Monday, February 19, 2018

The Rain Wild Chronicles

The Rain Wild Chronicles, Robin Hobb

The fourth series by Robin Hobb takes us back to the Rain Wilds, the land we learnt of in The Liveships Traders (the second one). It picks up again with similar characters and lands of those days. The events of Fitz and the Fool have no impact on this series, except that the released dragon drake Icefyre is now the mate of Tintaglia.

Dragon Keeper (Book 1) shows how the serpents that were coaxed up the Rain Wild River to form cocoons have emerged, but these baby dragons are an embarrassing lot, not fully formed, with no strength or flight, and look like they will never be the lords of the earth, sea and sky that they once were. Tintaglia has gone and the people of Trehaug are saddled with the care and responsibility of the increasingly large and irate dragons.

The dragons long to return to the lost Elderling city of Kelsingra, as their memories suggest that healing and help could come from there. So Trehaug provides each with a dragon keeper, who just happen to be the outcasts of society they would like to be rid of. With Tarman, first liveship ever made, and his crew, an expedition sets out to relocate the dragons in Book 2 (Dragon Haven). Yet the treacherous Duke of Chalced is on the trail. Lured by the hope of extending his life and curing his rapidly failing health, he believes that dragon products are the only things that will save him. His mercenaries are close behind the dragon expedition.

In City of Dragons and Blood of Dragons, the famed city of Kelsingra has been found, but can its treasures be discovered to save the dragons? Will this mighty race again rule the earth with their now altered human companions, who are slowly becoming the new race of Elderlings?

I loved this series as much as the others. It's always good to return to loved characters and see how the author has moved their stories on. She gives much food for thought about dragons and many details of the lives of the Rain Wilders. Various relationships are detailed, both functional and highly dysfunctional, heterosexual and homosexual. She has a wide range of character types, people that redeem their behaviour, people that persist in wilful violence, people that learn new ways of relating and how to love, and those that do not necessarily change for the better. This breadth gives her books a depth, for even though the people and Elderlings are very different in appearance and life than we are, the essence of what makes them people rings true to the reader.

I find it interesting to reflect on how often dragons feature in fantasy writings. Where does this human interest in mythical flying powerful serpents come from? Why are they so prevalent in human ponderings? I do not know, but I enjoyed this series, not just the dragons but also the people.

Friday, February 16, 2018

Paddington 2

This movie is absolutely charming.

Miss 7 was a bit scared by Paddington; Nicole Kidman was a very convincing evil museum curator trying to stuff the loveable bear.

This time the enemy is Phoenix Buchanan, wonderfully played by Hugh Grant, he is marvellous: funny, over the top and completely believable as a self absorbed actor needing quick money so that's he can stage his own one man play at the West End.

Unfortunately for Paddington, the planned source of Phoenix's money is the valuable pop-up book of London that he wants to buy for his aunt Lucy. Working hard as a window cleaner (giving some very funny scenes) Paddington almost has enough to buy the book, but then a masked bandit steals it.

Mistaken work by police has Paddington put in prison for the crime. These scenes turn out to be some of the funniest in the movie as Paddington's determined kindness turns the prison around.

This is a gorgeous movie to look at. It is really picture book London at its best, and the scenes which incorporate the pop-up book are dazzlingly clever.

Miss 10, my mother and I all loved this movie. It was charming, never scary and never felt like it dragged. It operates wonderfully on two levels, so much so that in a moment where all the adults were laughing out loud, a small voice in our showing piped up and said "why is everyone laughing? It's not funny."

Highly recommended for all, especially those who enjoyed #1.

Wednesday, February 14, 2018

Being Involved at School

[This article went up on TGCA last week, and is an updated version of a previous post] 

As we dive into yet another school year, have you considered what your involvement as a parent might be?

We’re now into our 11th consecutive year at the same local primary school. It’s been a great opportunity to develop long-term relationships with students, parents, teachers and staff. Our school is multi-lingual and multi-cultural with immigrant families, as well as the usual mix of born and bred Australians. It’s also a bastion of secular, inclusive thought. Jesus calls us to be salt and light to those around us (Matt 5:13-15), and for our ministry family, the local school is the only place where we regularly spend time with unbelievers.

There are many ways a parent could be involved, but as with all things, no-one can or should do everything. Our involvement has varied greatly over the years. We reassess annually and also consider it a ‘joint task’: sometimes my husband has been more involved with a sports team or on the council, which means I do less; other times it’s reversed.

Here’s what we’ve prioritised:

1. Get to know the teachers

We ask about their families, weekend, holidays, so that not every conversation is about our child. It acknowledges their humanity: they aren’t just there to teach our child, they have a life with ups and downs just like we do. To our children, it models respect as well as understanding for those in authority.

I’ve realised this isn’t what all parents do. Each year, teachers have thanked us for being so supportive of them and the class. We just thought we were taking an interest, but apparently, it stands out.

As they progress through the years, this is trickier as I go into the classroom less. But I’ve observed most teachers really appreciate it when you occasionally come into the classroom in the senior years.

2. Get involved in the school community

We’ve been involved in various ways: committees, Governing Council, sports coaching, listening to reading, testing times tables, going on excursions, and hosting events for class parents. When senior management change, I make an effort to meet them. I try to know the office staff by name, and again being a friendly, cheerful face with no agenda appears to be a refreshing change.

In the early years, I committed to more than I could manage and ended up feeling guilty about pulling out of something. These days I do less and feel guilty for not getting more involved! It’s always a bit of a balancing act. But God gives grace, and we are reminded it’s a privilege to serve the school community, even when it can be time-consuming and challenging.

3. Get to know the children

When I went into the classroom, the main benefit was meeting the children, as well as understanding the class dynamics. In later years, an excursion can help fill in the knowledge gap. Even one day spent with a class gives you an insight into relationships and dynamics.

I pray that my children will be good friends (Prov 17:17, 18:24) and have helpful friendships (Prov 27:17). Observing these interactions can help identify friendships to encourage, both for the sake of my child and for other children.

4. Get to know the parents and families

This is easier in the first few years. When each child began we hosted get-to-know-you events for parents. Having them in our home started many friendships that continue today. We are called to hospitality (Heb 13:2, 1 Pet 4:9), and the school community is included in that.

In later years, this happened through sporting teams. For a while, we knew all the soccer families, and now it’s the netball families.

I think we should prioritise looking out for people that aren’t already connected. It’s a funny thing, primary school. The parents seem to be in cliques too: cool parents, sporty parents, committee parents, and others. As Christian parents, we want to be welcoming, inclusive and hospitable. This should include migrant families, who in my observation are often not included by Australian parents. Let’s be the friendly ones—some of these parents are very lonely. Secondly, let’s be helpful—there’s a certain culture to any school, which takes everyone time to figure out. Throw in some ethnic differences and I imagine some are left wondering what’s going on (eg. lunch orders, swimming lessons, how excursions work). One of my friends has just started a part-time job in her children’s school to do exactly these things—help the international parents assimilate.

5. Pray for the school

We certainly pray for the school, students, teachers and families privately and as a family.

For a time, a group of Christians mums from school met once a term to pray and it was very encouraging. While we no longer meet, we’ve seen God answer those prayers in two amazing ways:

  1. Our school now has a Pastoral Care Worker funded 2 days-a-week. She is a cheerful presence amongst the staff and students and is greatly valued by management. We started praying for this when our son started, that prayer was answered when he was in his final year!
  2. A group of Christian families have run an out-of-hours gingerbread house event for three years. We can speak about being Christian and advertise the churches we attend. It is fast becoming a highlight annual event for school families.

We’ve loved being involved in our school community. It certainly takes time and effort, but it’s worth it—for our kids, for us, and hopefully, for the people we meet and support along the way.

