Fantasy Friday – Focus on Faith

First, I’d love to have more feedback on the Charismatic Characters poll. If you haven’t participated yet, please take a moment to let your opinion out. 😉

Second, on Monday, voting for the Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction – Readers’ Choice gets under way. There’s still time to read the minimum two required nominations to participate because the voting will continue throughout the month of August.

And now, faith. The first Mount Hermon Christian Writers’ Conference I attended, Ted Dekker was one of the speakers. One of the most impressive, inspirational parts of the conference was his tale recounting his journey to publication, including the part where he and his family started selling off some of their non-essentials in order to make ends meet. Ted, you see, believed God had called him to write, but he was running out of money.

If God calls me to the task of writing, should I be afraid of what lies ahead?

Over and over, the believer has God’s promise that He will be with him, go before him, live inside him, and will never leave him or forsake him or fail him. As a result, we’re told not to be shocked, not to be afraid, not to tremble or be dismayed.

Why? Because God is going to make us best sellers like Ted Dekker? We have no such promise.

We do know that God is good, that He is trustworthy, and that His plans involve eternal matters, so we can put our unqualified confidence in Him, knowing that light affliction might await us now, but now is not the end of the story.

Any novelist knows, conflict deepens the closer we get to the climactic scene. But how sweet the resolution when the character faces Mount Doom and survives.

When Christ Who is our Life is with us and for us, should we expect less? Do we think we novelists can write a better story than the Author of life?

Too often our problem is expecting resolution in the middle of the story, or expecting a conflict-free story.

Faith sees the big picture, however, not just the dark night of the soul when all of life seems to be at odds with our calling. If God put me on this path, I might ask, why are things hard?

I suggest there are several possible answers, though I am sure there are others. Things might be hard in order to:

  • glorify His name by giving me patience through the uncertainty
  • teach me what I need to know to be a better writer
  • teach me what I need to know to love Him more truly and trust Him more deeply
  • prepare and bring those who will read my work
  • encourage others who come along behind
  • glorify His name by accomplishing He purposes through my writing in His time

When Daniel was caught praying and sentenced to the lion’s den, did that mean God had failed or abandoned His servant? We who know the end of the story can say emphatically, Of course not!

Yet too often we look at the lions-den circumstances of our own lives, our own writing careers, and think God isn’t going to come through for us. He’s let us down. Forgotten us. Failed.

Oh, we of little faith. Too little faith!

Published in: on July 30, 2010 at 4:09 pm  Comments (5)  
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Safe Fiction Is Dangerous (Or, A Review of How to Train Your Dragon)

I caught the animated movie How to Train Your Dragon at our dollar theater today (never mind that it cost $4.00—a different story, but the movie was still a bargain). It’s a wonderful, fun, well-executed, “safe” production.

The main themes involved parent-child relationships and being true to oneself. Good things, for the most part. There was even a touching moment when the dad tells his son he’s proud of him.

I can see parents happily taking their children to see this movie and feeling oh, so good about it. I know I felt uplifted when I walked out of the theater.

But here’s the thing. There are some side issues that parents need to think about and discuss with their children, yet many may draw a false conclusion about the movie because of its happy ending and the reconciliation achieved, father with son and humans with dragons.

Here are some of the tangential (and the elaboration of one central) issues.

  • The decision not to kill a dragon (animal rights?)
  • The existence of a “greater evil” than the one the humans saw (big government? big business? God? Satan? Who is the greater evil extorting the “dragons” today?)
  • The attitude toward war (Father: They’re killing hundreds of us. Son: But we’ve killed thousands of them. They’re just defending themselves.)
  • Be true to yourself. (No matter how “different” you are? No matter that your true self is sinful?)

Am I saying How to Train Your Dragon is a bad movie and people should smash the DVD they bought? Hardly! I loved the movie and would recommend it to anyone. It’s family friendly but it’s artistic, too. At times I thought I was seeing an animated version of Avatar (an animation of an animation—now if that doesn’t say something about the digital revolution).

What I am saying is that “safe” fiction is the most dangerous kind because people are disarmed, no longer alert to possible ideas that may foster a false worldview.

Ideas, of themselves, are not dangerous. I can listen to atheist Christopher Hitchens in a debate about the existence of God and be unaffected by his worldview because I am alert.

