Monday, June 24, 2019

Parenting

Parenting, Paul David Tripp

I came to this book wanting to love it. I was ready to love it. After all, I have greatly appreciated much of Tripp’s other writing, notably Age of Opportunity (about teenagers), What Did you Expect? (about marriage) and Dangerous Calling (about ministry). Tripp has a lot of wisdom and he is skilled at applying the bible and God’s grace to many aspect of Christian living.

In the end, I liked it but I did not love it. Let me start with the positives.

Subtitled: 14 Gospel Principles that can radically change your family, he openly acknowledges this is a book that is meant to reorient us, to bring us back to the gospel in every aspect of parenting. He wants us to see our role as ambassadors, we are to represent Christ to our children.
“parenting is not first about what we want for our children or from our children, but about what God in grace has planned to do through us in our children”
He reminds parents they have a calling to introduce his glory and grace to our kids. We have been given grace, so that we move “toward them as a sinner in need of grace needing to confront a sinner in need of grace”. I appreciated the reminder that God is parenting us as we parent our children, we all still need encouragement, correction and growth in maturity.

He reminds parents that God is the one in control and God is the only one who can change their hearts. We are to see parenting as one unending conversation, with the chance to see many “mini-moments of change” along the way. Other gospel principles he addresses along the way include: identity, that they are lost, the idea of authority, foolishness, false gods and the desire for control.

He is frank and honest with parents, which, sometimes, we need to hear:
“What gets in the way of good parenting is the not a lack of opportunity. What gets in the way of good parenting is not the character of your child. What gets in the way of parenting is one thing: the character of the parent.”
However, as I said, I did not love it, and here are some of the reasons why. It would have been great to have some reflection questions and suggestions for prayer at the end of each chapter. This might have helped with focussing a response.

Secondly, the writing style is quite repetitious. He restates the same thing numerous times in various ways, presumably for emphasis, but it makes the book longer than it needs to be, and it feels long-winded at points.

However, the biggest issue I had was with the tone. It seems to be written because he felt people misunderstood what he was trying to say in Age of Opportunity. So, right away, there is an idea of ‘you’ve got it all wrong, and let me correct you’. This condescending tone continues throughout, with a lot of absolutes: “You cannot…”, “You must…”, “You must never…”, “You cannot allow yourself to settle for anything less.” So, while it is a book about grace in parenting, the book did not feel like it was written with grace for the parent who was reading it.

So, in my opinion, this book comes with a warning. Do not read it when your heart is wounded and you are struggling in your parenting. Rather, read it when you are open to challenge, and want to realign your heart and motivations as you parent.

Monday, June 17, 2019

For Young Women Only

For Young Women Only, Shaunti Feldhahn and Lisa A. Rice

We gave this to Miss 14 on her birthday, thinking it was time to start some conversations about how guys think and what might be is helpful for her to understand. I have done a very detailed book series review (10 years ago!) on For Women Only, so have looked at similar material in depth before. I have often found Feldhahn’s writing to be helpful and very easy to read and digest.

She has provided a simpler book here and covered six of the original topics about men in this book, and adapted them to be about young men, backed up with more research. These are:

  • Men value respect over love
  • Behind the bravado is a guy who’s insecure
  • Guys hide behind a tough exterior but are willing to open up
  • Most guys are visual
  • They value your inner beauty, but also appreciate your outer beauty
  • It takes work to control physical desire and they want help to do so


In For Women Only, it’s about husband and wives, so the focus in that is on your relationship and understanding each other better.

Obviously, there is application to boy/girl romantic relationships here, but much of it is how to understand the young men in your life better, be they guy friends, brothers, or indeed, boyfriends. As such it was still very applicable to Miss 14 as she thinks the young men around her. She really enjoyed reading it and devoured it over a few nights and then we were able to talk about it. It was helpful for her to consider many of these things and how she might interact with them. Respecting boys was one to consider, it’s easy to all just put each other down. Considering the visual nature of men too, helped us think about how what they see and imagine is not always what we think. In fact, every chapter had something we could talk about. We didn’t spend ages on it, but it was a good springboard for some thoughts to consider and there are lots of things we can come back to later. As an added bonus, it made me think again about how to interact with my teenage son in ways that are helpful for him.

They are pretty careful how they deal with the chapter that talks about how boys do care about how you look, not in terms of clothes and makeup, but more in terms of body health and weight and that the girl herself makes an effort. Both authors are honest about their own struggles in this area, so that is a note of warning if your ‘young woman’ has issues in this area.

Like all books for this age group, and on these topics, I highly recommend a parent reads it too and discusses it with them. I chose to read it and talk about it with her, but if would have worked if Husband had too.

Friday, June 14, 2019

The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England

The Time Traveller’s Guide to Medieval England, Ian Mortimer

If you like to learn about history, but wonder about how much truth is in historical fiction, yet struggle with a dry textbook format – this middle ground may be for you. Mortimer has collated historical information, but placed it in a present tense format in a guide book style, as if you were planning to visit 14th century England. It’s a clever idea, and one that has a lot of merit.

It’s interesting and amusing to read a list of the Top Ten places to see in London, how you might dress to fit in and what you might expect to eat while staying at an inn. Warnings about the dangers of travelling on the roads, or by sea, make ideas of medieval travel come to life; as do the descriptions of illnesses that affect people, most notably the plague as well as typhoid and leprosy.

He describes homes (from palaces to hovels), the range of food from pottage for peasants to banquets for lords, the justice system, what people wear and what they do for work. He considers how they greet each other, what constitutes humour and the games children play.

By writing a guidebook, Mortimer considers things that other historical writings may ignore:
“The idea of travelling to the Middle Ages allows you to understand these people not only in terms of evidence but also in terms of their humanity, their hopes, the drama of their lives.”
While the term medieval refers to numerous centuries, he has concentrated on the fourteenth for:
“It might be considered the epitome of the Middle Ages, containing civil wars … sieges, outlaws, monasticism, cathedral building … famine, the last of the crusades, the Peasants’ Revolt and (above all else) the Black Death.”
A trip to this time is incomplete without a visit to London,
“It is not just the largest city in England but also the richest, the most vibrant, the most polluted, the smelliest, the most powerful, the most colourful, the most violent and the most diverse.”
It’s a fair warning that “medieval society is more fearful, guarded and violent than that which you are familiar”, yet at the same time they “love music. It is – along with a love of good food, good jokes and good stories – one of those aspects of life which unites everyone”.

Consider, at the same time, the uniqueness of jousting:
“Where else, in all history, can you see the richest, most powerful and most privileged members of society risk injury for your entertainment? Where else in all history can you find rich and powerful men paying for the privilege of breaking their necks and goring each other in public?”
It did feel a little long and detailed at points, with possibly too much information about some aspects of life. Those who live in England might find all the pricing information relevant, but as I have no concepts of pounds and pence, all the ‘d’ and ‘s’ currency was virtually incomprehensible for me, let along comparative to current costs. So, even though it groaned at points under the details, it was always still interesting reading and while some sections lent themselves to a bit more skimming, overall it was curiously informative and well presented.

It seems Mortimer has written two other books of a similar format, The Time Traveller’s Guide to Elizabethan England and The Time Traveller’s Guide to Restoration Britain (1660-1700), as well as history books and some historical fictions. I may well turn to some of those now too.

Wednesday, June 12, 2019

Wild Rose

I had the privilege of seeing Universal Pictures new release last night: Wild Rose.

Starring the very talented singer Jessie Buckley, it tells the story of Rose-Lynn and her dreams of being a Western singer. Her location is stacked against her living in Glasgow, which hardly has a vibrant country music scene. Much more complicated through is that she has just been released from prison for supplying heroin, and she has two young children who hardly know her who her mother (Julie Walters) has been raising.

It's probably categorised as "gritty feel-good", a messy life story in which Rose needs to figure out what really matters most to her - her dreams or her family, and whether you chase your hopes or fulfil your responsibilities.

I found the first half hour a bit slow, as we adjusted to the strong Scottish accents and regular swearing and drinking. But once she sang the first song live and unaccompanied (Peace in this House), it took off.

On Rose's arm is tattooed "Three chords and the truth", being the heart of country music and each song she sings is strong, heartfelt and exactly right for the moment in the movie. The songs tell the story as much as the dialogue does and Buckley's singing is excellent, both with original prices and  covers by other artists. The final song Glasgow (No Place Like Home) is fantastic.

