Wednesday, February 26, 2014

'The Generation Game' by Sophie Duffy

The Generation Game
Philippa Smith is in her forties and has a beautiful newborn baby girl. She also has no husband, and nowhere to turn. So she turns to the only place she knows: the beginning. Retracing her life, she confronts the daily obstacles that shaped her very existence. From the tragic events of her childhood abandonment, to the astonishing accomplishments of those close to her, Philippa learns of the sacrifices others chose to make, and the outcome of buried secrets. Philippa discovers a celebration of life, love, and the Golden era of television. A reflection of everyday people, in not so everyday situations.


Philippa Smith is a first time mother in her early 40s. While the hospital staff seem concerned about her baby, for a reason she can't initially get out of them, she decides to go over her own life story for the baby girl's benefit. As she relives events, she clarifies in her own head which were the most important things and who were the most meaningful people in her life.

As Philippa was born just 5 years before me, I loved the reference to the historical events which helped shape her life. Her story drew me back to my childhood and youth in the 70s and 80s. A prime example was the marriage of Charles and Diana. I clearly remember watching the wedding live on TV, aged about 12, and in the story, we see why it was such a big day for Philippa, on her 16th birthday. The book reinforces how current history, music and events, which seem to be in the background of our lives, really do help to gel our views and attitudes when we are young.

I could relate even more to Philippa as she got older, having also majored in English Lit and then decided not to take it further into teaching. I did lose my cool at her for a dumb decision she made in her 30s, but by then, I already loved her and related to her, so it was impossible not to forgive her.

I'm glad such a large chunk of the story was spent on Philippa's earliest childhood, instead of glossing over these years. Those were some of my favourite parts. Children can be very perceptive, honing in on details which adults either miss or have no idea kids notice. It also shows how things grown-ups may brush off as simple kindnesses, are shown to be significant in the eyes of children. I like that reminder that when we think we're doing simple, pointless things, we're really doing big things. Characters such as Bob and Wink are very memorable and lovable, just for being their unassuming, plain selves. Obviously, the care of one little girl was part of their noble purpose.

I'd be interested to see what other readers think of a massive twist toward the end. It'll be hard to address this without plot spoilers, but there's no way a reviewer can ignore it, so I'll be very careful. The twist was major, and I didn't altogether like it, because we had to suddenly alter our perceptions of several key characters, after about nineteen twentieths of the book. My first perceptions of them were partly what made the prior story so meaningful for me, and suddenly there was a huge paradigm shift. Okay, I can't help it, I'm going to include this spoiler.

Maybe such a strong storyline doesn't need a plot twist of this magnitude, as it steers dangerously close to solid characters behaving out of character. Can anyone else really imagine placid, dependable Bob doing what he did with Helena's and Philippa's mother in the 60s? He didn't strike me as the impulsive or Casanova type. And would a big sister as loving as Helena really shoot off overseas without saying goodbye to little Philippa? She came across more believably when I really did think she was a reluctant young mother, giving it her best shot after an unplanned pregnancy. And although I'm a sucker for a happy ending, did this one edge into the realm of fairy tales? Terry never really struck me as the type who would embrace the life of a doting husband and father, with Philippa and little Lucy.

Overall, a very evocative and well-written book which I didn't want to put down. The natural ebbs and flows of life are well shown. For example, people who do mean the world to us, even those with 'best friend' status, do drift away, for various, honest reasons. The story does a wonderful job of proving that we don't have do brilliant things to live a significant life. Philippa's story is surely quite similar to any one of ours.

I received a copy from NetGalley and Legend Press in return for an honest review.

4 stars

The Generation Game available from Amazon

Friday, February 21, 2014

'Seeker of Stars' by Susan Fish

Seeker of Stars
As a boy, Melchior is fascinated by stars but has rigid obligations to apprentice with his rug-making father. When his life is radically changed, he is propelled onto a new path full of danger and glory in pursuit of a special star. The journey leads Melchior to reflect on life and death, dreams and duty, and to find unusual reconciliation within his family and with the God he never knew he sought. Destined to become a classic, Seeker of Stars offers a fresh retelling of the story of the magi, and will appeal to people of all ages and faiths.
The perfect time to read this novel would be in the lead-up to Christmas.

The start was great. We're introduced to Melchior, a young boy who lives in ancient Persia. Sadly, his lovely mother dies while giving birth to his sister, Daria, devastating the family, but they bond together in their grief.

Melchior's older brother, Salvi, is outgoing and loves flirting with the village girls. He gets the opportunity to join their fun-loving uncle Taz, living the adventurous life of a merchant.

Melchi himself, who is quieter and more reflective, would love to study the stars and their signs, as mathematics and astronomy stimulate him. His father thinks that's foolish and impractical, and insists that Melchi work in the family rug-making business.

Meanwhile, both brothers are smitten with Leyla, a very pretty and lively village girl. They also make friends with Reta, the quiet Hebrew girl who does their housekeeping, since their mother died.