How might you consider being involved in your school community?

(We have two children in upper primary. Our eldest is now in the wilds of Year 10 at high school. We've chosen to keep our main involvement at primary school, rather than split our efforts between two schools!)

Monday, February 12, 2018

The Beginner's Gospel Story Bible

The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible (Jared Kennedy, Illustrated by Trish Mahoney)

Sometimes I wish I still had very young children. It’s not because I loved the baby and preschool phase and want to return to it. No, this is one mother who celebrated those first days of school quite openly!

It’s because of the great books being produced for little ones. There were good books 10-15 years ago, absolutely. But sometimes it seems like some very good material came out just when we had passed that stage.

This is exactly how I feel about The Beginner’s Gospel Story Bible. I want to sit down with little friends who are 1-5 years old and read this aloud with them. It’s an excellent bible for the early years firmly grounded in Jesus Christ from beginning to end. It shows how the Old Testament (subtitled Promises Made) continually points to him and the New Testament (Promises Kept) speaks the truth of his life and our response to it.

I have read legion children’s bibles in the last decade and I have increasingly come to appreciate the challenge it is to make God’s word available to very young children in a logical, accessible, accurate and clear format. Jared Kennedy has done an admirable job of doing exactly that, combined with the eye-catching, appealing illustrations of Trish Mahoney.

Each of the 52 stories are about 6 pages. There is always a question at the end to talk about together and a brief explanation of how Jesus fits into the story and how that relates to our relationship with him.

An example double page spread

Overall the stories are excellent, and are united by theme of promise - God is either making promises or keeping them. It’s the way we should read and understand our own bibles and so presenting it to children via the theme of promise is not only helpful, it’s correct.

I did take minor issue with a few choices in interpretation, such as:

  • It’s not absolutely clear the statue Nebuchadnezzar built was of himself.
  • The implication that Jesus physically covered his face to prevent the disciples on the Emmaus Road identifying him.
  • Jesus says to Saul, “Why are you hurting my friends?” whereas Jesus actually says, “Why do you persecute me?”.
  • The story about Peter and Cornelius didn’t sit quite right. The emphasis made is that it was about food people could eat. But it’s really an illustration to show Peter that Christ brought Gentiles as well as Jews to salvation. (and I was very surprised that the blanket indicating the animals Peter could now eat included a camel, lion and rabbit. I think young kids could take issue with that!)

Also, I’m not sure why it was chosen to only have 52 stories. It makes it neat with 26 from each Testament, but this isn’t a book you would only read once a week, so it seemed a random choice. Indeed, as a result, I thought it was a shame some things were missing.

  • There was nothing about David once he was King. Since this book is based around promise, it could have included 2 Sam 7 where David wants to build a house for God, but God instead promises him a dynasty.
  • Inclusion of the Psalms and how they show us how to praise God would have been worthwhile.
  • Interestingly there were no Jonah, Elisha or Elijah accounts.
  • The New Testament went straight from the first missionary journey in Acts to Revelation, so there was very little about the early church and nothing from the epistles at all.

However, those things are all minor. Some of the things I really appreciated were:

  • The Old Testament had some accounts rarely included in children’s bibles: Jeremiah, Esther and Nehemiah.
  • The honesty about the failings of some biblical characters. For example, in the story of Jacob and Esau, Jacob is described as jealous and tricky; it says “God didn’t choose the nicest brother. God chose Jacob.” And goes on to say that God’s choices might surprise us, but he chooses people who need him.
  • The crucifixion story is accurate and doesn’t shy away from the unpleasant details (there are even nails), yet it’s done appropriately for the intended age.
  • The clear way this is designed to read aloud, and it would be fun to do so. The illustrations often include extras, like counting, size differences (eg. Goliath is tall, David is short), so that you can point them out along the way. The basket is labelled empty when Hannah has no baby, and full when she has a baby. Left, right, inside and outside are marked when Jesus parents were searching everywhere for him. These are extra touches that make additional teaching moments along the way.
  • There are great nudges to evangelism, such as “We can tell our friends and neighbors about Jesus. We can share his love with the whole world” or “Think of a friend who you can tell the good news to.” What a great way to make this normal from a very early age. It even acknowledges that sometimes telling people about Jesus can be difficult and scary, but we can be brave because the Holy Spirit promises to help us.


The Beginners’ Gospel Story Bible is a ‘must-have’ for those with toddlers and pre-schoolers. With the unifying theme of promise, clear retelling of bible accounts, wonderfully creative illustrations, and a way to make each story personally applicable; this is a bible you’ll want to have in your home and to read regularly with the little ones in your life.

Friday, February 9, 2018

Why to visit a gospel partner

This January we enjoyed a trip to Cambodia, visiting friends on the field.  We have several dear friends who are gospel partners overseas (we used to call them missionaries, but this is the term now!). Some we studied at college with, some we have met at church over the years. This lovely family we have only ever known on the field, for they left Adelaide the same year we arrived, and a relationship has built up over various home assignments and connections in between.

The trip has been a long time in the planning, and finally this year we were able to make it work.

It was fantastic. We saw the sights of Phnom Penh in the capable hands of locals, ate together, spent time in their home, had them for meals at our hotel, went to church together, and had lots and lots of conversation. Our kids know their kids quite well, all being similar ages and having spent time together over the years. It took a little while on the first day for the ice to break again, but then they were like old friends - playing basketball, swimming, joking, sharing food and talking.

They emphasised that our visit was a blessing to them, and we feel the trip was exactly the same for us.  Here are some of the blessings:

  1. Understanding. Yes, it's only a very small amount, we were only with them for two full days. But we now have a glimpse of what their home, their school and their church is like. We have a feel for their city - the major traffic and driving skills required, the street vendors, the fun of riding tuk tuks, the haggling in the markets. We saw the range of poverty and wealth, the beauty of the city and the friendliness of the people.
  2. Conversation. We talked and talked and talked. The women talked, the men talked, the families talked. We learnt more about Theravadabuddhism, the monks of the city, and what living there is like. We heard the story of how they met and married. We shared about our life in Australia and what we are involved in.
  3. Fun. While the adults enjoyed all the conversations and catch ups, the kids really had fun together. Whether it was sharing food, tuk tuk rides, nerf gun wars or basketball, it was a great chance to be reminded that no matter where you live, the same things are still fun. 
  4. Connection. One of their concerns is that their children won't develop the same Christian friendships that they might if in Australia. So the time for the kids was very beneficial. We’re looking forward to them being back on home assignment, and when they are, we'll treat them as the normal friends they are, not as if they're the 'special missionaries' who generally aren't approached. Our kids are already talking about how to connect with them again when they’re next here.
  5. A wider worldview. Australia is a very egalitarian and secular culture, and we don't realise it until we come face to face with the strong contrast of wealth and poverty side by side, and the overt elements of religion all over a city. 
  6. A wider acceptance of difference. Travel the world and you encounter different languages, traditions, ways of communicating and understanding. Having to be the outsider is a good thing. Struggling to communicate teaches you how much you value being able to do so easily. Having to wear pants and longer sleeves, even when the weather is very hot, is a small price to pay to learn that we show respect in different ways. Communicating to our children that there are differences and considering why, means we are hopefully raising them to understand and analyse a variety of cultures.
  7. Insight into what they actually do. In many ways, their lives are very similar to ours: the kids go to school, the wife is involved in school management and teaching, and the husband is involved in translation work. They go to church as a family and they try to connect with locals in myriad ways. It's very normal. It's not super special and it's not super spiritual, but it's living faithfully for Jesus in their context, just as we would hope we are all doing in our own contexts.   
  8. Food for prayer. We have prayed for this family for years. Now we can pray more informed, specific prayers for this family, with an idea of what their days and weeks look like.

