. R. Martin’s Song of Ice and Fire series, A Clash of Kings, when the sales rep, Larry, asked me a question.

“What are you reading?”

“It’s a George R. R. Martin book,” I said. “The one right after A Game of Thrones, which HBO just made into a series.”

“I know that series,” he said. “Did you know that my son Ben wrote the Marvel comic book adaptation for Martin’s Hedge Knight series?”

“Really? I didn’t think Martin was big on other writers touching his characters.”

“He’s not,” said Larry. “But he liked what my son did. In fact, he said that if Marvel ever wants to adapt any of his other things, my son is the only one he’ll trust to do the job.”

“Wow,” said I. “Do you think Ben would be willing to do an interview with me for my blog?”

“You should ask him.”

So I did.

Capt. Ben Avery, of the Starship Awesome.

The interview:

1. How did you get into writing?

I’ve always been writing and telling stories, since I was old enough to string sentences together. And I was always making comics, although I got impatient with how much time it took to draw them. Professionally, after I graduated college, I just started writing comics with some friends and made some contacts with artists, and that led to me getting to do a try out for a writing gig, which turned into my first professional writing: George R. R. Martin’s The Hedge Knight.

2. You did the comic book adaptation for George R. R. Martin’s Hedge Knight series. Martin is well-known for not wanting anyone else touching his works or characters. How did you come to work on his books through Marvel Comics?

Well, it wasn’t originally published by Marvel. Originally, a studio got the license from Mr. Martin, and they shopped it around to publishers, with Image taking it up at first. Then, after some weirdness with Image, it was moved to Devil’s Due, and after some weirdness THERE, Marvel picked it up.

Now, how did that original studio get the license? They promised to be true to his original story. And that’s how I got the job, too. I worked hard to make my sample script as close to his story as possible. In fact, the first six pages of The Hedge Knight is almost exactly what my sample script was. Mr. Martin appreciated how hard I worked to stay true to the original. The way I see it, on a job like that, my job is to be invisible. My job is to give something to the artist that allows them to shine, and to spotlight the original. After all, it’s George R.R. Martin’s The Hedge Knight, not Ben Avery’s.

3. How does your writing change when adapting someone else’s work as opposed to working on an original series?

If I am working on something not original with me, either a true life story, history, someone’s fictional story, or the Bible, my goal is to keep the integrity of their story within a new medium. That does mean some changes have to be made, but I will do my best to make sure changes in the format or length do not change the heart of the story.

So my job is to choose what comes out to shorten it. Or what needs to be added because comics are a visual medium. Transitions in one medium have to be done differently.

It’s not always easy, but it’s fun.

4. What do you want people to know about you aside from your writing?

This is a tough question. I mean, it’s not like I’m a private person. I just can’t think of something I particularly want people to know. I guess I could use this to say I also podcast . . . I host a podcast about sci-fi, fantasy, and Christianity. The podcast is called Strangers and Aliens and it’s a lot of fun talking about the spiritual themes found in the tv shows, comics, and movies we enjoy.

5. Any advice for other writers?

Get a good editor. Find a person or people who you trust to be honest with you and also know grammar and story. Set them loose on what you’ve written.

This person should not be your mother, unless she’s able to separate you the child room you the writer. This person should not be your spouse, or your best friend, or your grandmother unless they are able to really look at the work and forget your relationship.

This is especially important if you are self-publishing or going through some sort of digital publishing service with no editorial oversight. The digital age makes it possible for everyone to do anything, it seems, but unfortunately, that means that far too many people feel like they are masters of everything, too. But I would say that even a master editor, when they take on the role of writer, needs someone who can edit their writing.

6. If you could have an afternoon with a character from one of your works, who would you choose? Why?

The Timeflyz, from my all ages graphic novel series. First, I like them. I’d enjoy hanging out with them — of all my characters, these are the characters who surprise me the mist with their actions and reactions to my plots. Second, I’d love for them to tell me about some of the people they have met in their travels through time. And maybe I could convince them to take me along with them for a short trip . . .

7. What is your writing space like?

It’s a mess. A serious, serious mess. Sadly. Eventually, we’re going to get the money to move my office downstairs and shuffle around all our bedrooms. When we do that, I give the new office three weeks before it’s a mess. A serious, serious mess.

I do, however, often leave the house to work in places like our local grocery store’s cafe and Starbucks or something like that. I often need the change of scenery, but also I need to have people around me . . . Just not people I am responsible for.

8. What book is on your nightstand at the moment?

I’m reading The Skin Map by Stephen Lawhead right now. There are other books on my nightstand, but this is the one I am actually reading. I’ve been a big fan of Lawhead since his earliest writings, when he was doing sci-fi instead of fantasy, and followed him through his fantasy books, but in the last decade or so I haven’t read any of his new books. I’m playing catch up now. Also right there is Eion Colfer’s And Another Thing, the sixth book in the Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy, but I just haven’t been able to bring myself to read it. It’s just not the same, a non-Douglas Adams chronicle of Arthur Dent and Zaphod and Marvin.

