Tuesday, December 29, 2015

Introducing 'Glimpses of Light'

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This blog tour was kicked off last week by Nola Passmore, one of the tireless editors of this brand new anthology. You can read her introductory post here. It's my honour to host the second step along the way.

Early this year, submissions were invited for an anthology with the theme of light. I was intrigued and immediately expressed my interest. Then I started  pondering the nature of light.

First I thought of the obvious. It's one of those gifts of life we may tend to take for granted, but if it's taken away, as it was during the Egyptian plagues, we realise how much we appreciate and rely on it. Light is essential for health, growth and cell division. That's just a scientific fact, not to mention it's impossible to see without it. If you're blundering around, trying to search for something in the dark, the addition of some sort of artificial, hand-held light is essential for your safety. Even the beam from a candle or torch may help prevent a serious accident, and help you find whatever you're looking for. I appreciated all this, but the question still remained, How am I going to incorporate light into a story or reflection?

Next, I pondered how light extends to the spiritual realm. You may hear somebody state, 'I've come to see the light.' Of course they don't mean the physical light, which surrounds them every day. It's another way of saying that something significant, which was concealed from them, has now been made clear. Wisdom and revelation can serve the same function as physical light, by illuminating what was previously concealed for whatever reason. 'I saw George in a whole new light, and decided to cut him some slack.' That sort of comment, which we hear a lot, expresses the same thing. Where there was previously darkness or misunderstanding, something new has been revealed. That's possibly the crux of this book, using light in all its forms. My own contribution (Moon People) came about as the result of a conversation I had with my husband and kids, which got me probing deeper. If I hadn't been pondering the significance of light, I surely would have overlooked the value of their casual comments.

This book contains contributions from twenty-one authors who have incorporated our personal concepts of light into meaningful pieces of writing. There are works of fiction, including both fantasy and contemporary. Others have written contemplative poems, and thought-provoking creative non-fiction, all shedding light on some aspect of light. Together, we are some of the members of Christian Writers Downunder. Some of us have been writing for a fairly long time and won awards, and others are fresh new voices. And of course, there are stories by the two editors, Nola Passmore and Jeanette O'Hagan, who have worked hard to bring this treat together. We hope you'll consider indulging your curiosity and purchase a copy, as all profits will be donated to Christian Blind Mission Australia, an organisation who helps restore sight to blind people in third world countries.

Next in line in this tour, we'll visit the blog of Jo-Anne Berthelsen, a gracious and prolific communicator, whether through fiction, non-fiction, uplifting reflections, creative non-fiction pieces, or the spoken word. You can visit her here, to get a feeling for her expressive way with words. Her thoughts about this anthology will be shared on Tuesday, January 5th. 

Check out the anthology on Goodreads here.
Glimpses of Light Anthology is available here from Amazon in paperback and kindle formats.

Finally, to celebrate the release of Glimpses of Light, I'd like to offer a giveaway of any of my novels to a random commenter. That will be a kindle copy if you are international, or your choice of paperback or kindle if you live in Australia. Please check my Amazon Page to make your choice. (Anyone involved with this anthology in any way, as an author or editor is exempt, the reason being that much as I love these guys, they aren't random :) ) To be eligible, please mention in your comment which of the books you'd like to own. The winner will be chosen by random.org, and announced on this comment thread and the Glimpses of Light facebook page on Tuesday, January 5th, 2016.

Sunday, December 27, 2015

'A Worthy Heart' by Susan Anne Mason

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Maggie Montgomery's long-held wish to see America is finally coming true. She'll visit her beloved brother Rylan and his wife, Colleen, and at the same time, escape Neill Fitzgerald's unwanted attention. In addition, Maggie has a secret! She plans to remain in America to seek her fortune and to hopefully find love. While visiting Irish Meadows, she meets an intriguing man whom she thinks is a stable hand. Only when Rylan demands she stay away from Adam O'Leary does she realize he's Colleen's brother, recently released from prison. Nonetheless, Maggie can't seem to make her heart conform to her brother's request.

Adam O'Leary has never felt worthy of his place in the family. Spending time in jail only reinforces his belief. Now that he's free, Adam hopes to make amends and earn back his family's trust. Falling in love with Maggie Montgomery, however, was never in his plans.

Despite everyone's effort to keep them apart, the two develop a bond nothing can break--but has Adam truly changed, or will the sins of his past prove too much for Maggie to overcome?


MY THOUGHTS:
I looked forward to this book and it lived up to my expectations.

After three years in prison, Adam O'Leary returns home in the spirit of the Prodigal Son, but anyone who's read Irish Meadows can predict that James O'Leary won't be anything like the father in the parable. Quite the opposite, in fact. Poor Adam has learned firsthand that when you let resentment control your actions, it ends up rebounding back on you, rather than the people you aim it at.

I love series in which former bad boys and rebels become heroes of their own stories. In the first book, we get to see what everyone else sees, which is just enough of Adam to get the impression that he's a pain in the neck with a major chip on his shoulder, whose uptight presence casts a pall whenever he appears. But in this book, his heart and feelings get a chance to shine.

People's attitudes toward ex-jailbirds appear to have mellowed over the years, which I'm glad to see. Gross over-reactions seem to have been the norm in 1914. Just being seen with Adam would have been enough to tarnish Maggie's reputation forever. Come on, turn of the century people, get a grip! James' deplorable attitude is predictable at least, but at times, I even felt like shaking the charming Montgomery brothers for the judgmental stances they chose to take. Of course they were products of their time who were concerned for their sister.

I was all set for Adam to perform some heroics from the start. His reception was so frosty, I knew the bar would be set high for him to win back people's esteem. It was greatly satisfying to see him do it, yet on the other hand, how sad that he had to. It was a shame certain other characters couldn't have embraced him without him needing him to step up in crisis situations, but that's what makes an excellent story.

The best part is that, with Maggie, he doesn't have to prove himself worthy. I love her as well as Adam. She's been told about his sordid past and the scandals surrounding him, but chooses to trust her own intuition and personal experiences with Adam, and not care about all that hearsay. (Not to mention the chemistry between them is very well-written). She's also bold, sweet and kind. And she has her own problems, which add a lot of tension and a feeling of impending trouble.

I loved the instant attraction appeal for a change. My shelf is full of books with antagonists who hate each other on sight, but eventually fall in love. Much as I enjoy them, it's refreshing to come across a story where the attraction is immediate. Maggie and Adam have no problems figuring out how they feel about each other. It's other people's problems with their relationship which causes hassles for them.

Overall, it's another fantastic read with the help of some shocking back-story plus a very nasty villain.
I was cheering so hard for Adam and Maggie by the end, and the secondary romantic plot, with Gabe and Aurora, was pretty good too. (Remember Aurora from Irish Meadows, as the girl Gilbert almost got hitched to?) I believe this will be a trilogy, and I can't wait for the third.

Thanks to Bethany House and NetGalley for my review copy.

5 stars

Tuesday, December 22, 2015

To Swear or not to Swear



First, I want to make it clear that I don't take offense at such things easily. I'm not the sort of reader who will throw a book aside if one or two swear words slip through, no matter how much I've been enjoying it. If the story and characters are good, it will keep me hooked. However, the more I think about it, the more I believe that swearing and profanities are never needed in literature, no matter how sparse or thick. Since words are well known to be containers of power, why sully your work by choosing negative or crude ones? It may be argued that they add emphasis, but so do thousands of other descriptive words that could be used in their stead.

I hate it when they are spread thickly all through the book, several times per page, with f-bombs gushing forth whenever a character opens his mouth. This is what I've sometimes found from popular best sellers I've picked up on impulse. Not only is it an overload of crassness and vulgarity, but it quickly gets old. Even if a character uses an innocuous word such as 'awesome' or 'amazing' in every sentence, I feel the same. The English language is vast, and this person is seriously limited in the way he uses it. Can't he pull anything else out of the bag?

Yet when they are used less frequently, or only in heated moments by characters under great stress, it still doesn't really work either. I think this is because a swear word from a character who rarely uses them hits me like a smack in the face. By the time I've finished blinking and thinking, 'Whoa, that's strong language for Fred,' my attention has been pulled from the flow of the story. It may be only a fraction of a second, but still needs to be drawn back.

I certainly get it when authors say, 'It's a matter of authentic characterisation and Mr X is a character who would swear like a trooper.' It's a challenge to get the feeling of a character across without the use of swearing, but I've often seen it done. Nobody puts in every 'uh' or 'um' a character would use in reality, so it's the same with bad language. The speech in novels has an illusory quality about it at the best of times. It's very possible to give the impression that someone is desperate, rough, cut-throat or furious without filling their mouths with foul language. Christian or children's fiction, for example, has some of the cleanest mouthed thugs, villains and desperadoes to be found anywhere, but they still work if the description and plot are sound.