Both families together

Another option is to consider holidays together. A few years ago, I met a dear friend in Dubai for ten days. She worked in a country with high safety risks and was required to have regular out-of-country breaks. While I never saw her life ‘in–situ’ there were still wonderful benefits for us both: a break, encouragement, fun being tourists together, the chance to worship together, and lots of time to talk and debrief. For a single woman, there was the added bonus that she had a companion for her holidays. For me, it was a marvellous treat to be away from the responsibilities of my own family life!

Holiday fun in Dubai

Both trips have been highlights of the past few years, and times of great fun, joy, conversation and encouragement.

Do you have friends who are gospel partners?  Could you visit them or holiday together? Of course, talk about it, make sure it can work and it would be helpful, but it's definitely worth considering. Not everyone can do this (we have certainly counted it a great privilege), but if you can everyone is likely to be encouraged and blessed by the experience.

Monday, February 5, 2018

Grace in Strange Disguise

Grace in Strange Disguise, Christine Dillon

Imagine your dad is a pastor. Not just any pastor, but a mega-church pastor who has his own radio show and whose church is all about victory with Jesus. In fact it's called Victory, and his message is that we can have anything we want with Jesus, and any illness just requires more faith or the repentance of sin. Life is all about blessings and the gifts that we get when we are with God.

You are 28, love your work as a physiotherapist and are engaged to the youth pastor. You are living the Australian Christian dream and suddenly your whole world falls apart when you are diagnosed with breast cancer.

This is the world of Esther McDonald and the premise of Christine Dillon's book Grace in Strange Disguise. I was recently given this book and what a wonderful gift it was.

Through an encounter with a cleaning lady at the hospital, Esther is challenged to think about why she expects to be healed. Does God actually promise it? What follows is her decision to read the bible for herself and the astounding truths she discovers there, and how much they vary from the triumphant, world based, blessing rich, but actually empty promises preached by her father.

I have never been in a church with such misguided teaching as this, nor with such patently controlling leadership; but I suspect they certainly exist. Even so I found it hard to believe that that dad's and the fiancé's belief systems would cause them to be so clueless and lacking in compassion. In fact, I thought it was a shame that Dillon had both the key males in Esther's life react in basically the same way. However, they were the only characters that seemed stretched. The cleaning lady (Joy), her good friend Gina, her dominated and docile mother, the staff in the hospital, and the other patients she meets along the way all do an admirable job of representing the vast cross sections of beliefs and non-beliefs in Australia.

Throughout the book, Dillon models a storytelling method of sharing the gospel and the accounts from the bible. As such this book has various potential audiences:

  1. Anyone who is interested in reading something from a biblical worldview, including one that is able to critique false views of the bible.
  2. Any Christian who wants to get some ideas on how storytelling the bible could work in conversations.

It's an engaging story. Throughout I kept wondering what various characters would do, how would they react to the changes in Esther's life and her desire to talk about it. I was encouraged by her faith and her growing ability to express it. There are Christian fiction books out there that have a cringe element to them. This isn't one of them, the truths that Esther comes to believe are of the reformed evangelical faith. This is a book that explains my faith in a way that expresses it much better than I often manage to. It was an encouragement to me.

It's entirely appropriate for young teens, and so I was very happy to let Miss 12 read it as well. She loved it and was fully engrossed for a few days.  Husband and Mr 14 also read it, they enjoyed it and found it made them think.

It seems Dillon is planning at least two more books in this series. I eagerly await them.

Friday, February 2, 2018

A visit to our sponsor children

We have recently returned from a trip to Thailand, where we had the privilege of visiting our Compassion sponsor children. We had one day spent with two children, both of whom attend the same project in the slums of Bangkok. (A second day, visiting a third child had been planned. One week out however we heard he had left the project.  Sad for us, but good news for him, as his mother had found work and was able to take him back to another province.)

It was a wonderful day. We met the children (who I'll call Mr N and Miss N, both aged 13) along with the Project Director (PD), who was our host for the day.  After learning about the project and exchanging some gifts, we walked up the back alleys and beside a waste water stream to Miss N's house - a one room wood panel structure, probably 6x3m. Her grandmother looks after five grandchildren there, of whom Miss N is the oldest. We all sat on the floor and talked, aided by the helpful translation of the PD, and then played Uno together.

After that we headed out to a restaurant for steamboat lunch, chosen by the children.  At this point the awkward barriers started to come down as the kids (Thai and Australian together) chose what they wanted from the picture menu and shared it together at their table.

However, the highlight for all the kids was the time at a waterpark for the afternoon. A large floating inflatable world where Miss N, her younger brother, Mr N and our Mr 14, Miss 12 and Miss 10 quickly learnt that play together in water is universal joy in any language. There were laughs as people fell, encouragements and urgings to climb up higher, and fun with all trying to balance on inflatables at the same time. My husband and I joined in for some and enjoyed watching as well.

When we told people in Australia about this trip there were three main reactions:

  1. The majority were interested and excited for us. Most people we know also are child sponsors or see the value of it, and while they were possibly surprised that we were going they thought it was good. 
  2. A few, particularly those not from Australia, had no idea what we were talking about. Friends from India and Singapore had never heard of child sponsorship before. 
  3. One neighbour expressed absolute surprise that the children on sponsorship pictures were real children that you could meet, not just children used in photos. 

As we reflected on our emotions and thoughts afterwards as a family, here are some of the range of things we felt and the things we can now talk about with others:

Impressed with the project and the work Compassion are doing, and particularly the PD. She has a real heart for the children, she walks the streets encouraging children to come and showing parents that the project is good for their kids. She knows the kids personally, as well as their families and situations, and cares deeply for them. Over the course of the day we learnt how she came to Christ and how it changed her life. Key staff like this are essential to Compassion's work, there will be many children in a centre, but the staff hold it together and set the tone.

Encouraged. To see the project staff so clearly love the children they are entrusted with, as well as wanting to tell them about Jesus and model Christ, is a marvellous encouragement. Our PD spent all her time on the site, which was a church and preschool as well. She ran the project on Saturdays, went to church there on Sundays, worked there mid week, and lived on site. We were reminded of 1 Thess 2:8 "We loved you so much that we were delighted to share with you not only the gospel of God but our lives as well, because you had become so dear to us." (NIV84)

Conflicted. As I walked into our shining marble hotel lobby afterwards, only about 1 km from the project, I started weeping. All I could see was Miss N's house and how about 20 of them would fit in that unused space alone. Then we came upstairs to a hotel suite that was larger than her home and a buffet dinner than probably had more food on offer than her family would see in a month (she and her brother devoured every bit of food offered on the day). It's appropriate to feel this. I knew we would. And we should.

Guilty. This is not the purpose of a trip like this, but it's inevitable that you are challenged by the marked disparity between wealth and poverty in the world and how we are those who live in wealth.

Excited. We’re even more excited about Compassion and their work. They’re doing great things, and we’re proud to stand behind them. We’re thrilled that we know these children and their families personally.  God works in every people and nation and we saw evidence of that.

Confident. I didn't really understand before the link between Compassion being Christian and how that affects who they sponsor. My conclusion is that it's a little like some Christian schools. There are Christian leaders, matters of faith are spoken of, taught about and prayed about, but there is no requirement to be Christian to participate. Our PD estimated that 10% of the children in the project had made a commitment of faith, but the benefits of the program are open to all. I am now even more confident that the help goes to families in need, the truths of Christ are taught, but receipt of the benefits does not require an expression of faith.