It's an enjoyable movie with strong performances by Buckley and Walter.

I was a guest of Universal Pictures.

Monday, June 10, 2019

Pressure Points

Pressure Points, Shelby Abbott

Shelby Abbott has worked with college students in the US for nearly two decades, and so has seen up close the demands and stresses for young people at university, and is well placed to offer his advice and wisdom to young adults. In Pressure Points: A Guide to Navigating Student Stress, he identifies that:
“This season of life is uniquely stress-filled, and perhaps even more so than any other life stage because of the amount of decision-making that takes place in such a short period of time. Your decisions as a college student can and will shape your future reality, making college time potentially the most stressful of pressure cookers.”
And while the heart issues that face us remain the same throughout the ages, the variance of them is different today:
“Our modern age—saturated with technology, constant cynicism, streamlined digital communication, heavy negativity, relationship status posts, and instant information access—has shaped the way many young people deal with the pressure points of life. It has constructed a culture unlike anything we have ever seen or experienced—a culture that promises joyful connection via ever-present social networks, yet in reality is associated with depression, common mental problems, and socioemotional difficulties.”
This complexity can only be met with the gospel, and Abbott skilfully brings that to bear while covering numerous issues. The book is divided into three parts, starting with “The Pressure of Finding Purpose”.

He begins by considering “Does God even like me?” and concludes that yes, God loves us because he sent Jesus for us. I thought this was an interesting place to start, but it introduced the gospel well and also reaches to the heart of the reader and their sense of value. Following chapters address the questions:
  • How do I decide my life’s direction? Here he addresses biblically and sensibly the idea of calling: “My calling is not a specific task, but who I am in Christ.”
  • What does God want me to do? Rather than asking the question “What is God’s will for my life?” we should be asking, “How does my life fit into God’s will?”. This also included thinking about how to make decisions.
  • What does God want from me? Obedience through faith and repentance.
  • How do I handle the void? What are the escapes we use to fill the God-shaped void in our lives? What idols do we allow?

The second part addresses “The Pressure of Relationships”. Every single chapter in this chapter was wise and highly practical. Diving into dating relationships first, Abbott addresses two realities of modern romance: it’s physicality and its ambiguity, noting that hearts are being trampled in our current age of poor communication and high physical contact. He talks about parents and how to continue to relate well with them and honour them as you get older; he addresses friendships and what true friendship can look like, and how young people should view their church community:
“when you plug in and commit to become a member of a church, you’re not committing to a place, but a body of believers. And a body of believers is made up of people . . . and people are messy.”
He looks in detail at FOMO (fear of missing out) and what’s it’s doing to relationships:
“I think if we were shown all at once what an overabundance of technology and social media usage could lead to (e.g., constant FOMO, deterioration of authentic relationships, loss of social “skills, depression, anxiety, etc.), we’d recoil in revulsion… People are essentially medicating themselves with cell phone usage, trying to avoid any bit of being left out, even for a moment. They would rather risk their own lives by texting while driving than feel alone for even a second.”
The final section is “Pressure Because of Difficulty” and he wants students to consider issues around immediate success, spiritual warfare, peer evaluation and where Jesus is in hard times. Again, all very helpful and instructive.

The chapters are not long (the whole book is about 150 pages) and each concludes with three reflection questions for the reader to ponder and so would be excellent for a young adult to read on their own. However, there would also be real benefit to work through it with a mentor, providing opportunity to talk through issues and pray together. It is written with a North American college context in mind, but I thought much was applicable to the Australian university context as well. I immediately recommended it to my own husband for his work with university students and intend to give a copy to my son in two years when he begins university.

I’ll leave Abbott with the final say and words of wisdom:
“The gospel is the only true solution to our struggles. Cling to it in times of sadness, heartache, loneliness, hurt, and confusion. Cling to it in times of jubilation, zeal, comfort, fulfillment, exhilaration, and success. We need the gospel when things are horrible and we need the gospel when things are wonderful. He is the ultimate solution, regardless of the pressures you may be facing.”
I received an e-copy of this book from New Growth Press in exchange for an honest review.

Monday, June 3, 2019

The Martian

The Martian, Andy Weir

You know a book is good when it completely captivates you, even though you already know what will happen. In an unusual twist for me, I had already seen The Martian movie. But, when Mr 16 came home with the book and raved about it, I thought I’d try it too. I’m so glad I did, as it kept me very entertained for a solid few days.

Mark Watney is on a mission on Mars with five other astronauts. They plan to be there for 31 SOLs (solar days), collecting data, doing experiments, and whatever NASA has set them up for. But on SOL 6, a major sand storm hits, threatening the integrity of their departure vessel. As per protocol, they prepare to evacuate early, but in doing so, Mark is hit by debris which pierces his suit and all life support monitoring shows no activity. Unable to find him in the storm, all evidence points to him having died and the crew depart mid-storm, dock with their space shuttle and turn back for earth, on a journey of over 100 days.

Yet, astonishingly Mark has survived. He manages to get himself back to the Hab (the large habitat and work station for the team) and give himself the medical care he needs. He then turns to consider the very large problem he is in. Stranded on Mars. No way to communicate with Earth (it was the satellite antenna that hit him). If the oxygenator breaks he’ll suffocate; if the water reclaimer breaks, he’ll die of thirst; if the Hab breaches, he’ll explode. If all equipment works, he’ll run out of food and starve.

It is mainly written in the form of his log entries charting each challenge and how he works through how to deal with it. His priorities are food and communication. In time, NASA gets some idea what’s going on, and then we are introduced to a whole team of people on earth trying to figure out how to rescue a man on Mars who cannot be reached before he starves to death.

It’s very well written. It’s tense when needed, humourous and heartfelt at other points, quick moving and creative. I loved the way it dealt with real scientific and engineering problems by explaining them and attacking them head on. All in a way that’s very readable and understandable, but not by making it too dumbed down. There is a some swearing throughout, but that’s pretty accurate as to how most people would respond to being trapped on Mars.

For those who might consider the visual option of the movie, I also highly recommend that. It is a great adaption of this book. It’s not identical, but very close to it. In fact, possibly seeing the movie first was better for me, because I wasn’t waiting for things to happen which they didn’t show, and the additional level of detail in the book made that captivating as well. As with the book, I loved the fact that the science was integral to it. In fact, it seems like space movies are about the only format remaining where you really can’t ignore the science and maths (eg. Apollo 13, Hidden Figures)

At points in the book, you stop and wonder (and some characters raise the same question): how far do you go to rescue one life? Financially how much is one life worth? Hundreds of millions are spent. Mark himself ponders the question and knows the answer: humans have a basic instinct to help each other out. Consider our own real life situations of miners trapped underground, children’s soccer teams trapped in caves and we know the concerted effort that people will go to and work together to save other lives. The flipside of this is how often (when lives are not at stake in these dramatic ways), we tend to forget this basic element of our God-given humanity and choose not to care, and rather to attack, to provoke and to hate. I find that sobering.

This is a great book, and a great movie. Both highly recommended.

Monday, May 27, 2019

The Hate U Give

The Hate U Give, Angie Thomas

Starr Carter is 16 and lives in Garden Heights, a black ghetto neighbourhood. With a close family and neighbours, it’s rough but it’s home. Her dad is an ex-con, ex-gang member who with his wife is lovingly raising their children to be above the violence and gangs, while still very aware of racist prejudice in their lives. When she was 10 best friend Natasha was gunned down in the street by a gang shooting. Now she goes to a private school on a scholarship an hour away in Williamson, and has white friends there and a secret white boyfriend, Chris.

Good friend Khalil has started to sell drugs to help his family, trapped in a cycle that many young men easily fall into. Starr and Khalil are on their way home from a party and are stopped by a young white police officer. Khalil is unarmed and while a bit stroppy is no threat, but one wrong move means that he is shot dead by the officer and dies in Starr’s arms.

As the neighbourhood starts to react to the news that yet another black life has been lost, Starr is torn. It’s easier to stay quiet and not stand up for Khalil, for they all know justice is rarely served in these cases. Does she tell the truth about what happened and risk the riots that will result in her neighbourhood? Does she name the drug kingpin who forced Khalil to sell for him? And how does she even begin to explain this part of her life to her school friends and Chris, who have no idea about where she lives or what it is like.

