24/11/2016

The Jesus I Never Knew (by Philip Yancey)

I have very much appreciated Philip Yancey’s books over the past fifteen years or so, and have most of them on our shelves. He is an American Christian journalist, who grew up in a fundamentalist environment but realised, as a teen, how unpleasant some of the teaching and practices were. He came to a new, relationship-based faith and in his writing explores many issues that believers struggle with. I’ve started re-reading Yancey’s books, some of which I have not picked up for a long time.

In ‘The Jesus I never knew’, which I last read in 2007, he decides to look at Jesus from the perspective of the first century, reading the Gospels as if for the first time, looking at different translations, and also different movie portrayals to try to build up a realistic picture of who it is that we follow, rather than the inaccurate images so often portrayed by the media, and even, for several centuries, by many Christian artists.

The first section of the book looks at the Jesus the author thought he knew, and then goes back to the Jewish background and roots, and the environment where Jesus grew up. We don’t know a great deal about his childhood from the Bible, other than one important incident when he was twelve; but from other historic documents a reasonable picture of the life of a carpenter can be built up. The author looks at the start of Jesus’ ministry, too, when he was thirty years old, including the temptations in the desert and what they would have meant.

The middle section examines the question of why Jesus came to earth at all. He points to the Beatitudes, how Jesus turned upside-down many of the precepts and sayings that the people of his time would have expected, and shows us just how offensive the ‘Sermon on the Mount’ would have been to his audience. We who have grown up hearing and reading the Scriptures cannot comprehend what much of his message would have meant to those around him.

The Crucifixion and Resurrection are covered in some depth, following discussion of Jesus’ miracles and what they would have meant. Inevitably some of what he writes is his own ideas and opinions, but even though I had read this before, I found much to think about, and gained some different insights about Jesus’ life and ministry.

The last section begins with the Ascension, when Jesus returned to heaven, and what he left behind. Looked at in the light of the rest of the book, there is, again, much to ponder. I don’t know that I will keep all this in mind, but may well refer to it again when discussing this topic. The style is straightforward, referencing other writers (such as CS Lewis) from time to time, and very readable.

The book is meant for Christians, or for those interested in finding out who Jesus was and is. A measure of faith is important; the author assumes the existence of God and the veracity of the Gospel accounts, while acknowledging that they were written by human observers and writers, who inevitably used their own perspectives on recent events.

Definitely recommended.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

18/11/2016

A Swiftly Tilting Planet (by Madeleine L'Engle)

I’m enjoying re-reading favourite books by authors I’ve enjoyed, interspersed with some new ones. So I delved into my Madeleine L’Engle collection, and in the past year I have re-read both her best-known classic for older children, ‘A Wrinkle in Time’, and its sequel, ‘A Wind in the Door.’.

I’ve just finished the third in the author’s Time Quintet, ‘A Swiftly Tilting Planet’. I would like to say I have re-read it, but after the first few chapters I realised that I have absolutely no recollection of ever having read it before. This makes sense, when I think about it: the novel wasn’t published until 1978, by which time I was eighteen, and had little time for reading fiction. We acquired our paperback edition of this book in the late 1990s when my sons were young teenagers; either they read this or my husband read it to them, but I never read it myself.

Until now. I emerged from the story feeling quite elated, although also a tad confused. Elated because it’s a powerful story, blending history, mythology and Christian faith, with an awareness of evil in the world that is very topical. Naturally there’s a positive ending - this series was written for older children and younger teens - but there’s an exciting path along the way.

At the same time I was somewhat confused because are a lot of characters, many of them with similar names, in several different time periods. This is deliberate: Charles Wallace, the fifteen-year-old hero of this book, has to travel through time (on the back of a unicorn) in order to make minor adjustments to history in order to ensure that a crazy dictator doesn’t start World War III.