During the last election, we were discussing political candidates around the dinner table. Some of our family members were put off a particular fellow because he swears. 'I wouldn't want a gutter-mouthed person as our leader, no matter what his policies are.' Whether or not this attitude is short-sighted, it would seem like an easy thing for a politician to fix if it bothers a substantial group of people. It's probably safer for them not to swear at all, if they want to pick up as many supporters as possible, and not that big a sacrifice. Sure, he has many supporters who don't mind his bad language and use it themselves. But they are unlikely to decide, 'I'm not going to support this candidate because he doesn't swear enough!' That's a ludicrous thought. He's most likely to pick up the maximum number of supporters by keeping his mouth clean.

I believe it's the same with the language used in novels. You hear people say, 'I don't read this author's books because I don't like all the swearing in them.' But it's pretty rare to hear, 'I don't read this author's books because his characters don't swear.' If you can pick up the maximum number of fans by keeping it clean, you'd be crazy not to do it.



Thursday, December 17, 2015

'The Blue Castle' by L.M. Montgomery

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Because it was L.M. Montgomery's date of birth a couple of weeks ago, I got nostalgic and pulled a book from shelf I haven't read in years.

Valancy lives a drab life with her overbearing mother and prying aunt. Then a shocking diagnosis from Dr. Trent prompts her to make a fresh start. For the first time, she does and says exactly what she feels. As she expands her limited horizons, Valancy undergoes a transformation, discovering a new world of love and happiness. One of Lucy Maud Montgomery's only novels intended for an adult audience, The Blue Castle is filled with humour and romance.

MY THOUGHTS:

I just noticed that the Goodreads blurb called this one of Montgomery's only novels for an adult audience, and I agree with that. In spite of the recommendation at the start of my paperback, and how quick it is to read, I believe this book may be more special for adult women than girls around 12. I read it when I turned 13, and have just re-read it now. It was far more meaningful the second time. Although I enjoyed it, Valancy's plight didn't pack the same punch at that age. I was able to understand it with my head, but I'm sure it took more life experience under the bridge to grasp it with my heart.

We may think of Valancy's dreadful Stirling clan as the type of funny caricature LMM knew how to write so well, but the funny thing is we recognise people out there like them! Walking, talking, one-sided caricatures, in our families, workplaces and communities. And many of us are taught from a young age to put such a lot of faith in what say about us and how they treat us.

I love the way Valancy approaches her transformation. She knows what to focus on. People's opinions of her were part of what caused her narrow, henpecked life, but she knows better than to attempt what so many of us think is logical, to fix things by changing people's opinions. She makes the more wise move, and decides that as we have so little control over other people's opinions, she'll simply shrug them off and live a life more true to her inner values.

Sometimes we need to ask for what we want. I'd forgotten the way Valancy did that. She didn't dare change her life until she believed she had nothing to lose.

Barney Snaith is full of appeal from our first glimpse of him. He's genuinely content and happy, despite the way people look down their noses at him and invent a horrifying reputation, while Valancy has been miserable her whole, squeaky clean, obedient life. By the end, I was thinking he deserves to be ranked up there with literature's great, romantic heroes. I had to laugh when I read what another reviewer wrote, that his lack of acclaim might be to do with his stodgy name (although in recent years we have Barney Stinson from 'How I Met Mother sitcom, whose name is similar, and has enjoyed a lot of popularity). Anyway, I'm sure Barney Snaith wouldn't even want to be on a list with the likes of Edward Rochester, Fitzwilliam Darcy and Rhett Butler, so he might be glad people didn't put him there.

Monday, December 14, 2015

'The First Christmas Carol' by Marianne Jordan

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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 50, A Book set during Christmas time.
And this marks the end of my challenge this year. Yahoo!! 

Matthew, Mark, Luke, and . . . Dickens?

In an interpretive retelling of this familiar Christmas story the author asks: What if there was room at the inn? The First Christmas Carol combines a timeless work of classic literature with the first documented Christmas story. As darkness cloaks the hills of Bethlehem three angels visit an unscrupulous innkeeper, revealing his past, present, and the miracles yet to come.

Not the story you've read. Still the stories you know.


MY THOUGHTS:

This is a blend of the traditional Christmas story with Charles Dickens' 'A Christmas Carol', which translates to ancient Palestine quite easily.

Ebenezer is the cranky, money-hungry inn-keeper who's doing his utmost to turn the census situation into a personal profit. He'll rip travelers off with exorbitant prices and refuse to give any charity, now matter how needy those who may come before him. Of course, we all know who's going to show up with the donkey, exhausted and with the birth of a baby approaching.

Ebenezer's employee Aaron, this story's Bob Cratchit character, takes pity on the couple and guides them to the stable, at the urging of his lame son, Timothy. And Isaac is Ebenezer's well-meaning nephew, who he's always rejected because the boy's birth caused his sister's death.

While Mary and Joseph are settling down in the stable, Ebenezer is being visited by three angels who have some things to show him. It's a fun Christmas read. I've been reading it with my eleven-year-old son, who isn't familiar with 'A Christmas Carol' yet, as Dickens' language has seemed a bit lofty and wordy so far. It's fun to see him enjoy the story in an easy flowing setting.

4 stars

Thursday, December 10, 2015

'Until the Dawn' by Elizabeth Camden

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A volunteer for the newly established Weather Bureau, Sophie van Riijn needs access to the highest spot in her village to report the most accurate readings. Fascinated by Dierenpark, an abandoned mansion high atop a windswept cliff in the Hudson River Valley, Sophie knows no better option despite a lack of permission from the absent owners.

The first Vandermark to return to the area in sixty years, Quentin intends to put an end to the shadowy rumors about the property that has brought nothing but trouble upon his family. Ready to tear down the mansion, he is furious to discover a local woman has been trespassing on his land.

Instantly at odds, Quentin and Sophie find common ground when she is the only one who can reach his troubled son. There's a light within Sophie that Quentin has never known, and a small spark of the hope that left him years ago begins to grow. But when the secrets of Dierenpark and the Vandermark family history are no longer content to stay in the past, will tragedy triumph or can their tenuous hope prevail?


MY THOUGHTS: 

This is the type of plot where the main characters start off at odds, but we can understand both sides. Sophie has been involved in the caretaking of the property, Dierenpark, since she was a child, and is just doing what she's always done. Quentin is aghast at what appears to be the exploitation of his family's misfortune by those who work on the property. We know there are bound to be fireworks, but I loved the deeper aspects which kept being introduced.

There's the historical aspect. The story is set when weather predictions were in their infancy, and Sophie is one of many volunteers across the country who collect data, helping the Weather Bureau to fine-tune their accuracy. It's interesting to see the dedication behind something we now take for granted.

Then there's the psychological aspect, getting us pondering about the nature behind a good mood. Both protagonists have had rough experiences, but Sophie chooses to focus on the benevolence in the world, while Quentin intially hones in on his hard knocks. We've each got to make up our minds whether we choose to regard the world as a friendly or hostile place. That's at the bottom of many lively exchanges between Sophie and Quentin.

That leads to the supernatural aspect. The property, Dierenpark, is regarded as a beautiful, fertile haven because of some sort of blessing taking place in a hidden realm, challenging even Quentin to wonder whether or not something is happening just beyond the reach of his senses. Even the oysters show signs of prosperity here, although I don't fancy swallowing them straight from the shell, as so many of these characters love to do.

The attitudes of all the different characters help make this book. Quentin is all about realism and science, evident in the lesson he keeps trying to pound into his son. Kid characters don't always come across believably or sympathetically in novels, but Pieter is great. Grandpa, Nickolaas, is into all sorts of weird, spiritual theories, with the money to chase them up. Then there's Sophie, with her attitude which strikes Quentin as so naively cheerful. He could have called her a Pollyanna, if those Pollyanna books had been written back then.

My only gripe was a few loose ends which I wish had been tied up, including a fairly intense argument between Sophie and Quentin, which we're left to assume was simply brushed under the carpet or forgotten about. I wished it hadn't happened, at that stage in their understanding. Even the matter of the bee hives wasn't really returned to. I won't say more, for fear of plot spoilers.

Anyway, I had to laugh when Sophie grouchily reflected that all Quentin had going for him was intelligence and a sense of humour, to which she couldn't help adding the obvious good looks and wealth. In the eyes of many ladies, surely that would be enough! It shows just how much a sour, cranky attitude can overshadow, and how easy it was to become a Quentin fan when he started dealing with it.

Thanks to Bethany House and Net Galley for my review copy.

