Monday, February 26, 2018

The Alice Network

The Alice Network, Kate Quinn

Kate Quinn’s writing has grabbed my attention again with The Alice Network covering the lives of women over two world wars.

Evelyn is a spy recruited by Britain to work in German-occupied Lille, France in 1915. She combines forces with other women including Lili and Violette, all key players ensuring that gathered information makes it back to their superiors. Eve is willing to do whatever it takes for the war effort, putting her body and life on the line.

The concurrent story line has Charlie St Clair searching for her cousin, whereabouts unknown since the end of WWII. A vague report on her last known details was signed off by Evelyn, and Charlie sets out to confront her to determine more details. As their stories unfold, they find increasing links to people of their past.

Because Eve is introduced very early on as having extensive hand injuries that were purposefully inflicted, there's a tension over the whole book as you wait for the inevitable to happen. And while the scene is indeed unpleasant, I had probably built it up more in my head in expectation.

The resolution when it comes is quick and not quite what I expected. It has made me reflect on the difference in denouement when a story is based around revenge or when redemption is the key theme.

I do prefer it when themes of redemption and forgiveness break through. I don’t expect it from authors, but in the end, resolution through revenge is rarely as satisfying. I realise that puts my faith perspective over my reading and I can sometimes hope for themes that authors aren’t going to write about. However, it’s been helpful for me to realise why I find some endings more satisfying than others.

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.

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.

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.