The way it’s written is very clever. Charles’ older sister Meg, now married and expecting her first baby, is able to ‘kythe’ with him to keep him on track, and to know where and when he is at every point. Charles is under attack; the ‘echthroi’ - the enemies of humanity - don’t want him to change anything, and he’s armed only with a poem - a ‘rune’, as they call it - calling heaven’s powers to himself, in a paraphrase of part of the famous St Patrick’s Breastplate prayer. Each chapter title then focuses on a separate part of the rune, as Charles learns more about his task.

Perhaps if I’d read more slowly, or kept notes of the time periods and specific names, it would all have been clearer. Perhaps, if I’d known a bit more about American history, it would have made more sense. As it was, I got the general idea, and enjoyed each brief scenario in itself, but entirely lost track of several threads and missed the eventual significance of how Charles actually succeeds in his mission.

It doesn’t matter; a deeper theme of the book, which struck me powerfully, was that of waiting for ‘the wind’ to guide, rather than trying to work out what to do based on reason and logic. I liked the way Charles Wallace - and the unicorn Gaudior, his angelic guide and transport - was given the freedom to follow his own reason, even against advice, and gradually had to learn to listen and trust that he would be led in the right path.

Some have complained that there’s too much of Christianity in these books; some complain the Christian parts are too pagan or ‘liberal’. I found the blend exactly right; this is science fiction at its best, in my opinion, with an underlying Christian worldview and a message of good triumphing over evil. It can be read at several different levels, by children, teens or adults, and provides a great deal to think about.

Highly recommended. It stands alone, but is probably best to read after the preceding two books in the series.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

12/11/2016

Daily Devotions (by Brad Haven)

Before I travelled to the UK in the Spring, I downloaded this free ‘devotional’ ebook for my Kindle. I had never heard of the author, Brad Haven, but it was on offer, free, and claimed to be a different way of studying the Bible over the course of a few months.

‘Daily Devotions’ is subtitled, ‘walking daily in the New Testament and Proverbs’. The introduction explains that there are 89 chapters in the Gospels, and that by reading one chapter per day, plus two chapters from other New Testament books in order, one can complete reading the entire New Testament in under three months. The author decided to add a ‘twist’, a section of the book of Proverbs, divided into 89 short sections, so that one of those is read each day.

The first few pages are quite interesting, outlining the system, the reasons behind it, and even some historical background; this is apparently known as the Rule of Optima in some monastic orders. The author briefly explains how it works, and also some excellent reasons for making a daily habit of reading the Bible, while also insisting that one should not give up or feel like a failure if a day or two get missed.

I then discovered that this, plus the Biblical text, is all there is to the book: there are no extra ‘thoughts’ or commentary. The author has done nothing, after the introduction, but compile together the system for reading the New Testament and Proverbs in this way. That’s not to say that it’s a bad thing: it is a very convenient way to read them, as everything is laid out, a day at a time, with the sections intended for reading. So I didn’t have to find different places in a Bible, either on my Kindle or a print version, in order to read the different sections in this way.

The idea is a good one, albeit not original, and I was a little surprised to find, towards the end, that sometimes there was only one extra New Testament chapter attached to a Gospel chapter, rather than two. However a little research explained this: there are 260 chapters in all, in the New Testament; subtracting the 89 which are part of one of the gospels leaves only 171: not quite sufficient to enable two per day.

I wasn’t all that impressed with the particular Bible translation used. I’m not sure which one it is, and didn’t recognise it, but in places found it quite convoluted in its use of language, without the beauty of some of the older versions, nor the clarity of some more modern ones. Perhaps this was for copyright reasons; it wasn’t a problem as I had read all these passages before, many times, but for someone reading them for the first time, it tends to make it sound rather complex, even the Gospels which were originally written in quite straightforward Greek.

However, as a constructive way of reading set sections of the Bible while travelling - and it took me over six months to finish, interspersed with other things, and sometimes only reading half of the day’s assigned passages - I would rate the idea, and the layout quite highly.