Prayerful. We can pray for those we do not know personally and we should bring the world and all its variety to God. But the joy now is that our prayer for Miss N and Mr N and their families will be personal.  A day is only a small taste of their reality, but it's a day more that we had before. We've laughed together, we've prayed together, and now we can keep praying for them.  More than that, we've realised the importance of the staff and particularly the PD, and will ensure we are praying for them as well.

The whole day was a remarkable privilege for which we are very thankful, and we will definitely consider going again in the future.

Our group at Miss N's home

Thursday, February 1, 2018

Welcome to 2018!

I trust readers had an encouraging Christmas and if you are in Australia, a nice and warm summer time.

No doubt your year is well under way. If you have children they are probably back at school or very close to it.

We had a lovely break, from school and from work. Husband had 4 weeks of leave all at once, something we rarely do, and we had a combination of time together, and time as a family. Just lovely.

There were two specific highlights to our time in January, which I will tell you about in coming weeks:
  1. A visit to friends who are serving Jesus overseas.
  2. A visit to our sponsor children overseas.
They were times of greatly mixed emotions and provided much food for thought.

As usual, musings for the coming year is likely to detail many book reviews, some movie reviews and some 'thinking spots' as well.

I've got a whole lot of books ready to review and you'll see them in coming weeks. I am increasingly being recommended books by others, so if you have suggestions I'd love to hear them. You can email me at musingsinadelaideATblogspotDOTcom.

Thanks and looking forward to the year ahead.

Friday, December 22, 2017

Musings break

Thanks to all out there who have continued reading musings in 2017.

I hope you all have a blessed Christmas and a good break over the summer (if you're in the Southern Hemisphere, like me!)

Musings will be back again in February 2018.


Monday, December 18, 2017

Novels of the Borgias

Novels of the Borgias, Kate Quinn

I have continued reading Kate Quinn’s books recently, enjoying her ability to combine history with a great story and interesting characters.

There are two books in these novels of the Borgias – The Serpent and the Pearl and The Lion and the Rose.

Set in Rome in the final years of the 1400s, the story revolves around 3 main characters. Giulia Farnese is a prize bride with her gorgeous beauty and floor length hair. Excited to have her marriage arranged to a handsome young man, she is shocked to realised it’s a sham set up so that Cardinal Rodrigo Borgia can have her as his mistress. As he ascends the papacy as Alexander VI, she is installed openly by his side as his lover. Knowing that such a set up will create enemies, Leonello is hired as her cynical yet powerful bodyguard, his skills hidden because he is usually ignored or ridiculed because he is a dwarf. In the kitchens is talented cook Carmelina, a runaway from her family with a devastating secret to hide.

The Pope already has numerous children by other women, openly acknowledged as Borgias and all given positions of prominence and power in the church and throughout the Holy Roman Empire. None are checked and their ruthless and callous natures are readily apparent. Giulia and her entourage need to learn to survive and thrive in such a bed of vipers.

As a story it’s fascinating, the fact it is based in truth is somewhat terrifying. It goes to show, yet again, that truth is often much stranger than fiction. Again, Quinn explains at the end what she took liberties with and what appears to be true. There is also a murder mystery to solve along the way which I didn’t love, but did certainly add to the tension.

One of the thoughts that kept returning to my mind in this 500th year anniversary of events of the Reformation was, “no wonder!” Europe was ripe for reform; the church robbed the people, lied, stole and cheated to get what it wanted with excessive preference given to those of privilege. It's no surprise Luther had a lot to say.

Some of the quotes that prompted such thoughts:
“The Borgias, in the eyes of most of the world including themselves, had been put upon the earth by God to lead sumptuous lives on behalf of the masses. Their pomp was God’s will.”

From a very stressed master of ceremonies: “Before this wedding I should have quit. Because there is no proper way to host an official wedding of the Pope’s daughter, attended by the Pope’s sons and the Pope’s concubine! None! Because by rights, none of them should exist in the first place!”
“Pope Alexander VI. I wondered if anyone else besides myself has thought it significant that he chose not an apostle’s name or a virtuous name – no Paul or John, no Innocent or Pius – but the name of a conqueror.”
One of the delights of these books is Quinn’s clear research into the cooking of the times. One of her real characters, Bartolomeo Scappi, became one of the greatest cooks of the Renaissance and was Vatican chef to two popes. Many of his recipes are included in the book. The details of cooking, food preparation and how kitchens worked at that time are both intriguing and lovely.

More impressive offerings from a very gifted writer.

Friday, December 15, 2017

Eddie the Eagle

It’s always a little odd to watch a movie about a time you clearly remember. The 1988 Winter Olympics, Calgary: Husband can remember learning the anthem in school orchestra and I sang it in choir. This is part of recent history.

Even so, memories fade and while I recalled Michael Edwards (Eddie the Eagle), the British ski jumper; the details eluded me, particularly what he actually did and did not achieve. So for me there was still some tension as the story unfolded.

We all enjoyed it: the likeability of Eddie, his never doubting determination to go to the Olympics and his working-class family background with a supportive mother and frustrated father. Once he realised he could not be a summer athlete, he turns his attentions to winter sports. Losing out on the downhill skiing team, he sets his sight on being the only British ski jumper. The British Olympic Committee want nothing to do with him and set the distance to jump higher than they think he can manage, but with perseverance and the addition of a mentor Bronson Peary (greatly acted by Hugh Jackman), Eddie goes on to prove them wrong.

There is one uncomfortable moment for family viewing, as Peary vividly describes to Eddie that a ski jump should mirror the emotions of a climax. There are mild echoes of the restaurant scene in When Harry Met Sally: younger children won’t really get it, but teens probably will.

It was obviously a memorable Olympics with the Jamaican bobsled team providing the inspiration for the 1993 film Cool Runnings (we might turn to that soon too). Rules have been changed since and we don’t seem to have these ‘outsiders’ in the Olympics anymore. Edwards has been quoted as saying that the movie is only about 5% accurate and even Peary is a completely fictional character.

I quite liked this quote from the Huffington Post:
This movie focuses on the good times in his life. It's fun and it's inspirational. A real movie reviewer would no doubt come up with better adjectives but those are the best I've got. But so what? Fun and inspirational should never be under-valued. As I said, three generations of my family loved this film. You can't believe most of it, but you can believe in it. That's a subtle but important difference.
It was a fun one.

Monday, December 11, 2017

Empress of Rome

Empress of Rome Saga, Kate Quinn

Five years ago, I reviewed the first two of four books in Kate Quinn’s Empress of Rome Saga. I always meant to return to the rest of the series and have just done so, probably because I got caught up in the Ancient Roman world of Caesar reading Iggulden’s Emperor series. That was about 50BC, this series starts about 100 years later and covers about 50 years of Emperors, their families and their courts, often told from the perspective of the women, including the Empresses. Mistress of Rome was a fascinating although disturbing read of Emperor Domitian, who was vicious, cruel and probably mad; the woman who became his mistress Thea and her love, the gladiator Arius.

Empress of the Seven Hills and Lady of the Eternal City focus on Vix (son of Thea and Arius) and Sabina, a member of the Imperial family. The first centers around beloved Emperor Trajan, who held the empire together and expanded it through large scale warfare. Vix slowly rises through the ranks of the legions, while Sabina balances the interests of her husband Hadrian, potential heir to the Emperor, while the Empress Plotina is mastermining her way through Rome. I enjoyed this one, it didn’t have same level of evil characters that many others had, although Plotina is pretty awful.