4.5 stars


Monday, December 7, 2015

'The Fruitcake Challenge' by Carrie Fancett Pagels

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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 49 - A Book you started but didn't finish
I started it in December last year, but then after Christmas, I set it aside and forgot about it. To get into the spirit of the season, I read it over from the start, and finished it this time around. 

When new lumberjack, Tom Jeffries, tells the camp cook, Jo Christy, that he’ll marry her if she can make a fruitcake, “as good as the one my mother makes,” she rises to the occasion. After all, he’s the handsomest, smartest, and strongest axman her camp-boss father has ever had in his camp—and the cockiest. And she intends to bring this lumberjack down a notch or three by refusing his proposal. The fruitcake wars are on!

MY THOUGHTS:
This story is set in a lumberjack camp at which the heroine, Jo's father is the boss. Tom seems to be one of the more educated and refined of the bunch, which gives her the idea that he has tickets on himself. As it nears Christmas, he issues a challenge. He'll propose marriage to any lady on the camp who can make a fruitcake as good as his mother's. Annoyed by the way the others jump to it, Jo determines to make the best fruitcake if it kills her, just so she can have the pleasure of turning him down. That's a cute premise to get anyone in the spirit of the season.

This is a cruisy little holiday read which gets you hungry at times, as tastes and smells are described. There's a bit of humour too, as the guys at the camp banter with each other, including the boss' big, tough sons who tend to be over-protective of their sister.

The book has a countdown quality to it, as time ticks away to the finale which occurs at Christmas. Stories in which everything ends up neatly to the benefit of everyone are probably easiest pulled off at this time of year. It has its share of coincidences and cute, tricky maneuvres.

Now I feel like going to try and bake a fruitcake.

3 stars

Saturday, December 5, 2015

'At Love's Bidding' by Regina Jennings

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After helping her grandfather at their Boston auction house, Miranda Wimplegate discovers she's accidentally sold a powerful family's prized portrait to an anonymous bidder. Desperate to appease the furious family, her grandfather tracks it to the Missouri Ozarks and makes an outlandish offer to buy the local auction house if they promise not to sell anything until he arrives.

Upon their arrival, however, they discover their new business doesn't deal in fine antiques, but in livestock. And its manager, ruggedly handsome Wyatt Ballentine, is frustrated to discover his fussy new bosses don't know a thing about the business he's single-handedly kept afloat. Faced with more cattle than they can count--but no mysterious painting--Miranda and Wyatt form an unlikely but charged partnership to try and salvage a bad situation getting worse.


MY THOUGHTS:
It's a comedy of errors. There's one mix-up on the heels of another, and so on. The Wimplegates are a respectable, working class family of auctioneers facing big trouble. They accidentally sold the wrong item, and need to find the missing painting quick smart for the owners. Miranda accompanies her grandfather to follow the slight lead they have, but they don't expect to end up in hillbilly territory, where there are dangerous bandits as well as sweeping beauty.

The romance is thoroughly enjoyable. I'm sure many girls would be willing to travel to remote country towns to find some manly backwoods boy like Wyatt, but unfortunately, that doesn't seem to be the way it works, in real life or novels either. Guys like him only seem to drop into the lives of girls who aren't looking for them. Miranda has a long held family understanding with Cousin Cornelius, the phrenologist who loves examining the bumps and contours on people's skulls.

I appreciate this type of novel, because sometimes it takes a good comedy to highlight the ridiculous aspects of life that we buy into with all seriousness. First, people rely on social standing, job status or other titles to feel good about themselves. Even though it may be more subtle in our era, the pressure still exists. Wyatt's fluctuations in fortune during the course of this novel pack a punch. He's in the perfect position to learn first hand how silly it is to wait for cues from others before you give yourself permission to consider yourself OK. 

Grandfather Wimplegate's condition is touching. Nobody calls it by any of its modern terms in this historical novel, but it's clear what ails him. Miranda grapples with the reasonable seeming question of why. If God is supposed to add wisdom with increasing years, what's the deal here? In spite of the poignant aspect, Grandfather's condition adds many of the comic moments to the story.

I'm looking forward to reading more novels in this whimsical, funny series.

Thanks to Bethany House and Net Galley for my review copy.

4.5 stars

Thursday, December 3, 2015

I wasn't bored, but thought I was



My favourite thing to do as a kid was something with no name that I knew of, so I made one up. It was 'acting out books', a sort of cross between reading and role playing. I'd choose a character to identify with, then become that person, walking around with a book in front of my nose, using things around my house and neighbourhood as props. As we were suburbanites, my bike stood in for a horse more times than I can count. Somehow I managed to look out for obstacles as I read.

Among my favourite books to act out were magical adventures written by Enid Blyton. I'd be Bessie climbing the Faraway Tree (aka Dad's big wooden trellis) or Mollie flying over fantastic landscapes in the Wishing Chair. One of Blyton's most common themes seemed to be, 'As you carry on with your ordinary, everyday life, you never know what might happen.' These children were simply exploring their local woods or buying a present for their mother, when voila! They were accidentally sprung into the most surreal other-worlds that seemed to hover just behind a curtain. Same with Lucy, hiding in a wardrobe in the old country house and accidentally discovering Narnia. It was great fun pretending to be these characters, but then I'd be called back to real life.

It made my little Primary School heart a bit grouchy and cynical. I'd grumble, 'I wish something good like that would happen to me, but it never will. My life is just full of boring school and being asked to tidy my room, day after day.' Standing on the end of the supermarket trolley while my parents bought groceries seemed to be the most exciting thing that ever happened to me. I was setting myself up for an attitude of discontentment it was hard to shake off later.

One of the books I read recently, The Solitaire Mystery, brings out my attitude in a unique way. The young hero's father often remarks that ours is a brilliant and amazing planet on which to live, and those who get jaded and look for interest elsewhere are short-sighted. He shakes his head over the people he sees dashing around seeking excitement on some different plane. In his opinion, the angel whisperers, ghost hunters and Martian seekers just don't get it. They miss the point that they are already included in the pinnacle of God's creation, for if anybody ever discovered another place like our earth, we'd all be bowled off our feet to put it mildly.

Imagine the excitement in the media, if scientists discovered a distant world populated by beings like us, who build cities, write books and create art. Even if it just had our vibrant colour and ecology, diverse flora and fauna, we'd be staggered. What if it had our ideal climates for human life, and thousands of different taste and smell experiences to offer? People would soon be talking about ways to get there. It begs a question from him, which he's surprised so many others don't seem to ask. 'If you'd be amazed by that, then why aren't you more impressed by your own surroundings, and what our world has to offer every day?'

Only in retrospect as an adult did I realise that those hours spent on my own were as magical as I could get. I was totally immersed and happy acting out books. In fact, it was probably better pretending to have those adventures than really having them. Far safer with no real risk of danger. I hadn't come across Helen Keller's quote, 'Life is either a daring adventure or nothing,' but my experience proved it quite true, only when I looked back. As I said, I wasn't bored, but thought I was.

Maybe Robert Louis Stevenson summed up the subject in his Happy Thought, 'The world is so full of a number of things, I'm sure we should all be as happy as kings.'

Monday, November 30, 2015

'The Painter's Daughter' by Julie Klassen

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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 48  - A book by an author you love, but haven't read yet. 
Well, I fixed that now :) There is even a Colouring Competition for this book, if you'd like to give it a try, although it isn't open to Aussies like me, but people who lived in Canada and the USA.

Sophie Dupont, daughter of a portrait painter, assists her father in his studio, keeping her own artwork out of sight. She often walks the cliffside path along the north Devon coast, popular with artists and poets. It's where she met the handsome Wesley Overtree, the first man to tell her she's beautiful.

Captain Stephen Overtree is accustomed to taking on his brother's neglected duties. Home on leave, he's sent to find Wesley. Knowing his brother rented a cottage from a fellow painter, he travels to Devonshire and meets Miss Dupont, the painter's daughter. He's startled to recognize her from a miniature portrait he carries with him--one of Wesley's discarded works. But his happiness plummets when he realizes Wesley has left her with child and sailed away to Italy in search of a new muse.

Wanting to do something worthwhile with his life, Stephen proposes to Sophie. He does not offer love, or even a future together, but he can save her from scandal. If he dies in battle, as he believes he will, she'll be a respectable widow with the protection of his family.

Desperate for a way to escape her predicament, Sophie agrees to marry a stranger and travel to his family's estate. But at Overtree Hall, her problems are just beginning. Will she regret marrying Captain Overtree when a repentant Wesley returns? Or will she find herself torn between the father of her child and her growing affection for the husband she barely knows?