For anyone interested in this way of reading the New Testament, it's certainly worth downloading if it’s still offered at no cost. Only available on Kindle, as far as I know.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

10/11/2016

The Herb of Grace (by Elizabeth Goudge)

After reading Elizabeth Goudge’s ‘The Bird in the Tree’ recently, it was time to enjoy its sequel again. This is a book I first read in my late teens, with no idea that there was a previous book, although I was aware of an untold backstory running through it. I loved the book then, and have enjoyed it more, probably, each time I have re-read it.

‘The Herb of Grace’ is the name of an inn not too far from Damerosehay, the old house belonging to the elderly Lucilla. Lucilla might be frail in body, but her will is as strong as ever, and her instinct tells her that her son George is not happy in London. George’s wife Nadine, whose thwarted love affair is sensitively covered in ‘A Bird in the Tree’, likes her smart and convenient London place, and has no thought of ever moving into the countryside. But the Herb of Grace is for sale, and Lucilla makes her plans.

Meanwhile George and Nadine’s five children - including the imaginative five-year-old twins Jerry and José - have met and befriended a young woman called Sally Adair, who lives with her talented artist father John. Sally has also met David, George’s nephew, and her father happens to have met Nadine on a train. Their stories are told separately, gently introducing people and situations, until - by John Adair’s determination - they find themselves in in the same place.

There’s another story involving the mysterious barge-travelling odd-job people Malony and Annie-Laurie, whose story gradually unfolds in the warmth of the family home. There are a lot of people in the book, who are much easier to understand if read as sequel to ‘A Bird in the Tree’. This novel certainly stands alone, but minor characters - Lucilla’s daughter Margaret and son Hilary - could be seen as almost irrelevant without knowing the background.

I vaguely remembered the storylines, in particular something dramatic and of great historical interest that is discovered by accident by the twins, but I had forgotten about many of the interactions between people, and the way each character develops imperceptibly, finding healing and wholeness in the welcoming atmosphere of the inn.

Elizabeth Goudge’s writing is full of poetic description, something I have often skimmed or even skipped in the past, but I made sure to slow down and savour her words, as she tells us about the countryside, the views, and the immense charm of the Herb of Grace. I almost felt myself there, and delayed reading the last chapter so that I could be part of this engaging community of people for a little while longer.

Definitely recommended. Widely available second-hand.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

31/10/2016

The Rose Petal Beach (by Dorothy Koomson)

I’ve been reading Dorothy Koomson’s books for some years now, and gradually adding more to my wishlist. I was surprised to discover that this particular one was sitting on my to-be-read shelf for over two years. Perhaps I was put off by the length of the novel. But I’ve finally read it in the past ten days, the majority of it in the past two as it became almost impossible to put down.

‘The Rose Petal Beach’ opens as Tamia Challey’s husband Scott is arrested. Her two young daughters are playing happily, and she has no idea that her life is about to change forever, in ways she could not possibly have imagined.

It’s a dramatic opening, made more so by being written in sequences at different times, and narrated, primarily, by three very different women. Tami is the main character; a likeable and hard-working mother who sometimes finds her husband a bit demanding and selfish, but is determined to keep going for the sake of her daughters. She has very happy memories, too, of the earlier years of her marriage and their life together before that. Scott is a complex person from a difficult background, and although I didn’t like him, he felt a very believable character.

The book is perhaps a tad slow-moving after the early chapter, as the background is filled in and we get to know Tami’s two close friends Beatrix and Mirabelle as well. It also quickly becomes clear that someone is lying, and that all the narrators are holding back part of the truth, in different ways. There are plot twists and turns which I didn’t expect as well as some which I could see coming.

By the time I was half-way through, I was gripped. Koomson tells a powerful story, revealing exactly the right amount of back story combined with people’s thoughts and feelings. There are some very important issues raised. This is not light women’s fiction, nor does it skirt about some quite unpleasant topics, but the author is skilled in her handling of them: we get an idea of what is being discussed, but without gratuitous detail.

The title of the book relates to a painting and an ancient legend, one which we don’t learn about in full until towards the end of the book. The final revelations are perhaps a tad abrupt, and I wasn’t entirely sure I believed them; yet it all makes sense in context. The clues are there, right from the start, even if I missed them.