As she and her family ponder what to do, they are aware of the implications:
“The truth casts a shadow over the kitchen – people like us in situations like this become hashtags, but they rarely get justice. I think we all wait for that one time though, that one time when it ends right.”
This is a tense and challenging read about racism, inequality, policing and the legal system. It shines the spotlight on the issues facing poor black communities in America and champions the Black Lives Matter movement. Even the title is making a point; it originates from rapper Tupac Shakur’s “THUG LIFE” idea, which is an acronym for The Hate U Give Little Infants F… Everybody.
“Daddy once told me there’s a rage passed down to every black man from his ancestors, born the moment they couldn’t stop the slave masters from hurting their families. Daddy also said there’s nothing more dangerous than when that rage is activated.”
At the same time, there are really strong family role models for Starr, and a familial sense of love and protection for those you love. There is a fair amount of swearing and references to sexual activity ,but nothing that older teens won’t already hear at school. There’s also a fair amount of violence, mostly referred to rather than actively described, including beatings, shootings and domestic abuse. While I’m sure this book has great value to those living in similar communities, I can’t speak from that experience. What I can say is that this is a very worthwhile read for those not in these communities. Mr 16 found it interesting, challenging and eye-opening. We had resultant conversations about gun ownership in the US and the level of violence that exists in some areas.

I’m not sure how many schools will take this book on as recommended reading for teenagers but they definitely should consider it.

Monday, May 20, 2019

Growing in Gratitude

Growing in Gratitude, Mary K. Mohler 

How thankful are you? As you progress in the faith are you growing in gratitude? Mary Mohler wants to encourage Christian women to consider whether their faith in God results in overflowing thanksgiving, for it certainly should.
“Wouldn’t it be wonderful if gratitude was one of the first things that comes to mind when people think about believers in Jesus Christ... The world should be struck by how grateful we are for the gifts we wholeheartedly believe we possess from God alone.”

Mohler introduces us to two types of gratitude:

  • Natural gratitude: thankfulness for blessing received, for good gifts. This is often the reaction to good news, or a near miss, ‘Thank God!’ There is no real foundation for this thanks.
  • Gracious gratitude: thankfulness to God himself, for who he is. This focuses on praising God for his character and love, and that we can be in a relationship with him.

I found this to be a very insightful point, to consider whether you only thank God for his gifts or you truly thank him for who he is, that being one of the marks of true Christian gratitude. It has struck me as I consider some of the things we thank God for when we say grace before meals.

Over four chapters she then covers four life circumstances with hindrances to gratitude: a burden for the lost, busyness, discontent over circumstance or suffering, and doubt. All are good starting points for each topic, but I really felt each was a bit light, considering the subject matter. I did appreciate her dealing with our burden for the lost upfront, it’s not something that would always be mentioned in this context.

Mohler then turns to how we can thank God for the challenges of life as well as the blessings. Using the language of thorns, echoing Paul talking about the thorn that plagued him, she gives ten ways we can thank God for challenges. These are really helpful for they encourage us to see beyond our current situation and to what God might doing through it, through biblical promises. So we can thank God that whether or not we escape this affliction, our life is hidden with Christ in God, he will not leave or forsake us. We can thank God for the lesson we are learning, that God promises it will not overwhelm us, that it may encourage others, and so on.

The final chapter gives some practical ideas for thankfulness and encouraging others, including expressing thanks to your family members, general courtesy, teaching children to be thankful, and taking the time to communicate with people through written notes and proper thank you cards. Finishing essentially with letter writing seemed an odd place to end, and while she is correct at many levels (and I agree about the lack of effort people make with thank you cards, for mass produced cards are not a proper thank you), I found myself wondering, really, this is where you want to leave it?

Her concluding comments did bring it back to Christ again,
“As we grow in maturity in the grace and knowledge of our Lord Jesus, we will discover new reasons to praising even as we find new ways to thank God for characteristics he has held since eternity past.”
This is a short, primer book which starts the reader on the path of gratitude. It is by no means extensive, but it is a very helpful beginning point. Her biblical referencing points us to to God and Christ and the wonderful reasons we have to be thankful. She raises hindrances to gratitude honestly and carefully, and encourages us to think about our own gratitude, and why it may not be so strong at times. All in all, an encouraging little book for those that long to rediscover the joy of a thankful heart.

Monday, May 13, 2019

Temeraire

Temeraire, Naomi Novik 

After having enjoyed Spinning Silver and Uprooted, I then turned to Naomi Novik’s established nine book series, Temeraire.

It opens with English naval captain, Laurence, taking control of a French vessel in the Napoleonic Wars. The French have fought admirably, and it soon becomes clear why - they are in possession of a rare dragon egg intended for the Emperor.

Dragons are highly valued by by both countries, as they are used in the Air Command to control the skies of battle. The egg is about to hatch and all attention is focussed on it, for a dragon must be harnessed upon hatching or it will run wild. The value of dragons for England is so high, there is no question of not attempting the harness; yet for the person from whom the dragon accepts the harness, it means loss of all previous livelihood and a requirement to enter the Dragon Corps, a rough and undervalued legion of the armed forces.

When the dragonet hatches it’s eyes meet Lawrence’s and he speaks to him, forming an instant bond. Lawrence is initially horrified and distraught, for all plans of continuing in the navy are now dashed and he must make his way to join the Corps.

Yet it very quickly becomes apparent that Temeraire is no ordinary dragon. He is very quick to learn, understand and reason. His high level of language ability and relational skills mean a strong and permanent bond quickly forms between him and Lawrence.

As he moves to the training school and gets to know other captains and their dragons, it seems the rumours about these men are false, and these are good, honest men who truly love the dragons in their care.

The book charts their Lawrence and Temeraire’s friendship as well as those around them, as they train and prepare for a major battle against Napoleon.

It’s a great idea, introducing the concept of dragons into a world we are already familiar with and into a time of history that is already well documented. I have commented before (The Rain Wild Chronicles) on Robin Hobb’s books that I find the regular writing about dragons fascinating - why do they occupy such thought in human minds? In fact, these books would be enjoyed by anyone who has also enjoyed Hobb’s series. There are some strong similarities between them and there is an ‘old-fashioned’ style to both, that is: no bad language, really only allusions to sex, and the violence is all in acts of war. As such, they would be perfectly suitable to younger readers too (aged 14+) who enjoyed some old fashioned warfare ideas with a mythical element woven in. In fact the writing even feels like it was written at the time it is set, and there are strong elements of honour, valour and doing the right thing, even at great personal cost.

Later books include travel to China and amazement about the different dragons there. There are ongoing skirmishes with France in warfare, and travels throughout Africa, Australia and South America. As time goes on, Temeraire increasingly wants to fight for the rights of dragons, and there are parallels to the push to end slavery which is being championed at the same time by Wilberforce.

I really enjoyed this series, and each book captured my attention in different ways. Sometimes the battle scenes or warfare were extended, and at times the political implications were a little harder to grasp, but overall it is a wonderfully interesting and creative tale about the bond between Laurence and Temeraire and the choices they made as they fought for their country.

Friday, May 10, 2019

I Can Only Imagine

I Can Only Imagine

This movie tells the story behind the #1 single by Christian rock band, MercyMe. For those that know the song, you are already aware it talks about what it might be like when we meet Jesus in heaven:
Surrounded by Your glory
What will my heart feel?
Will I dance for You, Jesus
Or in awe of You be still?
Will I stand in Your presence
Or to my knees will I fall?
Will I sing hallelujah?
Will I be able to speak at all?
I can only imagine
I can only imagine
It’s a song that has resonated with many believers as they try to grasp what heaven may be like. Written by lead singer Bart Millard, apparently the song lyrics were written in about 10 minutes, but not surprisingly, there is a life of experience behind them.

At this point, if you want to just watch the movie for what it is, don’t read any further (I had no idea going in what it would be about). But if you want the same amount of information you would get if you read any other review online, here goes.

Millard had a very difficult childhood with his abusive father. His mother left when he was about 13 and it seems the only thing that held Millard together was his faith, having been part of youth camps and church. He left home as soon as he possibly could, joining with other musicians to create band MercyMe. His father however, is being challenged by his own life and is seeking redemption from Christ and his son. When he is diagnosed with terminal cancer, he and Bart are forced to confront the past and figure out their future.

It’s a very powerful movie, obviously with strong themes. Anyone with a history of domestic abuse should be warned that there could be triggers in this movie. Having said that, it is not shown too overtly (although it is present), and as such, we watched it as a family. While it was serious subject matter, and not a topic we have viewed on the screen as a family before, the representation of it was suitable for Miss 11.5 and up, with Miss 14 and Mr 16 grasping even more.