MY THOUGHTS:
I enjoyed this novel, but wasn't sure I wanted to read it based on the blurb. The plot sounded fairly predictable, and I'm not crazy about love triangles which involve a girl and two brothers. But since Julie Klassen has written some of my favourite novels, I went for it anyway, and I'm glad I did. She brings the Regency Era to life, and I kept thinking about the Overtree family long after I finished.

For other fans of hers, at first the two main men seem like a repeat performance of the brothers in an earlier novel, 'The Maid of Fairbourne Hall', yet I quickly developed stronger feelings for these two.

Stephen is noble and trustworthy, like Nathaniel, but with the added distinction of being a war hero. There's an edge-of-your-seat combat scene or two, something I've never seen from Julie Klassen before (or Jane Austen, for that matter). It really brings home what these British soldiers who fought Napoleon's troops were up against. Stephen comes across as gruff at times, but it's a lovable, awkward sort of gruffness. He's thoughtful and courteous along with it, and there's always a sense that his softer, romantic side might be just about to bloom.

As for Wesley, he was more than just another shallow and despicable Lewis. He is an 'if it feels good, do it' sort of guy, but is shown to have some scruples. A fair chunk of the story is told from his point of view, making it easier to understand how things appeared from his angle.

Wesley's role left me pondering about a father's rights, then and now. Sophie was the one we were meant to have most sympathy for, but I felt regret for him too. If a similar situation occurred in the twenty-first century, would she get away with dictating what was going to happen to their baby without leaving him any options? There are plenty of stories about men who desert girls after getting them pregnant, so it's interesting to come across this one, where a young dad eventually seems willing to step up and accept the responsibility, but his hands are tied by social convention, making it too late.

In a way, he might be getting his just desserts. Men like Wesley are often typecast as getting girls in positions where they are powerless to speak up and defend their parental rights, so in this book, the tables are turned. Anyway, if this story had a villain it would have to be him, so the fact that I found him quite likeable made it all the richer for me.

I love the secondary characters and sub-plots too. The little mysteries kept my pages turning. How did Stephen get his facial scar? Who was Jenny? What grudge does the mysterious Miss Angela Blake from next door carry? And how about the old, retired nurse, Winnie, who lives on the top floor. Does she really possess second sight? What lies in store for the boys' younger sister, Kate, who is a real sweetie? 

I guess if it happened in our time, the train of events might have been completely different. Sophie's reputation and place in society wouldn't be on the line as acutely, so Stephen wouldn't necessarily feel such an urgent need to act on her behalf immediately. He might not even bother at all. Wesley would go around quoting YOLO (you only live once), but Sophie would probably be able to easily contact him by mobile phone or social media for something so important. As it is, the time period helps the course of events feel more inevitable, making it a great choice for anyone who enjoys stories about a heroine gradually warming up to a hero who proves to be the more suitable man than her first choice.

Thanks to Bethany House and Net Galley for my review copy.

5 stars

Thursday, November 26, 2015

'Anne of Green Gables, My Daughter, and Me' by Lorilee Craker

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A charming and heartwarming true story for anyone who has ever longed for a place to belong. “Anne of Green Gables,” My Daughter, and Me is a witty romp through the classic novel; a visit to the magical shores of Prince Edward Island; and a poignant personal tale of love, faith, and loss.

And it all started with a simple question: “What’s an orphan?” The words from her adopted daughter, Phoebe, during a bedtime reading of Anne of Green Gables stopped Lorilee Craker in her tracks. How could Lorilee, who grew up not knowing her own birth parents, answer Phoebe’s question when she had wrestled all her life with feeling orphaned—and learned too well that not every story has a happy ending?

So Lorilee set off on a quest to find answers in the pages of the very book that started it all, determined to discover—and teach her daughter—what home, family, and belonging really mean. If you loved the poignancy of Orphan Train and the humor of Mennonite in a Little Black Dress, you will be captivated by “Anne of Green Gables,” My Daughter, and Me. It’s a beautiful memoir that deftly braids three lost girls’ stories together, speaks straight to the heart of the orphan in us all, and shows us the way home at last.


MY THOUGHTS:

I enjoy memoirs which are based around the author's love of a particular book. Especially when it happens to be one I've also loved for decades. Our favourite books do help shape our lives, and that's worth celebrating, as Lorilee Craker has done here.

The adoption aspect is particularly meaningful to the author. She herself was adopted as a baby, and later, she and her husband adopted a baby girl from Korea to join their family of two boys. I started off expecting that many of the points wouldn't apply to me, but I was in for a surprise. It's well worth reading just to discover how many of us may carry aspects of the orphan heart without knowing it, whether that comes from being rejected, snubbed, shunned, left behind or failing to make a grade. That probably covers pretty much everyone at some time.

She sums up episodes from Anne's life with funny, twenty-first century insights and parallels, and as the reader, I couldn't help remembering some of my own too. It's essentially a book for female readers, and we can probably all identify our own kindred spirit Diana Barrys, mean girl Josie Pyes, and if we're lucky, love-of-our-life Gilbert Blythes, through the years.

We love Gilbert for the way he stayed devoted to Anne for so long, and how she realised that this 'boy next door' was more of a Prince Charming than the dark, handsome, mythical men she conjured up in her own head, or their look-alikes. It helps us to appreciate the men in our own lives with fresh eyes. And as for Josie Pye, Craker points out that these girls are everywhere, and don't rise to positions of influence without our permission.She gives tips on how to deal with them with grace and dignity.

The true meaning of the word 'real' is delved into. When it comes to families, although many may assume this means your biological folk, this is not necessarily the case. The love felt for adoptive family members becomes biological anyway, as depth of feeling releases hormones and bonding chemicals. I love how although Lorilee met her birth mother and extended family, and got along well with them, she still honoured her first family in her heart, because of their shared love and lifetime of experiences.

We've all seen how many adopted people decide to seek their biological parents as if it's a search for the holy grail. I took it as a nudge for those of us who have always had a birth mothers and fathers around, to not forget to honour and appreciate them in the same way.

Thanks to Tyndale House and NetGalley for my review copy.

5 stars.

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

'Green Eggs and Ham' by Dr Seuss

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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 47 - A Banned Book
Having read many thick volumes for this year's challenge, I was happy to choose a short book this week. It interests me to discover why kids' books get placed on banned books lists. This one may seem completely innocuous, but apparently it was banned in Maoist China in 1965 for what they perceived as its portrayal of early Marxism. I can't really figure that one out. 

“Do you like green eggs and ham?” asks Sam-I-am in this Beginner Book by Dr. Seuss. In a house or with a mouse? In a boat or with a goat? On a train or in a tree? Sam keeps asking persistently. With unmistakable characters and signature rhymes, Dr. Seuss’s beloved favorite has cemented its place as a children’s classic. In this most famous of cumulative tales, the list of places to enjoy green eggs and ham, and friends to enjoy them with, gets longer and longer. Follow Sam-I-am as he insists that this unusual treat is indeed a delectable snack to be savored everywhere and in every way.

Originally created by Dr. Seuss, Beginner Books encourage children to read all by themselves, with simple words and illustrations that give clues to their meaning.


MY THOUGHTS:
Dr Seuss, aka Theodor Geisel, was challenged by a friend to write a book with only 50 words, and this classic was the result. Limiting himself to such a small vocabulary, yet still ending up with a decent theme, was a really clever feat.

As a kid, I was pretty sure I latched onto the moral Dr. Seuss intended us to. Turning up our noses and declaring we don't like something without even trying it is foolish behaviour with the potential to seriously limit our pleasurable experiences. Even at the age of four, I was already aware that lots of people behave like Sam's friend.

I assumed that Sam-I-Am obviously knew the big, furry guy well enough to have formed a pretty accurate impression of his tastes, so he was doing him a favour by pressing the issue. This is made clear at the end when the big chap profusely thanks him for introducing a new taste sensation.

The moral isn't that we're supposed to pester and nag until the other person breaks down with frustration just to get us off their back. I accepted Sam to be more like the persistent widow in the Bible, (who Jesus commended for pestering the unjust judge), than a colossal pain in the rear end. Sam was the hero for risking unpopularity by going out of his way to prove his point, when it would have been far easier for him to shrug his shoulders and say, 'Your loss.'

Would I try green eggs and ham myself? Possibly, since I've tried purple carrots, yellow watermelon and blood oranges. It is a strange experience, to reconcile a familiar flavour with an unexpected colour. But I would draw the line at black pudding, just because I don't fancy the thought of the ingredients that go into it, so we all have our limits.

I guess many parents have used this little book to encourage their kids to eat up over the years, and will probably keep doing it for decades to come.




Monday, November 23, 2015

'Without Proof' by Janet Sketchley

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 "Asking questions could cost your life."