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If you’d like to know more about Ben Avery, check out his website (http://benavery.com). Thanks for reading!

8 Questions | Meet Author L. B. Graham

Fantasy Author, L. B. Graham

Today, I’d like to introduce you to a fantastic fantasy (redundant?) author. I was first introduced to the books of L. B. Graham by a college friend at a Christian publishing trade show. After college, my friend Jesse went to work for P&R Publishing while pursuing a graduate degree. P&R Publishing is better known for Reformed theological tomes than fiction, so I was surprised when Jesse pressed a copy of Graham’s Beyond the Summerland into my hands and said, “As a fellow Lord of the Rings fan, I think you’ll like this.” And I did. Admittedly, it took me a minute to get past the book cover (fantasy covers can be notoriously bad), but once I got into the story, I really enjoyed it.

First in the Binding of the Blade series

A couple years later, I got to meet L. B. Graham at the same trade show. He and I got into a discussion of his book covers and I remember how very honest he was about them. I told him that I enjoyed the books in spite of their covers and I would do what I could to promote them in my bookstore. Unlike meeting some authors you like only to discover that you only like their books and would never like them in real life, it was a good experience.

I recently friended (I remember back when “friend” was just a noun; I must be getting old) L. B. Graham on Facebook. I reintroduced myself and asked if he would be willing to do an interview with me so you all could meet him. He was happy to do so. After reading the interview, I encourage you to visit his website (http://blog.lbgraham.com/) and buy all of his books.

The interview:

1. Fantasy writer Terry Goodkind once said, “Fantasy allows you to shine a different kind of light on human beings. I believe the only valid use of fantasy is to illustrate important human themes.” What themes do you illustrate in your books?

It’s a good question, even if it does reference Terry Goodkind (oh wait, did I say that out loud?), so let me see… My first series, “The Binding of the Blade,” revolved around the theme of ‘longing for restoration.’ It imagines a world where the making of weapons represents ‘the Fall’ and where the ‘unmaking’ of weapons is a prelude to Restoration. As such, it wrestles a good bit with what it means to navigate a broken world while yearning for a perfect one.

My current fantasy series, “The Wandering,” (which begins with “The Darker Road,” coming in the spring) revolves around a very different theme than my first. Namely, that a world that rejects its maker and puts its trust and hope in lesser things might find that for this rebellion, a price might have to be paid. So, it is kind of a judgment theme and pretty different than the restoration theme of BOTB.

Like Huck Finn, only with robots.

My Indie book, “The Raft, The River, and The Robot,” which is a slightly dystopic, futuristic novel inspired in large part by “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn,” wrestles – much like the book that inspired it – with identity. How do we find and define ourselves, and to what extent do parents and social context shape us, both in that we are molded by them and in that we push away at times from them.

And, having said all this, I hasten to add that the books are more interesting than this might make them sound. J The theme is often under and behind the story, not up front in preachy ways, I hope…

2. When and why did you start writing fiction?

While I had tackled a few stories before this, my first real story was “Killer Kudzu,” a choose-your-own-adventure story written in about 1982, I think. I wrote it on index cards as part of a project for school.  I continued to dabble in fiction in High School and College, and occasionally thereafter.

In seminary, I did an independent study on “the Problem of Pain” and part of my arrangement with my supervising professor was that I could report on my work with a story, rather than a traditional paper, and I wrote a 60 page story for that.

I didn’t start working on a novel for publication until 1998/1999, when I began in earnest to turn that story into a novel, and even though I didn’t finish it, it got my wheels turning and led pretty soon to my decision to go back to the fantasy idea I’d had years before when I was a college student, and that eventually became “The Binding of the Blade.”

3. Describe your writing space.

This may be less than inspirational, but these days it is usually a booth at McDonalds. The soda is cheap and the internet is free, and I hunker down for a while and get to work.

I wrote my first series, alternating between home (on some weekday nights) and my classroom (on Saturday afternoons), but as my kids have grown and I live further from the school where I teach, I’ve adapted. All I really need is my computer and some headphones to drown out the world, and I’m ready to go…

4. Your Binding of the Blade series was published by P&R Publishing, then you published two books independently, and you’ve got a book coming next year from Living Ink Books (publisher of Bryan Davis’ Dragons in Our Midst series). Which has been the best publishing experience? Why?

I’m going to do something unusual for me and take the tactful approach here and say ‘they aren’t better or worse, they’re different.’

Actually, I don’t have much of a choice, because while I worked with P&R pretty constantly between 2002 and 2008, and have since had a few years to reflect on that experience, I don’t have nearly the perspective on my Indie experience or Living Ink.

Having said that, they really are different. After working with a traditional publisher, I really enjoyed the creative control of Indie publishing. I made final decisions on covers, and on titles, etc, and that was great. Consequently, I have a finished product that really does fit my vision for each of those stories.

Another of Graham’s indie titles

At the same time, I spent my money to get those books to that level of professional quality, I have to try to market them myself, and so on. Both the financial risk and potential reward grow exponentially with Indie publishing, so the jury is still out on the wisdom of going that way.