Ideas that float in under the radar, however, are another thing. They enter unchallenged, co-exist with the truth, and someday after they’ve been fortified, may even challenge the truth to a shootout.

Media has taken this approach to introducing a shift in worldview through “safe” stories for the last thirty years at least. But the reality is, “safe” Christian fiction is no more safe than the media brand of safe.

I read one book put out by a Christian imprint that was all about lust. The heroine refused to marry the hero (because he wasn’t a Christian) but didn’t refuse his kisses and didn’t stop dwelling on them or longing for them. The story came to one titillating climax after another. But it was safe. No bad words (so it wasn’t actually “edgy” 😛 ). No bedroom scenes.

But set aside books that are stretching the normal boundaries. Look at Amish romance. Does anyone know or care how Christian the Amish actually are? Are these books addressing legalism? (I’m asking, because I haven’t read any.) Church divisions? (Amish churches have divided over whether a woman’s dress must be double-breasted or not, whether or not a hook-and-eye is acceptable, and many other such particulars. You learn these things when you accompany your grandmother to a family reunion and everyone else there is Amish.)

More importantly, are readers asking questions about the pastoral culture they lose themselves in? Or are we letting our guard down? Because it’s about a group of Christians. And Christian companies are publishing it. And Christian bookstores are selling it.

As I see it, if “safe” fiction makes us drop our guard, then it is the most dangerous fiction of all.

The Post I Wish I’d Written

It turns out author Mike Dellosso wrote the response I wish I’d written to Eric Wilson‘s article, “Is It Time for Christian Fiction to Die?”

Well, I couldn’t have written the article in just the way Mike did because he’s a published author and I’m not. But he said many of the things that I believe. Here’s the key paragraph:

I don’t think it’s the author’s job to reach lost people and share Christ with them. How can we? Our only contact with them is words on a page? Yes, stories are powerful and can be thought-provoking and challenging and uplifting. That’s what I go for in my own stories. They can even protray Christians in a positive light and point the spotlight at God. But how will they hear unless someone tells them? If our books plainly preach Christ and him crucified, risen, and coming again they won’t make it into the general market where the lost people are, heck, they probably won’t even make it into the CBA. Rather, I feel it is the author’s job to give Christians a tool so they can then take that tool and reach the lost around them with it. To me, that’s evangelistic writing. Maybe I’m wrong, maybe you disagree, that’s fine, but that’s where I am. (Emphasis mine.)

While I believe that stories are important, especially in this day and age, that stories can “till the soil,” and that the Holy Spirit can use them to point to Christ, primarily people come to God as a result of another person telling them the good news about the Savior who died for them.

But books can be the means by which a conversation about God might start. They can open up avenues of discussion that might not come about in another way. Books can give Christians the opportunity of saying to their non-Christian friends, So what do you think?

Think about he eunuch the Holy Spirit sent Philip to. He had Scripture, but he still needed someone to explain what he was reading. How much more so if a person is reading a novel, does he need a believer to extrapolate to real life and point to God.

Should Christians write for other Christians? Absolutely—we are to stimulate each other to love and good works, and I believe novels can do this.

Should Christians write for non-Christians? Absolutely—we are to let our light shine, and I believe novels can do this.

God calls some to write for believers and some to write for unbelievers.

The critical point to understand is this: in either case, God brings our labor to fruition. We may never see until eternity dawns what influence and effect our writing has had, but we are to remain faithful. That’s our responsibility and all we can control.

I think Mike said that too in the post I wish I’d written. 😉

Published in: on July 28, 2010 at 12:18 pm  Comments (6)  
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The Desperately Needy

I recently read in an article at an agent blog—general market agent—that women love romance because we have a desperate longing.

How true, I thought, but the problem is, most don’t realize what it is they long for.

Because we are sinners, Mankind is in desperate need. Our sin cuts us off from the only true source of security and purpose. We try to bolster our egos (you’re OK, I’m OK) and find some kind of meaning to why we are on planet earth.

Some conclude that life is nothing more than eating and drinking and sexing because tomorrow we die. The problem is, apparently no one can ever quite get enough. Of anything. So we binge and purge, we opt for birth control and viagra, all so we can try to get our fill.