Two years after the plane crash that killed her fiancé, Amy Silver has fallen for his best friend, artist Michael Stratton. When a local reporter claims the small aircraft may have been sabotaged, it reopens Amy's grief.

Anonymous warnings and threats are Amy's only proof that the tragedy was deliberate, and she has nowhere to turn. The authorities don't believe her, God is not an option, and Michael's protection is starting to feel like a cage.

How will Amy find the truth?

Michael's feisty great-aunt and the dead man's university-student sister are the other key players in this Christian romantic suspense set in Nova Scotia, Canada.


MY THOUGHTS:
This is the final novel in a trilogy of riveting suspense stories which can each also be read alone. Amy Silver is the cousin of Carol in Secrets and Lies and the formidable Harry in Heaven's Prey. She was involved in a horrific light plane crash in which she was seriously injured, and her pilot fiance killed. Amy comes across with a very likeable combination of strength and frailty, especially since she needs to walk with the aid of a cane after a couple of years of intense physiotherapy.

Only now is she beginning to heal, but rumours are creeping in that sabotage may have been a factor in the plane crash. Initially tending to dismiss them, Amy is chilled by warnings from some anonymous contact to do just that. Now she's caught between the fear of what she may stir up if she asks further questions, and the strong desire to get to the bottom of her beloved Gilles' death, if there was foul play.

At the same time, the biological father who previously wanted nothing to do with her has made contact, asking to meet. Having grown up with the stigma of knowing that she was the result of a casual fling, Amy grapples with dread, curiosity and resentment. There are some really strong threads about dealing with her personal sense of lack of worth, resulting from her birth history, and forgiveness. This involves not just her father but Gilles' family, who are treating her coldly and making her wonder if there's some aspect about his death she's unaware of.

The twists and turns of the plot, and what lies hidden, really caught me by surprise, and there were several moments when my skin was prickling along with Amy's. You can't help wondering whether the loving family who have supported her back on her feet are quite as straightforward as they seem. There's Gilles' best friend Michael, the protective artist who Amy is secretly in love with, and his energetic Aunt Bay. There is also Gilles' sister, Uni student Emilie, who also has an obvious crush on Michael and wants Amy away.

Thanks to the author for providing me with a review copy.

4.5 stars

Thursday, November 19, 2015

5 novels which feature amazing, supernaturual books

We may sometimes hear the question, 'Which books made the biggest impact in your life?' It's common knowledge that books have the potential to change lives, and we can probably each rattle off a list. But these novels take it a step further. They each feature a book that radically changes the life of the protagonist. However, they are more than a mere story within another story. The contents of these books turn out to have a magical or surreal quality which has a direct bearing on the life of the hero.

Here are five I've come across within the last few years. If you wanted to get hold of the whole pile, it would make a fascinating, mystical read-athon.

1) The Book of Days by James L. Rubart.
Book of Days Psalm 139: 16 tells us that our days were all recorded in God's Book of Days before any of them came to be. The hero, Cameron, hears rumors about the physical existence of such a book, with past, present and future histories of every man and woman written in it. He sets off on a quest to find it.
My review is here.

2) The Book of Strange New Things by Michel Farber
The Book of Strange New Things The missionary hero, Peter, sets off to share the contents of our Bible with strange beings on another planet. He has no idea how different it will be to them.
My review is here.

3) The Book of Tomorrow by Cecilia Ahern
The Book of Tomorrow The young heroine, Tamara, discovers a strange book which tells her events set to take place within the next few days, before they even happen.

4) The Book Keeper by Julieann Wallace
The Book Keeper Handsome hero, Cohen Darcy, doesn't even like books, but circumstances make him custodian of an eerie book which is being written as he lives his life. The author, Julieann Wallace, is a fellow Australian author friend of mine. I had fun reading her book. My review is here.

5) The Solitaire Mystery by Jostein Gaarder
The Solitaire Mystery A young boy receives a mysterious, tiny book to read on his road trip. The more he gets stuck into it, the more he finds that it has bearing on his own life, even though it appears to written about long ago people.  
My review is here.

If anybody can think of any more stories about such remarkable books, please share them with me.

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

'The Distant Hours' by Kate Morton


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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 46 - A Book a friend recommended. 
I have quite a few friends who recommend more and more of Kate Morton, but I remember one occasion in which somebody highly praised this particular book.

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A long lost letter arrives in the post and Edie Burchill finds herself on a journey to Milderhurst Castle, a great but moldering old house, where the Blythe spinsters live and where her mother was billeted 50 years before as a 13 year old child during WWII. The elder Blythe sisters are twins and have spent most of their lives looking after the third and youngest sister, Juniper, who hasn’t been the same since her fiance jilted her in 1941.

Inside the decaying castle, Edie begins to unravel her mother’s past. But there are other secrets hidden in the stones of Milderhurst, and Edie is about to learn more than she expected. The truth of what happened in ‘the distant hours’ of the past has been waiting a long time for someone to find it.

Morton once again enthralls readers with an atmospheric story featuring unforgettable characters beset by love and circumstance and haunted by memory, that reminds us of the rich power of storytelling.



MY THOUGHTS:
 
Kate Morton reminds me of a younger, more up-to-date Daphne du Maurier, because she writes with that same sense of spooky nostalgia. In part of this story, she even used the line, 'Last night I dreamed I went to Milderhurst.' Doesn't that sound familiar? She's one of those authors I don't want to skim over the descriptions to cut to the chase, because her beautiful prose and imagery is such a pleasure to read. It doesn't matter when the story gets slow, because I'm still absorbing every word.

In this novel, Edie, a young editor, longs to discover the tragic history of three elderly sisters who live alone in their family castle. She suspects her mother, Meredith, may have played some part in it, as she's always been tight lipped about the time she spent there as a war evacuee between 1939 and 1941.

The backstory is told in several flashbacks to earlier times when the sisters' father, Raymond, an eccentric fiction author, was alive. There's something secretive about the way he composed his famous novel, not to mention the furtive way the sisters behave around each other. There are the twins, Persephone and Seraphina (Percy and Saffy). Percy is the decisive, controlling alpha twin with a strong protective love for her family and home. Saffy is the milder, gentler of the two, with her love of writing and beauty. They care for their younger half-sister Juniper, who supposedly went mad because her fiance deserted her for another woman.

While the story was being told from others' points of view, I didn't like Juniper at all. Her family seemed to have indulged her into a spoiled brat. It's annoying when people behave as if they're exempt from pulling their weight, and leave a wake of destruction behind them, because 'that's just them.' However, when I got into her own head space at last, I changed my opinion of her.

I liked young Meredith, a good representative for those who may come across as distant and remote, while the aloofness merely masks an extra sensitive heart. I didn't like Raymond, for reasons you'll see if you choose to read this book. I've noticed that in Kate Morton stories, readers often know even more than the characters by the end. The characters aren't in the position to look deeply into each others' most secret hearts, as we are.

I'd have to give this book 5 stars for description and readability, but the ill-fated, gothic nature of this plot got me down a little, so I'd give it less for story line. I've now read two of Morton's novels, and the blurbs for several others. It's enough to make me think that if anyone binged on them one after another, the themes and plots might eventually blend into one. I know it's her brand, but I don't think I'll read any others for a while, at least until I'm in the mood for something that's bound to contain dark, heart-breaking family secrets, along with twenty-first century folk with a mind to get to the bottom of them. There's a brand new one, which will be on my list to read some time.

But finally, I've just to say that I appreciated Juniper's youthful approach to her writing. Getting it all down on paper and out of her system was the main thing for her, regardless of whether or not others ever read it. My first response was, 'What a great attitude. Good on her,' and then I realised that millions of bloggers all over the world now follow her example, so perhaps Juniper was just years ahead of her time, and perhaps we all deserve a pat on the back.

4 stars

Sunday, November 15, 2015

'The Solitaire Mystery' by Jostein Gaarder

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I am pleased to highlight the work of Cotopaxi in today's review. They have created an excellent range of outdoor and adventure products with the goal of helping to alleviate world poverty. Here is their mission statement.  And here is a range of their backpacks, enabling us to carry our adventure novels around with the gear we need. They will be featuring a great range of bloggers' favorite adventure stories in days to come. Here are some of theirs, to get us in the mood for exploration and hitting the road. Please support them if you can.

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Hans Thomas and his father set out on a car trip through Europe, from Norway to Greece—the birthplace of philosophy—in search of Hans Thomas's mother, who left them many years earlier. On the way, Hans Thomas receives a mysterious miniature book—the fantastic memoir of a sailor shipwrecked in 1842 on a strange island where a deck of cards come to life.