Lady of the Eternal City is darker in numerous ways. Hadrian is now Emperor, having gained the throne in suspect circumstances. His vicious side always threatens to erupt and Empress Sabina treads a careful dance trying to manage him. Hadrian’s long time enemy Vix struggles to maintain his vengeful streak when Hadrian’s love and attention turns to his son, Antinous. Quinn’s comments at the end note that much of what she has related here is confirmed in historical record, it was a passionate and long affair between two men that affected the Empire and people’s opinion of the Emperor. Numerous statues, cities and temples were erected in Antinous’ honour by Hadrian. Quinn also notes that numerous Roman Emperors lived openly homosexual lives, particularly with their attention turning to young boys and slaves. It's an acknowledged part of history. At the same time, she dwells in these details. I really enjoyed the story of Sabina, Vix and their travels around the Roman Empire. I enjoyed the explanations of the way the Empire ran, the details of the characters, both good and bad, but I didn’t need to spend that much time in the details of the relationship between Trajan and Antinous. We all have our reading preferences.

Quinn is a gifted writer, she sets a cracking pace and keeps you interested the whole way along. She has written books of other times as well, I’ll turn to them soon.

Friday, December 8, 2017

Wonder

Four years ago, we were given a book which shot to the top of our favourites list: Wonder by R. J. Palacio. I read it to each of our children when they are ten, and everyone we know who has read it has loved it. It’s the story of ten-year-old August Pullman, a boy who loves his parents, his sister, his dog and Star Wars. Yet starting a new school in Year 5 presents a challenge, because Auggie has a severe facial disfigurement. It’s a book that teaches, tugs at the heart strings, and challenges and encourages children and adults alike.

So, the news that it was being turned into a movie was met with a mixture of excitement and trepidation. Could it possibly be as good? How would they portray Auggie?

I had the treat of seeing this with a Year 6 school excursion. So, even surrounded by 50 twelve-year olds all chatting and snacking, the movie experience was undiminished. And when they all cheered at certain points, it was certainly fun to be part of a larger group experience.

It is truly an excellent adaptation. The wonder of Wonder is not only the engaging story of August himself, but the depth and range of characters. Different parts of the story are told from the perspective of other people, including his sister Via and friend Jack Will. No character is one-sided. These are fully fleshed people, each with positive and negative traits.

This a family movie and families would do well to see it together. It’s ideal for ages 10 and up. While it’s mostly appropriate for kids a few years younger, they won’t really get the nuance. It’s also a great movie for teens, who will both appreciate and understand how kids behave, but also will see their own lives reflected in Via, Auggie’s older sister at high school. She adds the insight of how siblings of kids with special needs learn to manage. (“August is the Sun. Me and Mom and Dad are planets orbiting the Sun ... I’ve gotten used to not complaining, and I’ve gotten used to not bothering Mom and Dad with little stuff.”)

The parents are cast brilliantly with highly dedicated mum Isabel (Julia Roberts) and fun, caring father Nate (Owen Wilson) almost stealing the show, demonstrating a strong marriage and real parenting strengths. It’s no wonder even despite their family’s complications, Via’s friend Miranda wishes Auggie’s family were her own.

The teachers (including Mandy Patinkin) are just the type of teachers you want your kids to have: committed, fair, able to determine kids’ issues and be sensitive to them. The idea of the monthly precepts isn’t as strong in the movie as in the book, but the main one taught by Mr Browne is emphasised: “When given the choice between being right or being kind, choose kind.” This has become somewhat of a motto in our home in recent years. With kids that are very black and white, and keen to point out each other’s errors, choosing to be silent at points in order to show love has been a helpful lesson. Of course, I suspect this could be taken too far by some, being interpreted that you choose to only love rather than stand up for truth—but that is never the point of the precept in the book.

It’s full of fun cultural references. Auggie is a big Star Wars fan and this is woven beautifully into the movie with Chewbacca making a few special appearances; something that greatly appealed to my own Star Wars fan (and to be honest, to me too). When Isabel decides to return to her research thesis (put on hold when Auggie was born) she tries to recover her work from a 4” floppy disk. Of course, the kids have no idea what it is.

While there is nothing overtly Christian in the movie, the themes sing out the truth that we are loved, we have value, and that it’s who we are and how we live that matters, and nothing to do with how we look. This is a truth that God has already proclaimed: “The Lord does not look at the things people look at. People look at the outward appearance, but the Lord looks at the heart.” (1 Samuel 16:7a). We are called to love our neighbours, and that includes people that look different. There is much here that could lead to honest discussion in our homes about we treat people and how we want to be treated. The messages within are ones you want your kids to think about.

There is no swearing but some insults fly between kids, there is one kiss between teenagers, one teen finishes her mother’s wine while she is asleep/passed out and Isabel jokes with Nate about getting drunk. Nate & Isabel make a few references to enjoying each other’s company (which would go over most kids’ heads) and there are a few scenes with kids fighting and bullying each other. This is what many kids see every day in their real lives.

There is however lots and lots of emotion. Numerous children in the group I saw it with were crying by the end, and all of the adults were weeping at points throughout. Be prepared to cry, even if you usually don't. I suspect parents will find it harder emotionally than kids, but be prepared for your children to react. While throughout the movie the tears may be expressing concern, grief and pain; the tears at the end are joyful. The ending is excellent.

Few movie adaptations live up to the hype, but this one definitely does. Obviously, some details had to be jettisoned, and kids who know the book well may feel the loss of those elements. But the overall message of “choose kind” and that you need to get to know people on the inside has remained.

This is a highly-recommended movie with really only one condition—make sure you and your kids read the book too.

This was posted on TGCA yesterday.

Wednesday, December 6, 2017

Getting in the Christmas Spirit

How does your family approach Christmas? Does everyone sing happy songs, cheerfully greeting each other saying “thanks for a great year and all those lunches you made Mum & Dad!” and “Wow I love this time of year, I have so much energy and joy!”?

Perhaps your family is a little more like mine: everyone is tired, tests are on, reports are being finalised, end of year performances and concerts abound (does anyone else secretly cheer when the end of year school concert is cancelled due to bad weather!?). I often think the Northern Hemisphere does it better, as they aren’t also finishing the school year, and really, there is always something appealing about snow…

So, what to do?

Chances are, you like Christmas. You rejoice that God came to earth as a baby who would be the Saviour of the world. A well-sung carol can fill your heart with praise. Bible readings of the incarnation remind you again of the joy of the season and the reason we celebrate.

However, translating that into a positive family experience takes a bit of thought, when the pressures of finishing school, making meals, buying presents and planning for holiday leave all add up.

Christmas books abound and treasured ones can be found in both secular and Christian offerings. Spend some time in a bookstore reading before you buy and you’ll soon develop a collection your family will love re-reading as the years go on.

But without a doubt, the best thing to read in the lead up to Christmas is the biblical accounts of Jesus’ birth and the promises that lead to him. The Good Book Company has produced some excellent material, including Beginning with God at Christmas for pre-schoolers (designed to go with The Beginner’s Bible), XTB: Christmas Unpacked for early readers, and family advent packs such as Christmas Opened Up. I’m excited to see more high-quality material for Christmas developed in recent years. If you don’t have the energy for anything organised, just grab a kids’ Bible (or a full Bible) and read through the accounts of Jesus’ birth in the days together leading to Christmas.

When our family was very young and we were trying to figure out how to do the lead into Christmas well, there was very little material available. So, we made our own. That’s why we don’t use any pre-produced material although much of it is excellent. We have three sets of Advent material that we work through in various years. They are Genesis to Jesus (covering the background of the Old Testament and the promises leading to Jesus), The Birth of Jesus (from the gospel accounts) and Who is this man? (each bringing out a different aspect of who Jesus is). They’re available free for download and you can find more details here.

Perhaps you personally would also like to read further and reflect this time of year. I always enjoy O Come Though-Long Expected Jesus by Nancy Guthrie. There are new advent materials for adults out now from both Tim Chester and Paul David Tripp. I’m going to try to get my hands on some of those for future years.