Circumstances line up so that Melchi finally gets his opportunity to study with the Magi. I'm looking forward to every move, when suddenly the rug is pulled from under my feet. With no warning, the story jumps ahead several years. Melchior is now a man familiar with the layout of the university town and strangers he met there are brought before the reader as if he's known them for ages. Most disconcertingly, he's married to one of the girls from his past and we have no idea why that happened!

If I'd been reading a paperback, I would have checked to see if a large chunk had fallen out of the binding, but I have a kindle book. Reading on, the story explains what happened in the intervening years, but I still find it too jarring. Although I like the use of flashbacks as a literary device, I think in this case, they should have been introduced from the very start of the book. The sudden style change was far too big a jolt, as I'd got used to the chronological tale of his childhood.

Until that point, I would have given this book 5 stars for several reasons. The historical authenticity, the filial affection between the brothers and their love for their little sister, Susan Fish's sensitive and evocative writing style, the way in which Melchior becomes one of the wise men from the gospels. However, that seismic jolt to the future, and the disorientation and disappointment it caused, is something I think deserves a lower rating. So I'll go for the middle and choose three stars.

I want to make it clear that I loved Susan Fish's writing and I will definitely read novels more by her, as I assume they won't pull the same stunt again.

Thanks to NetGalley and David C Cook for a review copy.

3 stars

Seeker of Stars available from Amazon

'The Truest Thing about You' by David Lomas

The Truest Thing about You: Identity, Desire, and Why It All Matters
There are many true things about you—true things you use to build an identity. Parent. Introvert. Victim. Student. Extrovert. Entrepreneur. Single.

These truths can identify you, your successes and failures, your expectations and disappointments, your secret dreams and hidden shames. But what if your true identity isn't found in any of these smaller truths, but in the grand truth of who God says you are? In other words, lots of things are true about you—but are they the truest?

David Lomas invites you to discover and live out the truth of who God created you to be: you are loved, you are accepted, and you are made in God's image. It's time to move beyond the lesser voices and discover why everything changes when you become who you really are.

Pastor David Lomas comes across as an insightful, really nice person and I like what he sets out to prove, although it's probably nothing we haven't heard before, or don't know intuitively.

In a nutshell, our identity in Christ has nothing to do with how hard we work or what we manage to achieve. It starts with believing something about Jesus, and then believing something about ourselves in light of what we believe about Jesus. When we truly grasp this, we can 'have' things without things 'having' us.

We are loved for who we are, not for what we can produce. People tend to screw the biblical work mandate up in our minds. We take something which is part of what Lomas calls our 'Imago Dei' (our identity in God)- the call to work, and make it a source of our identity. Or an idol. Or an escape, excuse, or source of self-worth.

I like his example of suddenly finding himself working as a nameless barista and waiter at his local Starbucks coffee shop, instead of being the hot-shot pastor he envisaged himself at the time.

He also addresses those times when we feel a need to complain about all we feel we're unfairly going through in our daily lives, without realising that God is standing by like a mother with a wet washcloth, wanting to scrub our faces clean and completely regenerate us.

Now that I've written this, I see something interesting. Although I wrote in my first paragraph that this material is probably nothing we haven't heard before, it certainly doesn't seem to sink in deeply for several of us, living in our everyday worlds which seem to keep encouraging us to strive, base our value on shallow things and wear ourselves out. It might be healthy to keep reading books like this one, just to remind ourselves of what's really true.

Thanks to NetGalley and David C Cook for a review copy.

3 stars

The Truest Thing about You: Identity, Desire, and Why It All Matters available from Amazon

Sunday, February 16, 2014

'A Bead and a Prayer' by Kristen E. Vincent

A Bead and a Prayer: A Beginner's Guide to Praying with Beads
A BEAD AND A PRAYER introduces Protestants to prayer as a way to connect with God. Readers will explore the history and art of using beads in prayer, discover ways to pray with beads, and learn how beads can help them deepen their faith, understand Christian beliefs, and listen to God. Instructions for making prayer beads are included. Great for Christians with no experience in using beads for prayer, Sunday school classes, women's groups, prayer groups. Youth and children will also enjoy making prayer beads, led by someone using this book as a guide.

This lovely book is clearly a labour of love for the author.

Kristen Vincent's personal story starts the book, describing how her own mania for prayer beads started, eventually leading her to set up a successful business. There was a lot of destiny about it. I like true stories which are full of unexpected serendipity that leads a person down a completely new path.

It's a very balanced book. In another chapter, she discusses the sound theory behind using prayer beads for our personal devotion times, making it clear why she recommends them. Then in another, she gives detailed instructions, with diagrams, on how to make our own.

Best of all is how she sensitively bridges the gap between different Christian denominations which have a history of keeping themselves separate from each other. It's great for somebody from one of the Protestant traditions to research a practise mostly associated with the Catholic faith. It's sad when people keep themselves from something which may benefit them, out of fear of distrust. Good on her for telling us about her conclusion.

