Monday, March 17, 2014

New Website

I've been a freelance writer since the end of 2006. And in all that time, I've never had a website.

No more, glory hallelujah.

Now, thanks to my friend Brad at 4tunate Design, I have a place where editors and readers can view my past articles, see the cool people I've interviewed and subscribe to future blog posts.

In fact, I've already been blogging from there for the past few posts. And I'm loving it (ba-da-ba-bap-ba.....).

I'll leave Crystal's Cliffnotes up for a little while longer, but please, if you want to keep reading about my crazy life, subscribe to my posts, like me on Facebook and let me know what you think of my new site. 

And if you're really feeling wild, share my articles and blogs with a buddy.

Thanks for reading!

Friday, February 14, 2014

High School Hearts

There was a long list of things we didn’t have: money, life experience with serious relationships, college degrees — heck, not even a high school diploma — and a place of our own. After all, we were just teenagers. AKA we had no clue, and the world let us know it.

The list of things Nick and I did have at age 17 was a lot shorter, but in the end, mattered more: love, commitment and the crazy, irrational belief that we could make it no matter what the naysayers told us.

Today, we have enough money to live a comfortable, middle-class lifestyle. We have over 11 years of “us.” We have college degrees, a mortgage, a dog and three kids. We’ve lived in two states, two countries and two continents as man and wife. By all accounts, we now know what we’re doing.

And yet part of me still longs for the days when life boiled down a hand-written love poem on a first Valentine’s Day, grammar and punctuation mistakes and all.

That yearbook smile still drives me mad
With all that’s changed, I’m so glad

You’re still loving me
With that some old high school heart

~From “High School Heart” by John Michael Montgomery

The presents may have gotten more expensive, the clamor may have increased in the background and maybe we don’t have to drive 85 miles an hour down River Drive to make my curfew.

But that boy is the same. The girl is the same. The love is the same.

No, I take it back. That boy and girl have changed into a man and woman who have learned that true love isn’t entirely about the romance, the gifts and the holidays. That love has grown and matured into an all-encompassing river of everyday choices and actions, wild and calm by turns but always active and alive.

Happy Valentine’s Day to the one who, from nothing, has given me everything.

Thursday, January 30, 2014

Hair Hits & Misses

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England -- where even the hair salons are older than America

As much as I love Stacey, my amazing hairstylist back home, I knew I couldn't hang onto her forever. I tried my hardest, scheduling one last precious wash-and-cut a mere 48 hours before we left. And being the sweet woman that she is, she scribbled down instructions on a notepad for how I liked my hair done.

"For your new stylist in England," she said. I took the paper, grateful -- Stacey knows I don't speak hair.

This week, I discovered neither Stacey nor I speak British hair.

When you Google "British Hairstyles," this is the image that pops up. How handy.
After nearly three months of UK living, my tresses were in need. So I asked a fashionable, hip-with-it mom at playgroup where she gets her hair done.

"By the lady with tattoos at the salon here in Gayton," she answered.

So that's who I asked for when I made an appointment. "Aw, you must mean Danielle," the receptionist said.

So off to Danielle I walked. (All six businesses in this no-stoplight town are within walking distance of my -- and any -- house in Gayton).

The first discovery: just like in the States, British salon waiting areas don't carry Sports Illustrated or ESPN magazines. Massive disappointment.

I sat down in the chair and Danielle handed me a cape. With sleeves. This was a new contraption to me. As all American women know (and perhaps some men), our capes just drape around you and are put on by your stylist.

Not here. While trying to do it myself, I got tangled up in the sleeves. They were beyond my abilities. Poor Danielle had to rescue me from the wicked, sleevey cape.

I have done so much for Americans' reputations in this county.

"So what would you like?" she asked. I handed her Stacey's note. "I want my bangs and layers refreshed," I answered.

Danielle looked at me blankly. "What are bangs?"

Oh, no. All thoughts of this appointment ending well disappeared on a Norfolk wind.

If anyone tells you that Brits and Americans speak the same language, they are liars.