It’s a book about women holding things together, about the victims of assault; it’s about the ease with which likeable people can slip into bad habits that can lead to serious problems. It’s about the way we all have both good and bad within us; it’s about knowing when to say ‘no’, and when to lay down boundaries.

It’s very thought-provoking, and powerful, and I hope will make people - women in particular - in situations such as those described realise that there are things they can do to escape from terrible situations.

I didn’t like the amount of bad language used, nor some of the hints of violence and other unpleasantness, but think they were all probably necessary in order to make the story realistic. This isn’t for someone who wants light and fluffy women’s fiction, and I wouldn’t recommend it to teenagers either as some of the content could be considered quite disturbing.

But for those looking for women’s fiction with a harder edge, and a great deal to think about, I would recommend this very highly.

Available in Kindle form as well as paperback.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

21/10/2016

False Colours (by Georgette Heyer)

When I want a comforting read that has a little more substance than one of my favourite children’s books, I usually turn to Georgette Heyer. I was introduced to her historical fiction by a relative when I was in my late teens, and over the years have collected most of her works, re-reading them regularly.

It was ten years since I had last read ‘False Colours’, so it was well overdue for a re-read. I recalled the overall plot, of course: Kit and Evelyn are twins in their twenties; Evelyn has inherited a title from his father, and also his estate. Kit, as younger brother (albeit by a small margin) has had to find a career, and has been involved in the diplomatic service abroad.

The story opens when Kit arrives home late at night, to be greeted by his beautiful but somewhat fluffy mother, who at first mistakes him for his brother. And he quickly learns that Evelyn has an urgent appointment the next day, which will cause a great deal of stress if he misses it… but he’s been missing for over a week.

Events quickly spiral into what could be chaos in the hands of a less talented writer, but - while reading the book - feel entirely believable and, indeed, possible. Kit, using all his diplomatic skills, takes on a role he would really prefer not to.

The heroine, the honourable Cressy Stavely, is one of Heyer’s calmer young women, with a delightfully ironic sense of humour. She’s not feisty or even staggeringly beautiful, nor is she determined to right the wrongs of the poor. She has been keeping house for her father, and has turned down some offers or marriage, but now is struggling to cope with her new stepmother who is not much older than she is.

While I recalled the outline of the plot, there were many scenes I had forgotten, and I thoroughly enjoyed reading this book over the past week or so, dipping into it at odd moments as well as reading before going to sleep. There’s a sense in which re-reading a book like this feels like spending time with old friends; Heyer not only constructed clever plots, but created three-dimensional and extremely likeable characters.

There are undoubtedly caricatures amongst them: Kit and Evelyn’s mother is so clueless about finances that she’s quite amusing in places, and the enormously wealthy Sir Bonamy is a figure of fun - yet they’re not malicious caricatures. Both are kind-hearted and generous, and through the eyes of Kit (mostly) and Cressy, to some degree, we see their good points as well as their bad ones.

I particularly liked the fact that the romantic declaration takes place about two-thirds of the way through the book, rather than on the final pages, as is so common with Heyer’s books. But there’s plenty of plot left afterwards, confusions to iron out and problems to solve, which happen, as I knew already, with the author’s usual aplomb.

Definitely recommended to anyone who enjoys light-hearted regency romance novels. First published in 1963 and almost constantly in print, though widely available second-hand too.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

13/10/2016

Grianan (by Alexandra Raife)

I started re-reading my Alexandra Raife books a few years ago, but for some reason had not continued until just recently, when I picked up this one again. I had almost forgotten the way she writes, giving descriptions without being over-wordy, creating fallible but believable people.

‘Grianan’, which I last read read early in 2002, is about a young woman called Sally. She’s getting over a broken relationship, and escapes to Grianan, a large stately home in Scotland run as a bed-and-breakfast by her aunt Janey. Before going there she stays in another family home on her own for a while, and gets to know some of the local people.