Sometimes having music playing is what makes it Christmas in your home. For fun family Christmas music, you can’t beat Colin Buchanan’s King of Christmas album – lively, funny, illustrative and instructive, it always makes the playlist this time of year. For some more mellow reflection, we all love Third Day’s Christmas Offerings and Nathan Tasker’s A Star, A Stable, A Saviour. Perhaps Handel’s Messiah is what works better for you, or a beautifully sung choral group of carols.

Perhaps what really gets you excited is talking to people about why you love Christmas. There are usually a myriad of events to invite people to – carol services, kid’s church options, Christmas services. Perhaps even invite them into your home and show how Christmas is all about Jesus for your family.

There’s no doubt this can be a busy and hectic time of year. Yet, even in the midst of it, it can be a time of reflection, purposeful teaching, and a celebration of God’s wonderful gifts.

We want our families (and ourselves) to remember it’s not about the presents, or the food, or cleaning the house for visitors. It’s not even about time with family, or friends, or the holidays. It’s about Jesus. Jesus. God’s very precious son, sent by our Heavenly Father to fulfil all his promises to humanity. The Word made flesh who made his dwelling among us, full of grace and truth (John 1:14). That is indeed good news of great joy for all people (Luke 2:10). Let’s make sure that news is the highlight in our homes this month.

This was published on Growing Faith yesterday. 

Monday, December 4, 2017

Think Again

Think Again: Relief from the Burden of Introspection, Jared Mellinger

This great new release from New Growth Press is designed for those of us who tend towards introspection, including overthinking and analysing, and self-absorption as a result.

Jared Mellinger clearly enunciated his goal from the very first page:
The goal of this book is to show how the gospel rescues us from fruitless self-examination, false guilt, discouragement, and inaccurate thoughts of ourselves. I want to offer practical counsel on battling unhealthy introspection and give hope to all of us whose minds are stuck on ourselves. Ultimately, I’m eager to draw our attention away from self and toward the glory of Jesus Christ. (p1) 
Many of us are familiar with the problem of too much introspection. Our minds wander to our responsibilities, our spiritual growth, our appearance, or some other aspect of our lives. We spend excessive amounts of time evaluating ourselves. We overanalyze the things we say and do. We constantly second-guess ourselves and fear we might be making the wrong decisions in life. (p2)
He also outlines a clear road map of where he is headed. If only more authors would do this, it’s so appreciated by reader and reviewer.

Mellinger starts with some personal reflections and the encouragement that we only truly know ourselves by looking to Christ, for in Christ we see our dignity, sin, identity, value and destiny; and that knowing Jesus is the way out of both self-hatred and self-love.
The gospel sets us free from thinking about ourselves too much. There is an outward-focused God who delights to rescue an inward-focused people. He is leading us into a better way to live. (p13)
The next chapters look at introspection in more detail – including the reasons we do look at ourselves, dealing with the despair that comes from too much introspection and how to deal with false guilt. There were very helpful things in these chapters. There were practical suggestions – sometimes we look for a spiritual solution for introspection when what we actually need is a practical solution such as more sleep, a holiday, or time with friends.

I personally found chapter 6 on fighting false guilt very instructive. Mellinger lists six distinctions for fighting false guilt. These question whether we feel guilty or are actually guilty; and whether our guilt is a false guilt. They include thinking about whether your guilt is from man’s assessment or God’s:
We spend so much of our time and energy making negative judgments, condemning ourselves, and condemning each other. But when Christ comes, human condemnation gives way to divine commendation, and all those who are in Christ will receive personal affirmation from the King. Therefore, not only is God’s assessment of us more important than all other assessments, it is often far more gracious. (p72)
He challenges us to assess whether we have accurate self-assessments; whether something is a weakness or a sin (eg. it's not a sin that you need more rest than another person, just an acknowledgement that your body is different); whether it is a temptation or a sin; whether something is an area of responsibility for you or a wider area of concern (that you are not responsible for); and finally whether you carry guilt over the principle or the practice:
For example, a principle is to treasure God’s Word; a practice is to have a plan to read through the Bible in a year. A principle is to disciple your children; a practice is to schedule weekly one-on-one time with each of your kids. A principle is to love your wife; a practice is to write her a poem. Practices that flow from biblical principles are commendable. In fact, practices are essential if we are to faithfully apply God’s Word. But specific practices are not to be confused with biblically mandated principles. (p76)
Imagine the relief of false guilt over parenting practices and comparisons this truth could bring!

Later chapters move on to addressing self-examination well – how to evaluate yourself (ch 8) was incredibly helpful including tips such as: start with Christ, choose the right time, ask for God’s help, base your evaluations on the bible, look for grace, involve others and confess sin. He goes on to encourage us both to find the grace of God in our lives, to see that there is good; and also to confess sin willingly which will lead to greater joy in Christ.

Mellinger’s final chapters challenge us to look outside of ourselves. We can’t be too self-absorbed when looking at the wonder of the created world around us. When we are involved in community we realise that people aren’t looking at us nearly as much as we think; and we find the joy of serving makes us more outward focussed. And finally, when we look to Christ we are truly set free:
The Christian life is a life of radical extra-spection. For every look to ourselves, we should be taking ten looks to Christ. And every time we look at ourselves, what we see should lead us back to Christ. Any sin we find should drive us to the work of Christ for us. And any good we find in ourselves should reveal the work of Christ in us and through us. Any weakness we find should lead us to the power of Christ toward us. (p155) 
Sing songs that will help you consider him. Listen to sermons and read books that are full of him. Join a church that is committed more than anything to helping people look to Jesus and treasure him. Looking to Christ is not only a sight that brings joy; it is also a sight that transforms. Beholding his glory not only makes our souls happy, but it is the best and surest way to make our souls holy. (p165)
As I reflect on this book, I really only had one hesitation. I was surprised that in the ways he encouraged people to look outside themselves, in things such as worship, love, art, sport, preaching and work; there was no encouragement to prayer, particularly prayer that praises God for who he is and how he has acted. Dwelling prayerfully in praise of God will always turn our minds from ourselves to his glory.

This is a book well worth reading. It’s relevant for everyone; but especially anyone who tends to look at themselves a little more than they possibly should – either with pride or despair.  You will find it a challenge and an encouragement, but most of all, it will be a pointer to Christ.

Friday, December 1, 2017

Moana

This latest Disney release has grown on me the more I have watched it. At the first viewing I wasn’t very impressed, the themes of demi-gods, and reincarnation didn’t sit very well. But upon more viewing and reflection, I’ve realised it has some good things to offer.

Daughter of the Polynesian village chief, Moana, is destined to lead her people one day and that is what she is being raised to do. The villagers have become used to being on their island and never venture out beyond the reef, yet Moana feels the ocean call her to explore it. She struggles with her desire to discover new places, yet knows she is to fulfil the role she has to stay and lead her people. Encouraged by her elderly grandmother, she is slowly told the real story of her people and how they used to be explorers and travelers but that fear now prevents them continuing that tradition.

When dangers start to threaten the island (through the long reaching tentacles of the lava demon Te Ka), Moana knows she must travel beyond the reef to find the demigod Maui and make him restore the stolen heart of Te Fiti.

The music is pretty catchy, I do find myself humming along, probably because our very kind piano teacher has provided our girls with some of the sheet music.