The finished product. Avinly says, "You mess with my mom's hair, you mess with me!"
After a quick hand gesture, she got it. "Oh, you mean your fringe!" she cried.

Fringe? You know, now that she mentioned it, I did recall Anne Shirley requesting a fashionable fringe in her hair, only to be shot down by sensible Marilla.

The next half hour followed suit. I would say something, she would have no idea what it meant, I would gesture wildly with my hands, she would study Stacey's instructions and eventually translate.

I couldn't say, "You know, the way Carrie Underwood has hers." Because well, Oklahoman country singers aren't real big here.

I couldn't say, "Layers like Rachel had toward the end of Season 8."

I couldn't say, "Not quite Brooke Shields' volume, but close." Because Lord knows when it comes to my repertoire of UK celebrities, I peter out after the Beatles and Paul McCartney and there is no way under the sun I want to look like them.

Eventually, however, we made it work. As Danielle rubbed some product in my hair, I inhaled the delicious aroma.

"Yum, that smells just like Laffy Taffy!" I said.

More blank stares. "You know, taffy?"

Another stylist asked, "Is that like toffee? Or perhaps a lolly?" No and no.

As I was paying (more differences here -- no tipping, for starters), the owner walked in.

"Hi, Crystal," he said. "How are you doing?"

I have a great memory, but I didn't recognize the man. "Have we met?" I asked. He shook his head. "Then how do you know my name?"

He laughed. "Crystal," he said, "EVERYONE in Gayton knows who you are."

The other stylist eye's lit up in recognition. "I knew I'd seen you somewhere!" she cried. "You're that runner with the giant double buggy!"

Well, then. At least they know I'm not totally uncoordinated, the cape incident notwithstanding.

Tuesday, January 28, 2014

Burns Baby Burns...Scottish Inferno!

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Robert Burns, Scotland's most famous poet

"Would you like to come to a Burns supper?" our pastor's wife asked. After a split second of English-to-American decoding, I decided that term must mean a bonfire and agreed.

"Great," she answered. "Feel free to wear your Scottish gear!"


Aw, now I get it. A Burns supper!

I can't help it. Americans love to poke fun at formality!
If you have no idea what said supper is, don't feel bad -- I didn't know either. Here's the skinny: Robert Burns was an 18th-century Scottish poet. His home country is quite proud of him still. So they party hardy every January (his birth month) in his honor, complete with bagpipes, Scottish dress and decor and a Scottish menu.

And what a menu it was. Save for the haggis (thank you, Disney Merida), I didn't recognize a single item. I had to learn in a hurry, however, as I was tasked with bringing the cock-a-leekie.

Pastor Andy brings in the haggis
Cock a Leekie
Cullen Skink

Main course
Vegetarian Haggis (yes, such a thing exists!)

Scottish trifle

Irn-Bru and Scottish Highland water

Google what haggis is made of. I dare you!
 While sipping some Irn-Bru (which tastes suspiciously like the nasty pregnancy glucose test, by the way), Pastor Andy announced that the skank was served.

Out came the Irn-Bru. "Does the term skank mean something different over here?" I whispered to the Canadian next to me. She shrugged. We both felt much better when Andy corrected himself, "No wait, I meant skink!"

As per Scottish tradition, the bagpipes wailed as the haggis made its grand entrance. And then some Scottish guy online read a "Robbie Buuuuurns" poem in an accent so thick I wasn't entirely sure he was speaking English.

Since Nick and I aren't exactly hip with Scottish fashion, we were dressed as -- what else? -- Americans at a Scottish party. Though I did manage to find an authentic Scottish ribbon that had once been around a package of Scottish shortbread. So around my American neck it went, matching my red American Eagle sweater.

Hey, I gave it my best shot. AND, thanks to my Scottish friend Debra, I even had a Scottie dog tea towel to wrap around my cock-a-leekie. (Can you tell I'm having fun with that phrase?).