Others look for security in the people in their lives, but about the time we think we’ve found it (think, Sandra Bullock: I finally know what it feels like to have someone in my life who has my back), that other sinful soul lets us down.

We can’t even find satisfaction in ourselves. We excuse us and keep our expectations low by saying, Nobody’s perfect. And of course, nobody is.

Which doesn’t make us better. It just makes us as desperate as everyone else.

The game, of course, is to pretend we aren’t desperate—as if we don’t need anyone. And when we realize we do, then we decide it takes a village. If we can all just band together and help each other, maybe then we can solve crime and educate all the children and feed the poor.

Plus, doing something for others feels good. It makes me feel a little less desperate. So does another drink. Another pill. Another sexual encounter.

Until the hangover arrives. The pills run out. The sex ends in a broken relationship.

We humans are desperate, though we try to put on a happy face, try to ignore our own desperation, try to make sense of our condition through our own imaginings.

Enter Christ.

He came into a world populated with desperate people, and said, I’m life. Water. Light. Come to me.

What, I ask you, brings people to Christ?

The conviction of the Holy Spirit, definitely. But Scripture also says it’s the kindness of God. His love. His forgiveness.

Do people need to be told they have felt needs? I don’t think so. Do my neighbors, the kids going to school down the block, the people I stand in line behind in the grocery store need to be told, Your life has holes?

They know.

The problem is, they think they can fill the holes with stuff that is porous.

So I think, does fiction that delves into the horrors of the adult film industry or the pain of killing your own baby or the hopelessness of life on the street fill the holes? I don’t think so. I think what desperate people need is to see hope and help and healing. When they see this, they will recognize their own need for the same.

It’s a theory.

Published in: on July 27, 2010 at 1:10 pm  Comments (6)  
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So Tired of the SAME Arguments

Rant warning! 😉

Here we go again. Someone inside the Christian publishing industry, in this case novelist Eric Wilson, is upset with Christian fiction. The issues seem to be the following:

  • content that doesn’t deal with such things as doubts, depression, sexual and financial issues, addiction, and disease
  • placement of Christian fiction in a Christian section
  • influence and parameters have narrowed
  • moneychangers are stepping in and the Spirit is moving out
  • viewed as a “safe” alternative instead of a vibrant, world-changing entity
  • not as “raw” as the Bible

Besides the fact that most of these criticisms are OLD, they also aren’t true. Perhaps they once described Christian fiction. Not any more.

Although Eric says he has reviewed and endorsed hundreds of novels in the last decade, I wonder if he’s read them. I haven’t read hundreds, but I’ve read books with sex outside of marriage, adultery, attempted rape, babies out of wedlock, slavery, drug use, a Wiccan character, a failed seminary student, a depressed and worried Church volunteer, dealing with Alzheimer disease, death of a child, an autistic character, creation scientist working in secular lab, cloning, and more. Raw. Real life.

Rather than “narrowing the parameters,” in the last decade, publishers have clearly expanded them. Granted, because of the economy—and the digital revolution—publishers are understandably cautious and unwilling to take abnormal risks right now. But I don’t see this hiccup as representative of a long term pattern that will reverse the previous nine years of change.

Which brings up the “moneychangers” issue. Last week, Mike Duran addressed the charge of greed among publishers in his article “Should ‘Profit’ Be the Bottom Line for Christian Publishers?” For whatever reason, we seem to have the idea that the book business should operate like a ministry rather than a business. Why? Perhaps because of the Christian content in our books. But the last I checked, many of the Christian imprints are owned by secular companies, so the idea of “ministry” is a foreign concept to the parent responsible for oversight.

I know many Christian editors and others in the firing lines who do look at their work as a calling, as do many novelists. However, we are still involved in a business where enough money needs to be made to keep paying employees and pass along a profit to the investors. Just like every other business.

As to placement of Christian fiction in Christian sections of book stores, or in Christian stores, we’re talking about something out of the control of the book sellers AND something that some of those working in the industry have tried (are trying?) to change. This complaint is going to the wrong people. Write a letter to the Barnes & Noble book buyers instead.

As to the “safe” alternative, instead of vibrant, world-changing entities, why can’t we have both? Why do “raw” books have to drag readers into the gutter to get a point across? Is a book more artistic because it deals with the seamy in a seamy way?

