Monday, July 30, 2018

One of Us is Lying

One of Us is Lying, Karen M. McManus

Another great teen read for you, this time a murder mystery. Five students are sent to detention: prom queen Addy, jock Cooper, intellectual over-achiever Bronwyn, juvenile delinquent Nate and gossip monger Simon.

Within about ten minutes Simon is dead, but what seems like a simple anaphylactic reaction soon turns into a police investigation for murder. Simon ran the school gossip app releasing personally damaging information, and each of the other four had secrets they needed to hide. Which one of them decided to silence him for good?

Chapters move between different character’s points of view, each time stamped. So you know what’s going on for each of them as the investigation unfolds: their family background, what they are trying to hide, how they felt about Simon’s death, and their friends and relationships at school.

As the story unfolds, there are insightful comments into many aspects of teen life, including how they are treated by the police and legal system, the range of healthy (or not) parent-child relationships, the impact of bullies and technology on school life, and the pressures to succeed academically and in sport. Both heterosexual and homosexual dating relationships are explored, as well as the way kids are treated according their socio-economic status.

That all sounds pretty dry and clinical in summary, but the book is very readable. You get into these kids’ minds and start to understand the nuances of each of their situations. Mr 15 and I both enjoyed it and found the ending both satisfying and believable, but not obvious. Recommended for kids about age 14 and up.

Monday, July 23, 2018

Scythe

Scythe, Neal Shusterman

This futuristic young adult thriller portrays a world where technological advances are so great that humanity is immortal, all injuries are healed by healing centre or by the body itself, and people can even choose to ‘turn the corner’, reverting to a younger version of themselves, able to have more children and loved ones.  The cloud, now containing the total input of all people’s information and memories has evolved to become the Thunderhead, which benignly and expertly solves all the world’s problems: famines, natural disasters, and crimes, and requires no government to make it happen. In essence, the world is now perfect.

But what happens when no one dies, everyone lives forever and missions to populate space have failed?  No matter how well managed the world is, overpopulation will eventually occur. Enter the Scythes, an elite worldwide unit of professional gleaners, who are are tasked with choosing who will permanently die. They are ruled by 10 commandments designed to keep them working with honour and discretion.

But (and no surprise here to those of us who believe in the sinfulness of humanity), the rot has set in and while many scythes do operate according to their original codes and beliefs, the new order is on the rise, and some of them just love killing, doing so with no compassion, care or thought.

Into this world two apprentices are taken on by the Honourable Scythe Faraday: Citra and Rowan. What starts as a friendly camaraderie as they train together takes a nasty turn as a scythe counsel declares that only one will be made a true Scythe and their first act will be to glean the other.

As the book unfolds the depth to which Shusterman has created this world becomes apparent. There is much to ponder, including:

  • What would happen if technology did overtake the world, but do it perfectly?
  • Where would people find purpose if they lived forever?
  • If the growth of civilisation is complete, what is the point of planning either for the future or learning about the past?
  • How could population control be managed in an immortal world?
  • In a world of no pain, no suffering and no death, yet also having no purpose for living, would anything cause real emotion or response anymore?
  • What does thrill seeking and adventure look like in a world where you can’t die? Here one of the past times of thrillseekers is ‘splatting’, jumping off high things to become deadish, where they are restored to health in a few days in a revival centre.

As I have reflected on it more, the heavenly hope of eternal life only has value because of the Lord God who controls and sustains it. Joy is found in him, not ourselves. We will be made complete in Him, in order to rejoice and glorify him, not just so that we can live forever.

Obviously considering the subject matter, there is a lot of killing. Some of it is compassionate and thoughtful, and some is a massacre. There are details of methods of gleaning and how each scythe goes about it. So, while there is no swearing, and just a hint of romantic interest, there is a lot of violence. It’s a book for young adults and Mr 15 really enjoyed it, but I would hesitate to recommend it to teens much younger than 15. And I think this is definitely one of those books a parent should read too, so you can talk about it together.