Haggis, sliced and up close
As I handed my slow cooker over to Pastor Andy, he cleared space off the counter. "Here, let me plug that in to keep it warm," he said. Fishing for the plug, he realized it wouldn't work in his European house. Everything about us identifies us as aliens here -- even our cookery!

Well, at least no one will accidentally take my crock pot home.

P.S. The cock-a-leekie, and everything else, turned out deliciously. Scots must eat and drink well, minus the Irn-Bru.

The haggis makes it grand entrance
Several men were wearing kilts, including the host, Pastor Andy. Janet, his wife, wore slacks. At one point, I teased him about it.

"Hey Pastor," I joked. "So how does it feel knowing that your wife wears the pants in the family while you don't?"

He gave me a very funny look. "Actually," he stated, quite emphatically, "I AM wearing pants."

I figured he meant metaphorically and just laughed.

A Canadian parading as a Scot
Only later did someone pull me aside and asked me if I knew what I had just said to him. "You see," they explained, "in the UK, we call pants what you would call underwear. And what you would call pants, we call trousers."

So, in other words, I just questioned whether and how my pastor and his wife were wearing underwear. To his face!

Ah, well. At least my own face matched the tartans for the rest of the evening.

There were glasses of Scottish whiskey raised (I had no idea that whiskey smelled exactly like nail polish remover. Can someone please explain the appeal?) and speeches made in Burns' honor.

The gist: "No one could woo a woman, drink a shot and write a poem like Robbie could!" But, when coupled with lilting British and Irish accents, sounding much classier.

Being the adventurous eater that I am, I had a slice of haggis. It wasn't so bad -- just very salty and chewy. I preferred the vegetarian version, actually; the city of Eugene would be so proud.

A sing-along of Auld Lang Syne (did you know Burns wrote that?) and a quiz on the history and culture of Scotland capped the night off. The contest ended in a tie between two teams of Brits, Canadians, Americans, Sri Lankans and Brazilians. Go figure.

Amanda and I show off our winning medals
Before the Burns Supper, I didn't even realize that Scotland had their own flag (sorry, Debbie and Matt). I did know that reigning Wimbledon champion Andy Murray is Scottish, however, so that counts for something.

Lesson learned from the night: if Robert Burns' love for his country is like a red, red rose, then mine is like a red, red face...and a happy heart.

Saturday, January 25, 2014

Sweets & Candi in England

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How much does a boy love his grandma? Enough to fake an illness to get out of school so he could spend more time with her. It didn't work, unfortunately.

But there has still been plenty of memory-making going on around here. After all, it's not every day that you get your first international house guest.

Reading Zootles magazine at bedtime

Jack and Jude practically counted down the hours until my mom got here. When Jude first saw her at the airport, he tackled her, and when Jack came home from a friend's house later, he did the same. They eagerly run into her bedroom every morning, clamor for attention and, in general, try to monopolize every moment they can from their Grandma Candi.

Not everyone is so happy with her arrival, however.

Beauty is pain, Avinly. And if you're the grandma, it's also humorous!
Jack and Jude have had the advantage of years and proximity to get to know their relatives. Being the youngest, Avinly hasn't. Hence her wild desperation to never leave my or Nick's side, even for her grandma.

To combat this barnacle-like behavior, Nick and I have decided on the "weaken her resolve at all costs or we'll never get to go on our 10th anniversary vacation" approach.

I'll let you know later if it's working.

The results of the grandma-and-granddaughter hair session turned out quite cute, in my opinion. Perhaps even Avinly was satisfied.
Since Jack is in school all day, lucky Jude gets Grandma Candi all to himself. You don't have to tell him twice to take advantage. There has been a massive amount of football-kicking, wrestling and exercise-ball bouncing at the Kupper Casa this week.

Oh, and don't forget Lipstick Taser fights.  Vicious.

One of the best parts about my mom being here is showing her my everyday life in person instead of over Skype or FaceTime. She's been enjoying our daily routine, our new house and our new friends. She likes it all, actually...except one thing.

The roads. Mostly, the lack of sidewalks. 