I’ve read some beautifully written fiction, some thought-provoking stories that have PG writing. Why must we conclude that R-rated work is better?

And this final idea, that the Bible is more raw and real than our fiction. No. The Bible gives narrative summary. It never takes the reader into Rahab’s bedroom and shows her selling her body. It tells us she was a prostitute. We know what that means, so the Bible doesn’t need to paint the scene.

One final point that came out in comments to Mike Duran’s post on this issue over at Novel Journey—something new, at last. Eric apparently is looking for support as he leaves Christian publishing and looks to find a general market house.

I’m not quite sure what kind of support he has in mind, but I do think we can come along side writers no matter where they are being published—small press, general market, Christian houses, self-published. We should be praying for each other, mentoring, encouraging, consoling, admonishing, promoting, endorsing, reviewing—whatever is needed, as we are able.

The Christian life is not a solo flight. We are in this together. Maybe it’s worth regurgitating the well-digested topics of yesteryear just to reach that final point.

Published in: on July 26, 2010 at 6:02 pm  Comments (82)  
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Love Your Enemies

I was raised in a church that taught love your enemies. In Sunday school we learned that we were to “go the extra mile” and “turn the other cheek.” I did that once when I was in fifth grade, and got clobbered in the choppers.

What a shock. The Bible doesn’t work? I mean, the way I’d envisioned it, the coals I was heaping on my enemy’s head would melt him into submissiveness and I would be the WINNER!

Well, you can see, I had a major problem with my attitude, but the idea that Christians are to love our enemies stuck. It’s a clear command, and lived out by one believer after the other across the pages of Scripture.

But somehow, it seems contemporary Christians have downplayed this point. I was reminded of it in a radio sermon this morning as Alistair Begg delved into a passage in the book of Titus. Here are the verses that apply:

Remind them to be subject to rulers, to authorities, to be obedient, to be ready for every good deed, to malign no one, to be peaceable, gentle, showing every consideration for all men.
– Tts 3:1-2

Among other things, Pastor Begg emphasized the “all men” in verse two. Not just the people we like or agree with or think are cool or popular or famous. We are to show every consideration for all men—atheists who hate Christians, radical feminists, noisy neighbors, lying politicians, gay pride marchers, gang bangers, illegal immigrants, sex offenders, greedy billionaire CEOs, British Petroleum officials, our President—no exception.

Notice, this Titus passage doesn’t give us the escape of telling us to love all mankind. Too easily we can say we’re delivering “tough love” to those who need correction.

Instead, this passage says we are to show every consideration, which I believe means we aren’t to shout rude comments at anyone or write rude letters or post snarky blog articles. We aren’t allowed to withhold common courtesy or snub our nose or pull in our skirts when “those people” walk by.

Do these acts of consideration “work”? No. Not any more than my turning the other cheek “worked.” The point isn’t to do acts of consideration in order to manipulate a response from the other person. We are instead to do acts of consideration because God tells us to.

When we do, then He can use them as He sees fit.

Can I still voice my opinion about a politician I oppose or a lifestyle that is sinful or a person who commits a crime? Sure. And so I ought—even as I show consideration to the people who will inevitably disagree.

Published in: on July 23, 2010 at 3:20 pm  Comments (3)  
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Tour Wrap and August

In reverse order: August first.

Voting for the Clive Staples Award for Christian Speculative Fiction – Readers’ Choice will take place in August. You might consider subscribing to the Award site so that you can receive updates. The introductions are now complete, so be sure to take some time to look over the selections and see which books you’d like to add to your library. It’s still not too late to read at least two of the nominations in order to be eligible to vote.

CSFF Blog Tour will be doing something different for the month of August. Rather than featuring a single book, we will be doing a “Best Of” tour. Stay tune for more details.

So the July CSFF Blog Tour for Starlighter by Bryan Davis comes to an end. Once again we had some lively discussion and even a few fireworks (but I’ll let you hunt those down yourselves 😉 ). In the end, thirty-two bloggers posted a total of sixty-five articles. A grand total of thirteen participants are eligible to win the July CSFF Best Blogger Award:

Choosing a winner, my friends, is up to you 😀 Poll closes at midnight (Pacific time) July 30.