It almost seems strange to say considering the subject matter, but it’s an enjoyable book to read.  As I said, it’s though provoking, but it’s also very well written. It got me straight in with the opening sentence:
“The scythe arrived late on a cold November afternoon. Citra was at the dining room table, slaving over a particularly difficult algebra problem, shuffling variables, unable to solve for X or Y, when this new and far more pernicious variable entered her life’s equation.”
We moved quickly on to the sequel Thunderhead, which raises the similar questions and got Mr 15 and I wondering what Shusterman’s belief in God was and what message about deity he was trying to communicate through his writing. At one point I thought he was cleverly and persuasively trying to tear down all ideas of God, at another point I thought he was using clever allegory and illustration to raise questions of religion, worship, mortality, original sin, and codes of ethics. Whatever his own belief system, he has created two great books that ask big philosophical questions in a way that teens can grasp and interact with. I greatly enjoyed both books and how they made me think, and we had some good conversations as we thought about the concepts raised. Both of us eagerly anticipate the third in the series.

Monday, July 16, 2018

Her Story

Her Story, Diana Lynn Severance

This collection of 366 readings is a mostly chronological covering of women of faith from Mary, the mother of Jesus, to present day. Severance has sorted and collated a massive amount of historical material, and made each reading one page of basic information about the woman and how her faith played out in her life.

I did indeed read one day for a year and found it to be an encouragement and challenge to consider how other women have lived in various times and places and circumstances, yet remained faithful to the Lord.

If a collection is made of women of faith, you can tend to pick the women who will be there: Sarah Edwards, Hannah More, Monica (mother of Augustine), Susanna Wesley and Joni Eareckson Tada. Most collections cover the same women again and again. All are great to learn about, but the advantage of this is the breadth of women included. Even if you are reasonably well versed in biographies of Christian women, chances are there will be hundreds here you have never heard of.

The early readings about women of antiquity and the Middle Ages were so encouraging: women who were queens, or faithful mothers, or early authors. Of course, there is less information for these ages, so by February you are into the Reformation and that becomes harder reading, with numerous accounts of persecution and martyrdom. We are into the 1800s by July and well into the 1900s by October. Only a handful of women included are still alive.

It was an encouraging way to spend a year, learning more about faithful women from over two millenia. There is a joy to see people who have chosen to live for Christ in every age and this is a wonderful example for us to follow. At the same time, because each account was so brief, and much of it presented in a measured, factual way, it felt like a surface treatment. Many truly tragic circumstances were presented so baldly that it didn’t give you chance to fully appreciate the gravity of what was being described. I would have loved more details for many. For those who would like to delve further into historical writing covering more details of some women, you could try Severance’s other work Feminine Threads: Women in the Tapestry of Christian History.

There wasn’t enough time to analyse real faults and failings, many were presented with an awkward sort of perfection, and so increasingly they set a standard that many women would struggle to emulate. Many of the women of the reformation onwards were highly educated, very pious, spoke numerous languages, translated the bible and still had families, which could well leave the modern women thinking: how is that even possible?

It is true that numerous women who struggled with ill health and hard circumstances were included, but the challenges of sin and maintaining godly living weren’t really present. I didn’t get the sense that these women struggled with the same sins I do.

I imagine collating any list of women of faith over that time would require limits. I was surprised some women warranted two entries, for example Queen Elizabeth I, Florence Nightingale and Sarah Edwards, yet some were obviously missed out such as Queen Elizabeth II or perhaps Nancy Guthrie. I wonder whether permission was needed to include women who are still alive, because I suspect more could be found for the current ages. It also felt like a very Europe and America centred list. Few women from Asia or Africa rated a mention, I think there was one Pacific Islander and one woman who was born in Australia.

The final month or so were mainly missionaries, which is a great encouragement. However, surely there are also many faithful women living in the 20-21st centuries who did not end up on the mission field? It felt a little unbalanced. Admittedly, these are the women that are known and able to be researched, rather than your average faithful Christian women known only in her local context.

One of the real blessings for me was the collections of hymns and poems that were included, written by various women over the ages. I now have a list of these written out for my own encouragement and for use in prayer. I feel very indebted to anyone who can express the truths of the gospel in poetic form, something that I feel very ill equipped to even try. That has been one of the benefits for me personally.