Whether driving, biking, walking or running, my mom is not satisfied with the state of British roads. Oh sure, she was fine with it the first time she visited a few decades ago. But now that her daughter and grandbabies are risking their lives on them multiple times a day? No way, Jose. Get God on the line and tell Him what's what!

Or at least beg me to stay inside the house. Right.

You should see when I take the double BOB here!
Thankfully, when you can ignore the threat of death lurking around every hairpin turn, runs here really are quite relaxing.

Running by St. Nicholas' Church
In the UK, it is perfectly all right to mosey through private property as long as you leave it how you found it. As an American firmly steeped in the belief that you stay off private land no matter what, it weirded me out at first. But a few near-misses on my long runs helped me abandon that skittishness.

Mom, however, couldn't ditch the feeling that we were breaking the law. I told her she would get used to it. Besides, it's not like we'll get chased off by an angry farmer with a gun. Here, it would just be an angry farmer. And he would probably disguise the anger as politeness.

Running through a farm field. "My new shoes!" Mom said. My reply: "Did you actually expect to keep anything mud-free here, Mom?"
We've been filling our limited time with cuddles, books, runs/walks and town activities like Messy Church. I haven't had to introduce Mom to anyone; everyone already knows who she is. It's hard to stay anonymous with an American accent and a giant yellow stroller.

"Oh, you must be Crystal's Mum!" they greet her in the schoolyard. How can you tell?

Jude colors at Messy Church in the Parish Hall

Grandma Candi supervises the coloring at Messy Church
No visit to Gayton would be complete without a visit to the The Crown. Partially because it's cool -- it was built in the 16th century! -- but also because it's the only restaurant in town.

When my petite mom can reach the top of the doorway, you KNOW the building must be old!

Once we were seated near "the carvery" (a British meat buffet of sorts), we ordered our drinks. Mom asked for a ginger ale; I, a lemonade.

The volume of Mom's "dry ginger" turned out to be the size of a shot glass, while my lemonade was actually a Sprite with a lemon wedge on top.

So now we know.

Note to self: lemonade in the UK = Sprite in the US!
Of course, Mom and I found plenty to talk about over the meal. Like how Jack played Pharaoh in a class reenactment that morning (he even earned a sticker for delivering the line "All Hebrew baby boys MUST DIE!" with deep conviction) and the funny slogans on British condiments.

Giggling at this phrase never gets old
Once the waitress arrived, Mom frantically whispered behind her menu, "Remind me what chips and crisps are?" The code: fries are chips here, and chips are crisps. Among other things I am still learning.

Like being a daughter only gets better with age.

Like the best memories consist of games of Memory.

Like life is all the sweeter when Candi is in it.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

Take Your Gotta-Have-It Tablet Habit and Use It for Good {Samsung Tablet Raffle}

Didja get everything you wanted for Christmas? Didja?

Nick is pretty good in the present department. He certainly has come a long ways since he once chose Valentine's Day to give me a vacuum cleaner that wasn't a Dyson. So romantic, that one.

Of course, Nick couldn't get me what I wanted this year: to be with my family back home in Oregon. I never fully grasped the importance of physical presence until it was over an ocean away. My heart ached.

Though I've been a military wife for nine years, I realized anew this December just how much a girl needs her parents. It doesn't matter that I've lived away from them for years; that I'm used to their absence; that I'm aware of the fact that real life means we can't always be together. I still miss them and need their guidance.

Which brings me to the Jenks family.

Mark and Rebecca Jenks have six fabulous kids and live on the Oregon/Washington border. Mark is from the UK and occasionally sports a Minion shirt while working at a graphics company over an hour away. Rebecca stays at home raising the chitlins, including two gorgeous littles they brought home just last year from Eastern Europe.

Suffice it to say their hearts for the least of these are huge. They have sacrificed a lot to show the world just how worthwhile their children's lives are.

And they're doing it again.

Mark building block sets to sell while holding son Gavin

Mark and Rebecca are bringing home two more, this time teenage girls from Eastern Europe with Down Syndrome. And just in case you didn't know, life for those with disabilities in that area is pretty horrific. This is not a spur-of-the-moment, Oprah adoption feeling. This is a "If we don't get those girls, their death warrants are sealed," sort of decision.