In the end, it’s a movie of great hope, with a marvellous reminder that God’s amazing grace is available for all who will receive it, and change in this life is truly possible for those that seek it.

Monday, May 6, 2019

Homes

Homes, Abu Bakr al Rabeeah with Winnie Yeung

Homes: A Refugee Story is written by now 18-year-old Abu Bakr al Rabeeah, with the assistance of his teacher Winnie Yeung, charting his childhood as a refugee. Born in Iraq in 2001, his memories of his homeland are happy:
“My childhood in Iraq was a sweet one. There was laughter and joy: rich, just like the syrupy knafa cheese pastries I loved so much. And my red bike… That’s what life was: friends and soccer.” 
Abu Bakr’s father’s family was Shi’a, but he raised his own family as Sunni, and “where we lived the divisions between the two denominations of Islam hung heavy in the air...He couldn’t ward off the disapproving grumbles of his own family; instead, he taught us to meet those painful arrows with love and acceptance, to leave it in God’s hands.”

When the neighbours started finding bullets taped to their front door, threats of beheading came to extended family, and finally a death threat that named Abu Bakr arrived on the doorstep, his father decided it was time to leave and they moved to Homs in Syria. Syria was an interim step assuming things were likely to get worse and the family applied for refugee status, and then opened a bakery in Homs.

The next four years were spent in Syria as things slowly unravelled. The family were there for massacres, bombings and multiple shootings:
“That’s how it was in Syria: when we heard an explosion, we ran towards the chaos. Often the police and ambulance was late arriving, if they arrived at all, so we took care of each other. After every explosion, streets were clotted with civilians doing whatever they could to help, binding wounds, driving the worst cases to hospital.”
“When most people hear massacre, they picture body bags and blood. But this is what massacres felt like for me: the tense, stale air of a bedroom with too many breathing bodies in it. Finding quiet ways to pass the frightful hours, trying your best to block the sounds from flooding your brain.”
The times of violence are intertwined with daily life: school soccer, video frames, mosque and family.  Cousins played FIFA 13 and Grand Theft Auto and texted regularly. There was a time he collected the bullet casings he found on the street. When his father found out he said “Do you know what this casing means? It means someone shot a gun. They shot at another person. That bullet might have hurt someone, or killed someone... I don’t want you playing with the anymore. I don’t want any of these in our home, in the bakery. This is not who we are.”

There is an honesty as he came to terms with what was around him:
“The sad truth was, you could not live in Syria and have a clean heart. How could you, when you live in a place where you’re randomly shot at and car bombs explode outside your home? I wanted my heart to be pure, but already I hated people and I hated parts of my life. Sometime I even hated my family. I questioned my faith and my religion.”
“Knowledge that we never really wanted to know filtered into our lives. Our ears could pick the out the differences between mortars, Grad rockets, and car bombs. We could tell the high notes of the metallic smell of fresh blood on the streets from the low reek of a corpse waiting for days to be found in the rubble… We became sensitive gazelles, always stopping to scan and listen. It wasn’t a conscious choice – it simply became part of our walking and being.”
In 2014, the family’s refugee status was approved and the UN arranged their resettlement in Canada. Their travel, new schools and language learning are described as the family tried to make a new home:
“Even though Father was doing his best to hold us together, we were each so wrapped in our own kinds of loneliness that we got used to our little islands of grief… It was a relief to be in a place free of the shabiha and snipers, but none of us had ever imagined the solitude we would face. We had traded the raucous, tearing war for a suffocating, quiet safety. No one could tell which was better, which was worse. It was both and neither.”
In Year 9, Ms Yeung is his ESL teacher, and having started to grow in his English language confidence, she asks him, “what is your secret wish?” After admitting it is to be a soccer player, he then confides, remembering “my friends, the soccer games, the bombs, my cousins who are my brothers. How they told me to never forget. I realize I carry Syria in my heart. I’m not sure if I’m ready to do this yet but I decide to trust and so, softy, I tell Ms. Yeung, “I want to share my story.””

This is an honest, raw, short, heart-warming account from the perspective of a boy growing up in a war-torn nation. As such, at times it was simpler than I was expecting when I started. Upon reflection though, he has provided just what we need to know – what life is like for children in these regions. For those of us (and our children) who have absolutely no understanding of what it would be like to live in a place like Syria, it is still a childhood we recognise, but through a very different lens of experience. He has written with a pervasive hope and optimism despite the situation, and portrays his own faith in a positive, tolerant way. I highly recommend this for young teens right up to adults, and I imagine it will soon be placed on many high school reading lists.

Monday, April 29, 2019

The Scarlet Thread

The Scarlet Thread, Francine Rivers

In this book, Rivers weaves together two accounts. First, set in modern times, is the account of Sierra and her husband Alex. Brought together as childhood sweethearts they have now been married 13 years with two children. Alex has taken a job without her knowledge and decided to move the family to Los Angeles. Sierra is unwilling, negative and complains constantly. Her mother, a faithful Christian, tries to encourage her along the way but Sierra’s discontent is persistent. As Alex’s job takes off with much more money and a whole new range of friends, it is clear their lives are taking different paths.

Woven throughout are the writings of Mary Kathryn McMurray, one of the family’s ancestors. It starts with her childhood learning entries as her mother taught her, and moves to a journal as she records her life losing parents and siblings, marrying, having her own children, and setting out across America headed to the west in 1847.

Rivers has done a good job of having two stories with similarities but that are different enough to be interesting. Both women were very negative towards God and did not think that he loved them. Over time their hearts were changed, but it took tough circumstances to refine them. Mary‘s accounts show what life was really like in those early days as pioneers moved across the country: there were hardships, death and uncertainty. While Sierra does not face life-threatening situations, her struggles as she and Alex move apart, and as she comes to re-commit her life to the Lord, echo elements of Mary’s life.

It was an encouraging read and one that brought home the cost of following Jesus and discovering what forgiveness really means, yet also seeing the great joy and delight he brings in all aspects of life. Both women learnt to trust in God in all situations and to truly see that in all things he was working for good. Both had godly older women in their youth who encouraged them and taught them the truth which bore fruit in later years. There is an encouragement in reading books like this: they strengthen your faith, challenge your own convictions and remind us of what truly matters.

Friday, April 26, 2019

The Librarian of Auschwitz

The Librarian of Auschwitz, Antonio Iturbe

It’s very hard to summarise this book, the simplest I have is: harrowing, yet hopeful. Iturbe has written a story based on the account of Dita Kraus, a fourteen-year-old girl who operated the library at Auschwitz Concentration Camp. As he says, “The bricks used to construct this story are facts, and they are held together in these pages with a mortar of fiction”.

Block 31 in the family camp in Auschwitz is unusual: the Nazis have agreed to allow children to gather in one place to play. What they don’t realise is that some enterprising adults, led by Freddy Hirsch, have surreptitiously started a school: “Each time someone stops to tell a story and children listen a school has been established”. Books are forbidden in the camp, because:
“Throughout history, all dictators, tyrants, and oppressors, whatever their ideology … have had one thing in common: the vicious persecution of the written word. Books are extremely dangerous; they make people think.”
Yet eight small volumes have surreptitiously made their way into Freddy’s hands, including A Short History of the World (H.G. Wells), A Russian Grammar, an atlas, and a Basic Treatise on Geometry. He gives Dita the responsibility of caring for them and hiding them from Nazi eyes:
“Dita caressed the books. They were broken and scratched, worn, with reddish patches of mildew; some were mutilated. But without them, the wisdom of centuries of civilizations might be lost … She would protect them with her life.”
They also have a few ‘living books’: adults who remember certain stories well enough to tell them to the children.

All residents of the family camp know they are part of some experiment, with a decision to be made about them in six months’ time, but no one knows what might be coming. Resident SS medical office, Dr Mengele, also known as Dr Death, may be wanting to use them in his terrifying experiments, or perhaps it is all part of the propaganda machine of the war.

Included are flashbacks of Dita’s earlier years and family life in Austria. There are moments of humanity as people care for one another and grieve their loved ones. There is also the horror of disease and permanent death, the threat of starvation, the choices people must make to stay alive and the sad reality of what some people must do to take care of themselves. There are awful descriptions of death by gas chamber, piles of bodies being thrown in mass open graves, and chilling accounts of what happens in experiments.