Some of the positive elements in this movie:

  • Moana has a more realistic girl body than we’ve seen for a while in a Disney movie. Her clothes cover her body appropriately, her proportions are more like an actual, normal girl. With the exception, of course, of the crazy large Disney eyes.
  • Moana doesn’t need to be rescued. Of course, this is an emerging theme over the last 10 years with Disney women, especially with Tangled and Frozen 
  • There is absolutely no love interest at all. Moana is out to save her people and her island, and she co-opts Maui to help her. Boys and romance don’t even enter the equation. It’s a refreshing change.
  • She has loving, caring parents who want what is best for her and their people. Parents have not had a good rap or much presence in Disney movies with most heroines being orphans (Frozen), with evil step parents (Cinderella) or removed from parents (Tangled)
  • She knows she has a responsibility as the daughter of the village chief (“not a princess!” she claims). While she wants to explore, she acknowledges her responsibilities. Yet, once her people really are threatened, she acts in their best interests.

Moana has a lot of character traits which are admirable and we would be happy for our children to imitate.

As I pondered some the themes more, it was good to be able to talk about the ideas of demi-gods. The song “You’re welcome” by Maui is a good chance to talk about “Do we actually thank God for everything he has given us in creation and our lives?” The ideas of worshipping numerous gods and creation is a good conversation point for understanding other cultures. The concept of reincarnation and the sea being a living, active entity are all things that make kids think and if you are willing to interact with it, can be interesting conversation points.

One other major thought I had after this latest Princess movie was – has Disney gone too far? Where are the boy heroes now? They’ve essentially done away with the prince as rescuer (probably a good thing), the father as wise guide (there’s something we could have back), and any men get relegated to fun sidekick following the capable women (think Kristoff in Frozen, Flynn Rider in Tangled and now Maui). I mentioned this to my kids and Mr 14 agreed wholeheartedly, but Miss 12 and Miss 10 still thought most superheroes were men so it was fair. We might have to explore that whole idea another time!

Monday, November 27, 2017

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall

Seven Stones to Stand or Fall, Diana Gabaldon

No, this is not the long awaited ninth Outlander book, but rather a series of novellas which fit into the Outlander universe. There are seven in all, five of which have been published previously in other anthologies. So, if you are a fan and have followed up all of Gabaldon’s writing over the years, you will already have read many of these. As I worked through them, I recalled I had read several before, but couldn’t remember the details. However, it’s always nice to return to this series for I do enjoy Gabaldon’s writing and the world she has created.

She claims they are all standalone novellas which anyone could pick up, but you would want to have read at least the first three Outlander novels to have a sense of what is going on. Particularly when they focus on Lord John, there are so many characters that I still struggle to connect them all.

This is an enjoyable collection. Three of the novellas cover Lord John and where he is based at the time, including Havana, Quebec and Jamaica. They are close to the timeline of Voyager. “Virgins” is a prequel to the whole series, with some of Ian and Jamie’s adventures in their late teens. I particularly enjoyed “A Fugitive Green” covering how Minnie and Hal (Lord John’s older brother) end up together. There is the account of Roger’s father and what really happened to him, and also a side story including Jamie’s nephew Michael, Marsali’s sister Joan and the Comte St. Germain in Paris.

For those already existing fans, this is another addition to the collection which adds depth to the story as a whole.

For those who do not know the series yet, this is the brief summary I wrote ten years ago, in the first month of starting this blog:
Diana Gabaldon, Outlander Series. There are 6 books so far in this historical fiction series. I discovered them when I was pregnant with #3 and bedridden for about 7 weeks with morning sickness. They are huge and completely draw you in to the story. The premise is that an English woman in 1945 manages to travel back in time 200 years in Scotland and gets caught there (don't worry about the physics of it!). However, she knows what is to come in the future (eg. Culloden). There is (as to be expected) a love story wound through it all. They are very detailed, enjoyable and interesting. If you don't like overly descriptive love-making scenes, you may be put off, but even then I think they are worth the read. I have just downloaded all her podcasts off her website to listen to how she writes, for some listening while I exercise. I am eagerly waiting for books 7 & 8 to be released.

Other posts on this blog include this one about An Echo in the Bone (book 7), and after reading the Lord John novels.

I am eagerly awaiting the publishing of #9, but her blog suggests it won’t be for a while yet!

Monday, November 20, 2017

Emperor

Emperor series, Conn Iggulden

This five-book series by Conn Iggulden charts the life of Julius Caesar. Iggulden’s undertaken a massive job: to collate the data on Caesar and present it in a coherent and interesting form, and has succeeded. It’s still historical fiction; Iggulden reveals at the end of each book where he changed and adapted things, and he has written a gripping account.

The Gates of Rome covers Caesar’s childhood, through the eyes of best friends Gaius and Marcus. I have always enjoyed reading of Ancient Rome and Iggulden brings it to life: the senate and their intrigues, the lifestyle supported on the backs of slaves, the massive difference in wealth and influence in the city, and the extent of power exerted by Rome on the ancient world.

The Death of Kings show Caesar’s exploits around the Mediterranean, first with the Roman army and then after capture by pirates. He starts his rise to power with his charisma bringing men to his side in Greece and then later in Italy. At the same time, Brutus is gathering a legion of men to be loyal to Caesar, and to deal with ongoing enemies in Rome.

The Field of Swords charts the years of Caesar’s invasions of Gaul and England; I had no idea how long he spent away from Rome on campaign for the Empire.

Gods of War is his campaign to beat Pompey and claim Rome for himself, with increasing opposition from previously loyal friends. For those that know the line from Shakespeare “Et tu Brute?” and the significance of the Ides of March, there is an inexorable waiting to see how that plays out.

I had very little knowledge of this time, barring the main facts. But the extent of this man’s achievements provably cannot be overlooked. He conquered much of the world for Rome and eventually made his own name synonymous with King or ruler; the word Kaiser and Tsar both derived from Caesar.

The fifth book, The Blood of Gods, covers the years after Caesar as Augustus rises to power. Notably, not one of those involved in Caesar’s assassination died of natural causes.

It’s a time of bloody violence and horrible warfare. The few brief descriptions of crucifixions remind you of why it was such a feared and hated method of death. The extent of the military campaigns by Rome are astonishing, considering the distances covered and the numbers of men involved. 

I have enjoyed numerous books that tackle this period of time. Iggulden’s writing probably appeals to me the most. Many others dwell in the debauchery of the times. It’s present here too, but it isn’t a focus.  I finished the series with much more understanding of these years of the Roman Empire, and a begrudging appreciation of what was achieved by the sheer charismatic force and willpower of a few men, despite the methods often employed.

Monday, November 13, 2017

Move Fast and Break Things

Move Fast and Break Things, Jonathan Taplin

As I continue reading and thinking about digital technology, this book came across my radar. The title is coined from a comment by Mark Zuckerberg, founder of Facebook “Move fast and break things. Unless you are breaking stuff, you aren’t moving fast enough”. With the subtitle “How Facebook, Google and Amazon Cornered Culture and Undermined Democracy” this book is clearly designed to grab your attention.

Jonathan Taplin worked in the music industry as tour manager for Bob Dylan and The Band, and was also a film producer for Martin Scorsese and others. He saw first-hand what free streaming and piracy did to destroy a music artist’s ability to earn money from their craft; and what the digitisation of the film industry has done for creativity and originality.

He notes the five largest firms in the firms in the world are now: Apple, Google, Microsoft, Amazon and Facebook. He traces the beginnings of the Internet which was founded on much more co-operative and creative principles that we see at work today. He looks at the libertarian value and belief systems of the men who founded Amazon, Google and Facebook and how their views shaped their company model and practice. Much of it seems to be based around the principles of “I can do it, so I will” and “Who will stop me?”

He spends time on the power of the digital monopolies, the lack of any real regulation to guide or limit their power, and the how the quality of accurate news had been eroded. He highlights the ongoing danger of non-stop data mining, where the only real benefit is for advertisers whose targets become more and more specified.