Since Nick and I, just like the Jenks family, are called to care for orphans (the Bible talks about and mandates it, oh, several hundred times), here's what we're going to do:

Simultaneously help Mark and Rebecca pay their girls' ransom (also known as adoption fees) while giving my readers a chance to win an expensive piece of technology on the cheap.

Hence, we give you...the Samsung Galaxy Tab 3 tablet. Ta-Da!

It's white, seven inches and has a camera. For my American friends: we got it here, so it has a British plug...but it can be charged like usual to any laptop or computer. It does all the fancy things tablets do these days. And it's worth about $228 (or 139 pounds for my British buddies).

Most importantly: it can save two lives from a (short) lifetime of institution abuse. How? I'm glad you asked.

If you donate just ONE DOLLAR to the Jenks' adoption fund, you will have a chance to win this tablet. For every dollar you donate, you get 10 entries. Once you give, there are other ways to up your tickets; see the handy-dandy Rafflecopter below. 

Most of my blog posts attract anywhere from 200-500 readers. If each of you gave just one measly buck, we could get Mark, Rebecca and family that much closer to their final goal of 23,000. Their FSP (Family Support Program) currently stands at $4,421.12. Could we get them to $4700, perhaps? (I know this family personally and can vouch for their character. I've also been working with Reece's Rainbow for several years now and can gladly sing its praises!)

It doesn't matter that sweet V&E have lived away from Mark & Rebecca for years; that they're used to their far-away parents' absence and pretty awful treatment; that the girls are aware of the fact that real life means they don't get the normal benefits of a family. They still miss what they've never had and need guidance.

The raffle ends on Saturday, February 1 -- the same month that the Jenks plan to travel to Eastern Europe for Veronika and Emelijia. In other words, let's get a move on!
The winner will be drawn at random and notified by e-mail and/or Facebook, if applicable.

Go here to donate to Veronika & Emelijia's ransom fund and fill out the form below to have a chance to win the tablet. And good luck!

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Sunday, January 12, 2014

The Kuppercott Awards -- or the 15 Books to Read in 2014

What do books have to do with breastfeeding? For me, quite a bit. Since 2011, I've been keeping track of what books I read in an Air Force notepad. And I've noticed a trend: I read a heck of a lot more on the years that I'm nursing a baby -- usually twice as much.

I guess there is a positive to being forced to sit down so much after all. (On a side note: the Boppy
might be one of the most genius inventions known to man. Or women, whatever.)

I can't keep up this trend forever (breastfeeding, not reading!). So thank you, Avinly, for the privilege of 33 books read this past year. Hence, it's time for the Kuppercott Awards! (Based on the literary Caldecott medal).

Now, imagine me in a sparkling red gown (because that's my best color) handing out something akin to the Dancing with the Stars trophy -- only make it a little cooler than the cheesy Hollywood sequins. Like, cover it in dark chocolate.

Best Commentary/Analysis on Current Events: The Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell

I discovered this intelligent Canadian journalist a few years back, and no, I'm not talking about L.M. Montgomery. Malcolm Gladwell is a staff writer for The New Yorker, and his to-the-point, journalistic approach to his books hooked me from the first chapter. The Tipping Point is another fascinating, witty analysis of a seemingly insignificant query: how does a trend start? How does something go from totally uncool to gotta-have-it? (I'm looking at you, Hush Puppies!).

Deepest: One Thousand Gifts by Ann Voskamp
Okay, I have to admit: I hate reading trendy books. And, to be honest, Voskamp's writing style sort of drives me crazy. So how did this runaway best-seller from a Canadian farm wife end up on my Kuppercott list? And more importantly, am I developing a thing for Canadian writers?

The answer (to the first question, anyways): Voskamp gives shape to thoughts and wordless feelings I've had about God and life for years, and she does it in a way that sticks with you.