As for Living Ink, the decision to go with them had a lot to do with the fact that they’ve consciously worked to create a fantasy presence in the Christian market, where many Christian publishers are hesitant to commit to fantasy as a genre. I applaud and appreciate that commitment.

5. Can you tell us about your upcoming book, The Darker Road?

“The Darker Road” is the story of the dramatic collapse of an empire. I don’t want to give too much away, but the King of this empire has stolen a powerful talisman of sorts, and he is using it to strengthen his already considerable military might. And even as he is preparing to use that might to further subdue the empire he governs, the rightful keepers of the talisman come looking for it. That’s how it all starts, anyway, and the conflict that ensues is only the beginning.

There is a pretty cool ‘alternative technology’ system in the series, which makes for some fun devices and weapons and so forth. This also creates a pretty unique feel for the stories, as they don’t quite fit into the traditional, medieval/semi-medieval feel of many fantasy worlds. At the same time, I definitely think the series fits the ‘fantasy’ mold, even if it stretches some of the conventions.

For example, I think one of the fascinating things about fantasy is this contrast in fantasy stories between a way of life that is somewhat archaic, or behind us, and magic and magical abilities which give the characters abilities that are beyond us. In “The Darker Road,” I think the reader will get a similar experience, where sometimes the world feels dated, and in other ways, very advanced.

6. Any advice for aspiring writers?

Lots, but I’ll stay basic: read & write. The absolute, non-negotiable foundation for becoming a good writer is to read & write.  You need to read, read, read, so you can learn the craft of writing from those who have gone before, and you need to write, write, write, since no one (or almost no one, anyway) ever becomes good at anything without lots and lots of practice.

7. What book is on your nightstand?

I am trying to read three different books right now.  When I’m on my recumbent exercise bike in the basement, I am currently reading “Sword at Sunset,” which is Rosemary Sutcliff’s version of King Arthur. When I am in bed and up for a challenge, I’m re-reading “War in Heaven” by Charles Williams – which of course means that “The Novels of Charles Williams” by Tom Howard is also on my nightstand, since I never try to read Williams without it handy. Lastly, when I’m in bed and too tired to venture into Williams & only looking for ‘easy reading,’ I’m reading Book 5 of the “The Dark Tower” series by Stephen King. I haven’t read much King, but some friends and former students encouraged me to read his ‘epic fantasy’ series, and so I’m working my way through it.

8. What do you want people to know aside from your writing?

This is a very open-ended question, so I’ll take full advantage. What I want people to know is that Christianity is about grace, not moralism, and I think when Christians set out to be story tellers, they need to keep this in mind. A book isn’t Christian because the people in it behave morally, even as a person isn’t a Christian because he or she tries to behave morally. We need a better, more faithful, deeper standard of evaluation than that.

And with that, I’ll say thanks to you, Josh, for the interview, and best wishes to all of your blog readers!

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No, L. B. Graham. Thank you.

A King and a Kingdom | Happy 4th of July

Picture taken by Thomas Campbell on 9/24 at the Derek Webb concert at Ecclesia Church in Houston, Tx.When it comes to music, there are people who listen to the CD in its entirety and there are people who get stuck on one song and listen to it over and over. I fall into the latter category, especially when it comes to the music of Derek Webb.

I first heard Derek on the self-titled Caedmon’s Call record back in the early 2000’s. I think my brother is the one who introduced me to Caedmon’s Call. Anyway, back then, the song that I got stuck on was “Center Aisle.” Even now, I can’t listen to the song just once when it comes up on my iPod.

But what does that have to do with the 4th of July?

Ever since he went solo, Derek Webb has been a prophetic voice in the classic sense of reproving the church. His songs are not toe-tapping ditties meant to entertain. They are calls to action, uncomfortable reminders, and scourging truths. That said, they still fall into the “can’t listen to it just once” category for me. Maybe because I need to hear the truth again and again for it to sink in. Maybe I just enjoy the songs.

Either way, I wanted to share the lyrics for Derek Webb’s song “A King and a Kingdom” today, as Americans feel the swell of patriotism, in order that we may not forget that if we are Christians, the USA is not our final home and our allegiance is owed to one greater than this country or any country.

 

A King and a KingdomMockingbird

 Appears on: Mockingbird

Lyrics
Who’s your brother, who’s your sister
You just walked past him, I think you missed her
As we’re all migrating to a place where our Father lives
‘Cause we married into a family of immigrants

[Chorus]
So my first allegiance is not to a flag, a country or a man
My first allegiance is not to democracy or blood
It’s to a King and a Kingdom

There are two great lies that I’ve heard
The day you eat of the fruit of that tree you will not surely die
And that Jesus Christ was a white, middle class Republican
And if you wanna be saved you have to learn to be like him

[Chorus]

And nothing unifies like a common enemy
And we’ve got one sure as hell
He may be living in your house
He may be raising up your kids
He may be sleeping with your wife
Oh he may not look like you think