There is an element of conspiracy theory to it, but much of it also rings true; and really, it certainly feels like these digital tech companies are working in conspiracy. Amazon corners the market on book sales, pushing actual stores out of business and threatening publishers who won’t fall into line. Facebook algorithms are changing the way we view news, and ensuring we are surrounded by a group of similarly minded, homogenous ‘friends’ in our feeds. Google knows where you are almost at any time of the day, can read all your mail, tracks the places you go and what you search for and buy online. These companies have massive power in terms of market share, income, and data; and there are very little checks and balances to ensure this power is used carefully and wisely. Google’s motto “Don’t Be Evil” is a nice marketing ploy, but really, are Google the ones to judge what is evil? And at what point does the end product justify the means to how you got there?

As I read this book the phrase kept coming to mind (partially attributed to Lord Acton) “Power corrupts, but absolutely power corrupts absolutely”.

Taplin doesn’t leave you hanging at the end, he has the beginnings of a proposal for a way forward. He considers what it means to be human, and that part of that includes the sense of community. He comments on the starkness of the contrast between a shooter who killed nine parishioners of a church: “When you think that the families of the slain churchgoers were able to forgive the shooter, you can only marvel at the power of their faith. Never was the difference between between community cooperation and individual separation more starkly outlined. I’m not sure my faith would afford me that amount of grace in the face of such evil, but I am awed to see it exist in the hateful political climate we inhabit.”

After being on a Benedictine monk retreat, he was challenged that “I am not Catholic, yet I find the monks’ prescriptions to be helpful [these include prayer, work, study, hospitality and renewal], a model of how I want to live in the world. The idea of an examined life is missing in our current digital rush.” These are the only comments that Taplin makes in the whole book that have any hint at faith or belief yet he has identified something. We know our lives will be examined, and we should be examining them before the Creator of the world. What will He conclude regarding our digital lives?

He concludes that part of being human is “we need a life narrative in which we take pride in being good at a specific task, and we value the experiences we have lived through”. He thinks art is one of the ways that lays the ground for the internal condition, for moral behaviour. I agree in part. There will have been artworks, pieces of music, books and other creative expressions that have moved and challenged each of us. For those of us who are believers, the creative expressions of others can drive us closer to God. I think of certain hymns, books, and artworks that make me realise anew the mercy and grace of God and the creative power he has given his people.

Taplin finishes by proposing ways the internet could change (with legislation and regulation) to allow for proper use of artists’ work where they are paid fairly. He notes that there are many things that the digital world cannot do: “When I ask myself what it means to be human, I think that having empathy and the ability to tell stories rank high, and I am not worried that these skills will be replaced by A.I. A great artist’s ability to inspire people – especially to compel them to think and act – lies at the heart of political and cultural change. It really is the reason we tell ourselves stories”.

Taplin has included a lot of information, background and explanation throughout, and those with knowledge of economics may get a lot more out of it than I did; but it is certainly is an interesting and thought-provoking read.

Monday, November 6, 2017

Our Mob, God's Story

Our Mob, God’s Story, Sherman and Mattingley

This wonderful art collection book was produced by the Bible Society to commemorate 200 years of work in Australia.

I should say upfront that I am not a connoisseur of fine art. We do not buy art, and I have struggled to appreciate much art except the older fashioned Renaissance style, especially those with biblical themes. I loved Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel and like the various works of Monet, Hans Heysen and others, but my knowledge and therefore understanding of the skill involved is very limited.

Combined with that is the increasing realization that I have almost no knowledge of Aboriginal culture and tradition. Part of that could be attributed to a childhood spent mostly overseas, and an Australian education system that didn’t include such things until after I left. Having been raised in a part of the country that included almost no Indigenous people, my exposure to Indigenous people and culture is very limited.

That all goes to show that in coming to this book I was a complete and utter ignoramus.

From page one I was entranced. There was an explanation of a worthy cause – the gathering of a vast variety of Indigenous artworks that reflected stories of personal faith and understanding of the Scriptures. In using the artworks of different Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures, each artist with their own unique style; the truths of the gospel have been clearly, colourfully and winsomely explained.

Each double page spread contains the artwork, an explanation of the work, and some information about the artist and the area they are from, and a bible verse relevant to the art. With a helpful explanation at the beginning of what some symbols used in the works represent, suddenly there is a key to see the meaning – you can see the Trinity,  men and women bowing down, the Holy Spirit, people travelling to God and away from him on narrow and wide paths.

It covers the chronology of the bible, starting with creation and through the Old Testament.

Seven Days of Creation, Safina Stewart (sourced from: http://artbysafina.com.au/portfolio/spirit/seven-days-of-creation/)

Noah's Flood, Kristy Naden (sourced from: http://www.abc.net.au/religion/articles/2017/03/07/4631489.htm)
This was one of my personal favourites
How that double page spread looks

Most of the art is based in the New Testament, particularly the gospels.

Bright Star, Grace Kumbi (sourced from: https://www.biblesociety.org.au/our-mob/)

I read a few pages a day as part of my own personal devotion and each time I came away refreshed by the art, the bible verses and the explanations. There is a wide variety of art, many contains elements of dot painting (like the ones I have included here), but others have very different styles.

This book is a treasure. I first found it at our local library (which in itself was amazing), but quickly realised we wanted to own a copy. Not only for our own encouragement and edification, but also because the proceeds go to publishing of Aboriginal Scriptures.

If you already appreciate art and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander culture, make sure you get this book. If you are more like me and own no books of art at all, make this one the exception - get a copy. You will be so encouraged by the faith displayed by our Indigenous brothers and sisters.

So Loved, Glendora (Glenny) Naden (sourced from https://www.eternitynews.com.au/good-news/indigneous-art-book-our-mob-gods-story-wins-australian-christian-book-of-the-year/)

Monday, October 30, 2017

The Land of Stories

This review was written by Miss 12:

The Land of Stories is an engaging, adventurous 6-book series. Written by Chris Colfer, it’s based on the travels of Alex and Conner Bailey, twin sister and brother. Their father, John dies when they are nearly eleven and they are raised by their caring mother, Charlotte. However, Charlotte’s pay is little and they just get by with what they need. On their 12th birthday, their fun grandma shows up, cooking a feast and giving them her fairytale book, The Land of Stories. At night, Alex notices a strange thing happening with the book and barely sleeps investigating it.

At school, Alex is a genius while Conner is a sleeper in class. Their teacher Mrs. Peters gives Conner detention several times for dozing while she’s teaching the morals of fairy-tales. When a mistake Conner makes goes horribly wrong, he and his sister become lost in the Land of Stories, where fairytales come to life. Alex is thrilled but all Conner wants is to go home.

Find out the amazing characters they meet, their quest, and their encounter with one of the most feared enemies ever! I enjoyed this book and the rest of the series. The first one is The Wishing Spell, and it continues; The Enchantress Returns, A Grimm Warning, Beyond the Kingdoms, An Author’s Odyssey and Worlds Collide. I have not yet read Worlds Collide, as it is not yet out in paperback.

The rest of the books in the series are about Alex and Conner helping when there is a crisis in the Land of Stories and attempting to restore peace. They make many lasting friends, such as Jack, Goldilocks and Queen Red Riding Hood of the Red Riding Hood Kingdom. They meet the wonderful monarchs of the Land of Stories Kingdoms, and travel to spectacular places. Alex also makes a tough, heart-breaking decision at the end of book 2, and at one point in the series, she and Conner find out something Charlotte had hidden from them that will change their life!

I loved reading this series after a friend suggested it to me. They are funny and sarcastic, scary and fun and very interesting. They give a new, exciting perspective to the fairytales and I would recommend it to ages over 10 as there are a few hard things to grasp but overall, I think most would enjoy it. You should read this series! (if you haven’t already)