There are chilling matter of fact statements like: “during the night of March 8, 1944, 3.792 prisoner from the family camp BIIb were gassed and then incinerated in Crematorium 111 or Auschwitz-Birkenau.” Following this horrendous night, the remaining prisoners find a “black snowfall the likes of which has never been seen before” as the ashes of their friends and family members fall upon them: ‘“It’s our friends … They’ve come back”. They’ll never leave Auschwitz again.’

There is the recognition of humanity:
“If you look more carefully, all you can see is people, nothing more. Fragile, corruptible people. Capable of the best and the worst.”
This is highly recommended reading, while acknowledging it is also disturbing and confronting. I realise there are elements of fiction here, but there are also major aspects of fact, and it’s one way to be reminded of what happened in WWII to millions of people. As there is a continued rise in nationalism in many countries today, we need to remember what can happen when extreme versions take over: a truly horrific reality that many lived through, and even more died from.

Monday, April 22, 2019

Spinning Silver

Spinning Silver, Naomi Novik

This release by Naomi Novik is another fairytale style story (based on the tale of Rumpelstiltskin).

Miryem is the daughter of a Jewish moneylender, whose father is so kind, nobody actually ever repays. When her mother falls ill, she realises they need warmth and food and so she heads out to collect debts. It turns out she is very good at it and it appears to many that she can turn silver into gold. The Staryk king, whose realm creates winter, asks her to turn his silver into gold upon threat of death for failure, but marriage for success. With no real choice, she does what he requests.

At the same time peasant girl Wanda ends up working for Miryem’s family to pay off her own father’s debt. He is a nasty drunk who hits his children, so she and her brothers Sergey and Stepon come to know and love Miryem’s family and their kindness.

In town, Irina, the daughter of the duke, benefits form Miryem’s silver changing as she receives the amazing jewellery made from Staryk silver in an attempt to buy her marriage to the Tsar. Her magic means she can also access the Staryk world, escaping her husband who is possessed by a demon.

It all sounds a bit complicated, but it’s engaging to read as the story develops. The parts that deal with the political intrigues of some kingdoms are a little less interesting, but otherwise, each of the three women have various moral dilemmas to work through as their relationships and lives change.

The whole story is written in the first person, but changes the perspective and there are at least six characters that you hear from: Miryem, Wanda, Irina, the Tsar, Stepon and Irina’s nurse.

I probably preferred Uprooted, but I still enjoyed reading this one. I have have since turned to Novik's other writing as well.

Friday, April 19, 2019

The Rosie Result

The Rosie Result, Graeme Simsion

The third and final instalment of the very popular novel The Rosie Project has recently been released: The Rosie Result. It’s over ten years since the events of The Rosie Effect, and Don and Rosie’s son Hudson is now 11. The family has returned to Melbourne after a decade in New York and Hudson is struggling to adjust to the changes. Don and Rosie are made aware of his struggles by the school who raise the question of whether Hudson could be autistic.

Rosie is working almost full time on a research project and Don himself has run into some trouble after being accused of racism in a genetics lecture. Don decides to take some time off work and become Hudson’s main carer. As Hudson displays many of the same characteristics as Don, Don is only too aware of the challenges he may face if unable to function in a ‘normal’ way in a school environment. He initiates the Hudson Project in an effort to teach Hudson many of the skills and social expectations required in life.

This all sounds rather serious, but just like The Rosie Project and Effect, humour is strongly present, even while serious themes are addressed.

Simsion’s characters have depth. Whether they have differing psychological views, approaches to education, or perspectives of people living with autism and the presumptions of others; he presents a balanced representation of many, with the reader left to make their own assessment, all the while taking into account Don’s telling of events. Most characters were multifaceted enough to make them realistic, even while indicating some of the complications with what they were espousing.

Obviously views and attitudes to Aspergers and autism have changed in the last 10 years or so and Simsion is also attempting to represent that. I can’t speak with any authority or personal experience in the area, but I felt his representation was both balanced and varied. There are advantages as well as challenges to having a diagnosis (or a label). The education system is continually figuring out how to manage classrooms with varying emotional and intellectual skill sets amongst the children (and teachers).

It was an enjoyable read and a very satisfying end to a well-written, insightful and cleverly crafted series.

Monday, April 15, 2019

Grace in the Shadows

Grace in the Shadows, Christine Dillon

The excellent second instalment of Dillon’s planned trilogy was published last year and picks up where Grace in Strange Disguise finished.

Esther is back at work and living with Naomi. She has continued going to a smaller, bible teaching church, attending with good friend Gina. She regularly sees her mother, although they don’t talk much at depth. She occasionally sees her father, who wants her to return to Victory church. She still longs to have gospel conversations with those around her, and many of the characters of the previous book, including her doctor and other patients, are here as well.

In a separate story line, Rachel is almost 40 and works in the cosmetics department in David Jones. Her days are centred around maintaining her fitness and appearance, as well as pleasing the current man in her life. Yet Rachel feels empty. Nothing is quite as satisfying as she feels it should be. She keeps friends at arm’s length and makes sure she is never too vulnerable with anyone. Having rejected God many years before, she is frustrated to find herself constantly coming into contact with Christians, even though they are generous and kind.

I don’t want reveal any more as it would be a spoiler for how the book develops, but there is real depth to this story. In Grace in Strange Disguise, the main truth learnt was that God does not promise a perfect, easy life. In fact, his grace is truly found through the challenges that make us rely on him alone. In this book, the main message is that God does not condemn us and there is nothing that can separate from his love, no matter how many regrets we have about the way we have lived and the choices we have made.

Dillon uses the story telling method of telling bible truths again in this book, and there are great examples for believers of how this could be used well in sharing with unbelievers who are interested.

We were graciously given this second book by a family member, and both Mr 16 and Ms 14 were very keen to read it as soon as they saw it, having so enjoyed the first one. In fact, Mr 16 grabbed it and read it the whole way home on the flight. Like the first, this one is also suitable for teenagers, and although it covers some challenging topics, it’s done in a way that is honest, but not too descriptive.

My only thought is that like the first book, this one is very female-centric. There is one positive Christian male character, but overall those who have a strong faith or who return to faith are women. My gut feeling is that this could well change in the third book, but we’ll have to wait and see!

We were all very pleased to read this second book and look forward to the third.

Friday, April 12, 2019

Bridge to Haven

Bridge to Haven, Francine Rivers

In 1936 a woman gives birth under a bridge near the river in Haven. Leaving the little one behind she flees into the early morning light. Pastor Ezekiel Freeman is out in the early dawn, as usual, praying as he walks around the town. He feels led to the river area where he discovers the newborn girl. He and his wife, with their son Joshua, foster little baby Abra for the next five years.

When his wife gets sick and dies, little Abra is given to another nearby family who really want her but Abra never gets over the sense of betrayal and lack of trust. Uncertain she is really wanted, she falls for the charm and looks of a older man, who tempts her away to Hollywood to a life of debauchery. In time she ends up with another man who tries to make her into a new woman, Lena Scott, his new creation and to be the next movie star of the 1950s stage.

At the same time, Joshua serves in the Korean army and returns to be a carpenter, always hoping and praying, with the rest of the Haven community, that Abra will be found and return found. But Abra has sunk so deep into her sins and regrets that she is convinced no one can love or forgive her.

Rivers makes it clear in her end notes that her inspiration was Ezekiel 16, and she has used some of the same imagery there, a newborn baby abandoned, who runs away from the love she has been shown to sinful living and idolatry. It was reading the end notes that helped me to appreciate a little more what she had done with the story, and lessened my sense of unease that it was female Abra who turned away from God and the love of her family, and male Joshua who was the faithful, patient, godly one trying to care for her. It felt very similar to Redeeming Love.

Rivers does not shy away from real issues, struggles with sin and the real consequences of life choices. So the story has depth and the characters were mostly believable (although possibly all a little extremely good or extremely bad). I have expressed some of my issues with Christian fiction before and this one is also a little predictable, or at least you know how the story will end, although that’s usually true for any romantic fiction. I think this is one of her better ones, the story certainly had my attention for a full day.