CSFF Blog Tour – Starlighter by Bryan Davis, Day 3

One of the fun things about blog tours is the chance to learn more about the author through interviews. We’ve enjoyed a couple this week in our tour of Starlighter by Bryan Davis. For a quick, six-question interview, stop by Fantasy & Faith with Dona Watson. For a longer edition (only eight questions, but Bryan’s answers are more in depth), visit Inklings Blog with Rachel Starr Thomson. Jill Williamson also interviewed Bryan for her day two post—interesting set of questions.

Something else I think important to mention during this tour. Bryan has a short companion adult series coming out with Living Ink (AMG) called Tales of Starlight. The first book, Masters & Slayers, releases September 14. If you’d like to learn more, check out what Nicole, an early reviewer (and not part of the blog tour) has to say about this part of the Starlight story.

And now my review of Starlighter.

The Story. Two planets in the same system share something that could have been wonderful—a portal allowing inhabitants to step from one to the other. However, one group, the dragons of Starlight, used the portal for their own purposes. Some time in the past, they kidnapped children from Darksphere and enslaved them.

When one of these Lost Ones escaped and returned to his world, no one believed his story. To protect the rest of his people, he devised a way to lock the portal.

As years passed, people came to believe the story of the Lost Ones was nothing but a myth. Meanwhile, the dragons of Starlight told their captives a different story about their origins. However, the humans had an oral tradition telling of the portal and the enslavement. But who believed in “old wives’ tales” any more?

On Darksphere, a boy named Jason and on Starlight a girl named Koren both desire something better for the Lost Ones. Jason comes to believe the story of the hidden portal and sets out to find it. When he does, his path and Koren’s intersect, and the real conflicts begin.

Strengths. One critiquer commented that this story is clearly a Bryan Davis novel. In other words, Bryan’s voice is strong, and his stamp is all over this story, from plot to themes to characters.

The central figures, Jason and Koren, are heroic, sacrificial, noble, altruistic. (For an excellent commentary about creating such characters for young people to emulate today, see Fred Warren‘s day 3 post.)

The plot moves at a rapid rate. Dangers on the left, dangers on the right, and difficult decisions to make at every turn. Without a doubt, this plot will keep Bryan Davis fans holding on or holding their breath.

The themes develop from the character qualities of the protagonists. They are not exclusively Christian but mirror biblical attributes Christians are called to live out.

Weakness. I notice things in fiction now that I am a writer that I would not have noticed earlier, at least not consciously. And as it turns out, the area I’m considering a weakness is a direct result of a decision Bryan has made in his writing process. As a self-styled computer geek, Bryan undoubtedly has an organized mind, but instead of outlining his plots, he utilizes the “seat-of-the-pants” method of writing fiction.

The method itself is not a weakness, but I think it leads to one—a lack of foreshadowing. Because Bryan doesn’t know ahead of time what will happen, he doesn’t tip off readers. This can work against believability, but it can also dampen reader reaction.

* * * SPOILER ALERT – Of necessity, some discussion of plot points ahead * * *

For example, when a group of slaves are trapped in a small cluster of mining tunnels, the dragons release a swarm of particularly deadly bees. It’s a tense moment, but I suggest it could have been rendered more so if the bees had been foreshadowed. As it is, readers understand the danger but don’t feel it. We could have been worried about the bees for chapters. (Not the bees! Anything but the bees! NO! They’re NOT releasing the BEES! Woe, oh woe! How will they ever escape the deadly, deadly BEES?)

I doubt if one out of a hundred Bryan Davis fans notice something that is not there. But I suspect the power of foreshadowing would have vaulted the tension so much higher that readers wouldn’t be able to stop talking about the story.

Recommendation. I highly recommend Starlighter for all Bryan Davis fans. It’s sure to move to the top of many a favorites list.

Be sure to see how my review stacks up with others posting on the tour (see participants’ list at the end of Monday’s article).

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher for the purpose of review.

CSFF Blog Tour – Starlighter by Bryan Davis, Day 2

Time, time, there’s not enough time to read all the interesting things CSFF bloggers are saying about Starlighter, Bryan Davis‘s recent release, the first in the Dragons of Starlight series (Zondervan). There are a couple posts, however, you won’t want to miss.