In summary, it’s an encouraging book that reminds us that women, and of course men, have carried their crosses for Christ in faith from his death and ascension for two thousand years to today. We can read and be encouraged, as well as educated and inspired by those who have come before us. But we should also read with a sense of reality, these are just snippets of information and only represent each woman in part. If you want to find women to truly emulate and model your life on, find a godly Christian woman in your context, talk to her, and get to know her story.

This was first published on The Gospel Coalition, Australia website.

Monday, July 9, 2018

Me and Rory Macbeath

Me and Rory Macbeath, Richard Beasley

This excellent story is set in Adelaide in 1977, where 12-year old Jake Taylor and his barrister mum, Harry, live on Rose Avenue, somewhere along the Torrens river. His summers are spent with the friends of the street playing cricket, swimming in the local pool, wandering around the suburb at night and occasionally going fishing with friends and their dad.

Rory moves into the house at the top of the street, and quickly joins the group of neighbourhood kids. While he can’t play cricket, he can certainly stand up for himself, and while he doesn’t seem to know much about the things they are taught in school, he can fish like a pro. A strong friendship develops between the boys.

But these marvellous days can’t last forever, especially as it seems that Rory’s family have secrets they are hiding. The story quickly changes about the halfway point from the account of a boyhood life and friendship to the legal drama of a courtroom battle. It seems fair to warn readers that there are some reasonably descriptive scenes regarding domestic violence.

How the story plays out is not very surprising, and it’s relentless as it does so. Beasley has managed to write both the idyll of boyhood life and the gritty reality of the more unpleasant parts of suburban life. He is a barrister himself, which becomes increasingly obvious as the legal drama unfolds.

I enjoyed it. It rings true to the childhood many of my generation had in Australia: that carefree life, where you played with the neighbourhood kids, knew their parents and some of each family’s quirks, but raises the question: did you really know what went on in their homes? Also, I really liked reading a book set in Adelaide and trying to nut out more details from the hints in the story. That doesn’t mean it’s exclusive at all, it just gave me an extra level of interest and attention to detail.

Monday, July 2, 2018

Alice-Miranda

After having enjoyed Clementine Rose, Miss 10 turned to Alice-Miranda, also by Jacqueline Harvey. She has been completely absorbed in them for a while now. I hadn’t managed to read them until recently (just the first 2) and I’m so glad I did. They are utterly charming.

Alice-Miranda Highton-Smith-Kennington-Jones has decided at age 7 and a quarter that it’s time for her to start boarding school at Winchesterfield-Downsfordvale Academy for Proper Young Ladies. Her parents have reluctantly and weepingly agreed, acknowledging that Alice-Miranda often does know best. Alice-Miranda is delighted to be there, and quickly charms the staff and students, being unfailingly polite and disarmingly friendly. Within 24 hours she has sent the cook off on a well-earned holiday, convinced the gardener to plant flowers all over the grounds, and befriended the second-best tantrum thrower at the school. However, one person is not at all charmed: headmistress Miss Grimm, who has for 10 years managed to avoid any contact with students. She is determined to get rid of Alice-Miranda before she changes anything else.

There are echoes of Roald Dahl’s Matilda, but Alice-Miranda comes from an extremely wealthy family and has travelled all over the world meeting many famous people. Rather than being stuck-up, her parents have raised to both take care of herself and to care for others. She speaks her mind plainly but politely, and so will give many a young girl some hints as to how to deal with bullies and challenging situations.

There are so many books (and TV shows) where characters have traits that you would prefer your own children didn’t emulate. It’s a nice treat to have a heroine who is charming, friendly, polite and clever, all without any guile. I imagine it would be a challenge to write such a character without her becoming tiring, boring and trite, but Jacqueline Harvey has managed that balance point well.

I’m glad I dipped into them and am very happy for my Miss 10 to keep reading them. With 16 already written (each around the 300-page mark) and more underway, it’s a series that is very likely to appeal to (mainly) girls aged 7-10. They would also be quite fun to read aloud to less confident readers, or indeed to anyone who was willing to listen!

It seems Harvey has a new series starting this year too, Kensy and Max, we’ll be looking out for that one too.