Structured as a deck of cards—each chapter is one in the deck—"The Solitaire Mystery" weaves together fantasy and reality, fairy tales and family history. Full of questions about the meaning of life, it will spur its listeners to reexamine their own


MY THOUGHTS:
Hans Thomas is a young boy on a road trip across Europe with his Dad. Their ultimate aim is to track down his mother, who left them on a quest to 'find herself' when Hans Thomas was tiny. They've discovered she has a successful modelling career in Athens, so that's their destination. Dad has decided it's about time she came home, or at least talked things over.

On the way, Hans Thomas acquires a small magnifying glass, and a little further on, a tiny book with minuscule writing given especially to him. No way will I spoil the plot by revealing the circumstances. It becomes his travel reading, and is soon clear to him that this is not just any book, but has direct bearing on his own life. It's also a story with similarities to onion layers or Babushka dolls. The person who wrote it is merely repeating what he was told by someone else, who got it from another person, and so on, back to Frode, a man who was shipwrecked in the nineteenth century and began making up lonely games with his deck of cards. The story-within-a-story turns out to be about readers like us, too.

It's a colorful and sensual novel, full of descriptions of many wonderful things. I wish it was published as one of those large, hard-cover versions with vivid illustrations. I'd go straight out and buy one. Being unable to drive across Europe myself, it was magical sharing Hans Thomas and Dad's adventure. The 'real' section is just as much of a fairy tale as what the boy reads in the book. Especially since it involves snow capped German mountain peaks, gondola rides in Venice and a walk through the Acropolis in Greece.

Along their way, the story delves into topics such as synchronicity, destiny and collective consciousness in a highly original way. How many other books would you come across with sentences such as, 'The dwarf stole the sticky-bun book!' That's just a teaser for you.

Hans Thomas' Dad was one of my favorite characters, providing many of the quirks and pauses for reflection. For a start, he collects jokers, often throwing away the rest of the card deck like a banana peel. The joker theme became one which really stuck with me. Hans Thomas suspects that Dad has an affinity with the joker, considering himself a little fool who doesn't fit into any group, but is perhaps more far-sighted and clear-thinking than those who do.

Another great aspect of the book is opening our eyes to the incredible world in which we live. Several characters come to realize that it is folly to rush around feeling bored, and seeking experiences with elusive supernatural beings such as ghosts, angels or Martians, when all along, we ourselves are miraculous examples of God's sublime creation.

Perhaps my favorite two trains of thought are brought together when Hans Thomas' Dad says, 'If just one of these thousands of people experience life like a crazy adventure every single day, then he or she is a joker in a deck of cards.' I have a feeling that hanging out with Jostein Gaarder might be similar to spending time with Hans Thomas' Dad, and that he considers himself a joker too.

5 stars.

Friday, November 13, 2015

'The Shock of Night' by Patrick W. Carr

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When one man is brutally murdered and the priest he works for mortally wounded on the streets of Bunard, Willet Dura is called to investigate. Yet the clues to the crime lead to contradictions and questions without answers. As Willet begins to question the dying priest, the man pulls Willet close and screams in a foreign tongue. Then he dies without another word.

Willet returns to the city, no closer to answers than before, but his senses are skewed. People he touches appear to have a subtle shift, a twist seen at the edge of his vision, and it's as though he can see their deepest thoughts. In a world divided between haves and have-nots, gifted and common, Willet soon learns he's been passed the rarest gift of all: a gift that's not supposed to exist.

Now Willet must pursue the murderer still on the loose in Bunard even as he's pulled into a much more dangerous and epic conflict that threatens not only his city, but his entire world--a conflict that will force him to come to terms with his own tortured past if he wants to survive.


MY THOUGHTS:
I was really keen to start Patrick W. Carr's new series since I raced through his Staff and the Sword trilogy, being among my favourite reads of 2014. I've discovered the Darkwater Saga has the same complex, unique and carefully plotted new land I would have expected from him. There are some differences, though.

We have an older, more experienced hero, for a start. Willet is more confident in the ways of the world than Errol was at the start of the other trilogy. He's already widely known for his combat skills, and is employed as a reeve by the king. As he tells his story in first person, it doesn't take long to realise that Willet, having fought in wars, suffers from PTSD and also the loss of a dream. He'd hoped to join the church, from which he is now barred owing to blood on his hands. He has his own personal terror. Several grisly murders occur on nights when he knows he's been sleepwalking, and returns to his room with blood on the hem of his robe.

It takes a fair bit of brain power and mental connection from the reader at first, to latch onto the way this new world works, making it feel more like hard work than a good read, but once we've got it, then we're off. I'm hoping this review will also serve as a bit of a guide to make things easier than I found them to start off with.

The religions are divided into four priestly orders or divisions, which roughly equate to Christian denominations. There is Servant, Vanguard, Absold and Merum, and Willet's personal leaning is the Merum order.

Most significant to the plot is the way in which humans are able to inherit gifts - which come in six categories; beauty, craft, sum, parts, helps and devotion. They can be split into more specific attributes such as musician, artist etc.  While we normally think of gifts as being randomly passed down through a person's genes, it's far more intentional in this world. Heads of families are able to decide who to pass their gifts on to, through laying on of hands. Knowing that too many splits dilutes a gift is also a consideration, and the more pure are regarded as more powerful and desirable. If somebody dies without formally handing on their gift, it is regarded as 'free' or up for grabs, so to speak.

Although killing for a gift is a crime worthy of execution, murderers will still target those who are known to possess valuable, pure gifts, if they believe they can cover their tracks and get away with it.

In this story, Willet becomes the recipient of an extremely rare gift believed by some to be extinct, that of dema or demere. Perhaps it happened because he was the only one around at the time, but the dying priest Elwin confers it on him as his last act. Willet is henceforth able to deduce the hidden thoughts, motives and histories of a person's heart through mere physical touch, often accidental. That's when the intrigue thickens. As he's also known to be investigating Elwin's death, ruthless crooks are out to kill him.

I'd recommend reading the novella 'By Divine Right' before getting stuck straight into 'The Shock of Night' as it introduces some of the background, making things clearer for us.

Thanks to Net Galley and Bethany House for my review copy.

4 stars 

Wednesday, November 11, 2015

It humbles me to write this amazing blog post

You might have come across an article entitled, 'Literally now also means the same as figuratively'. As we were almost all taught in school, a literal meaning is the one which is actually true. But many modern people use the word to emphasise a statement and make their stories sound more impressive. (For example, 'I'm literally starving'.) Therefore, its informal meaning has now been added to English dictionaries, even though it means the opposite of the proper meaning it's held for centuries. So now I can say, 'My eyes literally popped out of my head when I read that article,' and nobody can say I'm wrong.

I understand that the evolution of languages over time is inevitable. If it stayed static, we might all be talking like Chaucer. Still, I can't help thinking it a shame to witness a change practically under my nose, which has clearly happened because of the ignorance of the general populance. So if enough uneducated people don't know what they're talking about, our language has to make a major shift to accommodate them? It could only happen with English, never with Maths. When I said something like that to my kids, they thought my attitude was a bit pompous. Whether or not that's true, I wonder what's next in store for English speakers.

I think I have a fair idea when I engage on social media and see people's use of the word 'humble.' I've noticed Facebook statuses like this over and over, not to mention published books.

'I felt humbled to win the netball grand final with such wonderful team members.'
'I was humbled to be awarded the grand prize for my highly acclaimed novel.'
'I felt so humbled to be included on a list with such illustrious members.'
'I felt so incredibly humbled to have my contribution selected over all others.' 

Now, in your mind, take that word 'humbled' and replace it with 'honoured' or 'proud' in each of those examples. To me, it seems to make much more sense that way. Surely 'humbled' in its truest sense, means belittled, taken down in size, diminished. I can understand somebody writing, 'I feel humbled when I look up at the stars and the vast Milky Way in our huge night sky.' King David actually did write something like that long ago. It makes perfect sense that he should be aware of his own relative puniness in comparison to the galaxy. But to state that you feel humbled because you won a contest is completely different. I believe it's another word we see used far more often in the opposite sense of what it really means.

How did this happen? Maybe we've unconsciously decided that using it helps us appear like modest, self-effacing people. 'I don't want to come across as if I'm boasting, so if I throw in the word 'humble', everyone will see how unassuming I am.' It seems to be the fashionable term for those who want to do a bit of showing off without appearing that they are. In his book, The End of Me, Kyle Idleman has coined the term 'humblebrag' for what he notices people doing on social media. 'I'm so tired of men giving me wolf whistles' or 'I wish little Johnny would stop asking me questions I can't answer. After all, he isn't even four yet.' I wouldn't be surprised if any sentence beginning with, 'I was humbled...' may well fit into this category.

I can imagine the dictionary some day including an extra definition of 'humble'.