I gave it the "Deepest" award because this is NOT a book you can cruise through. Each chapter requires self-reflection and deep thought. I came away cleansed, refreshed and more aware of my place in the universe, despite the fact that her run-on sentences irk me. But that's probably just a personal quirk. Trust me: this book is worth the energy.

Best Use of Plot and Motif: The Language of Flowers by Vanessa Diffenbaugh
Thanks to my love of Victorian-era novels, I was already familiar with the idea that each flower and plant has a meaning. In fact, whole love letters -- or breakups -- used to be communicated through bouquets.

Obviously, this slow-form communication isn't hot today. Diffenbaugh, however, marries the past and present with this story of an aged-out teenage foster girl who only speaks through flowers. Heart-breaking, eye-opening, raw and a call to action to help American foster kids who leave the system unadopted with no family or skills.

Best Intelligent-yet-Escapist Beach Read: Death Comes to Pemberley by P.D. James
Anyone who knows me well knows my love of not only Jane Austen, but specifically of Pride & Prejudice.  Apparently I'm not the only one, as over the last decade a sub-genre of Austen prequels and sequels has popped up.

P.D. James, a British crime writer, outdoes them all. If you can't get enough of the Darcy household, snatch this murder mystery up! See how Elizabeth and Fitzwilliam deal with hysterical Lydia again (but you're not surprised, are you?) as she wildly announces one night that her husband -- the dastardly, hated Wickham -- has been murdered.

Can't-Put-It-Down Award: Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies & Why by Laurence Gonzales
You ever wonder why certain people survive a crash, accident or natural disaster when others don't? Or is that just me? Gonzales, an adventure writer, tackles this weird, yet intensely fascinating topic. Ninety percent of people panic in a crisis, while the remaining ten stay cool. Guess which group lives and dies when their plane crashes into a Peruvian mountain.

Full of gripping, real-life stories, this book took up a major portion of three days for me last January. The first book I read of 2013 turned out to be a keeper. Seriously, I talked about this book to anyone who would listen for almost a month. As in, go to your library (Salem has it!) and get it now.

Best Modern-Day Social Justice Novels: Scared and Priceless by Tom Davis
Upon a Compassion friend's recommendation, I picked up this two-book set, and I'm glad I did. Written by the president of Children's Hope Chest, a child advocacy organization in Africa, Eastern Europe and India, Priceless and Scared explore the issues of modern-day human trafficking and orphan exploitation.

Though not the best for their literary merit, both books do a great job of drawing you into the lives of two young girls, first in Africa and then in Eastern Europe. The issue isn't just a money-maker or entertainment for Davis, either; he and his wife have adopted two of their seven kids from Russia.

I dig that passion. I applaud those efforts to make a dent in what is arguably the worst atrocity against the human race in our time.
And I encourage you to let Davis' words ignite a passion in your soul.

Best Anti-Barbie Book: Cinderella Ate My Daughter by Peggy Orenstein
I can guarantee my mother will roll her eyes at this one, but this NYT bestseller by a feminist writer left me saying, "Yes!" after nearly every page. I've long had issues with the "princess" culture of the last decade -- why in the world does the girl need a prince to rescue her? Why can't she take action herself? Why are we teaching our girls that marriage to a "perfect" guy is a sure-fire way to happiness when, in reality, it's a recipe for divorce?  This book gave me empirical evidence and plenty of reasons to be even pickier about Avinly's media intake.

Best Biography: C.S. Lewis: A Life by Alister McGrath
Oh, so good! Yes, there are dozens of biographies out on Lewis, arguably the most well-known theologian and apologetics genius of the 20th century. They are worth reading. This one, however, beats them all. A fresh, honest, real look at a flawed man who changed the face of modern Christianity forever. P.S. And whom we named Jack after!

Best Memoir: The Midwife by Jennifer Worth
Ever since my own birth experiences, I've been a midwife groupie. Yes, I may have invented the weirdest fan club ever.