Monday, April 8, 2019

Lifted

Lifted: Experiencing the Resurrection Life, Sam Allberry

How often do you stop and consider what it really means for us that Jesus was resurrected from the dead? As Christians we know the resurrection occurred, we know it’s the basis for our faith, and we know it’s a story we’ll hear every year at Easter. But as Allberry says,
“if we’re honest, the resurrection is not always an easy thing to think about. We know (probably) that it matters, and that it matters a great deal. But to those who aren’t Christians it can often seem as though the resurrection lacks credibility. And among Christian believers it can often feel as though it lacks relevance. It is a belief we often affirm but rarely consider. It doesn’t seem pressing.”
I have to admit I have been the same. I personally have never doubted the facts of the resurrection, and so have probably taken them for granted. It’s become so much of the history of my faith, that I haven’t always stopped to think about what it means for our present and future life.

We know that Christ’s resurrection means his exaltation: he now lives and reigns with his Father in heaven. This short book by Sam Allberry helps us see again what Jesus’ resurrection means for us. What are the benefits to us that Christ has risen from the dead? Allberry examines four areas: assurance, transformation, hope and mission.

Starting with assurance, we see that the resurrection assures us of who Jesus is, in fact he is who he says he is. He is the son of God, he is the Christ, he is the Saviour. In addition, the resurrection assures us of what Jesus has done: his death has paid for our sin. There are very helpful comments on sin in this chapter:
“Resurrection is the consequence and demonstration of our salvation because death is the consequence and demonstration of our sin.” 
“Sin is not deciding to break the rules, it’s deciding to make the rules… sin is relational. It is trying to overthrow God.”
One comment that struck me was that even though death comes to us all and is entirely natural, it seems wrong. It is an unwelcome intruder in our world, because we all know somehow that we are not meant to face death.

Transformation means that we are now alive in Christ and dead to sin, yet we live with the reality of still being sinful. This chapter helps us to see that we have been changed by Christ’s resurrection and have been called to live a new way. There is a battle between the old way and the new way, one that we continue to fight throughout our life.

We also have a sure and certain hope through Jesus’ resurrection, a living hope based on what Christ has already done, rather than on my circumstances and prospects. Allberry spent some time in this chapter looking at the new resurrection body and what we can look forward to. Through the promises of 1 Corinthians 15 we see we will have imperishable, honourable, glorious, and supernatural bodies. In addition, there is a resurrection hope in Romans 8 promising that even creation has something to anticipate.

Finally Allberry turns to mission. He examines how Jesus is exalted and is therefore Lord. He is also judge of all the world, because he loves and cares for us all, and is given that authority by God the Father. Turning to Matthew 28, Allberry links Jesus’ resurrection with his command to go and make disciples of all nations because this is not news to be kept secret, rather it is news to be shared.

At under 150 pages, this is a concise, eminently readable book that packs a punch. There are helpful illustrations scattered throughout and he has worked hard to make it accessible for all readers. So whether you are investigating if Jesus’ resurrection could makes any difference to your life, or you are a committed believer who perhaps has gotten a little stale at Easter time, I highly recommend this book. There’s every chance you will be refreshed, renewed and encouraged to see what Christ did when he rose from the dead, and how it truly means we can have a new life with new meaning now, and the promise of something even better to come.

Friday, April 5, 2019

The Accidental Further Adventures...

The Accidental Further Adventures of the 100-year-old man, Jonas Jonasson

After having greatly enjoyed the 100-Year-Old Man Who Climbed Out the Window and Disappeared, I was excited to see a sequel has been published. Jonasson has brought the hijinks of Allan Karlsson right up to date and inserted him straight into the current political climate.

The novel opens with him and Julius in Bali, living off the proceeds found in the previous book. However, the money is fast running out and Julius is trying to establish some new business ventures, all as dodgy as those he got up to previously. Allan has been recently introduced to the idea of a tablet:
[Observing someone using one] “It was a tool of some sort. A flat back object with a half-eaten apple on one side, and on the other a screen that lit up when you touched it … The tablet could show what was going on in the world, and what had already gone on, and it it verged on showing what was about to happen. Depending on where you touched, up came pictures and videos of all imaginable sorts. And some unimaginable ones.”
Allan become fascinated with happenings around the globe and spends the bulk of his time now connected to world events in a way he has never been previously. This gives Jonasson a way to comment on how news and reporting works on the internet and the variety of stories and sources that can be found there.

A small birthday celebration in a hot air balloon for Allan’s 101st birthday goes quickly awry when they are carried off across the sea with no rescue in sight. Their flare gets the attention of the vessel Honor and Strength, returning to North Korea in possession of some enriched uranium, secreted on board via contacts in Madagascar. They are picked up by the vessel when the captain realises they have to react or international suspicions will be aroused. Allan manages to convince the captain and later Kim Jong-un that he is a nuclear expert (after all he was evolved in the creation of the atomic bomb in the 1940s) and promises to help out.

Of course, extricating themselves from such a promise with their lives intact requires some creative thought and help from the Swedish UN representative. Allan and Julius then find themselves in the USA, meeting President Trump and deciding how to manage the problem of the uranium now in their possession. In time, they move back to Europe and Angela Merkel ends up involved as well.

The silliness continues throughout, with the calm and light-headed Allan continually sorting out their troubles with little to no effort.

The first book made numerous comments about historical episodes over the last century. In this book, Jonasson is clearly wants to use current world leaders as fodder for amusement. As some world leaders at the moment are easy to satirise and use in this way, he succeeds.
“Margot Wallstrom took an extra large sip of her replenished wine to calm her nerves as she wondered what would happen if someone were to let Kim Jong-un and Benjamin Netanyahu into the same room. Monumental lack of humor and self awareness against monumental lack of humour and self-awareness. All that would be missing was Donald Trump as a mediator.” 
Obviously this book will only appeal to some; you have to be in a whimsical and mildly irreverent mood. It would also make it easy if you had little respect for the current leaders of some nations. I found myself wondering at which point libel could come into play, but presumably the clear note at the beginning that this is made up covers such things. Jonasson is certainly using fiction as a method of commenting on world politics, the mess much of it is, and the questionable decisions and character of national leaders. I did enjoy the humour and the spin he put on things, and at the same time was obviously aware of the message he was trying to get though.

Monday, April 1, 2019

Uprooted

Uprooted, Naomi Novik  

A friend at church recommended Novik’s books and when I saw they were also endorsed by Robin Hobb, I was even more keen to try them. Uprooted is a magic fairytale style story about a woman who is chosen to live alongside the Dragon (a wizard). Every 10 years the Dragon chooses a new woman to live in his castle, and not surprisingly rumours abound about what she is there for. All their lives Agnieszka and Kasia have been deep friends, even knowing that Kasia is likely to be chosen and taken away.

They live on the edge of the dark and menacing Wood, which malevolently grows wider each year, taking life and destroying lives with violent force.

When the day of the choosing comes, surprise abounds as gorgeous, talented Kasia is not chosen, but plain, dull, always getting into scrapes, Agnieszka is.

The Dragon turns out to be very different from rumour, as he alone seems to be stopping the Wood fully taking over the whole region. His spells and magic have kept things under control for hundreds of years. Now Agnieszka is drawn into his world.

The magic is creative and interesting, and the characters have depth and intrigue. The overall plot deals with pride, desire, and the results of previous errors and sin. There is enough magic and fantasy to interest fans of that genre, but with enough similarity to the knights and kings old English type of story to appeal to fans of historical fiction/legend. Both human folly and wisdom are displayed, making it a clever, captivating, insightful story. There is one mild love scene, and it would be suitable for young adults and up. Very good.

Friday, March 29, 2019

And the Shofar Blew

And the Shofar Blew, Francine Rivers

In this book Rivers tackles the risks and pitfalls of ministry. Paul Hudson is a keen young pastor, excited about preaching the word of God and bringing people to saving faith. Recently graduated from bible college, with his wife Eunice and infant son Timothy, he is called by the small and dying congregation at Centreville Christian Church to replace their beloved ill pastor who has faithfully served for over 40 years.

Paul and Eunice are thrilled and after prayer and consideration take up the post moving across the country.

Things are great in the beginning: Paul builds a youth group, takes time to get to know locals and preaches faithfully. Eunice joyfully leads the singing with her extensive music gifts and meets with elderly congregation members.

Paul, however, is driven to succeed and to prove himself to his father who runs a mega church, who had no time for Paul when he was younger, and is never pleased with him no matter what he does.

In time, Paul starts chafing against the older elders he has inherited and their grumbles about the way he is changing things. These are faithful godly men, somewhat set in their ways, but also prayerful and wise. Paul feels constantly questioned and challenged, they feel unheard and ignored.

In time, the desire for a large church and a larger building mean that Paul has to cut things people no longer want to hear. The gospel becomes watered down. Big donors are chased regardless of their belief. New elders are appointed without ensuring they are truly men of faith.