1. Modest and aware of one's failings.
2. Low in rank or importance.
3. To be humiliated or made to apologise.
4. To be the recipient of recognition or honour. Used to express pride in a noteworthy achievement (informal).

When that day comes, the poor non-English speakers who are trying to learn our weird, fluid language will have another reason to scratch their heads and say, 'Huh, I don't get it. How can it mean both?'

If you enjoy this blog post and can see my point, I'll be gratified and honoured, but if enough people tell me I'm talking a load of hogwash or having a silly rant, then I'll be humbled.

Monday, November 9, 2015

'The Five Times I Met Myself' by James L Rubart

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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 45 - A Book Set in the Future
Rather than choosing a book that takes place in a future year, I thought I'd go for this one instead, which fits the bill in a different way. This book is set in the future in that the hero gets a rare opportunity to receive advise from his future self. Whether or not it turns out to be a good thing, he does impact his future by returning to his past.

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What if you met your twenty-three year old self in a dream? What would you say?
Brock Matthews' once promising life is unraveling. His coffee company. His marriage.
So when he discovers his vivid dreams—where he encounters his younger self—might let him change his past mistakes, he jumps at the chance. The results are astonishing, but also disturbing.
Because getting what Brock wants most in the world will force him to give up the one thing he doesn't know how to let go of . . . and his greatest fear is it's already too late.


MY THOUGHTS:
 
In this mind-bending novel, we not only get to witness the hero's life, but several alternative lives he might have lived, had he made different choices.

I've often thought, 'If only I got the chance to meet my younger self, there's so much I'd tell her.' I assume many of us feel the same, which is why I was eager to get stuck into this story of Brock Matthews, who got the chance to meet his younger self several times. He assumed it would be a golden opportunity to fix a few things which went haywire. However, his excellent intentions turned out to make many aspects of his life worse than they were before he started meddling with time.

At the start, Brock and his brother, Ron, are in charge of Black Fedora, the coffee company they inherited from their father. Brock is the 'face' of the company and works with the coffee blends, while Ron manages the business side and owns 51% of the shares. When a financial disaster looms, Brock wonders if there's any way he could have personally prevented it. Meanwhile, his marriage is getting shaky, as his wife, Karissa, begins to mull over their years together with dissatisfaction, and their son, Tyson, may no longer be able to attend college. That's the backdrop that makes Brock wonder if he could possibly  convince his former self to prevent the train wreck his life became.

Are any of us really wise enough to assume we can advise our younger selves what to do? That was one of the big questions I came to ask myself. Brock was certain that at the age of 52, and with the advantage of hindsight, his 24-year-old self needed to listen to him. He was urgent in his mission to change his younger self's mind about the choices he faced. Yet after all that wheedling and convincing, the advice which seemed so wise, turned out to be questionable anyway. Only God has a God's eye view of any individual's life, no matter how often we've experienced life's hard knocks. Brock, to me, is proof that we never reach an age in which we know everything.

I found it shocking, and quite scary when you think about it, that Brock's choices turned out to drastically affect not only his own life but those closest to him, especially Karissa, Tyson and Ron. We may prefer to think that each individual is ultimately responsible for himself or herself, regardless of the positive or negative influence of others, but this story shows more of a strong ripple effect. Without going as far as saying they were putty in Brock's hands, I think the influence he had over the shaping of several destinies ended up alarming him. It makes the reader think about the way we treat our own spouses, children and siblings.

I love Brock's eventual epiphanies regarding the idols he'd set up in his life, especially his personal success in the business arena. There was nothing intrinsically wrong with Black Fedora, or striving to create a good product. It was Brock's lifelong attitude that got things all twisted; one which we could so easily buy into when it comes to our own lives.

One scene I found most touching was the flashback to an event which occurred when he was only 11 years old. It set the scene for a lot of misunderstanding, but I can easily picture my own sons doing the exact same thing. Unexpected gruffness from adults can devastate kids, and it's good that this was brought out.

I'll finish with one of the decisions Brock came to make. 'The future does not exist, so I will live for now. The past is gone and cannot be retrieved, so I will live now. There is only the present.'

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for my review copy.

4.5 stars

   


Friday, November 6, 2015

'The Bronte Plot' by Katherine Reay

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Lucy Alling makes a living selling rare books, often taking suspicious measures to reach her goals. When her unorthodox methods are discovered, Lucy's secret ruins her relationship with her boss and her boyfriend James—leaving Lucy in a heap of hurt, and trouble. Something has to change; she has to change.

In a sudden turn of events, James's wealthy grandmother Helen hires Lucy as a consultant for a London literary and antiques excursion. Lucy reluctantly agrees and soon discovers Helen holds secrets of her own. In fact, Helen understands Lucy's predicament better than anyone else.

As the two travel across England, Lucy benefits from Helen's wisdom, as Helen confronts the ghosts of her own past. Everything comes to a head at Haworth, home of the BrontĂ« sisters, where Lucy is reminded of the sisters' beloved heroines, who, with tenacity and resolution, endured—even in the midst of change.

Now Lucy must go back into her past in order to move forward. And while it may hold mistakes and regrets, she will prevail—if only she can step into the life that's been waiting for her all along.


MY THOUGHTS:
The title could be misleading to some, but it's very apt. If you expect a fast-moving mystery, or something with a detective twist, this isn't really it. The truth turns out to be more creative, and maybe even more meaningful. It simply dawns on the heroine, Lucy, that some of the patterns of her own life gel with the way the Bronte sisters crafted the plots of their novels, and that there are aspects of their stories she can keep in mind to go about fixing hers.

The plot itself chugs along, but not always quickly. Lucy Alling works for antique dealer and interior designer, Sid McKenna. He's a great employer, but some of her own dishonest business habits have caught up with her. Aware of this, her estranged boyfriend's ailing grandmother still hires her as a private consultant and companion to travel to England, to hopefully help repair an old mistake of her own. 

I felt a fair bit of the story focuses on the intricacies of Lucy's profession to a depth that tends to halt the action at times. When they finally get to the Haworth section, a major chunk of the novel describes characters doing home design renos. I was anxious to move on to the Bronte Museum and the moors, but that designing part which seemed drawn out, turns out to have a major impact on Lucy's decision making. Maybe other readers will find it perfect after all. I just wanted to get back to the scenery and literary themes.

 Some conversation patches seemed a bit mundane, cheesy or repetitive. How often does Lucy have to ask Helen whether she thinks they should pack up and go home? I'm sure it would have happened like that, but for a novel, I think we get the idea with just a couple of mentions.

For some time, I wasn't sure how to feel about Lucy. I thought if she was really remorseful about her dodgy actions, she'd stop doing anything remotely dishonest, including her fake acts to get seats at restaurants. But old habits die hard and she just hadn't got to her real turning point, which happens near the end. Nobody can deny the significance and impact her own personal discovery finally has on her. The proof of the pudding is whether or not people make changes, and Lucy definitely does at last.

There were some interesting points to consider, such as the three generations of con-artists in her family, and the way each reasoned why their dishonest habits were not, in fact, so bad, and meant to make people happy rather than angry or sad. This gets characters and readers alike pondering where to draw the line when it comes to blurring fiction and reality.

My favourite parts were definitely when Lucy and Helen were exploring literary landmarks and talking about the lives of famous authors. I went on a holiday like that myself, when I was a bit younger than Lucy, and it brought back wonderful memories. It felt as if I was re-visiting and catching up with modern changes. No more pigeons in Trafalgar Square! That's a bit sad.

So altogether, although this wasn't quite the book I expected, it wasn't a bad book at all. I definitely learned a bit about fabrics and curios, although that hadn't been my intention.

Thanks to Thomas Nelson and NetGalley for my review copy.

3 stars.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

Six True Heroes

The traditional view put forward of a perfect hero may be a buff and rugged guy with superpowers, excessive strength or athleticism, or determination to avenge a vendetta. Yet they've never been the sorts of heroes I prefer. I think true heroism is more low-key and lovable by far. It can often call for simple speech or actions, which may be harder to pull off than all the brute strength in the world. The attitudes of the true hero often involve an element of self-effacement, resulting from a storehouse of deep love for others, which combine to make the hero willing to sacrifice anything, even his own life on some occasions.

The six characters I've chosen for examples are mostly from well-known and celebrated stories. Even though they all happen to be male, I know several awesome female characters also fit the bill. I might make a separate blog post for them some time. But for now, here are six true male heroes.

Warning - Even though most of these are well known stories which I'd assume most of us are familiar with, my reflections are riddled with spoilers. If you haven't read them and would like to, you might prefer to skim over what comes below.

