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: 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, 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.