Meanwhile, Eunice is faithfully standing by her husband, but increasingly concerned about his change of direction and behaviour. Once he had time for his family, but now they always come last. He counsels everyone in his congregation with love and patience except his wife and son, with whom he is abrupt and harsh.

Some of the most encouraging characters are the elder Samuel and his wife Abby. Married about 60 years they encourage each other to godly living and prayer, and also have fun together. Samuel prays constantly for Paul over the whole 15 years, first with eager joy and expectation, then with disappointment and later pleading with God to change him and bring him to repentance. This example of long term prayer in the face of changing circumstances, but a reliance on a sovereign God is very edifying.

Being a minister’s wife myself, I found Eunice an interesting character. Paul stops listening to her opinion, and changes her involvement at church. She is aware of the damage he is causing to their son. While she maintains her own faith and devotion, she struggles with whether to speak up about what Paul is doing, whether as the minister’s wife it is her role to do so, and if anyone would really hear her. Her mother in law, Lois (note the numerous name echoes of biblical characters throughout this book) tells her: “When you live with a faithless man, you learn to lean on a faithful God.” Eunice knows the damage that revealing Paul’s sin would do to the church, and so she battles with how to manage.

In many ways, it’s a depressing account of a ministry skewered in a faithless direction. Sadly what is portrayed here reflects some people’s reality. Yet, it is still a story of God’s faithfulness despite our faithlessness, and a reminder to all that no one in ministry is exempt from sin or temptation. Both challenging and encouraging at the same time.

Monday, March 25, 2019

Parenting First Aid

Parenting First Aid, Marty Machowski

One day every parent will need to read this type of book. It may be when your child leaves home in anger. Perhaps it will be when they are caught for drug use. It might be when your child is the church kid found stealing beer from friend’s garages. Perhaps when worry and anxiety have gotten the better of you. Or when you start to wonder if God really is sovereign and good when it comes to your child and their salvation. With the subtitle being: Hope for the Discouraged, Machowski enters where many other parenting books leave off: what do you do when things get hard? Are you going to turn to God or are you going to try your own strength? Are you going to trust him and his good plans, or reject them when things seem to be falling apart?
“I’ve written Parenting First Aid as a wartime medical kit for parents in the thick of the battle... The goal is to encourage your soul with the Scriptures, to help you gain strength to trust in a God who can capture the heart of the most rebellious son or daughter, and to help you through the most heart-rending parenting situations.”
Machowski writes from his own experience, and that of others, in realising that parenting was not quite as simple as he thought it would be:
“How difficult could parenting be? I planned to simply drive the foolishness from my children with consistent, loving discipline. I firmly believed the Bible verse that promised that if I simply trained my children up in the way they should go, they would not depart from it.”
What he came to realise is that:
[no book or method could] “prepare us for the trials God had planned for us to go through. God wasn’t just after the hearts of our children; he was after our hearts too.”
Rather than another parenting manual which gives advice and suggestions for how to do things better, Machowski has written a devotional. Each of the 20 themed chapters is anchored in a section of the bible, which is expanded in three parts, and finishes with a personal story. Each part raises questions to consider and things to pray about. For parents who take the time to dwell over them, it could become a way to read the bible over a few months as you consider God’s promises and live in light of his grace, mercy and patience. His goal is to drive parents to scripture and prayer through all stages of parenting, especially in the challenges. Parents who are looking for a list of dos and don’ts may not be interested, but they will miss out on a chance to soak themselves in God’s promises and care throughout this stage of life.

It was clear the stories at the end of every chapter were included to be an encouragement about how God can work for good in every circumstance. There were a few times though that I found them a little too neat. So I was relieved to read these words at the end:
“I’ve written the real-life accounts at the end of each chapter to encourage parents with stories of hope and rescue, they are only snapshots into lives of real people who continue to struggle and endure… There are other stories I have not included in this book—ongoing tales of sorrow and heartbreak that God has yet to resolve. I know parents whose children have not yet returned home and remain prodigals. There are parents whose children claim a relationship with Christ but are living for the treasures of this world. Still other parents are estranged from their children and are fervently praying for a restored relationship. In short, this world we live in is broken. Our hope is not in this life, but in a life yet to come. If God has not yet answered your prayers, do not give up. There is no hope in giving up, but there is great hope in trusting God for the salvation of our children and the restoration of our relationship with them.”
This book is suitable for any parent at any stage, including single parents and parents of adult children. There is no assumption in this book that life is neat and ordered for anyone, but that we are all fallen and need grace. If you’re struggling as a parent, there is much in here to remind you of the truths you already know but perhaps may have forgotten: God is sovereign, he loves your children, and he is working for good both in your heart and theirs.

I received an e-copy of this book from New Growth Press in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, March 22, 2019

Mansfield Park

Mansfield Park, Jane Austen

While I did see the movie of this some years ago and really enjoyed it, I don’t think I have ever read the book. As per usual, its better than the movie adaptation, with a lot more detail and depth to characters. In addition, a movie always adds levels of interpretation that aren’t in the original text, which I realised after reading it.

Young Miss Fanny Price is one of nine children born to her poor parents at Portsmouth. The mother has two sisters who married much better, one is now Lady of Mansfield Park (Lady Bertram) and the other is wife of the local rector (Mrs Norris). It strikes these two families that perhaps they should do something to support their dear sister, so an offer is made to take on one of her children and bring them up at Mansfield. Poor Miss Price, at age 10, is chosen, and uprooted from the only family she has known and transported to Mansfield. Being a shy, sensitive creature, she struggles with terrible homesickness, and the family are a little indifferent to her struggles. Sir Thomas seems severe, Lady Bertram kind but vague and disinterested, Aunt Norris is mean, eldest son Tom indifferent, and sisters Maria and Julia are proud and dismissive.

About Julia and Maria who are constantly told they are wonderful and superior to Fanny by their Aunt Norris: “It is not very wonderful that, with all their promising talents and early information, they should be entirely deficient in the less common acquirements of self knowledge, generosity and humility.”

Only the son Edmund is kind and considerate and a close friendship forms between them.

Fast forward seven years and siblings Mr and Miss Crawford come to the area. They are fun, modern and keen to ingratiate themselves into the household at Mansfield. As the uncle is away in Antigua on business, the youngsters are pretty much left to their own devices and a fair amount of mischief is achieved. Mr Crawford flirts openly with both Julia and Maria, notwithstanding Maria’s engagement to Mr Rushford. They convince the group to put on a play called ‘Lovers Vows’, immediately known to Edmund and Fanny to be highly inappropriate, yet even Edmund decides to allay his scruples by acting in it, partly as a concession to Miss Crawford.

Fanny looks on with increasing agitation as Edmund develops clear feelings for Miss Crawford, while Mr Crawford plays with the hearts of the girls. It is not always clear exactly what is going on with the Crawfords, sometimes they seem to be using the family as sport, other times their friendship and affections seem genuine. Fanny is the only one never taken in by it all (again different in the movie version I saw).

Austen makes some very insightful observations about people and circumstances in this book, which I enjoyed, about topics such as parenting, clergy and society, many of which are still valid today. An enjoyable read.

Monday, March 18, 2019

Tying Their Shoes

43986797Tying Their Shoes, Rob and Stephanie Green

How do you prepare when a baby is on the way? Where do you turn to consider the issues and questions that face a new parent? Husband and I have the privilege of having some couples around for a chat before their first child arrives, usually those we have also helped prepare for marriage. We cover various topics, including your identity as mum and dad, your relationship with God, your relationship with each other and some practical things to consider. In the years we have been doing so, there has only been one book I have found that covers similar ground (Expectant Parents).

For while there are numerous books covering every aspect and stage of parenting, there are less written about preparing for parenthood. Not pregnancy and birth (many exist on that topic as well!), but rather what it means to be a parent and how to think proactively, biblically and Christianly about entering this new stage of life.

Rob and Stephanie Green (authors of Tying the Knot) have sought to redress that and have published a scripturally saturated guide for impending parents. They cover a mix of theological concepts, principles and practical application in a relatively short book that will give expecting couples insight, wisdom, things to ponder and decisions to make going forward.