1) Gilbert Blythe

Soon after Matthew Cuthbert's death, he quietly relinquished the offer he'd received to teach at Avonlea School, choosing White Sands instead, which was further away and less convenient. His only reason was so that Anne could teach at the Avonlea School instead, which would enable her to stay close to Marilla in their time of need. He made no fanfares or announcements. In fact, he assumed that since her opinion of him had always been rock bottom, she might reject the offer if she knew. Anne ended up finding out through the grapevine, and Gilbert's generous gesture inspired her to make peace with him, after years of animosity.

2) Atticus Finch

Who could forget the way his two children found out their daddy had once been the best shot in Maycomb County? He simply killed a dangerous, rabid dog, when the sheriff insisted he was the best person to do it. In the preceding years, he'd never even mentioned his impressive skill, and that made a greater impression on Jem and Scout than if he had. It's what we'd come to expect from the lawyer who would agree to stand for the truth and defend a man whose case was doomed from the start.

3) Shasta
The young hero from 'The Horse and his Boy' instinctively tried to protect the heroine, Aravis, who had always treated him with a haughty attitude. Mistaking Aslan for a fierce, wild lion who was about to tear her to pieces, Shasta slid from his horse's back to shoo him away, although to all appearances, he didn't have a chance. His brave action helped change Aravis' opinion of him.

4) Richard Dudgeon
He's the self-proclaimed devil's disciple, from the play by George Bernard Shaw. Despite his rebellious talk, when it came to laying his own life on the line to protect another, he didn't hesitate. He believed that the other man had a greater reason to live than himself.

5) Albus Dumbledore

The Hogwarts Headmaster had many memorable moments, but I'm thinking particularly of his actions directly before his death scene on the astronomy tower. To the very end, he was trying to help and protect his beloved students. He immobilised Harry so that he wouldn't rush in to get himself involved. And he took the time to help Draco Malfoy face the fact that he wasn't the ruthless killer his father and the death eaters had trained him to be. What a great sacrifice, from an old wizard in extreme pain, who'd just been through an horrific ordeal. It's one of my favourite moments of The Half Blood Prince. 'My dear boy, let us have no more pretense. If you were going to kill me, you would have done it when you first disarmed me. We wouldn't be having this pleasant chat about ways and means... You are not a killer.'

6) Harry Potter

The 'boy who lived' pulled off many feats of physical mastery and daring, often just scraping through, but I've no doubt his finest moment was right at the end of The Deathly Hallows, when it dawned on him that he was the horcrux Voldemort never meant to make. Harry reached the conclusion that all of his previous adventures had been leading to this moment, and he had no other choice but to face Voldemort, knowing that only his own death would defeat the evil villain. As soon as the realization hit him, he didn't hesitate. You don't get much more heroic than that! 

So there are just six of my picks. I've read several more, which I'm sure you have too. If you'd like to suggest any others we might like to read, please do so in the comments. 

Monday, November 2, 2015

'Two Steps Forward' by Sharon Garlough Brown

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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 44 - A Book with a number in the title.
I was delighted to receive a copy of this book in the post, all the way from the USA. Its prequel, Sensible Shoes, was one of my favourite reads for 2014, and I knew this one would be just as good. 

The women from Sensible Shoes are taking their next steps in the spiritual formation journey. But each of them is finding roadblocks along the way. Meg, a widow and recent empty-nester, is off to see her daughter in London. But what does hope look like when nothing goes as planned? Charissa, a conscientious graduate student, is battling to let go of control and embrace her unexpected pregnancy. But what does hope look like when transformation is slow? Hannah, a pastor on sabbatical, is trying to find her equilibrium with rest and a new relationship. But what does hope look like when old grief keeps resurfacing? Mara, a wife and mother, longs for her difficult family life to improve. But what does hope look like when tension escalates and circumstances only get worse? Sometimes life feels like two steps forward and one step back. Find your own spiritual journey reflected in the lives of these women and discover the way forward.

MY THOUGHTS:
 
The first book in this series, Sensible Shoes, was one of my favourite books of 2014, and this picks up where that one left off. The four main characters are so different from each other, once again I was amazed by how easy it was to relate to each one of them. I especially like the tension between how they think they should behave and whether it's the response their heart tells them is right. These are definitely Christian novels, with God's subtle workings in the hearts of individuals at their own heart.

Christians are often counselled to put others' preferences ahead of their own, and Meg is a natural at that, but how is it meant to play out when you're chafing inside? When you know the other person will resent you for speaking up, but you can't sweep aside your point of view this time, especially when it's a person you care deeply for?

Christians are told that we should be Jesus' hands and feet, which would seem especially the case for a pastor like Hannah, but when is a line crossed into self-appointing yourself as God's rep or deputy? I like her revelation, 'My words declared Jesus was Lord but my life declared I was.' And also her paradigm shift that she'd been putting all of her confidence into her ability to hear from God, instead of his ability to speak to her in a way she'd recognise and understand. What a big potential stress relief for many of us.

It's great to see Mara, the under-appreciated mother with her history of rejection, learn to keep soaking in the truth that no matter whether or not her outer experiences reflect it, she is beloved! We are all beloved. What a simple, but revolutionary truth to remember each morning. How great is her relationship with her son, Jeremy! For a little while, I was concerned that she was showing favouritism, but no, her interactions with Kevin in this story show that's not the case.

Then there's Charissa. What hope is there for a control freak who even wants to control how she's going to give up control? She asks that question herself. Her's is a wake-up call for those times when we want to separate our sense of self from our achievements and reputations. Her story helps us step back to question our motives when we ask, 'Why am I working so hard on this project anyway?'

I like the chance to probe the deeper questions these ladies' stories raise. They may even be different for each of us. For me, one of them was 'to what extent should we accept our knee-jerk reactions as part of our natural make-up, and to what extent should we desire to temper and change them?' It would seem the experiences of the four main characters bear out my own; it's a bit of both. Even though mentally beating ourselves up for our perceived shortcomings does no good whatsoever, if an ingrained reaction is holding us back, it's possible, with God's help, to work on overlaying it with new attitudes.

While some of the particular episodes in this story are neatly wrapped up, it's easy to see that the wider issues are still unfolding, making me hope for a third book.

Thanks to the author, and the publisher, InterVarsity Press, for providing a review copy.

5 stars 

Monday, October 26, 2015

'Crazy Stories, Sane God' by John Alan Turner


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2015 Reading Challenge, Week 43 - A Book with Antonyms in the title.
I searched through my kindle and discovered this one, which fits the bill.

*     *     * 

You probably know a lot of Bible stories: Joseph and his coat, David and Goliath, Daniel and the lions, Jesus walking on water. These get mentioned everywhere from popular literature to your local church.

But there are other stories in the Bible that preachers and Sunday school teachers tend to skip over because . . . well . . . because they seem crazy and mad; the kind of stories that make us change the subject quickly when children bring them up, because we don't know why they are in the Bible or what they could possibly mean.

In Crazy Stories, Sane God popular author and teacher John Alan Turner takes us on a wild and unpredictable ride through the weirdest and least familiar stories in the Bible. Through it all, Turner shows us how even these odd episodes reveal important things about the character and nature of God and, consequently, what they mean for us today.


MY THOUGHTS:
This book is full of entertaining and well-written summaries of Bible stories from someone who seems to be a natural comedian. For example, the author suggests that Abraham must have felt ripped off (he says no pun was intended) when God gave him the covenant of circumcision, because he knew Noah got a rainbow. What it doesn't contain is much help making sense of some of the curly incidents many of us have no doubt wondered about.

Here's a handful of the questions the book claims to address? Why would Noah curse his grandson, Canaan, who apparently had nothing to do with Ham's gesture of disrespect? Why would Elisha call down a curse causing teenage boys to mauled by bears, simply for making fun of his bald head? Why would Lot protect the strangers beneath his roof by offering to sacrifice his own daughters to the evil, lecherous crowd of Sodom? (That one always made my skin crawl.) Why would Jesus allow the demons he'd exorcised to enter a herd of pigs, and ruin a man's livelihood, rather than simply sending them off into the ether? Why would God choose to kill Ananias and Sapphira outright, rather than giving them a stern warning? And what about that weird passage near the start of Exodus about the 'bridegroom of blood' when Zipporah apparently saves Moses' life from God's wrath by circumcising their sons by hand?

Turner's responses seem to fall among the following.
a) God's ways are beyond our comprehension, so just trust Him.
b) Maybe we're asking the wrong question.
c) Maybe we're not supposed to know.
d) If the people involved had behaved better, it wouldn't have happened to them.

These four responses may indeed be our only human recourse, but then why set yourself up for criticism by writing a book with a title and blurb that suggests you're going to attempt to provide more complex and threshed out answers? Overall, it provided some laughs but seemed fairly superficial and didn't really satisfy the interest it stirred in me.

2.5 stars