This is the novel that launched the PBS show "Call the Midwife." More than a recollection of waters breaking, labor, delivery and Cockney accents, The Midwife is a hauntingly beautiful look back at a time and place previously unfamiliar to me: London's hard-off East End in the 1950s. Worth introduces characters ranging from humorous to heart-breaking, all the while keeping a tone of utmost respect for life in all stages. My hat's off to these midwives and the families they served!

Required Reading for All Married Couples: Sacred Marriage by Gary Thomas
Nick and I read this for a class at our church in Salem, and our marriage thanked us. Thomas has long been one of my favorite marriage experts; this book didn't disappoint. Yet the main idea was a little radical to me: what if the purpose of marriage isn't to make us happy? What if it's for a higher making us better people?

Perhaps that's a little obvious to you, but it was a game-changer for me. Using historical marriages like Abe & Sally Todd Lincoln and John & Nelly Wooden, Thomas explores how your spouse's faults aren't there to drive you batty -- they exist to shape you into someone with more patience, grace, generosity and love. Even and ESPECIALLY when the other person is totally at fault.

Plus, Thomas is a runner and comes up with all of his brilliant ideas for his books during his long runs. Kindred spirit right there.

Best Series: The Isabel Dalhouse Novels by Alexander McCall Smith
Oh, how I love this Scottish author. Smith is a world-traveler who wrote the wildly-popular "No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency" set. I dig Precious Ramotswe, the main character there, but I also loved the switch to Isabel Dalhouse, a Scottish philosopher and magazine editor. Her rambling thoughts are by turn both funny and fascinating, and Smith's gentle, classy prose never fails to make me smile. If you're in the market for intelligent, easy reading, go with this series.

Most Convicting: Just a Minute by Wess Stafford
As the former president of the world's largest child sponsorship organization, Dr. Stafford knows a thing or two about what makes children tick. I'll give you a hint: it isn't the best education, strict rules, top-of-the-line healthcare or even high self-esteem. Instead, it's encouragement from adults.

With quick, easy chapters, Just a Minute
interviews both well-known figures and everyday, ordinary people on adults who impacted lives -- both positively and negatively -- through just a one-minute interaction. Eye-opening and convicting to the core for anyone who's around children even casually or infrequently.

Most Gripping: Captive in Iran by Maryam Rostampour & Marziyeh Amirizadeh
Iran isn't exactly known for their hospitable prison system. (The ongoing Saeed Abedini case has really brought this to light). Nor are they famous for supporting women's rights. Two Iranian natives take readers on a terrifying, inspiring journey through their eight months of confinement in Evin, one of the world's most brutal prisons.

Rostampour's and Amirizadeh's faith and calm belief in the midst of evil blew my mind. Their words stuck with me long after I returned the book to the library. The best and scariest part? It's all true

Best American History Book: The Men Who United the States by Simon Winchester
I was drawn to this British author simply for the fact that, after visiting America several decades ago, he fell in love with it so much that he eventually became a citizen. Okay, and maybe the fact that I was fresh off the plane from the States and was really missing my homeland.

If you like history, you'll dig these little-known stories of the men and women who quietly built my beloved country.

And finally....drumroll, please...

The BEST Book of the Year: When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty without Hurting the Poor...and Yourself by Steve Corbett & Brian Fikkert

You may have noticed that I'm into social justice. It's a lifelong love affair. This book, however, totally changed the way I think about every issue related to helping people. As in, THIS BOOK CHANGED MY LIFE!

The premise is simple: First-World people see the massive need of the Third World around them and want to help. So they try -- and appear -- to help through avenues like missions trips, construction projects and financial giving.

But guess what: well-meaning people often do more damage than good. Say what?!?

When Helping Hurts reads more like a social science book than spiritual self-help, and that's because it is. Using solid research and years of combined experience through The Chalmers Center, Corbett and Fikkert demonstrate what actually works for equipping the poor and disenfranchised in the long run instead of just a quick, feel-good fix.

Even if all you do is put a quarter into the red kettle at Christmas, read this book.

So what about you? What's the best book you've read lately? What book do you want to read this year?