For a wonderful, detailed account of the story, see Jeff Chapman‘s day two post. Also in day two, Fred Warren took a look at how the Starlight dragons compare to others in the dragon tradition. For discussion about the mixture of science fiction and fantasy that seemed to snag some readers, see John Otte‘s day two post.

Me, I’ve been thinking about betrayal.

* * * SPOILER ALERT – Of necessity, some discussion of plot points ahead * * *

On both worlds featured in Starlighter, Starlight and Darksphere, the leaders seem to be corrupt. While giving the appearance of doing what is good for their people, they are actually trying to achieve some particular personal goals.

At this point in the series, the goals are not clear, but my supposition is that rulers on one planet wish for power and those on the other, for wealth. Whatever the reason, they are willing to do unspeakable things to achieve their ends—enslave a group of people by breaking the wills of children, selling children into slavery and lying about it, working against those who would rescue the lost.

How did such greedy or power-hungry people (or dragons) come to positions of prominence? So far the story doesn’t really go there (nor do I think it necessarily needs to), but on one planet intrigue and deception, suppression and assassination seem to rule. On the other, the pretense of following the law is in place, but this is for appearances only. Lies and manipulation and treachery and rebellion are strong undercurrents running through the power structure.

A few observations.

  • Betrayal makes for intriguing plot elements. Thinking of Starlighter in particular, I soon found myself questioning who was on the side of right and who the protagonists could actually trust.
  • Betrayal is something endemic to human nature, so we can all understand it, we can all abhor it. Consequently, characters in dark circumstances because of betrayal, or a misuse of power, are immediately sympathetic.
  • Abuse of power might be a defining element for a villain. Writing instructors often point out that an antagonist isn’t necessarily a villain. He may simply be someone who wants the same thing that the protagonist does. He isn’t evil, but in his efforts to fulfill his desires, he comes into direct conflict with the protagonist. The villain, however, has something else besides a strong desire. He has selfish motives. And he has power which he uses to achieve his personal agenda—which also comes into conflict with the hero’s goals.

I could go on. Lots to consider in thinking about corrupt leadership. But for other insights, discussions, reviews, and interviews, see what the other tour participants are posting (links to specific posts listed at the end of yesterday’s post).

In conjunction with the CSFF Blog Tour, I received a free copy of this book from the publisher.

CSFF Blog Tour – Starlighter by Bryan Davis, Day 1

I love introducing new Christian fantasy/science fiction, and especially the first in a series. It seems to me, the best time for a reader to start in is at the start. 😀 Ironic that I seem to be a late-to-the-party reader.

One of the trilogies that captured my imagination was Stephen Donaldson’s The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant the Unbeliever. In those days, books came out in hardback, then months later (perhaps as long as a year later) the paperback released. I missed the hardback and only bought the paperback at the insistence of a friend. That was probably the best I’ve done at getting in on the ground floor of a literary phenomenon that took hold of the culture.

I missed the Left Behind series completely, was late to Harry Potter (didn’t read any of the books until the first movie came out), ignored the Twilight series intentionally.

All that to say, I’ve learned that the best is to be in the “first wave,” those readers who are the discoverers, the ones who start the buzz. Therefore, I delight in introducing not only new releases but first books of a series.

The CSFF Blog Tour has that opportunity this month as we feature Bryan Davis‘s Starlighter, Book 1 of the Dragons of Starlight (Zondervan).

Having released in March, Starlighter has fans raving about it. Fortunately it’s not too late to join in. For more info, readers might be interested in viewing a book trailer or reading the first chapter. (These are things I’ve learned to look for as I prepared the various introductions to the Clive Staples Award 2010 nominations 😉 ). The genre is young adult Christian fantasy, though the book spans a wide age range. The story can be enjoyed by guys and girls alike.

Of course, the best way to decide if a book or a series is for you is to see what other people are saying—which is pretty much why we have a blog tour in the first place. Here are the other CSFF members who will be discussing Starlighter in the next three days. Let’s do a little Amazon-style rating—leave a comment to let us know which posts you thought were especially helpful.

Published in: on July 19, 2010 at 10:02 am  Comments (9)  
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