Friday, March 26, 2021

Book Review: The Moonlight School, by Suzanne Woods Fisher

Okay, I could pretend that I chose this book because it's historical fiction (which I love!) or because it's about a woman breaking the glass ceiling (you go, girl!) or because it's set in a time and place I haven't read about before (always fascinating!), 
but no.

This book description contained one line that got me 
hook, line, and sinker:

"Brother Wyatt, a singing school master..."

What??? A book about singing schools??? 


If you know my story, you know that attending a singing school changed my life
In all the books I've read, I've never encountered singing schools at all, so how could I resist?

And to clarify: this isn't a book about singing schools. 

Welcome to Rowan County, Kentucky, spring 1911. The world is moving from the straight-laced Victorian era into a new century. Cities are vibrant, modern centres, but in the rural mountain communities, tradition still maintains a stronghold. This is the world of The Moonlight School.

Our heroine, the fictional Lucy Wilson, desperately needs to experience a new chapter in life. She leaves the comforts of her affluent city life to work for her cousin in the school system of Rowan County.

Cora Wilson was a real-life trail blazer. In a time when women struggled for their place in society, she led the way in the field of education. She won her position of school superintendent in a landslide election, and her idea for "moonlight schools" literally transformed literacy in her state.

Without giving too much away, The Moonlight School is really Lucy's story. It's a story of facing your own preconceived notions, questioning the status quo, and finding your purpose in life. Lucy is a worthy protagonist, forcing us to challenge the prejudices we so often hold when it comes to entering new corners of the world.

If anything, the title of the book is a bit misleading. This isn't a book about Cora Wilson, and the concept of the moonlight schools doesn't enter the story until at least halfway through the book. That said, Woods Fisher has definitely done her research. I felt fully immersed in the Rowan County's politics, class divisions, and tactile details. I found myself genuinely craving mountain air and an all day church singing.

A brief side note on shape notes:

Shape Notes are a way of teaching music literacy where the shape of the note corresponds to its pitch within the scale. It's not related to the rhythm, as implied in this book. I know most people won't read The Moonlight School for the shape notes, but this distinction is important to me. People who learn shape notes can literally sight-read any song written in shapes, and can easily work out harmony parts. 
If you love music, I highly recommend digging into this topic on your own! 
Shape notes!

The Moonlight School is a light, enjoyable read 
with engaging characters in a dynamic time and place. 

I recommend reading the book, 
and then digging into the fascinating real-life history, as seen in the photo below...

A real life Moonlight School.

Wednesday, March 24, 2021

Book Review: Always Know..., by Melinda Estabrooks

 Full warning: we are about to enter Book Review Season!!!

I had already signed up to review three - yes, three! - books for Nuts About Books, 
when I saw this tempting offer jump on my screen: 

Who wants to join the book launch team for Melinda Estabrooks's latest creation?
Oh, and several of your friends are contributors??

Easy YES!!!

So, for those keeping count, that's four reviews coming to you over the new two months. 

So. Much. YAY!!!

Let me tell you, I always love getting a free book in the mail, but if you really want me to love your book before I even open it, this is the way to send it: bright envelope, fancy magnet, pretty note, and yes, those shiny gold things are candy! *bliss* 

Always Know... is the book-child of See Hear Love, Melinda's inspiring talk show for women of faith. After hearing so many incredible stories on the show, Melinda asked 50 of her favourite guests to contribute to Always Know...

The writers range from pastors to artists to community leaders. Their topics cover such areas as worship, leadership, mental health, and racism. The challenge in a book like this is always going to be consistency, but I can honestly say I enjoyed every piece! Some spoke directly into my life and experiences. Those that didn't still provided so much inspiration and empathy.

The format of this book allows you to use it for personal reflection, or in a group setting. You can read it in a single sitting (testify!) or take it day-by-day as a devotional.

Each piece is followed by a "Reflection" and "Takeaway", encouraging you to dig deeper and apply the lessons of the story to your own life. The writer's bio is also on the same page, allowing you to have a bit of context for the author's perspective. I found myself looking up websites and signing up for mailing lists on my favourite pieces!

I highly recommend reading Always Know... with a pencil! I turned down pages, underlined passages, and took copious notes. I know I'll revisit certain chapters again and again.

This book was birthed in the pandemic. I couldn't help but wonder how many of the writers wondered if their pieces would still be relevant upon the book's release. And yet, here we are, still struggling through masks and distancing and far-too-many Zoom calls... 

Always Know... arrives just at the right time. 
It's a shot in the arm (groan for the vaccine-pun) of much needed hope and encouragement.

I fully recommend getting a copy for yourself, 
as well as stuffing them in a few Easter baskets!

To purchase you own copy or to learn more about Always Know... 

please visit

A copy of Always Know... was provided at no cost in exchange for an unbiased review.

Wednesday, March 17, 2021

One Year of "Empty" Church Worship

The sanctuary echoed around us. 
Four people in a space designed to hold 800. 
Wednesday nights are usually flush with the voices of worshippers, 
but that night, we were a humble quartet in an empty church. 

One year ago tonight, we held our first "empty" church service.

March 18, 2020 - our first night of "Empty" Church Worship

Lockdown had been mandated across Ontario. That day, a flurry of emails flew amongst our Advent Cafe staff. We made plans to set up our sound system in the large main sanctuary, to take advantage of the live stream set up. All the details started to fall into place. We adjusted leadership roles, arrived early, and lifted extra prayers. Everything seemed ready...

But for the first time ever, 
we would close our doors to our beloved congregation. 

That first night, we felt so alone in that cavernous space. But then, we looked into the camera and welcomed those worshiping from the safety of their socially distant homes. We imagined their beautiful faces and loving smiles. We started praying and singing. The praise was rising! 

Suddenly, the church didn’t feel empty.

We’ve all read the passage about “the great cloud of witnesses”, and it can feel metaphorical. But in that moment, it became real for us. We felt surrounded by the generations of worshippers who had filled those pews. We were connected to people across the country who had tuned in to worship with us. 

God was in our praises! 
Two or three had gathered together, and God was in our midst.

We've now been gathering this way for a full year. 

It's been a varied year for worship settings. Some churches remain physically closed, live streaming from their sanctuaries. Others have managed to have small gatherings within their walls. Others have gone completely online, with preachers and musicians offering leadership from their own homes. 

We know it's going to be like this for a while yet...

But here's what else we know: 

God is still in our midst.
God is in your songs and in your prayers.
God is in the way you love your neighbour.
God is always around us.

Wherever you find yourself in this pandemic season, raise your voice in praise.
God is singing over you. Worshippers past and present join your song. 

When you worship, wherever you worship, you are never alone.