I say couples intentionally, and even more specifically, I mean committed Christian couples. While they mention it can be applied to single parents, and there is an explanation of the gospel at the back, I would only recommend this to Christian couples. I totally agree that we want to aim high with the application of biblical principles in life and parenting, however I suspect some may feel burdened at the expectation of spiritual maturity suggested. The exercises particularly assume a level of regular prayer and biblical literacy that some may not be comfortable with. I am not suggesting that is a problem by any means; if anything it models a goal to aim for.

Yet, often unfortunately, parenting is a time of comparison where people question their ability. I would be disappointed if a book designed to encourage and exhort, ended up making couples feel discouraged about their partner’s or their own lack of scriptural knowledge, application or prayerfulness.

Having said that, there is solid wisdom found within these pages, all addressing aspects of pregnancy, birth and the early years of parenting, and much for couples to benefit from if they are keen to do it together.

Starting with the idea of identity, they remind impending parents that being a parent does not change your core identity, because first and foremost you are a child of God, redeemed and forgiven. They encourage couples to prioritise their marriage, to the extent that if they think they need to address certain issues they should stop reading this book and get help first. This is not advice you usually read in a book, but it’s wisely given and couples in that situation would do well to heed it.

They push against the idea that we can have birth situations that fit a pre-planned mould, which is wonderful advice for all those awaiting the arrival of a little one:
“As new moms prepare for their own experience in labor and delivery, comparison and judgement are easy. Women have many choices to make for birth: natural of epidural, MD or midwife, hospital or home, bed or water. There are many different options from which to choose, and no option is more godly than another.”
There are practical things to consider, such as what equipment you might actually need, framed around the idea of contentment and stewarding resources well. They talk about sex and how both parents might consider how to love one another in the early months, there is encouragement to dads to lead and be active in all areas of parenting, and a warning about becoming entitled thinking we deserve ‘me time’ or a break from parenting.

Parents are encouraged to think about what the goals of parenting actually are, and they frame it as glorifying God by encouraging children to love and worship God above all else. They expand this to be by: declaring God’s praises, teaching the truths of scripture, and disciplining without provoking.

I particularly appreciated the chapter on the blessing of parenting, identifying that every child is an image bearer of God, the Lord created each child the way they are, and God gives every child their gifts, abilities and limitations. They consider the blessings of infancy, toddlers and the early school years, and then then some of the blessings and realities of parenting children with physical and mental challenges.

A resource like this provides solid input for couples to discuss together. While there are some examples throughout, the real value is found in the principles given, which each couple will then need to figure out how to apply to their own situation.

Recommended reading for those looking forward to impending parenthood.

I received an e-copy of this book from New Growth Press in exchange for an honest review.

Friday, March 15, 2019

Nancy Mitford

I decided to try Nancy Mitford after having heard vague references to her for years, most recently in my reread of The Uncommon Reader. She wrote in the 1940s-50s and while I don’t know anything about her, a brief search has suggested she is a well known British author who both delights and annoys readers depending on their bent.

I suspect that at the time her writings were quite daring*. The Pursuit of Love is mainly about a woman’s search for affection and love through numerous husbands and relationships. Spanning the late 1920s through to WWII, it charts the lives of the Radlett family told through the narrative voice of their niece, Fanny. Harsh Uncle Matthew presides over Alconleigh with his vague, gentle wife Sadie and their numerous children. Fanny has been raised by her Aunt Emily, but spends holidays with the Radletts. Her own parents have been not been on the scene, her mother moving from man to man and hence called Bolter by the rest of the family. The first half of the book charts their life and history to her twenties and then gives the story of the various relationships Linda, Fanny’s cousin, embarks on.

It’s a meandering read, at many times there is no clear idea where the story is going, it just seems to be a string of various accounts of family life. It also requires some ability to read French, or in my case, to use google translate while reading the iBook (much easier!) At the same time, it is engaging and eminently readable, with funny anecdotes and descriptions showing Mitford’s skill with words and expression. I enjoyed my time in it.


Next was Love in a Cold Climate, still narrated by Fanny with the same cast of Radletts hanging around, and her aunt Emily and Uncle Davey. Part 1 centres on Polly Hampton, only beloved child of Lord and Lady Montdore, one of the richest families in England. Polly is a close friend of Fanny’s, and they spent their later teen years often together. This book had some details of how Fanny met her husband Alfred, but really the details here are about Polly, who shows no interest in love at all to the despair of her mother. Until, horror of horrors, as soon her aunt is dead and buried, she reveals an enduring love for her uncle Boy Dougdale. The final section of this makes for odd reading as up to this point Boy has been dismissed as the Lecherous Lecturer by the Radlett children, his being known for being quite ‘handsy’ with young girls over the years. This is flippantly dismissed as a bit of a joke throughout the book, but in our current climate adds a definite feeling of distaste and unease that one assumes was not intended by the author. In Part 2 the Montdores have found the new heir, Cedric, a distant family member, who they feared would be a provincial hick from Canada, but is in fact a stylish, gay man from Paris, who completely turns their lives upside down. The story gets even odder from this point.

What was surprising was how quickly each novel finished. They both meandered for hundreds of pages and then ended quickly and abruptly almost as if she got sick of writing them. There is no doubt that Mitford wrote quite devastating critiques of English aristocracy, and her turn of phrase, all through the narrator Fanny, is light, cheerful, gossipy and interesting. At the same time, while it very readable and I was keen to see how it played out, it wasn’t as enjoyable for me as The Pursuit of Love.


*or as I am beginning to suspect, as my literary education on English writers in high school was mainly limited to Shakespeare, Chaucer, Austen and a few others, I really don’t grasp the range of what is out there.

Monday, March 11, 2019

The Library Book

The Library Book, Susan Orlean

“Worldwide, there are 320,000 public libraries serving hundreds of millions of people in every country on the planet.” Susan Orlean has written an ode to those libraries with an account focussing on Los Angeles Library. Orlean remembers a childhood spent with her mother at the local library:
“On the ride home, my mom and I talked about the order in which we were going to read our books and how long until they had to be returned, a solemn conversation in which we decided how to pace ourselves through this charmed, evanescent period of grace until our book were due.”
After years away (spent purchasing rather than borrowing books), she rediscovered the joy of the library with her young son, and realised that much is the same in libraries as it ever was.
“It wasn’t that time stopped in the library. It was as if it were captured here, collected here, and in all libraries – and not only my time, my life, but all human time as well. In the library, time is dammed up – not just stopped but saved. The library is a gathering pool of narratives and of the people who come to find them. It is where we can glimpse immortality; in the library, we can live forever.”
Yet, libraries have also changed vastly, dealing with digitisation, and becoming of one of the last free, safe public spaces available to all people, which now often provide children’s story time, ESL classes, genealogical services, assistance with government support and help for the homeless.
“The publicness of the public library is an increasingly rare commodity. It becomes harder all the time to think of places that welcome everyone and don’t charge any money for that warm embrace... One of the few places homeless people are welcomed, given access to computers and the Internet, and permitted to dally all day (unless they act out) is a public library. Libraries have become a de facto community centre for the homeless across the globe. There is not a library in the world that hasn’t grappled with it issue of how – and how much – to provide for the homeless. Many librarians have told me they considered this the defining question facing libraries right now...”
By focussing on Los Angeles library she deals with the major fire that damaged almost 1 million books and items in April 1986. So there are many details about how the fire spread, the damage done and the investigations that followed. One man in particular, Harry Peak, was always a suspect, but never convicted. It was interesting to read about a major fire and loss that I never heard about (we were even living in the USA at the time) partly because it was overshadowed by the Chernobyl disaster.

Woven throughout is the history of the library to date, from its humble beginnings, moving around various buildings and finally the construct of the landmark building it is today. She introduces us to the various librarians who have held the post with their quirks and foibles, and gives the reader an insight into the massively complex job it is to now run a major library network in a modern city,

She also talks about the role of books in general, and since this is a book about massive damage to a library, also considers what war and a decision to burn books does to the public record and says about the values of a people.
“Taking books away from our culture is to take away its shared memory. It’s like taking away the ability to remember your dreams. Destroying our cultures books is sentencing it to something worse than death: It is sentencing it to seem as if it never lived.”
Obviously I love books, love reading and love our library system. Not only do I love the actual books I get from it, we also borrow numerous DVDs, and every single book I read on long service leave (including this one) was a digital loan on an iPad, administered by our local library. I am getting to know our librarians personally and expressed my concern to them recently that a new automated borrowing system would not affect their employment. They assured me they have plenty to do elsewhere!

An interesting and insightful read about libraries and books, and the place they hold in our society.