I received a copy from NetGalley and Upper Room Books in return for an honest review

3.5 stars

A Bead and a Prayer: A Beginner's Guide to Protestant Prayer Beads available from Amazon

Thursday, February 13, 2014

'Falling for the Farmer' by Narelle Atkins

Falling for the Farmer  

And she's incredibly grateful when Jack Bradley offers her a job on his apple farm. Working side by side in the orchards with her best friend's brother seems like the perfect way to get over her disastrous engagement. Until Kate finds herself falling hard for the handsome farmer.

Jack Bradley knows city-girl Kate isn't here to stay. Yet suddenly he's imagining a life with her in the country. When Kate considers going back to the city, can Jack find a way to show her that her real home is here on the farm, by his side?

We're thrown thick into the action of this story from the start. Kate Lawson is a runaway bride who dashes out of church and orders Jack Bradley, the driver of the bridal car, to take her far away.

Jack is the brother of Kate's best friend and she ends up working on his farm for a time, while she tries to figure out what to do. Kate's relationship with her mother, already strained, now seems irreparable. Although Jack is willing to help, there are rumours that he is nursing a broken heart of his own. A long-term relationship with his sweetheart, Amy, ended when she married another man. So he can't help being wary of Kate. How long can such a cosmopolitan type of girl want to spend on his farm? And why did she find herself in the position of having to flee her own wedding anyway? He can't bring himself to condone that.

As the readers know Kate to be level-headed with good reasons for everything she does, we're curious to find out why she objected to marriage to the wealthy Rodney.

A lighthearted story which is easy to read.

I received a copy from the author in return for an honest review

3.5 stars

Falling for the Farmer (Heartsong Presents) available from Amazon

Monday, February 3, 2014

'Under a Blackberry Moon' by Serena B. Miller

Under a Blackberry Moon: A Novel
Just a few days after she gives birth alone in the Northwoods, a recently widowed young Ojibwe woman stumbles into a nearby lumber camp in search of refuge and sustenance. Come summer, the camp owner sends Skypilot, his most trusted friend, to accompany Moon Song and her baby on the long and treacherous journey back to her people. But when tragedy strikes off the shore of Michigan's Upper Peninsula wilderness, Moon Song and Skypilot must depend on each other for survival. With every step they take into the forbidding woods, they are drawn closer together, until the tough questions must be asked. Will she leave her culture to enter his? Will he leave his world to enter hers? Or will they walk away from a love that seems too complicated to last?

With evocative descriptions of a breathtaking landscape, Under a Blackberry Moon will sweep readers into a wild realm where beauty masks danger and only the truly courageous survive, even as the sweet love story along the way tightly grips their hearts

As soon as I started, I realised this is actually a sequel and I hadn't read the first in the series. It didn't matter. The beautiful cover first drew my attention to this novel. I love to think that the main character, Moon Song, looked just like this. I think the story achieves everything a historical novel should.

It did take me a little while to warm up to either of the main characters. I found Skypilot a bit quick to cast judgments at first. Just before the explosion, while he'd been chatting with Isabella's husband, Hatchette's revelations disgusted him. Skypilot couldn't even imagine how he and that man could be from the same species. Yes, the guy was seriously misguided, but hey, isn't that still a bit harsh coming from a preacher?

I was intrigued by Moon Song's parts of the story. Such a lot of research had been done into the mindset of her people. This was fantastic, but made it a bit hard to relate to her point of view at first. Who knew what the girl would come out with next? (Swimming around in the floating aftermath of the explosion without being squeamish, for example. The idea makes me shudder.)She was so aloof and almost gruff for so much of the story, but I got used to her ways and found her growing on me.

What made me object to both of them was the casual way they behaved when Isabella lost her baby. Instead of thinking how traumatic this would be for a young mother, they both seemed to consider her a nuisance, distracting them from the more serious question of survival. Neither of them made a single move to try to comfort her at the outset. I'm glad to say this changed as the story went on, and they acted with more compassion.

The sad, shameful history of the white settlers' dealings with the native American Indians has so many parallels with the way Australian settlers treated our native Aboriginals. I never realised it was quite so similar. It's disturbing and amazing that this is the history of both countries. The forced boarding schools reminds me of my country's Stolen Generation shame. Also, it seems that in both cases, the proud native people were reduced to ending up dependent on white folk's handouts.

The second part of the book was my favourite. Who can resist a good love story when the guy is challenged to prove his love to the girl? I admired the way Skypilot went about it. There was a lovely surprise twist or two. I'm so glad Isabella's story ended happily too, as she was one of my favourite characters. On the whole, I think Serena B. Miller did a wonderful job and couldn't have asked for a better ending than this epilogue.

I received a copy of this book from NetGalley and Revell in return for an honest review.

3.5 stars

Under a Blackberry Moon: A Novel available from Amazon