Sally doesn’t know what she’s going to do in the future, but she’s happy to put that on hold for a while as she helps her aunt and her staff with the busy summer holiday season. She has to confront some of her own insecurities and figure out what she wants from life, and the author handles the transition well. I found the latter half of the book immensely moving.

If I have a criticism, it’s the way in which people in this book - as in so many other modern novels - seem quite happy to jump into bed with relative strangers, based on a mutual attraction or sense of need, without any expectation of a long-lasting relationship. Perhaps this is common in some circles, although not something I’ve come across, but I find it quite disturbing that so many writers treat it as normal. Worse is that, in this book, an apparently casual affair involves someone who’s married to someone else… and the otherwise likeable characters really don’t care.

The ‘redemption’ in the latter half of the book, and the laudable decision made in the end almost make up for the first part, and made me very glad I continued reading rather than giving up - as I was tempted to do - after a hundred or so pages. It’s a good story, gently paced on the whole, with the right amount of characters so that I didn’t lose track of who was whom.

As with others of this author’s novels, there are minor characters who featured in earlier books; it didn’t matter that I’d forgotten about most of them, as their backstories aren’t important, and this book stands entirely alone. But I’m deliberately reading them in order, and hope to read others of her books in the next few months - interspersed, as ever, with others - so as to keep in touch with this likeable cast of people.

Unashamedly women’s fiction, this would probably appeal to people who enjoy books such as those by Rosamunde Pilcher or Maeve Binchy. Not currently in print in paperback, but now available for the Kindle as well as being fairly easy to find second-hand.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews

10/10/2016

In my Father's Vineyard (by Wayne Jacobsen)

I very much enjoyed the couple of books I read by Wayne Jacobsen, and - as I tend to do in such circumstances - searched Amazon for anything else he had written. There weren’t very many books, but I noticed one, now out of print, which had an attractive looking cover and some positive reviews. I decided, rather than putting it on my wishlist, I would buy a very inexpensive version advertised in the ‘Marketplace’, and have it delivered to relatives on a recent UK trip.

I knew that ‘In my Father’s Vineyard’ would be hardback, but had not taken note of the number of pages (just over 100), and had not realised that it was a larger size book than normal: the design made it feel like a gift book. My second-hand copy was in pristine condition, and I quickly realised that it’s written in the style of a devotional: short chapters, each one looking at a brief passage of Scripture, with some relevant thoughts.

While it wasn’t what I was expecting (I suppose I should have read the reviews more carefully!) I quickly found myself liking it very much. The main focus is John chapter 15, which starts, ‘I am the vine…’, using the analogy of a vineyard and vine-grower as one for Christian growth and increasing maturity. The author recounts his own childhood, where his earthly father was indeed a vineyard owner, so he writes from extensive experience about vines and vine-growing, something which would have been familiar to Jesus’ listeners in the 1st century, but about which most of us in the western world know very little.

Each chapter is two or three pages long, with a brief passage of Scripture (not all from John 15) at the side, and some thoughts about both vine-growing and the Christian life. The commentary is often thought-provoking, and the insights into the life of a vineyard owner very interesting too.

The book is divided into broad sections reflecting the four seasons, explaining how each period of the year has a specific purpose in the life of the vine, including the ‘rest’ period over the winter when there is no obvious growth, and where the vines have to be protected from winter storms.

I learned about pruning: why it must be done, and when it has to be done if it’s not to destroy the entire vine. I learned about the importance of waiting for the right time to harvest the fruit, too. And I was reminded that the ‘fruit’ we grow in our own lives is not so much our work, but those of love, joy, peace and so on, as outlined in Galatians 5.

I read a chapter - or sometimes two - over the course of a few weeks, and liked it very much. There are 29 chapters in all, so it’s ideal as a month’s devotional reading. I’m sure I’ll pick it up again some time, and in the meantime would recommend it to anyone who would like to know more about vine-growing, and also about how the analogy can be used in relation to the Christian life.

Recommended to any believers who would like to dig a bit further into this well-known passage, and perhaps gain a different perspective.

Review by copyright 2016 Sue's Book Reviews